The biblical passage that will be treated here is Ezek. 37:1-14. This passage concerns the prophet's vision of the valley of the dry bones (vv. 1-10) and its subsequent interpretation (vv. 11-14). The integrity of the passage as a unit in the context of the book of Ezekiel may be established as follows. The opening phrase in v. 1a, “The hand of the Lord came upon me”1 signals the beginning of a new event, which concerns one of four ecstatic visions found in this book.2 Blenkinsopp suggests that the first (3:22-27) and the third (37:1-14) vision narratives in Ezekiel take place in the same valley, near the exilic settlements. The second vision (chs. 8-11) concerns the destruction of the temple while the fourth (chs. 40-48) envisages a new temple.3
The passage under consideration (Ezek. 37:1-14) ends with “...then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.” The promise to fulfill the vision is sealed by the use of the Tetragrammaton, which carries a note of finality and authority. The verse following (v. 15) denotes the start of a different section, and is prefaced with, “The word of the LORDcame to me”. The separation in chronology of the two sections is implicit in the use of this particular phrase, which introduces a new theme.
Ezek. 37:1-14 may be considered to be a unified passage by the specificity of its content; it is a vivid description of the re-membering and reanimation of dry bones in a valley, followed by an interpretation of the vision. One word,rūah,is repeated throughout the passage, lending it unity. It is variously translated as “breath”, “spirit” and “wind”.4 The integrity of the passage as a unit seems to be the majority opinion.
Subdivisions in the Passage
Traditionally, Ezek. 37:1-14 has been separated into two parts, namely vv. 1-10 and vv. 11-14.5 The first part is the vision itself, while the second part is the interpretation. Blenkinsopp calls this structure “(typical) for Ezekiel”.6 A more extended approach suggests further subdivisions:7 vv. 1-3 contain the introduction and setting; vv. 4-8 contain the command to prophesy to the bones and the fulfillment of the command; vv. 9-10 contain a second command to prophesy in order to put breath into the corpses; v. 11a provides the interpretation of the vision; vv. 11b-14 form a disputation oracle in which a proverb of the people is followed by an oracle similar to the vision, where the dead come to life from their graves.
A more nuanced treatment of the form and structure of this passage is given by Allen.8 The vision (vv. 1-10) and its interpretation (vv. 11-14) consist of a series of dialectical phrases that move from a negative statement or situation to a positive response or resolution. For example vv. 1b-2 describes the bones strewn across the valley, which is responded to in vv. 7b-8a, the bones coming together and being covered with sinews and flesh. Then again, v. 8b describes the need for the breath of life in the newly-rejoined bodies, which v. 10b resolves through the breath entering and animating the corpses into an army. In the interpretive section (vv. 11-14), v. 11b is a disputational lament on the part of Israel characterized as a “thesis of despair”, which is followed in vv. 12-14 by “a counterthesis of hope”.9 Overall, the passage moves from death to life, which is symbolic for the regathering of the Jewish people to the land.
Context of the Passage
Allen says: “There can be little doubt that this unit reflects a situation not long after 587 B.C., when sentiments of death-like hopelessness occasioned by the shock of Jerusalem's fall, the dissolution of Judah and the Babylonian exile must have been rife.”10 Boadt comments that Ezekiel was the first prophet to have to find a reference point of hope in Yahweh outside of either the temple or the land, namely that of an interior religion,11 though in this passage the reflections of an older desire for solace in a homeland are very strong. Perhaps the land is better appreciated after the change of heart.
The feeling of despair among the exiles is best described in their own lament, presented in v. 11b, in which they complain: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Scattered, massacred and reduced in numbers, the Jews thought themselves beyond relief. In this light the passage may be seen as Yahweh's promise to restore the people. The dead bones represent the exiles, the dryness their lack of vitality. The joining of bone to bone would thus symbolize a regathering, the clothing with flesh a restoration of their power as a people functioning together.
As the passage in question is the narrative of a prophetic vision, the role of the prophet as an “agent of renewal”12 ought to be considered. Ezekiel himself appears integral to the process of reanimating Israel in that it is his prophesying that mediates the miraculous change. Though he has pointed out the sins which caused their predicament, such as idolatry, injustice and corruption,13 the prophet also serves to remind the people of Yahweh's faithfulness. After a period of humiliation comes restoration, after chastisement, peace.
Ezekiel's priestly background may be of some importance in understanding the mechanics of the vision. Anatomical knowledge of sinews, flesh and skin forming in that order upon the bones may have been expected of those in charge of ritual sacrifice.14 Boadt suggests that Ezekiel's priestly concerns are further reflected in his desire to show the holiness of Yahweh. For example, the phrase “so that you (or they) will know that I the Lord am God”15 occurs at the end of several of Ezekiel's oracles to show that once the events take place, the people will recognize it as Yahweh's doing. Thus the passage under examination contains a proof saying, as it ends with “...then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.”
Consideration of purity is mentioned by Darr,16 who points out that as a priest, Ezekiel would have known not to touch a dead body (Num. 19:16; cf. Ezek. 4:14). Since the experience does not take place under normal circumstances, but rather in the form of an ecstatic vision, the laws regarding dead bodies are set aside so the prophet may understand the message which he has been called to preach.
Other ancient Near Eastern texts with similar imagery exist, which Greenberg suggests may have informed Ezekiel's vision.17 An ancient Mesopotamian battle account from Sennacherib (704 – 681 BCE) boasts: “With the bodies of (the enemy's) warriors, I filled the plain, like grass.”18 Darr reports of a treaty curse from Esarhaddon, king of Assyria (680 – 669 BCE):19 “May Ninurta, leader of the gods, fell you with his fierce arrow, and fill the plain with your corpses...”20
Explanation of Terms
Blenkinsopp counts ten occurences of the wordrūahin this passage.21 Depending on the context, it is translated as “spirit”, “breath” or “wind”. First, the spirit carries Ezekiel to the valley full of bones (v.1). He is then told to prophesy to the dead bones that Yahweh will give them the breath they need in order to live again (vv.5-6). In vv. 9-10, the prophet calls for the wind to give life to the corpses newly formed.22 Allen relates the action of breathing life into a body to Gen. 2:7, “when Yahweh 'breathed' into the human being the breath of life.”23 Allen goes on to suggest that the priestly account of creation further informs the passage from Ezekiel, where, in Gen. 1:2 the rūah “hovered over the raw elements of the world, waiting to transform them into a living cosmos.”24
Ezek. 37:11-14 contain adisputation oracle.25 This is a common formula in the Book of Ezekiel, and it follows a simple pattern. First, a popular saying or proverb is placed in the mouth of the people, as a means of issuing a complaint. For example, in Ezek. 12:22, we read: “The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing.” The proverb is then followed by a refutation, as in Ezek. 12:23-25, in which Yahweh promises to fulfill every vision which Yahweh speaks and to do away with false visions. Again, in Ezek. 18:2 we hear the lament: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.” To this Yahweh basically replies that the soul who sins will die for its own fault and not for that of another. Yahweh's response to the proverb of Ezek. 18:2 also contains ample reference to the righteous demands of the law, in keeping with Ezekiel's priestly concerns for holiness
Summary of Message
37:1 The first part of the verse signals that a vision was taking place: “The hand of the LORDcame upon me and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD”. The setting for the vision is thought to be the same as that given in Ezek. 3:22-23, a plain or a valley near Ezekiel's exilic home in Tel-Abib.26 Zimmerli suggests that parallel construction to Ezek. 1:1 and 8:1 indicates the passage may have contained a date at one time.27 The “dry bones” in v.1b speak of the remains of a battle.
37:2 Ezekiel is led around the scene and notes that there are many bones and that they are “very dry”. This speaks of despair; Darr notes that such an image is seen in various other passages, such as Prov. 17:22:28 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries the bones.”
37:3 Yahweh invites Ezekiel's verbal participation by asking him whether the bones can live again, to which the prophet humbly replies, “O LORDGOD, you know.” Belief in a general resurrection of the dead was largely unknown at the time of the vision, as Ezekiel's restrained response demonstrates,29 but this does not mar his faith. His deference indicates that Ezekiel believes Yahweh can do whatever Yahweh wants.
37:4-5 Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the bones in a fashion characterized by Zimmerli as “the messenger formula”.30 The prophet receives an authoritative commission from Yahweh to preach to a particular audience in Yahweh's name. The power of Yahweh over death is mediated by the rūah: “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”
37:6 Details of the reanimation are given, building on Ezekiel's priestly knowledge of anatomy. Sinews are to be laid upon the bones, then flesh is to be added, then skin, and finally breath. The verse concludes with “and you shall know that I am the LORD,” making vv. 4-6 into a proof-saying.31
37:7-8a As Ezekiel follows the command to prophesy to the bones, exactly what Yahweh said would happen, happens. Both sight and sound32 testify to the miracle as the bones rattle upon coming together, then are clothed with sinews, flesh and skin.
37:8b The only missing element is the breath. Zimmerli notes that this reflects a “dichotomistic” perspective on the creation of humans.33 Similar to the account of creation which sees first the shape of the body, then the animation by a breath, this two-stage process makes room to display the unique power of Yahweh. It is one thing to shape matter- even idolators make images of humans and beasts . But the life-giving rūah is within the specific domain of the Creator. Thus a tension arises in anticipation of the greater deed which is to follow.
37:9 Ezekiel is told to prophesy to therūahto come from the four winds, to bid it to enter the slain that they might live. Rūahoccurs several times in this verse, and is given to mean “breath” and also “wind” or “spirit”.34 Of interest is the notion of the four winds, which speaks of four directions, perhaps meaning everywhere. This could speak of a general ingathering of the Israelites from the various places they had been scattered. That this ingathering might extend beyond the Jews exiled from Judah is evidenced by the passage following, Ezek. 37:15-28, which tells of the rejoining of all the tribes.35
37:10 Therūahgoes into the bodies at the prophet's word and the dead are made to live again, forming “a vast multitude.” Zimmerli notes that the phrase “stood on their feet” here means “the regaining of wakeful vitality”, as in Ezek. 2:1f and Ezek. 3:24.36
37:11 A new section is prefaced by the address, “Mortal”, in which the interpretation of the preceding vision is given. The disputation formula is initiated as Yahweh quotes a proverb of the people: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The bones in the vision of vv.1-10 are now given to be explicitly symbolic for the people.37 Scattered and exiled, they were despairing not only of nationhood but also of individual existence. Restoration would be a miracle.
37:12 The previous image is interpreted by a second one, in which the dead are brought out of graves, perhaps symbolic for the foreign lands they are living in. Instead of death in the graves of Babylon, Assyria and Egypt, the people are given the promise that they will be restored to the land in terms similar to the Exodus.38
37:13 Yahweh responds to the proverb from v. 11 with an oracle of salvation.39 A proof saying follows the formula of action and recognition, though the order is reversed here: “you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves”. This seems to be a deliberate echo of vv. 4-6, and it helps to resolve the disputation.
37:14 This verse is held by some to be a redaction founded on the reiteration ofrūah.40 Here it is specifically given as Yahweh's spirit, in contrast to the ambiguity of its usage in the preceding verses. Zimmerli suggests that this denotes a promise of deepened fellowship related to the inner transformation mentioned in Ezek. 36:26.41
Ezek. 37:1-14 in Relation to the Larger Work
The vision of the valley of the dry bones builds upon the desperate situation of events preceding the vision itself. On the one hand, Ezekiel had been deported to Babylon from Judah with King Jehoiachin around 598 BCE.42 On the other hand, Jerusalem was seiged and its temple destroyed aound 586 BCE.43 The vision therefore adequately describes the state of affairs for the Jews as being one seemingly without hope. They were scattered about as the bones, their vitality drained.
The vision also relates to events to follow, which are described in other Old Testament books, such as Ezra, and Second Isaiah. In the vision, Yahweh promises to gather the scattered Jews and to restore them to their homeland. Jeremiah had already prophesied that the exile would last but a few generations (Jer. 29). We begin to see the fulfillment of the prophecies of restoration during the time of Ezra, around 538 BCE, with Cyrus' decree (Ezra 1:4). Henrylikens the return of the exiles to the Exodus: “...the captives got their effects about them, and themen of their place helped them with silver, and gold, and whatever they needed for their remove.”44 Just as the Egyptians gave riches to the fleeing Israelites, Cyrus gave what was necessary to rebuild the temple, putting flesh and skin on the bones, as it were. A consideration of the language used in describing the putting on of flesh on the bones brings the same reflections: “The Hebrew verb ('lh)is one of those that the biblical tradition uses to speak of the 'coming out of Egypt' and is used here intentionally... it is not surprising that Ezekiel sees the plight of his people in the light of the first exodus.”45
Within the Book of Ezekiel, in the material immediately surrounding the vision, the theme of restoration is repeated. For example, in Ezek. 36:16-38, Yahweh explains that the tribulation the people are experiencing is the result of their own sins. However, for the sake of Yahweh's name, Yahweh promises to give them new hearts freely and to bring them back to the land. This same attitude of gift is evidenced in the vision of Ezek. 37:1-14, as no conditions are placed on the revivification of the bones. It is an act of divine mercy.46 In the material following the vision, Yahweh foretells of the regathering of Israel to Judah as Ezekiel is made to join two sticks together in a symbolic act (Ezek. 37:15-28). The regathering of the people therefore seems to affect more than the deportees from Judah alone. It concerns “the whole house of Israel” (Ezek. 37:11).
Block asks the question, “What influence did Ezekiel 37 have on the growth of the belief in a general eschatological resurrection for all humankind?”47 He points out that such a belief occurs in the Old Testament only in Dan. 12:2, but that the early church fathers employed the vision of the valley of the dry bones frequently in their writings on the general resurrection.48 Whether such an appropriation of the text is warranted in light of historical criticism is a difficult question; many scholars might not allow for it. What is sure is that the vision of the valley of the dry bones was originally meant to provide a vivid metaphor for the regathering of the Jews to their land. It must have seemed an incredible thing to the audience of Ezekiel's time, as they were in deep despair. It certainly provides a powerful image for modern hopes of rising from the dead as well.
Allen, Leslie C., Ezekiel 20-48. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29. Dallas: Word, 1990.
Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by. J. Pritchard, 538b. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Ezekiel. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, vol. 21. Louisville: Knox Press, 1990.
Block, Daniel. The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48.The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Darr, Katheryn. “Ezekiel.” InThe New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VI.,edited by David L. Peterson, 1075-1607. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.
Eichrodt, W. Ezekiel.Old Testament Library. Translated by C. Quin. London: SCM, 1970.
Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 21-37. The Anchor Bible, vol. 22A. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1997.
Henry, Matthew. “Ezekiel 37.” InCommentary on the Whole Bible. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Available online at: http://www.ccel.org/h/henry/mhc2/MHC26037.HTM. Accessed March 11, 2005.
Luckenbill, D. The Annals of Sennacherib. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924.
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Nashville: Catholic Bible Press, 1990.
Ruiz, Jesus A. “Ezekiel.” InThe International Bible Commentary: A Catholic Commentary for the Twenty-First Century, edited by William Farmer, 1050-1084.. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998.
Wevers, John. Ezekiel. The Century Bible. London: Nelson, 1969.
Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel 2: A Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48. Translated by J.D. Martin, Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.
1 All scripture quotations in this paper are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
2 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel,Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, vol. 21.(Louisville: Knox Press, 1990), 170.
4Katheryn Darr, “Ezekiel,” inTheNew Interpreter's Bible, vol. VI,edited by David L. Peterson(Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 1500.
5 W. Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2: A Commentary on the Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48,trans. J.D. Martin, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 257.
6 Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 170.
7Jesus A. Ruiz, “Ezekiel,” inThe New International Bible Commentary: A Catholic Commentary for the Twenty-First Century, editor William Farmer (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 1077.
8Leslie C. Allen,Ezekiel 20-48,Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29 (Dallas: Word, 1990), 183.
10Allen, Ezekiel 20-48,184.
11 L. Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction(New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 387 & 396.
13 Boadt, Reading the Old Testament,393.
14 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 260.
15 Boadt, Reading the Old Testament,393.
16Darr,The New Interpreter's Bible,1499.
17 Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 21-37,The Anchor Bible, vol. 22A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1997), 748.
18 D. Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924), 46.
19 Darr, The New Interpreter's Bible,1499.
20Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), 538b.
21 Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 173.
25John Wevers,Ezekiel, The New Century Bible (New Jersey: Nelson, 1969), 18.
26Allen, Ezekiel 20-48,184.
27 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 259.
28Darr,The New Interpreter's Bible,1501.
29 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 260.
31 Ibid, 261.
32Allen, Ezekiel 20-48,185.
33 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 261.
34Darr,The New Interpreter's Bible,1498.
35 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 273. This is not the traditional view, which deals only with the Babylonian exiles.
36 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 262.
37Allen, Ezekiel 20-48,186.
38 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 263. Again, this is not the traditional view of Ezek. 37:1-14. See 35.
40 Ibid, 187.
41 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 263.
42 W. Eichrodt, Ezekiel, Old Testament Library, translated by C. Quin (London: SCM, 1970), 52.
43 Boadt, Reading the Old Testament,390.
44 Matthew Henry, “Ezekiel 37,” inCommentary on the Whole Bible. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Available online at: http://www.ccel.org/h/henry/mhc2/MHC26037.HTM. Accessed March 11, 2005.
45Jesus A. Ruiz, “Ezekiel,” inThe New International Bible Commentary: A Catholic Commentary for the Twenty-First Century, edited by William Farmer (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 1078.
46 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 266.
47 Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48,The New International Commentary on the Old Testament(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 388.
48 Ibid, 390.