Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dry Bones Sing!

Establishment of Passage
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 LORD came 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.
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.
3 Ibid.
4 Katheryn Darr, “Ezekiel,” in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VI, edited by David L. Peterson
(Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 1500.
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.
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.
7 Jesus A. Ruiz, “Ezekiel,” in The New International Bible Commentary: A Catholic Commentary for
the Twenty-First Century, editor William Farmer (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 1077.
8 Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29 (Dallas: Word, 1990), 183.
9 Ibid.
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.
10 Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 184.
11 L. Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 387 & 396.
12 Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 188.
13 Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, 393.
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
14 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 260.
15 Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, 393.
16 Darr, The New Interpreter's Bible, 1499.
17 Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 21-37, The Anchor Bible, vol. 22A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1997),
18 D. Luckenbill, The Annals of Sennacherib (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1924), 46.
19 Darr, The New Interpreter's Bible, 1499.
20 Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1954), 538b.
Explanation of Terms
Blenkinsopp counts ten occurences of the word rūah in 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 a disputation 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
21 Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 173.
22 Ibid.
23 Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 185.
24 Ibid.
25 John Wevers, Ezekiel, The New Century Bible (New Jersey: Nelson, 1969), 18.
Summary of Message
37:1 The first part of the verse signals that a vision was taking place: “The hand
of the LORD came 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 LORD GOD, 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.”
26 Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 184.
27 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 259.
28 Darr, The New Interpreter's Bible, 1501.
29 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 260.
30 Ibid.
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 twostage
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 the rūah to come from the four winds, to bid it
to enter the slain that they might live. Rūah occurs 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
31 Ibid, 261.
32 Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 185.
33 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 261.
34 Darr, The New Interpreter's Bible, 1498.
35 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 273. This is not the traditional view, which deals only with the Babylonian exiles.
37:10 The rūah goes 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 of
rūah.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
36 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 262.
37 Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 186.
38 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 263. Again, this is not the traditional view of Ezek. 37:1-14. See 35.
39 Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 186.
40 Ibid, 187.
41 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 263.
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). Henry likens the return of the exiles to the Exodus: “...the
captives got their effects about them, and the men 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
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,” in Commentary on the Whole Bible. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Available online at: MHC26037.HTM. Accessed March 11, 2005.
45 Jesus A. Ruiz, “Ezekiel,” in The New International Bible Commentary: A Catholic Commentary for the
Twenty-First Century, edited by William Farmer (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 1078.
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).
Additional Issues
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.
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.
Allen, Leslie C., Ezekiel 20-48. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 29. Dallas: Word,
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.” In The 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,
Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 21-37. The Anchor Bible, vol. 22A. Garden City, N.Y.:
Doubleday, 1997.
Henry, Matthew. “Ezekiel 37.” In Commentary on the Whole Bible. Christian Classics
Ethereal Library. Available online at:
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.” In The 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.

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