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Jan Paron, PhD | September 4, 2021

The vision of the valley of the dry bones (Ez 37:1-14) stands amid a collection of oracles from Ezekiel addressed to the exiled during the Babylonian captivity. Ezekiel transmitted the words of the Lord to the exiled as their watchman and prophet.[1] In 37:1-14, he oracled renewal and restoration that included a united Israel (vv. 15-21) as part of the book’s primary purpose of judgment and salvation for Israel and the nations. What occurred in the background that tells the behind-the-scenes story of the exiled in Babylonia? An overview of the historical, cultural, geographic, and economic contexts provide an initial glimpse into their captivity.

A historical overview of exile for the divided kingdoms reveals deportation for both but at different points. In 721 BC, before the Babylonian captivity, the Assyrians took the Northern Kingdom captive (2 Kgs 14-20). Babylonian captivity followed about 100 years later in two waves. The first wave in 597 BC resulted in the capture of King Jehoiachin and leading citizens of Judah including Ezekiel.[2] The second occurred in 587 BC when Babylon razed Jerusalem and its temple after Jerusalem’s second rebellion. It forced Jerusalem’s surrender and deported its king and Judean notables to Babylon (2 Kgs 24:10-16).[3]

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Image: pastorjesusfigueroa.wordpress.com

To grasp the fullness of the dry bones prophecy, a glimpse at the circumstances before exile places the word of the Lord in perspective. Several events led up to the Babylonian exile. While King Josiah pleased the Lord during his 30-year reign by walking in the ways of David,[4] Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim marked a return to acts of evil in the Lord’s sight (23:37). After Jehoiakim rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Lord sent bands of Chaldeans, Syrians, Moabites, and children of Ammonites to destroy Judah for the sins of Manasseh (24:3). Nebuchadnezzar then reigned over Syria and Palestine from the Euphrates to the Egyptian frontier (2 Kgs 24:7), and Judah became a Babylonian province. Finally, the Lord chastised the people in the twelfth year of Babylonian exile (Ez 33:21) after Jerusalem’s fall for their continued sins.[5]

The Lord did not leave the exiled without His guidance. While in captivity, God called Ezekiel to the office of prophet. Among the deportees, Ezekiel recorded a series of visions from the Lord while exiled in Babylon during King Jehoiachin’s captivity in the diaspora community by the River Chebar (Ez 1:2). His oracles conveyed God’s redemptive plan for Israel and the nations about judgment and restoration.[6] He specifically spoke to the Judeans and first-generation exiles after the fall of Jerusalem as a voice from the exiled.[7]

He prophesied his first vision about the throne room in chapter one (1:4). The writer did not say whether it took place during its actual delivery versus writing at a later date.[8] If he prophesied the first vision at the start of his captivity, then, as Boadt noted, it occurred in 623-622 BC when 30 years old (1:1).[9] Tiemeyer concurred with a sixth-century BC dating since it supports Neo-Babylonian sources.[10]Allen dated his prophetic call to 593 BC.[11]

In terms of dating the Ez 37 prophecy, the preceding may give a clue as to the timeline. Zimmerli dated passages 35:1-36:15 to after 587 BC since it recalls the dispute between the Judahites who remained in Jerusalem with neighboring peoples over Jewish claims to the land.[12] As Ezekiel ordered the oracles chronologically, this may imply that chapter 37 occurs later in the 70-year exilic period. Further, if Ezekiel delivered the dry bones prophecy around 585 BC, then the lesser first wave lived in exile for twelve years and the greater second wave two years.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 portrays the cultural state of the exiled through symbolism reflected in the very many or very great many dry bones in the valley or open valley (37:2). In essence, Babylonian captivity stripped them of their identity and left a collective society now scattered from their homeland in a severely deteriorated, dry state. Psalm 137:1 expresses the sorrow and mourning the exiled Judeans had felt in oppression: “By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion” (NKJV). Written in retrospect of exile, this psalm reflects the wounds of separation from Zion, the holy dwelling place of God, at the hands of the uncircumcised heathens who had plundered it.

Since the Babylonians captured Ezekiel during the first wave, the prophet did not directly experience Jerusalem’s fall.[13] Nevertheless, God chose him as His spokesperson to the exilic community living among the refugees in their trauma culture. The book of Lamentations records the very depth of their sorrow, suffering, and abandonment. They also experienced shame from exile. Ezekiel 25 records the surrounding nations laughing (25:3) and mocking (v. 8) the exiled house of Israel. In the wake of their feeling of grief, the Lord’s message sought to give them hope in captivity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Exile geographically impacted the Judahites as well. The Babylonians transported most of the captured 1000 miles to Mesopotamia during the second wave of capture.[14] The exiled came from an urban environment in Jerusalem and relocated to what Joyce described as “ghetto-like settlements” such as Tel-abib described in Ez 3:15. The elders could gather with each other, though (8:1; 14:1; 20:1).[15] Ezekiel himself lived among the exiled in a community by the river Chebar in Tel-abib 100 miles south of Babylon (Ez 1:1; 3:15).  

Pearce noted that the term exile suggested movement away from a native land.[16] Economically, that movement away from the homeland took a toll on the diaspora. Taking a closer look at the exile reveals the extent of the destruction by the captors on the captives. The Babylonians physically dislocated Judeans from their homeland, deprived them economically of their possessions, and left them spiritually depleted without their temple. To the Jews, the losses affected their identity closely tied to the promised land, the Davidic throne, Jerusalem, and Lord’s temple. Second Kings 25:1-21 describes in vivid detail the fall, capture, and destruction of Jerusalem: forced famine; murdered military officials, king’s associates, townspeople, and priests; burnt structures, and pillaged house of the Lord. The captors left only a small remnant of the very poor behind. The resettlement in Babylonia resulted in a starting over so to speak of the exiled. 

In all, perhaps at the very heart of God’s mission to His people lies the events that preceded exile and the losses they experienced. He would allow them to experience death in the valley, only to bring them life out of the valley. “Then you shall know that I am the LORD,” (Ez 37:6, 13, 14).

Bibliography

Ackroyd, Peter R. Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B. C. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986.

Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel, Vol. 29. Word Bible Commentary. Edited by John D. W. Watts and James W. Watts. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.

Bimson, John J. “Book of Ezekiel.” in The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Boadt, Lawrence. “Book of Ezekiel.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol D-G. Edited by David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

__________. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 2012.

Brett, Mark G. ed. Ethnicity and the Bible. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002.

Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 17th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Eichrodt, Walther Theology of the Old Testament. Translated by J. A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961.

Fox, Michael, V. “The Rhetoric of Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of the Bones.” Hebrew Union College Annual 51, (1980): 1-15.

Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 21-27. Anchor Yale Bible. New York: Yale University Press, 2010.

__________. The Design and Themes of Ezekiel’s Program of Restoration.” Interpretation 58, no. 4 (2007): 585-625.

Kamsen, Joel and Tihitshak Biwul. “The Restoration of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis.” Scriptura 118 (2019:1), pp. 1-10.

LaSor, William Sandord, David Allan Hubbard, Frederic William Bush, and Leslie C. Allen. Old Testament Survey: The Message Form, and Background of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, Co. 1996. 

Lee, Lydia. Mapping Judah’s Fate in Ezekiel’s Oracles Against the Nations. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016. https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/pubs/9780884141808_OA.pdf.

Mein, Andrew. Ezekiel and the Ethics of Exile. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2006.

Miller, Maxwell J. and John H. Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. 2nd ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Pearce, Laurie E. “Identifying Judeans and Judean Identity in the Babylonian Evidence.” in Exile and Return: The Babylonian Context, edited by Jonathan Stökl, Caroline Waerzeggers, and Jonathan Stökl. Berlin: CPI Books, 2015. 

Qubt, Shadia. “Can These Bones Live? God, Only You Know.” Review and Expositor. 104, Summer, 2007.

Serfontein, Johan and Wilhelm J. Wessels. “Communicating Amidst Reality: Ezekiel’s Communication as a Response to His Reality.” Verbum Eccles 35, no. 1 (2014): http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2074-77052014000100033.

Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. A Biblical Theology of Exile. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Staples, Jason A. The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A New Theory of People, Exile, and Israelite Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

Stökl, Jonathan, and Caroline Waerzeggers. Exile and Return : The Babylonian Context. (Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, 2015): Volume 478. De Gruyter. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=cat06729a&AN=ebc.EBC2189973&site=eds-live.

Tiemeyer, L. D. “Book of Ezekiel.” in The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. Edited by Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.

Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel 2. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.


[1] Michael V. Fox, 1980. “The Rhetoric of Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of the Bones,” Hebrew Union College Annual 51(1980):1. Fox described the prophet’s audience in 37:1-14 as first-wave deportees from his immediate location and generation.

[2] Daniel L Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002). Historians differ in the Babylonian captivity dates. Daniel Smith-Christopher supports 597 BC for the first capture and 587 BC for the second. Paul M. Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary, 3 (New York: T & T Clark, 2007), 5. .Joyce recorded Ez 1:2 as 593 BC and then onwards. 

[3] L. D. Tiemeyer, L. D, “Book of Ezekiel.” in The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, ed. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012) 214.

[4] King Josiah died in battle at Megiddo at the hand of the Egyptian Pharoahnechoh (2 Kgs 23:29). Jehoahaz then took his father’s place as king. His tenure marked a return to evil in the sight of the Lord. After a short reign, Pharoahnechoh put Jehoahaz in bonds at Riblah and replaced him with Jehoiakim (Josiah’s son Eliakim). 

[5] “The Sovereign Lord commanded the prophet to tell the people “You eat meat with blood in it, you worship idols, and your murder the innocent. Do you really think the land should be yours? 26 Murderers! Idolaters! Should the land belong to you!” (33:25-26 NLT). Further, 28 “I will completely destroy the land and demolish her pride.  Her arrogant power will come to an end. The mountains of Israel will be so desolate that no one will even travel through them. 29 When I have completely destroyed the land because of their detestable sins, then they will know that I am the Lord” (vv.28-29). 

[6] Lawrence Boadt in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 2, D-G, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York, Doubleday, 1992).713.

[7] Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, vol. 29 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic), xx.

[8] The New International Version (NIV) prefaces the dating with “my” indicating the prophet’s age (v. 1a). Reading on, the next verse adds clarification as to the time in captivity as the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile (v.2). If that the thirtieth year holds true, then it places the timeline at about 598 BC when King Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive to Babylon (2 Kgs 24:15). 

[9] Boadt, Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 2, D-G, 713.

[10] L. D. Tiemeyer, “Book of Ezekiel,” 214-215.

[11] Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, xx.

[12] Walther Zimmerli, A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, Chapters 25-48 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 234.

[13] Smith-Cristopher, Biblical Theology of Exile, 75. 

[14] Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary, 3.

[15] Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, 184.

[16] Laurie E. Pearce, “Identifying Judeans and Judean Identity in the Babylonian Evidence,” in Exile and Return: The Babylonian Context,ed. Jonathan Stökl, Caroline Waerzeggers, and Jonathan Stökl (Berlin: CPI Books, 2015), 7.