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Jan Paron, PhD | September 14, 2021

The oracle of the dry bones represents the restoration of a future, united Israel (Ez 37:1-14). Set in the context of the Babylonian exile (1:1-3), Ezekiel prophesied the oracles to the captured Judahites between approximately 585 BC and 573 BC.[1] Through the word of the Lord, Ezekiel announced multiple prophecies for the exiled about their future (37:1-14) amid what appears as three main: “you shall live” (v. 6); “brought you up from your graves” (v. 13); and “place you in your own land” (v.14).[2] The Lord made promises to the exiled that would change their captured state to one delivered from the Persians and then restored as a nation in their land. The clauses denote purpose that results in Israel knowing that “I am the Lord” (vv. 6, 13, 14).

 You Shall Live (Ez 37:6)

Listening to Ezekiel’s initial recounting of the valley from Ez 37:6, the exiled may have envisioned a scene marked by death and impurity rather than one of restored life. The area contained a great many dried, scattered, and disjointed bones that had laid there awhile (v. 2). The Jews had specific purification customs for a corpse before its burial. Further, the corpse rendered anything touching it unclean.[3] Therefore, the exiled possibly viewed the bones and land as desecrated. The unclean, dry bones might further represent a larger defilement between the Judahites and their failed relationship with the Lord (Ez 43:7).[4]

Babylonia’s second deportation of Israel resulted in Jerusalem’s destruction and its temple’s razing (2 Kgs 24:10-16).[5] If Ezekiel spoke the dry bones prophecy between 585 BC and 573 BC, then the first-wave deportees lived in exile for twelve years and the latter second wave two years at the time of the oracle.[6] For the first-generation Judean exiles, no doubt bitterness and trauma existed. Indeed, they voiced the dried-out state that produced feelings of being cut off (Heb: gāzar) from their parts (Ez 37:11). The NLT indicates gāzar as a finished nation.[7] The feelings of despair and desperation from hopelessness in a desecrated and dead condition (37:11) could have left them questioning God’s promise of “you shall live” (v. 6e). 

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The Vision of The Valley of The Dry Bones Engraving: Gustave Doré

Brought You Up from Your Graves (Ez 37:13)

The latter part of Ezekiel 37:13 refers to the Lord’s action of “brought you up from your graves.” His promise may speak to a physical and/or eschatological restoration for the house of Israel. Ezekiel 37:1-14 portrays the exiles’ cultural state with the stripping of their identity reflected in a very (ESV) or great many (NIV) bones now scattered from their homeland in a severely deteriorated, dry state (37:2). The exiled experienced economic, political, and spiritual losses that left them feeling shame during capture. 

Since Israel broke covenant with God by continuing in sin, the Lord allowed two deportations to Babylon.[8] The second-wave capture exiled most of the Judahites 1000 miles away to Mesopotamia.[9] This dislocation deprived them economically. Loss of property left them without their possessions, and more importantly, the temple and land so closely connected to their social and religious identities. Consequently, political fallout ensued from a lesser standing among the surrounding nations,[10] which laughed (Ez 25:3) and mocked (25: 8) the exiled Israel. In tandem, they further experienced a broken relationship with Yahweh. The Judahites expressed covenant through obedience, worship, rites, and sacrifice to God. Covenant loss more than likely additionally contributed to a sense of shame.

Nonetheless, the Lord extended His assurance of hope to them. Despite Israel’s disobedience, the Lord addresses them as “O, my people” (v. 12). Quite possibly, their despair may have overridden the Lord’s promise to bring them up from their graves (37:14). However, Ez 37:13 could provide a clue suggesting cause and effect. When the Lord brings them out of their graves, then they will know He is the Lord.[11]

Place in Your Own Land (Ez 37:14)

In the last verse in the passage (v. 14), the Lord mentions “place in your own land” (v. 14). The last verse also culminates the process of restoration to Israel encompassing sinews→flesh→skin→breath→live→land. As in the previous verse (v. 13), the last verse of the dry bones segment utilizes a cause and effect again as if to highlight knowing that He is the Lord (v. 14). However, in this instance, it predicates Him having spoken and performed his promises

Well into captivity, the exiled more than likely saw the realities of their changed existence. Upon hearing Ezekiel’s oracles, they may have Dry even asked themselves, can these bones live? However, the Lord leaves them with reaffirmation as His people and promises of restoration and revival. From prior practices over concern for Israel’s own self-interests, it’s difficult from the dry bones narrative to ascertain whether they grasped the fullness of His promises. He desired to sanctify His name’s sake, which Israel profaned among the nations (cf. Ez 36:22-24).


Footnotes

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

[2] Unless otherwise specified, this writing will quote scripture from the New King James Version.

[3] A.P. Bender. “Beliefs, Rites, and Customs of the Jews, Connected with Death, Burial, and MourningConnected with Death, Burial, and Mourning.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 7, no. 2 (January 1995), 259-269. The Jews had specific customs for purification of a corpse prior to burial such as cleansing, dressing, and posturing it,  which left anything touching it unclean as well.

[4] Marvin Sweeney, Reading Ezekiel: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth & Helwys, Publishing, Inc., 2012), 44. 

[5] 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. Ezekiel delivered the oracles in chronological order with Ez 37 following 35:1 to 36:15. While experiences from deportation remained more recent for the second-wave Judahites than the first, nevertheless, t. 

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

[7] Cut off may suggest multiple levels of separation: God, the nation, Jerusalem, and their temple. Possibly, it builds upon another word for cut off (Heb: kāraṯ) associated with punishment by death (Nm 9:13)

[8] When King Jehoiakim continued in the footsteps of Manasseh, the Lord sent other nations to destroy Judah for the sins of Manasseh (2 Kgs 24:3). Then, the Lord chastised Israel in the 12th year in exile (Ez 33:21) after Jerusalem’s fall for their continued sins.

[9] Paul M. Joyce, Ezekiel: A Commentary (New York: T & T Clark, 2007), 7.

[10] Nebuchadnezzar reigned over Syria and Palestine from the Euphrates to the Egyptian frontier (2 Kgs 24:7), and Judah became a Babylonian province, weakening the standing of Israel in the eyes of surrounding nations.

[11] Saul M. Olyan, “Honor, Shame, and Covenant Relations in Ancient Israel and Its Environment.” Journal of Biblical Literature 115, no. 2 (1996): 201.

Bibliography

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