THE BROAD CONTEXT:
The Jewish people experienced two major exiles, the Assyrian Exile and the Babylonian Exile. The Babylonian Exile—the exile in which Ezekiel was involved—came in two waves, the first beginning in 597 B.C. and the second beginning in 587 B.C. To understand Ezekiel, it helps to see where he fits in the context of these exiles.
THE DIVIDED KINGDOM: Keep in mind that, after Solomon’s reign, Israel split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was composed of ten tribes, and was known as Israel. The southern kingdom was composed of two tribes, and was known as Judah.
THE ASSYRIAN EXILE: The first major exile was the Assyrian Exile, which began in 722 B.C. Assyria forced the ten northern tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria. These ten tribes of Israel are sometimes called “the lost tribes,” because they became assimilated and never returned to their homeland in an organized way.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE, STAGE ONE: Another exile, the first of two Babylonian exiles, took place in 597 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion in Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem, forcing Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens into exile in Babylonia, and carrying off “all the treasures of the house of Yahweh, and the treasures of the king’s house, and (cutting) in pieces all the vessels of gold, which Solomon king of Israel had made in the temple of Yahweh, as Yahweh had said. He carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valor, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths; none remained, except the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:13-14).
EZEKIEL, a priest, was one of the people exiled to Babylonia at this time. Five years later, Yahweh called Ezekiel to be a prophet, prophesying both doom for the city of Jerusalem and hope for the Israelites. Ezekiel, therefore, was a contemporary of Jeremiah, who was living and prophesying in Jerusalem while Ezekiel was living and prophesying in Babylonia. Ezekiel continued his prophetic ministry for approximately thirty years—until well after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
THE BABYLONIAN EXILE, STAGE TWO: In 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar responded to a rebellion by Zedekiah of Judah by laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he destroyed the city and killed many of its inhabitants. He took most of the rest of the people to Babylon—leaving behind only the poorest (2 Kings 25). Then a rebellion by some of Judah’s remaining population against Gedaliah, a Jew serving as Babylonia’s proxy ruler (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 41), inspired a final deportation to Babylon. This Babylonian Exile was the second major exile—Judah’s exile.
Ezekiel made it clear that this was Yahweh’s judgment on Judah for its sins, but he also held out hope for the future. In the last chapters of his book, he tells of Yahweh blessing Israel (chapter 36)—and the dry bones coming to life, symbolizing Israel’s restoration (chapter 37)—and Yahweh’s judgment on Gog (chapters 38-39)—and the vision of a new temple in Jerusalem (chapters 40-44)—and the restoration of life as it had been and as it ought to be (chapters 45-47).
THE RETURN OF A REMNANT: In 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia, whose policies would prove to be quite different from those of the Babylonians. Cyrus encouraged subject peoples to retain their culture and traditions, including their religions. In 538 B.C., Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. He even returned the temple vessels to the exiles for use in the new temple and provided financial backing for their return (Ezra 6:2-5). In 520 B.C., a large group of exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua. In 516 B.C., they were able, finally, to dedicate the new temple.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
In the early chapters of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet proclaims a word of judgment—a sword against Israel (chapter 5)—judgment on idolatrous Israel (chapter 6)—impending disaster (chapter 7)—etc. Then there are a series of judgments on the surrounding nations (chapters 25-32). Then the exiles learn that the city of Jerusalem has fallen (33:21)—but that news marks a turning point. While the emphasis has been judgment, the emphasis from now on will incline toward Yahweh’s mercy.
While Israel has suffered under false shepherds (34:1-10), Yahweh will be her true shepherd (34:11-31). Yahweh pronounces judgment on Mount Seir (the nation of Edom) (chapter 35), but blesses Israel and promises Israel’s renewal (chapter 36). That is a natural lead-in to chapter 37, which portrays Israel’s resurrection.
EZEKIEL 37:1-6. THE VALLEY WAS FULL OF BONES
1The hand of Yahweh was on me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of Yahweh, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. 2He caused me to pass by them all around: and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and behold, they were very dry. 3He said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? I answered, Lord Yahweh, you know. 4Again he said to me, Prophesy over these bones, and tell them, you dry bones, hear the word of Yahweh. 5Thus says the Lord Yahweh to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath (Hebrew: ruah) to enter into you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will bring up flesh on you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am Yahweh.
“The hand of Yahweh was on me“ (v. 1a). This phrase, “the hand of Yahweh” is repeated several times in the book of Ezekiel (1:3; 3:14, 22; 8:1; 33:22; 40:1). It is used to denote the Lord’s power and authority, which the Lord transmits to Ezekiel. Yahweh lays his hand on Ezekiel as an act of consecration, commissioning, and empowerment.
“and he brought me out in the spirit (ruah) of Yahweh” (v. 1b). The word ruah can mean spirit, wind, or breath. In this verse, because of the context, we translate it spirit.
This is another instance of Yahweh empowering Ezekiel. Biblical prophets did not make pronouncements or take actions based on their own wisdom or strength. Their power was completely derivative and came from Yahweh. Without the guidance of Yahweh’s spirit, Ezekiel would be completely on his own—helpless.
At the end of this passage, the Lord will say to the people of Judah, “I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live” (v. 14). That verse gives us a brief glimpse into the power that lies behind the Lord’s spirit—it has the power to give life and to revive life. Now Yahweh’s powerful spirit is guiding and directing the life of Ezekiel to empower him for his prophetic ministry.
“and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones” (v. 1c). The word valley conveys a picture of a verdant and peaceful place. However, when soldiers are in combat, a valley can be a place of horror if the enemy commands the high ground. Soldiers on the floor of the valley become sitting ducks as the enemy shoots deadly missiles downward into their midst. That seems to have been the case here. This valley would not be full of bones unless it had been the site of a slaughter. The reference in verse 9 to “these slain” confirms that this was, indeed, the site of a slaughter, almost certainly a great military defeat.
• In more normal circumstances, the bodies would have been buried within a day. For a human body to lie unburied, exposed to predators, would be considered a scandal of the highest order. Torah law extended the privilege of burial even to criminals who had been executed (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
• And in normal circumstances, there wouldn’t have been so many deaths in one place at one time.
“He caused me to pass by them all around: and behold, there were very many in the open valley“(v. 2a). Yahweh leads Ezekiel around the bones. Keep in mind that Ezekiel is a priest, concerned with maintaining that which is holy, and contact with a dead body would make him unclean (Numbers 19:10b-13). Priests are specifically proscribed from touching a dead body, except for the bodies of their nearest kin (Leviticus 21:1-4).
“and, behold, they were very dry” (v. 2b). This is the point—these bones are dry—the dead people have been dead for a long time. They have been exposed to the humiliation of not being properly buried—and exposed to the predations of thieves and animals. There is nothing of life remaining in them. They represent the ultimate in hopelessness. Nothing says “really, really dead” like a pile of dry bones.
“He said to me, Son of man, can these bones live?“ (v. 3a). Yahweh asks Ezekiel if these dry bones can live. The obvious answer is that they cannot live, because all vestiges of life have long since been bleached from them.
However, when God asks a question like this, it is better not to tell him that it isn’t possible. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
There are Biblical precedents for God restoring life to a person who has died. God (through the prophet Elijah) had restored life to a widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24) and (through the prophet Elisha) had done the same for a Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kings 4:26-37). However, in each of these instances, the death was was quite recent. There was no precedent for restoring life to a person who had been deceased for a long period of time.
I hate having to answer questions like the one that Yahweh posed to Ezekiel. It always seems that, whichever way I go with the answer, the person asking the question takes it in a different direction—which is just another way of telling me that I’m wrong. I hate being wrong. I hate being put in a position where I am likely to be wrong, regardless of which answer I give.
Ezekiel “answered, Lord Yahweh, you know” (v. 3b). Ezekiel does a really nice job of dodging the question. He answers neither “Yes” nor “No.” Instead, he simply acknowledges that Yahweh is capable of making any answer the right answer. If Yahweh doesn’t want the bones to come to life, they won’t come to life. However, if Yahweh does want them to come to life, then they will do so.
“Again he said to me, Prophesy over these bones, and tell them, you dry bones, hear the word of Yahweh“ (v. 4). Just as Ezekiel threw the ball back into Yahweh’s court (v. 3), so now Yahweh throws the ball back into Ezekiel’s court. He calls Ezekiel to speak to the dry bones—bones that have no ears to hear. He calls Ezekiel to call the dry bones to listen to Yahweh’s word.
Listening to God’s word opens up possibilities, because God’s word is powerful. In the creation, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). “God said, ‘Let there be an expanse…’ …and it was so” (Genesis 1:6-7). God’s word gathered the waters together in one place (Genesis 1:9). God’s word brought forth vegetation (Genesis 1:11-13). God’s word put lights in the sky (Genesis 1:14-19). God’s word created animals (Genesis 1:20-25) and humans (Genesis 1:26-27).
So if God invites these dry bones to hear, he will surely enable them to hear. They have experienced the worst of fates, so hopefully God has good news for them now.
“Thus says the Lord Yahweh to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath (ruah) to enter into you, and you shall live” (v. 5). As noted in the comments on verse 1, ruah can mean spirit, wind, or breath. To determine the meaning for a particular verse requires examining the context.
In verse 1, spirit was an obvious choice because of the context. However, in this verse, either spirit or breath can make sense. Yahweh can send his spirit to enter the bones and bring them to life—or he can breathe into them the breath of life to restore their lives. Most translations choose “breath” in this verse, in part because of parallel between this story and the account in Genesis where Yahweh “breathed into (the man’s) nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
“I will lay sinews on you, and will bring up flesh on you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live“ (v. 6a). Yahweh outlines a four-step process by which he plans to bring these dry bones to life:
• First Yahweh will lay sinews on them. Sinews are the fibers that connect bones. The sinews that at one time connected these bones have long since turned to dust, so these bones are just a jumble of disconnected bones. If animals have been involved (and they almost certainly have been), then these bones are not only disconnected, but scattered as well. To lay sinews on them—to connect them into complete skeletons, Yahweh must first bring the bones of the respective skeletons together and then reestablish the sinew connections.
• Second, Yahweh will clothe the bones with flesh.
• Third, Yahweh will cover the bones with skin. At that point, they will look human, but will lack the breath of life. In other words, they will look human, but will be only corpses.
• Finally, Yahweh will breathe into these human bodies the breath of life, and they will live.
“and you shall know that I am Yahweh“ (v. 6b). Yahweh’s purpose goes beyond bringing the dry bones to life. His greater purpose is to infuse the once-dead but newly-alive people with the kind of deep faith that can come through experiencing a miracle. Yahweh long ago established a covenant relationship with these people, but their sin breached the covenant and led to their deaths. However, Yahweh is not content to let that be the last word. He wants to renew the covenant relationship that has the potential to renew these people’s lives, both physically and spiritually.
EZEKIEL 37:7-10. THE BONES CAME TOGETHER
7So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, an earthquake; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I saw, and, behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath (Hebrew: ruah) in them. 9Then he said to me, Prophesy to the wind (Hebrew: ruah), prophesy, son of man, and tell the wind (Hebrew: ruah), Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Come from the four winds, breath (Hebrew: ruah), and breathe (Hebrew: pehi) on these slain, that they may live. 10So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath (Hebrew: ruah) came into them, and they lived, and stood up on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
“So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, an earthquake; and the bones came together, bone to its bone“ (v. 7). Ezekiel does as Yahweh commanded, and sees the life-restoring process begin. What happens in this verse is simply preliminary to the four-step process mentioned in verse 6. The jumble of bones, with a great rattling noise, begins to sort itself out so this one’s ankle bone is connected to his leg bone—and that one’s knee bone is connected to his thigh bone. While the text is not specific at this point, it would seem that each bone seeks its own, so that each skeleton-to-be is a collection of its original bones.
The action begins even before Ezekiel finishes his prophetic word. He had only to open his mouth and begin his obedience to see the fruits of his prophetic work.
“I saw, and, behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath (ruah) in them” (v. 8). Once the bones are collected to form the skeletons, the four-step process begins: Step 1: Sinews. Step 2: Flesh. Step 3: Skin. But the process stops there. The fourth step, the breath of life, must await a further prophetic word.
“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the wind (ruah), prophesy, son of man, and tell the wind, (ruah)Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Come from the four winds, breath, (ruah) and breathe (Hebrew: pehi—blow or breathe) on these slain, that they may live'” (v. 9). It is one thing to have the bones sort themselves into collections of bones ready for assembly. It is another thing to connect them into skeletons and to clothe them with flesh and skin. However, at that point, they have simply changed from dead bones to dead bodies. That is miraculous, but falls far short of restoring life. The last miracle will be restoring life to these dead bodies.
Note the reference to “these slain.” As noted above, this confirms that this multitude was slaughtered, almost certainly in a great military battle—probably with Nebucharezzar’s army.
This would explain why the bodies had not been properly buried. As a mark of disdain, soldiers often left the bodies of slain enemies lying where they fell. Those bodies (and later their bones) would serve as a warning to potential enemies. Besides, why would victorious soldiers want to engage in the backbreaking work of burying their enemies? Why not let wild animals and the elements clean up the mess? Why not go elsewhere and start celebrating?
We should also note that the prophet Jeremiah, Ezekiel’s contemporary, prophesied that Yahweh would punish the officials and people of Judah for their disobedience by allowing “their dead bodies (to become) food for the birds of the sky, and for the animals of the earth” (Jeremiah 34:20).
“So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath (ruah) came into them, and they lived, and stood up on their feet, an exceedingly great army“ (v. 10). Ezekiel does as Yahweh commanded, and the final miracle comes to pass. Yahweh’s ruah (breath/spirit) enters them and they are restored to life. The whole multitude becomes alive. It is a truly magnificent miracle.
EZEKIEL 37:11-14. THESE BONES ARE THE WHOLE HOUSE OF ISRAEL
11Then he said to me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. 12Therefore prophesy, and tell them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13You shall know that I am Yahweh, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people. 14 I will put my Spirit (Hebrew: ruah) in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land: and you shall know that I, Yahweh, have spoken it and performed it, says Yahweh.
Just as Jesus, in the New Testament, often follows a parable with an explanation, Yahweh, in these verses, tells us his purpose in restoring life to the dead bones. It wasn’t just a good trick. Yahweh did it to make a point.
“Then he said to me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel” (v. 11a). When the kingdom of Israel was divided after the death of Solomon, the ten northern tribes became known as Israel and the two southern tribes became known as Judah. This causes some confusion when the word Israel is used thereafter, especially after Assyria defeated the northern kingdom (Israel) in 722 B.C. and took its people into exile (see “The Context” above). Thereafter, the word Israel is often used to refer to the remaining people of God, who happen to be the southern kingdom (known as Judah).
Does “the whole house of Israel” in this verse refer just to the people of Judah, the remaining people of God—or does it refer to the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, one of which long ago ceased to exist and the other of which is in captivity? The answer is that it refers to the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah:
• The phrase, “the whole house of Israel,” is no slip of the pen. It is repeated three more times in this book (36:10; 39:25; 45:6). In the first instance, it says, “all the house of Israel” (36:10).
• Furthermore, the “two sticks” paragraphs (37:15-28) that follow our text make it explicit that Yahweh is speaking of both the northern and southern kingdoms. These paragraphs speak of “Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions” (meaning the southern kingdom) and “Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions” (meaning the northern kingdom) (37:15). Ephraim was one of the sons of Joseph and was the father of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. As time passed, the name Ephraim was often used as a synonym for ten tribes of the northern kingdom (Israel). That is how it is used in 37:15.
“behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off“ (v. 11b). This further reinforces the interpretation that Yahweh is speaking of the bones as representing both the northern kingdom (Israel, which long ago ceased to be) and the southern kingdom (Judah, which is alive but in captivity). It is the northern kingdom that especially fits this description—bones dried up—hope lost—cut off.
But Judah also has cause for despair. Jerusalem has been destroyed and the majority of the populace has been taken into exile in Babylonia. Apart from a miracle, they see no prospect of regaining their freedom or restoring their nation.
“Therefore prophesy, and tell them, Thus says the Lord Yahweh: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel“ (v. 12). Once again, Yahweh calls Ezekiel to prophesy. He is to tell the people that Yahweh intends to open their graves and bring them back to their homeland.
Yahweh first showed us a pile of dry bones lying on the valley floor. Now he presents us with the image of closed graves being opened. While these two images are different, they both serve the same purpose. Both point to Yahweh’s redeeming an apparently hopeless situation for his people—a situation as hopeless as dry bones—as hopeless as closed graves. Israel, the northern kingdom, is the more hopeless of the two, because it has ceased to exist—but the southern kingdom of Judah also has little reason to hope. It has been a small nation caught between superpowers (Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt). The reigning superpower, Babylonia, has inflicted a decisive defeat on them. They have no hope of escape—no hope of seeing their homeland once again—no hope of being restored as a nation.
Except that Yahweh has the power to turn Good Fridays into Easters. That comment, of course, looks forward to the Messiah’s death and resurrection—but Yahweh has already demonstrated that he can turn bad times into good. He led the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. He established them in the Promised Land. Now he is about to do it again.
“You shall know that I am Yahweh, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people“ (v. 13). As in verse 6, Yahweh makes it clear that his overarching purpose is to help his people to understand that he is God. What could demonstrate that more powerfully than raising them from their graves?
“I will put my Spirit (ruah) in you, and you shall live” (v. 14a). Once again, we are faced with choosing between spirit and breath to translate ruah. Both are appropriate. If Yahweh breathes into Israel the breath of life, Israel will come alive once more. The same will be true if God places his spirit within them. Regardless of which way we decide to translate ruah, the point is that Yahweh intends to bring Israel back to life.
“and I will place you in your own land” (v. 14b). This is a key promise. Yahweh is promising to reestablish Israel on its own land. While this seems impossible, it will happen when Persia overtakes Babylonia as the reigning superpower and Cyrus of Persia allows the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem.
“and you shall know that I, Yahweh, have spoken it and performed it, says Yahweh“ (v. 14c). Once again (as in vv. 6, 13), the overarching purpose of these miracles is to show the Jewish people that Yahweh, their God, is truly God.
THE JEWISH UNDERSTANDING OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION:
While the images of dry bones (vv. 1-10) and opened graves (vv. 13-14) suggest a belief in resurrection from the dead, the central thrust of this text is the resurrection of the nation of Israel rather than the resurrection of individuals. However, we should note that the Jewish people moved over time toward a belief in individual resurrection. They started with a belief in Sheol or Hades, the abode of the dead. However, as time passed, we begin to see glimpses of resurrection belief, as exhibited in the following verses:
• “I kill, and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
• “Yahweh kills, and makes alive. He brings down to Sheol, and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6).
• “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives.
In the end, he will stand upon the earth.
After my skin is destroyed,
then in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).
• “He has swallowed up death forever! The Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
• “Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise” (Isaiah 26:19).
• “After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him” (Hosea 6:2).
But, for the most part, Old Testament Jews tended to think of living through their children rather than living eternally in heaven.
In the New Testament, the Jewish people were divided on the subject of resurrection. Pharisees believed in resurrection, but Sadducees did not (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Taylor, John B., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Ezekiel, Vol. 20 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969)
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Copyright 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan