Ezekiel 37: An Interpretation

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July 21, 2011 by fjmorgan

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to offer an interpretation of Ezekiel 37 based on the relevant historical, sociocultural, and grammatical contexts. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible.

Historical Context

Ezekiel was born in a time where a major shift in geopolitical powers was taking place. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and dispersed its residents throughout the Assyrian Empire while reducing Judah to a vassal state. However, Babylon, the new superpower of the ANE supplanted Assyrian dominance and Judah transferred its loyalties, becoming a Babylonian vassal under tribute (Thompson 13). When Jehoiakim withheld tribute from Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian army once again descended upon Judah, looted the treasure of the kingdom and the temple, and deported the social elite of Judah (including Ezekiel) into Babylonian exile, leaving only the poorest people behind (2Kgs 24:12-15). Ten years later Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and carried the rest of the inhabitants of Judah into exile.

Author

What is known of Ezekiel is confined to what is revealed about him in his writings. Ezekiel is identified as the son of Buzi who served as a priest and prophet. He was among those in the Babylonian exile and his prophetic ministry spanned from 593 to 571 B.C. (Thompson 10). His recorded prophetic ministry began in the “fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin” (Ezek 1:2-3) with the last recorded date being some 20 years later (Ezek 40:1).

Ezekiel has been the subject of no small amount of psychoanalytical and social critique. Due to his visions, some have concluded that Ezekiel was a deranged paranoid schizophrenic, while others have labeled him a misogynist due to his extended and sometimes graphic use of feminine metaphor in his portrayal of Israel as a harlot. However, Ezekiel’s writings seem to be more indicative of a mystic rather than a psychotic and we must not forget that Ezekiel wrote from and to a culture that had a much different view of the status and role of women (Thompson 8-10).

Audience

Ezekiel’s primary audience likely consisted of his fellow exiles from Judah and the people left in the land, but extended to embrace those of the communities of the larger Diaspora including the former inhabitants of the northern kingdom. In fact, as 2:3 makes clear, Ezekiel was sent to the “people of Israel,” which has all twelve tribes in view (Thompson 17). Moreover, as will become evident in the textual analysis of 37:15-28, Ezekiel’s message impacted both kingdoms. This indicates that although the people had divided, God continued to see His people as one.

Sociocultural Context

The Babylonian deportation policy was designed to serve a variety of political objectives: the dissolution of nationality; the removal of people of skill, wisdom and ability in order to avoid a political resurgence; to provide conscripts to serve in the Babylonian military machine; and to bolster the local economy. However, the Judeans maintained a distinct ethnic and social community even in the midst of exile. While they continued the external practices such as observation of the Sabbath and the performance of the rite of circumcision, unfortunately, their tendencies toward apostasy and idolatry were still maintained (Block 5-7).

One of the primary factors influencing the social context of the exilic community is that their theological presuppositions were being challenged by the very fact of exile. The Sinaitic covenant was seen as the high point of Jewish history and theology, and the land was seen to be part and parcel of the covenant; the temple was the dwelling place of God and was thus believed to be indestructible; and the Davidic covenant was seen to be uninterruptible. However, the people had been exiled from the land, the temple had been destroyed, the Davidic line had been severed, and Jerusalem had been destroyed. Block explains that this existential reality left the exiles in a state of “theological shock,” causing them to question the power and faithfulness of Yahweh (Block 7-9). One wonders, however, how the situation could have been so shocking for the community. Surely they must have realized that it was not Yahweh who had broken faith with them but vice versa. Given the extensive list of curses linked with covenant disobedience (Dt 28:15 ff.), and the fact that the curses culminated in expulsion from the land (Dt 28:63-64), their circumstances should have come as no surprise. Nonetheless, the people had reached a point of utter despair.

Literary Context

Genre, Structure, and Style

The book of Ezekiel fits squarely in the prophetic book genre and consists of collections of literary units appearing in three main sections: prophecies of judgment (1-24); oracles against foreign nations (25-32); and prophecies offering a message of consolation (33-48) (Hals 3-5). The last section is also referred to as restoration oracles.

Scholars find it challenging to determine whether to categorize Ezekiel’s writings as poetry or prose due to his extended use of narrative (Block 39). His style is first-person autobiographical (Block 20) and shows no internal evidence of having been written by his disciples, as is the case with some of the other prophetic books (e.g., Isaiah or Jeremiah) (Hals 3-5). Interestingly, although virtually the entire book is written in autobiographical style, the reader rarely has access to the inner workings of Ezekiel’s mind. His emotional reactions and personal assessments are rarely recorded and consequently, “the real Ezekiel is never exposed” (Block 27). Ezekiel’s pervasive autobiographical stance makes this book unique among the other works in the prophetic corpus (Thompson 21).

The book features prophetic proof sayings and prophetic word formulas (Hals 4-5). The prophetic word formulas include word-event speech markers (e.g., “The word of the Lord came to me”), citation formulas (e.g., “Thus has the Lord Yahweh declared”), and signatory formulas (“The declaration of the Lord Yahweh”). It also contains specific formulas of address where Ezekiel frequently uses the full title “the Lord Yahweh” and Yahweh addresses Ezekiel as “son of man.” Ezekiel also exhibits a variety of prophetic command formulas, theological formulas (“and they will know that I am Yahweh”), and the divine coercion formula (“The hand of the Lord was upon me”) (Block 30-35). Also peculiar to Ezekiel’s literary style are his extended narratives, distinctive vocabulary (including lexical and grammatical Aramisms and Akkadianisms), as well as the conspicuous absence of words or phrases common to other prophetic writings (Block 39-40).

Ezekiel also uses a literary device, known as “halving,” where the author presents an initial theme in an opening oracle which is followed by the development of a second theme and concluded with a “coda” which intermingles elements from both oracles (Thompson 21). Although chapter 37 contains two oracles of nearly identical length, there is no coda to tie them together, therefore, halving as Greenberg defines it is not a literary feature of the passage at hand.

Ezekiel’s style also reflects the use of waw plus perfect (reflective of waw-conjunctive) rather than the waw plus imperfect (waw-consecutive), which is a common construction in other biblical texts. This stylistic shift likely reflects late biblical Hebrew usage rather than Aramaic influence as has been commonly suggested (Block 367).

Textual Criticism

37:1-14

Block identifies a variety of textual issues in this passage (e.g., misvocalizations, gender disparity between subject and verb, possible occurrences of dittography, and possible glosses based on comparative readings from LXX and Syr.). However, these textual difficulties do not appear to affect the passage substantively.
Perhaps the most interesting textual issue appears in the translation/interpretive challenge presented by Ezekiel’s use of the noun רוּחַ which serves as a leitwort in the passage. This word can be rendered as breath, wind, or spirit (BDB 924-925). Due to this semantic range and Ezekiel’s frequent use of the word in chapter 37 (it appears ten times), the translator must make a judgment based on context, which carries an inescapable interpretive force. It also seems that Ezekiel purposefully manipulates the word in a variety of ways in this passage, which increases the complexity of the task of translation.

37:15-28

Most of the textual criticism of this literary unit revolves around the tendency of LXX to interpret the text rather than to literally translate it. Block notes that LXX and Syr. drop the second occurrence of מֶלֶךְ in v. 22, but explains this as a probable instance of haplography (407). For the purpose at hand we will leave the detailed discussion of manuscript and translation discrepancies to the experts in textual criticism and focus on the MT. Of interest is Block’s translation of בְּגִלּֽוּלֵיהֶם in v. 22, which he renders as “with their pellets of dung” explaining this to be an idiomatic expression for “idols” (407). While most translations simply render this expression, “with their idols,” Block’s translation is helpful as it brings out the fuller connotation of the “dungy” essence of the practice of idolatry; the lexical basis for which can be found in Brown-Driver-Briggs (165).

This literary unit also contains two significant leitwörter: אֶחָד (occurring eight times) and עֹולָם (which occurs five times in the latter section) (Block 394). אֶחָד (one) is significant in that the thrust of the passage deals with the divine act of the reinstatement of national unity for Israel while the significance of עֹולָם is found in the promise that this unity would exist in perpetuity.

Textual Analysis

Chapter 37 consists of two separate literary units: vv. 1-14 and vv. 15-28. The former unit is probably the most well known section of the book. For purposes of interpretation, the sections will first be analyzed independently and then we will explore the various ways in which they are interconnected.

37:1-14

This literary unit consists of two sections: verses 1-10 report Ezekiel’s vision, while verses 11-14 interpret the experience. The chapter begins with the formulaic statement “The hand of the Lord was upon me…” indicating the instantiation of a prophetic visionary experience (Blenkinsopp 170). In v. 1 we are introduced to the theme-word, רוּחַ, for the first time where we find it rendered as “Spirit” in the ESV. As mentioned above, the word is used several times throughout the passage with nuanced meaning. Block points out that the word carries at least three different nuances in this text: “agency of conveyance (v. 1), direction (v. 9c), and agency of animation (vv. 5-6)” (373). In this instance, בְרוּחַ יְהוָה functions as the agency of conveyance that carries Ezekiel to a specific valley where he beholds the awesome sight of a countless number of very dry bones. At first blush the valley seems to have been a place where some monumental battle has occurred and as Block points out, “the sight suggests the remains of a major catastrophe” (374). However, Eichrodt explains “The valley-plain, which has been a place where judgment had to be suffered, now becomes the place where Yahweh triumphs over death…” (507).

In v. 3 Yahweh initiates dialogue with the prophet by inquiring whether the scattered bones could be reanimated. Of course, Ezekiel knows that it is not at all common for the dead to return to life. Moreover, at this point in theological development in Israel there is no evidence of belief in the “postmortem survival of the individual” (Blenkinsopp 172). Some commentators suggest that Ezekiel declines to answer because he deems the question to be ridiculous. Blenkinsopp, however, points out that Ezekiel’s refusal to answer the question is rooted in the fact that the one who posed it is the author of life and he knows that “the power of God extends even into the realm of death.” Accordingly, in lieu of a direct answer to the question, Ezekiel simply responds that this is something that only God Himself could know (171).

In vv. 4-10, Yahweh also declines to answer the question directly, opting instead for demonstration. By issuing a series of commands to Ezekiel, the Lord uses him as His prophetic agent in calling the dead bones to life. The second occurrence of רוּחַ is encountered in v. 5, which the ESV translates as “breath.” This is reminiscent of the primordial act of creation where the lord forms the man from the dust of the ground and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Ge 2:7). Jenson here notes the parallelism with the Genesis account as the bodies are first formed and then animated with the “breath of life” (282). Hence, רוּחַ functions as the “divine animating force without which no life is possible” (Block 376). Verse 6 also contains the purpose statement of the event: “And you shall know that I am the Lord,” a common theological formula in Ezekiel.

While vv. 4-6 function as Yahweh’s declaration of intent, vv. 7-10 are the narrative of the fulfillment of that pronouncement. Ezekiel obediently spoke the prophetic word to the dead and the bodies obediently responded to that word by reassembling skeletons, which were subsequently covered in flesh and skin. Nonetheless, although the bodies were reassembled, they were still inanimate. Consequently, Yahweh instructed Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath that it might come and animate the bodies. Once again, Ezekiel did as he was instructed, the breath responded, the bodies were resuscitated and rose to their feet, taking on the appearance of a vast army. This must have been an awesome sight for Ezekiel to behold as the process of death and decay, which for all practical intents and purposes looks to have been completed, has in fact been reversed, in effect constituting not just a reversal of the natural order of things, but a new act of creation!

Nonetheless, Ezekiel still has not been informed who the bones belonged to or what the interpretation of this tremendous event may have been. Verses 11-14 expose the reason for God’s momentous act as He elucidates the emotional condition of the people of Israel and their sense of existential hopelessness. In verse 11, Yahweh identifies the bodies as the whole house Israel and repeats the refrain of hopelessness that has been on the lips of the people. The people had been using the metaphor of dry bones to describe their condition of despair, concluding that they had been “cut off.” The Hebrew word rendered “cut off” is the Niphal first person, common, plural of גָּזַר, meaning to be cut off or destroyed (BDB 160), which is a common way of describing the dead, and pulls from the sentiment of Psalm 88:5, “like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand” (cf. Is 53:8; Lam 3:54).

Yahweh responds to the people’s statement by instructing Ezekiel to speak a prophetic message of hope and restoration directly to them (v. 12). In this verse, Block sees a triad of responses on the part of Yahweh that corresponds to the triad of lament expressed in the despair laden saying of the people. Moreover, he suggests that the prophecy is a promise of restoration of the “deity-nation-land” relationship triad, which the people believed had been lost forever (382). There is also an interesting shift of imagery in the interpretation of the vision. While Ezekiel’s vision had been of the reassembly and revivification of bones that had been scattered on the surface of the ground, Yahweh now promises to open graves, draw the people forth, and bring them back to the land of promise.

In vv. 13-14, Yahweh also reveals that the purpose for this miraculous intervention is so the people will know that He is the Lord. He also explains that this will not be simply a physical revival but that there will be a spiritual component to it as well, as He will also put His Spirit (רוּחַ) within them as He returns them to the land. This, of course, is a reiteration of the promised insertion of the Spirit from the preceding prophecy (36:26-27), which also carries with it the promise of a new heart that will result in the renewal of the moral/ethical conduct of the people.

37:15-28

This section opens with the word-event formula, “The word of the Lord came to me…” which serves as a direct speech marker indicating the introduction of divine speech (Block 32) where God characteristically addresses the prophet as “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָם). This form of address is used 93 times in the book and serves to emphasize the distance between God and the human race (Block 30). Yahweh subsequently instructs Ezekiel to perform a prophetic sign-act, behavior portraying the deeds of God designed to elicit questions and blaze a path for prophetic instruction (Thompson 222). This sign-act involves Ezekiel inscribing on two pieces of wood the names of the tribes representing the southern and northern kingdoms respectively, and then joining them together, “that they may become one” (אֶחָד) (vv. 16-17).

In v. 18 we learn that the sign-act should incite the people to inquire about its meaning and in vv. 19-22, Yahweh reveals the interpretation of the event to Ezekiel in order that he might relay it to the people: He will gather the exiles from the northern kingdom, who had been deported and dispersed throughout the Assyrian Empire when Samaria fell in 722 B.C., and He will unite them with the exiles of the southern kingdom (Judah) when He restores them collectively to the land. Moreover, Yahweh will reunite them into one kingdom under one king (note the recurrence of אֶחָד). If the restoration of Judah prophesied in the first literary unit was hard for the Judahite exiles to believe, the gathering of those who had been scattered in the diaspora at least 150 years earlier would have been unthinkable; that they would be united together into one kingdom, under one monarch, after centuries of division would have been incomprehensible.

Verse 23 then sets forth the moral and ethical implications of God’s restoral of the people to the land. They will no longer engage in the practices that led to God’s judgment and their expulsion from the land. Their worship of idols will desist, as will the other detestable practices they have been guilty of. In fact, v. 24 explains that this will be the case because Yahweh Himself will save them and cleanse them, and their spiritual integrity will be restored. This verse culminates in the repetition of the covenant formula, implicit in the first literary unit but here made explicit: “they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”

In v. 24 we find that in addition to gathering the people from the diaspora, uniting them with the house of Judah, and restoring them to the land, Yahweh will also reaffirm the Davidic covenant by setting a king over them from the line of David. Block explains that this movement of God simultaneously upholds the permanence of His original promise to David and also discredits all of the past rulers who have made pretense to the throne, especially those of the northern kingdom (415). Additionally, as Yahweh’s Davidic king serves as shepherd over them, they will be enabled to carefully observe God’s law, they will dwell in the land forever, and they will be under His reign perpetually (עֹולָם) (v. 25).

This eventuality will culminate in the establishment of a unilateral covenant of peace (בְּרִית שָׁלֹום), which is initiated by Yahweh and will be everlasting (עֹולָם) (v. 26). In addition to returning the people to the land, God will once again set His sanctuary in their midst, but this time the situation will be everlasting (עֹולָם) (v. 27). Rather than seeing this בְּרִית שָׁלֹום as a new covenant, Block, finding corollary in Leviticus 26:1-13, explains that this is in fact a renewal of the Sinaitic covenant (420). The outworking of all of this is made clear in v. 28: not only will Israel know that God is the Lord, indeed all the nations will come to know that God is the one who consecrates Israel (מְקַדֵּשׁ).

Co-text

There are numerous thematic parallels among Ezekiel’s restoration oracles (chapters 33-36). 33:10 contains a lament saying similar in sentiment to the lament of 37:11. The condemnation of the “shepherds of Israel” in 34:1-10 is contrasted by the Davidic king who will serve faithfully as one shepherd over the people in 37:24. The collection of the scattered sheep in 34:11-24 is paralleled in the gathering of the diaspora deportees in 37:21. The covenant of peace in 34:25-31 is echoed in 37:26. The promise of the Spirit and the repatriation of the people is also paralleled in chapter 36.

Inter-canonical Echoes

Relating to 37:1-14

Genesis 2:7

As mentioned in the textual analysis above, there is a strong connection between Ezekiel 37:5 and Genesis 2:7 where God first forms human bodies and then animates them with His breath. Hence, resurrection in Ezekiel is connected to the creative act of God in Genesis and not only functions to reverse the process of death and decay (which is the result of sin in Ge 3), but also echoes the theme of God’s creative work moving to higher degrees of order as the scattered bones in disarray are reassembled from their arid state and animated through the life giving Spirit of God. There are also wider parallels in the creation account of Genesis 1 where inanimate matter responds to the spoken word of God, albeit in the Ezekiel account, God’s words are spoken through the prophet.

Exodus 6:5-8

This passage is reminiscent of Exodus 6:5-7 where God has “heard the groaning of the people of Israel” whom are suffering under the yoke of Egyptian slavery. Here God also declares His promise to redeem the people in a miraculous way and bring them into the land of promise in order that they might know that He is the Lord. In this passage God introduces the covenant formula, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (6:7). Accordingly, in Ezekiel 37:12-13, God twice refers to the exiles as “my people” (עַמִּי).

Daniel 12:1-3

This passage obviously fits into the resurrection motif apparent in Ezekiel 37. However, while the Ezekiel passage is related to national restoration, there is no such imagery present in Daniel as it deals solely with the eschatological resurrection of the deceased. Also, while the scope of resurrection is limited to the house of Israel in Ezekiel, we find that it extends to all of the deceased in Daniel, referencing a general resurrection of the righteous and the wicked as well as the consequent recompense due each: some are resurrected to everlasting life, while others are resurrected to everlasting shame and contempt.

John 20:22

Pretlove sets forth a compelling argument that John 20:22 can best be interpreted in light of Ezekiel 37:9-10. He essentially posits that when Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’” He is identifying the disciples as the core of Israel, which is being resurrected to become a mighty army and thus bringing about the comprehensive restoration of Israel promised in Ezekiel 37. He also finds numerous connections between the ministry of Jesus and the prophecies contained in Ezekiel 34-37.

1Corinthians 15

In 1Corinthians 15, Paul deals with the topic of eschatological resurrection more comprehensively than anywhere else in the canon. In context, it would appear that some in the Corinthian church had made claim (suffering no doubt from an over-realized eschatology) that there is no future resurrection. Paul, however, takes great pains to explain that resurrection is not merely a figurative event in the temporal life of the believer, but that it is a very real and somatic event, which will take place in the eschaton. Moreover, in attempting to define the resurrection body (15:44), he explains that it is sown as a natural or “soulish” body (σῶμα ψυχικόν) and it is raised as a spiritual body (σῶμα πνευματικόν). Since both bodies are somatic, and hence material in essence, the modifiers ψυχικόν and πνευματικόν refer to what the soma is animated by rather than its composition (Wright, “The Meaning of Jesus” 120). Consequently, this powerfully comes to bear on Ezekiel’s triadic prophecy of tomb opening, bodily extraction, and animation by the Spirit, which has only been completely fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and remains to be fulfilled in the eschaton for those who have faith in Him.

Relating to 37:15-18

Exodus 6:5-8

This passage is brought to bear on the latter literary unit in a more forceful manner, as the covenant formula is made explicit in 37:23, 27. Likewise, the liberation, redemption, and reconciliation themes resonate clearly in Ezekiel. Just as God freed the ancient Israelites from their Egyptian captivity, He now is not only freeing the Judahites from their Babylonian captivity, but is also liberating their northern kingdom counterparts from the diaspora.

Leviticus 26:1-13

Several Ezekelian themes are present in this passage including covenant obedience, abstinence from idolatry, the resultant blessing and peace in the land, the multiplication of the people, God’s dwelling in their midst, and the presence of the covenant formula. Clearly, this text plays an important role as Ezekiel echoes these topics in his oracles of restoration. More importantly, as Leviticus 26:1-13 was spoken to a unified Israel, the covenant renewal is promised to the reunited people.

John 14:27

Jesus’ promise of peace to His disciples echoes the covenant of peace (בְּרִית שָׁלֹום) theme in Ezekiel. Jenson defines “covenant” as “a pact between two parties, granted unilaterally by one of them but binding on the actions of both” (289). This seems to be exactly what is in view here as Jesus unilaterally bestows His peace on His disciples in a manner that suggests something which is at once permanent and binding as He declares, “Not as the world gives do I give to you.” Also, there appears to be an undercurrent of inaugurated eschatology, as Jesus restores the שָׁלֹום which was disrupted by the sin of Adam in Genesis 3.

John 17

Jesus’ High Priestly prayer is strongly reminiscent of the theme of unity present in the second half of Ezekiel 37. The leitwort “one” (εἷς) appears in this passage eight times, which coincidentally is exactly the same number of occurrences of אֶחָד in Ezekiel 37:15-28. That the unity of the people of God is an important theme in the entire canon cannot be denied. It is striking that the theme of unity (oneness) would be so dominant in this prayer of intercession offered by Jesus as He draws near to the crucifixion.

Revelation 21

The various themes of Ezekiel’s oracles reverberate throughout Revelation, but perhaps none resonate more deeply than the parallels between Ezekiel 37:15-28 and Revelation 21:1-3. The land grant theme is clearly present in the eschatological new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem. Moreover, the covenant formula is repeated for the final time in the canon as the promises of God are brought to teleological perfection. By way of contrast with Ezekiel, however, the temple (which Ezekiel took great pains to describe in the latter section of his book) is conspicuously absent in the eschaton (Rev 21:22). Also in contrast with Ezekiel where the nations simply come to know that God is the sanctifier of Israel (37:28), in Revelation the nations are present with the people of God, walking by the light of His glory (21:24).

Meaning and Theology

37:1-14

In the immediate historical context, this is clearly a prophecy to the exiles that they will be delivered from their captivity (symbolized by the imagery of death) and restored to their national homeland (symbolized by the imagery of resurrection). This prophecy then serves as a message of hope for reconciliation and restoration to the despondent dissidents and as a revelation of the character God. The people fear that they have been abandoned by God and are without hope; however, God will act in a decisive and miraculous way to bring life out of death and to demonstrate His covenant faithfulness, even in the midst of the apostasy of His people.

This, in effect, will bring about a new Exodus event, Exodus being a leitmotif that seems to be reiterated throughout the entire canon. As in the original Exodus episode, God will once again demonstrate His sovereignty and faithfulness with an outstretched arm to deliver the exiles from captivity in a foreign land and they will once again know that He is the Lord their God. Moreover, God continues to call the exiles “my people” (עַמִּי) implying that He is still their God, and indicating that the covenant relationship is still in force.

The question that continues to loom over this section of text, however, is “can this passage be properly interpreted as referring to eschatological resurrection?” Scholars disagree about the propriety of interpreting the passage in this manner. The heart of the issue seems to revolve around the idea that it would have been outside the scope of authorial intent due to the fact that belief in the postmortem survival of the individual had not yet been incorporated into the Israelite faith (Blenkinsopp 172). Eichrodt rejects the notion outright (509) and Block points out that various scholars have suggested that Ezekiel’s notions of resurrection were derived from Mesopotamian, Syrian, or Zoroastrian influences. Although Block disagrees with their conclusions, he attempts to demonstrate that belief in literal resurrection may have already been part of the Israelite tradition (383-387).

Whether or not this is the case, it seems an unnecessary exercise. The prophets were recipients of divine revelation and prior knowledge of, or belief in, certain concepts was not prerequisite to the reception of new revelation. Additionally, the insistence that there is only one valid interpretation of a passage overlooks the polyvalent nature of Old Testament prophetic writings. When attempting to reach the interpretive crux of the passage, it is not a case of “either national restoration or eschatological resurrection” but “both/and.” In other words, there is no reason why this prophecy could not simultaneously function both as the promise of national restoration of historical Israel and as the promise of a future eschatological, literal somatic resurrection. Moreover, as Jenson observes, the exiles were indeed returned to the land but there was no “remarkable outpouring of the Spirit” (284). Consequently, the prophecy was not completely fulfilled in history until the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost upon the new Israel that Jesus had reconstituted around Himself, which takes form in the church (Pate et al. 212). Thus proper interpretation of the passage changes fundamentally in light of the Christ event and its implicit reiteration of the Exodus motif. Finally, that Ezekiel 37:1-14 refers to eschatological resurrection as well to the metaphorical restoration of the exiled nation of Israel is supported in hermeneutical efforts throughout church history in the works of Origen, Ambrose, Chrysostom, et al. (Stevenson 121).

37:15-28

In this second literary unit, God has moved from the topic of national deliverance for Judah to national unity for the whole house of Israel. God promises that not only will the kingdom that had been divided since the days of Rehoboam be restored, but that once again a king from the line of David will occupy the throne of Israel and that this monarch will reign in perpetuity. The theological pillars which apostate Israel had rested upon in their hubris, and from which they derived a false sense of security, would be restored, albeit in a new way. The people would be redeemed and reunified, they would be restored to the land, the temple would be rebuilt, God would once again dwell among the people, the Sinaitic covenant would be renewed, and the Davidic covenant would be fulfilled.

We must at this point, however, ask ourselves if this was actually accomplished in history. Under Ezra and Nehemiah the people were liberated (to a certain extent), were returned to the land, the temple had been rebuilt, and the people had renewed the covenant (Neh 10). Under Herod the Great, the temple complex was even expanded impressively. However, Israel remained a client state of other geopolitical entities and there was no king on the throne of David. It is understandable how this eventuality gave rise to various streams of messianic expectation in the first century A.D.

Clearly the prophecy has not been fulfilled in the temporal history of ethnic Israel to date; hence it is best to see this oracle as preeminently eschatological, Christological, and ecclesiological in nature (Cf. Jenson 284). The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah from the line of David. Consequently, the prophecy has either been fulfilled by Jesus (through inaugurated eschatology), or it remains to be fulfilled by Him in the future (in eschatological culmination) (Thompson 223). As will be discussed below, the latter is the more compelling alternative.

Cohesive Theology of the Units

While we have treated the two literary units of Ezekiel 37 independently throughout this study, there are several interesting points of connection between the two units that suggest a degree of cohesiveness between the oracles. First of all, just as we find the resuscitation of the dry bones taking place in two stages (reassembly of the bones then vivification through the Spirit), so the redemption of the people happens in two stages in the second literary unit (gathering the exiles then uniting them into one nation).

Second, there is an interesting parallel between the reassembly of the scattered bones in the first unit and the gathering of the scattered diaspora exiles of the northern kingdom in the second as Yahweh calls each from a state of death, decay, and chaos to condition life and order. Third, the covenant formula is implied in the first unit and is made explicit in the second reminding the people of God’s covenant faithfulness even in the midst of judgment for the people’s covenant infidelity. Fourth, both units hold out the promise of the repatriation of the people to the land, an essential component of the covenant relationship.

Finally, when taken as a whole, the thematic parallels (e.g., resurrection, land, covenant renewal, and a unified people of God) between Ezekiel 37 and Revelation 20-22 are too substantial to overlook. Consequently, while these themes find an impressive degree of penultimate manifestation in the inaugurated eschatology of the Christ event and the church age, the unified oracle of Ezekiel 37 awaits its ultimate fulfillment in the eschaton.

Contemporary Significance and Application

Only one question remains: How does one make application of this ancient text in a contemporary setting? With regard to the relevant contexts, there certainly is an enormous distance between Ezekiel’s original audience and contemporary readers of the text. Nonetheless, Ezekiel’s restoration oracles and their respective messages of hope speak to contemporary audiences in fresh ways; in fact, they speak to us in ways that would have been beyond the comprehension of the original audience. Moreover, in light of the Christ event, we are in a unique position to interpret Ezekiel’s prophecies with a higher degree of accuracy than could likely have been achieved by his original audience. Consequently, we may take several points of application from our study which should prove germane to Christian spiritual growth.

Running through the entire passage we find a consistent message of hope which may be applied in a variety of ways in contemporary settings. First, while we are all born into a state of exile (alienation from God on account of sin), God has set forth a plan of redemption through His Son in order that we might be liberated from slavery to sin, saved from our transgressions, and cleansed from all unrighteousness. Additionally, this act of cleansing is God’s work of grace in our lives and something we are unable to obtain without His divine intervention (37:23).

Second, God has inaugurated His kingdom on earth and set His Davidic King over that kingdom in the person of Jesus Christ. While there are numerous benefits available to participation in God’s kingdom in the present, we joyfully await the consummation of the kingdom in the eschaton and the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecies.

Third, while the indwelling of the Spirit promised in Ezekiel 37:14 was not fulfilled in historic Israel (at least until Pentecost), it is available to all who have faith in Jesus Christ and repent of sin. This indwelling of the Spirit brings about moral and ethical renewal, which in turn enables the believer to walk in God’s rules and obey His statutes (37:24; 36:26-28; cf. Ac 2:38).

Fourth, in this passage we receive the promise of resurrection and life everlasting. More importantly, due to the inaugurated eschatology of the Christ event, we see that resurrection is both a future hope and a present reality because God is busy working resurrection in our lives on this side of eternity. Certain aspects of our lives must die in order for us to be conformed to the image of Christ. But God is steadily at work, resurrecting these areas of death, bringing them to new life, and transforming something that had been full of death and decay into something beautiful as He redeems, recreates, renews, and transforms us (cf. 2Co 5:17).

Fifth, we have the promise of the restoration of omnidirectional peace and covenant renewal. While the state of perpetual שָׁלֹום was disrupted by the sin of Adam, resulting in death and destruction, God has made provision to restore omnidirectional שָׁלֹום (on the vertical axis between God, human beings, and creation; and on the horizontal axis between all mankind) through the Messiah. This reconciliation also allows us to enter into a new perpetual covenant relationship with God and makes us ministers of that covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-34; 2Co 3:4-6; 5:18).

Sixth, we find the hope of ecclesiological unity. As Thompson points out, the apostolic community saw the Christian community as the reconstituted core of Israel. Consequently, those who have faith in Christ are the heirs of the promises God made to Israel (223). Hence, the church is the primary recipient of the promise of unity among the people of God, a people gathered from among the nations and brought into a new kingdom (cf. Mt 28:19).

Seventh, we see the explicit promise of perpetual existence in the presence of God, as His dwelling place will be in the midst of the people forevermore (37:27). This clearly was not fulfilled in historic Judaism as the temple, rebuilt under Ezra and expanded under Herod the Great, was destroyed in A.D. 70. As noted above, a physical temple is conspicuously absent in the eschatological oracle of Revelation because the Father and the Lamb serve metaphorically as the temple (21:22). Nonetheless, given the fact that Jesus used the temple as a metaphor for His body (Jn 2:19-21), the temple has become a powerful metaphor to refer to the church and individuals within it (Thompson 224). Thus the church enjoys certain aspects of this reality in the present but looks forward to its culmination and immediacy in the eschaton.

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3 thoughts on “Ezekiel 37: An Interpretation

  1. Norm says:

    I would like to read your article but your eyes must be younger. The grey lettering on black background is very hard to read. Can you make it easier?

    • fjmorgan says:

      Hi Norm. I have changed the design of the site so it should be more accessible and much easier to read. Thanks for the suggestion and peace to you.

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