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An Exegetical Look at Ezekiel 37:15ff

(Evaluating a Mormon View)

Dr. J. E. Rosscup

I. The Problem

            Is the popular Mormon view acceptable, that the two sticks refer to the Book of Mormon (Stick of Joseph) and the Bible (Stick of Judah)? The view is that the sticks have parchment rolled around them containing books. For the Mormon view cf. LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, (pp. 67-68), and other sources in the next paragraph.

         Mormons point in their Book of Mormon to II Nephi 29:6-14 to help prove their view. That passage argues that God not only gave one book to the nation of Jews, but another book to other nations. [But even here, it sounds like not two books, but the Bible (v. 10) and many other books (v. 11) by various prophets (v. 12), and men are to be judged out of those books]. Mormons believe that the two “sticks” (to them the two “books”) were joined in the early days of Mormonism (1840’s). So they became one book “in the hands of Ephraim” (Ezek. 37:19). They believe that the men who long ago engraved the plates of the Book of Mormon were in the line of Ephraim and Manasseh (Alma 10:3, Book of Mormon). So the Book of Mormon is the Book of Ephraim (cf. E. A. Smith, Restoration: A Study in Prophecy, a Mormon source, (p. 165); cf. also J. E. Talmage, A Study of the Articles of Faith,(p. 276); Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon. One can see a Mormon’s rejection of this Mormon view and an assertion of the correct view of Ezekiel 37:15ff.

         In Heber C. Snell, “Roundtable: The Bible in the Church,” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1967), pp. 61-62. Mormons similarly hold that Isaiah 29:11-14 by its “book that is sealed” refers to the future Book of Mormon as “a marvelous work and a wonder.” Mormons claim, as Richards shows, that Isaiah 29:11-12 was realized when Joseph Smith received and translated golden plates to write the Book of Mormon. For a refutation of such Mormon contentions, cf. Marvin W. Cowan, Mormon Claims Answered, (36-38); David A. Reed and John R. Farkas, Mormons Answered Verse by Verse, (58-59); Bill McKeever, Answering Mormons’ Questions, (68-69).

II. Views on Ezekiel 37:15ff.

          A. Mormon View (above)

         B. Widespread View of Most Scholars. God shows Ezekiel in a vision in which the prophet is to use two sticks he combines together the future joining of Israel and Judah into a union again as part of the blessing in the Messianic Kingdom. Cf. commentaries on Ezekiel by Ralph Alexander, Daniel Block, Paul Enns, C. L. Feinberg, etc.; and cf. The MacArthur Study Bible notes at 37:15ff.

III. The Preferred View (II., B. above).

         This appears correct due to the following hermeneutical supports

         A. Near Context (many observations).

                  1. v. 12. God promises to bring people of Israel back into their ancient land to inherit it in a day of national blessing. In Ezekiel 37, two portions state this, first vv. 1-14 with the key in v. 12 precisely stating Israel’s return, second in vv. 15ff with key verses such as 21-22 agreeing with v. 12.

                  2. v. 14. Again the claim is clear and definite.

                  3. v. 15. Observe “For Judah and for the children of Israel . . . .”

                  4. v. 18. In the context, Ezekiel’s audience, watching his dramatic action, asks him to “show us what you mean by these.” Then Ezekiel gives the direct answer, involving Israel and Judah which the people know about, not the Book of Mormon and the Bible which they do not know about.

                  5. vv. 21-22. The “two nations . . . two kingdoms” in view are Israel and Judah as in 35:10. In v. 22, the idea is not two scrolls, but two groups of Israeli people that God makes into one unified people, together in “the land,” denoting Palestine as earlier in Ezekiel’s context (cf. the land that Babylonians remove Israelites from in chaps. 1-24, the land distinct from lands of neighboring nations in chaps. 25-32, the land where Jerusalem receives devastation by Babylonian invaders in chap. 33, the landfrom which Israelites are scattered as sheep in chap. 34, the land which God judged but which He later will bless with kingdom welfare in chap. 36, etc.).

         In the Messianic day, one king will be over the two parts of Israel, which are no longer “two nations” but one, “neither shall they be divide into two kingdoms any more.”

        B. Wider Context (again, many statements)

                  1. Ezekiel 28:25-26. God pledges to restore Israel to its land, and it has to be Palestine since it is “their own land which I gave to My servant Jacob” (v. 25).

                  2. 34:11ff. God as a Shepherd will search for and regather His people, as a shepherd seeks out his sheep, and bringss them back “to their own land . . .on the mountains of Israel” (v. 13).

                  3. 36:1-15. God promises that “mountains of Israel” formerly devastated will be blessed as He populates them again, even blesses hills, rivers and valleys (v. 6) and restores cities (v. 10).

                  4. 36:16ff. God says that He scattered Israelites from their own land to dwell among lands of other nations (v. 19), but that He will yet restore Israelites from the countries to their own land (v. 24). They will “dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers” (v. 28). They will dwell in rebuilt cities (v. 33), and the land formerly desolate will be blessed to produce like a gard (vv. 34-35). This will “sanctify” the Lord’s honored name among the nations that behold what He has done (vv. 22-23, 36).

                  5. 39:25-29. God assures Israelites that He will bring them back from countries to which they have been dispersed, to their own land.

                  6. Literal reference to Israel in Ezek. 38-39. The point is Israel, and what God will do to protect this people, not the Mormons, or people in the Christian era. God will defeat Israel’s enemies that invade Israel’s land of v. 8, also called “My land [the Lord’s land]” in v. 16, “the land of Israel” (v. 19). As in No. 5 above, Israelites will be restored in their own land (v. 28).

                  7. 46-48. All the tribes of Israelite people receive land portions in Palestine. This shows that those ten tribes which were for a long time separated into another (Northern) kingdom and the two tribes of the southern kingdom inherit Palestine as a unity again. They are combined into one total estate in the future time of restoration to their land.

                  8. Other OT books:

         Gen. 12:7. God in the covenant promises a land to Abram and his descendants. It is in this land that Ezekiel 37:15ff envisions reuniting of Israel and Judah to enjoy physical and spiritual blessings.

         Jer. 32-33. God forecasts restoring Israeli people to their own land.

         Amos 9:11-15. God’s blessings for Israel in a future, Messianic day will involve material and spiritual blessings in the land of Palestine.

         Joel 2, 3. This is to the same essential effect as the above.

         C. Historical Background

         In I Kings 11:26-40 and chap. 12, after Solomon reigned over all Israelite tribes, a division split the ten northern tribes (Israel) and two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin). Severance of the United Kingdom constituted the Divided Kingdom. Israel then survived as a kingdom until 722/21 B. C. when Assyria’s besiegers conquered its capital, Samaria (2 Kin. 17). Judah then became the Surviving Kingdom, maintaining its kingdom until three stages in which Babylon’s invaders conquered and deported Israelites in 605, 597 and 586 B. C.

         Ezekiel 37, after such a background, speaks of a restoration of Israel to its land that involves even a reuniting of the two parts, Israel and Judah. These are the two which are relevant. This then fits with the overall perspective in the Book of Ezekiel in which God uses Ezekiel to speak of Babylonian dispersion of Israelites (chaps. 1-24), judgment on other nations (25-32), the actual capture of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem (33), and then the forecast of national restoration in a glorious Messianic day (34-48).

        D. Cross Reference

         Other passages refer to Israel and Judah made one (combined) in a time of future blessing.

         1. Isaiah 11:11-13; Jer. 3:18; Hosea 1:11. The two groups are in view that are relevant to explain the identity of the two “sticks” pictured in Ezekiel 37. Hermeneutically, several ideas fuse: restoration to the land of Palestine, two groups, and unity within the land.

         2. “Two,” the relevant number of entities combined in Ezekiel 37, is used by Ezekiel himself, earlier, to denote the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, under an illustration also using “two,” but in that picture “two women” (23:2, defined as Samaria and Jerusalem in v. 4, with even the conquerors of both, Assyrians and Babylonians, identified as that chapter moves on).

        E. Word Study

         Several terms in Ezekiel 37, when explained as the Bible itself defines these, point to literal Israel and literal Judah, not to the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

         1. Judah. This is the man Judah, then the tribe Judah which later took his name, and with it the smaller tribe of Benjamin, still distinct as a tribe but in a sense a part of the southern kingdom, known by its more prominent name, Judah.

         2. Joseph. This is the man Joseph, of Genesis, then the entity of the two tribes developing from his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as the name Joseph at times designates these.

         3. Ephraim. The idea is not as Mormons say the record (scroll) of Joseph’s

descendants who migrated to the Americas, but to Joseph the son of Jacob as in Genesis, and to the tribe that descended from him. Then the name came to be used, at times, for Israel in a wider sense, the various northern tribes (as Hosea 7, “Ephraim [the people viewed overall]] is a cake not turned”). In Ezekiel 37:15ff., Ephraim seems to denote the one tribe, distinct from the other nine northern tribes (in the Divided Kingdom era), but prominent in the overall northern picture.

         4. Jacob (v. 25). The word meant Jacob as a person as in Genesis, and also came to be used for his people overall.

         5. Israel (v. 28). This name also was used of Jacob, called “Israel” (Gen. 32:11ff), and later of his people overall.

         6. Your fathers (v. 25). These are the forebears, or fathers, ancestors, of people in Israel and Judah. Frequently the OT uses “your fathers” to refer back to

earlier generations of Israelite people.

         7. Shepherd (v. 24). This is the Lord, who in the future will be a Shepherd searching for and bringing Israelites back into their land to bless them (34:11ff.).

         8. Stick. The Hebrew word ets denotes not a scroll but a stick, branch, or tree (cf. David Brown, S. R. Driver, and C. Briggs, A Hebrew English Lexicon, p. 781). It means tree (Gen. 18:4, 8; Ezek. 15:2, 6; 17:24; 31:9, 14, 16, 18; 36:30); wood, as a piece or article of wood used as material (2 Kin. 12:13; Gen. 6:14, ark of gopher wood; Hab. 2:11, timbers of a house; Zech. 5:4, timbers; I Sam. 6:14, wood made into a cart; and many other passages).

         In view of the word’s frequent association with building (or what is made), it possibly in Ezekiel 37:15ff. has in view the idea of building Israel and Judah into one unified people again, just as two boards are brought together in building a house, an ark, or the tabernacle.

         Observe the recurring word “make” (Heb. asah) in Ezekiel 37:19b, 22 (cf. the word in BDB, pp. 793-94). It is used of God’s original creation Gen. 1:7, 16, 25; 3:1)., making the nation Israel (Deut. 26:19; 32:6, 15), frequently of making a building (Exod. 25:18; 38:7; 39:9; Deut. 10:3).

         9. Scroll/book (a Mormon interpretation). OT texts on “scroll” use a different word, not ets. The word for “scroll” appears frequently (Isa. 8:1; 34:4; Jer. 36:2; Ezek. 2:9; 3:1-3).\

        F. Checking Principle

         The vast majority of interpreters have acknowledged the Israel/Judah view as the one the evidence supports.

        G. Literal Interpretation

         The sense that is most natural and clear understands 37:15ff. to speak of two sticks in an object lesson. Ezekiel did not write all of the Bible, and he did not write the Book of Mormon. He did write the names of Israel and Judah on the two sticks, then bring them together to picture God reuniting them.

IV. The Preferred View of Isa. 29:11-14.

         Reference is not to a book (Book of Mormon) but to a God-given vision, a prophecy, given via Isaiah. Such a vision is not one that Israel, so dulled by its sins, can grasp properly; rather it is like a book that is sealed to such spiritually blind people. Such blindness also would be true of many in Matthew 13, those who could not grasp the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” and the principle is true of “the natural man” who “does not understand the things of God,” for they are spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14-15).

       The people of Isaiah’s day who rejected God’s message were the dull ones in

Isaiah 29:10, “For the Lord has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and has

closed your eyes, namely the prophets, and He has covered your heads, the seers.”

Such lack of perception is because “the people draw near God with their lips,

but have removed their hearts far from Him,” etc. They draw God’s judgment on

themselves (“Woe to those . . .,” v. 15) as they seek to hide counsel far from the

Lord, and do works in the dark, and say “Who sees us?” God, however, will bring

back blessing in a time when “the deaf will hear the word of the book [God’srevelation, not the Book of Mormon] and the eyes of the blind shall see,” and

“the humble also shall increase joy.”

         Contrast the above with the Mormon misuse by LeGrand Richards and other

Mormon writers listed in the first paragraph of this paper. The actual idea is this. Israelites smitten to the ground by invaders will speak out of the dust, in a voice like that of a familiar spirit (medium). They will be so humbled by devastation, so faint. In this way they will, in a sense, be similar to familiar spirits (mediums) who had to carry on their banned business in lower tones, and not in loud voices with boisterous confidence.

             Richards has it mean dead people speak by the Book of Mormon. He says,

“Truly it has a familiar spirit, for it contains the words of the prophets of the God of Israel,” so well known (A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, p. 69). How does this

distort the true interpretation?

         1. Such usage of “familiar spirit” backfires on Mormon interpreters. The term in every OT reference (of around 15) relates to erroneous witchcraft and the occult.

         Passages warn God’s people not to give credence to those who have “familiar spirits” or seek wizards to be polluted by them (Lev. 19:31; 20:6 warns that a person who imbibes ideas of those with familiar spirits and wizards or goes whoring after them will be cut off among the people; 20:27 says that a man or woman with a familiar spirit is to be put to death). One can add that Deuteronomy 18:11 informs that “one who consults with familiar spirits” is an abomination to the Lord. Other texts agree: 2 Kings 21:6 connects Manasseh’s evil with his traffic with familiar spirits; I Chron. 10:13 shows comments on King Saul who died for sin against the Lord, as in seeking counsel of a witch with a familiar spirit (a medium).         2. That those who speak out of the dust are dead, as Richards interprets, is not said. Instead the thought is that Israelites who reject will writhe in the dust in subjection to enemies who utterly capture them. Under such power, their voice will be faint, flimsy, like a secretive familiar spirit’s, in contrast to ability to speak in the full flush of bold confidence


© Dr. J.E. Rosscup, 2008

Professor, The Master’s Seminary