Sunday, 11 July 2010

Ezekiel 37 and the Book of Mormon

Ezekiel 37 is one of the most cited instances of Old Testament prophecy of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It talks of a Stick of Judah and a Stick of Joseph, which will be brought together - these are taken by Mormons to represent the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, it's never that simple. Ezekiel actually explains his own image - he says that it's a representation of how the Lord will reunite the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.

That said, there is more to this chapter than meets the eye. It's all a matter of context.

First we need to establish whether the chapter breaks are in the right place. It's no good looking at internal connections if chapter 36 has just as much bearing on it. So:

  • Ezekiel 36 describes the scattering and forthcoming gathering of Israel.
  • Ezekiel 38 describes the war in the last days.
Given the nature of 37, chapter 36 sets the scene, but doesn't actually affect it significantly. It clarifies that we're talking about the time of the gathering of Israel, but we knew that already. Chapter 38 shows roughly the same thing. Now let's look at 37 itself.

The chapter starts by describing a vision had by Ezekiel, wherein the Lord showed him a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the bones - to tell them that God will bring them back together and raise them again to life. As he does so, the bones reassemble themselves into bodies, and flesh and skin appears on them. Ezekiel then prophesies to the winds, commanding them to bring breath to the restored people, and they come to life.

Now God explains the vision: the bones are the house of Israel, who consider that "our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts" (Ezekiel 37:11). The vision was a dramatic way of instructing Ezekiel to prophesy that they will be restored to their own lands, and returned to the grace of the Lord. (For the record, Ezekiel prophesied both before and after the fall of Jerusalem; this prophecy was given at the start of the Babylonian captivity)

Now comes the part we're interested in: the Lord commands Ezekiel to take two sticks, and to write on one "For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions," and on the other, "For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions". He is instructed to join them together in his hand and make them as one as a demonstration to the children of Judah.

After the demonstration, he is to offer an explanation: the Lord will gather the children of Israel from wherever they have gone, and bring them back to their own country. They will have one king, and give up their idolatry. God states that "David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd" (Ezekiel 37:24).

In the concluding verses, we read that "Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them" (Ezekiel 37:26). It is to be an everlasting covenant, and the Lord's sanctuary will be with them forever. He also states that "My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (Ezekiel 37:27). Even the heathen will know this.

To a Jew at the time it was given, the meaning of this chapter would be clear: the whole thing is a clear prophecy that they would be freed from Babylon, restored to their land, have the Ten Tribes returned to them, and live in peace forever under a divinely-ordained king. Of course, it didn't happen like that, so we need to look a little deeper.

In my opinion, there are five sections to this chapter:
  1. Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones.
  2. God's explanation of the vision.
  3. Ezekiel's demonstration of the two sticks.
  4. God's explanation of the demonstration.
  5. The new covenant.

There are obvious contextual links between some of these: 2 and 4 are explicit explanations of 1 and 3, while 5 is a continuation of 4. However, I believe there are also less obvious connections.

Take section 1, the dry bones. In context of 2, this is a simple prophecy of the Jews' return from captivity. This prophecy was fulfilled under Cyrus the great. However, it also has echoes of something that is yet to come: the resurrection of the dead at the beginning of the Millennium, the thousand year reign of Jesus Christ in peace over the earth. We understand from other scriptures that the gathering of Israel will take place in this same period - the same gathering as is referenced in sections 3 and 4. Thus, if we take section 4 as a context for the vision in section 1, we can find a deeper meaning: that in the last days, the Lord will literally raise the faithful from their graves to live with him in peace.

Now we come to section 3, the parable of the two sticks. Again, the simple context is section 4: in the last days Judah and Israel will be brought together again under one ruler. However, if we use the same principle of extended context, we can apply section 5 to section 3. The sticks are in some way connected to a "covenant of peace" which is to be made with the reunited Israel.

Remember that the first vision had an allegorical meaning from its first context, but a literal meaning from the second. The same rules should apply here: the two sticks represent the tribes of Israel, but they also, in context of the new covenant, represent two pieces of writing, one for Judah, one for Joseph, which will be brought together. There is, of course, a book that is distinctly tied to Judah: the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. If we take this to be the Stick of Judah, what can be the Stick of Joseph?

It could be the New Testament. The idea of a new covenant is there, and it has a long history of being bound together with the Old Testament. However, what it lacks is any real association with Joseph and Ephraim. Jesus Christ was a descendant of David, and of the tribe of Judah. The Ten Tribes didn't make their reappearance at the time the New Testament was written. While it is probably the most important book ever written, the New Testament is not the Stick of Joseph. If anything, it's part of the Stick of Ephraim.

There is a book with distinctive ties to the tribe of Joseph, and of Ephraim in particular. It was written by prophets descended from the tribe of Manasseh, brother to Ephraim and son of Joseph, and covers a thousand years from the fall of Jerusalem (the time at which Ezekiel was writing) to four hundred years after the death and resurrection of Christ. It tells of the trials and tribulations of the faithful in a distant land, where they strove to follow God despite the threat of destruction. It describes in glorious detail the visit of the resurrected Jesus Christ to this people, His establishment of a new and everlasting covenant with them, and the righteous society which they built upon His principles. It details their fall from faithfulness to apostasy, and their final destruction at the hands of their brethren. It is the Book of Mormon, translated by the power of God through the hand of Joseph Smith, jr., himself a descendant of the tribe of Ephraim. It is the Stick of Joseph, and is bound together with the Stick of Judah in millions of homes worldwide.

As a final note: section 5 also claims that both the sanctuary and tabernacle of God will be with Israel in the Millennium. If the sanctuary is taken to be the temple, what is the tabernacle? Could it be that Ezekiel is using language similar to that of the Book of Mormon prophet-king Benjamin, who told of a time when "the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay" (Mosiah 3:5)? I don't know. But it could just be.