BS”D KNOW YOUR BIBLE: Ezekiel 37-38
Study Notes by Avraham ben Yaakov
EZEKIEL CHAPTER 37
VISION OF THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES
“…And He set me down in the midst of the valley, which was full of dry bones” (v 1). Commenting on this vision, RaDaK writes that “the Holy One blessed be He showed Ezekiel this valley as a metaphor showing that the Children of Israel would leave their exile, in which they were living in a state comparable to that of ‘dry bones’. Alternatively, He showed him this to show him that in time to come He will resurrect the dead of Israel at the time of the redemption so that they too should witness the redemption” (RaDaK on verse 1).
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 92b) brings a variety of opinions among our sages as to whose bones these were. The different opinions are by no means mutually exclusive, since certain souls may be re-incarnated in different bodies time after time. Rabbi Yehudah considered that the vision was “in truth a metaphor” (BE-EMES MASHAL), while Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer (ben Hurknos) both considered that Ezekiel literally revived the dead. R. Eliezer son of R. Yose HaGlili stated that the dead that Ezekiel revived came up to the land of Israel, married and had children, and R. Yehudah Ben Beseira declared that he was one of their descendants, exhibiting a pair of Tefilin which he inherited from his paternal grandfather that had been handed down from them.
The opinion of Rav is that the dead bones were those of the members of the tribe of Ephraim who left Egypt before the appointed time and were killed by the native inhabitants of Gath (I Chronicles 7:21, see Targum Yonasan and RaDaK ad loc. and Rashi on our verse in Ezekiel.). Shmuel’s opinion is that these were the bones of people who had denied the tenet of resurrection, while Rabbi Yonasan said they were dry because they were the bones of people who “did not have in them the moisture of a mitzvah”, i.e. they did not observe any of the commandments of the Torah.
Rabbi Yochanan stated that the bones were those of the people who were killed in the Valley of Dura. This was where Nebuchadnezzar set up his sixty-cubit high idol, to which all the peoples bowed down, including all the Judean exiles except for Chananya, Mishael and Azariah (Daniel ch 3). When Nebuchadnezzar saw this, he was enraged, asking them if just as they had worshipped idols in their own land causing its destruction they intended to worship them in Babylon in order to destroy it, and he massacred them (Yalkut Shimoni). Another reason why Nebuchadnezzar carried out a mass slaughter of young Jewish men at that time was because “among them were youths who put the sun to shame with their beauty and when the Chaldean woman saw them they started running with blood (ZIVA) and told their husbands, who told the king, who had them trampled down. It was at the moment when the wicked Nebuchadnezzar cast Chananya, Mishael and Azariah into the fiery furnace that God told Ezekiel to go and revive the dead in the Valley of Dura” (Sanhedrin 92b).
Unraveling the exact identify of these bones is of less importance than grasping the essential point of Ezekiel’s vision, which attests to our perfect faith and belief “that the Resurrection of the Dead will take place at the time when it will be the will of the Creator, blessed be His Name” (last of the Thirteen Principles of Faith as formulated by Rambam). God has the power to take even dry bones (such as the tiny, indestructible LUZ bone from the top of the spine) and clothe them with sinews, flesh and skin to breathe into them the spirit of life (v 6).
“Come from the four winds (directions), O breath, and breathe upon these slain” (v 9) – “From every place where their souls went to wander in all four directions of the world they will be gathered in” (Rashi ad loc.).
“Behold, O My people, I shall open your graves…” (v 12). In the words of RaDaK (ad loc.): “If this vision is a metaphor, the lands of the nations where Israel is in exile are the graves. If it is to be taken literally, the meaning is plain. There is a division of opinion among our sages about the dead outside of Israel. Some held that they will arise from their graves in the Diaspora itself, while others said that they will come up to the Land of Israel by rolling (GILGUL) through underground passages (Kesuvos 111a). The present verse supports the view that they will come back to life in the Diaspora… for it says ‘I will open up your graves and bring you up from your graves’ and afterwards ‘I will bring you to the Land of Israel'”.
“Three keys are in the hand of the Holy One blessed be He and have not been entrusted to any agent: the key to the rains, the key to giving birth and the key to the revival of the dead” (Ta’anis 2b).
* * * Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones is read as the Haftara on Shabbos Chol HaMo’ed Pesach, the intermediate Shabbos of the festival of Passover. * * *
TWO STICKS JOINED INTO ONE
In a further inspiring prophecy of consolation in vv 15-28, God instructs the prophet to take two sticks and write on one “for Judah and the children of Israel his companions” – i.e. the tribe of Benjamin, which remained attached to Judah even after the split of the kingdom – and to write on the other “for Joseph the stick of Ephraim and all the House of Israel, his companions”. The latter are the Ten Tribes, because when the kingdom was divided, Jeraboam, who was from the tribe of Ephraim, became king, and accordingly the Ten Tribes were called by the name of Ephraim (verse 16 as explained by RaDaK).
The prophet was to join the two sticks together to make one stick (v 17) to symbolize that in the end of days the great fissure that has divided the Children of Israel since the death of King Solomon will be healed, and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, who are called the “Jews” (cf. Esther 2:5), will be reconciled with the lost Ten Tribes and become “one in My hand” (v 19) – “they shall become ONE NATION before Me” (Targum ad loc.).
Verses 21ff prophesy the restoration of the scattered exiles of Israel to their land to become one people under one king. “And My servant David will be king over them” (v 24) –”Melech HaMashiach, who comes from the seed of David, will be king over them” (Metzudas David).
This will inaugurate an eternal covenant of peace between God and Israel with the return of the Shechinah to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple, showing all the nations that HaShem rules (v 28).
* * * Ezekiel’s vision of joining the two sticks of Joseph and Judah (Ez. 37:15-28) is read as the Haftara of Parshas Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) describing the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. * * *
THE WAR OF GOG AND MAGOG
Many people mistakenly believe that the war of Gog and Magog is a war of Gog AGAINST Magog, and the two have been represented in many weird and monstrous ways in popular folklore. But the truth is plainly visible in the opening verse of our present chapter. Gog is the name of the king or leader of an unholy alliance of nations, while Magog is the name of his people, whose founder was Japheth’s second son (Gen:10:2, see Rashi on the opening verse of our present chapter). It is clear from verses 8 and 12 of the present chapter that their war is against the people of Israel in the land of Israel.
The onslaught of Gog and his allies against Israel at the end of days was foreordained from the beginning of time and already spoken of “in old time by my servants the prophets of Israel, who prophesied in those days for many years that I would bring you against them” (verse 17). Thus the war of Gog and Magog is prophesied in Zechariah ch 14 and alluded to in many different passages in Isaiah and the other prophets. According to tradition, this war was also the subject of the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad in the wilderness in the time of Moses (Numbers 11:26, see Targum Yonasan ad loc. and Sanhedrin 17b). There is an historical inevitability about this war that will cause it to come about whether the nations want it or not. Thus God says to Gog: “I will turn you about and put hooks into your jaws, and I will bring you and all your army…” (v 4).
PRINCIPAL MEMBERS OF THE ALLIANCE
The peoples of Magog, Meshech and Tuval mentioned in verse 2 were all descendants of the sons of Japheth and are considered to have spread out from where Noah’s ark came to rest on Mt Ararat to the regions that became their original habitations in the northeast of Turkey, immediately south of the Black Sea, in Armenia, southern Georgia and the regions west of the Caspian Sea. It is highly likely that in the course of time these peoples wandered far and wide from there. (It is noteworthy that Meshech – Muscovy, Russia – has traditionally been one of the leading persecutors of Israel and Judaism, and its one-time dictator, Joseph Stalin, was from Georgia, embedded in the name of whose capital city of Tbilisi is the name TUVAL.)
Verse 5 mentions Paras or Persia, Kush (descended from the firstborn son of Ham, Gen. 10:6), identified either with Sudan or with the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, and Phut, which is identified by some with Libya and by others with Somalia.
Verse 6 mentions Gomer, which the rabbis identified with GERMAMIA (=Germany, see Targum Yonasan on our verse and Yoma 10b) and Togarma, which was the traditional Hebrew name for Turkey. Verse 6 also mentions “many nations” as well as “the far sides of the north”, which might indicate anywhere across the northern hemisphere from North America to Northern Europe, Russia, China and Japan!
Verse 13 mentions Sheba, identified variously with east Africa (Ethiopia?) and Arabia (Yemen?), Dedan (=northeast Arabia, the Arab Emirates?) and Tarshish, which has different connotations in different Biblical texts and may indicate Tarsus in Asia Minor, North Africa (Tunisia) or Spain.
WHEN DOES THE WAR OCCUR?
Our text explicitly states that the war of Gog and Magog will occur “at the end of days”, when the nations will come “against the land that is brought back from the sword and is gathered out of many peoples…” (v 8; cf. verse 16). As a follow-on from Ezekiel’s prophecy in Chapter 36 about the return of Israel to their land at the end of days, our present text teaches that the assault of the nations occurs AFTER the ingathering of Israel, or the greater part of them, from exile, when they have come back to their land in the hope of dwelling there prosperously and securely, spread out unfortified habitations (vv 8, 11-12 & 14). It is plain that this refers to our present era, when for the first time in two thousand years a majority of the world’s population of Jews lives in Israel. Our texts state explicitly that the intention of Gog and his allies is to despoil Israel of their wealth (vv 12-13 of our present chapter) and appropriate their land (as stated in Ezekiel 36: 2 & 5).
THE JUDGMENT AGAINST GOG AND MAGOG
Verses 18-23 depict the divine wrath that will be unleashed against Gog and his armies (which is also the subject of the following chapter). Verse 19 speaks of a great “shaking” (RA’ASH) in the Land of Israel, which indicates a literal earthquake, as prophesied in Zechariah 14:4-5). Verse 20 says that the very fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, the beasts of the field and all creeping beings as well as all mankind will shake at God’s presence. RaDaK (ad loc.) states that this verse may be taken both metaphorically and literally. (It is well-known that many animals are intuitively aware of earthquakes etc. even before they occur.)
Verse 21 teaches that the downfall of the nations will come about when tumult breaks out among the forces of Gog and Magog, who will fight “each against his brother”. Then God will judge them with “plague, blood and driving rain and stones of algavish (hail shining like the gavish jewel), fire and sulfur” (verse 22). The name of God will then be magnified and sanctified in the eyes of many nations and they will know that HaShem rules (v 23).
* * * Verses 18-23 of the present chapter together with chapter 39 vv 1-15 are read as the Haftara on Shabbos Chol HaMo’ed Succos – the intermediate Sabbath of the festival of Succos. * * *