The Valley of Dry Bones and the Resurrection of the Dead
The scene of a valley full of dry bones, resurrected before the mental eyes of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 37:1-14), is one of the most enigmatic apparitions experienced by this prophet, who is famous for his other unusual visions.
The vision begins when God sets Ezekiel down in a valley full of bones (vv. 1-2) and asks Ezekiel if they can be brought back to life, to which Ezekiel responds that only God knows that (v.3). God then tells Ezekiel to speak this prophecy over the bones (vv. 4-6):
הָעֲצָמוֹת הַיְבֵשׁוֹת שִׁמְעוּ דְּבַר יְ-הוָה. כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ-הוִה לָעֲצָמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה הִנֵּה אֲנִי מֵבִיא בָכֶם רוּחַ וִחְיִיתֶם. וְנָתַתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם גִּדִים וְהַעֲלֵתִי עֲלֵיכֶם בָּשָׂר וְקָרַמְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם עוֹר וְנָתַתִּי בָכֶם רוּחַ וִחְיִיתֶם וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי יְ-הוָה.
O dry bones, hear the word of YHWH! Thus said the Lord YHWH to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again. I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am YHWH!
Ezekiel does as he is told, and the bones begin to come together and to grow flesh. But they were still not alive (vv. 7-8). God then tells Ezekiel to offer another prophecy, this time to the רוח, “breath” or “wind” (v. 9):
מֵאַרְבַּע רוּחוֹת בֹּאִי הָרוּחַ וּפְחִי בַּהֲרוּגִים הָאֵלֶּה וְיִחְיוּ.
Come, O breath, from the four winds, and breathe into these slain, that they may live again.
The wind comes and the corpses breath and come to life again in great numbers (v. 10).
The Symbolic Meaning of the Vision
God then explains the vision (v. 11-14):
בֶּן אָדָם הָעֲצָמוֹת הָאֵלֶּה כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה הִנֵּה אֹמְרִים יָבְשׁוּ עַצְמוֹתֵינוּ וְאָבְדָה תִקְוָתֵנוּ נִגְזַרְנוּ לָנוּ. לָכֵן הִנָּבֵא וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ-הוִה הִנֵּה אֲנִי פֹתֵחַ אֶת קִבְרוֹתֵיכֶם וְהַעֲלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם מִקִּבְרוֹתֵיכֶם עַמִּי וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל…
O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone; we are doomed.” Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: “Thus said the Lord YHWH: ‘I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel….’”
Critical scholars generally understand these summary verses to mean that the vision is a dramatic image, expressing that the exiled Judeans, who feel that all hope is lost, will actually be revived as a people and return to their land—it is a prophecy about national restoration rather than individual resurrection. Some early rabbinic interpreters, however, understood it as about individual resurrection.
For example, a baraita (tannaitic source) in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 92b) records a debate about the visions meaning:
רבי אליעזר אומר: מתים שהחיה יחזקאל עמדו על רגליהם, ואמרו שירה ומתו….
Rabbi Eliezer says: “The dead whom Ezekiel resurrected stood on their legs, sang a song [of praise], and died.”….
רבי יהודה אומר: אמת משל היה….
Rabbi Judah says: “In truth, it is a parable.”….
רבי אליעזר בנו של רבי יוסי הגלילי אומר: מתים שהחיה יחזקאל עלו לארץ ישראל, ונשאו נשים והולידו בנים ובנות.
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean says: “The dead whom Ezekiel resurrected moved to Israel, got married, and had sons and daughters.”
As we will see below, some Second Temple Jews also interpreted it as a reference to individual resurrection in the messianic age.
Resurrection of the Dead in the Bible
The concept of resurrection of the dead is almost entirely absent in the Bible. One ambiguous passage in Isaiah may refer to resurrection:
ישעיה כו:יט יִחְיוּ מֵתֶיךָ נְבֵלָתִי יְקוּמוּן הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר כִּי טַל אוֹרֹת טַלֶּךָ וָאָרֶץ רְפָאִים תַּפִּיל.
Isa 26:19 Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the radiant dew; You make the land of the shades come to life.
The verse appears in a section in Isaiah (chs. 24-27) discussing the end of days. Whether it is speaking metaphorically or literally, the rabbis, at least, understood it to be a literal description of resurrection.
The only biblical passage that unambiguously refers to resurrection is found in the final chapter of the book of Daniel (12). The chapter opens with a description of the future redemption, which will take place during the worst time the world will ever have experienced (v. 1). The text continues by describing other wonders that will occur at that time:
דניאל יב:ב וְרַבִּים מִיְּשֵׁנֵי אַדְמַת עָפָר יָקִיצוּ אֵלֶּה לְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם וְאֵלֶּה לַחֲרָפוֹת לְדִרְאוֹן עוֹלָם.
Dan 12:2 Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.
Daniel is the latest biblical book, the final version of which is dated to around 167 B.C.E. And thus, we can say with confidence that by the second century B.C.E., the concept of resurrection clearly entered Jewish discourse, though how widely it was accepted is less clear.
Pharisees Versus Sadducees
Despite the paucity of biblical evidence for resurrection, or perhaps because of it, the question of whether resurrection of the dead will occur was the focus of intense debate during the last centuries of the Second Temple era. Josephus writes that the Pharisees accepted resurrection while the Sadducees rejected it (Josephus, Antiquities, xviii; Whiston trans.):
Now, for the Pharisees… They also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again… But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies…
This view is confirmed in an anecdote recorded in the book of Acts about how Paul defended himself against charges of heresy when he was preaching in a synagogue about the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 23:6-9; NRSV):
When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”
Rabbinic Judaism adopted the principle of resurrection and a future life as a key element of Jewish faith. Ironically, it even threatens people who do not believe in the resurrection—ostensibly a reference to the Sadducees—with no future life (m. Sanhedrin 10:1):
כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא… ואלו שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא: האומר אין תחיית המתים מן התורה…
All of Israel has a share in the World to Come…And these are the ones who have no share in the World to Come: Anyone who says: “There is no resurrection according to the Torah”
The rabbis are so adamant that this is a biblical concept that they created a host of midrashim to prove that resurrection is hinted at in the Bible. For example:
Mekhilta deRabbi Shimon bar Yochai 15:1
ר’ אומ’ אז שר משה ובני יש’ אין כת’ כ[ן אלא] אז ישיר משה נמצינו למדין לתחית המתים מן התו[רה.]
Rabbi said: “‘Then Moses will sing’ – it doesn’t say ‘Then Moses sang’! We learn from this that there is resurrection according to the Torah.”
Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy 33:29
יחי ראובן ואל ימות והלא מת הוא אלא ואל ימת לעולם הבא מיכן לתחית המתים מן התורה
‘Let Reuven live and not die’ – but did he not already die? Rather, he should not die in the world to come. This proves that there is resurrection of the dead according to the Torah.
The rabbis even instituted a blessing about the resurrection of the dead, to be said as part of the three times a day Amidah prayer:
.ברוך אתה י’י מחיה המתים
Blessed are you, o Lord, who resurrects the dead.
The rabbis’ view is in keeping with that of the Pharisees who many scholars believe were the rabbis’ spiritual predecessors.
Did the Essenes Believe in the Resurrection of the Dead?
In contrast to what we know about the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the evidence about the third contemporary party, that of the Essenes, is less clear. According to Josephus “they teach the immortality of souls” (Antiquities, xviii, 18). Yet, if we take the Dead Sea Scrolls as belonging to a library held by the Essenes, nothing about resurrection surfaced in the specific literature composed by the members of this sect.
Even so, two non-biblical Hebrew texts, Messianic Apocalypse and Pseudo-Ezekiel, found among the Scrolls do speak explicitly of resurrection of the Dead. Their presence in the Qumran library, together with six copies of the book of Daniel, shows that the sectarians were cognizant of the belief about resurrection of the dead and were interested in reading and studying works that elaborated this notion.
The unambiguous references to resurrection in the two Dead Sea Scroll documents attest to the growing popularity of this notion in the late Second Temple period.
Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521) is a fragmentary text, dated paleographically to the early 1st cent. B.C.E., that lists the works or wonders that will take place in messianic times. In this text, God is twice described as one who resurrects the dead:
4Q521 2 ii 12
כ֗יֹ ירפא חללים ומתים יחיה
[F]or he heals the slain and the dead he resurrects.
4Q521 5 ii 6
המחיה את מתי עמו
He who resurrects the dead of his people.
In contrast to Daniel, which distinguished between the righteous and the wicked, the resurrection here seems to be applied to the entire people of Israel, a notion implied in Ezekiel 37.
Four fragmentary copies (4Q385, 4Q385b, 4Q386, 4Q388) of a previously unknown composition that reshapes the prophecies of the biblical Ezekiel were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The attestation of this document in four copies attests to its importance in antiquity.
The composition, now labeled Pseudo-Ezekiel and dated to the second century B.C.E., contains a reworked Vision of the Dry Bones, which is one of the best-preserved portions of this work, attested by three copies, 4Q385 2; 4Q386 1; 4Q388 7. In this reworking, the vision of dry bones is not presented as a divine initiative, but as God’s answer to Ezekiel’s own question (4Q385):
2 [ואמרה י-הוה] ראיתי רבים מישראל אשר אהבו את שמך וילכו 3 ב֗דרכי [לבך. וא]לה מתי יהיוֹ וֹהיכ֗כ֗ה֗ ישתלמו חסדם.
[And I said: “O YHWH!] I have seen many (men) from Israel who have loved your Name and have walked in the ways of [your heart. And th]ese things when will they come to be and how will they be recompensed for their piety?”
In response to this question, God promises a clear answer:
ויאמר י-הוה 4 אלי אני אראה [ ] את בנֹיֹ ישראל וידעו כי אני י-הוה
And YHWH said to me: “I will make (it) manifest [ ] to the children of Israel and they shall know that I am YHWH.”
God then presents Ezekiel with the vision of the Dry Bones as his answer to the question. In a manner typical of late reworking of the Bible, the Qumranic work skips the description of the actual valley with bones, apparently assuming that its readers are familiar with it, and instead goes directly to the description of their revival. The text also truncates the vision by omitting the materialization of the various stages in the process of the revival, and replacing this part with by a fulfillment formula “and it was so.”
The resurrection comes in three steps:
1. Joining of bones
5 [ויאמר] בן אדם הנבה על העצמות ואמרת ויק֗°ב֗ו֗ עצם אל עצמו ופרק. 6 [אל פרקו ויה]י כן֗.
[And He said:] “Son of man, prophesy over the bones and speak and let them be j[oi]ned bone to its bone and joint [to its joint.” And it wa]s so.
2. Covering of bones with soft tissue
ויאמר שנית הנבא ויעלו עליהם גדים ויקרמו עור 7 [מלמעלה ויהי כן]
And He said a second time: “Prophesy and let arteries come upon them and let skin cover them [from above.” And it was so.]
3. The breath of life
ויאמ֗ר שוב אנבא על ארבע רוחות השמים . ויפחו רוח֗ 8 [בהרוגים ויהי כן] . וֹיֹ[ח]י֗וֹ עם רב אנשים ויברכו את יהוה צבאות אש[ר 9 חים]
And He said: “Prophesy again over the four winds of heaven and let them blow breath [into the slain.” And it was so,] and a large crowd of people came [to li]fe and blessed the Lord Sebaoth wh[o had given them life.]”
When Will the Reward Come?
The prophesy then moves on to the question of when this reward will take place:
〚 〛 [ו]אמרה י-הוה מתי יהיו אלה
vacat [And] I said: “O YHWH! When shall these things come to be?”
ויאמר י-הוה אל[י עד 10 אשר ·· ומקץ י]מ֗ים יכף עץ ויזקפ[..].
And YHWH said to m[e: “Until after da]ys a tree shall bend and shall stand erect[..].”
The striking feature of this passage is the fact that the Vision of Dry Bones is shown to the prophet Ezekiel as an answer to his question about the future recompense of the righteous. It thus transforms the metaphor of national resurrection into a vision about individual resurrection as the recompense reserved to the righteous for their piety during their earthly life.
Future Reward Only for Righteous Individuals
Pseudo-Ezekiel introduces additional significant changes in the biblical version of the vision. The unspecified future of the biblical scene is replaced by an event belonging to the eschatological era. Furthermore, instead of describing the fate of the entirety of Israel, here the revelation is applied only to the righteous of Israel. Moreover, this recompense is personal, for it is accorded to individuals for their piety.
This formulation of the idea tallies with that of Daniel 12:2, which describes how only some will awaken to eternal life; both texts were likely written by close contemporaries.
A Blessing over Resurrection
That the revival is real and not just symbolic is made clear by the fact that the resurrected crowd recites a blessing after the revival (4Q385 3 2-3):
2 …ויקומו כל העם ויע֗[מד]וֹ על [רגליהם להודות·· 3 ולהל]ל את י-הוה צבאות ואף אני מ[לל]תי עמהמ[…]
And all the people rose up and st[oo]d on [their feet to thank and to prai]se YHWH Ṣabaoth and I, too, s[po]ke with them[…]
This feature agrees with the widespread practice emerging in Second Temple Judaism of reciting benedictions on various occasions. It also fits quite well with the rabbinic custom of blessing God for resurrecting the dead.
Specifically, it seems likely that the author of Pseudo-Ezekiel may have been inspired by Isaiah 26:19’s, “Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust!” (יְקוּמוּן הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר), a line that can be understood as a description of people spontaneously praising God upon being resurrected. This would demonstrate that already in the 2nd century B.C.E., people were reading the verse in Isaiah as proof for the notion of resurrection, even if that might not have been its original meaning.
Resurrection as a Core Belief in the 2nd Century B.C.E.
Pseudo-Ezekiel is therefore the most ancient witness to the view that the Vision of the Dry Bones speaks of resurrection, and perhaps for the understanding of Isaiah 26:19 as speaking of resurrection. When we read this text in tandem with the contemporary biblical text, Daniel 12, we can see that by the second century B.C.E., the idea that in the future, individual Israelites would be resurrected—whether all of them or only the pious ones—was already taking a firm hold as a core belief among at least certain groups of Jews.
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Prof. Devorah Dimant is Professor (Emerita) of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and is a leading Qumran scholar. She is the author of Connected Vessels: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Literature of the Second Temple Period (Hebrew), and the editor of The Dead Sea Scrolls in Scholarly Perspective: A History of Research and The Dynamics of Language and Exegesis at Qumran (with Reinhard Kratz).
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