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Ezekiel 37 presents a dramatic picture of a valley of bones being resurrected. The natural Christian interpretation is that it is an image of the day of the Lord when the righteous will be brought physically back to life. But it isn't clear that people in Ezekiel's time would have heard the prophesy that way. In fact, the Lord says that it is a picture of the people of Israel being returned from captivity. Ezekiel 37:11-14 (ESV):

Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”

It seems like the prophesy was intended to be a rather grisly metaphor. But was it also taken literally by Jews after they returned from Babylon?

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I answer my own challenge! –  Jon Ericson Oct 28 '11 at 22:55
My son is dressing up as a skeleton this year for Halloween. I may tell people he's going as Ezekiel 37! –  Jon Ericson Oct 28 '11 at 23:15
I was pondering this question the other day myself. It's one of the few references to the resurrection of the body in the OT. –  C. Ross Oct 29 '11 at 16:35
Well, the whole book of Ezekiel is about exile and return, so I have difficulty reading the dry bones passage as being about anything else, particularly given the context, both ch. 36 and the passage you quote. The exile and restoration of Israel is an obvious type for death and resurrection, though – typology is probably a better use for this passage than thinking of it as literal prophecy. I'd be interested if anyone ever has considered it literally, though... –  lonesomeday Oct 30 '11 at 16:22
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1 Answer

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There are two basic questions that can be asked about Ezekiel 37:

  1. In the past - did Ezekiel witness a real and literal resurrection of dead bodies?
  2. In the future - does chapter 37 imply that there will be a real resurrection of dead bodies in future messianic times?

The Talmud addresses both these questions in its analysis of Ezekiel 37.

Question 1 - did Ezekiel witness a real and literal resurrection of dead bodies?

Tractate Sanhedrin 92b:

R. Eliezer said: The dead whom Ezekiel resurrected stood up, uttered song, and [immediately] died. What song did they utter? — The Lord slayeth in righteousness and reviveth in mercy. (1 Samuel 2:6) R. Joshua said: They sang thus, The Lord killeth and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. (ibid.) R. Judah said: It was truth; it was a parable. R. Nehemiah said to him: If truth, why a parable; and if a parable, why truth? — But [say thus]: In the truth there was but a parable [ie: the resurrection took place, but it took place to foreshadow events of the future].

R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean said: The dead whom Ezekiel revived went up to Palestine, married wives and begat sons and daughters. R. Judah b. Bathyra rose up and said: I am one of their descendants, and these are the tefillin [phylacteries] which my grandfather left me [as an heirloom] from them. (Soncino translation of the Talmud)

According to R. Judah in the Talmud, people were really resurrected as a metaphorical act foreshadowing upcoming events.

Whether or not to take these opinions in the Talmud literally, is an entirely different question.

Question 2 - does chapter 37 imply that there will be a real resurrection of dead bodies in future messianic times?

The Sages of the Talmud assume that there will be a resurrection for the righteous in messianic times. In Sanhedrin 90a the Rabbis declare that any person who claims "the resurrection is not a biblical doctrine" has no share in the world to come. Immediately following, the Talmud seems to reject this assumption and suggest that such a person would actually have a share in the world to come and only wouldn't merit to be resurrected, then the Sages try to find a mere hint in the Bible for resurrection...here it gets tricky.

Short answer: the sages of the Talmud try extremely hard and fail to find any hint for the resurrection of the dead in the Bible - Ezekiel 37 notwithstanding.

The whole discussion in Sanhedrin is really fascinating and rich with beautiful metaphors and creative forms of biblical exegesis. Just in case you're interested, below are some of the arguments and counter arguments provided (all found in chapter 11 of Tractate Sanhedrin - Soncino translation):

[It reads, Num. xviii. 28]: "And ye shall give thereof the heave-offering of the Lord to Aaron the priest." Should, then, Aaron remain alive forever? He did not even enter into the land of Israel. How, then, could Israel give him heave-offering? Infer from this that he would experience resurrection and Israel would give him heave-offering. Hence here is a hint of resurrection.

R. Sinai said: [Ex. vi. 4]: "And as I did also establish my covenant with them, to give unto them the land of Canaan." It does not read "to you" (as it should, the patriarchs of that time being already dead), but "to them"--hence this is a hint that they would be restored.

Rabban Gamaliel: [Deut. xxxi. 16]: "Thou shalt sleep with thy parents 've-qom,'" "and arise. Rejection: Perhaps this word ve-qom is connected with its succeeding words. [The translation of this verse by the translator of the Bible according to the sense does not correspond. The reason, however, of the Talmud's opinion is because it should read, "Sleep with thy father, and the people will go astray." Hence the word "arise" is superfluous. Furthermore, as it reads, "and arise," it is therefore enumerated among the five verses of which the explanation was doubtful to the most famous Tanaim of the Talmud. These verses are: Gen. iv. 7: The word "sheath," which has two meanings, "atone" and "carry" (the sin)--whether it belongs to its preceding words and the former is the meaning, or to its succeeding words and the latter is the meaning; Ex. xxv. 34: the word "almond-shaped"--whether it belongs to the candlestick or to its succeeding words; ibid. xvii. 9: whether the word "to-morrow," mentioned in this verse, belongs to preceding or succeeding words; Gen. xlix. 7: whether the word "cursed" ends verse 6 (at that time the verses were not as yet marked) or it is the beginning of verse 7 (explained elsewhere); and the verse in question cited, whether the word "ve-qom" belongs to the preceding or succeeding words. This was said by Issi b. Jehudah, the greatest authority among the ancient Tanaim, to whom even the word Rabban was not added, as to Hillel and Shammai. (See Passover, 236, explaining who Issi b. Jehudah was.) And after him no lesser authorities than Rabban Gamaliel and R. Jehoshua b. Chananjah interpreted this verse on the assumption that the word "ve-qom" belongs to its preceding words. Hence, in accordance with our method, we could not omit this strange supposition.]

[Is. xxvi. 19]: "Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust; for a dew on herbs is thy dew, and the earth shall cast out the departed." Rejection: Perhaps the verse cited means those dead who were restored by Ezekiel [chap. Xxxvi.]. [Solomon's Song, vii. 10]: "And thy palate like the best wine, that glided down for my friend gently, exciting the lips of those that are asleep." Rejection: This cannot be taken as an evidence, for it is not certain that "are asleep" means the dead.

R. Eliezer b. Jose said: [Num. xv. 31]: "That person shall be cut off, his iniquity is upon him"? Upon him--when? Does it not mean after he shall be cut off? Hence it means even in the world to come. Rejection: They may explain it as in the following Boraitha: Lest one say that he will be cut off even after his repentance, therefore "the iniquity is upon him" means only when it is still upon him, but if he repented it is no more upon him.

Queen Cleopatra: [Ps. lxxii. 16]: "And (men) shall blossom out of the city like herbs of the earth."

Daughter of Caesar: If there were two potters in our city, of whom one should make a pot from water and the other from clay, to which of them would you give preference? And he said: Certainly to him who creates from water; for if he is able to create from water, he is undoubtedly able to create from clay.

The school of R. Ismael: One may learn it from glass-wares, which are made by human beings, and if they break there is a remedy for them, as they can be renewed: human beings, who are created by the spirit of the Lord, so much the more shall they be renewed (restored).

There was a Min who said to R. Ami: You say that the dead will be restored. Does not the corpse become dust? How, then, can dust be restored? And he told him: I will give you a parable showing to what this thing is similar. A human king said to his servants: Go and build me a palace in such a place, where there is no earth and no water. And they did so: and after it collapsed he commanded the same to build it for him in a place where there was earth and water. And they answered: We cannot do so. And he became angry, saying: When you could build it in such a place where there was no earth and no water, ought you not to be able to build it where they are? And if you don't believe it, go into a valley and see a mouse, which is half flesh and half earth (it being believed that there is a species of mice developed from earth), and to-morrow it multiplies and becomes all flesh. And should you say that it takes much time till it becomes so, go up into the mountain, and see that to-day you cannot find even one helzun, and on the morrow, after rain, you will find the mountains full of them.

Gebiah b. Psisa: That which has not existed at all comes to life--shall those who had life once not come to life again?

Rabha [Deut. xxxii. 39]: "I make one die and I make one alive"; and further on it reads: "I wound and I heal"? It means that the Holy One, blessed be He, says: All that I made to die shall I bring to life again, and thereafter shall I cure what was wounded. The rabbis taught: Lest one say that the verse just cited means, I make one die and another one shall I bring to life, therefore it reads, "I wound and I cure." As wounding and curing apply to one person only, the same is the case with death and life--they apply to one person. R. Mair [Ex. xv. 1]: "Then Moses and the children of Israel will sing this song." It does not read "sang," but will sing (yoshir). This is a hint of resurrection in the Torah. Similar to this is [Joshua, viii. 30]: "Then Joshua will build an altar." It does not read "did build," but "will build." Rejection: This is also a hint of resurrection. (Says the Gemara): However, this cannot be taken as a support, as the same expression is to be found in I. Kings xi. 7, and nevertheless it does not mean in the future, but in the past.

R. Jeoshuah b. Levi [Ps. lxxxiv. 5]: "Happy are they who dwell in thy house: they will be continually praising thee." It does not read "praised thee" in the past, but in the future. Hyya b. Abah in the name of R. Johanan [Is. lii. 8]: "The voice of thy watchmen--they raise their voice, together shall they sing; for eye to eye shall they see, when the Lord returneth unto Zion." It does not read "sung," in the past, but in the future. Rabha said [Deut. xxxiii. 6]: "May Reüben live, and not die"--which means that he may live in this world, and not die in the world to come. Rabhina [Dan. xii. 2]: "And many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to disgrace and everlasting abhorrence." R. Ashi [ibid., ibid. 13]: "But thou, go (thy way) toward the end; and thou shalt rest, and arise for thy lot at the end of the days." R. Tabi in the name of R. Joshiah said: It reads [Prov. xxx. 16]: "The nether world, and a barren womb; the earth which is not satisfied with water; and the fire which never saith, Enough." What correspondence is there between the nether world and the womb? This is only to say that as the nature of the womb is, if something be brought in, to give it out, the same is the case with the nether world--it gives out what is brought in. And it is to be inferred by an a fortiori conclusion thus: If the womb, which receives in silence, yet brings forth amid great cries [of jubilation]; then the grave, which receives the dead amid cries [of grief], will much more so bring them forth amid great cries [of joy]!

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@JonEricson, is this the kind of answer you are looking for? –  Amichai Nov 1 '11 at 13:21
An excellent answer that prompts a great many questions! The Talmud is absolutely fascinating and I wish I had enough background to read it without getting stuck every few minute. –  Jon Ericson Nov 1 '11 at 20:30
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