Ancient Messianic Hope
Commentary by Richard McBee
The creation and restoration of God’s chosen people—as a holy nation—is the underlying theme of the twenty-six biblical subjects depicted in the Dura-Europos Synagogue murals. Created around the year 250 CE, these images are the most extraordinary artefacts of Jewish art to have survived from antiquity. Painted on three surviving walls of the synagogue sanctuary they include stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, the Ark of the Law, the Temple, Elijah, the Triumph of Mordechai, and, most relevant to this discussion, Ezekiel’s Vision.
Just to the right of the Torah niche at eye level, on the north wall of the synagogue, is the largest scene of all the decorations, the sequential narrative of Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1–14). It is played out in six discrete depictions of the prophet Ezekiel, explicating specific verses from chapter 37: i.e. 1, 4, 7, 9, and 10. The pivotal role of the prophet as the direct agent of the Divine is overwhelming. With the ‘Hand of God’ appearing five times, directing six depictions of Ezekiel, nowhere else in the fresco cycle is the main character pictured this frequently.
The first section (shown here) depicts verses 1, 4, and 7 against a light background; each Ezekiel gestures in a way that connotes a distinct Divine command: placed among the dead, commanded to speak to them, and then made witness to the bones coming alive. The inclusion of a mountain split by an earthquake recalls the Midrash Pirque Rabbi Eliezer 33 that describes how the bones were forced together by the power of an earthquake.
In the second section a red background unifies the resurrected Jewish people. Ezekiel is now approached by three winged ‘spirits’, representing animating wind angels. After he acknowledges the angels, ten men appear (perhaps representing the ten lost tribes). The final image of Ezekiel shows him extending his arm to them in greeting and recognition of the great miracle of national resurrection. A nation is reborn out of dry bones and the Lord says ‘I will bring you home into the land of Israel’ (v.12).
These simple images are created a mere 180 years after the complete destruction of the Jewish Temple and homeland, and yet, 1700 years later, a modern democratic Jewish nation thrives in its ancestral land. Dura’s Ezekiel represents the genesis of Jewish art as well as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
Friendlander, Gerald (trans.). 2004. Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (North Stratford: Ayer Company Publishers): 248–49
Leriche, Pierre, and Gabrielle Sed-Rajna. 1997. ‘Dura–Europos Synagogue’ in Jewish Art, ed. by Gabrielle Sed-Rajna (New York: Harry N. Abrams): 553–68
Weitzmann, Kurt, and Herbert L. Kessler. 1990. The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art (Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection)
The Politics of Prophecy
Commentary by Richard McBee
War and strife set the tone for the subjects on the Knesset Menorah.
This is a 4.5-metre-high bronze by the British artist Benno Elkan (1877–1960) situated directly opposite the parliament building in Jerusalem, Israel. Utilizing biblical narratives, symbolic figures, and historical events (including some very recent ones) in twenty-nine relief panels, the dominant theme of this seven-branched menorah is the foundation of the modern State of Israel. Moses towers over the seven ascending panels of the central column with the vision of Ezekiel 37 firmly planted in the middle, just exactly above eye level.
Elkan’s vision of Ezekiel’s prophecy concentrates on the role of the heroic prophet himself, seen here as a prime mover in the resurrection of the Jewish people. The prophet is young and energetic, coolly caught up in the matrix of the unfolding prophecy as the animating wind sweeps down from the sky above. That there is a Divine voice commanding the prophet to address the bones is not easy to discern. It is barely reflected in the prophet’s calm gaze. Below him the skeletal bones are struggling in an agony of revivification, death literally still clinging to their substance. Their skulls grimace in the pain of re-awakening, as though reflecting the daily struggles of Israeli pioneers labouring to forge a new Jewish state in the face of economic hardship and hostile regional resistance.
This youthful, clean-shaven prophet looks much like the ideal Zionist kibbutznik, emerging heroically from the skeletal figures who seethe beneath him, and who seem still attached to the earth itself. Ezekiel advances through the field of stirring bones, his outstretched hands in reassuring gestures; collecting the reborn together while offering a peaceful blessing that extends to all the visitors who view the menorah.
McBee, Richard. 2009. ‘A Light Unto The Nation: Benno Elkan’s Knesset Menorah: Review, 14 January 2009’, www.JewishPress.com, [accessed 4 November 2018]
A Holocaust Vision
Commentary by Richard McBee
Ezekiel: Resurrection (1980) by Richard McBee presents a bleak monochromatic landscape, reminiscent of a post-war battlefield shorn of foliage and life.
Along the curved horizon suggesting an omniscient view, cragged, burnt trees are outlined along with silhouetted guard towers and the regular verticals of barbed wire fences. Ghostly skeletal shapes stir along the bottom edge; some just awakening, others slowly rising up as though a breeze of life is animating them. One blackened figure gestures while a surprisingly fleshy couple seem to have ascended to a standing position. While the female clasps her hands to her chest and looks imploringly at her mate, the male is reaching out to a third figure. His gesture simultaneously embraces her while lending life-giving support to the ascending figure whose skeletal bottom half is contrasted with a skinny pink-coloured torso and head.
In this depiction of Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones there is clearly a glimmer of hope in an otherwise harsh and sombre present; and yet the prophet himself is nowhere to be seen.
McBee is haunted by the victims of the Holocaust in this image, part of a series of biblical paintings that date from early in his career. That interest in the biblical narrative seen through contemporary eyes continues to the present day. The two subjects that preoccupied his work in the 1980s were the Binding of Isaac and the Vision of Ezekiel, both of which he saw as reflections of the Jewish Holocaust experience. For the believing Jew the notion that God had somehow abandoned his people to the Nazi fury feels all too similar to God’s horrific command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Equally, the creation of the State of Israel in the shadow of the Holocaust summons up Ezekiel’s vision of the resurrection of the Jewish people after the first Babylonian exile.
Unknown artist :
Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel, part of the Ezekiel Cycle, 245 CE , Wall painting
Benno Elkan :
Ezekiel, from the Knesset Menorah, 1956 , Bronze
Richard McBee :
Ezekiel Resurrection, 1980 , Oil on canvas
Political, Historical, and Theological
Commentary by Richard McBee
Ezekiel occupies a unique position among Israelite prophets as a pivotal spiritual leader between old and new eras in the sixth century BCE. As an exile among the Jewish people in Babylon and a member of the priestly class, he declares his prophecies in the time between the violent destruction of the First Temple Jewish state and exile of its people, and the promise of a new Jewish communal identity. The future he foretells is soon to be partially realized in the Second Commonwealth, but awaits its full utilization in the stirring prophetic vision of the messianic future.
His book opens with a vision of God known as Ma’aseh Merkavah (the work of the Chariot or Throne of God), that is considered by Jewish sources one of the most esoteric and mystical passages in all Scripture. Maimonides says:
Concerning them, Proverbs 5:17 teaches: ‘They shall be for you and not for others with you, Similarly, the Song of Songs 4:11 states; ‘Honey and milk will be under your tongue’. The Sages of earlier generations interpreted this: Subjects that are like honey and milk should be kept under your tongue’. (Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah 2.12)
After many far-reaching prophecies, the book of Ezekiel concludes with a highly detailed description of the Third Temple, envisioning a full realization of the messianic era. Embedded in these extensive and detailed prophecies are the opening fourteen verses of chapter 37: the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, in which the wholesale restoration of the Jewish people from the dead is symbolically foretold. Christian sources, Romans 8:11 and especially Revelation 11:11, also see this vision as a prefiguration of resurrection.
Benno Elkan’s 1954 Knesset Menorah epitomizes a Zionist perspective that has deep roots in Ezekiel’s vision. In spite of the fact that Ezekiel’s entire prophecy is delivered and received outside the land of Israel (considered by Jewish commentators to be a theological anomaly), this particular prophecy has a fundamental foundation in land itself. The image of a wide valley filled with terribly dry bones awakens a tactile (bodily) response that, from a Zionist perspective, has given vital impetus to the call to establish a renewed physical (bodily) presence in Palestine. The noisy clanging of ‘bone to bone’ reverberates in the noisy business of planting, reaping, building, and occupying a new land. His menorah was given by the British people through public subscription to the still new country a mere eight years after the creation of the modern State of Israel.
In sharp contrast, Richard McBee’s interpretation is unlike earlier depictions of Ezekiel’s vision. McBee portrays the resurrection in a distinctly social dimension—as we see, for example, in the relationship of the male and female couple and the extension of an arm to the abject figure below them. With the exception of one dark, silhouetted figure, the remaining figures are all simply bones, barely starting to come to life. Indeed, the predominance of black, white, and greys casts this Ezekiel narrative into the horrors of the twentieth century, broadcast in newsreels, newspaper print, and black-and-white photographs of the death camps.
While the Elkan relief appropriated the emerging Israeli political reality, McBee cast his artistic gaze back into the recent European charnel house. The hope his painting provides is sharply limited to the fragile reconstruction of a caring human relationship, a primal couple that rises over the historical destruction of the immediate past. In seeing this narrative through the lens of the Holocaust, McBee reflects on how devastated the exiled Jews in Babylon were, still remembering the violent destruction of Jerusalem and brutal march into forced exile.
Significantly, the Dura-Europos Synagogue’s murals are literally the genesis of Jewish visual art and their depiction of Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones stands as a major theological statement of emerging rabbinic Judaism. It is right around the same time—in the early part of the third century of the Common Era—that the Mishnah, the final codification of Jewish oral tradition, is redacted by Judah the Prince. This is the first major work of many in a growing rabbinic literature. Additional works that weave creative explanations, folk tales, and pietistic homilies, later collected as midrashim, are attributed to this era. The Dura images reflect many aspects of this material, especially in the Ezekiel narrative.
Ezekiel's vision relates strongly to the wider context of the Dura subjects, which may explain its very prominent place in the overall design. Touchingly, the artists may even have felt a particular personal closeness to the Ezekiel story considering the mention of the town of Dura in the Pirque Rabbi Eliezer, a collection of midrashic tales. In the thirty-third chapter, the story of Ezekiel’s vision is introduced saying:
Rabbi Phineas said: … the Holy Spirit rested upon Ezekiel, and brought him forth into the plain of Dura, and called unto him very dry bones, and said to him: Son of Man! What dost thou see?...
It is clear according to an ancient account, the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones was a local story.
Fine, Steven (ed.). 2009. ‘Symposium on the Dura-Europos Synagogue Paintings, in Tribute to Dr. Rachel Wischnitzer, November, 1968: The Contributions of Morton Smith and Meyer Schaptro’, Images, 3: 129–41
Friendlander, Gerald (trans.). 2004. Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer (North Stratford: Ayer Company Publishers)
Touger, E. (trans.). 1989. Maimonides: Mishneh Torah (New York: Moznaim Publishing)