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)
37 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of bones. 2And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley; and lo, they were very dry. 3And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, thou knowest.” 4Again he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8And as I looked, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.
11 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 clean cut off.’ 12Therefore 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 home into the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14And 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, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.”