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Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel part of the Ezekiel Cycle by Unknown Artist
Ezekiel from the Knesset Menorah by Benno Elkan
Ezekiel Resurrection by Richard McBee

Unknown artist

Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel, part of the Ezekiel Cycle, 245 CE, Wall painting, National Museum of Damascus [location currently unknown], The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Benno Elkan

Ezekiel, from the Knesset Menorah, 1956, Bronze, Jerusalem, Israel, Gavin Hellier / Alamy Stock Photo

Richard McBee

Ezekiel Resurrection, 1980, Oil on canvas, 172.72 x 213.36 cm, Collection of the artist, Photo by R.McBee

Political, Historical, and Theological

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

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.

 

References

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)