Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Ezekiel

Apocalyptic wonderings

The oracle against Gog of the land of Magog in Ezekiel 38-39 contains some features of apocalyptic literature as found in Daniel and Revelation (e.g., dualism). Ezekiel’s oracle would be an early – and likely not as developed – example of this ancient genre. The passage in Ezekiel does not envision the end of the world but a dramatic defeat of this particular enemy, who is not explicitly identified as a particular ancient country or person. Therefore, scholars still debate whether Ezekiel 38-39 is truly apocalyptic or “proto-apocalyptic.”

The uncertain identity of Gog within the oracle has also led to modern conjecture: Ronald Reagan identified Gog as Russia in 1971 in a speech to the California legislature. His interpretation is likely influenced by dispensational theology (a type of theology that divides history into several eras or “dispensations” in which God relates to humanity in certain ways) and the Scofield Reference Bible, a Christian millenarian-inspired Bible that also identified Gog with Russia in certain editions. This identification has more to say about American politics, however, than ancient figures. It requires the reader to jump from an ancient imagined enemy of Israel and God in the post-exilic period to a 20th century political rival to the modern state of Israel.

“Dem Bones” (spiritual)

Songwriter James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson composed the melody to this spiritual. The lyrics are inspired by the vision of a valley of dry, disconnected bones in Ezekiel 37.

The song’s chorus focuses on the dryness of the bones, an image that serves as a metaphor in the original vision for exiled Judahites as well as a metaphor for spirituality today. The call is to listen to God’s word in order to live again. 

Dem bones Dem bones Dem dry bones Dem bones Dem bones Dem dry bones
Dem bones Dem bones Dem dry bones,
Hear the word of the Lord.


One verse of the song depicts the rejoining of the bones to create a person again.


Toe bone connected to the foot bone
Foot bone connected to the heel bone
Heel bone connected to the ankle bone
Ankle bone connected to the leg bone
Leg bone connected to the knee bone
Knee bone connected to the thigh bone
Thigh bone connected to the hip bone
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Back bone connected to the shoulder bone
Shoulder bone connected to the neck bone
Neck bone connected to the head bone
Hear the word of the Lord.

Delta Rhythm Boys performed a version of the song on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1952: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFQrjXywx6A

“Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” (spiritual)

This spiritual, arranged by William L. Dawson, is based on Ezekiel 1 and the prophet’s initial complex vision. The focus of the song is on the multiple wheels present in the vision. There are many lyrical variations for the spiritual, but here’s one example:

Ezekiel saw the wheels;

Way in the middle of the air.

Ezekiel saw the wheels;

Way in the middle of the air.

Chorus

And the big wheel run by Faith, good Lord;

And the little wheel run by the Grace of God;

In the wheel in the wheel good Lord;

Way in the middle of the air.

Who’s that yonder dressed in white?

Way in the middle of the air.

It must be the children of the Israelites:

Way in the middle of the air.

Who’s that yonder dressed in red?

Way in the middle of the air.

It must be the children that Moses led:

Way in the middle of the air.

Ezekiel saw the wheel;

Way up in the middle of the air.

Now Ezekiel saw the wheel in a wheel;

Way in the middle of the air.

Who’s that yonder dressed in black?

Way in the middle of the air.

It must be the children running’ back:

Way in the middle of the air.

Extra-terrestrials

Erich Von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past interprets the complicated chariot vision of Ezekiel 1 as an extra-terrestrial spacecraft. This peculiar explanation fits within the book’s overall claim that aliens influenced or built past technology such as the Egyptian pyramids. Von Däniken’s creative reading of Ezekiel highlights the bizarre and difficult character of the prophet’s initial vision – just associate it with aliens!  

NASA engineer Josef F. Blumrich was convinced by this argument and wrote the book The Spaceships of Ezekiel in 1974 to argue – using detailed drawings and engineering jargon –  that Ezekiel had in fact seen a spaceship.

Good Shepherd (John 10 and Ezekiel 34)

Ezekiel 34 is concerned with the issue of leadership and uses the imagery of shepherds and sheep to talk about leaders and the people. God condemns the supposed shepherds/leaders of Israel. These leaders have not truly led the people. They have allowed the people/sheep to scatter and become prey. These shepherds have not fed the flock. This type of leadership is unacceptable and requires divine action in the form of judgment. God judges these shepherds for their poor, selfish leadership.

This imagery influences the Good Shepherd discourse found in John 10. In that passage, Jesus declares himself the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life for his sheep.

Ezekiel 34 is also an assigned reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday during Year A. One of the rebuked leaders in Ezekiel 34 is undoubtedly Israel’s king, so the connection of this prophetic passage to this particular Sunday appears obvious.

Living creatures

Early Christian interpreters such as Iranaeus and Gregory the Great connect the four living creatures in Ezekiel’s first vision (Ezekiel 1:5) to the four Gospels, influencing Christian art including the Book of Kells.

One can see a folio (page) from this 9th century manuscript here.

Jerome provides the most lasting correspondence between each creature and each Gospel: a human (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an ox (Luke), an eagle (John). He provides a reason for each of these pairings in his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

Merkavah mysticism in the Jewish tradition

Even though the Hebrew word merkavah “chariot” is not used in Ezekiel 1, a whole Jewish tradition evolved based on the mystical exploration of the passage. Merkavah mysticism is an early form of Jewish mysticism (around 100 BCE to 1000 CE) that focuses on Ezekiel’s vision as a way to understand God. It was understood that Ezekiel’s vision (along with Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6) provided profound guidance and insight into visionary experiences.

Prophetic rejection

Ezekiel 2:1-5 is read in many Christian communities during the season after Pentecost in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. The gospel reading assigned for that day, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, is Mark 6:1-13, which tells the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth. This liturgical connection between Ezekiel and Mark rests on the idea of prophetic rejection. In the lesson from Mark, Jesus teaches in his hometown synagogue and receives a less than positive reception. In response to this rejection, he quotes a proverb: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown…”

The prophet in both books – Ezekiel and Jesus – will proclaim their message, but the people will not understand. The two readings share the idea that a prophetic voice is not always heard. Jesus identifies himself as a prophet—standing in continuity with ancient Israel’s prophetic tradition—who, like those earlier prophets, does not find a receptive audience everywhere. There is risk inherent in speaking for and about God. Prophets take this risk. Some will hear and respond to the call; others will be more stubborn.

Pulp Fiction

During an interrogation scene in the movie “Pulp Fiction” in which Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) questions Brett (played by Frank Whaley), Jules recites Ezekiel 25:17 as follows:


The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides
By the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men
Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will
Shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness
For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children
And I will strike down upon thee
With great vengeance and furious anger
Those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers
And you will know my name is the Lord
When I lay my vengeance upon thee

Although the passage sounds biblical, Ezekiel 25:17 (NRSV) is actually much shorter: “I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance on them.”

Resurrection of the dead (Ezekiel 37)

The valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 is read by biblical scholars today as a metaphor of the restoration of the exiled Judahites from Babylon. The image of dead bones coming back to life, however, eventually was taken as a reference to resurrection in the Second Temple Period. Symbolic communal resurrection in the original context became literal individual resurrection in later interpretation.

Son of man (Ben Adam)

The title most frequently attributed (93 times!) to the prophet Ezekiel is “son of man.” It is likely meant to emphasize his humanity and/or his representation of humanity. However, the term expands in meaning over time and is used in Second Temple Jewish texts such as Daniel, the Similitudes of Enoch, and 4 Ezra 13. Christians today are likely aware of its use in the New Testament as a title for Jesus, mostly in the Gospels and mostly as a term Jesus uses for himself. The term took on Jewish eschatological (end time) expectations during its evolution after Ezekiel and during the Second Temple period (late 6th century BCE to 1st century CE).