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The Literary Expansion of Ezekiel's “Two Sticks” Sign Act (Ezekiel 37:15–28)*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 April 2015

John B. Whitley*
Harvard University


In Ezek 37:15–28 the prophet Ezekiel is instructed to inscribe two “sticks” (Hebrew ), one for Judah and one for Joseph, and to unite them in a visual display meant to signify God's intention to reunite the former kingdoms of Judah and Israel. This intended meaning is made clear in the accompanying oracle (vv. 21–28), which explicitly proclaims this interpretation of the act. This form of prophetic announcement, in which a conspicuous action is followed by an oracle that is, in part or in whole, an interpretation of it, is often referred to as a symbolic action, or “sign act.” Whereas other sign acts in the Hebrew Bible strive for a simple and clear relationship between the act and the prophecy that they introduce, this one is more complex, both in its form and in the hermeneutical relationship between the act and its interpretation.

Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 2015 

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All biblical translations in this article are adapted from the nrsv unless otherwise noted. An earlier version of this paper was delivered to the Harvard NELC Hebrew Bible Workshop, and I am very grateful to Peter Machinist, Christine Thomas, and others in attendance for their comments and feedback. I would also like to thank Glenn Snyder and the anonymous reviewers from HTR for their insightful comments, which have helped to improve the argument.


1 For a general discussion of sign acts in the Hebrew Bible, see Friebel, Kelvin G., “Sign Acts,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (ed. Boda, Mark J. and McConville, J. Gordon; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2012) 707–13Google Scholar. Friebel designates the literary form as the “Report of a Sign Act.”

2 Hölscher, Gustav, Hesekiel. Der Dichter und das Buch. Eine Literarkritische Untersuchung (BZAW 39; Giessen: Töpelmann, 1924) 177Google Scholar.

3 So, for example, Zimmerli, Walther, Ezekiel 2 (trans. Martin, James D.; Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) 271–73Google Scholar; Allen, Leslie C., Ezekiel 20–48 (WBC 29; Dallas: Word Books, 1990) 192Google Scholar; Pohlmann, Karl-Friedrich, Das Buch des Propheten Hesekiel (Ezekiel). Kapitel 20–48 (ATD 22.2; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001) 500501Google Scholar; and Klein, Anja, Schriftauslegung im Ezechielbuch. Redaktionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zu Ez 34–39 (BZAW 391; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008) 169–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Other critics have evaluated the structure of this passage differently, but their conclusions, nevertheless, support my claim that this passage displays a structure that is more complex than that of a typical sign act. For example, Allen finds a three-part structure comprised of vv. 16–17, 18–19, and 20–28 (Ezekiel 20–48, 191) and Daniel I. Block isolates four parts—vv. 16–17, 18–19, 20, and 21–28 (The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25–48 [NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998] 393). The material difference between these evaluations is slight, however, centering on whether or not the display of the sticks in v. 20 should be considered a separate unit or part of the final unit. My analysis differs only in distinguishing the audience inquiry in v. 18 from v. 19.

5 See Friebel, “Sign Acts,” 708; Georg Fohrer, Die symbolischen Handlungen der Propheten (2nd ed.; ATANT 54; Zürich: Zwingli, 1968) 15–19.

6 The following sign acts (excluding ours) introduce interpretive oracles with the messenger formula: 1 Kgs 11:29–31 (v. 31); 1 Kgs 22:11 = 2 Chr 18:10; Jer 13:1–11; 16:2–4; 16:5–7; 16:8–9; 19:1–11; 27; 32:1–15; 35; 43:8–14; Ezek 5:1–17; 12:1–16; 12:17–20; 21:8–17; 24:15–24; Zech 6:6–15; and Acts 21:10–11 (using “Holy Spirit” instead of the divine name). The outliers to this pattern—i.e., instances where the oracles do not include the messenger formula—include only 2 Kgs 13:14–19; Hos 1:2–9; 3:1–5; Isa 20:1–6; Jer 51:59–64; and Ezek 21:6–7.

7 See the discussion below. Other scholars who have described this passage as having two separate interpretations include Block (Book of Ezekiel, 393) and Joyce, Paul (Ezekiel: A Commentary [Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies 482; New York: T&T Clark, 2007] 210)Google Scholar. Allen has attempted to avoid labeling v. 19 and vv. 21–28 as two separate interpretations by insisting that v. 19 differs in being “a conversion of the prophetic sign into divine metaphor” (Ezekiel 20–48, 191). That may be the case, but though v. 19 may not be fully comparable to vv. 21–28, it is still clearly an interpretation of some kind, and distinguishing a metaphorical interpretation in v. 19 from a more plain-sense interpretation in vv. 20–22, as he does, does little to resolve the question of why the first interpretation is there in the first place.

8 My method here, then, is somewhat different from Zimmerli's use of form criticism to distinguish the authentic material in Ezekiel from the material that was added later. For a discussion of the use of literary-critical methods in light of Ezekiel's literary character, see Davis, Ellen F., Swallowing the Scroll: Textuality and the Dynamics of Discourse in Ezekiel's Prophecy (Bible and Literature 21; JSOTSup 78; Sheffield, U.K.: Almond, 1989) 1128Google Scholar.

9 For this use of , see Exod 25:21, 30; 34:33; 40:20; Lev 2:1; 8:27; 36:30; and Num 4:6. The following scholars agree that this is the sense meant here and have suggested that hints at Judah's superiority in the future political arrangement: Block (Book of Ezekiel, 406) and Joyce (Ezekiel, 210). Commentators have often noted the difficulty of this part of v. 19, which is largely a result of the extraneous use of . See, for example, the discussion in Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 21–37: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 22A; New York: Doubleday, 1997) 755.

10 For other examples see Gen 41:41, 43; Exod 18:25; Deut 17:15; 1 Kgs 16:2; Neh 13:26; and 2 Chr 2:10; 32:6.

11 This will be discussed further in section 3 below.

12 The audience inquiry occurs in Ezek 24:19 as part of another sign act and is also found in 12:9 and 21:7.

13 Alternatively, it may be possible to view this as two main sections where v. 18 introduces the interpretation in vv. 21–28.

14 See n. 3 above.

15 Block compares this with the very similar formulation in Ezek 36:24, which does not, however, expound the meaning of an oracle or sign (Book of Ezekiel, 411 n. 95). The exegetical technique used here is comparable to what is found in commentaries from the ancient Near East and specifically Qumran, for which see Fishbane, Michael, “The Qumran Pesher and Traits of Ancient Hermeneutics,” in Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies (ed. Shinan, Avigdor and Jagendorf, Malka; 6 vols.; Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 19771980) 1:97–114Google Scholar.

16 The MT has (and I will give them) without any further elaboration. Some scholars, e.g., Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 270–71, have found it to be a later scribal gloss, but it seems likely to me that it may at least have been present in the Vorlage to the lxx and been the basis for a haplography there (i.e., ). Its meaning, however, remains a mystery, and rather than speculate on a version of the text that may be corrupt I have not included it in my translation.

17 Moshe Greenberg identifies several oracles throughout the book of Ezekiel that make use of paneling or “halving” structures; see, for example, his discussions of Ezek 3:16–21 (Ezekiel 1–20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary [AB 22; Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983] 87); 5:5–17 (ibid., 119); 6:1–14 (ibid., 137–38); 7:1–27 (ibid., 157); 13:1–23 (ibid., 241); 15:1–8 (ibid., 266–67); and 18:1–31 (ibid., 334–37).

18 Cf. v. 23b and v. 27b in fig. 1. A similar hypothesis, namely, that vv. 21–28 consist of two main tablets or panels, is advanced by Block, although his account differs substantially from mine. Block is concerned with the passage in its final form, and his account of the bipartite literary structure is tied to his theory that the literary structuring of this passage is an attempt to represent graphically text that is supposedly to be found on Ezekiel's writing tablets, which, he insists, is the correct understanding of Hebrew (Book of Ezekiel, 409).

19 Each of these occurrences is underlined in fig. 1 above.

20 Although it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss how TS1 relates to the whole of Ezekiel 34–37, it can be briefly observed that the phrase “never again” () occurs frequently throughout this collection (Ezek 34:10, 22, 28, 29 [x2]; 36:12, 14 [x2], 15 [x3], and 30). In employing this phrase in such a deliberate way, TS1 may be intended as something like a crowning statement of this theme.

21 I take “the stick of Ephraim” here and the phrase “which is in the hand of Ephraim” in v. 19 to be secondary glosses, with Zimmerli (Ezekiel 2, 268–69) and Greenberg (Ezekiel 21–37, 754–55).

22 So also Block, Book of Ezekiel, 410–11.

23 Walther Eichrodt calls attention to Ezekiel's interest in the northern kingdom in this passage and draws an illuminating parallel from another one of Ezekiel's sign acts: “So far the northern kingdom has not featured in Ezekiel's message. But we ought not to overlook the one occasion where it is actually mentioned, in 4.4–8, where the prophet represents in his own body the way in which the guilty brother nations of Israel and Judah are bound together, and shows his expectation that the periods during which both are to be punished will end at the same minute” (Ezekiel: A Commentary [trans. Cosslett Quin; OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970] 513).

24 For discussions of the use of the Holiness Code in Ezekiel, including our passage, see Klostermann, August, “Ezechiel und das Heiligkeitsgesetz,” in idem, Der Pentateuch. Beiträge zu seinem Verständnis und seiner Entstehungsgeschichte (Leipzig: Böhme, 1893) 368418Google Scholar; Paton, L. B., “The Holiness-Code and Ezekiel,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 26 (1896) 98115Google Scholar; Burrows, Millar, The Literary Relations of Ezekiel (New York: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1925) 2836Google Scholar; Lyons, Michael A., From Law to Prophecy: Ezekiel's Use of the Holiness Code (Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies 507; New York: T&T Clark, 2009)Google Scholar; and Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 23–27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 3B; New York: Doubleday, 2001) 2348–63Google Scholar.

25 There have been several different estimations of the extent of the allusion here in Ezekiel and of its rhetorical significance. Greenberg limits his discussion to Ezek 37:27a and its reference to Lev 26:11 (Ezekiel 21–37, 757). Lyons discusses references to Lev 26:11–12 throughout Ezek 37:27 (From Law to Prophecy, 70–71), and Milgrom has the most expansive view of the allusion, adding that the previous verse in Ezekiel (Ezek 37:26) makes reference to Lev 26:9 (Leviticus 23–27, 2350–51).

26 This has also been recognized by Block (“semipoetic parallelistic construction,” Book of Ezekiel, 420).

27 Some scholars who have missed this parallelism (or who fail to consider its implications for interpretation fully) have been troubled by the presence of the term in v. 27a or have tended to over-read it. In the latter category belongs Greenberg, who proposes that Ezekiel has here attempted to spiritualize the priestly tabernacle by associating it with the divine cloud in the desert so that it may now be understood as a covering for the entire people, as in Isa 4:5 (Ezekiel 21–37, 757). This reading is based entirely on the supposition that must literally mean “over them” in this instance. Block, who does not otherwise follow Greenberg's interpretation, seems to agree with the necessity of this translation, which, in turn, leads him to conclude that “Ezekiel's combination of nouns and prepositions is paradoxical” (Book of Ezekiel, 421). However, the word ìò frequently takes the meaning “before” (see HALOT, s.v. 1c.) in the Hebrew Bible and, moreover, is often found in close association with, or parallel with, , as here and in 2 Sam 1:25; Isa 41:18; Ezek 7:4, 9; 24:7; and Ps 137:2; 143:4.

28 Avi Hurvitz has suggested that Ezekiel has deliberately omitted mention of God's walking in Lev 26:12a because of the increasingly anthropomorphic overtones that in the Hitpael accrued in Late Biblical Hebrew (A Linguistic Study of the Relationship between the Priestly Source and the Book of Ezekiel: A New Approach to an Old Problem [CahRB 20; Paris: Gabalda, 1982] 103).

29 See Levenson, Jon, Theology of the Program of Restoration of Ezekiel 40–48 (HSM 10; Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1976)Google Scholar; Tuell, Steven S., The Law of the Temple in Ezekiel 40–48 (HSM 49; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

30 Milgrom argues that the term in both H and Ezekiel refers more generically to the divine presence and, therefore, cannot mean “tabernacle” (Leviticus 23–27, 2299–2300, 2351). While this theory may prove valid for H, it is not as compelling here in Ezekiel. The only other use of the word in Ezekiel is found in 25:4, and there it seems likely that its use for the encampments of the people of the East (whose encroachment on the Ammonites is to be part of the latter's punishment) is meant to be a reversal of the fact that the Ammonites said “Aha” over Yahweh's “sanctuary” () in the previous verse (Ezek 25:3). Even in this passage where explicitly does not refer to Yahweh's presence, then, Ezekiel still makes a connection between it and the temple. Secondly, the association could have easily been inferred from Leviticus 26, since the latter uses both terms in reference to God's dwelling place (see Lev 26:2, 11).

31 So also Lyons, From Law to Prophecy, 70–71; Milgrom, Leviticus 23–27, 2350–51.

32 The former, drawn from the Priestly source, usually appears in the Qal (e.g., Gen 1:22, 28; 9:1, 7; 35:11; and Exod 1:7), although Lev 26:9 has it in the Hiphil. The latter always appears in the Hiphil (e.g., Gen 16:10; 17:2; 22:17; and 26:4) throughout the pentateuchal sources as they are typically defined. Block suggests that the allusion is to the latter (Book of Ezekiel, 419–20).

33 Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 278–79; Greenberg, Ezekiel 21–37, 755–56; and Joyce, Ezekiel, 210.

34 A similar interpretation is suggested by Allen (Ezekiel 20–48, 193).

35 Many of the parallels that I will discuss here are noted in the major commentaries on Ezekiel, but I will not attempt to trace each parallel to the scholars who have recognized them.

36 Slightly more frequent is the pairing of detestable things () and abominations (), found in Ezek 5:11; 7:20; and 11:18, 21.

37 See also Ezek 34:14–15.

38 For a more general discussion of the notions of restoration in Ezekiel see Ackroyd, Peter R., Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C. (OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968) 110–17Google Scholar; Greenberg, Moshe, “The Design and Themes of Ezekiel's Program of Restoration,” Int 38 (1984): 181208Google Scholar; and Schwartz, Baruch, “Ezekiel's Dim View of Israel's Restoration,” in The Book of Ezekiel: Theological and Anthropological Perspectives (ed. Odell, Margaret S. and John T. Strong; SBLSymS 9; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000) 4367Google Scholar.

39 For the five-part structure of TS2 see section 1 above, and for the three-part structure of TS1 see section 2.

40 For the gloss here in brackets, see n. 21 above.

41 For discussions of messianism in Ezekiel, see Block, Daniel I., “Bringing David Back: Ezekiel's Messianic Hope,” in The Lord's Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts (ed. Satterthwaite, Philip E., Hess, Richard S., and Wenham, Gordon J.; Tyndale House Studies; Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 1995) 167–88Google Scholar; Joyce, Paul M., “King and Messiah in Ezekiel,” in King and Messiah in Israel and the Ancient Near East: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar (ed. Day, J.; JSOTSup 270; Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) 323–37Google Scholar.

42 For the use of in Ezekiel see Tuell, Law of the Temple, 103–10.

43 For the description of Israelite leaders (including kings) as shepherds, see Jer 2:8; 3:15; 10:21; 25:34–38; and Ezekiel 34. This metaphor was used widely throughout the ancient Near East and Greece, and the shepherd's crook was a prominent symbol of monarchic power throughout Egyptian history, for which see Vancil, Jack W., “Sheep, Shepherd,” ABD 5:1187–90Google Scholar.

44 I believe that Ezek 34:23–24 is an insertion by the same redactor. This idea will be developed further in a future publication.

45 In a future article I will look more closely at other places in Ezekiel where the work of TSR can be detected and will reserve my more detailed comments on its general profile for that study.

46 For the lxx I have consulted the edition of Ziegler, Joseph, Ezechiel (3rd ed.; Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum graecum 16.1; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006)Google Scholar, and for Tg. Jon. I have relied on the edition of Alexander Sperber (The Latter Prophets According to Targum Jonathan [vol. 3 of The Bible in Aramaic; Leiden: Brill, 1959–1973; repr., 2004]). The deficiencies of Sperber's edition have been pointed out many times, but it remains, at present, the most complete and accessible edition of. Tg. Jon. for Ezekiel.

47 For a recent and detailed analysis of this section of lxx Ezekiel, see Crane, Ashley, Israel's Restoration: A Textual-Comparative Exploration of Ezekiel 36–39 (VTSup 122; Leiden: Brill, 2008) 105–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 These are the only instances of õò being translated in this way in the lxx. For these meanings of , see LSJ, 1562 (esp. entries I.5 and I.8); BDAG, 902. Takamitsu Muraoka does not include the meaning “scepter” in his lexicon, but he acknowledges that sometimes conveys leadership and authority in the lxx (A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint [Louvain: Peeters, 2009] 611). The occasional use of to mean “scepter” in the lxx is clear in instances such as Ps 44:7 (= Gr. 45:7), where renders Hebrew (staff) in this sense.

49 So also Crane, Israel's Restoration, 107–8.

50 Crane is probably correct in describing Judah here as a “trans-linguistic wordplay” on Hebrew (hand; ibid., 113).

51 Commentators frequently cite Zech 11:4–17 as an earlier instance of this tradition of interpretation. See, e.g., Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 273; Boda, Mark J., “Reading between the Lines: Zechariah 11:4–16 in Its Literary Contexts,” in Bringing Out the Treasure: Inner Biblical Allusion in Zechariah 9–14 (ed. Boda, Mark J. and Floyd, Michael J.; JSOTSup 370; London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003) 277–91Google Scholar.

52 Zimmerli finds an earlier instance of this tradition of interpretation in the Hebrew version of Sir 47:21 (ms B), which contains the phrase “two staffs” () in reference to the dividing of the kingdom after Solomon's rule (Ezekiel 2, 273).

53 Several critics have understood the translation as an attempt to connect this passage with Numbers 17 and suppose that this connection strengthens the claim for “scepter” over “shepherd's staff”; so, e.g., Zimmerli, Ezekiel 2, 273; Greenberg, Ezekiel 21–37, 755; and Allen, Ezekiel 20–48, 193. While this connection may be present here, there is no reason why should be limited to this nuance alone since the point of the translation is to add symbolic elements into the act that more clearly relate to the messianic aspects of the interpretation, and not to favor one of the messianic typologies in vv. 21–28 over another.

54 It is important to clarify at this point that I am merely arguing that the lxx has attempted to clarify the messianic relevance of the sign act in Ezek 37:15–28 to create more coherence within this passage. I am not arguing that the lxx has augmented or enhanced the messianism of its Vorlage. For a discussion of the messianism of lxx Ezekiel, see Lust, Johan, “Messianism in LXX-Ezekiel: Towards a Synthesis,” in The Septuagint and Messianism (ed. Knibb, Michael A.; BETL 195; Louvain: Louvain University Press, 2006) 417–30Google Scholar.

55 See our discussion of this verse in section 1 above.

56 For these meanings of the Aramaic , see Gustaf H. Dalman, Aramäisch-Neuhebräisches Handwörterbuch zu Targum, Talmud und Midrasch (Hildesheim: Olms, 1967) 413.

57 However, for a discussion of the tendency of this Targum to avoid overt messianic speculation and exegesis, see Levey, Samson H., The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation; The Messianic Exegesis of the Targum (HUCM 2; Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1974) 7887Google Scholar; idem, The Targum of Ezekiel: Translated with a Critical Introduction, Apparatus, and Notes (ArBib 13; Wilmington, Del.: Glazier, 1987) 4–5.

58 It is also of some significance here that Jewish tradition has paired Ezek 37:15–28 with Gen 44:18–47:27 in the liturgical reading cycle. In the latter passage Joseph and Judah figure prominently, and it clearly describes Judah as the frequent leader and representative of Jacob's sons (Gen 44:18; 46:28). Other elements that connect the latter passage with the former include its collective description of Israel's sons as shepherds (Gen 46:32) and its theme of family unity under the patriarch Jacob/Israel.

59 This use of “one people” () in Tg. Jon. to paraphrase the Hebrew “one stick” () anticipates v. 22. Note, however, the variant reading for found in the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (1569–1573; see Sperber, ms o).