“Take thee a stick”?
Ezekiel 37.15-16 (AV)
A consideration of what “stick” means in this context
By Ronnie Bray
What Mormons Have Long Taught
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long taught that the ‘sticks’ referred to in the above quoted verses from the book of the prophet Ezekiel refer books of sacred scripture.
They understood the “stick of Judah” to be the Holy Bible, because it is largely a product of the people of Judah and the Children of Israel associated with Judah, and that the “stick of Joseph” (Ephraim) and those of the house of Israel associated with him to be the Book of Mormon.
Some deny that there is any such inference to be made. Their fundamental purpose in denying the connection is that if it could be shown that the Bible foretold God’s provision of an further book of scripture they would need to take a serious look at the Book of Mormon. Since serious considerations of the Book of Mormon lie outside anti-Mormon agendas they strenuously reject the possibility of Ezekiel's prophecy of the Book of Mormon.
To justify this rejection they must prove that Ezekiel's 'stick' have has nothing to do with writing or recording. If one was not looking for anything but a simplistic reading of the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel, one could be forgiven for not understanding what was present in the text. However, a cogent case can be made for a reading that should make the most dyed-in-the-wool cynic sit up and take notice if he or she does nothing else! That case is presented here.
Peter and the Stick
Ezekiel 37.12-22 forms part of the subject matter of a piece of writing posted by Evangelical Christian scholar, Peter Ould, on the Mormon Ring website. In subsequent correspondence over the meaning of “stick,” Peter has insisted that stick means ‘stick,’ that it only means “stick,” and that “stick” also means ‘a piece of wood.’
He asked me pointedly what I thought sticks were made of. I asked him what the Hebrew word translated here as “stick” was; why it had been translated into “stick,” and could it mean anything else? To date he has failed to provide satisfactory answers to these basic questions. What he did provide was the following prima facie evidence of hostility and prejudice:
"Please don't make me do this to you Ronnie. If you've studied this passage you'll know that the word stick here is "Stick". The Hebrew is "stick". Why did the translators choose to render it in English as a stick???[Sic] BECAUSE IT'S A PIECE OF WOOD!
Face it Ronnie, it's a piece of wood. If you're going to say there is an alternative translation then at least have the decency to admit you believe so because the prophet tells you. But to hide behind academia is not worthy of you."
[Aside: Mr Ould knew too little about me to reach these conclusions. We met once when he was instructed to be my 'minder' when I attended an anti-Mormon conference held by Reach Out Trust [ROT]. I came across him once after he had terminated our connection when he was browsing the LDS Bookstore in Chorkley, Lancashire, but he pretended not to recognise me and I did not wish to cause him further embarrassment. On this occasion he wore an oversized grey knitted jumper with a crusader cross emblazoned on it, doubtless a statement of his errand.]
Hebrew and English
It will be no surprise to most readers that the word “stick” is not Hebrew but English. Ould makes the point repeatedly in what could be interpreted as a spirit of triumph. However, his triumphalism over what he considers the dark, priest-ridden mind of a Latter-day Saint who also, he alleges, takes refuge behind the dark places of Academia is premature, because he is wrong.
Stick or Bust!
The word in Hebrew is “etz” which Ould appears not to know. He significantly fails to say why “etz” has been translated as “stick” in these verses, or whether it could have been translated as any other word.
His reason for not doing this has been determined, not by scholarly application of linguistics (a facility in which he boats he is more than adequately endowed), but because of the nature of his library.
“I don't know a single Bible translation that doesn't render this anything else but STICK. Even the Joseph Smith Translation on my bookshelf is STICK. You would have thought that if God was going to clarify this passage he would have let Smith in on the details.
What’s Etz, Doc?
Presumably, if Peter did know of a Bible translation that rendered “etz” into something other than “stick” he would happily reconsider his position.
Nevertheless, although he has made much of his ability in linguistics, he does not apply their principles to his own research; he has a different method for that. He explained it thus:
"I actually sat down, put away my commentaries and thought about it. I went to my Hebrew/English dictionary to look up the meanings of words - searched for those in the rest of the Bible. Once I had formed my judgement on the passage I then started to look at various commentaries to check whether I was understanding things correctly."
So particular is Peter Ould that the principles of linguistics be correctly applied, that he is unforgiving when others make what he considers to be linguistic errors, as he shows by his petulant outburst against LeGrand Richards:
“I don't need to go into deep and meaningful discourse on what Ariel is and so forth, because Richards has already discredited himself by making such a basic error. As someone who speaks German and English fluently, I find such linguistic mistakes annoying because they show a basic lack of respect for rules of translation.”
We shall remember this, Mr Ould, and remind you of it a little later.
Ould’s Exegetical Methodology
Ould's admission of exactly how he arrives at the meaning of a particular Biblical text is alarming. He confesses that he:
1. thinks about the English text in a passage, then
2. looks up the words in his English/Hebrew lexicon
3. finds out other passages in an English language Bible where the same word has been used, (presumably to aid his understanding of the English terms), and then
4. having made his judgement on what a particular passage means, he checks his outcome with his chosen Bible commentaries to see whether he has guessed right.
Doubtless, if his commentaries do not agree with his determination of meaning, he abandons his personal reading and accepts the explanations provided by his commentaries.
Ould’s Linguistic Deficiencies
How odd that one so insistent on “respect for rules of translation” when it comes to the work of others, did not look up all the entries in his Bible under “etz.” Had he done so, he would have found a very mixed bag.
Instead of deciding that “etz” means a stick – by which he means nothing more complex than ‘a piece of wood’ – he would surely have had more to think about and would have given me a less emphatic answer to the question what “stick” was in Hebrew [even going as far as providing the Hebrew word], and also been ready to discuss alternate possibilities.
Please don't make me do this to you Ronnie. If you've studied this passage you'll know that the word stick here is "Stick". The Hebrew is "stick". Why did the translators choose to render it in English as a stick??? BECAUSE IT'S A PIECE OF WOOD.
The sad thing is that he has not made better use of his English-Hebrew lexicon. Had he done so, he would have discovered several alternate and interesting ideas to consider.
Am I Prophet-Driven or Academically Stupid?
So certain is Mr Ould that “stick” means “stick” in Hebrew as well as in English that he attempts to pre-empt any objections that I might have. He points out that the only possible alternative reading that could be in my head will have been 'put there by the Prophet-President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.'
Then, exercising some caution, he hedges his bet by suggesting that if I am going to offer him 'a learned reply,' it will be because I shall be 'hiding behind academia.' What a remarkable and nonsensical suggestion!
“Face it Ronnie, it's a piece of wood. If you're going to say there is an alternative translation then at least have the decency to admit you believe so because the prophet tells you. But to hide behind academia is not worthy of you.”
He provides further insight into his exegetical methodology when he writes:
In Ezekiel 37 my point is this, that the verse actually interprets itself, that this is one prophecy over which there is no debate. God himself gives the meaning of the prophecy straight after he makes it. It's all very clearly to do with the restoration of the two kingdoms as one.
When asked why he does not discuss the Hebrew word he is interpreting and the possible variations of translation and interpretation, he insists:
The points I make are short and precise. That's the style I use. The reason why I don't beat around the bush here is because it's simply not needed. Anybody reading this text can see the meaning of the prophecy in an instant.
Continuing his reasons for not discussing alternate readings, and why he does not deal with Richard’s arguments in a more complete way, he states:
“Ezekiel 37 - A proper response to this criticism needs to take into account verses 20 and onwards. Instead, Le Grand [Richards in his, A Marvellous Work and A Wonder] ignores them. Why?? Because they blow his argument out of the water. [sadly Mr Ould does not show how this is done!]
They explain the verse and leave no room for doubt. Trying to read an alternative meaning into the two sticks is abusive of Scripture and there is simply no call for it.”
Could They Be Scrolls?
At one point, Peter attempts to deal with LeGrand Richard’s point that the “stick” refers to the winding rod of a scroll of writing. While I agree with him that Latter-day Saints have been mistaken when thinking of the sticks as winding rods, I cannot agree that the sticks have nothing to do with written matter.
God did show Ezekiel pieces of wood, something that has escaped the usually vigilant Ould, but he does not see the forest for then trees or the wood for the sticks and fails to register their significance. For him to be so close and yet remain blind to what is before his eyes is in some respects understandable, yet tragic.
“Are the sticks made of wood? Of course!! What else is a stick made of. That's why even the LDS KJV footnote here recognises that the Hebrew is "wood".
“I understand the argument that Richards and others have made that the sticks may refer to the pieces of wood upon which the scrolls are wrapped, but this simply isn't the case.
“If it was, and the point of the prophecy was that there was another set of scriptures in the New World then how much easier for God to give Ezekiel a vision of scrolls instead of pieces of wood.
“You would need to demonstrate that calling scrolls "sticks" was a common feature of 7th Century BC Hebrew writing and that simply hasn't been done.
Unless, that is, they were not scrolls but some other written media!
Is God Ever ‘Clear’ or Does He Make Us Search for Meaning?
In the above paragraph, Ould makes two points that are worth noting. The first is that it would have been easier for God to show Ezekiel exactly what he had in mind. This is, as we shall discover, exactly what God did.
The second point demonstrates the attenuated and circumscribed world of Ould when it comes to the ancient world and its customs. It is sad to realise that unless it is written in a book that happens to be sat on Peter’s bookshelf he will probably never learn anything. It is not a matter of calling sticks scrolls, or vice versa, in the seventh century BCE, but of whether what is written in this passage has any connection with Hebrew writing during that period. But note that Ould is not aware of the place in which Ezekiel prophesied - it was not Palestine but Babylon!
“A response to my understanding of this text needs to take into account the interpretation of the prophecy given straight afterwards. It needs to come to terms with the fact that any claim that this is a prediction of the Book of Mormon is an alternative reading that is not at all clear in the preliminary text at all.”
Peter Ould plays hard ball!
What Peter means by 'the preliminary text' is not clear and he does not explain, but I will presume he simply means the ‘text.’ Whether it is clear that it refers to a book of sacred scripture that has to do with some of the descendants of Joseph and Ephraim remains to be seen. So far in his attempts to refute my evidence he has provided nothing more than his unsupported opinions.
Does the Truth Lie Somewhere Between Eretz Yisrael, A Glazed Look, and Uncontrollable Laughter?
Not satisfied with his own rendition that God is talking to Ezekiel about a couple ofrun-of-the-mill wooden sticks, he enlists the aid of an unidentified Jewish friend. When Peter refers him to the words of the Prophet Ezekiel, the poor man goes into a trance-like state – described by Ould as having that glazed Eretz Israel [sic] look in his eyes. However, hearing the Mormon interpretation brought him to his senses and gave him a good, long laugh.
Whether the Jewish friend understood Hebrew, the book of Ezekiel, or common inscriptive methods in use in 7th century BCE Babylon, we are not informed.
I showed this passage to a Jewish friend of mine and asked him what he thought of it. He got that glazed "Eretz Israel" look in his eyes. Then I told him the Mormon interpretation and he couldn't stop laughing for ages.
I fail to see what comfort this poor glazed-eyed, yonderly and uncommunicative man could be to Ould’s position, for no verbal responses are recorded, and so we are left suspended, glazed, confused, and just as yonderly as Ould's noticebly anonymous Jewish friend. In his telling of this encounter ould seems not to acknowledge that his, apparebntly mute, friend actually does not speak, and so, with Ould, we are left to wonder what and 'eretz Israel' look is, and then to conasider what it might mean.' However, Ould abandons us without any interpretation. I [resume, therefore, that this nonsensical anecdote is Ould's petty attempt at humour.
Handicapped by having no knowledge whatsoever concerning the language he pretends to translate and explain does not stop Ould from presenting himself as something of an expert in linguistics (particularly Hebrew) and in being a satisfactory Biblical textual exegete. While it is true that he is “quick” in what he does, he does not “critically analyse” anything and this methodology in combination with his natural limitations the only direction in which he is headed is ‘sadly astray.’
“The point of my writing is to help people to perceive quickly, provide an explanation (i.e. for Ezekiel 37 - "It's in the text"), critically analyse (Richard's interpretation is wrong because it is an abuse of translation), interpret words ("Ob" for a start) .
Do I lead readers down the path of my argument?? I presume so from the number of comments I have received from LDS and non-LDS alike who understand what I am saying and respond. [names and contact details would help here, but …]
Yet, he still does not interpret the Hebrew word translated “stick” in our text Increasingly he appears in the mould of Philastus Hurlburt who confirmed to readers of his book, ‘Mormonism Unvailed,’ that he had in his possession the very manuscript written by Samuel Spaulding from which Joseph Smith concocted the Book of Mormon. And yet Hurlburt – just like Ould – failed to produce the manuscript to anyone!
Ezekiel in Babylon – Sticks - Bits of Wood - & Wooden Writing Tablets Made of Ivory!
What was Ezekiel on about? Was it simply an illustration of the restoration of the House of Israel and the House of Judah sometime in the future or is there more in this passage than meets the uncritical eye? Consider the following.
10. Thus saith the Lord Elohim: “Come from the four winds, O spirit, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into [the bones], and they lived and stood upon their feet, a great army.
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 surely cut off forever.
12. Therefore, prophesy, and say to them, “Thus says the Lord Elohim: ‘Behold I will open your graves, O, my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.
13. ‘And you shall know that I am the YHWH, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people.
14. ‘And 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, YHWH, have spoken, and I have done it says YHWH.’”
This passage closes with a sense of completeness, and then a new section begins here ----
15. The word of YHWH came to me again, saying, “Son of man, take an etz and write upon it for Judah and the Children of Israel associated with him.
16. Then, take another etz and write upon it for Joseph (this is the etz of Ephraim), and all those of the house of Israel associated with him;
17. ‘and join them together into one etz, that they may be one in thine hand.
18. ‘And when thy people shall say to you ‘Will you show us what you mean by these [etzoth]? Say unto them,
19. ‘Thus saith the Lord Elohim: Behold, I am going to take the etz of Joseph (which is in the hand of Ephraim), and the tribes of Israel associated with him, and I will join them with the etz of Judah, and make them one etz, that they may be one in mine hand.
20. ‘When the etzoth on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them,
When the events of 15 - 20 are complete then Jehovah God will do something else, starting here ----
21. ‘Thus says the Lord Elohim: ”behold I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them into their own land;
22. ‘And I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them; and they shall no longer be two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. [transl. RB]
Latter-day Saints believe that the “sticks” refer to two books of scripture. Their opponents insist that they have nothing to do with books, scriptural or otherwise, but that they are either bits of kindling, twigs, ordinary sticks, pieces of wood, staves, sceptres, or rods.
Ould suggests that Ezekiel is only making a symbolic gesture by using two bits of common wood to represent the kingdoms of Judah and Ephraim. His argument runs, that it is an object lesson to show the bringing together of former enemies at a future time.
Yet Ould fails to notice that the same argument he raises against the sticks being scrolls, that if God had meant scrolls he would have shown Ezekiekl scrolls. Then, if Ould is right, if God had meant kingdoms He would have shown Ezekiel kingdoms.
Anglican divine and scholar Colin Buchanan [later suffragan bishop of Rochester, Kent] argued that this coming together had already occurred, either with the return of the exiles from Chaldee, or with the provision of a Jewish homeland, apparently unconcerned that the kingdom of Israel still hasn’t joined Judah in the State of Israel .
Why Not “Rod” or “Sceptre?”
Others argue that a better interpretation of etz would be “rod” or “sceptre,” meaning the symbolic rod of office and signifying restoration of monarchical rule over the unified kingdom, by combining the symbolic sceptres of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms under one king, who will be like the heroic King David, ruling both the former Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah as a united tribal confederacy. It is, therefore, not surprising that Latter-day Saints are accused of taking these verses out of context to prove their point.
But the fact remains that Joseph Smith had the correct meaning of the etzoth in these verses or else he being dishonest in order to vindicate his claim of a divine origin for the Book of Mormon. Before you make a firm answer let us look at the remarkable evidence that unequivocally supports Smith’s claims. We will begin our approach by doing what Ould should have done and apply the science of linguistics to the problem.
What Were the Translators Up To?
The word 'etz' appears about three hundred times in the Hebrew scriptures. In the Authorised Version, where it appears in chapter 37 of Ezekiel it is translated “stick.” In chapter 37 of the LXX , it is translated “rod.”
The question must be asked, “Why did the translators of the AV translate etz as “stick” only fourteen times out of three hundred?
Further, why did they use seven of the fourteen in chapter 37 of Ezekiel, when in other places they have translated it as “tree” (162 times), or “wood” (103 times)? What are they up to here?
The Riddle of the Septuagint
The LXX was translated by Jewish Hebrew scholars who knew their own tongue, although they lived in the Graeco-Roman world, and had an understanding of the language. They interpreted etz as “wood” 249 times, but as “tree” only 15 times. Obviously, they saw “wood” as the primary meaning of etz. What is more than surprising is that the LXX scholars did not use “wood” in Ezekiel 37, but chose to translate is as “rod” [Greek: rabdos]. What is peculiar is that this is the only instance in the LXX where etz has been translated as “rod.”
Why Did the Translators Do Such a Thing?
Why did they do it? The answer to this question is vital because this passage is the one that modern translators rely on in the main to determine their understanding of this passage.
The Matteh and/or Rabdos Theory
Some have conjectured that the translator was influenced by the story in Numbers 17.2-3, where the Lord required each tribal chief to write his own name upon his staff and leave it in the tabernacle overnight. The tribal name connection is obvious and to some extent matches the end of Ezekiel 37 concerning the unification of the kingdoms. However, there is a flaw in this transposition. The word translated as “rod” in Numbers 17 is not etz but matteh, a Hebrew word whose meaning is “staff.” If Ezekiel meant “staff,” why didn’t he say “staff?”
Ould tells us that in Ezekiel 37 'God makes it clear.' But, if Ould is right then it is readily apparent that God did not mean staff, stick, or rod, but something else. The interpretation used in LXX is unique. The interpretation used in the AV is virtually statistically unique. Since they are both very different translations, they can not both be correct. Could both of them be wrong? We shall see.
The Riddle of the Sticks
The 'stick' riddle gives new significance to recent archaeological and linguistic discoveries in Iraq. Modern Iraq covers almost all of ancient Mesopotamia, homelands to the former empires of Assyria and Babylon. In 595 BCE, when Ezekiel the priest was called to be prophet to the exiles he was living in Tel Abib in Babylonia among fellow Jews who had been transported there in Nebuchadnezzar’s galut.
What Ezekiel Would Have Seen in Babylon
As Prophet-Priest Ezekiel walked through the streets of Tel Abib and other Babylonian cities, he would have witnessed the familiar sight of scribes pressing the ends of wedge-shaped [cuneiform] reeds into either tablets of moist clay or other writing medium to form the complex cuneiform documents of that period and location. Modern scholars know that other forms of writing were used in Mesopotamia, such as papyrus, parchment, and wooden tablets. Although only the clay tablets (in superabundance) have survived to bear record of this ancient civilisation, references to other writing materials have survived, written on the ancient tiles.
Writing on Wood?
Although archaeologists fully understood the references to papyrus and parchment, they were puzzled by references to 'writings on wood.' How could cuneiform be written on wood? It was tentatively suggested that they could have painted the characters onto the wooden surface. This theory was submerged years ago when San Nicolo discovered two clay tablets in the library of the Eanna Temple at Uruk in southern Babylonia, one of which dated from 596 BCE, twelve months before Ezekiel’s call to the prophetic office.
The other tablet was a little earlier, dated at 582 BCE. The writers of both tablets refer to drawing beeswax and some other substance, that San Nicolo could not identify. The writers told how they drew supplies of beeswax, along with the mystery ingredient, from the temple storehouse to make a filling for their wooden writing tablets.
Filling! What Filling? A “filling!”
This puzzled San Nicolo until he remembered that both the Romans and the Greeks had made wooden writing tablets by scooping out the insides of wooden boards to a depth of a quarter of an inch, leaving a border around the outer edges to protect the wax filling. The hollowed out portions received a thin filling of wax and scribes wrote on the wax. Several boards could be placed together without the surfaces touching, thus preserving the writing inscribed thereon.
A Piece of Wood! (Peter Ould agrees – briefly!)
Could the Babylonians have done the same thing? San Nicolo recognised that for a cuneiform writer, writing on beeswax and writing on moist clay amounted to much the same thing, whereas painting on a wooden board would have involved a much different, more complicated, and time-consuming process. He concluded that the Babylonian wooden writing tablet referred to on the ancient clay tiles were wooden, wax-filled writing boards, and published his conclusions to the scholarly world. He hypothesised that the reason none of them had survived was that they were made of highly perishable materials.
Five years later, to the utter amazement of the archaeologists involved, a discovery was made in territory once part of the ancient empire of Assyria that confirmed San Nicolo’s theory to the nth degree.
The Well at Calah Gives Up a Secret
Archaeologist Max Mallowan was leading the dig at Nimrud, a city known as Calah in Old Testament times. Deep in a well, under a thick layer of sludge were discovered some ancient and mysterious artefacts quite unlike any others that had been discovered. The first find was a broken, flat ivory board about six inches square and a half-inch thick. By the end of the day workers had discovered the other half of the broken ivory board.
At the end of the excavation, they had recovered fragments of two complete sets of writing tablets; one made of ivory, the other of walnut, but each set comprising sixteen boards each. Both sets were the same sizes: thirteen inches by six inches by half an inch thick.
All the boards had had their surfaces cut down by one sixteenth of an inch, with a half-inch border left around the edges. The lowered beds had contained the wax filling, of which some biscuit-like fragments were discovered; some still in situ, and some mixed into the sludge that had hidden and protected them for so many years.
Most of the writing had been smeared off by the action of the sludge, but the evidence was there for all to see, and one fragment contained legible cuneiform.
The cover boards had wax filling only on their insides. Their external surfaces had no such provision and had hinge marks on one side only. All the other boards had hinge marks on both sides so that they could be connected together like a Japanese folding screen. The artefacts made such extensive records that Mallowan could announce with justification the he had discovered the oldest known examples of books.
The wax fillings were subject to laboratory analysis that provided the answer to San Nicolo’s mystery ingredient. It turned out to be sulphide of arsenic and was mixed in the ratio of one part to four parts of beeswax. The arsenic product kept the wax supple enough to write on for some time and gave it a bright yellow appearance . The small, neat writing preserved on one of the wax fragments is so compact that the thirty writing surfaces of the book would have held around seven-thousand-five-hundred lines of text.
The inscription on the cover of one of the books reads: Palace of Sargon, King of the World, King of Assyria. He caused (the text that begins with the words) Enuma Anu Enlil to be inscribed on an ivory tablet and set in his palace of Dur-Sharrukun.
Following the death of King Sargon in 705 BCE, his palace was looted and the books ripped apart, probably to take the hinges that may have been of gold, and the ‘worthless’ boards tossed down the well.
Wooden Writing Tablets
This discovery confirmed San Nicolo’s hypothesis. It had long been known to scholars from cuneiform references to is le’u, that wooden tablets had been used in the old Babylonian kingdom as far back as 1700 BCE. One thousand years later, they were being used in Assyria for making … religious texts, rituals, reports and royal orders and for registering the names of individuals, the registration details of an estate, bills of lading for ships, and a recording oil distribution …
Once a set had been positively identified, scholars recognised that Assyrian bas-reliefs provided visual evidence of their use.
The Cuneiform Evidence
They also turned up on equally ancient monuments of the Arameans of Northern Mesopotamia. No example of Hittite writing boards has been discovered to date, but San Nicolo noted that the Hittites, who also employed cuneiform script, mentioned writing some of their records on “wood” and even had a special term for the scribes who did so.
Roman and Greek Versions of Wood Writing Books
Classical scholars have long known that Greeks and Romans used similar wax tablets. Zacharius wrote the name of his son John the Baptist on one such table. Moreover, they continued to be used in Europe at least until the Fourth century CE. Therefore, writing on wax boards was a rather common practice from at least 1700 BCE until 1500 CE in many Middle East and European cultures.
Wooden Writing Books in Palestine
In her useful book wherein she draws a picture of daily life in Old Testament times, Mrs EW Heaton warns of the dangers facing an unprepared reader of the Hebrew Scriptures:
To open the pages of the Old Testament is, indeed, to enter a foreign territory and its exploration is bound to be fruitless and frustrating, unless we discover by a little preliminary study what to expect, what to look for, and what kind of people we are likely to meet. We shall lose our bearings, if we read our Western civilisation into the Old Testament and assume that the Israelites were exactly like ourselves except for their “Arab-type” clothes.
Mrs Heaton provides an interesting view of almost every aspect of Palestinian life during the period 700-600 BCE. She has makes a particularly interesting comment about their writing practices:
"Papyrus was the chief but not the only writing material. It is unlikely that clay tablets were not used in this period, but animal skins were tanned for leather documents and wooden tablets were almost certainly used" (Isaiah 8.1; 30.8).
The Hebrew word (luach) used in the verses to which Heaton refers her readers has the meaning of a writing tablet that could be made either of stone, metal or wood. It is most probable that her understanding that they were wooden writing tablets is correct.
Putting Ezekiel in Context
What light does the foregoing throw on the verses in Ezekiel 37? The interpretation of the passage must be consistent with what we know of the language in which the original was written, and must also be in harmony with the culture in which it was written, and with the background and sitz im leben in which the text was produced.
The language of Ezekiel was Hebrew, a sister language to the Aramaic spoken in Babylon. Hebrews Ezekiel’s context is the Babylonian world with its customs and practices. The Babylonian word ‘is’ is cognate to the Hebrew word etz, both of which mean, “wood.”
A Wood or Stick (Made of Ivory!) and the New English Bible
How are we to understand the fact that the ivory tablet is called in the Akkadian text an, “is le’u made of shin piri” meaning, “a wooden [writing] tablet made of elephant tooth [ivory]”
On the face of it, this seems an absurd contradiction, but we currently use drinking glasses made of plastic. However, the evidence is clear; is le’u no longer meant “wooden tablet” but “writing tablet.” With this in mind, we can clearly see how we might translate the words of Ezekiel as:
“These were the words of the Lord to me: ‘Man, take one leaf of a wooden tablet and write on it, ‘Judah and his associates of Israel.’ Then take another leaf and write on it, ‘Joseph the (wooden tablet) leaf of Ephraim and all his associates of Israel. Now bring the two together to form one tablet – then they will be a folding tablet (book) in your hand.’”
This translation is faithful to what we know of Ezekiel’s language and culture. And – are you, prepared for this Mr Ould? - that translation is lifted word-for-word from the ‘New English Bible’ [NEB], a modern translation sponsored by major Protestant Churches in Great Britain, whose translation of Ezekiel 37 vindicates the Latter-day Saint custom of regarding the “sticks” as written records; one from Judah and the other from Joseph through his son Ephraim.
In 1999 Peter Ould affirmed emphatically: I don't know a single Bible translation that doesn't render this anything else but STICK.
The New English Bible (NEB) was a fresh translation of the Bible into modern English directly from the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts (and Latin for 2 Esdras in the Apocrypha); with the New Testament being published in 1961, and the Old Testament, along with the Apocrypha, being published in 1970.
In 1999 when Ould and I were communicating, and before he took his bat and ball home, I would hazard a guess that he was about 25, certainly not much older, in which case, and with a five year margin of error, the NEB was published before he was born. Yet he didn’t know how it rendered Ezekiel 37.
Apparently his bookshelf was wanting of Bibles used by Christians of his own persuasion.
Mallowan Declares 'A Miracle!'
Soon after Mallowan’s team completed the excavation of the well that produced the two writing tablets, the sides of the well caved in almost burying an old man who had been lowered to the bottom by ropes. In addition to noting their good fortune to recovering the records and the old man before the total collapse, Mallowan recorded his feelings that they had been more than usually fortunate in finding the tablets at all.
"The conservation of this organic matter in the bottom of a well … seems to be little short of a miracle, but is in fact to be explained by the special properties of the sludge This singular good fortune has enabled us to rescue from oblivion a class of documents which, though it must have existed in a hundred other cities in Western Asia, has only survived in one. Here we must have the earliest known material evidence of what must have been a familiar form of scribal record."
What Mallowan describes as a miracle and singular good fortune is surely no greater than the plain truth that the Prophet Joseph Smith in the backwoods country of New York state in the early nineteenth century interpreted a familiar Bible passage in an uncommon translation, that ran counter to traditional interpretations of the passage, and the significant fact that discoveries made on the other side of the world more than a century later vindicated him as an inspired translator.
It is impressive when what some see as minor details such as this cause the principles and teachings of the Restored Gospel to be thrust into the glare of evidentiary light that identifies spiritual truths, and affirms the divine inspiration that marked Joseph Smith’s all too brief ministry.
Support for Joseph Smith from an Unexpected Source
Bible scholar Robert Jamieson, a man who understood the vagaries of the Hebrew and Chaldean languages, lends his considerable weight to the Latter-day Saint understanding of the word translated as stick in Ezekiel 37. Robinson writes:
"Sticks or rods were frequently used for writing upon, some of them made square, while others were of a three-sided form. The square ones were appropriated to all sorts of common subjects, and to poetry consisting of stanzas of four lines; while those of three sides were reserved for a peculiar kind of verse called triplets. Sometimes, several of these sticks were laid together, and in this manner written upon, “forming,” says Dr Clarke, “a kind of frame, which was so constructed that each might be turned for the facility of reading."
Take thee one stick-Heb. “wood,” evidently a tally; such as might be fit to contain some writing
Even as Jamieson supports the Latter-day Saint point of view that the “sticks” were written records, he does not support the Latter-day Saint point of view that it refers to the production of two books of sacred scripture. In his understanding of the meaning of Ezekiel's production, he closely resembles most other scholars. He considers that the return of the Jews from Babylonia “partially fulfilled” Ezekiel’s meaning, and considers that the fullness of the prophecy will not be realised until the spiritual redemption of Israel takes place. Whether this involves the return of the lost tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, he does not say.
Even reading Ezekiel 37 in English suggests other possibilities than the pedestrian understanding.
21 ‘When the etzoth on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them, 22 ‘Thus says the Lord Elohim: ”behold I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them into their own land; 23 ‘And I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them; and they shall no longer be two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. [transl.]
It is not unreasonable to suggest that after the two books had been brought together at the command of Elohim that Ezekiel was told to prophesy that the event would be followed by the restoration and the reconciliation of the Jews and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their appointed places.
That the return of the exiles was not the event signalled by Ezekiel in this passage is clear from the fact that the Ten Lost Tribes have not returned to Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration
What did happen soon after the Book of Mormon (the Stick of Joseph) was added to the Holy Bible (the Stick of Judah) was “The Balfour Declaration,” by which instrument provisions were advanced that led to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The modern state of Israel was established in 1947. To date, the descendants of the Northern Kingdom have not returned to live with their cousins of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin. That event is a prophecy as yet unfulfilled, but whose fulfilment is certain.
The bringing forth of the Book of Mormon signalled the commencement of the gathering of Israel to its ancient homelands.
The Children of Israel and the Jews: A Brief History of Events Leading to Their Captivities
- Judah was the name adopted by the Southern Kingdom and was composed of the tribe of Judah, the small tribe of Benjamin, and such of the tribe of Levi as had been included among Judah and Benjamin to be their ministers. The remaining eleven tribes were formed into twelve effective tribes by the division of the tribe of Joseph into the half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s sons.
- The Assyrians overran the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. This occurred under Tiglath-Pileser II, around 738 BCE. The conqueror demanded tribute from Damascus, then capital of Syria, and from Samaria, the capital of Israel.
- Four years later the Syrian states rebelled, at which Tiglath-Pileser II moved in again, conquering Damascus and a large part of Israel, carrying off the people of those nations into Assyria as his captives.
- The practice of large-scale deportation continued under Shalmaneser and later under Sargon II, successors to Tiglath-Pileser II.
- When Hoshea rebelled, Shalmaneser laid siege to the capital, the city of Samaria. After three years, during which Shalmaneser died, and was replaced by Sargon II, Samaria capitulated. Sargon II destroyed Samaria and took its people into slavery in Assyria.
- The duration of their captivity in Assyria is not known. It is likely that some of them eventually adopted the language, customs, and culture of Assyria, eventually being assimilated and losing their unique identity. Their captivity was the result of their wickedness so it would not be surprising if they adopted some of the pagan practices of the Assyrians, for they had adopted similar practices in Israel.
- The Apocryphal book of Esdras records that a group of the captives, having sought the Lord through repentance, set off northwards and were never heard of again.
- The captivity of Israel was completed by 721 BCE. Soon afterwards, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was also threatened with destruction by Assyria under Sennacherib, Sargon II’s successor. Sennacherib attacked Judah during the reign of Hezekiah and destroyed many of her major cities.
- Eventually, the Babylonian and Chaldeans under Nabopolazzar drove the Assyrians from their part of the world in 635 BCE, taking the Assyrian City of Ashur in 614 BCE, after which Babylon became the most powerful empire of the Near East.
- The kingdom of Judah was caught up in the power struggle between Egypt and Babylonia. King Josiah was succeeded by his son, Jehoahaz, who reigned for three months and was then removed to exile in Egypt.
- His half-brother Jehoiakim replaced him as king of Judah. Jehoiakim was a vassal of the Egyptian court and exacted heavy taxes. When Babylon defeated Egypt at the Battle of Charmish, in 605 BCE, Judah became a vassal-state of Babylon.
- Jehoiakim was tributary to Babylon for three years before his unsuccessful and fatal attempt to free his people.
- His replacement was his son Jehoiachin who also tried to break the oppressor’s grip over his increasingly apostate people. After three months struggle, the Babylonians deported the intelligentsia, exiled the king, and placed his father’s brother, Zedekiah, on the throne of Judah.
- Although seemingly loyal to the conquerors, Zedekiah yielded to pressure from the remaining Judeans and led a revolt against Babylon after seeking an alliance with the Egyptians in order to throw off the Babylonian suzerainty. This brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and other principal Judean cities.
- Zedekiah capitulated in July 587 BCE. Chief officer of Nebuchadnezzar’s bodyguard, Nebuzadaran, executed the leaders of Jerusalem and took the rest into exile in Babylon.
- And thus, 120 years after the fall of Samaria, Jerusalem was conquered as prophesied by successive prophets, and the scattering of Israel was complete.
Ezekiel 37 foretells that the restoration of the nations comprising Israel would be restored only after two books of scripture corresponding to the Stick of Judah and the Stick of Joseph would be brought together. That gathering commenced, following the bringing forth by divine means of the Book of Mormon, and will be completed when the lost tribes of Israel are restored to their ancient lands and united with their cousins of Judah and Benjamin.
The king who is like David, is to rule over them, is identified as none other than the Saviour Jesus Christ. This has yet to be fulfilled, but when it is all the tribes of Israel will accept his Gospel covenant and he will again establish his sanctuary in the midst of them.
In Ezekiel chapter 34, the Lord reproves the shepherds of the flock (ministers) who do not nourish their charges. In the last days, the Lord will gather the lost sheep of Israel.
This had not happened at the time of the ministry of Jesus because he maintained that they were still ‘lost.’
When the scattered of Israel return, Jesus Christ who is the Messiah will be their shepherd.
Chapter 25: Judgement shall fall upon those who hate the Israelites.
Chapter 36: In the last days, the House of Israel will be gathered unto their own lands. The Lord will give them a new heart and a new spirit and they will embrace his Gospel. During his earthly ministry, the Jews (not Israel) rejected Jesus.
Chapter 37: Israel will inherit the land. The Bible and the Book of Mormon will become one in the hand of God’s prophet. Israel will thereafter be gathered and cleansed. Messiah will reign over them and set his Temple in their midst. This Temple will be different from the former three temples that have been built in Jerusalem.
Chapter 38: The Battle of Gog and Magog will precede the Parousia. However, during the wars and pestilences, the Lord Jesus Christ will make his appearance.
Chapter 39: Gog and Magog will be destroyed, then comes the Supper of the Great God.
Chapters 40-42: A heavenly ministrant reveals to Ezekiel the dimensions of the new Temple.
Chapters 43-44: The Shekinah returns to Israel and fills the temple. His throne will be in that house and he promises to dwell there forever.
Chapters 45-48: deal with the apportioning of the land around the new Temple for the use of its priests; the ordinances of the Temple; the healing waters issuing forth from the Temple and their effects; and the apportioning of land for the Twelve Tribes.
If, as some say, the return of the Jews to the state of Israel fulfils Ezekiel’s prophecy, then we inquire of them: ? Where are the Ten Tribes?? Where is their King?? Have the Jews accepted Jesus Christ as Messiah and Saviour, and,? Where is the promised Temple?
Three parts of Ezekiel’s prophecy have been fulfilled to the letter: the bringing forth of the Holy Bible, bringing forth the Book of Mormon, and the establishment of a Jewish homeland. The remainder lies sometime in the future.
We should remember that there are more Jews outside Israel than living there. Not all Jews chose to return there even after the exile , and many more still choose to remain Diasporic in spite of ancient prophecies.
Peter Ould’s insistence that “stick” can only be translated as stick” is seen to be patently absurd after careful scrutiny of the evidence. While it does not appear that any of the non-LDS scholars cited can be made to say that they believed the stick of Joseph to be the Book of Mormon, nor the stick of Judah the Holy Bible, they concur that it was no ordinary stick, rod, or staff, and are united in their conclusions that what Ezekiel intended and wrote about are objects that we recognise as books.
That Ezekiel recognised the sticks to be books [written records], after the Babylonian models referred to by San Nicolo and Mallowan is certain. No other interpretation fits the scenario he describes.
Further, that these books were to be brought together before the commencement of the return of the Jews and Israelites to their homeland is certain.
The question remains; what book other than the Book of Mormon can be identified as the record of the descendants of Joseph? The Book of Mormon contains information regarding the descent of its people through both Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph who was sold into Egypt and whose father was Jacob or Israel. Therefore, its claim to be the stick of Joseph is vindicated.
The Book was made available to the world through the direct action of God and his divinely authorised servants to be a second witness for the convincing of both Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and the Saviour and Redeemer of the world.
Ezekiel Has the Last Word
What Ezekiel said was:
These were the words of the Lord to me: Man, take one leaf of a wooden tablet and write on it, ‘Judah and his associates of Israel.’ Then take another leaf and write on it, ‘Joseph the (wooden tablet) leaf of Ephraim and all his associates of Israel. Now bring the two together to form one tablet – then they will be a folding tablet (book) in your hand.’
Ezekiel knew exactly what God intended him to convey. God spoke plainly to one who was fully cognisant of the customs of writing in his time and place; his message did not required clarification for readers during Ezekiel’s lifetime. The issue is not whether Ezekiel or God speaks with sufficient plainness in order to “tip us off” (to employ Peter Ould’s words) about the Book of Mormon; but whether we are willing to take the time and trouble to learn to understand the plain language of Ezekiel as it was understood by those who read his words in his own day.
No one should castigate God, Ezekiel, Joseph Smith, [or LeGrand Richards] for their personal shortcomings in comprehending God’s word. It is the responsibility of every Christian to equip themselves with the expertise to recover the words of the prophets and other writers of Sacred Scripture. Those who will not do this leave themselves at the mercy of anyone who writes a commentary. They will never know for themselves. Sadly, those who can or will only accept a popular minimalist theology will never reach the depth of knowledge and understanding necessary to comprehend what they read in any part of Holy Writ.
24 January 1999 - Ronnie Bray
Copyright © 1999 - 2011
Ronnie Bray - The British Institute of Mormon Studies (1983 - 2011)
All About Mormonism (2006 - 2011)
- Some scholars transliterate ‘etz’ as ‘ets.’
- LeGrand Richards, L, A Marvellous Work and a Wonder, LDS Church, various editions.
- One would have expected the look to have been either “Land of Israel” or “Eretz Yisrael,” but this error illustrates Ould’s grasp of Hebrew and other linguistic paraphernalia.
- Ould has never demonstrated that he interprets words, whether ‘owb or etz or any other Hebrew word. His approach to Hebrew translation of Biblical text is simplistic and clumsy.
- LXX - The Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures is called the Septuagint from the fact that seventy or seventy-two scholars accomplished the translation. It was made one hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and was widely used in the primitive Church.
- Cuneiform means wedge-shaped.
- M’Kenny-Hughes, T, On Some Waxed Tablets Said to Have Been Found at Cambridge, Archaeological LV (1895) pp. 257-82. It could be significant that the Hebrew for such a writing tablet could also mean something bright.
- Wiseman, DJ, Assyrian Writing Boards, Iraq 17, (1955): p. 10. Luke 1.63.
- Heaton, EW (Mrs), Everyday Life in Old Testament Times, London, BT Batsford Ltd, 1996, Preface. Heaton, Op. Cit. P. 182.
- Mallowan, MEL, Excavations at Nimrud (Kalhu), 1953, Iraq 16 (1956): p. 10.
- See also Mallowan, Nimrud and its Remains, (London, Collins, 1966, pp. 102, 156-7.
- Reverend Robert Jamieson, Doctor of Divinity, sometime minister of St Paul’s Parish Church, Glasgow, Scotland, author of A Practical and Explanatory Commentary on the Old Testament, (Virtue, London, undated); Eastern Manners Illustrative of the Old and New Testaments, The Manners and Trials of the Primitive Christians, etc. etc.
- Jamieson, Commentary, etc., marginal note against Ezekiel 37.16 “stick,” note 3.
- The Apostle Paul was a Benjaminite.
- 2 Esdras 13.41-46.
- Matthew 15.24.
- “Not many Jewish exiles proved eager to rush back to Palestine. A half-century in Babylon had caused the majority to sink their roots deeply into the land of their forced adoption. Most of them had become bound to the new land by ties of marriage and friendship, and by strong business connections. Moreover, there had grown up in Babylon a generation which knew not Palestine, and for such Jews, Judea was no longer an attractive place to live in, it had no appeal. The pull of a powerful sentimental attachment was needed to induce any of them to return to Palestine, and few felt this. Accordingly, the greatest difficulty was encountered in arousing enough enthusiasm to make up a part for the first returning group. [Mould, Essential in Bible History, p. 350.]
Reach Out Trust [ROT] is still stuck in its Anti-Mormon past and trefusing [or unable] to get itself up to date. Their unwillingness to move past their prejudices makes their claim of being a Christian ministry highly doubtful.