OT: Ezekiel’s Sticks

When I was on my mission, back in the late-Jurassic before quads were common, we used to call our scriptures “sticks.” In our flipcharts was a painting of Ezekiel, holding a scroll in each arm, one representing the Bible and the other the Book of Mormon, representing the scene portrayed in Ezekiel 37:15 et seq. It did not take long, however, for me to see the problems with this traditional understanding. The writing was actually on the wood, not on a parchment scroll wrapped around the wood. Further, the context of the passage clearly had to do with the reunification of the tribes, not scriptural records.

LDS scholars were also aware of these problems, of course. Nibley devoted a chapter in his An Approach to the Book of Mormon to this issue, arguing that the sticks were notched tally sticks (an approach I have seen exactly no one follow).

After my mission at BYU I took a beginning Hebrew class with Keith Meservy. Like our Ronan, Meservy had done graduate study at Johns Hopkins, with William F. Albright (prior to Albright’s death). As you no doubt know, Meservy had proposed a theory that the sticks were wooden writing boards. He first published this theory in the September 1977 Ensign. That early article was superseded by a later one in the February 1987 Ensign (the 1977 effort is not on lds.org, so if you want to see that one you’ll need to find a print copy).

Brian Keck published a critique of Meservy’s theory as “Ezekiel 37, Sticks, and Bablyonian Writing Boards: A Critical Reappraisal,” Dialogue 23/1 (Spring 1990): 126-38, which is available online at the University of Utah Dialogue archive.

I must confess, I like the Meservy writing board theory, or half of it anyway. I personally do not believe that Ezekiel had in mind the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and I see Mormon understandings to that effect as a modern “likening unto us” pesher on the passage. So it is not important to me that in their original context the objects, whatever they were, be able to represent volumes of scripture. But I still prefer to see the objects as leaves of a wooden writing board.

I am not an Assyriologist, but from what I do know I agree with Keck that Meservy’s original Akkadain argument was flawed (which is probably why lds.org doesn’t have the original article on its website and why Meservy redid it). And, as I have mentioned, I agree that the objects did not originally stand for scriptures (I see that as a later reading superimposed on the text).

But I think Keck is so intent to disagree with Meservy that he fails to fully appreciate the writing board theory quite apart from its use as an apologetic for a traditional Mormon reading of the passage.

Outside of Mormonism, there have been two traditional interpretations of the Hebrew word ets (rendered “stick” in the KJV) in this passage: the Greek LXX rendered that word with rabdos, meaning “rod, scepter.” My impression is that modern scholars have followed this as the majority view of the passage. An advantage to this interpretation is the kingly symbolism of a rod. But the Aramaic targums render the word with luha’, which means “tablet, writing board.” (It is quite curious that Meservy never mentions this Aramaic evidence; I suspect he simply didn’t know of it.) Even though it is a minority interpretive tradition, I prefer to understand Ezekiel as using the leaves of a writing board as his props. I think a demonstration of the use of such writing boards would highlight the unity of reunified Israel. (Keck rejects both of these traditions and thinks it was sticks, just as the KJV says [which stand metaphorically for rods].)

In particular, I am struck by v. 17, which reads something like the following (translating overliterally)

and bring them together one to one for you into one ets, and they will become one in your hand

What I find absolutely striking is that the word “one” (in “one in your hand”) is actually a plural form: l-‘chdym. This reminds me of a story. When I was first learning Latin at BYU, the teacher had us going through our drills, learning our grammatical forms. He put the Latin word for “one” on the board, and we went through all the forms, both singular and plural. But it turns out that this was a practical joke by him played on us (a pretty geeky joke, to be sure, but a joke nonetheless). The Latin word for “one” doesn’t have actual plural forms (even though we dutifully came up with the hypothetical ones), because it’s never used as a plural. So when I see the Hebrew word for “one” (‘echad) in a plural form, it stands out to me.

So I think Ezekiel’s demonstration involved taking one leaf of a wooden writing tablet, writing on it, and taking another leaf, writing on it, and joining the two leaves together in his hand. Two leaves of a wooden writing board folded along its leather hinges (like folding a book or a laptop) actually become one object. I see this as a far more powerful demonstration of unity than simply bringing two twigs together into one hand.

So, even though it is speculative, I like the rendering of the New English Bible:

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 leaf of Ephraim and all of his assoicates of Israel.” Now bring the two together to form one tablet; then they will be a folding tablet in your hand.”

Which interpretation do you prefer? One of these, or perhaps you have another preference altogether?


  1. Great stuff. I’m about to teach a class, so I’ll engage you later. I’m just happy that “Assyriologist” got mentioned in the Bloggernacle.

    For the record, whilst I study at Johns Hopkins, it was not with William Albright (!), although his picture does glare down on us in the Near Eastern Studies seminar room. Also, FPR’s John C. is a Hopkinsian too…

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, I added a comma at the last minute to try to avoid the impression that you too were studying with Albright!

    Actually, Albright’s death was a complicating factor in Keith not getting his Ph.D. (along with the pull of a too-comfortable job in Provo).

  3. Maybe I missed something in the post, but I have a question.

    If the scripture is not referring to two books, and it is referring to two nations, which two nations is it referring to?

    If it is indeed referring to the Book of Mormon peoples and the Jews, then I don’t see a problem with the misinterpretation.

  4. “which two nations is it referring to?”

    Denmark and Djibouti, the only two countries that start with the letter “D”. This is because D is the fourth letter in the alphabet and four is the only number, when divided by two the answer is two. And two, of course, is the number of nations the Lord is talking about… I thought everyone knew this.

  5. Not being party to Ezekiel’s prophetic gift, I have no way of envisaging what was really in his mind. But, were I an exilic Judahite on the streets of Babylon and Ezekiel talked about writing on wood, I would have thought of wooden writing tablets (le’u in Akkadian). And when he spoke about “Joseph” I would have thought about the northern Israelites who had been scattered two generations earlier.

  6. Kevin, I prefer your interpretation because I find such formalistic methodology highly persuasive. The note on Aramaic adds considerable weight, I would think, to the Meservy theory. Also, the use of “one” in its plural form is a formalistic characteristic that the writer would not have overlooked or used lightly. Conceptually, the tablets do become one object, whereas two sticks retain their separate identities.

    Also, your “minority interpretation” supports the traditional Latter-day Saint understanding of the point of this scripture, as can be seen in both the New English Bible rendering and the tablet imagery itself. Lehi and Nephi were descendants of Joseph of Egypt and thus their writings would comply with the reference to Ephraim as opposed to the Jewish writings we now know as the Bible, which can accurately be described as proceeding from Judah.

    Of course, Ronan is right about the probable literal reference of the verse being to the scattering of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the intact Kingdom of Judah. But these prophetic scriptures can have multiple layers of meaning. There is nothing wrong with that.

  7. Ryan (#4), you have me in seams, man. That is damn funny.

    Ronan (#5), you rock, man. Love it. I see in that passage the future hope in the restoration of all Israel (which fits VERY nicely into the context from verses 1-14 or whatever).

    (Enter discussions of sensus plenior….)

  8. Ah, sensus plenior….

    Definition (for those of you with real jobs):

    The term Sensus Plenior refers to a concept which understands the text of the Bible to have inherent in it more than one sense of meaning.

    So, non-geeks, John F. is appealing to sensus plenior in saying that “these prophetic scriptures can have multiple layers of meaning.” That’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do in scriptural interpretation (= hermeneutics).

    BCC: Bringing Biblical Culture to All Cats.

  9. That’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do in scriptural interpretation

    Unless you’re plugging Mormonism. Then you can’t do that. ;)

  10. I don’t follow you DJ.

  11. JF, I’m just messing around, hence the winky face. You see, hermeneutics can be terribly subjective, and the scholarship has realized this based on Qumran peshers, early Christian interpretations of the OT, etc., and so the pendulum has begun to swing the other way, and now they’re saying it’s okay to do a little eisegesis on the scriptures now and then, so long as you’re plugging in meaning which is intended solely for and in reference to one’s own faith community. So within this “new hermeneutic” movment, it’s OK for Mormons to do that to Ez. 37:15ff, so long as we keep it in the family and we’re not knocking down the doors of our evangelical neighbors with the expectation that they see it our way, and vice versa. Very, very lame. But sensus plenior does have a role in this sort of thing, obviously.

  12. Ah. Sorry for being dense. I actually agree with you on the point behind that joke.

  13. Wow, another excellent post.

  14. Ronan, there is the indirect argument though that the Lehites are largely from the North and thus fulfill the prophecy in that fashion. The speculation that Lehi and company had more in common with the North rather than Judah goes back a fairly long way in LDS thought.

  15. You’re right Clark, but in the spirit of comment 11, don’t expect anyone outside of Mormonism to believe that’s what Ezekiel has in mind!

  16. goes back a fairly long way in LDS thought.

    It goes all the way back, Clark. To the BofM, in fact. That’s one of the reasons I believe Lehi wanted his genealogy. Not so that he had just a laundry list of names, but so that he could prove that he had legitimate priesthood. Before Christianity came on the scene, the priesthood was patrilineal; one wasn’t “called” to it like we are now, you were born with it. If you’re mother was a Jew, you were a Jew. Period. For a Northerner to be running around in the south, commanding everybody to repent, was totally odd-ball, and since he faced opposition, it would make a lot of sense for him to want to be able to prove to himself, his family, and any inquirers that he was legit. Hence why he would want to be able to trace himself back to Joseph. Northerners (including Samaritans) were always sort of suspect as far as priesthood legitimacy was concerned, and so naturally for Lehi to want to add that extra “umph” to his message, he would want proof that he was legit.

    Too bad Martin Harris’ wife ran off with the proof.

    But all this does show that reunification of Northern and Southern tribes was “the hope of Israel” (Ezek. came just after Lehi, probably exilic).

  17. Elisabeth says:

    Interesting post! This is probably a lame question, but is this the origination of the phrase “Stick of Joseph” to (I think) refer to the Book of Mormon?

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Elisabeth, it is.

  19. Since this is an OT thread talking about Lehi and the north, I thought it relevant to bring up John Sorenson’s article “The ‘Brass Plates’ and Biblical Scholarship” favorably comparing the Book of Mormon to E (supposedly the northern source).

    I have a copy on my webpage, but the school’s server is down. Google Cache

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s a great article, Ben. After my Dialogue article on the DH came out, John sent me a nice note thanking me for the article and agreeing that too many LDS scholars are needlessly defensive on the subject. His Dialogue article you reference was very influential for my own perspective.

  21. While I really don’t care about this, but I remember Keck as a grad student at Michigan. I’d take what he says over Nibley any day of the week.

  22. mormon fool says:

    I actually prefer Nibley’s tally stick interpretation to the writing tablet scheme. Extending Nibley, the sticks can be construed to represent primarily divided-then-reunited Israel (the covenant parties which the sticks help identify) and secondarily their scriptures (records of their covenant).

    I think the Nephites were the the first to make the reading of the Stick of Joseph/Judah being the Book of Mormon/Bible. 2 Nephi 3:12 seems to allude to the two books acting as a catalyst to facilitate the latter day gathering of Israel. It also seems to tie the Ezekiel object lesson into the Messiah ben Joseph (Joseph Smith?) traditions and prophecies. Speculatively, Ezekiel may have had access to the same prophecy as Lehi and drew from it for his object lesson.

    A dual meaning of the sticks, offers a partial explanation of the anomalies arising from exclusively adopting one interpretation. Keck’s tribal unification reading gets around the anomaly of referring to the northern tribes as Joseph by supposing that Ephraim was a clarifying gloss. For him the role the sticks play can be just as well be played by any breakable material. The scripture-only readers have to deal with how the predominantly Manasseh written Book of Mormon can pass as a production of Ephraim. To support dual meanings, perhaps Ezekiel needed to cover all the bases. Or as has been suggested, Ezekiel wasn’t anticipating the Book of Mormon.

    Two interesting tie-ins from Ezekiel to John 10:16-22 (“other sheep”) have been pointed out by readers of Aileen Guilding. According to her theory Jesus may have been following a synagogue reading schedule and Ezekiel 37 perhaps served as the background for his remarks (see this JBMS article by John Fowles for details.) On BYU’s website, David M. Whitchurch writes “Although speculative, Aileen Guilding states that the Sabbath lections surrounding the Feast of Dedication “contain the theme of sheep and shepherds and of God the Shepherd of Israel.'” He brings up Ezekiel 34 as a possible lection for Jesus to be working with. Ezekiel 34 contains an extended allegory for Israel as scattered and gathered sheep. If so, the “other sheep” should be understood to be of Israel rather than Gentiles, which supports the 3rd Nephi reading.

  23. So where does Keck hang out these days?


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