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 That early article was superseded by a later one in the February 1987 Ensign (the 1977 effort is not on lds.org, so if you want to see that one you’ll need to find a print copy).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?