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Old Testament and Form Criticism: “What Ezekiel Saw in the Valley”

Introduction

Representations of distinct events in the Bible can often yield significant information regarding the social attitudes and customs of the age discussed. Several sections of the Old Testament books are designated for particular thoughts and events to be delegated to the public during readings and liturgies. Such excerpts from the scripture are often detached from the overall text, becoming a concise demonstration of specific ideas and customs, expected to have a strong influence on the audience (Ohaeri & Uye, 2019). However, these portions of the sacred text referred to as pericopes, are also powerful for the examination of Biblical parts, providing an insight into the various aspects of the community at that time.

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The approach developed by form critics can be tremendously helpful in outlining such characteristics of the communities of the past and their environment. Focusing on the social meaning of the pericope, its value for the individuals, and the structural presentation, form criticism considerably aids the scholars of the Bible, offering an instrument for evaluating sections of the scriptures (Ohaeri & Uye, 2019). A significant pericope that demonstrates the importance of prophecies, divine communication, and hope for the future is the short story of Ezekiel’s vision in the Book of Ezekiel. Describing the interaction between the prophet and God in a deserted valley, this section of the Old Testament manages such topics as prophetic storytelling, rebirth, the power of the word of God, and the restoration of Israel (Biwul, 2019). Considering the surrounding environment of Israelites, the circumstances of their escape, and their love for the home country, this pericope can be regarded as a means of inspiration to maintain a positive overview of the future.

The Core Principles of Form Criticism: Uncovering Oral Traditions through Text

A variety of scientific and literary approaches, used by scholars from academic fields, have been applied to the examination of the Old testament. A prominent type of analysis, namely form criticism, was suggested by Hermann Gunkel, who directed his attention toward the different genres of storytelling evident in Bible pericopes (Rom-Shiloni, 2019). Gunkel was especially interested in the social context established during the creation and transition of the oral forms of the scriptures, suggesting that it is essential for the understanding of the pericope’s function (Ohaeri & Uye, 2019). According to the basics of form criticism, Biblical stories served as a means of expression for the religious society, a strategy that allowed them to devise encouraging texts to attend to their current demands.

As stories that were initially conveyed orally, such sections are exceptionally significant for the understanding of the social setting present during the creation and transfer of certain pericopes. Form criticism argues that in the transition from the oral to written form, the texts often incorporate the most pertinent ideas and topics discussed by the people, beginning to reflect such aspects of their everyday life as traditions, social expectations, and the importance of religion (Hill & Walton, 2009). Therefore, the main goal of form critics is to examine the structure of a given text to identify its genre, setting in life, and social function, uncovering the underlying oral form.

What Ezekiel Saw in the Valley” from the Perspective of Form Criticism

Chapter 37 as an Individual Literary Unit

A substantial number of Ezekiel’s visions are presented in the Old Testament, portraying the man as an influence on the Israelites. While the book of Ezekiel possesses an excellent organization, with the events represented in a specific order, chapter 37 illustrates a scenario occurring outside of the general structure, becoming an individual literary unit, referred to as pericope by form criticism. The preceding chapters of the book describe other prophecies made by Ezikiel under various circumstances. For example, in chapters 35 and 36, Ezequiel receives various visions from God, which revolve around the subjects of Mount Seir and hope for the mountains of Israel, respectively Holy Bible, King James Version, 1987, Ezekiel 35:2; 36:5). In contrast, chapter 37 represents an account of a distinct event, namely the interaction between God and Ezequiel in the valley, clarifying the details behind the prophet’s vision. After that, chapter 38 begins the explanation of the war between Gog and Magog, which is further developed in chapter 39 (Holy Bible, King James Version, 1987, Ezekiel 38:5; 39:3). In this regard, Ezekiel’s chapter 37 is an excellent example to be analyzed through the lens of form criticism, as this text is detached from the surrounding context.

Genre Classification in Form Criticism

Form critics usually implement a particular sequence of actions that allows them to properly examine the text in question. While the first step refers to the separation of the literary unit from the scripture, the second stage necessitates the identification of the pericope genre. It is essential to note, however, that multiple genres and subgenres were suggested by multiple form critics, depending on the literary unit’s emphasis, content, recurring form, and structural indications. For instance, such genres as myth, folklore, legend, novelette, saga, and history were originally suggested (Hill & Walton, 2009). In contrast, it is also possible to identify the genres of prose, verse, war hymns, poems of lament, and prophecies (Ohaeri & Uye, 2019). After that, Christopher Booker proposes a distinction based on basic plots, outlining the forms of battle narrative, rags to riches, journey, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth (Hagan, 2019). Although these types of classifications are based on different characteristics of sacred texts, each of them can positively contribute to the understanding of the pericope presented in chapter 37. Therefore, this paper suggests that several genres can be used for the analysis of Ezekiel’s vision, namely legend, prophecy, and rebirth.

A genre of legend excellently describes the structure of chapter 37 in the book of Ezekiel, highlighting the essential aspects of this text. Legend is often referred to as a story about a specific person or a historical figure, revolving around their endeavors and seeking to inspire the audience (Hagan, 2019). This type of storytelling frequently merges imaginary elements and historical facts, becoming a compromise between the fictitious events and the cultural experiences of the nation’s individuals. The vision of Ezekiel contains both elements of historical accounts and fiction, describing the events following the prophet’s interaction with God (Biwul, 2019). Although the story is set in an imaginary location, namely a deserted valley containing the bones of numerous fallen warriors, it addresses the conflicts and social tensions of that time.

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Another essential aspect of the story is the focus on Ezekiel’s prophetic qualities and the communication with God. The pericope starts with the prophet saying that “The hand of the Lord was upon me and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord,” suggesting the encounter with the divine being (Holy Bible, King James Version, 1987, Ezekiel 37:1). After that, the interaction with God commences, where his intentions are first demonstrated through a metaphorical resurrection of lifeless bones and are further supported by his directive to Ezekiel to preach the revivification of Israel and the unification of its people. Therefore, the structure of the pericope can be outlined as follows:

  1. Ezekiel is carried by the Lord to the Valley Of Death.
  2. Ezekiel sees the dry bones, the consequences of war and desolation.
  3. God demonstrates the power of his word through Ezekiel’s speech.
  4. The bones are resurrected and empowered with God’s breath.
  5. The Lord explicates the meaning behind the vision.
  6. God instructs Ezekiel to prophesize to Israelites that Israel will be restored.

The structure of the story further corroborates that it refers to the genre of prophecy. Prophetical visions often began with the individual encountering God, his spirit, or an Angel, who manifested a metaphorical scene in front of the prophet. During the event, the person is instructed to spread the words of God among his followers, ensuring them of the Lord’s power and the future. Sections of the Old Testament following this structure are especially evident in the book of Ezekiel, who frequently receives visions from God (Hill & Walton, 2009). In this regard, chapter 37 is a remarkable example of the prophecy genre.

Finally, Ezekiel’s vision in the valley can also be classified as a rebirth story, which describes practices of healing and resurrection. This concept becomes especially evident as the dry bones return to life after Ezequiel speaks God’s words. The genre of rebirth consistently engages such topics as movement from death to life, frequently manifested in a grave illness being eradicated by God’s will, individual regaining consciousness after a deep sleep, or imprisonment modified into liberation (Hagan, 2019). Chapter 37 depicts explicitly depicts the change from death to life, implying that the Jewish nation’s confinement as refugees in a foreign land of Babylon will be amended, and Israel’s freedom will be re-established. Therefore, this pericope not only manifests the Lord’s control over death but also clarifies his intentions concerning the future of his people, utilizing rebirth as a metaphor.

Ezekiel’s Vision as a Manifestation of the Time’s Social Setting

The final step of the form criticism’s method of pericope evaluation is establishing the environment in which the text was created. Before its incorporation into the Old Testament, the story was transferred orally, comprising the social values and issues present in that period. Primarily regarded as Sitz im Leben, “Setting in Life,” this attribute of the biblical text is ascertained according to the established structure of the text and its genre, further clarifying its function for society (Ohaeri & Uye, 2019). Considering the aforementioned genre, it is possible to suggest that chapter 37’s setting in life was to reflect the needs of the Israeli people, forced to surrender their homeland and evacuate from their original place of living.

Compelled to remain in exile for years, the nation appears to be devastated by these circumstances, failing to find a prospect of hope and encouragement during such difficult times. God’s lines in chapter 37 explicate this state of abandonment and misery: “Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost, we are cut off for our parts” (Holy Bible, King James Version, 1987, Ezekiel 37:11). The desire for encouragement was tremendously strong among the Israeli population, demonstrating the decline of belief in positive outcomes and the overall pessimistic social attitudes. The demand for inspiration is exceptionally high during this period of despair, suggesting that the pericope served as a method of sustaining the people’s beliefs in the restoration of Israel and return to their home.

The dryness of the bones and their overall exceeding lack of life is imperative for the understanding of the social tensions present at that time. The text focuses on the condition of these bones numerous times, drawing the reader’s attention to the state of total death and separation (Biwul, 2019). The skeletons themselves are not whole but separated, manifesting extreme deterioration and implying the spiritual disarray of the Jewish population. The experience of exile and separation from the home country may have tremendously impacted the Israelites, resulting in a state of emotional confusion and mental pain (Biwul, 2019). Therefore, the detachment and emotional alienation of the Jewish representatives from the surrounding society, the Babylonian community, can be explicitly seen in chapter 37.

A prominent issue evident in the pericope is the necessity for social change and unification. The division between the tribes of Israel is a pertinent topic in other books from the Old Testament, and this thing can also be traced in chapter 37 in the book of Ezekiel. Another metaphor is incorporated by the Lord during the prophet’s vision, with God asking Ezekiel to “Take the one stick […] then take another stick […] and join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand” (Holy Bible, King James Version, 1987, Ezekiel 37:19-20). Each stick is suggested to represent different tribes of Israel, namely Judah, Joseph, and their corresponding houses. By merging the sticks to become one in the hand of Ezekiel, the Lord unites the people of Israel, stating that the unification of the nation is necessary (Wilson, 2020). Given the prophetical form of the story, it is possible to propose that the demand for merging the houses of Israel was especially high among the Israeli population. The challenging social setting of home abandonment appears to have been further complicated by the separation of the Jewish tribes.

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The prophecy also demonstrates the customs of the intended audience, referring to similar concepts and established traditions. A pertinent example is a return to the mountains of Israel under the rule of one king. The previously discussed desire of the population to restore Israel is considered as both the rebirth of the nation in its original setting and the revivification of cultural norms and social values practiced by Israelites (Biwul, 2019). The environment of the Babylonian society, although generally friendly to the refugees, was exceptionally distinct from the setting of their home country (Nissinen, 2019). The contrasts between the way of life, worshipping traditions, and religious customs were remarkable and have undoubtedly influenced the exiled population. The Lord claims that “I will save them out of all their dwelling places wherein they have sinned and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people and I will be their God” (Holy Bible, King James Version, 1987, Ezekiel 37:23). In this statement, the desire to be saved from the foreign environment and be again accepted by God is especially vivid, clarifying the desire to be returned to the House of the Lord.

The Function and Social Significance of Ezekiel’s Prophetic Vision

As the emotional state of the Israelites appears to have suffered considerable negative influence resulting in remarkable disarray, the prophecy described in chapter 37 serves as a method of resuscitating the positive state of the society. The promises of the Lord address the most crucial aspects of the social tensions of that time, claiming that the issues encountered by the Jewish population in the foreign land will be soon resolved with the restoration of Israel and the return to the homeland (Basdeo-Hill, 2018). Ezekiel prophesizes the return of the Lord’s grace, his acceptance of the nation’s previous sins and misdeeds, as well as the unification of the people under the rule of one king. Therefore, this pericope is devised to instill hope and encouragement for the future, as well as sustain the religious contribution of the Jewish community, prompting them to remain faithful to their God.

Conclusion

To conclude, tan old testament pericope presented in chapter 37 of the book of Ezekiel has been discussed in detail in this paper, with the evaluation of the story’s structure and social setting through the lens of form criticism. This text is an individual literary unit addressed to the Jewish audience of that time and represents the attributes of the society of that time. Such Issues as separation from the homeland, alienation of the houses of Israel, lack of hope for a positive future, and the need for encouragement from well-recognized figures can be observed in this section of the sacred text. Although the emotional state of the Israeli representatives appears to be disarrayed, the prophecy inspires the population to believe in good outcomes and remain faithful to their Lord. Demonstrating the characteristics of such genres as legend, prophecy, and rebirth, the text explicates how the social setting of the Jewish community was affected by the exile from their native country, as well as describes their desire to return to the previous way of life.

References

Basdeo-Hill, A. R. (2018). Sights and sounds of Death Valley: A close reading of Ezekiel 37:1-14. Old Testament Essays, 31(3), 534–552.

Biwul, J. K. T. (2019). The restoration of the dry bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14: An exegetical and theological analysis. Scriptura 118(1), p. 1-10.

Hagan, H. (2019). Basic plots in the Bible: A literary approach to genre. Biblical Theology Bulletin, 49(4), 198–213.

Hill, A. E., & Walton, J. H. (2009). A survey of the Old Testament (3rd ed.). Zondervan Academic.

King James Bible. (2021). King James Bible Online.

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Nissinen, M. (2019). (How) Does the Book of Ezekiel reveal Its Babylonian context? In Prophetic Divination (pp. 597–612). De Gruyter.

Ohaeri, N. N., & Uye, E. E. (2019). Biblical criticism in the contemporary homiletic praxis. Journal of Religion and Human Relations, 11(1), 83–104. Web.

Rom-Shiloni, D. (2019). From prophetic words to prophetic literature: Challenging paradigms that control our academic thought on Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 138(3), 565–586.

Wilson, I. (2020). Ezekiel as a written text: Archiving visions, remembering futures. In The Oxford Handbook of Ezekiel by Corrine Carvalho (Ed.), pp. 35-59. Oxford.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "Old Testament and Form Criticism: “What Ezekiel Saw in the Valley”." October 23, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/old-testament-and-form-criticism-what-ezekiel-saw-in-the-valley/.

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