Response to Critics | Book of Mormon

A discussion of Ezekiel 37:15-20.

The most common interpretation uses the Septuagint translation which translates the Hebrew word 'es, (which is rendered "stick" in the King James version) as "rod". A rod in this light is a tribal scepter and in Ephraim's hand connotes his rulership over the northern kingdom of Israel. Merging the scepters foreshadows the reunification of the two nations and the re-establishment of a monarchy over all Israel. This all harmonizes with Ezekiel 37:22-24, "I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel: and one king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all . . . and they all shall have one shepherd."

With this in mind many Mormon critics have cited our interpretation of the Ezekiel 37:15-20 as an obvious case of "prooftexting"--interpreting a text outside its context so as to satisfy a special sectarian purpose. John Dunn has said, ". . . of all the prooftexts the Mormon missionaries are wont to cite, there is none more far-fetched or less convincing than the identification of Ezekiel's sticks with two bodies of scripture. If that proof is some day de-emphasized or abandoned, the case for Mormonism will actually be streamlined." However, D&C 27:5 and repeated affirmations by the prophets show that we are committed to the interpretation that the "Stick of Ephraim" refers to the Book of Mormon.

The basic questions is: What is a correct translation of the Hebrew word 'es? Out of the approximately 300 appearances of this word in the Hebrew text, the King James translators used stick only 14 times and half of those are in Ezekiel 37. The predominant translations are either "tree" (162 times) or "wood" (103 times). The remaining less frequent translations are: timber, stalk, gallow, stock, staff, helve, and plank. Clearly the link with all of them is "wood". For the Septuagint the preferences are reversed. They choose "wood" (ksylon) 249 times but "tree" (dendron) a mere 15 times.

It is only in Ezekiel 37 that this word is translated in the Septuagint as "rod". This would seem to be referring back to Numbers 17:2-3 in which the Lord requires each tribal leader to write his own name upon his staff (rabdos) and leave it in the tabernacle overnight. However, the Hebrew word in Numbers is not 'es but matteh, which does mean "staff". So if Ezekiel meant staff, why didn't he use the Hebrew word matteh rather than the word 'es?

We live in a day when much light can be shed on the ancient Near Eastern world by archaeology. In 593 BC, when Ezekiel was called to be a prophet, he was living in exile in Babylonia along with many of his fellow Jews who had been deported by Nebuchadnezzar. This Babylonian world, therefore, becomes the primary milieu of his prophecies.

In ancient Mesopotamia writing was done on moist clay with a stylus. Today, this kind of writing is called cuneiform (wedge-shaped). Some years ago, San Nicolo, a cuneiform scholar, became interested in the fact that some of the ancient writers referred in their clay records to another kind of record made on tablets of wood (is le'u; pronounced "eets lay-oo"). No such record had every been found. The discovery of two clay tablets by San Nicolo in the archives of the Eanna temple in the southern Babylonian city or Uruk or Warqa (biblical Erech) gave him information about how the wood tablets were used. The scribes of these two tablets, dating respectively to 596 and 582 BC, had referred in their text to drawing beeswax from the temple storehouse for filling their wooden tablets (is le'u). If these tablets were similar to tablets used by Greeks and Romans, they would have a recessed surface that could be filled with wax. Writing on these wax filled tablets would be very similar to writing on their moist clay with the cuneiform letters. Nicolo published this information in 1948. He suggested that the reason that no tablets like this had been discovered, was the same reason that we have not discovered ancient parchment or papyrus records: they are highly perishable.

Just five years later (1953), however, at least two sets of actual wax-coated writing tablets were discovered in ancient Assyria. Both ivory and walnut boards were discovered in a sludge at the bottom of an old well at Nimrud (biblical Calah; Gen 10:11,12). The ivory board was described as an is le'u, for this phrase appeared there. These boards would be hinged together. Max Mallowan, could easily claim that they had, ". . . discovered at Nimrud what may fairly be described as the earliest know form of an ancient book, complete with binding, the inscribed ivory leaf being the top cover to the whole." After this discovery many other discoveries have indicated the widespread use of these wax filled writing tablets for thousands of years (1700 BC - AD 1400).

We need to examine the phrase is le'u and see how it might have a bearing on how we interpret the Hebrew word 'es. The phrase literally means 'wooden tablet' however the inscription on the cover tablet of the ivory set, however, identifies this as a wooden tablet (is le'u) made of elephant ivory. Obviously it was made of ivory, but the author did not say it was a ivory tablet, but a wooden tablet (is le'u) of ivory. Clearly there is more to the meaning of the phrase is le'u than "wooden tablet". Instead of a wooden tablet it means a wax writing board. The ivory board would then be a wax writing board made of ivory. The latin word liber originally meant "tree bark", but we don't think of a librarian as a tree-bark specialist. Similarly, the name paper is derived from papyrus, but we don't think of papyrus when we refer to paper today.

Now let us examine the Hebrew word 'es (wood) used in Ezekiel 37. In doing so, we accept the following facts:

  1. From times already ancient in Ezekiel's day, scribes in Mesopotamia had been composing records on wooden boards.
  2. The technical term in Akkadian for such a record was is le'u (wooden tablet).
  3. The name of such a record was so well established by use in antiquity that, even when one might write upon a base made from another kind of material, such as ivory, it would still be called a "wooden" writing board or tablet.
  4. Extensive records were composed by joining one tablet to another.
  5. Tablets joined together in this manner might form such extensive records that scholars appropriately refer to them as books, the Nimrud writing boards being the oldest know examples.
  6. Such records were made by people who lived in various places: from the Near East through the Mediterranean world into Europe.
  7. This process provided such a convenient and practical means of keeping records that it was used for thousands of years and was not superceded until more efficient ways were discovered in relatively recent times.
  8. "Stick," "rod," and "staff" are either unique or at least rare translations of the Hebrew word 'es.
  9. Hebrew 'es basically means "wood."

Now knowing that Ezekiel lived in a world were scribes wrote upon boards and that the name of such a board was is le'u in the Babylonian language; and considering that he was commanded to take an 'es (the Hebrew cognate of the Babylonian 'is, meaning "wood" or "board") and write upon it and then to take another 'es and write upon that one also and then join the one 'es to the other in order to form a single 'es: then--if we know all these facts--how ought we to translate 'es? Could we possibly translate it as either "stick" or "rod"? Should we not rather give 'es what is actually its commonest Hebrew meaning: "wood" or "board"? Moreover, because Ezekiel was commanded to write upon it, may we not call it more specifically a writing board? Thus, Hebrew 'es in Ezekiel's context would connote to us exactly what is le'u does in the Babylonian tongue. And when Ezekiel was commanded to write upon a second board and join it to the first in order to form a single board, this was the exact process, we recall, by which a folding wax tablet anciently was put together.

With these things in mind, would the following translation be consistent with what we know?

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 his associates of Israel.' Now bring the two together to form one tablet; then they will be a folding tablet in you hand. When your fellow-countrymen ask you to tell them what you mean by this, say to them. These are the words of the Lord God: I am taking the leaf of Joseph, which belongs to Ephraim and all his associate tribes of Israel, and joining it to the leaf of Judah. Thus I shall make them one tablet, and they shall be one in my hand. The leaves which you write shall be visible in your hand for all to see.
In view of what we have said, would a Latter-day Saint or any other interpreter regard this translation as slanted? He shouldn't: phraseology might vary, but how else could he translate it and be linguistically and culturally consistent? Nor are Latter-day Saints the only ones who would infer that is what Ezekiel meant by 'es. The translation above is that of the New English Bible version--sponsored by the following churches and societies: the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational Church in England and Wales, the Council of Churches for Wales, the Irish Council of Churches, the London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the Presbyterian Church of England, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the National Bible Society of Scotland.

(Note that the LDS church is not included in the above list; no Mormon has had any involvement with the preparation of the New English Bible.)

One further important note concerns the use of the preposition for by the King James translator in the phrase "for Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions," and "for Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the children of Israel his companions." Ownership or possession of any object in ancient Israel was indicated simply by writing one's name upon it, prefixed by the preposition le (to/for). Thus, "to David," i.e. "(belonging) to David," written on any item meant simply "David's".

There is little dispute as to what record would be referred to as the record of Judah and his people. Thomas Tiplady has said, "The Bible was not written by an individual. It was written by a race. . . The Bible holds the life blood of the Jewish race. . . . It enshrines the soul of a people and is the Hebrews' priceless legacy to the world." (as quoted in Solomon Goldman, The Book of Books: An Introduction (Harper & Bros., Philadelphia 1948), 231)

Although you may not agree with the archaeology I have presented and you may also not agree with the translation from The New English Bible, but you must at least allow a consideration that my interpretation has some support. I see the support as being overwhelming, but you must decide for yourself.

This information was extracted from an article in the newsletter and proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, number 142, November 1978, by Keith Meservy.