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Ezekiel the Prophet: Dura Europos and beyond

Authors: Jo Milgrom and Yoel Duman


Unlike the middle register of paintings in the Dura Europos synagogue, all of whose pictures deal with the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple, the lower register contains a variety of separate scenes whose unifying theme is elusive. The paintings that have survived include: scenes from the life of Elijah, the Purim story, the anointing of David, the saving of the infant Moses and episodes from the book of Ezekiel.


Some have suggested that miraculous survival is the central theme of the register; others have mentioned rebirth and resurrection. But in each case, the suggestions do not account for all the paintings. As a result, we propose that the underlying motif of this register is “unexpected reversal of fortune that leads to triumph”, in which God`s presence is sometimes overt and at other times implied. It is significant that this register is at the congregation`s eye level, and therefore serves as a continuous subliminal message.

We have here two examples of children, destined for greatness, who are saved from imminent death (baby Moses and the son of the widow of Zarefat). We have examples of the defeat of the many idolaters by the few faithful (Elijah against the prophets of Baal and the fall of Jerusalem`s apostates). We have the startling choice of David, Jesse`s youngest son, over his older brothers and in place of Saul, as the new king of Israel; and we have Mordecai`s triumphant parade led by the foiled Haman through the streets of Shushan. And finally, we have the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones.

The Ezekiel Cyle

The register contains the longest continuous panel in the synagogue – the Ezekiel cycle, composed of two distinct units: on the left, the Dry Bones vision and on the far right, an enigmatic scene of slaughter.

Starting from the left, three identical figures gesture amid body parts and a tree-topped mountain, split in two by a dark area and littered with a destroyed building.

Sometimes in Dura`s paintings a character appears repeatedly, in adjacent panels as the story unfolds. Here, the prophet Ezekiel appears three times as Moses also appears three times in
the Exodus scene in the uppermost register. The following passage (Ezekiel 37) helps us identify the action:

Picture 1: Verse 1-2

Picture 1: Verse 1-2

Picture 2: Verses 3 – 6

Picture 2: Verses 3 – 6

Picture 3: Verses 7-8

Picture 3: Verses 7-8

1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones.
2 He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and indeed, they were very dry.
3 He said to me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, it is You who know.
4 Again He said to me, Prophesy over these bones and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones, Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life.
6 I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the Lord.
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, arumbling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
8 And I looked,behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them.

The choreography of hand gestures invites comment. In picture 1, having lifted Ezekiel whose arms float like a bird, God sets him down among the bones. In picture 2, the prophet`s hands form a direct diagonal with God`s hand, an axis mundi. God poses an enigma, the prophet “hears” with his left hand and points with his right to the object of the dialogue. In picture 3, God`s hand issues the order, Ezekiel`s left hand accepts the challenge, while his right goes into action. C. Kraeling, the author of the definitive publication on the Dura Europos synagogue, concludes that human participation is an essential part of the miracle of the divine act.[1]

The split mountain reveals a black interior. From deep in the earth, the graves open noisily (ra`ash) and the rattling bones come together.

C. Kraeling, The Synagogue, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 191-192.

The Enlivenment

The biblical account continues:


9 Then He said to me, Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life. 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them… (Ezekiel 37)


As this bewildering prophecy becomes visual, an enigmatic scene unfolds before us.



On the lower left, the bones of three bodies have been knitted together. Ezekiel, having accepted God`s orders (represented once again by a hand) points with his own left hand to the fulfillment. A winged angel leans over and touches the head of another inert body. Three graceful butterfly souls hover above those three bodies.

How then does God work in the prophecy and in the picture? Through agencies. In the text, God`s agents are Ezekiel and the ruah (literally, wind, but also spirit, breath and direction). In the painting, God`s will is fulfilled through additional agencies, reading diagonally from the upper left to the lower right: His hand, the butterfly souls and the winged angel. This proliferation of agencies derives from the attempt to visualize the mystery of the creation of life. The prophecy seems to be based in part on the account of Adam`s creation in Genesis 2:7 :


Then the Lord God formed Adam of dust from the ground,and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; then Adam became a living being.



The Genesis description of God`s action is entirely anthropomorphic. Some visual depictions of this scene are “literal”,


God animates Adam with the breath of life, Cathedral of Monreale, 11th century

God animates Adam with the breath of life Cathedral of Monreale, 11th century

while others seek a metaphor.
God animates Adam, Moutier Grandval Bible, ca. 800

God animates Adam
Moutier Grandval Bible, ca. 800


Jewish and Christian artists also drew on models from Hellenistic mythology, regarding the creation of Man by Prometheus and Psyche.


Prometheus creating mankind, Naples, 4th century

Prometheus creating mankind, Naples, 4th century

Prometheus and Minerva enlivening man,Vatican, 3rd century

Prometheus and Minerva enlivening man,Vatican, 3rd century

In some of these models, Prometheus animates a supine body by his touch; in others, a butterfly soul enters the standing figure. The butterfly emerging from the worm, symbolizes the transformation of the material into the spiritual.

These models flourished with variations. For example, a “butterfly”, poised to enter and animate the standing Adam, appears in the 11th century mosaics of the Cathedral of San Marco as the visualization of God’s breath of life.

God animates Adam, Cathedral of San Marco, Venice

God animates Adam
Cathedral of San Marco, Venice

Spirit enlivening an inert body, Dura Europos

Spirit enlivening an inert body, Dura Europos

In contrast, a large psyche-butterfly in Dura holds the head of one of the inert bodies in the Dry Bones panel, as God does in the Moutier Grandval bible and Prometheus does in the Naples sarcophagus. This mythological figure, a merging of the two models, acts as God’s agent, in the same way as the meimra (word of God) is an agent in the Aramaic Targumim of the same period – both are attempts to distance God from physical presence.

Peshat or Derash?

Having carefully illustrated the stages of Ezekiel`s vision, the Durene painter now turns to its explanation:
10 and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly 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 has perished, we are completely cut down.

12 Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am opening your graves and I will raise you up out of your graves, My people; and bring you into the land of Israel.

13 Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and raised you up from your graves, My people.

14 I will put My Spirit within you and you will live, and I will settle you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have promised and fulfilled it, declares the Lord.

(Ezekiel 37)

The hand of God appears over Ezekiel, now wearing a Hellenistic himation and gesturing to his right. Features of panel A are repeated, including body parts and a tree-topped mountain. A group of ten himation-clad men stand before Ezekiel, their hands raised.
What is the meaning of the transformation from Persian to Hellenistic dress? From a split to a whole mountain? In both the text and the paintings, Ezekiel has gone from being a character in his own vision to being its interpreter; from being an ecstatic prophet to being a classical, rational prophet. He and the group of ten now wear Hellenistic garb, symbolic of sober perception.
But who are the ten? The text explains that the vision concerns “the whole house of Israel”. This statement is a derash on the vision: it explains that the Dry Bones are a metaphor for the people of Israel, hopelessly in exile. But contrary to expectation, God will miraculously return them to the land of Israel. However, the Dura painting, like much Jewish and Christian literary commentary, reads Ezekiel`s vision not as a metaphor but as literal (peshat): a vision of resurrection. Thus, these ten are a minyan, the contemporary diaspora prayer community. And they will eventually return to the land of Israel, symbolized by the mountain, now made whole.
Everything seems to fall into place except the “extraneous” figure in the center, the only Ezekiel not paired with the hand of God and unaccounted for in the text.

We suggest that this is Ezekiel our teacher, speaking to us, the congregation of Dura Europos. Earlier, Ezekiel had encouraged the despondent exile community of Israel settled on the River Chebar. He now speaks to us as our teacher, here at Dura on the Euphrates, a minority Jewish community in a precarious location on the border between the warring Roman and Sassanian empires. The hand of God, representing prophecy, is a thing of the past – today our rabbi Ezekiel encourages us, gesturing with his own hand, like a second Moses.

The Lower Register

In summary, in the Ezekiel images of the Dry Bones, the Durenes are expressing their certainty that destruction will turn into restoration/resurrection. This certainty expresses the unifying motif of the entire register: the unexpected reversal of fortune that brings salvation, in which God`s presence is sometimes overt and sometimes covert. It is significant that this register is the most visually accessible to the congregation.

The Dry Bones live on

Having looked in detail at this earliest surviving treatment of Ezekiel`s vision, we ask how these visions were sustained in later times.

The 11th century Catalonian Roda Bible contains a full page with four episodes from the Book of Ezekiel. One shows Dry Bones: the prophet, on the left, receives the divine command from a hand emerging from the arc of heaven; the scattered bones assembles as bodies rising from their graves and the four “winds” plus a central “spirit” animate them as they raise their hands in praise. Note that the winds` diagonal emanations are parallel to the emanations from the divine hand. This rendering is closest in iconography and chronology to Dura. But this, of course, is no restoration of Israel, nor is Ezekiel a central focus. Ezekiel`s vision is merely a prooftext here for the Christian belief in the Resurrection that will accompany the Second Coming.

The Dry Bones, Roda Bible, Catalonia

The Dry Bones, Roda Bible, Catalonia


Gustave Dore, Le Sainte Bible, The Dry Bones, 1886

Gustave Dore, Le Sainte Bible, The Dry Bones, 1886


Late 19th century illustrator Gustave Dore`s rendition evinces fascination with the macabre, typical of his times, as in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelly`s Frankenstein. But Dore also takes a romantic devotional approach. The lower left portion of the image emphasizes the emergence of the dead from their graves, as in the New Testament story of Lazarus. Ezekiel, standing above within a halo of light, merges in an arc shape with one of the resurrected souls, a Christ-figure, thus providing a conscious connection between the Dry Bones vision and the central motif of resurrection in Christianity.

Finally, Benno Elkan`s massive Knesset Menorah of 1956 contains over twenty images from the history of the Jewish people, sculpted in high relief. Probably under the influence of Dore, Elkan places Ezekiel at the center, with a billowing cape. But in clear contrast to Dore, the prophet does not stand apart from the people, but rather he crouches protectively over them, gathering them together. In this way, Elkan utilizes the Dry Bones as a symbol of the survival of the Jewish people, their renewal and ingathering after the Holocaust.

Benno Elkan, The Dry Bones, Knesset Menorah, 1956

Benno Elkan, The Dry Bones, Knesset Menorah, 1956


These three images clarify the Dura rendition by giving us greater perspective on the endurance of an image through almost two millennia. In each age and generation the vision is reread in light of the changing present. Midrash is the dialogue of history with the biblical text.

Article Sources:

Sanhedrin 92b

And should you ask, in those years during which the Almighty will renew his world, as it is written, And the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day, what will the righteous do?  — The Lord will make them wings like eagles`, and they will fly above the water, as it is written, Therefore we will not fear when the earth be removed and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.  And should you imagine that they will suffer pain — therefore Scripture says, But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.
But should we not deduce [the reverse] from the dead whom Ezekiel resurrected?  — He accepts the view that in the truth [the story of the resurrection of the dry bones] was [but] a parable.  For it was taught: R. Eliezer said: The dead whom Ezekiel resurrected stood up, uttered song, and [immediately] died. What song did they utter? The Lord slays in righteousness and revives in mercy.  R. Joshua said: They sang thus, The Lord kills and makes alive: he brings down to the grave, and brings up. R. Judah said: It was truth; it was a parable. R. Nehemiah said to him: If truth, why a parable; and if a parable, why truth? — But [say thus]: In the truth there was but a parable.
R. Eliezer the son of R. Jose the Galilean said: The dead whom Ezekiel revived went up to Palestine, married wives and begat sons and daughters. R. Judah b. Bathyra rose up and said: I am one of their descendants, and these are the tefillin which my grandfather left me [as an heirloom] from them.
Now, who were they whom Ezekiel revived? Rab said: They were the Ephraimites, who counted [the years] to the end [of the Egyptian bondage], but erred therein, as it is written, And the sons of Ephraim; Shuthelah, and Bared his son, and Tahath his son, and Eladah his son, and Tahath his son. And Zabad his son, and Shuthelah his son, and Ezzer, and Elead, whom the men of Gath that were born in that land slew.  And it is written, And Ephraim their father mourned many days, and his brethren came to comfort him.
Samuel said: They were those who denied resurrection, as it is written, Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.
R. Jeremiah b. Abba said: They were the men who lacked the [vitalizing] sap of good deeds, as it is written, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
R. Isaac Nappaha said: They were the men who covered the whole Temple with abominations and creeping things, as it is written, So I went in and saw; and behold every form of creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel, portrayed upon the wall round about: while there [in the case of the dry bones] it is written, And caused me to pass by them round about.
R. Johanan said: They were the dead of the plain of Dura. 
Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, 32
Rabbi Judah said, When Nebuchadnezzr brought a false accusation against Israel to slay them, he set up an idol in the plain of Dura, and caused a herald to proclaim: Anyone who does not bow down to this idol shall be burnt by fire. Israel did not trust in the shadow of their Creator, and came with their wives and sons and bowed down to the idolatrous image—except  Daniel, whom they called by the name of their God, and it would have been a disgrace to them to burn him in fire, as it is said, But at the last Daniel came in before me (Dan. 4:8). And they took Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and put them into the fiery furnace, and the angel Gabriel descended and saved them from the fiery furnace. The king said to them: You knew that you had a God who saves and delivers; why have you forsaken your God and worshiped idols which have no power to deliver? But just as you did in your own land and destroyed it, so do you attempt to do in this land, (namely) to destroy it. The king commanded, and they slew all of them. Whence do we know that they were all slain by the sword? Because it is said, Then said he unto me, Prophesy ... O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live (Ezek. 37:9).
Rabbi Phineas said: After twenty years, when all of them had been slain in Babylon, the Holy Spirit rested upon Ezekiel, and brought him forth into the plain of Dura, and called unto him very dry bones, and said to him: Son of Man, What do you see? He answered: I see here dry bones. (The Spirit) said to him: Have I power to revive them? The prophet did not say: Sovereign of all the worlds, You have power to do even more than (this) here; but he said: O Lord God, you know (ibid. 8), as though he did not believe; therefore his own bones were not buried in a pure land, but in an unclean land, as it is said, And you shall die in a land that is unclean (Amos 7:17). Prophesy over these bones (Ezek. 37:4). He said before Him: Sovereign of all the worlds, What will the prophecy bring upon them flesh and sinews and bones? Or will the prophecy bring upon them all the flesh and bones which cattle, beast, and bird have eaten, and they (also) have died in the land? Im­mediately the Holy One, blessed be He, caused His voice to be heard, and the earth shook, as it is said, And as I prophesied there was a thundering, and behold an earth· quake (ibid. 7), and every animal, beast, and bird which had eaten thereof and died in another land the earth brought together, bone to his bone (ibid.).
Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah said: There came down upon them the quickening dew from heaven, which was like a fountain, which was bubbling and bringing forth water; so likewise (the bones) were moving and bringing forth upon themselves flesh, (other) bones and sinews, as it is said, And I beheld, and lo, there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above (ibid. 8). He said to him: Prophesy unto the wind, as it is said, Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind. …Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live (ibid. 9). In that hour the four winds of the heaven went forth, and opened the treasure-house of the souls, and each spirit returned to the body of flesh of man, as it is said, So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, ... an exceeding great army (ibid. 10); and it is written about Egypt, And the children of Israel were fruitful, ... and waxed exceeding mighty (Ex. 1:7). What is the meaning of "exceeding"? Just as in the latter case there were 600,000 (men), so in the former case there were 600,000 (men), and they all stood upon their feet except one man. The prophet said: Sovereign of all the worlds, What is the nature of this man? He answered him: He gave out money for usury, and he took with interest. As I live, he shall not live. In that hour the Israelites were sitting and weeping, and saying: We hoped for light, and darkness came. We hoped to stand up with all Israel at the resurrection of the dead, and now our hope is lost (Ezek. 37:11). We hoped to arise so as to be gathered with all Israel, and now we are clean cut off (ibid.). In that hour the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the prophet: Therefore, say to them, As I live, I will cause you to stand at the resurrection of the dead in the future that is to come, and I will gather you with all Israel to the land, as it is said, Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves ... and I will bring you into the land of Israel. ... And I will put my spirit in you, and you shall live (ibid. 12, 14).
Targum Yonatan to Exodus 13:17
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, the Lord did not lead them by of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for the Lord said, Perhaps the people will change their minds when they see their brothers who died in the war, two hundred thousand men, men of valor from the tribe of Ephraim. Seizing shield and spears and other weapons, they went down to Gath to plunder the livestock of the Philistines. And because they transgressed the decree of the Meimra of the Lord and went forth from Egypt thirty years before the appointed time, they were delivered into the hands of the Philistines, who slew them. These were the dry bones which the Meimra of the Lord brought to life through the mediation of Ezekiel the prophet in the valley of Dura.. If they had seen that, they would have taken fright and returned to Egypt.
Justin Martyr The First Apology, LII
Since, then, we prove that all things which have already happened had beenpredicted by the prophets before they came to pass, we must necessarily believe also that those things which are in like manner predicted, but are yet to come to pass, shall certainly happen. For as the things which have already taken place came to pass when foretold, and even though unknown, so shall the things that remain, even though they be unknown and disbelieved, yet come to pass. For the prophets have proclaimed two advents of His: the one, that which is already past, when He came as a dishonored and suffering Man; but the second, when, according to prophecy, He shall come from heaven with glory, accompanied by His angelic host, when also He shall raise the bodies of all men who have lived, and shall clothe those of the worthy with immortality, and shall send those of the wicked, endued with eternal sensibility, into everlasting fire with the wicked devils. And that these things also have been foretold as yet to be, we will prove. By Ezekiel the prophet it was said: Joint shall be joined to joint, and bone to bone, and flesh shall grow again.
Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus Haereses V.XV.1
As we at once perceive that the Creator is in this passage (Ezekiel 37) represented as vivifying our dead bodies, and promising resurrection to them, and resuscitation from their sepulchers and tombs, conferring upon them immortality.
Tertullian, On the Resurrection, XXX
I am well aware how they [the Gnostics] torture even this prophecy [Ezekiel 37] into a proof of the allegorical sense, on the ground that by saying, These bones are the whole house of Israel, He made them a figure of Israel, and removed them from their proper literal condition; and therefore (they contend) that there is here a figurative, not a true prediction of the resurrection, for (they say) the state of the Jews is one of humiliation, in a certain sense dead, and very dry, and dispersed over the plain of the world. Therefore the image of a resurrection is allegorically applied to their state, since it has to be gathered together, and recompacted bone to bone (in other words, tribe to tribe, and people to people), and to be reincorporated by the sinews of power and the nerves of royalty, and to be brought out as it were from sepulchers, that is to say, from the most miserable and degraded abodes of captivity, and to breathe afresh in the way of a restoration, and to live thenceforward in their own land of Judæa. And what is to happen after all this? They will die, no doubt. And what will there be after death? No resurrection from the dead, of course, since there is nothing of the sort here revealed to Ezekiel.
Well, but the resurrection is elsewhere foretold: so that there will be one even in this case, and they are rash in applying this passage to the state of Jewish affairs; or even if it does indicate a different recovery from the resurrection which we are maintaining, what matters it to me, provided there be also a resurrection of the body, just as there is a restoration of the Jewish state? In fact, by the very circumstance that the recovery of the Jewish state is prefigured by the reincorporation and reunion of bones, proof is offered that this event will also happen to the bones themselves; for the metaphor could not have been formed from bones, if the same thing exactly were not to be realized in them also.  Now, although there is a sketch of the true thing in its image, the image itself still possesses a truth of its own: it must needs be, therefore, that must have a prior existence for itself, which is used figuratively to express some other thing. Vacuity is not a consistent basis for a similitude, nor does nonentity form a suitable foundation for a parable. It will therefore be right to believe that the bones are destined to have a rehabiliment of flesh and breath, such as it is here said they will have, by reason indeed of which their renewed state could alone express the reformed condition of Jewish affairs, which is pretended to be the meaning of this passage. It is, however, more characteristic of a religious spirit to maintain the truth on the authority of a literal interpretation, such as is required by the sense of the inspired passage.

Ezekiel 9
1 Then He cried out in my hearing with a loud voice saying, Draw near, O executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand. 2 Behold, six men came from the direction of the upper gate which faces north, each with his shattering weapon in his hand; and among them was a certain man clothed in linen with a writing case at his loins. And they went in and stood beside the bronze altar.
3 Then the glory of the God of Israel went up from the cherub on which it had been, to the threshold of the temple. And He called to the man clothed in linen at whose loins was the writing case. 4 The Lord said to him, Go through the midst of the city, even through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed in its midst. 5 But to the others He said in my hearing, Go through the city after him and strike; do not let your eye have pity and do not spare. 6 Utterly slay old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women, but do not touch any man on whom is the mark; and you shall start from My sanctuary. So they started with the elders who were before the temple. 7 And He said to them, Defile the temple and fill the courts with the slain. Go out! Thus they went out and struck down the people in the city. 8 As they were striking the people and I alone was left, I fell on my face and cried out saying, Alas, Lord God! Are You destroying the whole remnant of Israel by pouring out Your wrath on Jerusalem?
9 Then He said to me, The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is very, very great, and the land is filled with blood and the city is full of perversion; for they say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see!’ 10 But as for Me, My eye will have no pity nor will I spare, but I will bring their conduct upon their heads.
11 Then behold, the man clothed in linen at whose loins was the writing case reported, saying, I have done just as You have commanded me.