Mormon apologists use this passage to show how the Book of Mormon, a Mormon scripture that tells the story of ancient Hebrews who came to the American continent before the time of Jesus, is predicted in the Bible. Since ancient writings were often rolled up on narrow poles, these apologists speculate that the scrolls they were written on may have been literally called “sticks.” The Hebrew word for stick is “aits,” which literally means a wooden stick or timber, and never means “scroll.” The context—which is vital for any biblical passage!—shows how this prophecy is not about the Book of Mormon. Verse 22 says the sticks refer to two nations, the northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms, and predicts how they would become united again. This was partially fulfilled after the Israelites left Babylon following the captivity, with the ultimate fulfillment to take place when Jesus returns again.
Ezekiel 37:15-19 says,
15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ 17 And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand. 18 And when your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what you mean by these?’19 say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand.
Citing this passage, Apostle LeGrand Richards (1886–1983) concluded,
In ancient times it was the custom to write on parchment and roll it on a stick. Therefore, when this command was given, it was the equivalent of directing that two books or records should be kept . . . Now, granting that the Bible is the stick of Judah, where is the stick of Joseph? Can anyone answer? God commanded that it should be kept to record the fulfillment of his greater promises to Joseph. It would naturally be a record kept in another land, since Joseph was to be “separate from his brethren.” It is plain from the reading of this scripture that the record of Judah, or the Holy Bible, would remain with this people, that the record of Joseph would be joined unto it, and that the two would become one. Should anyone object to God’s doing exactly what he promised Ezekiel he would do? Could this promise be fulfilled in a simpler and more perfect manner than it was through the coming forth of the Book of Mormon?. . . The two records have now been joined together, constituting a complete fulfillment of another great prophecy. Again, who could object to God’s doing the thing he promised to do? Until someone can explain where the record of Joseph is, the Book of Mormon stands unrefuted in its claim to be “the stick of Joseph.” (Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, 66-67)
Understanding the Hebrew word for stick helps to clarify the message Ezekiel was trying to convey. The word used in these passages speaks of a literal piece of wood, not books or scrolls as Mormons often insist. Consider 1 Kings 17:10–12, when the prophet Elijah visits the Sidonian city of Zarephath:
So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” And she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.” (ESV)
The word for sticks in this passage is the same Hebrew word used in Ezekiel 37. Should it be assumed that the widow in this story was gathering books in preparation for what she thought was her final meal? There are other words for book or scroll that were available if a written document is what was meant.
Another passage to consider is 2 Kings 6:1–7. During the act of cutting down a tree, an axe head flew off its handle and landed in the water. Distressed because the tool was borrowed, the man who was using the axe sought the aid of Elisha the prophet. When he learned where the axe head landed, Elisha proceeded to “cut down a stick” and cast it into the water. Amazingly, the iron axe head floated to the top. Again, the Hebrew word used in this passage is the same one used in Ezekiel 37. It is unreasonable to assume that Elisha somehow cut a book off of a tree. The problem this presents for the Mormon interpretation of Ezekiel 37 has not gone unnoticed by Mormon apologists. Brigham Young University professor Keith H. Meservy wrote two articles for Ensign magazine arguing that records were also made on “wooden tablets” and that this is what the “sticks” refer to in Ezekiel 37. (“Ezekiel’s Sticks,” Ensign, September 1977, 25. See also his article, “Ezekiel’s Sticks and the Gathering of Israel,” Ensign, February 1987.)
In 1990, Brian E. Keck challenged this assumption:
The most recent additions to the debate are two articles by Keith Meservy, published in the September 1977 and the February 1987 issues of the Ensign. He provides evidence that the “sticks” referred to by Ezekiel were actually wooden writing boards—thin leaves of wood coated on one side with wax attached together with metal or leather hinges. These writing boards were fairly common in Babylonia in the first millennium B.C. The appearance of his arguments in the official Church magazine has given prestige to his ideas, which have subsequently appeared in modified form in both Sunday School and Institute manuals. . . . Even in the 1979 LDS edition of the Bible the word “stick” in the Ezekiel passage is identified in a marginal note as: “Wooden writing tablet,” an interpretation most likely derived from Meservy’s writings. (Brian E. Keck, “Ezekiel 37, Sticks and Babylonian Writing Boards: A Critical Reappraisal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, spring 1990, 128. At the time of this article, Keck had a B.A. from the University of Arizona in Hebrew and Old Testament and an M.A. in Assyriology with emphasis on Babylonian language and literature from the University of Michigan, where he was then working on a Ph.D. in that same field.)
Keck was not impressed with this LDS rebuttal.
The basic problem for Mormon exegesis and the crux of the passage for Mormon and non-Mormon scholars alike is the meaning of the Hebrew word es, rendered by the King James translators as “stick.” The word es spans the whole range of Semitic languages (Bergstrasser 1983, 217), yet its various meanings reveal extraordinary continuity between the different languages. The term generally refers to a tree, wood in general, firewood, and specific items made of wood. In Hebrew the traditional semantic range is correspondingly broad, but again the word basically means tree, wood, sticks, branches, firewood, and timber for building. Occasionally it can refer to objects made of wood, such as a pole, the handle of an axe, gallows, idols, and vessels (Brown, Driver, and Briggs 1980, 781–82). Moreover, in post-biblical Hebrew the term es again refers to trees, different types of wood, a pole, the gallows, and a wooden pot ladle (Jastrow 1971, 1101). Therefore, as far as our current lexical knowledge goes, the Hebrew es does not refer to a writing board or document. (Ibid)
Keck interprets Ezekiel’s prediction much as biblical scholars see it.
The point of the whole passage is that just as Ezekiel brought two sticks together into one hand, so God will bring back the North and South Kingdoms into their homeland, to be ruled over by one leader, a Davidic descendant. . . . By placing the Ezekiel passage into the context of the sign-form, it becomes clear that Ezekiel’s performance with the sticks was intended for the public and symbolized what God was planning to do—reunify the two kingdoms of Israel. . . .identifying the sticks of Ezekiel with Babylonian writing boards was a clever exegetical idea, but it does not hold up to a close inspection. (Ibid. 136-137)
In his book This is My Doctrine, BYU professor Charles R. Harrell addressed the Ezekiel passages often used by Latter-day Saints:
The popular LDS interpretation of this passage is that the stick of Judah is the Bible while the stick of Joseph or Ephraim is the Book of Mormon (see Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Ephraim, Stick of”). When the 1979 LDS edition of the scriptures was published with footnotes and a topical guide that integrates all of the standard works, Elder Boyd K. Packer announced, ‘They are indeed one in our hands. Ezekiel’s prophecy now stands fulfilled (p. 93).
Harrell correctly noted,
Scholars point out that each of the sticks Ezekiel refers to is no more than a piece of wood (hence the term “stick”), on which he was to inscribe a short phrase. It doesn’t appear to have been a scroll or writing board on which a lengthy record might be kept (Ibid).
Harrell went on to write, “Any uncertainty regarding the intended meaning of this passage disappears in the next verse in which the people ask ‘Wilt thou not show us what thou meanest by these?’ (v.18). Ezekiel responds that the sticks represent the kingdoms of Judah and Joseph, and that the joining of the two sticks symbolizes the reuniting of the two kingdoms under one king (vv. 19-23). Many LDS scholars today concur with this contextual meaning and therefore see the traditional LDS interpretation as a “secondary,” “revealed” meaning (Ibid).
We would argue that to even hold this interpretation as “secondary” is tenuous based on the Hebrew used in the text. It does not allow for the understanding that the sticks are books.
Again, these passages have nothing to say about the Book of Mormon. Ezekiel 37 illustratively predicts the coming together of two nations, Judah and Israel, which had been separated since the time of King Rehoboam.
See also “Does Isaiah 29 speak of the Book of Mormon?
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