Ezekiel 37:1-14 - link to the NRSV text
Many of us have our own “valley of dry bones.” We have circumstances, relationships, communities and groups that are torn asunder and falling apart. We have families shattered by betrayal and anger and abuse and addiction. We have churches divided over theology or worship style or ministry goals. We have a country separated by partisan politics, by rhetoric, by the color of the state, and by our stubborn refusal to even hear the other side and to try and work together for a common good. Sometimes we’ll look around at these shattered relationships, these crushed dreams and hopes, and we’ll assume that’s the end of the story.
This may have been the same kind of thinking that many of the Judean exiles may have been feeling in Babylon, especially after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Is our relationship with God over now that God has allowed this to happen? Have we been abandoned to our fate? Is there anything left to cling to? The future of God’s people was in jeopardy. The Temple was gone; the dwelling place of the Almighty was razed to the ground. Many of the Judeans most likely would have felt abandoned, cast off. Or as our reading from Ezekiel for this Sunday puts it, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (v. 11).
It’s within this context of exile and fear of the unknown future that we have to examine Ezekiel’s famous vision of the valley of dry bones. Many interpreters have assumed that the text speaks of individual resurrection from death, but to do so misses the rhetorical point that the text is trying to truly make.
Ezekiel describes his experience as a visionary journey, where Ezekiel is taken from his present location to another place where he experiences the revelation from God. In this case, Ezekiel says that the “hand of the LORD” picked him up and placed him in a valley of bones. God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and to tell them to “hear the word of the LORD” (v. 4). The results of this will be that God will bring the bones back together, restore to them their flesh, and breath into them so that they will live. All of this is so that the bones will know that “I am the LORD” (v. 6).
Ezekiel then performs two prophetic actions. His first prophetic act restores the flesh and muscle as promised, but there is no breath (Hebrew, ruach) in them. God commands Ezekiel to now prophesy to the breath and command it to enter the bones so that they may live. The breath obeys; the bones live and stand together as a “vast multitude” (10). This dual prophetic action in some ways mirrors God’s own actions in the creation story: God forms a man from the dust of the ground, and then breathes into it the breath of life (Genesis 2:7).
God then explains to Ezekiel the meaning of the vision: the bones are the exiled house of Israel, cut off and dried up, with no breath or life. God’s word through Ezekiel, that they shall live and know that the LORD has acted, is in contrast to Israel’s words of defeat and despair. This is repeated twice in verses 12-14, that Israel will be restored from the “grave” and thus they shall know “I am the LORD” and that “I, the LORD, have spoken and will act.”
The prophetic vision here is one of restoration, of recreation, and maybe even reconciliation. As possible rebellion against Babylon loomed, there were different views on what the kingdom should do. The prophet Jeremiah, seeing the coming war and ensuing destruction that would be caused, urged the kings to submit to Babylonian rule, believing that whatever befell Judah as a result of the war was punishment for Judah’s apostasy and failure to live up to the commands of justice and righteousness commanded by Torah. His viewpoints caused several clashes with the authorities and Judean nationalists, even including an arrest and jail time in a cistern (Jeremiah 38:1-13).
So maybe those things that divide us and leave us as the “dry and cut off bones” of the body of God’s people are not insurmountable. Maybe we can be restored, we can be reconciled to each other and to God, and we can be recreated and resurrected into the kinds of communities, families, countries, or people that God desires us to be. Our fatalistic words of hopelessness and abandonment are not the final word, for God’s word still comes to our valleys and brings us up from our graves (v. 13). But it takes more than just speaking to our brokenness, more than just commanding restoration and reconciliation, more than just saying that resurrection is possible. It requires the breath of God moving in and among the bones; it needs the spirit of God infusing us with new life, moving us to better ways of living and being.
Ezekiel’s vision is not one that is regulated strictly to some distant time past, but one that speaks in the face of all places of spiritual and emotional exile and death. Restoration is possible, but true restoration will only occur when the spirit of God moves and is put within the communities and circumstances that need it. Then we shall live and we shall know that “I, the LORD have spoken and will act” (v. 14).