Dry Bones and the Breath of Life - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Ezekiel)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
37 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
The Babylonian exile was a tragic, and yet fruitful event in the life of the people of Israel. It was tragic, because the nation was torn apart. Yet, the exile also gave Judah an opportunity to rediscover its identity as a people. Much of what we know as the Old Testament emerged in the context of the exile. While, it was a challenging time for the people of Judah, who found it difficult to live in hope of a new and better day.
Ezekiel was a prophet who arose in the context of the exile, and he spoke words that chided the people when they were unfaithful, but he also shared words that offed hope of a new day, when the people of Israel would experience restoration. One of the most powerful words of hope to be found in Ezekiel, if not all of scripture, is this passage from Ezekiel 37. Can dry bones live? That is the question of the hour. It is the question that YHWH asked of the prophet after delivering him to a plain covered with dry, lifeless bones. Can these bones live? All that Ezekiel can answer is: “you know.” That is, Ezekiel has no idea how dry, lifeless bones could ever be restored to life. Only God knows, and it’s possible that as the conversation started, Ezekiel had his doubts.
If Ezekiel has doubts, God has a plan. There’s a reason why God brought Ezekiel out to this plain covered with dry bones. God wanted Ezekiel to better understand his prophetic calling. God wanted him to preach, to share the word, so that Israel might once again live. This is the word given to Ezekiel: “say to the bones: “hear the word of the Lord.” I think we should let that phrase sink into our hearts and minds. “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Remember the message of John’s prologue, which declared that the Word (Logos) was in the beginning with God and was God, and that all things came into being through him, and “in him was life” (Jn. 1:1-4). The Word of the Lord is life, and if Ezekiel will preach to the bones, then God will breathe life into them, so that the bones will know who the LORD is.
Ezekiel does as God asks, and then witnesses God’s fulfillment of the promise made to Ezekiel. The bones begin to rattle and come together to form skeletons (we could use a bit of Disney animation here). On these skeletons flesh appears. But, the text of Ezekiel says that to this point “there was no breath in them.” It would be fitting to go back to Genesis 2, the second creation story, where God forms the first human from the dust of the earth. The basic building blocks are there, but life isn’t yet present. Life awaits the breath of God. As we read in Genesis, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). In Ezekiel, God tells the prophet to “prophesy to the breath, saying: “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ez. 37:9). When Ezekiel complied, the winds came forth, and filled the lifeless bodies with breath. Of course, the Hebrew word, like the Greek word, for breath is also the word for Spirit (ruach/pneuma). In the biblical story, life isn’t separate from the presence of God’s spirit.
It is important that we recognize that Ezekiel isn’t speaking about individuals. He has in mind a people, the people of Israel, who have experienced the devastation of conquest and the humiliation of exile. Not everyone in the nation of Judah found themselves in Babylon, but whether in Babylon or in the land of Israel, the people of Judah had lost their sense of identity. It was as if they had died. The Spirit of God seemed absent from the people. Now, it needs to be said that the Spirit of God wasn’t truly absent, but the people seemed disconnected from the life-giving Spirit of God. The presence of the Spirit can be seen in the work of the prophets, including Ezekiel.
This is a well-known passage of scripture. It’s vivid in its descriptiveness. The valley of dry bones coming back to life; it’s a powerful image. But what does it have to do with us? What word does God have for the church in the 21st century, a church that is beginning to see itself in terms of exile. We seem to be a collection of dry, lifeless bones scattered across the plain. I hear it all the time. I hear it from colleagues who bemoan what appears to be the prolonged death of the church. I hear it from church members, who remember the glory days, when Sunday was marked by church attendance. Churches were full. The congregation I now serve is relatively small, but once it was a grand and powerful congregation. Its pastor was nationally recognized (he served as President of the Federal Council of Churches). The church sat on Detroit’s “Piety Row.” Times changed, the church began a slow decline, and it eventually moved to the suburbs. For a long time, it clung to its former heritage, but the reality is that the congregation had gone into exile. This congregation isn’t alone in this, even if a congregation hasn’t moved from its original space. The promise here, of course, is that the exiles will return to the Land, to the soil, upon which the people had once been a nation of some importance. It’s not likely that our congregations will return to their original glory, but the spirit of exile can give way to a new spirit of hope and service. We can take root in our new realities, and be witnesses to God’s gracious presence. The dry bones can hear the Word of God and come to life, filled with the Spirit, so as to become signs of God’s presence in the world.
Perhaps the key to restoration is attending to the Word of God. I speak here to my more “progressive/liberal” colleagues, who often struggle with Scripture. Yes, Scripture can be difficult to navigate. It says things that we may find problematic. After all, it emerged in a very different world, and yet it does have something powerful to say, if we’re willing to listen. While critical scholarship is essential to getting the context straight, if we begin and end there, we may end up missing a Word from God. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we would be better of moving on from focusing our attention on questions of historicity, and focus more on the overarching narrative that is Scripture. He speaks of the Exodus story here, but I think it holds for other conversations. Of the biblical narrative, he writes that we might see it as “a script that is waiting to be performed; it is always being given new performance, even in our own time . . .” [Rebuilding the Foundations, p. 193]. With that in mind we can get a sense of the overarching message of this narrative. Kelton Cobb writes that “at the core of the biblical narrative is the story of displacement—of having wandered a long way from home, and longing to return. This is the underlying plot of being cast out of Eden, of being foreigners in Egypt, of the journey to the promised land, of the long of exiles in Babylon to return to the land of their fathers” [Feasting on the Word, 126].
It is this narrative of exile and return that defines our own realities, including as churches. When we feel as if we’re in exile, we long to return home. That might be why there is such interest in genealogies. We want to know where we belong, so we can return to our homeland. When I went to England, during my sabbatical, I had this feeling of connecting to my roots. This was my homeland. When I went to Christ Church Cathedral and experienced Evensong, it was as if I had come home. So, I understand this longing for home. It is a longing that defines salvation. As Augustine wrote in The Confessions, the restless heart will not find rest until it rests in God. Is this not our own desire? Do we not want to find our homeland? For Judah, it was the Land, for us, it is the realm of God.
So, what do we make of this powerful story? What word does it have for us? At one level this might be a good word about the power of preaching, even if our culture doesn’t seem to value preaching in the same way it once did, there is her a call to bring the Word so that the Spirit might move. When we hear the word “prophesy,” a number images might come to mind, most of which don’t seem to apply to those of us who enter pulpits to preach. But, in many ways that is what we’re called to do. We’re asked to bring a Word from God to a community. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write that “preaching her is the means of restoration. Through preaching the breath of God enters the bones. An implication is that pastorally sensitive prophetic preaching can play a key role in revitalizing community” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 37].
This is the word given to Israel, and by extension to the Church: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.” The church in the West is experiencing a reality that it hasn’t faced in centuries. No longer supported by government or even cultural establishment, it must fend for itself, or depend on the Spirit of God. Many congregations feel as if their bones are “very dry.” They feel as life has been drained from them, but here is a word of hope. Say to the bones – Live. Call for the wind of the Spirit to breathe life into the bones of our congregations. We may be in exile, but the realm of God is there in front of us.
Picture attribution: Elkan, Benno, 1877-1960. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55841 [retrieved March 27, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630.jpg.