Many know the Old Testament lectionary reading for this coming Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent, through the familiar spiritual. Slaves in the American Sought clearly heard in Ezekiel and his visions of a wheel and a valley of dry bones a promise of God’s power to bring life out of death, freedom out of slavery. The passage finds its place in the commonlectionary, no doubt, because this power has not diminished in the centuries since it was first penned.
Ezekiel originally addressed the people of Judah exiled in Babylon. Several texts in the Hebrew Bible from about the same time offer evidence that a prevalent attitude, if not the dominant attitude among these exiles expressed a sense of despair, defeat, and abandonment. The entire book of Lamentations, a number of the so-called “communal lament” psalms (cf. Ps 74), and , even passages in Isaiah (40:27; 49:14, for example), Jeremiah (31:29, for example), and Ezekiel (18:2; 33:17) reflect this mood. Either, the people seem to have felt, we and our ancestors have so incensed God that God has abandoned us outright – we broke the covenant and, therefore, God is no longer bound in relationship with us – or God does not have the power to battle the gods of Babylon.
Approximately the first half of the book of Ezekiel concentrates on making the case that the Judeans had sinned grievously, defiling Jerusalem and the temple. Like all the prophetic books in the Bible, however, the book of Ezekiel resists categorization as solely and purely “judgment” preaching. Rather, Old Testament prophecy typically things of Israel’s God as one who undergoes the pain of God’s people along with them (cf. Jer 8:21-9:3) and stands on the other side of judgment eager to renew relationship. Both Jeremiah and Isaiah depict salvation beyond and through judgment in terms of the process of refining metal (Jer 9:7; Isa 48:10). According to Jeremiah, God’s solution to Israel’s breech of covenant is to make another (Jer 31:31-34).
Ezekiel’s vision depicts a resurrection. Transported by the Spirit of God, Ezekiel finds himself in a “valley of dried bones.” One thinks of the abandoned bones of a defeated army scattered across a battlefield and left as carrion. “Can these bones live?” God asks the prophet, who replies, ‘If anyone knows the answer to that question, God, it is you. I have no idea.’ God commissions Ezekiel to prophesy to these dead, dry bones. (Preachers, I advise against any mischievous comparison of this audience to your own Sunday morning audiences.) His message announces that they will be pieced together again, supplied with sinew, muscle tissue, and skin, and inspired to live again.
Ezekiel prophesies and the reassembly occurs, but there is no life in the reconstituted bodies. Again God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy, now to the four winds (Hebrew ruach, “wind, spirit, breath”) to to give breath (again Hebrew ruach) to the reconstituted corpses. Ezekiel prophesies and the spirit/wind/breath resuscitates the corpses.
Sometimes the Old Testament reports a remarkable vision such as this without further explanation, a circumstance that opens the door to speculative interpretations and applications. Now, however, God explains what the visions means: the dead, dry bones are the house of Israel, whose members have said that God has abandoned them to despair. To be sure, the image of a valley full of dried bones offers little hope on its face. The God of the Bible, however, does not yield to obstacles, even as obstacle as large as death.
Why does God intervene in this fashion and at this moment in Israel’s history? At this point, for over 600 years they have disobeyed, rejecting the prophets sent to admonish them, worshipping gods who were “no gods” (Jer 5:7). The exiles’ fear that God had finally and irreversibly abandoned them seems reasonable. Nonetheless, God had created and called, promised and protected. For the sake of God’s own integrity, God’s righteousness as Paul would phrase it later (Rom 1:17), God will be faithful to God’s purposes and God’s people. No less than three times in fourteen verses, God explains an action with the purpose clause characteristic of all Ezekiel’s preaching, “so that you may know that I am God” (vv 6, 13, 14).
The biblical and historical records testify that Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dry bones/remnant of Israel proved true. Despite the fact that, to an objective external observer, the prospects for the continued existence of Israel as a coherent people would have looked extremely dim when Ezekiel preached this word of hope, some returned to Judah/Yehud. They rebuilt the Temple. Indeed, even despite later existential crises (the Romans, the Nazis), God’s people Israel still survives.
The failures of God’s people do not determine the future of God’s people.
Does Ezekiel’s prophecy to the dry bones have anything to say to us? It does, but it may not be what we first expect. In Lent, on the way to Easter, a cursory reading of this text might lead one to think immediately and only of the resurrection of the dead to eternal life in the kingdom of God – to think of Easter. To do so, however, would be premature.
God’s “interpretation” of the vision makes clear that God thinks of the preservation and restoration of the remnant of Israel – a post-exilic phenomenon. God’s interpretation focuses on a people not on individual persons. It suggests that it is more proper to hear Ezekiel’s prophecy, first, as God’s promise not to abandon God’s people (including the church) even when it seems dry and breathless.
The lectionary rightly associates this text with John 11, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and Paul’s celebration of life in Christ in Romans 8 (vv 6-11) because they constitute a kind of trajectory. The power that restores and preserves remnant Israel, the power that frees slaves, and the power that raises Lazarus does not manifest itself once only in human affairs. It is the power of God’s unwavering love and determination to give life.
May each “minor resurrection” in our lives increase our confidence in the God of the living. As God’s people may we face difficult times in the certainty that God walks through them with us and waits on the other side of trial to give us a fresh breath of life.