The "valley of dry bones" is almost certainly the most beloved and well known of Ezekiel's visions.
The vividness of its imagery, the wonder of its unfolding narrative, and visceral appeal of its symbolism endow it with a sort of plug-and-play appeal--even an uninitiated reader can engage with this wonderful story. And yet the story becomes even more powerful when the reader learns something about its historical context, literary background, and theological symbolism.
This vision dates to the period of Israel's history known as the Babylonian Exile. In 597 BCE, the armies of Babylon forced the capitulation of the rebellious city Jerusalem and deported the Judean king and many Judean leaders to Babylon (2 Kings 24:10-16). Ten years later, in 587/6 BCE, after Jerusalem had rebelled again, the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and its temple and deported a second wave of Judean leaders. Among the first wave of the deported was the young Ezekiel, whom God later called in Babylon to the office of prophet. For those deportees forced to live in Babylon, the future seemed a black hole into which the people were destined to disappear. A century-and-a-half previously, many citizens of Judah's sister kingdom Israel had been similarly deported, had lost their identity, and had faded into the mists of history--the so-called lost tribes of Israel. The exile was more than just a crisis of physical suffering and communal identity. It also necessitated a crisis of faith. The key symbols of Judean faith--Jerusalem, its temple, its people, and the Davidic monarchy--had been destroyed (cf Psalms 89 and 137). According to the theological rationality of the ancient world, many exiled Judeans assumed that their deity had been defeated by a stronger deity from Babylon (cf. Ps 42:3, 10; 79:10; 115:2). The people wondered if the Lord was truly lord and truly faithful.
Behind the vision in Ezekiel 37 are two literary forms--the communal lament psalm and the prophetic message of deliverance. In communal laments, the people poured out their pain in fervent cries for deliverance. Toward the end of the oracle in Ezekiel 37:1-14, we hear the words of lament of the deported people: "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely" (v. 11). One finds similar language in the lament psalms. "My strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away" (Ps 31:10). "My bones are shaking with terror" (6:2). "My bones burn like a furnace" (102:3). The reference to "bones" here is an idiomatic way of referring to one's deepest self, or, in the case of "our bones," a way for the community to refer to its most essential self (thus also when Adam, in search of a partner finally finds Eve, he cries "This at last is bone of my bones" [Gen 2:23]). What we learn from this is that Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones is a poetic and prophetic response to the situation of God's people--to their sense of hopelessness, to their situation of being cut off from their land, their temple, and--they think!--from their God. The people use a common idiom of their time to express their helplessness and hopelessness. They say, "Our bones are dried up." So Ezekiel shows them a vision of exactly that: dry bones. The second literary genre that helps one understand Ezekiel's vision is the prophetic message of deliverance (also called the oracle of salvation). As is well known, the prophets were messenger sent from God bearing messages. At times the prophets were sent with messages of judgment, calls to repentance, and admonitions to obedience. At other times--and this is the case in Ezekiel 37--the prophets were sent with good news. The summary of Ezekiel's good news is found in vv 12-14, which culminates with these words: "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil." Ezekiel's message is the promise that God's spirit will reach out and bring the people back from exile.
A third element in the story that is helpful is the multidimensional meaning of the Hebrew xwr (ruach). This word can mean "spirit" (as in God's spirit), "wind," and "breath." In this vision, the prophet plays on all three meanings as part of his brilliant strategy to make God's promise of return from exile ring in the ears of the deportees. In v. 1, Ezekiel reports that the Lord's spirit (xwr) showed him a vision of an entire valley filled with dry bones. As already noted, this vision is an echo of the people's lament. (I have young children, so when I think of this vision, I see the scene in Disney's The Lion King of the elephant graveyard.) The question is, "Can these bones live?" The key to the unfolding story, of course, is that in order to live, they need not only flesh, sinew, and skin. . . but also breath: "I will. . . put breath (xwr) in you, and you shall live" (v. 6). Then, in the vision, sinew, flesh, and skin cover the bones, but there is no breath (xwr) in them (v. 8). So, Ezekiel prophesies to the breath (xwr), "Come from the four winds (xwr), O Breath (xwr), and breathe upon these slain, that they may live" (v. 9). And "the breath (xwr) came into them, and they lived" (v. 10). As already noted, in Ezekiel's explanation of the vision, he summarizes the point: "I will put my spirit (xwr) with you, and you shall live" v. 14). The prophet's insistent use of repetition drums the point of the message into our heads: God's spirit is the key. With God's spirit, anything is possible. Without it, existence is just flesh and blood. But with God's spirit, there is life--and what Jesus called fullness of life. And there is no place on earth, no when in time, and no what in sin or situation, that can keep God's Spirit away from God's people (see Romans 8:31-38).
A final word about preaching this text
The text not only gives the preacher a powerful gospel to proclaim, it also confers a freedom of proclamation on the preacher. Most preachers will explain the meaning of the text and proclaim it anew to congregations today. And that is good and neat. But the preacher also as much freedom as Ezekiel had to enter into a sermon as evangelical performance. Is there a way for the preacher not just to explain the text, but to do more? As Ezekiel drew on the metaphor of the lamenting bones of the people and wrought from that image the vision of the valley of dry bones, can the preacher enter into the lives of the people and cast a vision for them of God's Spirit at work in their lives?