Our culture seems obsessed with death imagery.
From crime investigation television shows like CSI and the aptly named Bones, to the revitalization of classic works of literature into ghoulish parodies such as Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, figures of death crowd the popular cultural landscape. If we turn our attention away from mere entertainment to media coverage of disease, poverty, natural disaster, and war, the obsession only amplifies.
Perhaps death and our fascination with it is simply a result of the human condition, as Ecclesiastes suggests: "Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead" (Ecclesiastes 9:3). Or perhaps we are pursuing the ancient quest to conquer death chronicled in stories as ancient as Gilgamesh and as new as Battlestar Galactica.
The book of Ezekiel tells some of the most macabre tales in the Bible. Yet, when people mention the prophet Ezekiel these days, we may only think of Samuel L. Jackson wildly paraphrasing the book in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (often before a cold-blooded killing) or television documentaries "reporting" references to aliens in the Bible. In Christian circles, however, the name Ezekiel almost universally invokes the story of a valley filled with dry bones that is the reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
It is no wonder that the Christian tradition often reduces the book of Ezekiel to this one magnificent text, given the strange, violent, incomprehensible, and even offensive nature of much of the book (see Ezekiel 16 and 23). It is much more palatable to reach for the hope of resurrection that one finds in Ezekiel 37--or perhaps the lush picture of new creation in Ezekiel 47--than to dare confront some of the book's darker imagery. Ezekiel's audience members misunderstood his melodramatic ranting as much as we do. In an exasperated response to God, the prophet himself laments: "Ah, Lord GOD! They say of me: He is just a riddlemonger" (Ezekiel 21:5 JPS).
God actually begins Ezekiel 37 by presenting a riddle to the prophet: "Mortal, can these bones live?" (Ezekiel 37:3) Surveying the valley filled with dried, brittle bones, the prophet meekly responds with an exasperated, "O Lord GOD, only You know." We cannot fully comprehend the magnificent hope in the latter verses of this passage without some attention to why Ezekiel's response is so resigned. Before we can watch the wind swirl the bones back together and marvel at the newly formed humans breathing the breath of life again, we have to ask a few questions. Why is the valley full of bones? What caused the visions of death that the community faced? What has brought Ezekiel to the point of near speechlessness and despair?
Because we so often do not read the rest of the book leading up to this grand scene, we have a myopic view of the prophet's own desperation and the plight of the community to which this story attempts to give hope. We forget that Ezekiel himself was taken into exile in 597 BCE, that he heard reports of his religious institution being corrupted without the proper oversight of the priesthood, and that his status had been reduced from a prominent position as a future priest in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile. We forget the death of his wife and God's command for him not to mourn her as an example for the exilic community not to mourn the loss of the Temple (24:16-24).
More importantly, we forget the historical trauma that accompanied this exile. We forget that the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair (2 Kings 25:3). We forget how they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon. Over and over again, in the texts we refuse to read from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet offers imagery that testifies to and metaphorically represents the multiple traumas that the community faced under the realities of ancient Near Eastern warfare.
While many of us read Ezekiel 37 as a beautiful passage, it is also horrifying. It is horrifying because it calls the reader to remember, confront, and testify to the devastating events that led to the valley filled with dry bones in the first place. Its beauty, however, manifests itself with the possibility that even in this landscape full of death, a hope for renewed life remains. Ezekiel prophesies to the bones that soon reanimate, with newly formed sinews knitting the bones together as living flesh and skin envelop them (verse 8). In a scene that recalls the breath of God entering the first human in Genesis 2, the prophet then commands the four winds and the same breath of God enters the reanimated bodies that live once more (verse 10).
The miracle of this vision does not simply lie in its theatricality. The true miracle is that it occurs after the community has faced such devastating loss. Yet, the familiarity of this text can tempt preachers and teachers to reduce the miraculous to cliché. We can often turn it into a promise for new life on individual and communal levels without taking seriously the situations and circumstances that have lead to the initial death. As is the temptation in every Lenten season, we might look forward so fervently to the reanimation of the bones that we rush forward to the glory of resurrection Sunday without considering the trauma of the preceding week. While celebrating the victory over death, we refuse to evaluate the systems, patterns, and consequences of our walk through the valley of its shadow.
If we are to teach and preach this text responsibly, we must pay attention to the boundary between life and death. We must at once recognize and bear witness to the despair of the world around us while also inspiring hope for a seemingly impossible future. Our task, like Ezekiel's, is not an easy one. But if we are able to shed our cynicism and despair, if we are willing to discern and testify to the death that surrounds our communities, and if we are prepared to obey the charge to command the spirit of God to renew them, perhaps the Church can and will fulfill its role to inspire new life in the darkest valleys.