Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14
This week’s passage is another one of Ezekiel’s whirlwind visions and ecstasy type encounters. This time he has been scooped up by the hand and spirit of the Lord and relocated to the middle of a valley. An abundance of dry bones are lying in the valley. In the middle of his tour, a question places us at the brink of a promise-full word spoken, which foreshadows the end of the passage. The passage ends where we may presently find ourselves in this liturgical season, waiting on the promise fulfilled.
“Mortal, can these bones live? … O Lord God, you know.”
The question in Ezekiel 37:3 is clear. The Holy One is asking the mortal one about the possibilities of the scattered bones living. In the presence of such a clear question, it is as if the mortal shrinks back without answering directly— “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” The scenario feels akin to when we are asked a question and then we respond with another question in an effort to deflect. The contrasting cast of characters in this dialogue (“Mortal” and “Lord God”) sets up an interesting dynamic around the capacity to know what is possible in the scene to come.
“Prophesy to these bones and say to them…”
The Holy One pushes past the initial stall and tells the mortal what they are to say to the bones. The mortal is to offer the prophecy that is “the word of the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:4). The message to the bones is not one of tentative possibilities. This message is one of certain and inevitable futurity, driven forward by the momentum in the verbs will and shall. “I will cause breath … and you shall live … I will lay sinews…and you shall live” (5-6).
The restoration will not stop with breath; it will attend to the fleshiest matters of this situated reality from muscles to skin tissues. These bones are to become upright, Spirit-filled flesh once again. And the Holy One is the acting agent who offers the word that life can come again, precipitates the reassembly of the bones, brings forth the breath from the winds, and restores muscles and flesh.
This resurrection from beyond nothingness1 is an over-the-top spectacle and will be a marker in time. The bones who experience this gathering together and resuscitation will be inheritors of tangible knowledge. By the end of the passage, both the nature of the peculiar breath that offers life and the nature of this tangible knowledge are clear. The breath is the spirit of “the Lord God.” And not only will they know the Holy One is “the Lord,” this knowledge extends to an assurance of the connection between God’s speaking and ongoing actions to come (Ezekiel 37:6, 14).
So I prophesied as I had been commanded. … “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal”
While the Holy One is the one acting, the mortal is extended an invitation to participate in this grotesque grandeur that will lead to something unfathomably holy—the restoration of life. Human finitude is somehow a collaborative agent in bringing this promise of resurrection to those strewn across the valley, not a limitation.
Here we might imagine what’s beyond the pages of the text in this scene. The position of the mortal at the outset of this invitation is unlike those who will be the recipients of the promise at the end of the vision. The mortal’s internal, “Yes, I will prophesy,” that is missing from the story but assumed in Ezekiel 37:7, precedes the fulfillment of the prophecy. In this moment, the mortal has not actually witnessed the bones rattling, joining together, being covered in muscles and skin, nor the breath entering them and their living again. The very dry bones are still lying in the valley. A willingness to participate in this prophecy is a type of trust in action, even if it is shrouded in the timidity of the response to the initial question. The mortal is invited into this posture more than once in the multi-staged event of verses 7-10.
‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’
The plot moves forward leaving no questions about who these bones are. “The whole house of Israel” is “these slain” and strewn across the valley” (Ezekiel 37:9, 11). We are quickly moved back into the present realities of the house of Israel living in Babylonian exile. Their cries of lament and grief reverberate in this passage. This word is to go forth in the context of uprooting, loss, and devastation. The conditions of the people of God are just as abysmal as the conditions in the valley. Likewise, the promise to the House of Israel is as grandiose as the vision. The Holy One is vowing to open their graves and bring them back to their land, all while putting “my spirit within you” (verse 14). When this word comes to them, they too will have to trust this unfathomable word as bond, because they have not yet experienced the forward-facing recovery to come.
Considerations for Preaching
The challenge in preaching this text is a willingness to attend to the fantastical moment in the valley alongside the very palpable circumstances in which this promise of resurrection from nothingness is situated. The passage does not leave us with metaphors or hypothetical realities. The bones are a specific group of people who are living amidst very specific untenable conditions. The promise of the restoration of life to come is not a tidy matter unmarred by the ongoing presence of death and loss.
Not attending to the lament-worthy tensions in the passage or our world would be preaching and pastoral malpractice. As we end this calendar year, we may survey the places in our world that lay waiting for an infusion from the holy-life-force. We are living in a global pandemic. We’ve had continual racial unrest, migration crises and border struggles, wildfires, and oil spills. Ongoing social and personal upheaval are not foreign conditions in our immediate neighborhoods or across the globe. The vibrancy of life sustained eludes us daily.
And yet, the mysterium tremendum of the passage is: the presence of death, loss, and grief do not thwart the uncertain but emboldened participation in the tangible possibilities of life renewed. This may be an invitation to imagine these places of participation in very concrete ways for our contemporary contexts, even as we hope against hope in a full forward-facing recovery to come.
- Anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist Zora Neal Hurston uses “rim bones of nothing” in several of her novels. Emilie M. Townes, Black Womanist social ethicist, offers an account of how Hurston’s phrasing, its imagining, and meaning has surfaced in Womanist Theology and Ethics. For more, see:
Hurston, Zora Neale. Jonah’s Gourd Vine. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1934). Townes, Emilie M. 2009. “Walking on the Rim Bones of Nothingness: Scholarship and Activism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77 (1): 1–15.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of breath,
You promised new life to your people in exile by breathing into a valley full of dry bones. Breathe new life into us, so that we might live passionately for you. Amen.
There shall a star, Felix Mendelssohn