William Shatner—a.k.a. Captain Kirk from Star Trek and Denny Crane from Boston Legal—has been making the news lately because of his frank talk about death: both his own mortality and the prospect of the earth’s destruction. This newfound interest in taking up what is often a taboo subject seems to stem, at least in part, from the trip to space he took aboard Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin New Shepard rocket in 2021. Upon his return from that voyage, a very emotional Shatner reflected, “You look down, there’s the blue down there and the black up there … there is Mother Earth and comfort, and there is, is there death? I don’t know, but is that death? Is that the way death is?”
Shatner’s questions point toward a mystery that philosophers through the ages have contemplated: what is death like? We can know what know what dying is like, but we can’t know what death is like, because as soon as we are finished dying and are fully dead, we no longer have the consciousness to register the experience. Death is life’s perpetual unknown.
This week’s Old Testament and Gospel lectionary texts both involve up-close encounters with death. But, like Shatner’s journey into the unknown of space, the stories don’t answer our burning questions about our own individual deaths. Instead, these Bible stories point us away from ourselves and toward the power of God.
The Ezekiel and John texts run headlong into the physical realities of death, reminding us that our experiences of death—including our experiences of the deaths of others—are bodily, physical. In Ezekiel, the prophet is dropped in the middle of a valley full of dry bones—some sort of mass grave, perhaps a battlefield—where animals and the elements have stripped the bodies of all flesh, so that only broken, sun-baked, skeletal remains are left. In John, Jesus weeps, a physical response to the lamentations of Mary and her companions. As Jesus orders Lazarus’s tomb to be opened, Martha warns of the four-day stench of a decomposing corpse they will encounter there.
By emphasizing physical details, both stories underscore that the dead bodies in question are really, really dead—“dead as a doornail,” like Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Those details help the text convey that the resuscitations are miracles, not just coincidences or sleights of hand. But the dry bones and the smell of the corpse are also visceral reminders of the unrelenting march of decay. “The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:7).
In Ezekiel 37, the dry bones reverse their decay, forming a skeleton and gaining sinews, flesh, and skin. These newly re-formed bodies are then animated by breath (ruach) from God.
(Two brief side-notes for preachers looking for illustrations: In C.S. Lewis’s allegorical Christian novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the lion Aslan is the Christ-figure, and in order to reanimate the creatures who have been turned to stone by the White Witch, Aslan breathes on them. Also, taken together, Ezekiel 37 and John 11 echo the two kinds of creative power God exhibits in the creation stories: breathing into the human [Genesis 2] and speaking creation into being [Genesis 1, see also John 11:43].)
But despite its emphasis on bodies, the valley of the dry bones is a metaphor, according to the interpretation God gives the prophet in Ezekiel 37:11-14. The book of Ezekiel is keen on symbolic acts, such as the prophet’s eating of the scroll, in which he ingests and internalizes the words of lamentation and woe that God has charged him to speak to Israel (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3). The reanimated skeletons in the valley of the dry bones function as another symbolic action; God’s restoration of Israel in the wake of the Babylonian exile will be like the re-forming and resuscitating of these dry bones.
The interpretation in Ezekiel:11-14 is remarkable for its long sequence of first-person verbs that refer to God’s action on behalf of Israel. God will open graves, bring up from graves, bring the people back, put God’s spirit within the people, and put the people on their own soil (verses 12-13). Additionally, God has spoken and will act (verse 14). All of this work of the restoration of Israel is God’s doing. All there is for the people to do—or rather, what will happen as a consequence of God’s action and not of their own—is to know that the LORD is God, and to live.
Though the commentaries will unpack the John passage better than I can in this brief essay, the raising of Lazarus similarly centers on knowing the power of God, and specifically on knowing the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. When Martha communicates with Jesus about Lazarus’s afterlife—“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”—Jesus redirects Martha’s attention toward himself, his life-giving power. The larger story pivots on Martha’s declaration, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27).
Like Mr. Shatner, I, too, find myself in a state of terror and awe when I contemplate the infinite void of space. “Is that the way death is?” I don’t know. The witness of Scripture as a whole points toward something more. And I know that there can be no resurrection without death first. But the “something more” in the appointed texts for this week is not about me or the particularities of my afterlife. The something more in Ezekiel 37 and John 11 is the power of God to move the world in the direction of life: toward hope and restoration, toward a world infused with the breath of God. If we pay attention, then with God’s help we will see and know—in Scripture and in the life that teems around us—the glory of God.