Can These Bones Live?
Ezekiel 37:1-14, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, May 20, 2018
The great hand of Yahweh comes down and scoops up Ezekiel the way I might pick up a hamster. He holds the prophet in his grip until he comes to a valley, and there he deposits him in the midst of a horrific scene. It is a human junkyard, a graveyard without graves, where nothing is left but human bones bleaching in the sun, picked clean by flesh-eating birds.
A great battle has happened here, and no one had the time or inclination to bury the bodies of the dead. There are scenes like this in ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian histories, in which the defeated are all dead and the victors simply leave them on the field. There are treaties from the ancient Near East which say that if you violate this treaty you will be cursed by having your corpse exposed to the elements.
Perhaps you can imagine scenes from Civil War battlefields where thousands fell. Imagine that neither side had the resources to carry away the bodies of their dead but left them where they fell. Think what the fields of Bull Run, or Manassas, or Gettysburg would look like, littered with corpses which eventually began to rot, then were eaten by wolves and buzzards, until there was nothing left but bones, drying in the summer sun. Think of battles America lost—Pearl Harbor, Hamburger Hill in Vietnam, 9/11—if all the bones of those who perished were simply piled up for a prophet to walk through.
In Ezekiel’s lifetime, Israel had lost great battles. Most recently, they had lost to the Babylonians. The first time, the Babylonians gathered up the elites of Jerusalem and moved them to Babylon. There they were not imprisoned, but they were not allowed to go home. The Jews were brought there to assimilate, to learn the ways of the great city, to fit into their economy, to learn their language. Israel’s culture would be destroyed—without firing a shot, as we say. The second time, when the king of Babylon got tired of continued resistance from little Judah, the Babylonian army completely destroyed Jerusalem, knocking down its walls and leveling the Temple which was the center of Jewish religion. Now there was nothing left to go home to, even if you tried.
The Lord tells Ezekiel that the dry bones represent the people of Israel. Your country is dead and gone. I found myself singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There are nations that cease to exist. Think not only of the Confederate States of America, but Armenia, or Tibet, or Yugoslavia. Nothing but bones, or dust in the wind. Nothing but memories and dashed hopes.
The Lord quotes to Ezekiel what seems to be a little ditty the people of Israel were singing to themselves, or at least three rhyming lines of Hebrew poetry:
Our bones are dried up,
our hope has perished,
we are cut off completely.
It might be that the little song is what inspired Ezekiel’s vision in the first place—“our bones are dried up.” There are several places in the psalms where crushed or damaged bones are a way of expressing distress. The bones that are dried up have no life-giving marrow in them. Hope has not merely vanished but has actually died. And the people are cut off—as Isaiah 52:8 says that the suffering servant “was cut off from the land of the living.”
This is the reality that Ezekiel faces: his country is dead. The people of Israel had thought that their nation would last forever, just as we do. We can’t really imagine that America might die and disappear from the face of the earth, but if history is any guide, there are probably even odds. The superpowers of the ancient Near East had been the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. Where are they now? Only Egypt survives, and only as a kind of museum, and Persia, having been replaced by a different, Islamic culture going by the name Iran. All empires fall eventually—even, in spite of the fanfare at the royal wedding, the British empire. Even the feared Soviet empire. And even, as we speak, the American empire.
We are not dead yet, but Israel certainly was. At the time of this vision, all the people of Israel were living under other governments. The idea of Israel as a country was as dead as those dry bones. The God of Israel asks the prophet, “Can these bones live?” A sensible answer might be “Definitely not. Once you’re dead, you’re dead.” The South is not going to rise again. You can’t really reconstitute Armenia or Kurdistan or even Palestine. They are gone and left to historians and archeologists. But Ezekiel does not answer “No.” He gives an equivocating answer worthy of a White House Press Secretary: “Sovereign Lord, you know.” That means, apparently, only you know the limits of your power. Can you make these bones live? You tell me.
The way the Lord tells Ezekiel what is possible is by telling him to preach to the dry bones—as if they could hear him. Tell them: “This is what Lord Yahweh says: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.” Behind that statement stands the story of the creation of Adam; God made the earth-creature out of dust, then breathed life into him. Another key to understanding this statement is knowing that in Hebrew the word ruach means breath, or wind, or spirit. That is why this story is read at Pentecost. The breath of God is the life-giving Spirit—for the church as well as for Israel. The church is dead until God breathes the Spirit into us.
God says that this is the sequence for putting life back into those dry bones. First, he will tie the bones together with tendons. Then he will put meat on those bones, covering them with muscle. Then he will cover the muscle with skin. And finally, he will put breath into those covered skeletons, and they will come to life. The result of all that is this: “Then you will know that I am Yahweh.” I am the only God who can give life to the dead. This is the reason you are dead in the first place—that you did not know that I am Yahweh, I alone am your Lord and God.
At that point, Ezekiel hears a noise: bones rattling on the valley floor. The bones are moving around on their own, apparently, and they are knocking together as if God were playing them in a rhythm band. Bone stands on bone, then I would guess cartilage appears (although the prophet doesn’t mention it), then tendons and connective tissue, then muscle, then skin. They look human again, but they are not alive. They look like dead bodies lying there.
The Lord says, “We need one more step. Preach to the wind now. Tell the wind to blow from the north, south, east, and west, and breathe into these who were slaughtered, so that they can come alive.” So the prophet preached as he was told, and sure enough the breath entered them—the wind which is also the breath of God, the one we call the Spirit—and those corpses came to life. They stood up! They stood there on their feet, looking for all the world like a vast army. I am trying not to think of them as looking like Orcs in the Lord of the Rings movies, creatures manufactured for nothing but war. Fortunately, Ezekiel’s vision stops there and does not have these revived warriors fighting anyone. The point is not that Israel will win a war, but simply that the nation will come back to life after being dead as a doornail.
Yahweh interprets the vision—or experience—for Ezekiel. “These bones represent the people of Israel,” or “the whole house of Israel.” They represent the whole nation, not the army. They represent the covenant people of God which for all practical purposes is no longer my people and thus no longer in existence at all. My promise, God says to the people whose land had been destroyed, the people whose hope had perished, is that I will give you life even though you as a nation are dead. I will raise the nation out of its grave. This is a promise to Israel as a people, not to individuals.
There are two things this vision is not about. First, it is not about the promise of resurrection for individuals. At this point in Israel’s history, they had not come to the hope of a general resurrection at the last judgment yet. Like the psalmists, everyone assumed that life ended at death and you returned to dust. Later on, in the two centuries before Jesus, the concept that the dead would all be raised someday became established among the Pharisees, and Jesus certainly believed it—as did Paul and the other apostles. But Ezekiel had no concept of individual life after death, or God lifting individuals out of their graves. It was the nation—the whole house of Israel—that God was going to revive and reanimate, at a time when they thought their nationhood was gone forever.
What Ezekiel announced was that the nation as God’s people would be brought back into existence. It must have seemed implausible at the time. It would be like announcing to Cherokees in Oklahoma that God was going to revive them as a nation and give them the western half of North Carolina. They had been exiled and for all practical purposes their national identity had been destroyed. In Israel’s case, God worked through historical forces to make the revival happen. Persia conquered Babylon and instituted a policy of repatriating the Jews. Cyrus the king, whom Jews referred to as a Messiah, gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland, and many of them did—although some stayed in Babylon permanently. Those who returned were able to rebuild the walls and eventually the temple, so there was a Jerusalem again.
Now the second thing this vision is not about is the restoration of the state of Israel in 1948. Everything Ezekiel and Isaiah and others prophesied about the return from the exile was fulfilled in the years following 538 BC. There are no scriptures about Israel reclaiming a homeland after living in the Diaspora for 2000 years. That is a notion that was concocted in the middle of the 19th century in England; it was never taught by the church before that, and only by a few Christian groups since then. There are no scriptures saying that there has to be a return of Jews to Israel before Jesus can return, which is the misguided reason so many fundamentalist Christians support the secular state of Israel politically. Ezekiel’s vision has nothing to do with that stuff.
What the vision does say to us in the 21st century is that the Spirit can give life to the dead. Jesus says in John 6:63, “The Spirit gives life.” The Spirit that gave life to Adam also gives life to us—individually and as the church, as the story of Pentecost shows. Paul said that before the Spirit comes to us, each of us is spiritually dead in our sins, but the Spirit enlivens what is dead in us and makes us spiritually alive. Nobody even comes to faith in Jesus unless the Spirit is at work in your life drawing you to Jesus. The Spirit is the name we use now for God’s active presence in our lives—so of course it is that active presence that draws us to love God and Jesus and put our confidence in them.
It is tempting to some people to take things God said to his covenant people Israel and apply them to the United States of America. We are not, however, God’s covenant people or his special creation. In biblical terms, we are just one of the nations, like Babylon or Rome—or Persia, for that matter. Here’s a good rule of thumb: a promise made to Israel cannot be applied to America or any other nation. It’s more appropriate to apply it to the church as the covenant people of God.
We celebrate on Pentecost that the church’s life comes from the wind of God breathing into the church as a body. When we think of the valley of dead bones, it raises the question of whether a church can die. Are there churches that once had life but now have none of the breath of God in them, so that they are just a pile of dry bones? The answer to that question is certainly yes. I will not describe Harbor Church as dry bones—maybe out of shape, but not dead. There is still life in the marrow of our bones; there are members of the body who breathe deeply, although some have COPD. But death is always a possibility for any church. It is not inevitable that a church survives. But here is the great good news from Ezekiel: even if we are at death’s door, even if we are dry bones and there is no life in us—even then, God’s Spirit can breathe life into the church. It is the Spirit’s normal role to inhabit the body of Christ to fill us with the love of God and the very life of Christ. The foundation of our life together is his life, living in us. Even when church people moan and complain like Israel, “Our bones are dried up! Our hope is gone,” even then it is the duty of the prophet to say to you, “The Lord says, ‘I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.’” This is the promise on which we rely.