Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

We are living in a strange time. And it would be easy to assume that no scripture passage could meet us here, in this bizarre and challenging modern time.  Well, here is one piece of good news: there are a lot of strange stories in our scriptures, truly bizarre stories; and many of them come from very challenging times in the lives of our ancestors in faith.  So it is with our reading today.

Things are bad for the people Israel. The great King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia and his armies have deposed Israel’s king and laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Thousands of Israelites have been cast out of their land. Others are still living in Israel under foreign rule. There is no sign that things will ever get better.

Then God takes the Prophet Ezekiel out into a valley full of bones.  If this doesn’t sound creepy enough to you already, the scripture assures us that there are very many bones in that valley, and they are very dry.  And then God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”  Ezekiel replies, “O Lord God, you know.”

God proceeds to instruct Ezekiel about how to prophecy to the bones: how to speak so that the bones come together, bone to its bone, with sinew and flesh and skin. And then the breath of God comes into these reformed bodies. They live, and stand on their feet, a vast multitude. Finally God tells Ezekiel that these bones are the whole house of Israel.  Israel says, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”  But Ezekiel’s job is to let them know that God is going to bring them up out of the grave, and fill them with spirit, with life.

We are perhaps still at the beginning of the trial that this pandemic we are living through may become. But there are already stories of great devastation. And it has already impacted all of us: our social connections, our childcare, our work habits, our income, our mourning rituals.  We may also find ourselves battling with inner devastation: a dryness, a hopelessness, a sense of being cut off from that which keeps us strong.  We may find ourselves saying with the people Israel, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” How might this story of God meet us in those times of desolation?

One striking thing about this story is that God does not restore this valley of dry bones alone.  Instead, God offers restoration in partnership with a prophet. God’s imagination and guidance, leads to Ezekiel’s proclamation, which in turn leads to physical changes. It may be that we have a role to play, that the human community has a role to play, in helping to communicate and enact what God knows can take place amidst the challenges of this time. Keep watch, pay attention to where this may be happening around you.

I am struck also that this scripture story is not simply a before-and-after story. God does not come and restore political victory to the people.  Their exile is not ended at the end of the story.  Rather, the reanimating words of hope come in the midst of devastation. The desert of dry bones, and the renewed multitude of living bodies, are existing in the same bleak reality. It’s not the exterior circumstances that change, but the sense of vibrancy, life, hope, in the midst of the circumstance.  How might we live like a watered desert, like a re-membered people filled with God’s breath, even in the midst of isolation, in the midst of desolation?

Some questions for reflection:

  • When have you felt dried up, without hope, cut off, like the people Israel in this story?
  • What are the losses you grieve in this pandemic time, for yourself or for others? I think grief is a real and important thing to acknowledge for all of us, what we are losing, what we have lost.
  • How, even in times like this, does God partner with us to open graves, give breath, fill us with Spirit?