|The Valley of The Dry Bones (Gustave Dore’, 1866)|
Lectionary Text: Ezekiel 37: 1-14 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
“Ru’ah.” It is the Hebrew word that is here translated as “breath,” God breathing life. It is also translated as “wind” or “spirit”. Actually, we English-speakers don’t really have a translation that will do it justice. It is not JUST breath; it is the very essence of God giving us life, God’s Spirit, God’s Word breathed into all of Creation, into all that is life.
Ezekiel was both a priest and a prophet in the 6th century BCE, before and during the time of the conquest of Judah and the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel himself was taken into exile, into a land far away from the land of his birth and of his identity. The temple was destroyed and the city lay in ruins. All seemed hopeless and gone. The bones here, whether taken literally or as metaphor, are dry, lifeless, and broken. They symbolize all of the hopes and dreams that now lay in despair. The kingdom of Israel is gone and their lives have gone away with it. There is nothing left but corpse-like bones.
And then, according to Ezekiel, “the hand of the Lord came upon me.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson says that “God grabs me”. Think of that image. Here was Ezekiel, probably feeling the weight of despair of those around him and virtual helplessness at what he could do as their leader. But then “God GRABBED him…I have something to show you.” And there in the middle of death and destruction and despair, God showed him what only God could see. And then God breathes life into the bones and the bones come to life. It is a story of resurrection.
The idea of God creating and recreating over and over again is not new to us. But most of us do not this day live in exile. We are at home; we are residing in the place where our identity is claimed. So how can we, then, understand fully this breathing of life into death, this breathing of hope into despair? The image is a beautiful one and yet we sit here breathing just fine. We seldom think of these breaths as the very essence of God. In the hymn, “I’ll Praise My Make While I’ve Breath”, Isaac Watts writes the words, “I’ll praise my God who lends me breath…” Have you ever thought of the notion of God “lending you breath”? Think about it. In the beginning of our being, God lent us breath, ru’ah, the very essence of God. And when our beings become lifeless and hopeless, that breath is there again. And then in death, when all that we know has ended, God breathes life into dry, brittle, lifeless bones yet again. Yes, it is a story of resurrection.
God gave us the ability to breathe and then filled us with the Breath of God. We just have to be willing to breathe. It involves inhaling. It also involves exhaling. So exhale, breathe out all of that stuff that does not give you life, all of that stuff that dashes hopes and makes you brittle, all of that stuff that you hold onto so tightly that you cannot reach for God. Most of us sort of live our lives underwater, weighed down by and environment in which we do not belong. We have to have help to breathe, so we add machines and tanks of air. But they eventually run out and we have to leave where we are and swim to the top. And there we can inhale the very essence of God, the life to which we belong. God lends us breath until our lives become one with God and we can breathe forever on our own.