Opening The Old Testament
Becoming Whole Again: Reflections on Ezekiel 37:1-14
I imagine that more than a few of you preachers reading this are thinking to yourselves, "I know about this, because I preach to a whole pile of dry bones every Sunday!" That may be more or less true, but Ezekiel really does have the harder task. His congregation is actually a heap of dry bones, and the success of a preaching mission appears rather slim. This makes even Jonah's Ninevite congregation not so bad; at least they are alive! But YHWH promises a Frankenstein-like result for this sermon: sinews and flesh and skin and breath will cause the bones to live, "and you shall know that I am YHWH" (Ezek. 37:6).
So Ezekiel gives it a whirl, and sure enough, the silent valley is awash in the noise of rattling, as the bones begin leaping and dancing about. Soon they are covered in fresh sinew, adorned with layers of flesh, covered finally with pink skin. But the new creatures were not yet alive, since there was as yet no breath in them. So, YHWH commands a second sermon from the prophet, this one directed to the breath, the spirit, the wind. "Breathe on these slain, that they may live" (Ezek. 37:9). Standing before the astonished prophet, after the breath has appeared and entered the creatures, is now "a vast multitude" of living human beings. The dry bones are now alive, thanks to Ezekiel's willingness to preach with the power of the spirit of YHWH to a pile of dry bones.
Ezekiel does not leave us too long in the dark about the ultimate meaning of this unforgettable scene. "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They (that is, the defeated exiles in Babylon) say, 'Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are completely cut off'" (Ezek. 37:11). So the real congregation for Ezekiel's sermons is in fact the exiles of Israel, who feel exactly like a heap of dry bones. But the promise of YHWH is "I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am YHWH, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves. I will put my spirit (breath, wind) within you and you shall live; I will place you on your own soil, so that you will know that I, YHWH, have spoken and will act" (Ezek. 37:13-14).
Ezekiel promises, as does the writer of Isaiah 40-55, that YHWH still has a future for the chosen people, and that future will be in the ancient land of Israel, though, YHWH knows, Babylon is a long way from Israel. And, of course, the way of our lives is a long way from the way of Jesus. Lent tells us this every year. We journey through Lent looking for the way of Jesus but too often following our own way once again. We are Ezekiel's dry bones, waiting for a fresh breath of the spirit to give us new sinew and flesh and skin so that we might become whole again. May this be so for us this Lent.
Author's Note: Do not forget the Baltic cruise on which I will lecture on the book of Job and during which we will see some of our world's great capital cities. Go to eo.travel for full details.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.