Gleanings From the Text
The Hebrew word ruah (spirit, breath) appears eight times in the first ten verses of the pericope, and once in its conclusion. The NRSV translation fails to make evident the connection between God’s “spirit” and the animating “breath” that gives life to the bodies in verse 10. The spirit of God is a unifying force that leads to life.
The verb hayah (to live) occurs six times in the pericope, usually appearing alongside ruah. The counterpoint to hayah in this pericope is ’etsem (bones), a word that occurs ten times and symbolizes the state of Israel: hopeless, cut off, dead.
Food for Thought
Ezekiel’s report of the valley of dry bones comes up often in discussions of resurrection imagery in the Old Testament; however, this vision has more to do with restoration than resurrection. Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson put it this way: “The question it answers is not the familiar, self-interested one, ‘Will I have life after death?’ but rather a more profound and encompassing one, ‘Will God honor [the] promises to [the] people?’” (155). Madigan and Levenson’s book is an accessible introduction to the afterlife concept as it develops from the prophets to the time of Jesus.
Ezekiel began his prophetic work around 591 BCE, was taken into exile in Babylon in 597 BCE, lived through the destruction of Jerusalem ten years later, and continued his work until at least 571 BCE (Petersen, 139). He was designated a sopeh, a sentinal, and commanded to warn people of the coming destruction. In this week’s pericope, the exile has occurred and Ezekiel’s work is now to give his listeners the hope of restoration – “I will place you on your own soil” (verse 14).
Be sure to check out Job 10:8-9, 11 and Genesis 2:4-9 for intertextual connections.
Sink Your Teeth Into This
God’s promises have been impossible from the very start. There is the call of Abraham and Sarah, two impossibly old folks who were charged with giving birth to a nation as plentiful as the stars in the sky. The nation did grow up, but before too long it had been enslaved. When God liberated the people, they continually fell away – even when they had been given their own land, even when they had judges, kings, and prophets to try and keep them in line.
Ezekiel was faced with a situation in which a promise made thousands of years ago, a promise that seemed too good to be true, was turning out to be exactly that. The exile was one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history, and there’s a whole book of the Bible – Lamentations – dedicated to the words of despair and hopelessness God’s people felt at that time. The land was supposed to remind them of God’s promise; the king was supposed to remind them of God’s promise; the Temple was supposed to remind them of God’s promise. Now all those things were gone and the people were left despondent – utterly alone. We can hear their anguish in the words of Psalm 137.
Despite the 2,500 years that separate us from Ezekiel, I think each of us must have some idea how he felt, how his people felt. I suspect that there are things many of us treasure as reminders of God’s promise: a passage of scripture; words spoken by a dear friend at just the right moment; the memory of a particular star in the sky one night. They are meaningless to anyone else, but to us they are touchstones to which we cling when everything else falls away. Now imagine that you’ve lost even those, and I think you begin to grasp the magnitude of the exile.
So we return to that painful conversation between Ezekiel and God. Painful because Ezekiel knew. “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet knew the answer; he knew it was impossible.
And yet, that’s precisely what happens in the vision that follows. In essence, God says, “You think it’s impossible for me to restore my people from exile? I’m going to show you that I could do something infinitely more impossible than that. Not only am I going to restore the bones and sinew and flesh, but I am going to return my breath to these bodies, and they are going to live again.
“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.” God keeps promises, even though they have been impossible from the very start.
Joshua T. Andrzejewski is a second-level student at Union-PSCE in Richmond within the Masters of Divinity and Christian Education programs. He grew up in Levittown, Pennsylvania – the birthplace of suburbia – and found his way to Richmond through Project Burning Bush. This summer, he will serve as a resident teacher for the program. Next year, he will be doing a year-in-ministry as a chaplain at a level-1 trauma center in Richmond. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kevin J. Madigan & Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 146-155.
David L. Petersen, The Prophetic Literature (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 137-168.