By Roger Foster, master of arts in conflict transformation student
A story to set the context of the reading
”You can never hope to understand the biblical people,” Harrell Beck used to say, “unless you understand that they lived in a sandbox.”
Professor of Old Testament studies at Boston University School of Theology from 1954 to 1987, Beck often spoke with his students about the sitz im leben of the biblical people, as well as their hopes.
“It’s a sandbox that is 90 miles wide, but it is most definitely a sandbox. A desert.”
“And you know when you’re in a desert,” he would say. “When you’ve been pushing and dragging a recalcitrant camel for hours, and when you just have to sit in the sand with your back to the wind and swallow the grit that gets blown into your face, you know you’re in a desert.”
“And the color of the desert is brown.”
“But you also know when you’ve come to an oasis,” he would add. “At the oasis, it’s cooler. You can wash your face, stable your camel, rest in the shade. If the desert is a place of stress, the oasis is a place of refreshment. You know when you’ve come to an oasis.”
“And the color of the oasis is green.”
He would lean in toward the gathering, lower his voice as if sharing a secret, and deliver this pearl: “And the great hope of the biblical people was their belief that you can turn brown into green.”
Some reflections on the text
Ezekiel’s vision clearly displays his acute and disheartening awareness of the “brown” of his situation. Exiled to Babylonia after the fall of Jerusalem, he was living with the terrible consequences of Israel’s destruction. While others in the community set aside their harps, overcome by weeping and sorrow, unwilling to sing the songs of the LORD in a foreign land (Psalm 137: 1-4), Ezekiel faced a more devastating dilemma: how to sing the songs of the LORD when you’re dead.
Dead, dead, dead. So dead that the marrow has been completely vaporized from your sun-bleached bones. Dead so there is no hope left for you. Your identity has been completely destabilized; your mission in the world has been disrupted, totally derailed.
The vision granted to Ezekiel from the Spirit of the Lord interred the people of Israel in a shallow mass grave, their bones scattered across the valley floor. For Ezekiel, the horror of the site reflected his disconsolate loss of the people of Israel, whom he saw not solely as “his people,” his ethnic base of secure attachment, and not simply as a people who had been privileged.
Ezekiel carried a vision of his people in terms of their being a covenant community, tasked with modeling God’s covenant and its blessings to all the peoples of the earth, giving warnings to other nations like a watchman from the city wall.
So Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones was about more than simply the dismantling of a nation; he felt the brown-ness of the loss of hope for that nation’s mission, the LORD’s great enterprise of reconciling the nations to a right relationship with Yahweh.
Resurrection was not a doctrine endorsed by religious authorities in Israel; when the spirit of Yahweh asked him his opinion (“Mortal, can these bones live?”), Ezekiel had no reason for hope. “I said, ‘Sovereign LORD, you alone know’.”
In a scene which bears echoes of the creation story (Genesis 2:7), the Spirit of God puts flesh and sinew to the dead bones, and infuses the breath of life into them, and they rise up transformed into an army.
This re-creation story also echoes the notion of the creation by the Word, the logos. The Spirit directs Ezekiel to speak prophetic words—to the bones, to the wind, to the nation of Israel. Ezekiel obeys, and in his obedience, receives the boon of serving as co-creator with the LORD, a participating agent in converting his own “brown” into “green.”
Interestingly, the Spirit emphasizes the Spirit’s own agenda in these collaborative proceedings: to transform the understanding of Israel (and the nations) about Yahweh’s identity—“Then you will know that I am the LORD” and “Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it.”
The Spirit wants to restore the covenant community to life and to its mission; part of that mission is to direct all who have eyes to see or ears to hear to an encounter with the One who gives life and calls us—individually or corporately—to mission.
Some questions to consider
In what circumstances in your community or sphere of influence can you see the Spirit of the Lord working to infuse life into “dead bones?”
What prophetic words do you sense the Spirit of the Lord is speaking to the “dead bones” in your community or sphere of influence? In what ways is the Spirit of the Lord creating new life in these “dead bones?”
What do you think might happen if the “dead bones” in your community heard and responded to this word of the LORD: “I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’?”
In what ways do you sense the Spirit of the Lord is inviting you to participate in this endeavor?