YEAR B: PENTECOST
May 27, 2012
Ezekiel was a prophet of the 6th century BCE, at the time of the Babylonian exile of the Judean leadership. He was of priestly descent, although also a traditional prophet. According to the book that bears his name, his prophecies can be dated to the years 593-571 BCE. The prophet himself was likely an ‘oral’ prophet, speaking his words both to those who gathered around him as followers and those to whom he addressed his oracles. At some later time in the life of the prophet or possibly even after his death his words were written down for preservation. The truth of what the prophet had to say was clear for others to see by then and worthy in the view of later editors for still further generations to ponder. As we no have the book, it is structured in part around four ‘visions’, all introduced by the phrase ‘the hand of the Lord was upon me’ (see Ezek. 1:3; 8:1; 37:1; 40:1).
These visions all have characteristics in common with dreams, including the fact that the limitations of time and space are dismissed. Ezekiel is suddenly on top of a mountain, on a plain, or in a valley. The visions include dialogue between God and the prophet, and, in the case of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, today’s reading, an interpretation of the subject of the vision (vv. 11-14). The vision of the valley of the dry bones clearly has a message for the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. At this point Ezekiel is most probably also in exile (cf. Ezek 1:3; 3:12-15). This is probably the case even though may of Ezekiel’s oracles in chapters 3-24 are directed to Jerusalem and Judah.
When Ezekiel delivers his prophecy concerning the ‘dry bones’, he is pictured standing either on a plain or in a valley (the Hebrew biqcah means a broad plain with shallow walls). In any case, the place is filled with dried-out, sun-bleached bones – very dead. The symbolism is that of an Israel whose hope has died, and for whom there is no future. In that sense this vision appears to belong to the period of the Exile, in time before the hopeful message of chapter 36, where images of renewal and restoration are paramount.
The dry bones themselves are portrayed as ‘dead as dead’ could possibly be (v. 2). As Ezekiel looks at them, he sees no possibility of a return to life. Even so, when pressed by the Lord he is not willing to deny that God can restore them (v. 3). When asked whether they can come back to life, he merely acknowledges that God knows the answer. Then he receives his instructions. He must prophecy to the dry bones, which are clearly symbolic of the defeated people of Israel. He must tell the dry bones that God will enter them with the breath of life, and cause them to become strong and whole again. On delivering these words of hope from God, he watches the dry bones come back to life with sinew on the bones, flesh upon that, then skin and finally breath within the restored bodies (vv. 4-10). It is only then that the bones are identified specifically as ‘the whole house of Israel’, meaning those still under occupation in the homeland as well as those in exile.
The task Ezekiel is set is not easy. The people to whom he is to speak, and to whom he offers hope are not predisposed toward his message. They know the realities of exile too well and cannot see the possibility of something different, let alone better (v. 11).
Verse 11-13 contain what on first reading might appear to be a reference to a resurrection motif – the opening of graves. But this is not meant as an actual account of resurrection from the dead. It will be many centuries before such a belief becomes a part of Jewish thinking even before it becomes central to Christian thought. The image in Ezekiel refers to the ‘resurrection’ or ‘restoration’ of the people as the ‘house of Israel’ in their own land (v. 12). The people’s perception of their present situation is overwhelming. But the word that the prophet is given to say to them is equally powerful. Life can only be experienced again if it comes from God. Verse 14 clearly states that the source of the life that is bringing Israel back from the ‘dead’ is the ‘spirit’ of the Lord. When all life appears to have gone, the word of God is the means whereby God’s spirit revives and restores. There are strong echoes of creation in this text and of restoration as recreation. Of course, this is all a matter of faith, not certainty. The people, like the prophet himself, will only know the prophet’s word is true when it actually takes place (v. 13). Nor are these words of the prophet only something for some distant time. They are not yet a message of resurrection from physical death. They speak of restoration of life in this world.
Today’s gospel reading is John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15, in which Jesus speaks of the coming of the ‘Advocate’, i.e. the Spirit of truth or Holy Spirit. The implication of the Ezekiel reading is that the Advocate who comes, who will lead Jesus’ followers into all truth, is the one who ‘brings them back to life again’, who breathes into them life-giving breath from God. There are echoes here too of the creation story in Gen 2:7. The gift of the Spirit and the subsequent restoration of God’s people, embodied in all its eschatological significance in the resurrection of Jesus, is at the heart of God’s new creation.
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