YEAR A: LENT 5
April 10, 2011
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. His prophecies can be dated according to the book itself to the years 593-571 BCE. The book is a literary work, with tidily arranged sections, indicating the work of a literary editor. Ezekiel himself is obviously an ‘oral’ prophet, prefacing his prophecies with ‘Thus says the Lord God’. Possibly his sayings remained ‘oral’ until his death, when they were written down for preservation. In any case, the structure of the book includes four ‘visions’, all introduced by the phrase ‘the hand of the Lord was upon me’, indicating the beginning of a trance-like state common in ancient Near Eastern prophecy (see Ezek. 1:3; 8:1; 37:1; 40:1).
The visions all have ‘other worldly’ characteristics, including the fact that the limitations of time and space are dismissed. Whether they are connected with dreams or other trance like experiences cannot be said conclusively. Ezekiel is suddenly located on top of a mountain, then 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, an interpretation of the subject of the vision (vv. 11-14). The interpretation of the meaning of the dry bones is clearly a message to the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. At this point Ezekiel is most probably also in exile, whereas earlier 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 of an Israel whose hope has died, and which appears to be in a situation where 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. As Ezekiel looks at them, he sees no possibility of a return to life. Even so, he is not willing to deny that God can restore them. 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/Israel come back to life. They are then identified specifically as ‘the whole house of Israel’, meaning those still under occupation in the homeland as well as those in exile. Yet, although they have life restored to them, they are still not hopeful for their future. Their circumstances remain the same; they are still in exile.
The next section (vv. 11-13) contains a ‘resurrection motif’ – the opening of graves. This is not meant as actual resurrection from the dead, but refers to the ‘resurrection’ or ‘restoration’ of the people as the ‘house of Israel’ in their own land. The people’s hope that these things will happen lies in God’s word through the prophet. They will know it is true when it actually takes place. 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.
Today’s gospel reading, the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45), has obvious and clear parallels to the Ezekiel passage. But while there are parallels there are also differences. The Ezekiel story is symbolic of the way God can restore a disheartened and oppressed people from hopelessness (from the ‘grave’) to a new and better existence. Ezekiel’s story stands as a forerunner of later passages in the Old Testament (e.g. Daniel 12) which do speak about resurrection, but Ezekiel’s thinking is not there yet. On the other hand John’s Gospel wants to make it clear that resurrection comes through Jesus Christ, ‘the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25). Together, they challenge our thinking about the full significance of resurrection in Jesus Christ. Resurrection is not simply a matter of being raised from the dead, and in Lazarus’ case it is a unique case for presumably Lazarus would have died again at some later time. Resurrection is not simply concerned with the ‘after life’ but with the raising of broken spirits, of bodies as good as dead, of hearts that lack strength and courage, of communities that are fractured, of relationships that have waned or become fractious, of peoples who have lost hope etc. While Ezekiel’s vision may not have direct connection to resurrection in the way we might normally see it, it does remind us that the resurrection that is in Jesus Christ and the risen life in him reaches to this side of the grave too giving new life and hope where there has been only ‘dry bones’ in the past.
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