To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die… says Ecclesiastes 3:1. This is a theological embrace of the circle of life and all the other cycles of nature. God created the lights in the sky to be signs on the Earth (Genesis 1:14), which is to say, that the seasons are not just changes that occur- ‘stuff happens,’ as it were. Rather, that there is a general purposiveness to the way God has made everything be. There is always mystery, make no mistake, and Ecclesiastes 3:11 emphasises this2. Ecclesiastes offers a small theological candle in the mist and murk of our present experience that does not pierce to the ultimate boundaries, to be sure, but it does offer light. I am not about to repeat the so common and so mistaken claim that God has a purpose in every tragedy and pain of our lives.
In Ezekiel chapter 37, The LORD takes His man Ezekiel on a ‘nature ramble’, in a spiritual vision;
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit [Ruach]1 of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath[ruach] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath [ruach] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Many folk are familiar with these lines and the dramatic imagery they evoke. An old children’s song may well come to mind. The trouble with familiarity is that we stop seeing things that are under our noses. There is so much in the scripture, and the Spirit of God likes to draw our attention to certain obvious things that we’ve stopped seeing. Or perhaps we are stubborn and actively refuse to see what is there in plain sight. It’s not hard to imagine why we might be blinkered in our reading of this passage- it’s about death. I wonder if you hesitate as you take in the images in this blogpost. It can be unsettling to stumble across an animal carcass in a field when out for a hike; perhaps less so if the bones have been stripped of flesh and are no longer rich with the symptoms of decay. In the UK we don’t share the habit in some countries for piling up human remains in catacombs and suchlike- we’re fastidious about burial or cremation. We very much like death to be out of sight.
But not for Ezekiel! God plonks His prophet man down in the middle of an open air ossuary, and then leads him around to take in the full sight from all angles. Make no mistake- this is emphatically not at all Jewish. Whatever else we learn about the cultural habits of the people of God in the book of Genesis, we cannot miss that a very great deal of attention is given to proper burial. We’d spend quite some time making a list of the references to what happened when each key character dies, Abraham’s wife Sarah being one of the most notable cases. So this picture of human remains, long devoid of life and strewn around, exposed to scavenging animals and all the elements is shocking. There is no hiding from the fact that these remains of what were once people’s bodies are now all alike about to complete their final return to dust.
Which is what Ecclesiastes told us. A time to die- it comes to us all. When it does, there are many proper and appropriate things that we can do to mark the life that has past; in our pain, to reflect, to treasure our collective memories and to grieve.
Which of these things are going through Ezekiel’s mind? Whatever it is he is thinking, God interrupts. ‘Son of man…’ So that’s God telling Ezekiel he is a creature once given birth to, who will soon go the way of all flesh- to join the remains he beholds. But that’s not at all how this continues:
‘Son of man, can these [dry] bones live?’
What an extraordinary question. The very Creator of the cosmos is asking this created creature if the created cycle of life- the whole providential Order on which we have been reflecting can be changed. Is the sign facing the wrong way? No. Is providence the whole story? No! God’s creation is not limited to what God has done. New stuff can happen, apparently.
Ezekiel is unsure of his ground. With considerable justification- God is asking him to adjudicate on whether the laws of biology, physics and the cosmos can be made more flexible. Who knows what the consequences might be?! So he bats it back to God. “I dunno!” Sorry if my translation is a bit loose.
And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
Which is a very proper response. But what I am saying is that God is not playing rhetorical games with His man here. He is setting out the prophet’s job description. In Genesis, God says it, and stuff happens. Exactly so. Then God passes the buck on. God brings the animals to Adam. ‘Now you speak, and what you say, that’s what it is. Off you go!’
God is making space for Ezekiel to speak. ‘I made it like this,’ says God. ‘Now my son,’ because that’s who Ezekiel really is, if you trace the lineage back through all the dead bones on the field of history before him, back to Adam and to God who formed him from red clay with his own fingers- ‘Now my son, can this be changed from how I originally made it?’ Wise man that he is, Ezekiel defers judgement back to God, but the point has been made. God invites us into negotiation with Godself!
‘Stand back now lad and watch what I do next!’
Nope, that’s not what happens.
You do it!
‘Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’
Now God has a Divine plan and purpose in mind, so Ezekiel is not being given freedom to say and declare whatever he likes. Nothing in this passage gives that impression, and I am not suggesting such a thing. But at the same time, I am claiming that there is a meaningful partnership being set out- a type of job description for the prophetic life.
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling,[c] and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath [ruach], Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath [ruach] came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.
Just like the Genesis account, there is more to the recreation of human life as the creatures of God than we might anticipate. God spoke and it was so, says Genesis 1. Until we get to God’s human creatures. Its more complex than that- more mysterious, more intimate. Ezekiel does as God instructs, just as Adam did. But its not enough. Rattling, but no relationship. Life, but no liturgy. It’s rather comical.
7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.Genesis 2:7
What God did then, God now instructs Ezekiel to do. ‘Command My winds!’ Or better, ‘Command my Ruach!’ ‘Speak My Life into My creatures, into My world!’
11 Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
This episode is not some passing moment, a mere temporary suspension of the general order of things. Yahweh now completes this encounter by showing that what is begun here prophetically is a journey through which God’s created People will be taken through in the rest of time and beyond. This land in which this resurrection happens, where the mighty army is seen to march as one, this ‘land of Israel’ that is after death: this is all like but not the same as the physical land in which Ezekiel lived. Nor should we be looking simply to the human circumstances of where we are right now, be that locked down or let out or whenever in the future you may be reading this. Just as for Ezekiel the Old Testament prophet, for us in the Age of the Church in Christ, the order of God is ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ all at once. The job description of God’s prophetic people is to hear the Voice of our Creator, the Creator of all, and to be responsive to hear and repeat what God says to us. To be brought in all humility to accept that God is inviting us to do what God once did to us now through us, even with us. To see that there is pain and groaning in the world that can be healed if we partner with the Almighty as He invites us. To be the cocreators of balm for the the anguish of all who cry out that their bones are dried and their hope is gone. It is reported at this time that the global death toll due to COVID 19 is now around 2 500 000 persons. Borders are closed, global travel is greatly curtailed and we are still in the early stages of vaccination of populations in the so-called ‘developed’ world. The economies of life, locally, nationally and internationally are under great stress, if not shut down. If we have been alert- watching and listening as a multitude of stories have been told around us and including us- we have seen the whole of humanity spread out before us just as Ezekiel did in the vision God took him into. This type of ‘seeing’ is the doorway to the co-creation that is modelled for us in this vision, and so in this present can come God’s Word not simply of life, but Life with Hope.
To be filled with the Spirit of God is not to be animate as the animals yet without agency, merely following the trends and patterns of the seasons. God has put up a New Sign, and now God commands us not only to breathe but to speak with God’s Breath. As I write this and join with others who pray and prophesy, we begin to see much that God would have us bring God’s New Creation life to. Can we see and hear beyond our familiar habits, to be able to go with God on a prophetic ramble?
(c) Stephen Thompson 2021
- 1 Text of Ez 37 showing the occurrences of ‘ruach’ https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekiel+37&version=OJB#en-ESV-21403
- 2 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Eccl 3:11ESV)
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- 6 text-history-miniature-1461523-pxhere.com Image of Death (Imago Mortis), from the Nuremberg Chronicle. This brightly coloured leaf from The Nuremberg Chronicle shows five cheerful skeletons and decaying cadavers dancing, playing music, and emerging from a grave. One tosses its bluish entrails about like a dress train, while others rattle dry bones. Fingerprints appear on the right side of this evidently well-thumbed page. A user also bracketed the text below that begins, “Nothing is better than death,” underscoring the importance of the memento mori (Remember you must die) message offered by the work. The Nuremberg Chronicle was also available uncoloured, in black and white; an example is displayed in its entirety nearby.
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