Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Chewing on Dry Bones: Looking ahead to Sunday

We've got one of my favorite and most mysterious passages from the Hebrew Bible coming up on Sunday, Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Here's the text:

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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,” says the Lord.

For those of you who want to gnaw on those bones a little bit, here's some research and writing I did on them a few years back:

We saw it perhaps a hundred times in the days following September 11, 2001: two enormous towers of steel, glass and concrete, collapsing in slow motion, to a pile of debris. Twisted metal, shards of glass, a blizzard of paper blown down the blasted streetscapes of lower New York, pieces of humanity, dust, and more dust. As the World Trade Center, a symbol of American economic dominance, lay shattered like a broken Erector set that day, so did the nation of Israel lay shattered, its military, political and spiritual strength sapped, when Ezekiel had his vision of a valley of dry bones.

This text takes a picture of utter desolation and turns it into a promise of hope as a result of divine intervention. I will look at this quasi-apocalyptic vision, analyze its symbolic elements and structure, and see what it may say to us today.

This vision is placed two-thirds the way through the Book of Ezekiel, paired with another vision that expands a hopeful view of the future at a time when hope seemed snuffed out in Israel. Although it immediately precedes and is related to the vision of the two bound sticks, with its sense of a nation reunited under a Davidic covenant, it can stand alone as a picture of God’s power to restore the nation.

Historically, it is placed in the post-exilic period, with “the defunct nation”[1] struggling in Babylon to find reason for hope. Ezekiel was a part of the central priesthood during a tumultuous period in the history of Israel. His call took place in Babylon during the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile. Because of the historical events mentioned in the oracles, Ezekiel’s oracular work can be placed between 593 and 571 BCE. His time overlaps that of Jeremiah. It was a time of religious as well as political turmoil because the people were split; some had gone to Babylon and some remained in the now-shattered Jerusalem. Theological as well as political consensus were impossible, and the community was in tatters.

Structurally, the Book of Ezekiel appears to be a single collection of generally chronologically-ordered oracles, composed in written form by a single author. Boadt[2] cites Zimmerli’s analysis which lays down a significant Grundtext of Ezekiel’s own words, with later additions by sympathetic redactors. Later commentators support an even greater inclusion into the Grundtext. Zimmerli also notes a structure in this particular oracle: “…two main sections, vv 1-10 and vv11-14, stand in a relationship of image and interpretation, where the interpretation contains at the same time the real proclamation to the people.”[3] This two-stage structure is found elsewhere in Ezekiel, notably in the call story (2:8-3:3).

The story is an ecstatic vision in which God takes Ezekiel to a remote valley (Wilson believes it is the one where Ezekiel begins his book and where he has his first vision of God[4]) filled with thousands of bones, bones that had been there so long under the hot sun that they are bleached and sere. There is hardly the remembrance of life in them.[5] There commences a dialogue between God and the prophet. Can these bones live? The prophet does not respond with the obvious answer: of course not! He replies that God knows the answer. God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and to tell them that God shall breath into them and give them life, putting sinews and flesh back on them, and they will live. The prophet does as God commands, and the bones find their mates and knit together, and are covered with sinew and flesh, but they are lifeless cadavers. So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath and to command breath to come from the four winds and bring life to these bodies. He does so, and a vast multitude of the formerly dead arise from the valley. God explains to Ezekiel that these are the nation of Israel, that they represent the hopelessness of the house of Israel. Their bones are sere; their souls are sere as well.

God commands the prophet to tell them that they are brought out of their graves and brought back to life by the breath and command of God, and thus too the house of Israel will be restored to life. They will return to their land. Even more important, they will know that it is God who has done this for them.

The shattered Erector Set will be reconstructed, the house will be rebuilt, by God’s hand.

The power of the allegory is brought home by certain key words upon which I chose to focus: bone, dry, prophesy, and breath/wind/spirit (all from the Hebrew x;Wr). Bone, from the Hebrew ~c,[, has a meaning that is as poetic as it is physiological. It can also be translated as substance (in the sense of a component) or self (that which is at the core of who one is). If one applies the analogy of the World Trade Center, the bones are the steel superstructure which supports the building. When they fail, the building collapses. The thousands of disjointed, sun and wind-bleached bones in the valley are the collapsed beams of the House of Israel. In its failure to keep the covenant - worshipping foreign idols and committing crimes against each other – the essential component that has held the nation together and strong - has failed, and God has left the land. The people of Israel have lost their substance, their self, by losing their focus on their covenant. [6]

These bones are dry (Heb.: vbey"). This word, used primarily in Numbers and in Ezekiel, is infrequently attested, and its use is evenly divided between literal descriptor and metaphorical lack of nurturance/sustenance/life. The House of Israel, in exile in Babylon, is bereft of spiritual sustenance and in need of God’s breath of life during this time, as it was in the time of Numbers, in the wanderings in the wilderness.

The variety of applications of the word x;Wr raises some interesting possibilities. It is alternately translated as wind, breath, spirit. Use of the same word in so many different meanings in such close proximity may imply the multifaceted nature of God, and the many forms of His power. It can also reinforce the mystery of God, so difficult to define in mere words.

The word “prophesy” also is an interesting choice. First, the writer uses a word that represents a trance-like, ecstatic state rather than one that is more measured, such as “call” or “speak” or even “announce”. The sense of the mystical nature of the event is emphasized. Second, this verb is in the Niphal imperative form, but it does not seem to carry the usual import of a Niphal-form verb[7]. Even more intriguing is the use of this word seven times in this brief passage. Seven is a highly symbolic number, believed to be sacred among Egyptians, Mesopotamians and other Semitic peoples[8]. The number holds implications of completeness, from a cosmic (planetary), temporal (week) and liturgical (sabbath) perspective. [9] Are the seven calls to prophesy necessary to complete the rebuilding of the house of Israel?

This leads to another thorny question: Ezekiel’s first attempt to prophesy to the bones, which God has said will bring them back to life, in fact does not. It assembles the bones and lays on the sinews and flesh. He has to prophesy again, by calling to the breath carried by the four winds to inhabit these still bodies. One would presume that the first call would accomplish the deed, since God has told Ezekiel that it would. And yet it does not. Is the additional call required to bring the number of usages of “prophesy” to seven, indicating completeness? Is it required to emphasize God’s power, corralling winds from the four cardinal points to infuse the bodies with life?

And what of the four winds? Yarbro Collins makes the point that the four winds represent an ordered, structured world (as do the seven heavens) in her analysis of the Book of the Watchers (I Enoch 1-26):

“The theme of order is quite explicit here…On his first journey, Enoch saw the ‘storehouses of all the winds’ (18.1)…In chapter 18 reference is made to the four winds which stretch out the height of heaven. These four winds are called the pillars of heaven (18.3).” [10]

Further in her analysis, Yarbro Collins describes a variation on this theme, the twelve winds that are associated with the four quarters of the earth in Enoch’s Book of the Heavenly Luminaries (I Enoch 72-82), which focuses on cosmological/astronomical laws.[11] In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, M.H. Pope also stresses the sacredness of the number four, “deriving its significance primarily from the four cardinal directions.”[12]

The idea of a completed task, a whole unit of work, is given great emphasis in a way that would resonate with the post-exilic Jewish listener by the use of emphasis and numerical symbolism. Only with God’s help, and God’s power, can the task be brought to completion. Only when the whole of God’s spirit infuses the whole enterprise can the House of Israel be rebuilt.

Zimmerli sees the image of this valley as “the great death”[13] to be followed by a great resurrection. This is a resonant image for Christians. It takes us from a temporal and political space (re-establishment of Israel once again in its own land) to a cosmic and spiritual one that suggests the eschaton. It is an extraordinarily powerful one, but it begs the question: how can this speak to us today, in this place and time? Blenkinsopp echoes Zimmerli’s view, but cautions that “it would probably be mistaken to exclude systematically any hint of the postmortem destiny of the individual.”[14]

Thus, I find myself thinking not of the end-times, but of the necessary reuniting of the fallen soul of the individual – each of those shattered piles of bones – restored to spiritual health as part of the Body of Christ. This is congruent with Blenkinsopp’s view: individuals are repaired (vv. 7-10) and then they are repaired as a community (vv. 11-14).[15]

This, then is the work that God calls Ezekiel to do: he is the conduit for the power and divine sustenance that will bring the House of Israel back to life. In our modern world, where the shattered towers in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty remind us of our vulnerability, and of the lack of conviction we show in our God, who gives us all, we are reminded, once again, that we are broken and in need of the gift of rebirth/rebuilding. We can also be built up again into a strong community of the faithful, if we are mindful of Who is the builder and to Whom we owe all honor and praise.


Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Ezekiel: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press. 1990)

Botterweck, G. Johannes, et al, editors. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1998)

Bright, John. A History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 2000)

Cook, Stephen L. The Apocalyptic Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Press.2003)

Cooper, Lamar Eugene, Sr. The New American Commentary, Vol. 17: Ezekiel (United States: Broadman & Holman Publishers. 1994)

Freedman, David Noel, editor-in-chief. The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday. 1992)

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 1962)

Mays, James L., general editor. Harper Collins Bible Commentary (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco. 2000)

Seow, C.L. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1995)

Stuart, Douglas. The Communicator’s Commentary: Ezekiel (Dallas: Word Books. 1989)

VanGemeren, Willem A., general editor. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1997)

Yarbro Collins, Adela. Cosmology and Eschatology in Jewish and Christian Apocalypticism (Leiden: EJ Brill. 1996)

Zimmerli, Walther. Ezekiel 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel Chapters 25-48 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1983)

End Notes

[1] Bright: 339

[2] Boadt in Anchor, vol. II: 715-716

[3] Zimmerli: 257

[4] Wilson in Mays: 619

[5] There is no mention in the text of the fact that such a place would be ritually unclean, but Cooper (323) notes that Ezekiel walks around the place and does not seem to touch anything. Cook (95-96) describes the emphasis on cultic purity just two chapters later in the passage on the slaying of the army of Gog, and elsewhere in Ezekiel. It is odd that the issue does not come up in this passage. This is, of course, a vision, not history, but given the preoccupation with ritual purity around gravesites it is striking in its absence.

[6] Stuart devotes much space to burial practices in ancient Israel, and describes the valley as a kind of giant ossuary. Pace Mr. Stuart, I think that the emphasis on the burial practice is ill-placed: this is a metaphorical ossuary.

[7] Seow (288-299) delineates four possible meanings for Niphal forms: reflexive, reciprocal, passive, and resultative (indicating a resulting state). None of these appears to truly apply here. Heschel (518), however, has a long discourse on the somewhat confused etymology of the word, which he links to an Old Arabic word nba meaning “’to inform’…inform[ing] in the name of God what is revealed secretly,” which would suggest the act of informing is one of a passive conduit of information generated actively by God. It seems somewhat tortuous, but Semitic etymology is rarely straightforward in this writer’s limited experience.

[8] Pope in Interpreter’s Dictionary Vol. IV: 294-295

[9] Friberg in Anchor, vol. IV: 1144-1145

Yarbro Collins: 122-123

[10] Yarbro Collins: 100

[11] Ibid.: 103

[12] Pope in Interpreter’s Dictionary Vol. III: 565

[13] Zimmerli: 260

[14] Blenkinsopp: 172-173

[15] Ibid.: 173

Copyright 2007 Mary Brennan Thorpe

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