The vision of the valley of dry bones is probably the most well known passage in Ezekiel, and like the rest of Ezekiel it is wild. Not as wild as him shaving his head with a sword, ch. 3, but still real wild. There are so many great things that we can see in the details of the story, the imagery of the valley filled with bones. Ezekiel avoiding answering God in v. 3. Hebrew narratives are generally sparse with detail but v. 7 is great, “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.” Part of me pictured the scene in the first Toy Story movie where the toys are trying to scare Sid and some of them come rising up out the sandbox.
There are a few specific details that really stand out to me and I think are really poignant, but to get the full picture of this story we need to take a step back and look at the context of the vision. Not the literary context but the historical context of this vision. Israel was living in the land that YHWH had promised to them so long prior, but then the nation split following Solomon, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Over time there sin became worse and worse. They worshipped foreign idols, they forgot about YHWH who had brought them out of Egypt, and they offered their children as sacrifices. YHWH sent prophets to both nations warning them of the consequences of their actions but the prophets were ignored and cast out. And so in the course of time YHWH raised up other nations to bring judgement against the nations. First, Assyrian in the north, and then Babylon in the south. In the end both Israel and Judah were both conquered, their cities destroyed, the temple lay in ruins, and the people who were not killed in the invasion were taken into slavery in Babylon. This is the Exile.
Israel was obliterated as a nation. It seemed to them that YHWH had abandoned them. The promises that they once relied on meant nothing anymore. This would be the end of their story. They had become like a valley full of dried bones, there was no life left in them. They would be slaves until the last of them died and they would become a footnote in the pages of history. Ezekiel gets taken up in a vision and show the state of Israel in such vivid detail. But YHWH shows him that this is not the end to the story of Israel. YHWH tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones and that he would put life back in them. So Ezekiel does as he is commanded and bones come together, “bone to its bone”, muscle and tissue lay over the bones and skin covers them. But there is no breath in them, there is no life in them. So Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the breath, and after he does life fills the bodies and they stand up on their feet.
It is hard to miss the creation imagery that is used in this vision. We see very explicitly the phrase, “bone to its bone.” It draws us back to the man speaking to the newly created woman saying, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called woman, for out of man this one was taken.” We are taken back to the idyllic scene of creation in the garden, when all was right, where life flourished. This stands in stark contrast to the opening of Ezekiel’s vision, the valley full of death. It is easy to see why these two stories are connected. Ezekiel brings the people a message of hope in desperate times, a message of life in the face of death, a message of recreation for Israel.
But there is an interesting difference between Ezekiel’s vision and the creation story in Gen 2. Sadly we only see it in the hebrew. In Genesis 2 YHWH forms the first human and then breathes into its nostrils the nishmat, breath, of life and it becomes a living thing. Nishmat, one of the hebrew words for breath, is not used anywhere in Ezekiel 37. All the places where Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the breath and the breath goes into the former skeletons and they live, is a different word in the hebrew. It could be that they simply used a different word, but I don’t think that is the case. The word that is used in Ezekiel’s vision is ruach, which doesn’t simply mean breath. It can also mean wind, or spirit. So why does this matter? Because ruach is used in one of the creation stories, but it is not Gen 2. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [spirit] from God swept over the face of the waters.” Ruach in Gen 1 is the spirit of God that is going back and forth over the waters prior to creation. And so it struck me that Ezekiel’s vision is not simply a return to the garden of creation it is something more than that. These bones that have become living beings again won’t simply have breath in them that will make them live. They will have the breath of God, the spirit of God in them. Therefore, Ezekiel prophesies to the people and says, “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.”
Israel will not just have life again, they will have life again as the people of YHWH, filled with his spirit. He will be their God and they will be his people. They will not just be a nation, they will be the nation of YHWH.
In some ways we find a similar story in the New Testament. The early church, if they could even be called that yet, is hiding out in Jerusalem. Jesus, their close friend and teacher was executed, then raised from the dead, and then ascended to heaven. Can you imagine how confusing that would be. He’s dead, he’s somehow alive, and then he goes off to heaven. And before he goes he just tells them to wait. Just wait for the Advocate. And what is that going to look like? How will they know when that happens? Then what are they supposed to do? Sure they are supposed to go and teach people what Jesus taught them, and about his death and resurrection. But at the same time there are some people out there who are still really angry with them, namely the same people who had Jesus executed. It was an odd time. They are left with what to do, where to go, how do they live now that Jesus has left them?
They are still in Jerusalem and it comes time for the festival Shavuot, also known as Pentecost. This was a festival that was celebrated the 50th day of the week after the sabbath after Passover. Shavuot as a festival had two meanings. First, it was the festival that celebrated the wheat harvest. God was the one who made the plants grow and so naturally he was to be worshipped for it and presenting offerings, firstfruits of the crops. Second, it was a festival that celebrated the giving of the Torah. To the Jewish people, and prior to the Israelites, the Torah was the means by which they knew God. He had revealed himself to them through the written words of the Torah. The stories about the relationship between God and humanity, God and Israel, were preserved so that people could know what God is like and how he is to be worshipped because of what he has done and is doing. It is the physical representation of the covenant between God and the people. Interestingly, they celebrate by reading the book of Ruth, among other things.
The disciples are gathered together during the time of this festival, which seems to contrast the disarray that they must have been feeling at the time. But there in that place we see history repeating itself. A strong wind rushes upon them and brings them new life. God has chosen to reveal himself to the disciples in a different way, instead of the written word, he send his Spirit to indwell them. Much like the dry bones they are filled with life, God’s spirit was in them. He was their God and they were his people. And they went out and began preaching and proclaiming what God had done, all in different languages as the Spirit gave them ability. Peter stands up to the criticisms of some in the crowds and says that this outpouring of the Spirit is characteristic of the time that they are in. God is pouring out his spirit on all of his people, indwelling them, and giving them new life.
The same Spirit that rose the dry bones back to life is the same Spirit that come upon the disciples and that same Spirit is in the church today. There is no disconnect between the early church and now. There was no age of the Spirit back then that is somehow absent now. It may sometimes seem like it to us, but the question is are we paying attention? Are we attuned to the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our church?
One of the differences that stands out to me betweens these two passages is the different ways that the Spirit appears to the people. In the Acts passage the Spirit appears to them as a rushing and violent wind and tongues of fire on their heads. This would have been hard to miss. And some times the Spirit works that way in our lives, it is undeniable that the Spirit is at work and is moving in mighty and incredible ways.
In the Ezekiel passage the Spirit of God comes on the bodies as a breath. A breath is more subtle and harder to hear, but no less powerful. We need to be attune to the times that the Spirit chooses to move as a breath. We need to be conscious and attentive enough to hear the still, quiet moves of the Spirit. Our lives need to be oriented in such a way that we are listening for the Spirit to move in ways that we do not expect.