Narrative Lectionary Reflection
December 10, 2017
Popular culture has a fascination with the living dead. Television shows like the Walking Dead and Fear of the Walking Dead are popular. There are zombies onthe big screen as well: World War Z, Warm Bodies, Shaun of the Dead to name a few. Cities around the world host Zombie Walks where thousands of people, walk, I mean shamble around town dressed up in their best zombie gear. In 2012 about 7000 people took part in the Zombie Pub Crawl in St. Paul, Minnesota. Zombies a thing.
So, why are zombies so hot? Maybe it’s a way of dealing with death. It could reflects our fears of illness, especially the fear of some virus threatens humanity. Maybe it’s about the how thin is the wall between civilized order and chaotic violence.
Today’s text of the prophet Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones looks like the zombie story since those that were dead are revivified. But this passage isn’t talking about the Walking Dead, but life, real life coming from death. It is about restoration even when all hope was lost. Today, we look at one of the oddest texts in he Bible. Welcome to the Valley of the Dry Bones.
Engaging the Text
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
Ezekiel is a contemporary of Jeremiah. While Jeremiah is a prophet during the last days of the Southern Kingdom, Ezekiel is the prophet during exile. The book covers a period between 593 BCE and 573 BCE- dark days for the Jewish people. When the book opens, Judah is basically a colony of Babylon. However, when the vassal king in Judah, Zedekiah leads a failed rebellion, Babylon sends forces to Jerusalem and destroys the city including the temple in 587 BCE. Judah ceases to be an independent entity and significant numbers of the population is sent to live in Babylon proper. So, when chapter 37 opens, the Jews are away from their homeland which no longer exists and the temple, which was the center of Jewish life has been destroyed. There is no sense of hope- only death.
These forced immigrants felt that their culture was dying if not dead. And they had good reason to fear this; a century earlier, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was also invaded and a chunk of their people were taken. These Jews began to intermarry with the local population and basically dissapeared. So those who were now in exile began to believe that they were cut off from God; there was no hope whatsoever.
The prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he is in a valley filled with bones. Now this is even worse than a zombie. There is no body, just bones. Death is all around. There is no hope. Assyrian reliefs seems to show that it was customary to allow bodies slain on the field to remain where they fell. The bodies would rot and carrion birds would strip away the flesh. So it wasn’t simply an image of bones, but images of bodies in various stages of decay. These dried bones mirrored how the exilic community felt; dried up, dead.
But God has a different message and God uses this vision to communicate that to Ezekiel. God asks Ezekiel if these bones could live. I can imagine the prophet shrugging his shoulders and saying to God, “only you know, God.” God tells Ezekiel that he will knit the bones together, adding muscles and then skin. God was going to make these bones live. Soon, the valley is filled with bodies. Just one problem: they had no breath in them, which means that the bodies were, you guessed it- zombies.
It was common in the Middle Eastern culture of this time that bodies were not alive until they had an animating spirit. Ezekiel prophesies to the Spirit and God then calls the “ruach” or breath or spirit and the bodies begin to breathe. Life has come where there was death.
What this means for the Jews in Babylon is that God and only God could revive the people of Israel. Only God could bring back that which was dead.
Also, there was no talk that if the community tried really hard, things could come back. The passage is very clear that things won’t be like it was. All we know is that God will restore God’s people. This is the promise that God gives to Ezekiel and to the exilic community.
16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.
When I think about this passage and the message it brings, a few hopeless situations come to mind. I think of my hometown of Flint, Michigan that is reeling after the collapse of the auto industry and the subsequent water crisis. There is a lot of sense of loss and the hope, the wish that things could be like it was back in the 1970s, when the town had twice the population and you could see trucks of cars made in factories in the city head to other parts of the country.
But restoration isn’t reproduction. The restoration of my hometown means it won’t make it like what Flint was like 40 years ago. So it is with Israel. The people in Babylon won’t go back to “normal.” But God will bring restoration and new life.
But it is also important to remember that this story is also a story of shock and horror. I know of someone whose family were refugees from the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s. Refugees have a longing for home, but knowing the horror they just left, the refugees know they have to make their home in a new culture. David G. Garber explains that what seems like a passage of hope has within it, a sense of remembering a deadly and horrific past:
We forget that Ezekiel himself was taken into exile in 597 BCE, that he heard reports of his religious institution being corrupted without the proper oversight of the priesthood, and that his status had been reduced from a prominent position as a future priest in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile. We forget the death of his wife and God’s command for him not to mourn her as an example for the exilic community not to mourn the loss of the Temple (24:16-24).
More importantly, we forget the historical trauma that accompanied this exile. We forget that the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair (2 Kings 25:3). We forget how they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon. Over and over again, in the texts we refuse to read from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet offers imagery that testifies to and metaphorically represents the multiple traumas that the community faced under the realities of ancient Near Eastern warfare.
While many of us read Ezekiel 37 as a beautiful passage, it is also horrifying. It is horrifying because it calls the reader to remember, confront, and testify to the devastating events that led to the valley filled with dry bones in the first place. Its beauty, however, manifests itself with the possibility that even in this landscape full of death, a hope for renewed life remains. Ezekiel prophesies to the bones that soon reanimate, with newly formed sinews knitting the bones together as living flesh and skin envelop them (verse 8). In a scene that recalls the breath of God entering the first human in Genesis 2, the prophet then commands the four winds and the same breath of God enters the reanimated bodies that live once more (verse 10).
The miracle of this vision does not simply lie in its theatricality. The true miracle is that it occurs after the community has faced such devastating loss. Yet, the familiarity of this text can tempt preachers and teachers to reduce the miraculous to cliché. We can often turn it into a promise for new life on individual and communal levels without taking seriously the situations and circumstances that have lead to the initial death.
Like refugees from places like Syria or Cambodia or Rwanda, there is a sense of hope, the people can’t forget the horror that that population went through. Restoration can only happen when there is loss. God doesn’t want the Jews to forget the hard times, God does want to give the people a future filled with hope.
The dry bones tale reminds us that God doesn’t forget God’s people. We are remembered by God. We are restored by God. What we as a community must do is have eyes to see and ears to hear where God’s Spirit is at work; in our lives, in this faith community and in the world. Let’s look for life and trust that God will bring us from death into life.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.