The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin 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 it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ 17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.
18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ 20 Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on 21 and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.
24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”
If this isn’t the perfect Bible story for the Sunday before Halloween I don’t know what is. A spooky valley full of dead bones gets turned into zombies – okay, maybe not brain-eating zombies but basically, for a minute there, these bone are un-dead: living but not breathing flesh. Then a supernatural force comes through the winds and turns these zombies into a living army. Yikes.
But that’s just the surface of the story, and it ignores the whole second half of this chapter. Really, this is one of the most hopeful, redemptive chapters I’ve read in a while. In it, God restores the dead, joins the scattered and squabbling tribes of Israel, and establishes a holy, everlasting covenant of peace.
Is this chapter to be taken literally, though? Will God literally open our graves and raise up our bones? Will God literally rejoin the houses of Ephraim and Judah? Will David come back from the dead, too, to rule over this new kingdom and will God literally dwell there?
I see God as capable of all things, so yes, certainly it is possible to take this chapter literally. But if we’re just sitting around waiting for that day, I think we kind of miss the point. Let’s start from a historical perspective. This passage was most likely written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. So a lot of Ezekiel’s prophecy was looking towards the rebuilding of the temple in a more immediate sense, not an eschatological sense. The temple was rebuilt around 516 BC., seventy years after it was destroyed. Followers of Ezekiel could point to this as the fulfillment of his prophecy, and the promise of this chapter has been fulfilled and is not just another illustration of God’s good work, but nothing we’re waiting upon. Now, let’s look at this chapter from a religious perspective. It can be argued that much of this-and the rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy-was fulfilled through the arrival of Jesus. Jesus, a descendant of David, came to take on our sins, redeem us from the grave, and will return to rule over us in an eternal covenant of peace, as foretold by Ezekiel. So again, perhaps it has already been fulfilled and we’re waiting upon nothing.
While all of this fulfilled prophecy-whether it is a rebuilt temple or the coming of Christ- is awe-inspiring, I think it misses the larger point, which is the redemptive power of God’s love. God can redeem us even from beyond the grave. God can heal not only our own souls, but the souls of nations. God wants to restore our hope, restore our peace. It is not something that’s only going to happen at the end of the world. This is something we are offered not only on a monumental scale, on a daily basis.
I was listening to The Liturgists Podcast the other day, and they were interviewing Father Richard Rohr, who published his latest book, Universal Christ, earlier this year. (I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m eager to do so, and have it on hold from my library.) During the interview, he talked about the difference between retributive justice and redemptive justice – I believe those were his two terms. Rohr says Jesus offers redemptive justice: a justice that heals instead of punishes. Many of the prophets, Rohr pointed out, start with preaching a retributive justice: the justice based on God’s wrath, hellfire-and-brimstone, death-and-destruction sort of justice. But almost all of them arrive at a place of redemptive justice. We can see that difference happening between the chapter we studied last week, which basically promised destruction for all people, and this week, which promises peace for all people.
What is it about God that makes these prophets arrive at a place of redemptive justice? Love. God’s holy love is undeniable in the long run. It is my firm belief that the longer you sit with God, the more that becomes apparent. I know, there are lots of religious people with hate in their hearts that could be used to disprove my point, but I don’t think they are truly sitting with God. What they are doing is scouring the Bible for passages they can bend to their own wishes, or following the biases of a small-minded leader, anything to prop up their own world-view.
But even that narrow mindset cannot withstand God’s love. There are plenty of stories of people who recognized how God’s message was being warped, and left whatever toxic religious climate was preaching it. Exvangelical is a podcast, hashtag, and movement that deconstructs the more harmful elements of Evangelical societies. I’m sad to say that many exvangelicals fully leave Christianity, but many also examine their beliefs and find a God that is loving and kind. Thought leaders like Richard Rohr, Pete Enns, and the late Rachel Held Evans, among others, are helping shape the idea of a loving and inclusive God for those who may have doubts about Christianity at large. Yes, there are many so-called Christians that still cling to their hate like a security blanket, but God’s love is wearing them down.
The most beautiful thing about God’s redemptive love is that we can be agents of it. We have the power to forgive, to heal, to teach. We can be living, breathing examples of God’s love, reborn just as Ezekiel’s army was. How you, personally, might manifest this may be different than how I or someone else manifests it, but it remains true. We can be agents of God’s redemptive love through speaking out against the injustices of the world, by helping our neighbors and community, by teaching our kids what it means to be kind and inclusive. If you’re not sure where to start, may I suggest just sitting with God. Offer up a simple prayer, such as “God, how can I be an agent of change in this world?” And then just be open to it. The answer might be immediate or it might be revealed over time. But it will come, and you will be doing your part to spread God’s love.