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The Politics of the Impossible: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Alastair Roberts)

The Valley of The Dry Bones

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. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 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.” 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 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.’ 12 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 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.

In a remarkable vision, the prophet Ezekiel is transported to a valley littered with bones, picked clean of their flesh by carrion birds, and dried out and bleached by the unforgiving sun. The valley—probably a particular valley as the definite article is used—appears to have been the site of a terrible defeat. The bodies of the slain were not granted the dignity of a proper burial, suffering the dreadful curse mentioned in Deuteronomy 28:26. However, by now the last of the bones has long since been stripped of its flesh. Death has finished its gruesome meal and Ezekiel stands surrounded by the scraps from its plate.

Earlier on, Ezekiel had prophesied that the idolatrous nation would be judged for its idolatry, their corpses laid beside their idols in the valleys, and their bones scattered around their altars (6:1-7). This signal judgment would be proof that YHWH was God (6:7). Now, the dust long since settled, Ezekiel stands in the valley, surveying the aftermath.

YHWH asks Ezekiel whether the bones can live. Whether it is one of uncertainty or conviction, the prophet’s response is one which leaves the possibility open. Up until this point, Ezekiel has been a passive observer and reporter upon the scene. Now, YHWH charges him to prophesy directly to the bones, a seemingly pointless endeavour if ever there were one.

As Ezekiel obeys the command to prophesy to the bones the earth quakes and there is a rattling as the bones start to come together, reassembling themselves at the word of YHWH, becoming wrapped in sinew and then clothed in flesh. The bodies now restored, Ezekiel is instructed to summon the four winds of heaven, to breathe into them and restore their spirit. In quaking earth and rushing winds we see the whole of nature thrown into a sort of sympathetic tumult as this great miracle is being effected, the ground restoring the bones that it had claimed and the winds bringing back the breath. The processes of death run in reverse as a great army of slain stand on their feet again and breathe once more. The bodies of the slain are also recreated in a manner akin to the first creation of Genesis 2:7, their bodies being formed first, before the animating breath is breathed into them.

Once the great army is restored to life, YHWH instructs Ezekiel concerning the meaning of the vision. The dry bones are the house of Israel, who believe that their hope has gone and have compared themselves to dried bones. However, as YHWH’s creative word is prophesied into the situation, he will restore them, even though Death itself would stand in his way. Just as his identity as God was proved by his bringing them to the grave of exile in judgment for their idolatry (6:7), so he would be proved to be God as he delivered them from that grave and restored them to the land (37:14). The promise that he would put his Spirit within them might recall the promise of 36:25-27, a promise that the nation would be animated with the strength that they need to serve YHWH aright.

The role of Ezekiel in this vision should be attended to. YHWH doesn’t restore the dead bones of Israel to life immediately, but through the inspired word of his prophet and by means of the work of earth and wind. The words of the prophet are powerful, and capable of bringing life to a dead nation. The same image is employed by Jesus, who relates two different forms of resurrection: national resurrection through his word during his ministry and bodily resurrection at the final judgment (John 5:25-29).

The power of the prophet’s word is described in Jeremiah 1:9-10:

Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

As the bearer of the divine word, the prophet brings YHWH’s own creative power to bear upon situations that have long passed into the realm of hopelessness, situations where Death has completed its work. We may be accustomed to reading Ezekiel’s vision primarily as a record of God’s power to restore life. Yet, in recognizing the means by which YHWH exercises this power—through the words of his prophet—we can discover an important principle for our social and political activity.

Looking out over the valleys of dry bones of our own day, we may feel inclined to join with Israel’s lament. Ezekiel’s prophecy of dramatic divine restoration—a restoration so improbable and remarkable that it can only be effected by an act of new creation—summons us to a new hope, to a great expansion of the horizons of possibility. It also calls us to a new confidence in the role that we can play in bringing life to dead situations. As we bear God’s word, we may even prophesy new life into political and social causes that are lost beyond hope of redemption.

The work of politics is constantly framed by visions of the possible and the impossible. For instance, Slavoj Zizek has observed that, for most people, it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. When such political possibilities have been surrendered, political action becomes a matter of accommodation to, palliation of, or minimal mitigations of a hopeless situation. This quenching of the imagination, the constriction of the horizons of the possible, and the consequent guttering of the hope of meaningful action towards change is what Ezekiel addressed in his day.

As we witness YHWH’s use of the voice of his prophet to bring about a deliverance and restoration beyond hope, we can find the confidence to hold open the impossible possibilities, acting with confidence in God’s power to work through us to transform our world. Like the prophet Ezekiel, we may be called and equipped to become the handmaidens of a remarkable eucatastrophe.

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