Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospels

Lent 5 2020 Ezekiel 37 1-14

Dry Bones! – Ezekiel 34:1-14 | Playfulness and Purpose

This passage is perhaps the most famous from the prophecy of Ezekiel, and is a very visual and evocative text. Ezekiel is one of the exiles in Babylon, and has seen everything familiar collapse. The Temple is not just locked up: it has been razed to the ground. Many people have died, and the nation is locked in, not in their own homes but as prisoners of a foreign power far from home.

From a literary point of view this passage is a mash-up of two different literary genres, both of which can speak to us in our current exile from normal life. First of all there is ‘communal lament’ of the kind often found in the more miserable Psalms.  ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off’ cry the people, as God’s people have so often done in times of tragedy. The term ‘bones’ is important: it refers to the very deepest, most hidden bits of our being. We know what it feels like to be chilled to the bone. It’s as though we’ll never ever get warm again. And when George Thorogood and the Destroyers sang that they were ‘Bad to the bone’ we understood that they were pretty much beyond redemption. And on a more positive note, when Adam meets Eve for the first time he realises that she is ‘bone of my bones’, in other words a partner in the deepest kind of union possible. In their time of exile Israel cried out in lament, and the Bible as always is not at all hesitant in recognising or recording their agony. It’s not a sin to feel despair.

But then there is also a second genre, a prophetic oracle of deliverance. The prophet answers the cry of the people with a response straight from the heart of God. This is what he intends to do about it. Prophets can have a reputation for being a bit miserable at times – ‘prophets of doom’ and all that – but here the message is one of good news.

Ezekiel answers the people’s agonised feelings by picking up the picture they have used – that of bones. You can’t get much more dead than the picture at the start of this passage. Those who like me love their weekly dose of Casualty will be used to seeing dead bodies revived through CPR and defibrillators, but I’ve never seen a skeleton revived. But Ezekiel shows them the impossible, as the bones join together, as they are clothed with flesh, and as the breath or Spirit of God enters them. No matter how dead you can get, says Ezekiel, you’re never beyond God’s ability to bring new life.

It’s as though Ezekiel listens to the people’s situation, and their feelings about it, and then uses that same image to bring hope. So what might God want to say to us in these unique times? How might a modern-day prophet use the images of plague, isolation, fear, loneliness and sickness to speak to us of God’s plans and purposes? Maybe that’s something worth thinking about during this period when we perhaps have more time on our hands than usual. What scriptural images can speak into our lament with prophetic hope?

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