I don’t know about you, but stuck within my own four walls this week, it’s proved quite hard to picture the outside world, let alone Ezekiel’s huge vision of the valley of dry bones. From my office, even with a view of the garden, it’s been difficult to imagine a wide-open, wild landscape. Maybe I’ve struggled because I’ve been feeling a bit dry and disconnected in myself; you may have been feeling that way too throughout this strange, uncertain time. It’s hard to see beyond the immediate situation, the immediate impacts of isolation on our lives; the world has suddenly become small and dry.
I probably know the passage about the bones from the song as much as I do the Bible verses, you know ‘Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones’ – my dad taught me the words as child. It’s a fun one to sing, but it doesn’t sum up the fullness of Ezekiel’s vision particularly well. Because the image is about not one skeleton, one set of bones, but a whole valley, a whole people.
A valley in a dry, hot climate, the air shimmering over the rocks, making the image shift and waver. And lying, strewn all across the dusty, barren valley floor, from side to side, and end to end, the bones of a fallen army. Dry bones, bones which are utterly without life. Anonymous, bleached white by the sun, with no marrow, no sinew. Not collected neatly like a burial, but scattered in chaos without order or form: dry bones. Bones that have no remnant of life left, no agency of their own.
God shows the bones to Ezekiel. ‘Have a good look,’ God says. ‘Walk among them, all around them.’ There is no rushing on to the conclusion. The bones themselves have a story, something to say, they are important as they are.
This story comes from the time of exile, a period when the people of Israel has been taken by force from their homeland and were being held captive by Babylon, the great superpower of the day. It was a communal and not just a personal exile, a time of dryness when they could no longer live as they wished, no longer worship as they wished, eat as they wished or celebrate as they wished. Psalm 137, also made into a very catchy song, describes the mood of the people: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
And that is the experience of many of us this week. We have been dislocated within our own homes. We are in exile, not in a foreign land, but in our own living rooms. We have entered a dusty powerlessness where we can no longer live as we wish, eat as we wish, celebrate as we wish, worship as we wish. Within our own four walls we are far from what we normally call home, our ordinary lives, and we yearn to return, as did the people of Israel.
What this story tells us in our dryness is that there is hope. In the most impossible situations, where life as we have known it is extinguished, the extraordinary can happen. God has and does and will breathe life once more into these bones of existence. Just as God promises through Ezekiel that the people will return home, whole and restored, so the same promise is made to us. Just as Jesus raised Lazarus and instructed him to come out, so we will be able to fling open our front doors and be unbound.
And this hope of transformation is not found within our own power. We are completely dependent on God. We can do what we can; stay in, shop for neighbours, call friends, but in the end it is God alone who can knit bone to bone, sinew to sinew, flesh to flesh and breathe life into the whole.
So we are given hope, hope that God has not and will not abandon us. Hope that salvation will come.
But for now we stand surrounded by dry bones. We walk among them, around them. We long for the end of the story, we watch with expectancy for the glimmers of hope. But the bones are important. The bones of life have things to tell us if we let them, if we face them. We may learn about ourselves, our relationships, our place in the world, from the difficult path we are called to tread. Together, apart. We may learn about the faithfulness of God. The connectedness of people. The goodness of the world. The gift of time.
Our prayer, our yearning, our hope is that new life will come, that transformed life of resurrection when all is made new. Our longing is to hear the voice of God saying to us “Come out.” Ezekiel teaches us that God will hear. History teaches us that God has always heard. So we stand among the bones and we wait to catch the whisperings of the wind.