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Ezekiel 37:1-14

Phantasmagoric.

I only get to use this word infrequently and typically only when discussing Ezekiel. The visions of Ezekiel are truly unlike any visions of his contemporaries. Illusory. Dreamlike. Fantastic. And yet, the phantasmagoric features do not make them false. Perhaps it makes them the most bold among all the proclamations we have from the Biblical Prophets.

Ezekiel’s prophetic activity is characterized by Ezekiel’s experience of great turmoil when he and others from Judah were exiled from their Judean homeland to Babylon. Their exile was preceded by the fact that they witnessed the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem’s walls, Judean cities, streets, and palaces and finally, the destruction of God’s Temple. Ezekiel’s experience included visions with the “heavens opened” (1:1), “a spirit entering” him (2:1), and “being lifted up” (3:12) to see the mystery of God’s transcendent and immanent action in the dismantling of the Temple and its environs. Ezekiel’s visions include a phenomenal “wheel within a wheel” (chapter 1) which may have intimated the kind of cogs we only recently know in modern machinery, like the wheels of a confetti-style-paper-shredder, except these wheels-within-wheels had a shredding capacity to destroy an entire city, a nation, a people.

The phantasmagoric of Ezekiel must be understood in the context of the the total annihilation that Ezekiel and the residents of Jerusalem experienced. The Judean nation, cities, farm land, culture, government, autonomy, language and way of life were left behind in a heap of battle-laden destruction.

I am of the opinion that only very few people in the modern world know the pain and dislocation of the reality that Judean exiles and Ezekiel experienced. Maybe those who actually escaped the World Trade Center Towers on September 11, 2001 can be among those who feel they so barely escaped, disheveled, tired from the escape down the flights of stairs, covered with the debris of cement ash, blood, and sweat. No doubt this same kind of experience has happened, too, for refugees fleeing territories the world over. Consider the experiences of Pearl Harbor on the day it was attacked by the Japanese in December of 1941. And, then, think about how the calamity of this single day led to great calamities in numerous Sea-&-Land conflicts in the many years that followed through 1945! Consider images of Hiroshima or Nagasaki in the days after the Nuclear bombing in August of 1945. The My Lai Massacre of 1968! Horror!

This kind of calamitous-terror-invoking-near-total-destruction is in the extreme compared to “First World Problems” of today! Even real trouble like a car collision is small compared to cultural catastrophe of nationwide proportion!

And yet, we must try to enter into the psyche and mindset of a person who had experienced a totally destablizing rupture to family, work, routine, and life if we are to understand Ezekiel and Ezekiel’s audience.

The first 24 chapters of Ezekiel’s book are almost entirely statements of judgement against Judah. The next 8 chapters are oracles against foreign nations. Fully Two-Thirds of Ezekiel is judgment and destruction.

This must be “felt” and “discerned” if we will read the last chapters of Ezekiel with full awareness of what they must have communicated in new turns toward hope.

To my view, too many Christians are accustomed to reading the message of the “Valley of Dry Bones” that they and we “miss it” for what this radical proclamation must have meant. The Gospel Quartets singing “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones, now hear the word of the LORD” have inoculated us to the power of these words in their social-historical context given the power of the vision of the LORD to Ezekiel out of this catastrophe

We know from Ezekiel 37:1 that Ezekiel had been called to walk out into a field where a great army had been slain. A valley . . . laden with the remains of slaughter.

Pause. Picture the scene.

Think about stepping in the midst of dead, mutilated, ravaged and dried out bones.

To an ancient person – to a Jew who had been commanded to avoid bones since they brought ritually impurity – the idea of it would have been daunting. Numbers 19:11 makes clear that for an Israelite to touch a corpse was to be defiled. Later Jewish law would interpret that even moving the soil of the earth where a corpse had been buried, would involve touching the corpse itself! And here, Ezekiel is placed by the LORD and “set down” in the “middle of the valley; it was full of bones” (verse 1).

If you were to walk into an established and manicured graveyard today, you would be greeted with some kind of signage that requested some kind of decorum; to not deface grave stones and to respect quiet.

If, though, you were to walk into the pillaged field of strewn bones of a-past-but-not-forgotten-battlefield, there would be no signage and yet a person would certainly be warned about entering such a place. Such a place might have a kind of “BEWARE” identity, even if no signage existed.

As you imagine the setting of the LORD’s conversation with Ezekiel then, you must approach chapter 37 with a sense of “BEWARE” and “Be aware.” There is a kind of deathly, impure danger associated with walking in the midst of the place of decayed corpses.

Be aware of the fact that you know that this is quite literally a field of bones, left from the open “grave” of a battle. The battle so mighty, the calamity so great, that in years past, when the battle had been fought, the field lay rancid and smelly for week after week as carrion flew in to pick apart the flesh of those laying strewn out across the field. Imagine seeing the tattered remnants of torn and decayed robes that lay among the rubble, the remnants of war and any weapons of warfare having been removed years ago by those who plundered the bodies, and yet, perhaps some vestiges of decaying shields or spearhead remain among the bones.

Feel the weight of the calamity and the horror of the catastrophe!

Then, imagine that YHWH sends you and this prophet Ezekiel into this place of utter and total destruction to both step out into the bone-pile of this calamity and to speak to these dead, dried, decayed, heap of bones.

Once you have tried to imagine and feel the horror and terror, the displacement and dislocation of such a place, only then you can begin to discern the complexity of the LORD calling Ezekiel to a place. Only in the horror of it can you wonder about the LORD placing Ezekiel in the midst of such a place of decrepit, impure, unclean deathliness.

It might seem a bit of a reach for me to spend this much time on this image for us, though I do believe the urgency of the scene for Ezekiel is *this* powerful.

Ezekiel is truly among the first in all of Scripture to witness the power of God to speak to that which is both “truly dead” in these bones and that which brings defilement from these bones.

To these bones, in the midst of this defiled valley, Ezekiel is asked a question (37:3): “Can these bones live?”

To all of Ezekiel’s experience, the easy answer would be “No!”

“No! These bones can not live.”

No one had ever heard of such a thing. The question is not asked in the midst of a room where a person is sick, perhaps in need of some form of breathing treatment to be resuscitated to breath better. This question is asked among decayed, fleshless bones that were already defiled!

This is not a question about whether or not a sick person could be made well. Ezekiel is not asked by the LORD if these bones could be gathered together and made into a full-skeleton, akin to the kind we might see in a Medical Laboratory – a fully assembled skeleton, though, quite dead, still!

Ezekiel is asked by the LORD whether or not an entire army of discarded and decayed bones could “live”!

I think the phantasmagoric visions of Ezekiel earlier in his experience (and in the Book of Ezekiel’s early chapters) established Ezekiel to be able to think in new ways, unlike any prophet before him. The grandeur and mystery of what he had seen the earlier chapters and episodes of his life enabled Ezekiel to answer that while he did not know if these bones could live, Ezekiel knows that God has the capacity to know more than Ezekiel could know. The LORD knew details to the heavenly and earthly worlds that Ezekiel could not know. Ezekiel knew that the LORD’s capacity to discern what could talke place went far beyond the realm of his limited capacity as a prophet.

Ezekiel’s reply, then, (v. 3) “Oh LORD God, you know” may be less an “answer” than simply a reply. Ezekiel does not know, though Ezekiel knows that the “fantastic” is not too fantastical for this LORD. Ezekiel knows the God who stirs up nations and Ezekiel knows that he has been commanded to speak, regardless of the reception of his words (Ezekiel 2:6-7).

Ezekiel 37:7 and 37:10 tell us that Ezekiel dutifully did as he was commanded; Ezekiel prophesied.

Ezekiel 37:4-6 and, in duplicate, Ezekiel 37:6-9 tell us that the LORD alone and the breath of life the LORD transforms the valley of utter desolation and reforms it into a valley of lived presence. The LORD alone can lay sinews on bones, add flesh to sinew, cover flesh with skin and re-inhabit the once empty skeletal frame with a fully-fleshed-out-body. This LORD can reform bones like Adam was formed from clay such that these bones take on breath and become (again) living beings! These bones can live!

This life – utterly new life and truly resurrected from total decayed life – animates the impure and previously decrepit bones so that “they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (37:10). This is not just a resurrected life for one person who barely escaped from the battlefield from a near loss of life some years before; this is a truly new, utterly radical full restoration of life to and for the “many” the “multitude” (verses 2 & 10).

Ezekiel 37:12-13 become a pointed new statement of what has essentially already been said in duplicate in verses 4-6 and 6-9, except in 12-13 the declaration of the LORD is that this vast valley of multitudinous dry bones is “the whole house of Israel” (v. 11).

These people who were with Ezekiel in exile felt as though their lives were a grave. They had experienced the full-scale-total-nearly-genocidal-annihilation of their identity from Judah and they felt as though Exile in Babylon was death. (The Book of Lamentations is testimony to the reality of deathly existence they had felt.)

Here though, in verses 12-13 the “phantasmagoric” of Ezekiel’s earlier vision moves from the to the fleshly reality of Judah’s Exilic experience. The vision that Ezekiel had seen was not just a vision, it was intended to point to the future reality.

Ezekiel had said about the bones (37:3) “O LORD God, you know” and now Ezekiel hears from the LORD not just what the LORD can do in a vision; Ezekiel hears what the LORD will do in reality. The LORD will bring back and re-inhabit his people.

Ezekiel 37:12-14 is resplendent with the work of the all-powerful, all-knowing, redeeming, out-of Egypt-saving, and from-the-depth-of-Exile-resurrecting-LORD who announces: “I am going to open . . . I will bring you back. . . . [I will] bring you up . . . I will put my spirit upon you. . . I will place you on your own soil . . . [I] have spoken and [I] I will act.”

Ezekiel is first among God’s partners to announce the wonder of this LORD who can resurrect from death to life.

Ezekiel is first among God’s partners to venture into the midst of untouchable decaying bones – and the untouchables – in order to speak life to them and witness their transformation to health.

Ezekiel is first among God’s partners to discern the fantastic reality of God’s ability to transform annihilation to inhabitation.

Ezekiel is first among God’s partners to hear from the LORD and announce for the LORD, that death does not have the last word.

Long before other realities of resurrection will dominate the central claim of Christian identity, Ezekiel is first among God’s partners to announce that death has been swallowed up in victory (I Corinthians 15:54).

Before Ezekiel, no one had seen old things made new (Revelation 21:5), not like this! Ezekiel is the first to see not that God is making all new things and instead that God makes all things new!

Ezekiel is first among God’s partners to discern that “death will be no more” (Revelation 21:4) for the bones in this valley of Ezekiel’s Vision. And by the power of the LORD’s ruach (spirit / breath) to animate corrupted dead bones to newly invigorated bodies, death will never again have power in the LORD’s new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1-7).