Up this week is one of the stranger of the Old Testament prophets. Or, at least the one with some of the strangest visions. The chapter has two visions of Ezechiel as “bookends.” It opens with the vision of the living creatures. I have yet to make heads or tails of that one. We end with the valley of dry bones. The imagery of that latter vision is even more macabre, but at least the text explains what it means. The dry bones represent the people of Israel, who feel dried up and dead, but God is promising to restore them again to new life.
That’s the vision that I want to focus on today.
I think that a lot of us, when we hear this story, can sympathize with those Israelites. Many of us feel old and dried out. I know that I certainly do at times. And, sometimes, when you look at many of our congregations, you get the sense that we’re already halfway there. APC doesn’t really fit that mold, but, for far too many congregations in this and other denominations, the average age is getting higher and higher at an alarming rate. And we’re tired. We want somebody else take over.
While all of that is true, I think it’s important to go beyond that overt symbolism. I think we need to think about how the Israelites would have reacted to that imagery.
When we think of bones, we tend to think of things like Halloween. Maybe a little scary, but nothing really beyond that. Not so in Israel at that time. Human remains weren’t just something used to scare kids. Rather, they were a source of ritual uncleanness. According to Mosaic law, a person who touched a dead body, even the bones, was ritually unclean and unable to participate in the life of the community for 7 days. King Josiah, who is part of this week’s lesson, wanted to completely desecrate the idols worshiped by those before him, so, according to 2 Kings 32:6,
(Josiah) brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerualem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people (emphasis mine)
So these bones weren’t just dead and dry. They were dirty; filthy; contaminated; unclean. And THIS is what represented Israel. Just like it represents US. Yes, despite all of that, God is still able to make it all “good” again. Like at the beginning.
Interestingly, God didn’t just make all of this happen. God instructed Ezechiel to prophesy to the bones, and to the wind, got get things going. God was doing the work, of course, but God wants the prophet to speak the word. Even though Ezechiel probably felt as old, and dead, and unclean as those bones, he still had to follow God’s urging to speak to those bones, so that they could live. Just like we are called, not just to live ourselves, but to speak God’s word to the dry bones around us.