By Joe Casad

The breath of life– a stirring of divine air in the lungs carrying the spark of the holy spirit. We saw it in Genesis, when God brings life to Adam, and we see it again in Ezekiel, in the valley of the dry bones, when the long-dead rise to live again.

The metaphor of breath is no accident. In fact, it isn’t even exactly a metaphor. You see, the word for “breath” in ancient Hebrew is the same word that is used for “soul” or “spirit.” To have breath means that the soul is still inside you. To not have breath means the spirit has left your body.

The old Assyrian empire crumbled, and the people of Judah (the Israelites)  seized the moment and claimed their independence. It was exciting time—to be free at last from outside control. But the exhilaration was fleeting. A new empire rose. The neo-Babylonian empire asserted its dominance, and when Judah rebelled, the Babylonians responded brutally in what is known as the first siege of Jerusalem, plundering the temple, killing many of the inhabitants, and taking 10,000 prisoner into captivity in Babylon. One of those 10,000 was a priest named Ezekiel. And we know from his astonishing account that, 12 years into his exile, when he was still a prisoner, the Israelites back home rebelled again, and this time the ending was even worse. The Babylonians destroyed everything—killing or carrying off anyone who remained and even destroying the great temple. Pure desolation. All the evidence of the Hebrew people obliterated from the landscape.

The book of Ezekiel centers around a number of prophetic visions of Ezekiel—conversation with God, basically, as Ezekiel seeks to understand what has become of his lost and disconsolate people.  The eeriest of these visions is the valley of the dry bones.

It is indeed a stark and terrifying picture. The author is in the presence of a vast pile of bones, filling a whole valley, and the bones suddenly wriggle themselves up from the earth, assembling into skeletons and then appearing with sinews and flesh. And the four winds all blow at once and stir that life-giving breath back into the bones. Then we are relieved to get a simple and practical explanation: the bones are the house of Israel.  God vows to bring Israel back from the dead. So is that it then? Does that mean we’re done? Or is there more we can learn from a walk with these bones?

Scholars can’t be blamed for abstracting this vision—making it into a symbol. Ezekiel himself abstracts it, testifying that God himself told him the bones represent the house of Israel. We process symbols with our analytical brain. It is a way of getting control of the darkness. Symbols can’t hurt you. So these skeletons assembling are actually the skeleton of an argument assembling for hope of a better Israel ahead? Or so say the scholars. But does that really capture the terror and agony that fills the book of Ezekiel.

I’m sorry to say this, but a field full of dead bodies was not an unfamiliar sight in the ancient world. It was … what happened when one side lost a battle. A lost siege, when a walled city was surrounded by an invading army, was perhaps the most terrifying and tragic of all the kinds of lost battles because all that you loved lay vulnerable to destruction. At the end of a lost siege, it was not just vanquished soldiers in that pile of bodies, it was wives, children, babies, grandparents—anyone who the conquers saw no benefit to carrying off. That was Ezekiel’s last view of Jerusalem after the first siege. We can only wonder if maybe those were his parents or grandparents—or children—left unburied in the ditches along the road to the city as he and the other able-bodied few were driven away in chains.

Those kinds of memories come with a sorrow that is surprisingly personal—it is yours alone–what we know today as survivor’s guilt. And with that, Ezekiel went away to think about all he had seen and to try to make sense of it.

You might have noticed that the dry bones vision is in Ezekiel Book 37. There is a lot before this vision, and, although I don’t have time to describe all 36 of the earlier books, I will say Ezekiel (or should I say, Ezekiel and God) spend a lot of time sorting through what exactly happened in the fall of Jerusalem and all the time leading up to it. And the striking thing about it is, they don’t really blame the Babylonians.

This is significant. You might remember a recent sermon about the children of Israel in Moses’s time wandering in the wilderness. Those folks had a lot of blame to throw around.  They blamed Egypt; they blamed Moses; they even blamed God. We can only guess there were voices like that in Ezekiel’s time too, but not Ezekiel. He and others like him were asking some deeper questions.

The earlier chapters of Ezekiel explore the question of “what did WE do to make this happen to us.” His talks with God emphasize the judgment visited on the people of Israel because they had turned to idolatry. God says to him in a vision, “Mortal, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary.”

So God leaves the sanctuary of his temple just as the breath left those dry bones, taking away the soul, the breath. Taking away His protection.

Ezekiel explores this stark truth directly and doesn’t hide from it. In so doing, he and others like him are forging a new religion, a stronger bond with God that is more like the way we think about religion today—with its emphasis on introspection and personal responsibility; you’re not just following rules and showing up.

They say the dry bones represent the people of Israel, and so they do. But guess who else represents the people of Israel? Ezekiel. And he still has his breath –his soul– and we can see the imprint of that breath in his search for a deeper and more honest faith.

The hand of God is there, of course, when the breath returns to the dry bones, but listen to how it happens. God says to Ezekiel, “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.” God could have raised up the bones himself, but it was God’s plan for Ezekiel do it, and so the breath passes from those who have kept their faith and nurtured it in exile, out into all the nation of Israel, with word of a better world waiting for those who can ask the hard questions and never, ever, hide from personal accountability to God.