37:1 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’Ezekiel 37:1–14
7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘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.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
There are moments when, akin to a waking dream, we are fully aware of ourselves in the grand sweep of history, when we can feel, viscerally, that we are in the midst of seismic shifts in our lives.
Right now, we are standing side by side with Ezekiel, desperately trying to process exactly how we wound up in a world we don’t recognize and over which we have no control.
For this is truth: the world, as we know it now, has irrevocably changed.
Our measures for normal are all broken, and we will not be returning to any sense of stability and balance any time soon. We have no clue when this crisis will subside, and we are completely in the dark about what the world will look like when it does. We are moving at breakneck speed through an impenetrable fog, without any sense of direction and completely bereft of landmarks. We have precious little control over the future, and we feel powerless to stop the forces at play, which seem to be working to transform even the smallest aspects of our lives.
These moments are when I feel the most connection with the past, because they seem to create wormholes which bring together numerous moments in time, gathering us all together in one place so that we can all stand next to each other, and see into each other’s realities with new eyes. This phenomenon could also be termed a “thin place,” that liminal space where what was, what is, and what may come to be, all coalesce, and we experience the surreality of having God’s time and physical time meet and embrace. This is a place where we encounter prophetic visions, where we can see the spread of history laid out in front of us, and where we encounter the Spirit of God, literally “inspired” by God as the Spirit of God fills us, shows us truth, and gives us life.
At this moment in time, we are in a place where the Babylonian Exile, the impending worldwide ecological collapse, the slow-motion unraveling of national economies, the 1918 flu pandemic, and the tsunami of the COVID-19 pandemic are all occurring at the same time, this one time. We are Ezekiel in Babylon, struggling to come to grips with living in exile. We are the Israelites, grieving the loss of control over their lives, the sense that everything they had always known was lost, and most terrifying, the worry that they would be cut off from God, living so far from their homeland. How are they to be comforted? How are we to gain any sense of hope? Is there any future for us both?
In response, Ezekiel provides us with a vision distressing in its implications for our immediate future. In 37:1–2, Ezekiel is grabbed by God’s hand and carried in God’s wind to a desolate valley. God ensures that Ezekiel misses no detail, leading Ezekiel through the entire valley. The prophet sees a place of utter desolation, filled with the bone refuse of an unknown multitude of bodies so far past decay that they are solely the minerals which comprise them. This place is completely, absolutely, and utterly devoid of life. It is dead, with no hope of life ever returning. Their bones are dried up, their hope is lost, they are cut off completely, and they are buried in graves far away from their home (Ezekiel 37:11–12).
The power of this vision must be rooted in this reality, one that cannot be rejected or dismissed. We must not shy away from accepting that we are facing the death of something fundamental to our lives and our society. Whether it is this pandemic, or the climate crisis, we must face the reality that we cannot maintain our society exactly as it was anymore. We have passed a tipping point, and we are already seeing the effects of that all around us, whether that is massive population die-offs, extreme weather events, or the rise of microbes that leap from animals to humans and cause pandemics. There is no hope for us if we do not stare hard into the valley, and realize that this is our future.
This is a time for excessive humility, for acknowledging that our need for power and control has not only brought ourselves to this point, but will ultimately lead this vision of our future to become our present reality. When God asks us if these bones can live, we must be able to accept that, as Ezekiel states in 37:3, only God really knows. All our models and all our projections (especially our economic ones) are fundamentally flawed, and we need to fundamentally re-assess the assumptions upon which we have based our entire society. That’s the bad news.
Before we leave this place, we need to also acknowledge that death is an irrevocable change. What was before death, has died, and will never return. What is reborn by God’s hand is now different, fundamentally. Nothing can cease to be without causing tears in the surrounding fabric. This is easy to see in ecosystems: death ripples out in ever-expanding spirals, causing damage wherever it hits. This also applies to smaller cycles of death and rebirth, however, such as those moments that changed us forever: the death of a loved one, the realization that we have been betrayed, or the death of a career.
Death does not need to be a tragedy, though: the moment when we become caretakers and lovers of new life is also a moment of death, where we die to our previous lives and are reborn as parents, grandparents, family. We can never return to what once was, because we are now different people. Something in us has shifted profoundly, and we will never be the same as we were. We will heal, we may even become stronger, but we will never be the same. Once something ends, it is ended, and is no more. Even when God grants life, God does not recalibrate time, or its effects on who we are.
We must mourn what has died, and accept its death, before we can move on into the new life which God brings. If we don’t mourn, and accept, and allow ourselves to feel the passing of something essential to ourselves, we will not be able to accept the new life God will inevitably bring.
This is the good news, and it is also truth: God always brings new life after death. God is always following behind us, bringing life and healing after death and destruction. As Ezekiel prophesies in 37:5–6, God will cause “breath to enter you, and you shall live,” bones to rejoin, sinews to be regrown, skin to stretch, bodies to heal.
Yet, if we are stuck in our previous ways of being, bound by the dead ways, then we will be incapable of recognizing new life when it sprouts amongst us. We will experience this new life as dangerous, and instead cling to our old ways with such ferocity that we cut ourselves off from life, slowly consuming our own selves in a frightening self-mutilation of fear and greed. We MUST prophecy when called to do so, even to the driest of bones and the greediest of capitalists, and call upon all to “hear the voice of God” (verse 4).
God does not bring healing without partnership with humanity. We MUST be willing to give up our need to hoard power, wealth, and any other good (whether through greed or fear), and live into the role God desires for us, whether that be prophet, health care worker, or transit worker, faithfully fulfilling our place in helping to bring healing and life back to the dead places in our ecosystems and our economies. Ezekiel knows this, and when he does as he is commanded, healing begins to take place (verses 7–8).
We might even be asked to do the impossible, to do that for which we think we are unworthy: to prophecy directly to God, and to ask God to bring life into that which was once dead (verses 9–10). This too necessitates a death: a death to our human measures of importance and value. In the eyes of God, all are valuable and precious. In the scale of God’s creation, size is no measure of power (as we’re discovering), and age is no measure of wisdom, as teenagers like Greta Thunberg demonstrate. Even the mightiest economy can be felled from the tiniest microbe, and the fiercest social movement ignited from the tiniest prophetic flame. We will call to the Lord out of the depths (Psalm 130:1), and the Lord will be attentive to our pleas, even and especially the pleas of the most vulnerable, the oppressed, the dying, or those suddenly out of work and afraid of what the future will hold.
This is truth, both for pandemics and the restoration of a people / ecosystem: things will seem to happen very slowly, until suddenly everything seems to happen at once. From a long time of banishment, which seemed like death, God promises to drag the people of Israel from the graves of their exile, and to restore them to life in their homeland. In an echo of Genesis 2:7, God will fill their mouths with God’s own Spirit, giving them the gift of God’s own life (Ezekiel 37:13–14).
What separates this vision from other miracle stories (such as John 11, for example) is that it does not place the focus on the individual human being healed or reborn. Instead, this is a collective healing, a rebirth of the entire community, and as such is both a physical healing as well as the rebirth and re-imagining of the people, a new understanding of what it means to be a “people.” Staring out across the dead valley of their exile, Israel was faced with the death of themselves as a people, and the utter desolate certainty that they would never return to their lives, as they had lived them. They needed to mourn their previous frameworks, for they would never return. Instead, they needed to learn how to be a people faithful to God’s call in a foreign land, a place they did not understand and which would change them in profound ways.
We see through the eyes of Israel. We see through the eyes of Ezekiel. How will we mourn our previous certainties? How will we re-imagine ourselves in this strange country? How will we prophecy? How will we call upon God to bring healing? Will we accept it when it comes, in whatever form God desires it to take? We are a people once asleep, now waking to a new world, where our forms of life have done irreparable harm to our earth and helped to unleash a deadly pathogen on ourselves. We must ask, how will these bones live? O Lord God, only you know.