The Vicar’s Ramblings – 2 April, 2017
“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
I hear the word of de LORD!”
So went the popular song we were taught to sing in the 1950s and 60s. The head bone was connected to the neck bone, the back bone, the hip bones, the thigh bones, etc……
When I was a child, we enjoyed singing it because it was one of those songs where you could add verses almost ad infinitum: so we ended up with thumb bones and ear bones, and big toe bones – and sometimes such unbelievable things as toenail-bones and hair-bones.
But what on earth did the whole song mean, and what does the story mean, as it appears in the 37th chapter of Ezekiel? To begin to understand more clearly, as usual, we need to take into account the context. Ezekiel wrote during the time of the Babylonian Exile, which began in 597 BCE. The Babylonians believed that in order to truly defeat a people, they needed to destroy their whole society. The king, and most of the leaders of Judah were taken captive and transported to Babylon as slaves. (2 Kings 24:10-16) All the skilled crafts-people, all the warriors, all the officials – no-one but the poorest people were left behind. Eventually, some years later, Jerusalem itself was destroyed.
The people already understood the disastrous outcomes of these things. About 150 years earlier, the people of Judah’s sister kingdom – Israel – had suffered the same fate. They had utterly disappeared – the “lost tribes” of Israel. It now seemed that Judah was to suffer the same fate. It seemed that their God, the LORD, had utterly deserted them. But prophets like Ezekiel were called by God even in the alien land. By reciting and remembering the stories and songs of their faith, the culture might survive. Psalm 137, below, expresses such despair and grief! The tradition has it, that when the great singers – the priests who had served in the Temple, and had welcomed travelers to Jerusalem with the sounds of their haunting chants, echoing throughout the city – were commanded to sing such songs in Babylon, they refused, and their captors slaughtered over 80,000 Jews as punishment.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there, those who carried us away captive required of us a song; and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing God’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalms 137:1-6)
So, it is in the midst of all this that Ezekiel is called to prophesy. The people doubt the faithfulness of God. They fear they will never return to Jerusalem, and will never again be God’s chosen people.
The valley of bones is a vision. It is not a real place, but highly symbolic. Ezekiel is taken out by the spirit of the LORD, and shown this gruesome vision. The whole dream explores the relationship between God and his chosen people, and the healing of their despair. God explains it very clearly to him:
“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.’ 12 Therefore 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. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I 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.
This promise of a return, repeated often, by many prophets, is what sustains the people in their belief in God. It has the power to give them hope, in the darkness of despair. They saw themselves and their culture as dead. Yet God is able to raise them up, join the dead, dry bones together, and breathe the breath of life – the “ruach” – Holy Spirit, into them again.
As we approach Palm Sunday, Holy Week and all the drama of the Easter season, we need to pause and consider; in what ways do we feel empty, dry, dead, and abandoned? Are there areas in our own lives, in which we have lost hope? Do we feel it is too late for us? Too hard? Too much time has passed and too much water flowed under the bridge? How can what seems utterly mythical and unbelievable, give us a glimmer of hope? We might feel that now is the time to be realistic – to stop kidding ourselves…
Into that dryness, creeping like a chink of light into the darkness and stench of a tomb, comes a sound – distant and indistinct at first, through the layers of things with which we have bound ourselves. It is the sound of a voice. A voice we heard once before – one we knew long ago… and it commands; “Lazarus – come out!”
God bless you – Jennifer