You will not find many Bible study groups doing a study of the Book of Ezekiel. The book is difficult and disturbing. The prophet acts in bizarre ways, and God is often cold and calculating. God commands Ezekiel to do strange things. The book of Ezekiel uses imagery and theological ideas that are often disturbing and even repellent to our 21st century minds. And it is a book we need to read and contemplate, because it still has a word to speak to us today, even if the lens through which Ezekiel viewed the world is strange and foreign to us.
But let’s back up first and put Ezekiel and his book into historical context. Ezekiel was born to a priestly family. We know very little about his childhood but can assume that as the son of a priest, he was trained to become a priest who would serve in the Temple. This means he was part of the privileged and elite class of his time and place. Religion in the ancient world was not private. It was dependent upon communal participation in certain cultic acts. Ezekiel would be one of the few given the task of maintaining the institution, the Temple, that upheld the religion of his nation. It was a hereditary position. It was a privileged position. From a very young age he would have been well aware of his place in his world and of the job he was born to do.
And the prophet Ezekiel lived in a very turbulent time in Israelite history. He lived at the height of Babylonian power. Having recently wrested control over Mesopotamia from the Assyrians, the Babylonian kings sought to expand their power south and west toward Egypt. The people of Israel lay in the path of the expansion plans of Babylon. For a time, the people of Israel lived as a vassal state of Babylon, but they chafed under this rule, and they rebelled. The Babylonians laid siege on Jerusalem and deported royalty, the army, skilled workers, officials, and priests to Babylon. Ezekiel, as a priest, was part of this deportation.
Those deported were saddened but had not yet lost all hope. Many Israelites remained in their homeland. Perhaps God would protect them, strengthen them, and the Babylonians would finally be defeated. Then they could return to the land God had given them. But alas this was not to be. Four years after the first siege and deportation, the people of Israel rebelled against Babylon again and this time the siege lasted for 18 months. The population was decimated by hunger and disease and eventually Jerusalem fell. Most of the city and more importantly the Temple were destroyed. All but the poorest of the poor were either killed or deported to Babylon. When these battered and broken refugees begin arriving on the doorsteps of those who were first deported, the people of Israel found themselves in a place of deep despair.
It would be difficult to overestimate the theological issues that the fall of Jerusalem posed for faithful Israelites. They had believed that God would protect them and their city. They question their God, their leaders, and their own identity. Where was Yahweh in all this? Had he been defeated by the Babylonian gods? Or had he really done this to his own people? Was he now as disgraced in defeat as Israel? Or was he still in control of events? In either case, was there any future for Israel now? And if not, then what would become of Yahweh’s wider purpose among the nations? And all these questions were being asked by a people who had just experienced great trauma. People who had lost their homes, their country, their neighbors, and their loved ones. People who had been humiliated, beaten, and raped. Had they now lost their God too?
And it is to these broken and despairing people that Ezekiel is called to be a prophet. He is called to face the pain and suffering head on and to speak God’s word in the midst of it. He is called not to give false platitudes, but the truth as he understands it. And keep in mind, he must have been just as traumatized and distressed as the people to whom he was called to be a prophet. He lost his wife in the midst of all of this upheaval. He too witnessed the death and destruction of everything he had known and loved. The entire purpose of his life, the Temple, had been destroyed. And God calls this broken and traumatized man to be a prophet to his broken and traumatized people. No wonder this book is so strange and disturbing. No wonder Ezekiel’s view of humanity is so negative. No wonder in the first two thirds of the book his depiction of God is so angry and his hope for his people’s ability to change is so small.
In the first two thirds of the book, Ezekiel insists that individuals are utterly free to make moral choices and utterly responsible for the consequences of these choices. Each individual is given the chance to make decisions that may be life-giving or death-dealing (Ezekiel 18). Yet Ezekiel sees little evidence that the people of Israel will choose more wisely in the future than they have in the past. Though blessed with free-will and moral agency, the people of Israel are no more able to use these two gifts well than lifeless bones are able to get up and walk. When God puts him in a valley filled with dry bones and asks him if these bones can life, the best answer Ezekiel can give to God is “O Lord God, you know.” And then he gets up and does as God commands him and prophecies to a valley of dry bones.
I have to say, I appreciate Ezekiel’s honesty. I hear his uncertainty. I sense his feeling of powerlessness. I imagine him looking around and shaking his head at the overwhelming enormity of it all. God only knows if these bones can live again. This place of uncertainty, powerlessness and sense of being overwhelmed is a place I have personally visited frequently in the past few years.
When I was a child, teenager and young adult, I saw our nation as a country that was in the process of overcoming some of our greatest cooperate sins—racism and sexism being at the top of the list. I of course had no idea of my blindness to all the racism and sexism that really did still exist and I had no understanding of all the other ways we exclude and marginalize other groups of people, but I did have a sense that we were moving toward a place in which more people were on the inside and fewer people were left to find a way to survive on the outside.
As I entered adulthood, I began to understand how our culture excluded people of differing sexual identities and then later I added to my understanding the exclusion of people of differing gender identities. And I was proud of the way our culture and our laws began to change to make our nation a place where people could be who they were born to be without fear and with the protection of the law. I knew that the fight for dignity and equality for all was still going on, but it felt like progress was being made in so many areas. I watched as scientists, economists, and sociologists began to research and find ways to better meet the survival needs of all and witnessed other countries successfully use their research to better the lives of the poor and the sick. I felt hopeful that this great land of ours would embrace these new learnings to better the lives of our poor and sick as well. And as someone who promised in my baptismal vows to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” I felt like God’s work was being done. I seemed to me that God was guiding this work and would protect those fighting so hard for those at the bottom of the heap.
And in the past few years I have watched as much of that work has been undone. Every day another mass shooting in a school or murder of a person of color in custody of one of our national institutions that is supposed to be protecting them is reported. The ability of women throughout our country to be in control over their own bodies, a basic need if we wish to truly have equality in our lives, is being chipped away state by state. The right of people to live as the person they were created to be in their gender and sexual identity is being threatened. Social programs designed to protect those who have the least are ending. And I wonder, “Where are you God? Why aren’t you stopping all this craziness?” And I wonder, “Can these bones live?” And I can only answer as Ezekiel answered, “O Lord God, only you know.”
And now comes the part of my sermon where I talk about why the book of Ezekiel and in particular our reading for today is so very important. The story of the valley of dry bones does not end with Ezekiel’s truthful but defeated answer, “O Lord God, only you know.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the dead bones. I don’t know what Ezekiel was thinking when he received this command from God, but I can tell you what I would be thinking, “Are you crazy God. What kind of fool prophecies to a bunch of bones. What is the point? What are trying to achieve? Are you trying to make me look like a fool? Do you want me to feel worse than I already feel?”
Whatever Ezekiel was thinking, he does what God tells him to do and miracle of miracles the bones grow sinews, flesh, and skin and as he prophesies a second time breath enters the newly re-fleshed bodies and they are alive again. Through his faithfulness in the midst of despair, Ezekiel discovers God’s grace. He rediscovers the God who made humans from dust and breathed into them the breath of life. He remembers again the God who took slaves from Egypt, forming them into a new people, and giving them a good land. And he encounters a God who will take a people dead as stone, dead as bones and breathe new life into them again.
Ezekiel discovered God’s grace because he trusted God enough to keep doing what God was asking him to do. That is our call too. God will breathe into us the life we need to keep doing what God is calling us to do. And what is it that God is calling us to do? Well, let’s end by reciting the 5 promises all of us made or were made on our behalf at our baptisms. Please turn to the bottom of page 304 in your prayer book.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
I will, with God’s help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
I will, with God’s help.
God said to Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones life?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones. . . and so I prophesied as I had been commanded.” Amen.