In the justly famous vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel ch 37), God brings to the mind of his prophet Ezekiel the complaint of his people experiencing the absence of God: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” In his spirit-moved imagination, Ezekiel sees the valley filled with bones. But by his faith, he knows well that the listless, depressed spirits of his people, symbolized by the dry bones, present no real obstacle to the all-creative, all-curative God. In vision Ezekiel sees the bones coming to life, bone joining bone; and prompted by the divine Spirit, Ezekiel calls on the wind to in-spirit or in-breathe the dry bones, bringing them back to life. Such is the word of God for his Chosen People, even in captivity in a foreign land: “Prophesy, Son of man, prophesy, and say, `I will cause breath [ruach] to enter you, and you shall live…I will put my Spirit [ruach] in you, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD [YHWH], have spoken and I will act,’ says the LORD” (Ezekiel 37). Yahweh-God does not abandon his people; even in captivity, the God of all the earth is present and reviving spirits, and he will return His people to Judah and Jerusalem.
Such is the creative power of the living God. In symbolism and in meaning, Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones is remarkably similar to the masterful creation story of Genesis 1, which scholars claim one or several priests composed probably shortly after the preaching of the prophet Ezekiel, about 500 years before Christ. In both Ezekiel and in Genesis 1, God creates order and life by two powers at work: his word and his Spirit; where there had been disorder and waste, God creates or restores order and life. In the great creation story of Genesis 1, we see an image, not of dry bones, but of the earth itself being “waste and void.” And God again takes life-giving mastery over the emptiness. God’s Spirit (ruach) is pictured as brooding over the face of the deep, over the stormy sea. And by His word and Spirit, God creates, forms, and orders the world, filling it with life and goodness. Literally from the Hebrew: “And God said, `Light! Be!’ and light became.” (Gen 1).
“Son of man, can these bones live?” His prophet responds: “You know, LORD.” Our task is to receive into the depths of our hearts and minds the all-good, creative Word of God, spoken here and now, bringing order out of our internal chaos, peace into troubled hearts, wisdom into those who are small enough to allow God to enter in. Without responding to the creative Word with trusting faith, our spirits, too, become listless, lifeless, confused, sorrowing. But as we listen, and open up, the creative, restorative divine Spirit flows in, penetrating even the depths of our souls, however waste and void they had been. Dry bones or a hardened, closed heart are no obstacle to God. Indeed, as “mere flesh and blood,” we all carry that “waste and void” within ourselves, in our egos, in our essential nothingness. But God acts for us through his Word: “I will cause Spirit to enter you, and you shall live,” says the LORD, the Creator.One hears God’s word with faith, considers the word in his mind, and shares in the Spirit, that is, the enlivening Presence of God.
From another prophet speaking God’s word shortly after Ezekiel—from Zechariah—we hear this moving claim: “Not by power or by the sword, but by my Spirit, says the LORD.” Apart from God’s Spirit in man, God’s creative and restorative Presence, all is waste and void—in us, power-driven ego. But all that is human can be enlivened, energized, renewed in the man or woman who hears the word, and humbly receives with joy the in-breathing Spirit of God. And then, indeed, “these bones can live.”