Friday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14

Today’s First Reading is a kind of parable of the renewal of Israel – a theme not unlike that of yesterday’s reading. The prophet gives no indication as to when it was written, but it must be dated after 586 BC, the year following the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. God’s people are in exile in distant Babylon and see no brightness in their future.

In his vision, the prophet is set down by God in a valley full of bones. Such scenes must not have been unknown as the result of battles when the casualties were left behind by fleeing armies to die and rot. As we will see, these bones symbolise Israel’s apparently hopeless condition in exile. They are “very dry” indicating that they are long dead and beyond hope of resuscitation. But Ezekiel is now going to receive a message of hope for the future.

Perhaps testing his faith, God asks Ezekiel if they can live again. “O Lord God, you know” the prophet replies. He is then told to prophesy to them:

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Apart from addressing people, Ezekiel had also addressed inanimate things like mountains and forests, and now it is lifeless bones. Through him, Yahweh tells the bones he will bring spirit into them so that they may become living again. The Hebrew word ruah used here can mean spirit, breath or wind. They will once more have tendons, flesh, skin and breath. A listing of four items indicates wholeness and completeness.

As Ezekiel spoke the prophecy, there was a great rattling sound as the bones reformed into whole skeletons and grew sinews and flesh covered by skin. The sound could refer either to the bones coming together or to the active presence of God over them.

But there was as yet no breath, no life. This recalls the two steps by which the man was created in Genesis. He was first formed from the dust of the earth and then received the breath of life. Ezekiel then follows the Lord’s instructions:

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…

Then they all rose to their feet and formed a mighty army.

The Jerusalem Bible comments:

“God announces the messianic restoration of Israel after the sufferings of the Exile. But also, by the imagery chosen, he is already preparing minds for the idea of individual resurrection of the body, vaguely perceived in Job and explicitly stated in Daniel.” (edited)

Clearly, the risen bones are the restored House of Israel. In exile in Babylon, they had lost all hope and were in the depths of despair:

Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.

That was how they felt separated from their homeland.

Ezekiel is now to tell them that their graves will be opened and they will return to their homeland. This final part of the reading has switched from the image of a battlefield of dead bones to that of a cemetery of many graves.

As in yesterday’s reading, Yahweh promises to give them his spirit, a spirit of life:

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… (Ezek 37:14)

It is clear from the context that Yahweh is not speaking here of a resurrection from the dead, but of the restoration of Israel as a nation.

As we read this dramatic passage, we can transpose its images to our Christian situation. God, through Jesus, is for us, too, a source of new life. But through our infidelities that life can become effectively dead in us. Spiritually, we become as dry as dead bones.

Jesus said that he had come precisely to give us new life, life in greater abundance. He made this promise many times in the Gospel and proved it by the new life he gave to so many people by raising them from death, by healing them of incurable diseases or disabilities, by liberating them from the power of evil influences.

We too have been given new life in baptism, but we need to be constantly renewed in heart and spirit. May the Lord never cease to pour his Spirit into our hearts.

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