"When I was small I would sometimes dream of a city - which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city clustered on the curve of a big blue bay would come into my mind. I could see the streets and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet waking I had never seen the sea, or a boat.
The buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish shaped things that certainly were not birds." 1
Ezekiel’s dream does not say that the bones are in a desert in a post nuclear world as just described by John Wyndham but I always think of them this way - the science fiction of my childhood often pictured utter desolation and I see endless brownish yellow dust and bones of all creatures piled in jumbled heaps stretching before me to the horizon and I suppose beyond. There is no hope here.
Ezekiel had known desolation; born in 623 BC he was the son of a priest and was one of those carried off into exile in 598 so only twenty-five years old under the armies of Nebuchadrezza : the trek was tortuous and few of the captives survived the march. Life on arrival in exile was better and he became a priest to the jews who were there as well as a prophet. Their world collapsed when the temple, the focus of their hopes and prayers was destroyed in 586 and soon after Ezekiel’s wife died. Ezekiel knew despondency personally and was all too aware of Israel’s sin, profanity and their turning away from their God. And so in his vision we find ourselves in a physical and a spiritual desert. The bones represent those who really died in the conflict and the travels, they represent the spiritual dryness of the people and they are scattered as the Israelites in exile in Babylon and elsewhere.
We may draw a parallel with those on the borders of Syria and Turkey in refugee camps, exiled from their homes, whose families have been scattered or killed and who hear of the destruction of their cities. When I properly look at the pictures of Aleppo it does look hopeless - those shells of apartments were once homes, with tables and chairs, meals, conversations, vases of flowers, hobbies, market squares, coffee shops, plans for the future. How long I wonder could it take to rebuild all that physically and spiritually?
Ezekiel had known the depths of bad times and he paints them as the worst possible -
“Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel then reminds us who God is, just how extraordinary and beyond our imagination, he reminds us of the God of Genesis - for in the beginning
“Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. “
Notice that in the vision God again first forms the bones - “there was a noise, a rattling and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked and there were sinews on them, and the flesh had come upon them, and the skin had covered them; but here was no breath in them.”
As in Genesis there are two stages and although this is a deliberate reminder of the creation of man Ezekiel’s vision is about more than the creation of man, “Mortal, these bones are are the whole house of Israel” “and the breath came into them and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
We may at times have stood at the grave of our hopes - hopes for ourselves, for our families for the world and perhaps in these days for the church. Ezekiel’s vision is a message to those who find themselves spiritually thirsty, gravely ill, bereaved, unbearably lonely, trapped and unable to see a way forward. It is for those who have lost all grounds for hope. It is a message about who God truly is - the God of total renewal, God who never gives up, who does not abandon. It is not about individual resurrection but about complete transformation; in Ezekiel’s world the renewal of the state of Israel and by extension in ours the transformation of the whole of community from dryness and selfishness to a world of life.
As we shall say in a moment at the end of the creed “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
1 Wyndham J. The Chrysalids, Penguin Books, 1973 London