To Wind and Bones

August 23, 2020

A Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14

Ezekiel’s mystical encounter with God and the dry bones is a very well-known story and prophecy in the old testament. God takes him to a valley or plain that is littered with the bones of the dead. The detail that they are utterly dry suggests that they have been there for several years (I believe this is where we might get the phrase, “bone-dry,” but I digress). God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy (give a divine message) to the bones with the words:

“See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.

I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you,

cover you with skin, and put spirit in you

so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.”

Ezekiel 37:5-6

As Ezekiel does so, it happens as he says.

This is a well known and beloved passage of scripture because of the promise God makes to His people through it. It is filled with the message of God’s goodness, his desire for us to come to life, and speaks of our future. However, attention is not always proportionately shared around this particular scripture to help make our understanding more full. Immediately following this particular bodily reconstitution, there is then another prophesy, this time, to the “breath”, the air or wind, and for that breath to enter into the reconstituted bodies that still lie there lifeless. This time the words given to Ezekiel are:

Thus says the Lord GOD:

From the four winds come, O breath,

and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.

-Ezekiel 37:9 RNAB

However for the purposes of this post I will post another translation. The above is the Revised New American Bible. Below is the New American Bible.

Thus says the Lord GOD

From the four winds come, O spirit,

and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.

Ezekiel 37:9 NAB

I place these two translations here because it is important to understand the operative word here. In Greek, the word pneuma, and in Hebrew, ru’ah, can be translated as either “breath” or “spirit” because in in ancient cultural-linguistic paradigms they were the same word. There is something to be said about this that I think very much gets lost in translation. It gets written off as ancient superstition but such flippant dismissal tends to overlook a profound spiritual truth. Medically and biologically speaking, we know that we breathe because of a low-pressure created in lungs by expanding it via the diaphragm. Earth’s atmosphere is about 21% oxygen and so our longs draw in the air so as to oxygenate the blood and the blood carries the oxygen throughout the body to keep its aerobic processes going. To stop this process brings about death, and death will stop this process. The ancient sensibility was that your breath was your spirit. Hence, the correlation between death and the giving up of your spirit. One who is not able to breathe in quickly dies and death accordingly was when one exhales their final time, and their spirit escapes them (read the crucifixion with this detail in mind, Luke 23:46).

A commentary on Ezekiel 37
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The spiritual truths that I think are most at-risk of being overlooked are the sign of God’s action that is life (bios) itself as distinct from inanimate objects and the special life given to mankind, namely that man is a spiritual being. And this latter truth is not spoken enough. Like the angelic, human beings are spiritual.

About the first truth, biological life, hereafter, bios, is defiant of the foundational laws of physics. In this case I speak of Newtonian mechanics, gravity, thermodynamics, energy, and I think most pronouncedly, the laws of entropy. These are signs of God’s work because that is precisely what we call a miracle, an act of God that cannot be explained scientifically as merely a natural occurrence. Bios itself is a sort of ongoing daily and familiar miracle if we take the time to carefully peer into the cogs and mechanics. It is a physical law of entropy that there are never any reactions that decrease entropy. Either, it maintains the degree of entropy or it increases. Entropy can be read as a degree of disorder. Rehashed with this definition. Spontaneous reactions can, at most, maintain the same level of order. This means that the physical universe tends naturally toward disorder. And this makes sense. If you take a pile of laundry and toss them into the air, the chances of them landing on hangers and hung neatly in your closet are so astronomical that it is basically zero. It takes work (both in the physical sense and in the social sense) to bring order to anything. However, that is the situation with all physical life. Living things are composed in majority of things like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen and yet, these atoms are arranged and naturally come together to form a dog or cat or the office fern–grows, moves (plants move even if very slowly), and interacts with other objects. If the universe naturally tends to disorder, physical life, in a sense, go against the natural tendency of the universe.

The other truth that is going to be the focus of this post is the spirituality of the human being. The human being is indeed an animal. It has a physical body with natural instincts of self-preservation and seeks comforts and pleasures. Like other animals the human being follows the laws of nature and physics. Aside from bios itself being a step against the tendency of the universe, we eat food by breaking it up and digesting it creating that disorder to provide the energy and work needed to maintain the order of our bodies. However, in addition to being physical, there is another part to our nature–the spiritual. Human beings are also spiritual creatures not having just an instinctual will but a free one. And not having just a brain but a mind a rational intellect. Over and above being mere organic machines, for some reason, our combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, is also capable of reason, imagination, art, culture, politics, abstraction, hypotheticals, memory reaching across thousands of years, and projections of millions of years into the future (limited, of course, but astronomy charts, for example). A human being is simply more than the sum of his parts.

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

This latter truth of the human being, the Church refers to in the catechism as the imago Dei–the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27).Being made in God’s image, human beings are a special creature in the hierarchy of being that straddles the line of material and spiritual. We are beings with bodies that follow laws of nature, however we have also been endowed with a spiritual soul, one with free will and supernatural (to be read as above the natural/physical) intellect. Human beings are capable of divine activities. In other words, there are things that God does that human beings can also do and many of those things I already mentioned. Whatever human beings can do that even the most intelligent of other animals cannot are a sign of the effects of the imago Dei–art, worship, faith, reason, moral judgment, long-term planning and memory, and, above all, love–these are all reflections of and limited participations in the life and activities of God.

This may seem like a grievous digression from the topic at hand but it is important to understand the theological anthropology operative in the background of this reading. The dry bones represented all of humanity before divine intervention. Humanity was dead in its sin. However, God did not abandon humanity when it was banished from paradise. Rather, it set forth in motion the “plan of the mystery” (cf. Ephesians 3:9). God would not only reconstitute humanity as it was, God would raise human nature to something even greater. Humanity would come to eat the bread of angels and breathe the air of eternity in heaven. Through Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, God utters a promise to us manifest in the future tense. God says, “I will.”

“I will put my spirit in you that you may live,

and I will settle you upon your land;

thus you shall know that I am the LORD.

I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.”

-Ezekiel 37:14

This is a foretelling of what is to happen in Christ, who comes Himself as God and Man, breathes upon us the Holy Spirit, and begins the age of grace. Humanity is made into a new creature. One that is no longer doomed to eternal death but is offered God’s very own life through the free-gift offered in what we call grace. The prophecy not just to the bones of humanity but also the winds of the spirit reveals to its reader the plan of God for humanity’s salvation. It will not simply be a resuscitation to bios. Rather it is a raising–a resurrection–to eternal life. God raises humanity to the living of God’s very own life within us, a sampling of which we see and experience in the life of Christ. God wants us not just to breathe the air of this world but to breathe in the heavenly air of the Spirit.

FUN FACT: There is a branch of theology and a branch of medicine that share the same name–pneumatology. In theology it is the theology of the Holy Spirit. In medicine, it is the study of lung function.

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