The Prophet Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones

Featuring John of Bethany and the Bethlehem Players of the Evening

On the fourth Wednesday of Lent, the Prophet Ezekiel appeared at Bethlehem Covenant Church, Minneapolis to speak forth this famous prophetic poem. A dialog between Clyde Lund and Bruce Taylor set the stage, the prophet, the son of man, in ancient garb strode to the pulpit, prophesied the Word of the Lord and the bones rattled. When John of Bethany completed his rendition of the ancient prophecy, Phil Johnson continued as printed here. When the prophecies were completed, Paul Issacs and Bruce Taylor played a flute and piano rendition of “Dem Dry Bones”

Clyde Lund and Bruce Taylor: Ladies and Gentlemen! For Our Amusement and the Good Cheer of All We Present The Prophet Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones

Clyde: Ladies and Gentlemen — dear friends who have come for this show…

Bruce (interrupting): Couldn’t we say something like, “Our fellow worshippers who have come for this Lenten Service…?

Clyde (slightly annoyed): If we have to. What we really want to do is welcome each of you here this evening as warmly as possible.

Bruce: Amen to that!

Clyde: Since it is our intention to amuse —

Bruce (jumping in): Couldn’t we say something like “It is our intention to help you prepare your hearts for the rest of Lent and Holy Week?”

Clyde: Well…maybe we should, but that’s too big. I doubt we could deliver. Our only choice is to go the other direction and hope God will do something small here. That wouldn’t be bad.

Bruce (to the congregation): Okay, we are here to entertain. We are a group known as the Bethlehem Players of the Evening. We pray more than anything else that this will not turn out like a serious lecture on humor, so serious and, presumably important and weighty—humor being such an important matter—that there is neither time for a chuckle nor desire for a laugh.

Clyde: We also pray that we won’t bore you or bomb out. Before we begin, we want to give you some information and instruction so you will be prepared to play your role as the audience.

Bruce: As you can see our props this evening are minimal—so this is what we want you to imagine. The time is about 200 BCE. You have come to spend the evening at the local amphitheater to witness a performance of—let us call him John of Bethany—who will play the role of Ezekiel the Prophet who lived in Babylon as a captive beginning in 597 BCE. He and the people of Israel are in exile and, presumably, are not happy about it. In fact there is a marked degree of hopelessness and a diminished confidence in God.

Clyde: Though the prophet is in Babylon and speaks to the people there, imagine this as a newly-written poetic prophetic piece. A number of your friends have already seen it and they are talking about it. This is the first chance you’ve had to see it yourself. Times are calm and generally pretty good other than our lack of political freedom.

Bruce (to Clyde): I’m not sure the hearers had this rather casual, show-going attitude. Maybe they did gather at the amphitheater for a performance but maybe they had more urgent spiritual and religious concerns. Maybe they were more serious. Maybe the folks out there (nod to congregation) tonight are more serious.

Clyde: Well, I don’t know about that. It could be. But, I can tell all of you (turning to the congregation) this much. There are so many possible theories about who was the author or who were the authors of Ezekiel, theories of who edited what, where, and the like that we can set this performance up pretty much any way we want. The information on these theories and related speculations is thoroughly covered in the dense pages about the book of Ezekiel in The Interpreters’ Bible.

Bruce: (Agreeing) It’s high level, scholarly speculation based on ancient texts and the like. The dates given by scholars for the writing of this scroll range from the early 500s to the 200s. The author could have been the prophet envisioned in the text who was a person of history or he could have been a writer, writing about 200 BCE who created a prophetic hero and named him Ezekiel; or maybe he was a writer who gave pen to an oral tradition. There are lots of possibilities and none can be proven certain.

Clyde: (A bit impatient) Geez! I’m sure these considerations are valuable but they make a person dizzy and they delay the performance.

Bruce: Yeah. I agree. If we delay any longer there won’t even be time for a chuckle. So, on with the show.

Ladies and Gentlemen: For Your Amusement and for the Good Cheer of All, we Present: “The Prophet Ezekiel and the Valley of the Dry Bones.”

[Dear Reader: We wish you could have been at the show and have heard the proclamation of Ezekiel for all depends on truly hearing the text. Since you were not there, you must perform this part yourself by reading the poem slowly and out loud, as if you are Ezekiel, open to Ezekiel’s amazement and God’s loving kindness. To help you do this immediately, here’s the text of “The Valley of the Dry Bones.” —Ed.]

The Valley of the Dry Bones: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘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, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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, says the Lord.’

Reflections on the great poem and a Son of Man’s prophecy Lent 2007

— Phil Johnson

I can’t think of a more wonderful story of hope and salvation. We will be hard pressed find a more positive one in the whole Bible. This is not for a lack of great stories—there is an abundance of great stories—rather, it is because this story is so very good, so hopeful, and life giving.

Think about it. Everything in this poem, everything that happens, every outcome in the Valley of the Dry Bones is completely positive.

This vision is full of the wonder of renewal and the glorious wonder of life. In this vision, when God saves the people, no one is destroyed or punished or killed to prove that God is God. There are plenty of stories in the Bible in which so-called salvation is the result of God destroying others with violence. In these stories we are told God did violence to prove that he was God. Not so in this poem. In this prophecy God does what really matters for the hope and salvation for his people and for people like us. God breathes in us the breath of actual life! Each one of us, you and me. We are all sons and daughters of man. We are humans. Ezekiel was a human son of man. Jesus was a human son of man. You are a human son of man. I am a human son of man.

The four winds come bearing breath but they are not enough to make these bones fully human. There is one more thing these bones need; something absolutely essential. Humans need more than breath; humans need life-giving words. The Lord provides life-giving words by asking the son of man whose name is Ezekiel to be a prophet and to speak words. Words are the breath of God that make humans human, that make us distinct. Words are stunning blessings, they are the hugest of all miracles, even though somehow they become commonplace. We speak words so easily we forget how utterly amazing speech and understanding are.

Anyway, the writer has a lovely knack for telling this story! The story is pretty much perfect. Speaking it becomes a live conversation between God and the prophet in the presence of everybody, all the sons and daughters of man including us.

I’ve been thinking about the fun and joy of laughter and of play, about how life-giving they are. It’s not hard to convince me—I think you will readily agree—of the great value of fun and the power of joy. Doctors, nurses, and counselors actively extol the health benefiting qualities that flow from smiles, chuckles, and laughs. I hope that what I wish is true, namely that Ezekiel’s audience (including us) were delighted by his humor and that you had a few smiles cross your minds if not your lips while listening to (or reading) Ezekiel. Maybe there was a chuckle or two. If not, try reading it again. Ezekiel was a pretty funny guy, I think he was someone who tickles the funny bone deep down.

I want to think Ezekiel was a funny guy even before I read a whole lot more of his prophecies so as to be confident about it. Whether further reading will confirm that he is a funny guy or not, I have not the slightest doubt that laughter and humor are part and parcel of salvation.

I am convinced that the lack of humor of the Christian religion is a big problem in the world both spiritually and socially. I’m saying that lack of humor, lack of a sense of irony, along with a requirement that the Christian religion be acknowledged as the only true religion raises hell in the world. Unfortunately, it does so both literally and spiritually when persons insist that the Christian religion is absolutely correct in all things, It does not help in the least that other religions and other ideologies in the world that are equally serious and claim essentially the same thing. All the worse for the sons of man. I say all these religions are ridiculous. If nothing came of their insolence and presumption, I’d laugh it off. But the outcomes are awful.

Many of the worst outcomes of this humorlessness are easily seen in history. Take for example the Inquisition in Spain and elsewhere which, let us remember, was and is a real thing. The Christian Church through its inquisitors and the like were certain that their power to apply torture was a direct gift from God. Breaking bones and sometimes causing death was, and continues to be, some obviously believe, a serious Christian work.

Another outcome of this seriousness is exerting fervent pressure on people to get them to think and believe like me or us. The pressure includes saying to our friends and neighbors, and to people in other countries with other religions, that they are in the wrong and therefor doomed and damned until they join and agree with us. When the pressure builds these serious “pressure people,” these so called evangelists whose news is not good, condemn others—they proclaim for all to hear that almost all outsiders are evil and that they are agents of Satan. These outcomes —inquisitions and demonizations—are really awful! War and Devastation follow this wicked, wicked seriousness.

The violence of the wickedly serious does not square with the non-violence of Jesus or with the humor of Jesus. I admit the humor of Jesus tends to be kept under a bushel, like one of the world’s best kept secrets. As if our savior, the one who is supposed to be the savior of the world and to be even more human than we, cannot be seen with an amused smile or, heaven forbid, caught laughing—to say nothing of cracking a joke! He is not allowed to be funny. “Don’t you laugh, children!” says the Sunday School teacher.

After this, the Lord came to me, yes, me, yes, to me, and said: “There’s a better prophecy. If some followers praise and invite others to praise the radical non-violence of Jesus, you, son of man, clap your hands! And also you shall say: ‘I the Lord praise the radical friendliness of Jesus. Tell all the people, O son of man, that you praise the Radical kindness of Jesus. Tell them also that I, the Lord, endorse and bless every laugh and all the good humor there is around this place. It is a main joy of my involvement with you son of men. Sometimes it’s downright fun. Tell them to keep loose and get looser and not to hold back on seeing the funny side of things. Friendship and kindness breed joy and thanksgiving and happy hearts.’”

“Tell them that, Son of Man.

The Lord continued: “Tell them another story of friendliness and kindness about another son of man.” I said, “I will, Lord.” “Read them a Zen Story.” “I will, Lord,” said I with a glad heart.

Here is the story

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon” (Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps, Ed.).

Then the Lord said, “Tell them also the story about how Nazrudin, another son of man, one of my Mullas, a Sufi, dealt with thieves, Maybe they’ll get a laugh.”

“Yes, Lord,” I said. Here is the story:

‘There’s a burglar downstairs’ said Nazrudin’s wife one night.
‘Not a sound,’ whispered the Mulla, ‘If he finds anything here, he will have to bring it into the house himself first. He may even leave something behind’ (The Mulla Nazrudin)

“Tell them to read stories like this to each other to get to know other people as human sons of men who can laugh and show human truth. Tell them there are some wonderful Saint Francis and Brother Juniper tales in case they don’t know that there is actually some very good Christian story telling, too. Just as important, more important, praise them for every act of kindness they have rendered by reaching across boundaries to other people in the world and praise them for each act of kindness and friendliness to each other.”

“Tell them, Son of Man, to be of good cheer, tell them to brighten the corner where they are, to do good work. Tell the grown-up sons and daughters of humans to learn what is fresh from the children. Say to them ‘I, the Lord, love and admire the way they cherish and care for children.’ Tell them to play and have fun and to laugh as much as they genuinely can. And be sure to tell them also that this is serious business if they want to do something to stem destructive, violent, wicked seriousness so as to help out in the world.

“Tell them, Son of Man, to keep coming to church and give them my blessings and wishes for fullness of humor to them all.”

With this, I have spoken (and written) what the Lord has told me to say. I tried to extract a promise that in exchange for following directions, God would breath life into my aging dry bones in return. As far as I can tell at this point, the response has been non-committal.

That’s the prophetic part of our presentation for the evening. Thanks for being such a great audience. There will be a postlude following the service that will make your bones live. Stick around for it if you can.

Thanks be to God. Amen.