Want to hear a good ghost story? Read Ezekiel 37:1-14. If you have never heard this one before, you are likely to wonder, “What is this doing in the Bible?” It is a scene out of a horror movie, or a Stephen King novel.
First, the prophet is taken in a vision by the hand of the Lord to a valley, filled with dry, dusty, disjointed bones.
God asks Ezekiel, “Human one, can these bones live again?” (37:3). The obvious answer is no—there is no life, and no possibility of life, in this place! The bodies strewn across the valley are not only dead, they are long dead (37:2)–there is no point in calling 911! But since his call, Ezekiel has seen (see 1—3 and 8—11) and done (see 4—5; 12:1-20; 24:15-27; as well as 37:15-28) some very odd things in the Lord’s service. So he answers, simply “Lord God, only you know” (37:3).
Now, God commands the prophet, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word!” (37:4). As Ezekiel delivers God’s promise of life to the dead bones, he hears “a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone” (37:7, NRSV). He watches as, in accordance with the word he had proclaimed (37:5), the bones are joined by tendons and covered over with flesh. Now, instead of a valley full of dry bones, the prophet is standing in a valley filled with corpses.
Again God speaks: “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, human one! Say to the breath, The Lord God proclaims: Come from the four winds, breath! Breathe into these dead bodies and let them live” (37:9). Hebrew writers love puns. A pun on the different meanings of the Hebrew word ruakh (“breath” in the 37:8-9) runs through this story. First, this word can mean “breath:” so, to say that there was no ruakh in the bodies (37:8) simply means that they were not breathing. Related to this meaning is the use of ruakh for “wind” (37:9). In keeping with the invisible force of the wind and the life-giving power of the breath is a third meaning. Ruakh can be rendered as “spirit”—that is, the empowering, enlivening agency of people, and in particular, of God (more on that one shortly). So, as Ezekiel prophesied to the wind (ruakh), breath (ruakh) entered the bodies, and “they came to life and stood on their feet, an extraordinarily large company” (37:10)–not, please note, this
What does this vision mean? In 37:11-14, God explains. The dry bones are Ezekiel’s community, the house of Israel: exiled, and in despair. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely finished.” (37:11)–and they are right! Jerusalem is destroyed, the king is in chains, the temple is gone, and the people are scattered, in hiding or in exile.
But, deliverance is promised–a resurrection for dead Israel. The Lord declares, “I will put my breath [there’s that third meaning of ruakh–God’s spirit, God’s very life] in you, and you will live. I will plant you on your fertile land, and you will know that I am the Lord. I’ve spoken, and I will do it. This is what the Lord says” (37:14). Hope for the future, Ezekiel was convinced, would come from God and God alone, through the gift of God’s life-giving Spirit.
Another ghost story will be told in churches around the world on Sunday. It comes from Acts 2 in the New Testament, but it builds on the same ideas and images Ezekiel used. Jesus had told his followers, “Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power” (Lk 24:49). So they had remained in Jerusalem; as our story begins, they have been there, waiting and praying, ever since Jesus’ resurrection. It is now Pentecost, the Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover.
Suddenly, the room where they are praying is filled with wind and flame, and each person gathered in that room is filled with an overpowering urge to speak! They pour out into the street, praising God, and discover to their astonishment and delight that everyone in that crowd, Pentecost pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from across the Roman world, understands perfectly what they are saying: “we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:11).
Ezekiel’s ghost story reminds us of the beginning–of how God had created the first human from the ground, breathing into him life.
Luke’s ghost story in Acts also takes us back to Genesis–this time, to the tower of Babel and the curse that confused human languages and divided the human community.
Just as in Ezekiel, God’s Spirit undoes the curse of exile, and brings those who had thought themselves as good as dead back to their homeland, so on Pentecost God’s Spirit undoes the curse of Babel, and restores all humanity to oneness.
Perhaps, like Ezekiel’s community, we have experienced abandonment and despair. Certainly, the curse of Babel has stricken deeply into our community, even into our families, bringing division and confusion. The solution, for us as for them, is God’s Spirit, the Holy Ghost!
That may be hard for us to hear. Ghosts are scary, after all; why should we let go of what seems so solid and real? Why exchange the visible and tangible for the invisible, mysterious world of God’s spirit? Quite simply, because we must. We need God’s spirit because we do not have the answers we seek, and we cannot find them. We need the gift of God’s spirit to empower and enliven us, to renew and reunite us.
W. Sibley Towner puts it this way: “We need all the energy and effort we can muster to concentrate on the whisperings of the only ghost that matters, whose name is Holy. This spirit who proceeds from God doesn’t rock in chairs or frighten dogs, but plants winsome words in the human heart that yield great fruit if the heart is supple and ready.”
So may it be for you and yours this day. God bless you–and Happy Pentecost!