The prophets of the Old Testament saw ahead not only to the Incarnation but also to the very end of the end times—the General Resurrection. And few glimpsed it more spectacularly than did Ezekiel.
In Ezekiel 37, the Lord takes the prophet to a valley scattered with dried bones. “He made me walk among them in every direction. So many lay on the surface of the valley! How dry they were!” (v. 2, NAB, Rev. Ed.).
God asks Ezekiel if he believes the bones could “come back to life.”
“You alone know that,” Ezekiel responds.
God then commands Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones. “I prophesied as I had been commanded. A sound started up, as I was prophesying, rattling like thunder. The bones came together, bone joining to bone. As I watched, sinews appeared on them, flesh grew over them, skin covered them on top,” Ezekiel reports (vv.7-8).
Ezekiel must prophesy again in order for breath to enter the bodies and animate them.
“They came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army,” as Ezekiel describes it (v. 10).
Ezekiel’s account, in terms of its vivid narrative detail, has no counterpart in the New Testament.
But there is some debate on how applicable this vision is to the belief in the resurrection. The Church Fathers were convinced this was truly a vision of the resurrection. However, modern commentators are more circumspect because the text itself appears to give a different explanation for the meaning of the vision: it symbolizes exiled Israel’s return to its land (vv. 11-14).
But isn’t this the way it is with most Old Testament prophecy: the restoration of Israel, promised so often, ultimately looks forward to Christ and His Church?
Moreover, this debate overlooks the obvious: what occurs in Ezekiel is most definitely a ‘resurrection’ of some kind. And so, regardless of its immediate application to the historical circumstances of exiled Israel, it is impossible for us to read this extraordinary account and not think of what insights it holds for our understanding of the resurrection. (This, by the way, is essentially the solution offered by St. Jerome, who called the valley of bones vision a ‘simile’ of the resurrection.)
Ezekiel’s total faith. The first thing that strikes us in this account is not the resurrected bodies but the figure of Ezekiel himself.
In order to even see it, Ezekiel had to be completely in the grasp of God’s power. He reports that the hand of God was upon him and that he was ‘carried out in the Spirit.’ As one commentator, Daniel Block, puts it,
As elsewhere in the book, the arrival of the hand of Yahweh upon the prophet speaks of the overwhelming force with which the prophet perceives himself to have been seized by God, and in this instance carried away.
Ezekiel’s attitude of humble faith is further exhibited by his response to the question about the possibility of the resurrection. Ezekiel honestly does not know and does not presume to know. He lets the answer rest entirely in God’s hands, as Block notes.
The power of the Word. Note how the ‘resurrection’ happens. Ezekiel only has to say the words and the bones respond. Even dry bones respond to the Word of God! What a comfort this must be to us—even when it feels like we have a hard time hearing the voice of God in our lives His word can touch the depth of our being, even if we are not conscious of it. Certainly that is what is happening here: the bones respond spontaneously and become enfleshed even before the breath of life re-enters them.
Body and spirit. The two-part reconstitution of the bodies is seen by commentators as parallel with the creation of Adam, who was first molded out of the clay of the earth and then received the breath of life. The lesson here is that when God restores us, it is in our fullness as embodied souls.
This is distinctive to Christianity. In ancient Greek myth, such as in the Iliad and the Odyssey, when the dead were seen, it was their ‘shades’ or ‘shadows’—essentially disembodied souls. In the great Latin epic the Aeneid, souls do return to bodies, but they are different than the ones they once occupied. (Plus, their memories of their previous lives have been wiped clean.)
The truth of the resurrection. Nothing cries out the desolation of death like a valley of dried bones. Because of this, what occurs to the skeleton army cannot be mistaken for a miraculous resuscitation. This is also precluded by the fact that their remains have clearly been in the valley for a long time. The vision of Ezekiel 37, then, speaks to a true resurrection that will transpire at the very end times.
Is the resurrection of the dead possible? It takes faith in God be sure that it is. But, thanks to Ezekiel, we have been granted a dim yet still spectacular glimpse of what the resurrection might just be like.