Formations 07.23.2017: Looking at the Valley

Ezekiel 37:1, 3-14

Francisco Collante’s “The Vision of Ezekiel” (1630, detail)

In November 2015, at the Old Salem Cemetery near Uvalda, Georgia, Emory students uncovered a grave that had been lost for nearly 67 years. These students were in Montgomery County as part of Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.

This project seeks to use journalistic and historical methods to investigate and understand either unpunished or unsolved murders that were racially motivated. So in November 2015, a group of Emory students and their professor traveled to Montgomery County to look into court records and newspaper reports on the murder of Isaiah Nixon.

Nixon was killed on September 8, 1948 in front of his home after participating in the Democratic Party’s primary gubernatorial election. The men who killed him never faced justice for their crime. After a three-hour trial, one brother was found not guilty, and the case against the other was never heard.

After his murder, Nixon’s family fled to Jacksonville, Florida. But by the time it was safe to return, the gravesite of their father and husband had become overgrown, so covered in leaves and branches that they couldn’t find it. For nearly 67 years, Isaiah Nixon’s grave was lost. No one, not even his family, knew its exact location.

Ezekiel points to the valley of dry bones to offer hope to the community of exiles in Babylon. At the most immediate level, he offers hope to those who are cut from their homeland, hope for their return and restoration. But some look to Ezekiel’s valley and see a more literal vision that leads to a fuller picture of Israel’s restoration. In the valley, they say, are not the exiles but the remains of those who died in Judah and Israel at the hands of the Babylonian and Assyrian armies.

As Judah’s elite were taken into exile, those who remained in the land saw the greatest violence. So when Ezekiel brings a word of hope to the exiled community, he does so by asking them to look at the valleys they created through military alliances and economic exploitation. Then he asks them to see their hope and restoration as bound up in the restoration of all the nameless who were left behind.

In January 2016, Dorothy Nixon Williams returned to Uvalda, Georgia, to see her father’s grave for the first time. Standing with the students who saw a small part of a stone, bent down to wipe away leaves and branches, and dug out mud from her father’s inscribed name, she said, “Now, the anger is completely released. Thank you all for that.”

As we listen to Williams and to the students, we might find hope for healing that emerges as we tend to the sources of pain in each other’s lives. But as Ezekiel asked the exiles to see the valley filled with those who had died in Judah, we might ask what common sources of suffering exist in our world.

And we might find hope in the example of those prophets who look deeply at suffering in the past and present and call us to see it too. Because if Ezekiel is right, in looking at and responding to the social sins that precede and surround us, we might find hope for our common visions of justice and restoration.

Caela Abrams, “Bullets and Ballot Boxes: The Isaiah Nixon Story,” The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, January 25, 2016, https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/emorycoldcases/bullets-and-ballot-boxes-the-isaiah-nixon-story/.

The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, “Isaiah Nixon,” January 24, 2016, http://scholarblogs.emory.edu/emorycoldcases/isaiah-nixon/.

Hank Klibanoff, “The Search for Isaiah Nixon,” The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, January 27, 2016, https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/emorycoldcases/the-search-for-isaiah-nixon/.

Discussion

• What valleys in our collective memory—as a society and as a church—lie behind us?
• How do I relate to the various valleys that exist among us? What valleys do I find myself in? What valleys do I look on?
• What visions of hope might God lead us to as we engage with the valleys of our past and present?
• How might we respond when God asks, “can these bones live again?” (v. 3). What actions might God call us to take as participants in this future?

Reference Shelf

The Valley and the Bones

The present unit consists of a report of a trance experience in which the prophet performs a symbolic action (vv. 1-10) and an accompanying disputation (vv. 11-14). The two subunits are held together by the complaint of the people, which is cited in v. 11: “Our bones are dried up; our hope is lost, we are clean cut off.” Zimmerli notes that the ēnû sounds at the end of each Hebrew verb suggest that this expression was derived from the context of complaint and lament. In the poetic literature, the metaphor of bones represents the totality of the human person. Greenberg notes the contrast between fully alive bones, which are moist (Prov 3:8; 15:30), and despairing bones, which are dry (Prov 17:20). The remaining expressions underscore the despair and anguish of abandonment (cf. Ps 31:23). The complaint is the basis for what precedes and follows: vv. 1-10 focus more vividly on the metaphor of dry bones, while vv. 12-14 develop a related metaphor of bringing the dead out of their graves.

Because this unit begins with the formula that introduces each of Ezekiel’s other visions, “the hand of the LORD was upon me” (cf. 1:3; 3:22; 8:1; 40:1), it is often interpreted as a vision. However, since the narrative does not employ Ezekiel’s terms for a visionary experience, it is better understood as a narrative concerning a trance or seizure during which Ezekiel performs a symbolic act.

With the hand of the Lord upon him, the prophet is carried by the spirit to “the” valley, possibly the same one where Ezekiel was instructed to perform his first symbolic acts (cf. 3:22). The noun NRSV translates as “valley” can also connote the kind of plain in which armies would engage in battle. That the valley is such a battlefield is further suggested by the reference to the corpses as the “slain” (Heb. hārûgîm), as well as by the reference to the resuscitated host as “a very great army.” What Ezekiel sees, then, is the end result of the rebellion of the whole house of Israel, as well as the completion of Yahweh’s judgment. Block suggests that the dry bones represent not only the victims of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege, but also those who fell to the Assyrians more than 130 years earlier.

When Yahweh asks the prophet whether the bones can live, he replies, “O Lord, you know.” Zimmerli observed that Ezekiel’s reply encompasses an acknowledgment both of human failure and of divine possibility. Even though the scene is a powerful vindication of the prophet’s message of judgment (cf. 33:33); it is also a ruthless commentary on his efforts as a sentinel. The prophet’s reply to Yahweh’s question may therefore contain a tacit acknowledgment of his own failure.

Yet it is this prophet who must prophesy over the dry bones. In the ensuing scene, as Zimmerli notes, the “prophet is suddenly transformed from being a spokesman of human impotence to a spokesman of divine omnipotence.”

Margaret S. Odell, Ezekiel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005) 453–54.

Justice and the Prophets

It was primarily the prophets who sounded the charge that Israel’s kings (e.g., Jer 22:13-19) and official leaders (e.g., Mic 3:1-12; cf. Jer 2:8; 5:31; 6:13-14; 8:8-12) had failed to live up to this high standard of justice. Certainly the prophetic condemnations focused on the breaking of the Law. This is especially clear in their attacks on such clearly prohibited offenses as bribery, idolatry, and murder (e.g., Jer 7:3-15). But it is also the case that the prophets concerned themselves with behavior which, under the letter of the law, may not have been illegal. They were particularly concerned, for example, with false attitudes that would permit one to observe faithfully the formalities of worship while at the same time plotting to defraud and cheat their neighbors (Amos 8:4-6; cf. 2:6-8; 5:10-12; Mic 3:9-12). Such behavior makes a mockery of justice (Amos 5:7; 6:12), and God will not abide it (cf. Amos 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8). Gradually the prophets come to look toward the future when the ideal King will at last embody the true justice that is God’s (Isa 11:1-4) and toward the new Jerusalem where programs of social reform will assure that justice can be achieved outside the Temple and not only within it (Ezek 45:8-17; 46:16-18).

Samuel E. Balentine, “Justice/Judgment,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: MU Press, 1995), 483.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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