Dry Bones: Hear the Word of the LORD!

On the Sabbath during Pesach (Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed) we read a special Haftarah reading from Ezekiel 37:1-14.

This section of the Prophets details Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy unto the bones and as he does they join to form human skeletons and are given sinews, flesh, and skin. Then the four winds bring breath/spirit (ruach) back into these bodies, and they return to life. The sages imagine that the four winds blow their souls safely home:

In that hour the four winds of the heaven went forth, and opened the treasure-house of the souls, and each spirit returned to the body of flesh of man. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 33)

God tells Ezekiel that the dry bones represent the exiles of Israel and that the resurrection vision represents the future ingathering of Israel back to their land in the Messianic Era. This includes the literal resurrection which is ingathering those who died while in exile. Even though the people have declared “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off” (Ezekiel 37:11), they are not to lose hope. HaShem promises that he will surely restore his people back to their land at the end of days.

Why is this reading read during the Sabbath of Passover? Rashi cites a rabbinic folktale about a failed exodus from Egypt that the tribe of Ephraim attempted thirty years before Moses returned from Midian. All the Ephraimites who tried to leave Egypt early died in the attempt, and the valley of dry bones that Ezekiel saw was a repository of their remains. On some occasions, the sages did choose haftarah portions on the basis of folktale and legendary associations. Another rabbinic opinion cites a tradition that the resurrection of the dead will take place in the month of Nisan. Therefore, the synagogue reads the classic resurrection text as a rehearsal for the event.

From an apostolic perspective, the reading cannot be separated from the historical recollection of our Master’s resurrection after Sabbath on Passover. Is it possible that the annual recitation of Ezekiel 37:1-14 is yet another footprint the early believers left behind in Jewish tradition? Perhaps they adopted the dry bones passage for Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed Pesach to honor the Master’s resurrection, and the custom spread into broader Judaism. [1]

The vision itself has inspired the famous spiritual “Dem Bones” which was composed by the civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). The chorus goes, “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones … Now hear the word of the LORD.”

The famous Jubilee Singers first recorded it in 1928:

The Delta Rhythm Boys recorded a popular version:

Probably the first place I heard it was on School House Rock:

Zion Travelers Spiritual Singers recorded my favorite version. Unfortunately, I could not find it on YouTube, but I highly recommend purchasing the single from iTunes.

Fun songs aside, what does the valley of dry bones have to teach us today? Obviously, the great ingathering and resurrection that are to come in the Messianic Era are things we should be longing for and praying for every day. But as with all things kingdom-related there is an aspect of this prophecy in which we can live and walk today. Just as the bones in Ezekiel’s vision were given new life, so has Messiah Yeshua given us life:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sin which you once walked, following the course of this world … But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:1-5)

We have been resurrected in Yeshua from the death of sin and brought into the fullness of life in HaShem. As disciples of Messiah, we have individually experienced the prophecy of the valley of dry bones. Passover and the exodus from Egypt symbolize this for us. Just as the Israelites left the slavery and death of Egypt, so we have left the slavery and death of sin. And just as we have experienced life from the dead, we are to share this life with the world. We should be working to bring life and not death to those around us in thought, word, and deed. Just as with Ezekiel, it is our job to prophesy words of life to this dying world. Hear the word of the LORD!

  1. From D. Thomas Lancaster, Torah Club: Voice of the Prophets (Marshfield, MO: First Fruits of Zion, 2013), C41-42.

Source: First Fruits of Zion