Ezekiel 37:1–14 is undoubtedly the most famous passage in Ezekiel’s book: besides inspiring a popular song, it is prominent in both Jewish and Christian iconography and has been endlessly debated in Jewish and Christian exegesis and speculation (Zimmerli 1983: 263–65).
I will declare my own enthusiasm immediately: the vision of Israel as dry bones and the promise of the bones’ resurrection are from a certain Christian point of view the effective culmination of Ezekiel’s prophecy and book, and indeed of the Old Testament.
For it has come to this: Israel as a whole and as such (37:11) is—as Ezekiel so often threatened—well and truly dead, a strewing of remains no longer even skeletal, so definitely of the past that the bones have separated and preserve no personal identities—no one can even point and say, “Alas, poor . . . I knew him well.”
The word of Gen. 2:17 has finally been fulfilled: the clash between God’s will for his human creatures, by which alone they live, and their refusal to follow that will, has been worked out in the history of Israel and has come to its inevitable conclusion.
Is then what the Lord here shows Ezekiel what it appears to be, the irreversible end of Israel’s history with the Lord? And that is, of the bearer of the Lord’s history with all humanity? Can Israel rise again? Indeed, can humanity, dependent for its specific being on the Lord’s presence in history, live as what it was created to be? The Lord puts the question to Ezekiel: “Son of a man, what do you think? Can the dead live again?”
Ezekiel has no answer; this knowledge is beyond a son of a man. But Ezekiel does know that the Lord is the giver of life; our passage is pervaded by reminiscence of the Lord’s first vivification of humankind (Gen. 2:7). And he knows that therefore the Lord can answer the question yes or no as he chooses. So he throws the question back.
For answer he receives an implicit yes: a command to prophesy life to the dead. Even in the nonbeing of death the bones can hear him, because the word given the prophet is the same word that gives being and life in the first place, that addresses precisely “things that are not” (1 Cor. 1:28).
Thus Ezekiel is to do nothing less than speak the dead back to life (Ezek. 37:4–6): we arrive at the extreme possibility of the prophets’ general assignment “to pluck up and to pull down, . . . to build and to plant” ( Jer. 1:9–10). In the vision, Ezekiel speaks as commanded and the dead are raised (Ezek. 37:7–10).