New Medieval Bible Meditation: Ezekiel 37:1-14

March 23rd, 2014

Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 6, 2014 

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Revised Common and Episcopal); Ezekiel 37:11-14 (Roman Catholic)

At the literal level, this scripture shows an interaction Ezekiel has with the “Spirit of the Lord” (v. 1), which is the “Spirit of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:11). It seems to be a vision. The interpretation of this vision is given in vv. 11-14. The Lord promises to resurrect from their graves “the whole house of Israel,” and return them to their land. Their resurrection must refer to the General Resurrection; and their return to their land must refer to the time after the Last Judgment, when there is a “new heaven and a new earth” and a “New Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:1-2). In this context, “the whole house of Israel” is presumably inclusive of the righteous members of the Church, or all those who inherit eternal life at the Last Judgment. Ezekiel’s vision is a gift from the Spirit to give Israel “hope” (v. 11) in a time when hope has been lost – for the ultimate source of hope is the resurrection to eternal life.

At the allegorical level, this scripture shows the state of fallen humanity and the salvation we receive through Jesus Christ. The dry bones in the valley represent fallen humanity – they are “very dry” (v. 2) and lifeless, just as fallen humankind is “dead through… trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).

Ezekiel is called “Son of man,” so that he is a symbol for Jesus Christ, who is sent to prophesy to the “dry bones” of fallen humanity: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk. 1:15).

The word for “breath” is the same as the word for “spirit.” Hence, the latter part of v. 5 can read, “I will cause Spirit to enter you, and you shall live” – a reference to the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The bones coming together (v. 7) represents fallen humans of all nations gathered into the Church and made living disciples. The “sinews” and “flesh” that cover the bones signify the sacraments and the work of Christ in us. Thus, whereas the dry bones of fallen humanity are dead, in the waters of baptism they are regenerated and made alive in the Spirit (Tit. 3:5, Jn. 3:5). Further, in the Eucharist the flesh of Christ itself binds the body of Christ together as sinews and flesh, and makes it alive (Eph. 4:15-16). For Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn. 6:53-54). A similar thing is signified in Genesis 3:21 when, after the Fall, the Lord makes “for Adam and for his wife garments of skins” and clothes them. For these are presumably animal skins, and so prefigure Israel’s sacrificial system. Yet this system itself, and the skins covering Adam and Eve, ultimately prefigure the flesh of Jesus Christ. Offered on the cross, Christ’s infinitely valuable flesh (body, blood, soul, and divinity) saves us; and this is the one sacrifice we offer and receive in the Eucharist, by which Christ covers our dead dry bones with his life and makes us alive.

The “noise” and “rattling” (v. 8) fittingly point forward to the noise of Pentecost (Acts 2:2), when this prophecy is also being fulfilled. For God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life to make him a living being (Gen. 2:7), and God breathes his Spirit into us to make us supernaturally alive.

At the moral level, this scripture has at least 5 possible applications.

First, it reminds us to attend upon all the ordinances of God (as in Wesley’s 3rd General Rule), particularly the Holy Eucharist, with a devout heart, in order to be made alive and remain alive.

Second, it reminds us that as we are made supernaturally alive by the Spirit of God, we must pursue spiritual things and walk by the Spirit. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Third, it reminds us that we are part of “an exceedingly great host” (v. 10). This is God’s elect Israel into which gentiles have been grafted in the Church – and the gates of hell will not prevail against this Church (Mt. 16:18). This great host of which we are a part is thus a source of endless moral courage, because of God’s promise.

Fourth, this scripture reminds us that our hope is in the resurrection. With the eyes of our hearts fixed on Christ’s resurrection, we have an endless wellspring of hope, and are made strong.

Fifth, this scripture reminds us to prophesy and speak encouragement to one another in the power of the Spirit, that we may continually be built up and made alive.

At the anagogical level, we glimpse in this scripture the inner life of the Holy Trinity, even as it is manifest in time to save us. For if we remember that Ezekiel, as “son of man,” is a sign of Jesus Christ, then we see in this passage – especially verses 9 and 10 – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We see the eternal act, the Father giving the Son the gift of joining him in sending of the Spirit. As this act manifests itself in creation by the missions of the Son incarnate and the Holy Spirit, it saves us. Insofar as we are in response to this salvation, insofar as our bones cling to the prophetic word and the wind that gives us life and flesh and binds us together, we might glimpse in this salvation the mystery of the one whose threeness makes us free. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

New Medieval Bible Meditations is Clifton Stringer’s contribution to the renewal of the Church’s reading and teaching of the Holy Bible. I try to pick a passage from the lectionary for the coming Sunday, ideally one shared by both Roman Catholic and Protestant (both Revised Common & Episcopalian) lectionaries.

The premise of this method of interpretation is that Sacred Scripture, because it is divine revelation, has wondrous depths. That Scripture is ‘divine revelation’ means that Scripture is divine truth and wisdom graciously shown to us by God. Scripture is thus a created participation in the divine Word (Jn. 1:1) who is the second person of the Holy Trinity. Sacred Scripture is thus, and ultimately, a participation in God’s own knowledge, the very joyful eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture is shared with us out of love that we might become wise and good, and be saved.

Since the infinite God is the author of Sacred Scripture, in addition to Scripture’s “literal or historical” sense, many passages of the Bible will have mystical senses (or spiritual senses). The literal sense is, as it were, the fountain and foundation of these mystical senses. These mystical senses are usually reckoned at three: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.

Here is how St. Bonaventure describes these three mystical senses: “Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief” – like when one thing in Scripture prefigures another later thing, or builds on an earlier prefiguration. “The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else which we should do” – like when Christ or an apostle does something holy that we must imitate. “The anagogical meaning, a kind of ‘lifting upwards,’ occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed” – that is, when we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Aquinas even notes that, since God understands all things through one infinite act of being, God can intend for there to be more than one meaning of a scripture at the literal level.

All four senses (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) are effective for preaching, teaching, and training in righteousness, as the Spirit leads.

To reflect further on these senses consider, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae 1.1.10 or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, Prologue, section 4.

Also note that, in writing these meditations, I do not usually do any ‘historical critical’ research into the passages. If you would like to do this, it can add to your understanding of the literal sense, and even sometimes spur your imagination among the other senses. But many modern scholars focus on ‘historical critical’ questions almost exclusively; read their works, insofar as it is helpful for knowing and teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ; there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

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