In today’s terms, the prophet Ezekiel resembled a refugee.
Ezekiel lived in exile. He was uprooted by an invading army and forced to live in a land far from home. Nothing about his surroundings was familiar. The language, the food, the customs, the religious practices, and the belligerent locals told him again and again that he didn’t belong there.
My mother and my maternal grandparents were immigrants. They freely chose to board a ship and leave post-WWII Austria behind. The United States offered freedom, equality, and greater opportunity.
Refugees, by contrast, flee their homes to stay alive. Bombs and bullets, persecution or famine drive them from their communities and well-established routines. They risk their lives in rubber rafts on stormy seas because the chances of survival are greater on the water than in their old neighborhoods.
They leave behind the rubble of family homes and familiar shops, favorite restaurants and places of worship. And they leave behind the bones of loved ones who couldn’t escape.
Ezekiel had a divine vision of those very bones. (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
God mystically transported Ezekiel to a dry valley littered with bones. A recent archeological find provided for me a vivid image of what Ezekiel might have seen.
Seventy-five miles north of Berlin, Germany, researchers unearthed the skeletal evidence of a previously unknown battle that raged 3200 years ago. Bones of more than 100 men and at least five horses lay scattered over a nearly two-mile area.
Several thousand warriors had set upon each other with Bronze-Age weapons: spears, clubs, swords, and knives. The victors marched away callously leaving the dead and the maimed where they had fallen. Over time, the elements and scavengers, insects and bacteria reduced the corpses to a vast tangle of bones.
The archeologists on the site calmly acknowledged that this was a gruesome find. But they greeted this boneyard with intellectual curiosity and academic excitement. After all, it is a goldmine of artifacts.
The bones strewn around Ezekiel’s feet did not belong to long-dead strangers. Neither were they only the remains of warriors. These were the bones of the whole house of Israel. This was personal.
These bones were the baker’s daughter who hawked fragrant loaves on his street, the near-sighted fish monger, and the old woman who talked ceaselessly about her grandchildren. There lay the little boy who couldn’t sit still and his harried mother. And that was the old mason whose work had left him perpetually stooped.
The Babylonians had descended upon Judah (the Southern Kingdom of greater Israel). With their siege engines and chariots and armor-clad troops they had flattened Jerusalem. War then was like war now. Soldiers die. But so do helpless bystanders.
Government spokespersons try to soften the reality of civilian deaths by calling them collateral damage. But they are husbands and wives, siblings and grandchildren. Neighbors and playmates. They are the people who make life worth living for somebody. For the survivors.
Ezekiel was among those who had survived. With a host of the professional classes and the skilled laborers, Ezekiel had been violently removed from his home and relocated in Babylonia.
He was living in forced exile. And yet, his experience is analogous to the six million refugees fleeing from Syria to Europe and the United States.
His home had been obliterated by an invading army. The walls surrounding Jerusalem—the visible, tangible symbol of security and stability—lay in ruins. Bombardment and fire had reduced the homes, the bakeries, the tailors’ shops that once formed his neighborhood into heaps of rubble.
And the people. The people who were the community that defined his identity. They lay dead or they were scattered. Even if they had survived, Ezekiel was not certain to find them again.
Ezekiel wasn’t asking how to make a better life for himself in a new place. Neither was he asking how he could get home again. He was asking, “Can there ever be a home for me—for us—again?”
The dry bones were Ezekiel’s relatives and friends and neighbors. And they were the dry bones of his own grief. His body was residing in Babylonia. But without the people and places and rituals and customs that gave his life meaning, he was as dead as a bag of old dusty bones.
To be an exile—to be a refugee—is to wonder if your dry bones can live.
God says yes. Dry bones can be clothed with new sinews and new flesh. God can breathe new life into old dead bones.
Christians believe that God chooses to revive these dry bones through the Body of the risen Christ. Through the living flesh of ordinary human beings like you and me. As the late Marcus Borg succinctly put it: Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not
We can offer a safe haven for those fleeing horrors that—by the grace of God—we have not experienced. They have lost everything. We can offer housing and clothing and food for a start. And we can help them rebuild a life with education and work. And we can offer these strangers our friendship. A new home.
Ezekiel’s vision reminds us that we have a special responsibility toward the refugees that wars and famines and terror produce. God promised the house of Israel—and through them all exiles and refugees—that God will revive their dry bones. And God sends us to be the channels through which God’s life-giving breath will blow.