A bit of Scripture study for why the breath is so important: Ezekiel 37:1-10. I imagine something from The Lord of the Rings exhibit when I read this passage:
The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
I would love to see what Peter Jackson could do with this scene. Unlike the green and ghastly army of the dead in Lord of the Rings, however, these zombies would be living. These bodies would be resurrected with the Breath.
In Hebrew, the words in this passage for “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit” are all the same word: ruach. Literally: life-breath. The life-breath of God pulled these bones and tendons together. The life-breath of God flowed into them and stood them up. The life-breath of God flows into Israel and makes her new. This is the same ruach as in Genesis 1:1, where the ruach—the Spirit—of God hovers over the waters of the earth before it was formed. And the process in this chapter then parallels the process of God making man, as God formed Adam’s body before breathing life into him, just as in the valley of the dry bones. The body is created first, and then the ruach gives life.
I love the idea of God’s breath entering us. The idea that it is God’s breath that we breathe every moment. That this life-giving breath is in us, helping us stand and live.
I think, too, that Ezekiel takes this idea of life even further: What does this story mean to Israel?
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
Ezekiel is a prophet in the context of Old Testament Israel. At this point in history, Israel is divided into Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and the Northern Kingdom had already fallen to Syria. The Southern Kingdom has a complicated relationship with Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon and eventually falls to Babylon. Ezekiel lives among the exiles in Babylon before the fall of the Southern Kingdom. During the year that scholars speculate is when Ezekiel should have begun his priestly duties in the Temple but cannot because the Temple is in Jerusalem and he is not, Ezekiel starts prophesying the doom and destruction of the Southern Kingdom—which is Jerusalem and the Temple—chapters 1-24 in his book. Then Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed. Ezekiel’s ministry changes to giving hope to the exiles—chapters 34-48, ending with a description of the new temple.
So back to chapter 37—the valley of the dry bones. In this context, God is saying through Ezekiel that he is going to revive Israel. Israel is the dry bones—she is split, and exiled without a Temple, without the presence of God, and God says he will revive. The cool thing about this chapter—I’m going to get grammatical here—is that most of the active subjects and verbs are God doing something. Break it down sometime: most of the sentences are God doing something: “I will,” “He commanded.” This is God’s initiative. Israel is scattered and broken and God initiates the revival.
Why? God says first to Ezekiel in verse 6 that “Then you will know that I am the Lord;” then in verse 13, God says it to his people: “Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.”
God says this to us too. God’s ruach life-breath breathes into us and gives us life. It’s God’s initiative: I will put my Spirit in you and you will live.
God doesn’t stop there. Next week: Ez. 37, part 2.