Breathing and the Valley of the Dry Bones

Renee Prymus

Yoga is all about using the breath. The words inhale and exhale are probably the two most repeated words in a yoga class. And the word breath is one of the main motifs of the Bible too.  One of my favorite breath passages is Ezekiel 37, The Valley of the Dry Bones, which reads like something out of a Lord of the Rings novel.

Imagine a valley of dry bones. Just dry old bones, all mixed up. And God takes Ezekiel over to this valley of bones, and says, "Son of Man, can these bones live?" 

And Ezekiel diplomatically responds: "Sovereign Lord, you alone know."   

“Then God said, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 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.’”
— Ezekiel 37:4-6

So Ezekiel says the words, and he hears rattling and watches the bones snap together like Legos: click, click, click. While he's watching, tendons stretch over the bones, flesh and skin stretch over the tendons, and suddenly there's an army of dead people in front of him. There is no breath in the bodies. 

Then God said, “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.’”
— Ezekiel 37:9

So Ezekiel again says the words, and the breath of God whooshes through, enters the body, and the bodies stood up: "a vast army." 

It's like a passage from The Return of the King, when Aragorn commands the army of the dead to fight for him. Except that instead of a green and ghastly army, this army is vibrantly alive, resurrected with the breath of God.   

Ruach Breath of God

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.

If God's ruach can do this with a valley of literal dry bones, imagine what God can do with the valleys of dry bones inside our hearts. 

I love the idea of God’s breath whooshing through 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.

This is a pretty idea, but Ezekiel takes this idea of life even further. To understand it, we need to know: 

What did this story mean to Israel?

Ezekiel was a prophet in the context of Old Testament Israel. At this point in history, Israel was divided into two: North and South, and the Northern Kingdom had already fallen to Syria. The Southern Kingdom had 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.

Ezekiel should have had priestly duties in the Temple, but couldn't fulfill them because the Temple was in Jerusalem and he was not--and couldn't get there because the country was divided. So instead, 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. After the destruction, 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, a chapter near the beginning of Ezekiel's ministry of hope. In this context, God is saying through Ezekiel that he is going to revive Israel: 

Then God said: “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.’ 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. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 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 37: 11-14

Israel is the dry bones—she is dead, split apart, and exiled without a Temple, without the presence of God, and God says he will revive Israel.

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. Look it up and break it down sometime: most of the sentences describe 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. Then you will know that God is God. 

God’s ruach life-breath whooshes into us--into our dead and living parts--and gives us life.

It’s God’s initiative, God is doing this work in you. 

In your next yoga or meditation session, visualize your own valley of dry bones. Whisper, shout, or sing God's words over the valley: "I will put my Spirit in you and you will live."