The word “life” is used 145 times in the English translations of the Christian scriptures. The earliest Greek texts, however, use two distinct words for life: bios and zoe. Bios, the root of the English word biology, not only refers to organic matter that comes into being, flourishes, and decays, but also refers to the events of life in all of their outward manifestations. Life happens. Bios happens.
Zoe, also translated as “life,” has a much deeper meaning. In one sense it refers to the living principle of life which Unity co-founder Charles Fillmore addresses in his book The Twelve Powers of Man. Fillmore also refers to the life principle in even broader terms, speaking of it as “energy,” and, rightly so. We limit ourselves if we think of zoe merely as an intellectual construct. Zoe points to an inward metaphysical reality—a mystical reality, an animating presence.
Bios dies. Zoe nourishes our soul and is associated with eternal life, a spiritual state in which we can participate here and now, not just after our bios dies. When we are in touch with zoe we feel alive! When we feel disconnected from it we can feel barren, rather dry. Our spiritual ancestors, the ancient Israelites, had an idiom to describe this dryness, one that drew on the image of “bones.” For situations that appeared hopeless the Israelites would say, “Our very bones are dried up!”
In the 6th century B.C.E when the armies of Babylon defeated the Hebrews living in Jerusalem, when their king and leaders were deported to Babylon nearly 600 miles away, when Jerusalem and its temple were reduced to rubble, they understandably felt as if their very bones had dried up. This event was particularly poignant when you realize that a century-and-a-half earlier, another group of Hebrews had also been conquered and deported. Craig Barnes, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary points out, “The earlier exiles had faded into the mists of history and had become the so-called lost tribes of Israel. For those deportees forced to live in Babylon, the future seemed a black hole in which they were destined to disappear.”
But, Barnes points out something very interesting about the Hebrews who were forced into exile in Babylon: They were not kept in prisons or camps. They were free to marry, build homes, plant crops, engage in business. Some became very wealthy. Things got very cozy for the Hebrew exiles.
What You Attend to Increases
Back home in Jerusalem their lives had revolved around the temple and their relationship to God. In Babylon, in their efforts to cope, they focused on bios, on acquiring things. This makes sense for a people who had lost everything, but it left them feeling cut off from life, from zoe, and feeling dry down to their bones.
Ezekiel, whose name in Hebrew means “strength of God,” was thought to be among those living in exile in Babylon. He was a prophet, one who, as Unity’s Revealing Word describes, receives the inspiration of Spirit and imparts it to others. Ezekiel had a remarkable vision or dream. Dreams and visions are some of the ways zoe gets our attention and breathes life into us. In his vision, Ezekiel is transported to a valley littered with bones—an apt metaphor for a prophet whose people feel spiritually dry down to the bones! In this vision, God leads Ezekiel all around this valley of very dry bones. The text uses a word that implies a sense of going round and round, time and time again. We don’t become spiritually dry just once in our lives!
In the vision God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal! Can these bones live?”
Isn’t that the crucial first step when situations seem dry, dead, or impossible? Can we see a possibility? Dare we hope? Ezekiel hedges his bets and says, “Lord, you know the answer to this one.” That’s brilliant! In those times when we doubt, we can trust that God within us knows.
Ezekiel is then told, “Prophesy to those bones!” Just in case he does not know what that means, God tells him exactly what to say: “O dry bones! Hear the word of the Lord. I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!” Ezekiel follows the instructions. The earth quakes, the bones rattle, the winds rush, and the dry bones are knit back together. Whole and well, people stand up infused with life-giving breath.
Ezekiel’s vision not only asks us to pay attention to what and to whom we are listening, but to notice the means by which life is restored to a seemingly hopeless situation. God does not just say, “Step aside I’ll handle this,” but instead works through this prophet—a mortal, literally bin-Adam, son of Adam, the Hebrew word for earthling.
We Are the Bearers of the Divine Word
As the bearer of the Divine Word to his people, this prophet, this mortal, brings God’s creative power to bear on a situation that seemed hopeless, but was not. Because of Ezekiel and others who dared to speak the Word of God into challenging situations, the nation of Israel did not fade into the mists of history and become lost.
Commenting on Ezekiel’s story, Alastair Roberts who writes for Political Theology Today, a forum for interreligious dialogue, says, “Looking out over the valleys of dry bones of our own day, we may find ourselves occasionally joining in Israel’s lament.” But when possibilities have been surrendered, Roberts points out, action becomes mere accommodation, palliation, or minimal mitigation.
“Ezekiel’s vision summons us to a new hope, to a greater expansion of the horizons of possibility,” says Roberts. “It calls us to a new confidence in the role that we can play in bringing life to seemingly dead situations. As we remember God’s use of this prophet to restore hope, we find the confidence to remain open to impossible possibilities, to act with confidence in God’s power to work through us to transform our world.”
You know you are all Ezekiel, don’t you? Bring to mind those places in your life, in your community, in our world that seem dry, seem impossible and prophesy to them! Speak words that claim new life, new spirit, new possibilities. Proclaim hope to any situation that appears hopeless. Listen only to the Word of God, that which proclaims: I will put my Spirit in you and you shall live! Try it. Try it in those places in which you feel resigned, where you feel, that is just the way it is. Know that zoe infuses possibility into seeming impossibility. Know, as one theologian writes, that God can work through you to bring new life into any situation, because the world is yearning for you to believe God is not done!