The first warning I got was thus: Don’t import the Christian doctrine of Resurrection into this vision.
It’s hard to do, of course, so my seminary professor was right to set us up early. For someone like myself, who not long before had discovered the grandeur and the Biblical roots of the resurrection of the body (as opposed to the go-to-Heaven narrative that diminishes, at least, the importance of the material creation around us), not to see what Paul proclaims to the Corinthians in this valley of bones is almost impossible, unless I’m engaged in an effort to imagine what this must have sounded like to ears who were not already familiar with Paul.
I graduated seminary ten years ago this month, and in this month, in this year, I graduated with a Ph.D in English. (Yes, I spent entirely too much time in graduate school.) Ten years out from those good warnings, I still try to discipline myself to imagine historically, and it helps me to see things that otherwise I would have overlooked. For instance, if Ezekiel is part of the house of Israel (and he is), then the animated bones, were they the historical totality of Israel, would include him. I realize that the vision could be cast as prognostication, but it’s not as compelling as allegory. The bones, the nation that’s been cut off, lie in the valley, a monument to the inexorable march of history. But for YHWH, history doesn’t ever have the last word, even when YHWH sends the history in the first place. Speaking to a parallel version of his own history, Ezekiel must confront the fact that he is himself part of this vision of bones. Whether or not resurrection, as Daniel imagines it, In other words, the warning helps me to see the richness of the vision.
Once the distinction between this vision and the doctrine of the General Resurrection and Last Judgment is in place, the sequence of the vision can really do its work. Ezekiel stands at a peculiar place in the vision, prophesying to the bones, even as he stands as part of those bones. Then he must prophesy to the ruah, asking breath to breathe, for spirit to inspire. And all of this at the behest of YHWH, who makes all of this happen in the context of this spiritual vision even as the historical Israel continues to languish in exile. Ezekiel, in other words, becomes, in the allegory, precisely the prophetic figure that he has been in the course of his book, one who speaks promises that YHWH will restore Israel for the sake of YHWH’s name, who calls upon YHWH to do what YHWH has said YHWH will do. And all of this because YHWH has made it impossible for him to do otherwise, even as YHWH threatens the prophet with destruction if the prophet does not speak. All of the paradoxes of prophetic speech become part of this vision, and the glory of the vision is not the weirdness of it (though valleys full of bones that stand up and walk are certainly weird) but that Ezekiel, along with the reader, gets to see all of it play out, not in historical time but in moments.
I realize that Ezekiel 37 does not fit the standard Michael-Collins definition of apocalyptic, but it’s doing something close to apocalyptic. In the span of a few verses, Ezekiel sees and the reader reads of the grand sweep of eschatological salvation, the process that none in the prophet’s day would survive to see and which our own generation still awaits. The vision is not so much a predictive template for what is to come as a heuristic, a device that God gives Israel so that the faithful can look and see history not as Babylon or Persia or Rome or Capital would present it (each of those has, in some way, claimed to be the high point of “history”) but in light of the grand promise of new life that only YHWH can rightly extend. When the grand army rises up, they stand not because of civilization or military honor or historical inevitability but because YHWH has spoken, and the prophet has obeyed. Such is the grand vision of Ezekiel. Such is the revelation of divine grace.
May the Scriptures shape our own imaginations every time God calls us to take and to read.