Ezekiel 37 is a text that I could preach more different ways than most. The allegory is so rich, and the possibilities for allegorical referent so broad, that even when I avoid the obvious interpretive pitfalls (turning it into a systematic treatise on the general resurrection, psychologizing it into silliness, and such), I’m fairly certain I read it differently in each encounter. As I prepared some initial notes for this coming Sunday, I found myself seeing the strongest rhetorical thrust of the passage not in allegory proper but in the ways that Ezekiel 37 puts Israel into an encounter with the God who imposed exile.
The prophet has to ask YHWH if the bones can live again. Such is not an abstract “crisis of faith,” a moment of Cartesian doubt at the relationship between divine act and the laws of nature, as valid as such inquiries might be. Instead the question arises out of an undeniably concrete familiarity with the machinery of exile, a brutal mechanism for exerting political control. A kingdom persists because the symbols of unity and the cultural artifacts that hold the power-structures in tension with their own self-conception and the loyalties of the people live every day and every year and every generation together, never remaining the same very long but nonetheless maintaining certain parameters, themselves open to question ontologically but historically reminding each generation that they’re no mere individuals but members of a body politic. Such a process of tradition-keeping means something different for a republic than it does for a kingship, but both systems of politics rely upon some sense of narrative identity for the sake of stability.
Exile wrecks all of that. An invading imperial army wrecks palaces, drags kings from their thrones, and makes people choose between their sense of belonging to the overthrown tradition and the crushing forces of history. Temples and schools do not fare well when the wheels of exile begin turning: the roles that they played before the exile no longer remain as options. Some cultural institutions merely face the fire, while others, in a fate more horrifying, become extensions of the invading superpower, a golden eagle adorning a Temple and a new literature steeping the young not in the inherited tales of the conquered people’s gods and heroes but in the ways of their new gods. There’s a reason that the Old Testament is obsessed with the exile: for every kingdom before Judah (and that includes the northern tribes of Israel), exile has meant not just defeat but death, a historical erasing that lives on stunted even if it avoids total eradication.
Thus when YHWH sends Ezekiel the vision of the valley of dry bones, the imagery invokes nothing less than creation. What’s lifeless receives life, and what cannot stand receives breath. In a dry and desert place, not unlike the landscape of Genesis 2, YHWH once again breathes upon dead matter to make it alive. But this creation departs from Genesis’s version in ways that nobody can miss: this is no lump of inert clay that receives the divine breath but a pile of bones, a reminder that what lies lifeless once had human form and human desire and a human story. In order to live, these bones must stand, but in order to stand, they must receive the kind of power that can resist even the bone-crushing gears of exile. The power of YHWH is certainly a certain kind of historical providence, a bringing-to-bear of a Cyrus against a Babylon, but it’s also (more importantly, I think) a power of memory, a re-constitution and a re-creation of what the most cruel and systematic destruction of human souls, of women and men and families and cities, has torn asunder.
That superhuman persistence of memory, not any hitman with an automatic pistol, is what lends force to the famous Ezekiel refrain, “You shall know that my name is the LORD.” Those who emphasize that this story is about the nation of Israel, not individual souls like those Aeneas encounters in Inferno, are right to emphasize that interval, but make no mistake: this is a resurrection oracle. What becomes the re-union of cosmic Christian Israel in Revelation begins here, with the resurrection of historical Israel. YHWH has spoken, and YHWH will do. Not even the most destructive systems of memory-elimination will be able to overcome YHWH’s singular desire to have one people on earth, those marked by the sending of Abraham and the Shema of Moses, those who bear the name YHWH, even as the same savior-from-Egypt and savior-from-death forbids that they use that name for vanity. Like the act of making a nation out of an empire’s slaves, YHWH’s resurrection of the House of Israel from the disintegration of exile will be a signature, visible moment in the divine life, a sign to all nations that ultimately death cannot and will not triumph over the God who gives life.
In a season dedicated to pondering the nature of sins and to confessing our own sin, Ezekiel reminds us that the power of sin is in fact death but that we can only name sin and death truthfully if they remain but one season in the Christian year and one span of the Christian story. We celebrate Lent by reading Ezekiel not so that we can ignore the powers of sin and death but so that we remember that they’re only sin and death because they’ve already been overcome and they’re being overcome in the resurrection. We must never forget to observe Lent, and we must always remember that the point of Lent is to approach Easter with the full measure of gratitude that properly accompanies resurrection.
May we confess because we’re forgiven, and may our forgiveness heighten the bitterness of what we confess.