April 6, 2014
Fifth Sunday of Lent
I like to think of God as a tomb robber. He does not strike me as a masked bandit plundering valuable artifacts from an Egyptian tomb for sale on the black market. Rather, he robs something much more important from the tomb: people! God does not steal mere dead bodies from tombs; instead, he restores the life of the dead person, revivifying the body and bringing back the person’s spirit.
Sneak Preview of Lazarus
In this Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel, we get a sneak preview of the gospel account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The great prophet tells us in advance that God wants to “open graves” and cause people to rise out of them. Lazarus is a case study in what this kind of power looks like. God reverses the seemingly unreversible problem of death. What the prophet foretells in the first reading comes to fruition in the Gospel reading.
Now in the context of Ezekiel 37, this little passage serves as the interpretation of what has come before, Ezekiel’s famous prophecy of the valley of the dry bones. The Lord gives the prophet a powerful vision of dead, dry bones, strewn about in a valley as if a battle had taken place there long ago. The prophet emphasizes how many there were (“behold, there were very many”) and how dead and dry they were (“and lo, they were very dry”). After showing Ezekiel the bones, the Lord commands him to prophesy to the bones, to speak God’s life and spirit into them. Immediately, they start to click together and the Lord covers them in sinews, muscles and skin. Finally, Ezekiel prophesies and God’s spirit comes and fills them.
A Bizarre Tale of Redemption
What might at first seem like a zombie movie or a bizarre Halloween tale is really a powerful metaphor for God’s redemptive power. He explains to the prophet that the bones are “the whole house of Israel” (37:11). At Ezekiel’s historical moment, the people of Israel, exiled from their ancestral land, cut off from their worship (the temple is destroyed) and king (David’s descendants are not reigning), are saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off” (37:11 RSV). The promises God made to his people and their patriarchs seem to have been forgotten. The people in exile feel as though God has abandoned them. But God reveals through Ezekiel that he has not forgotten, not abandoned his people. In fact, he will restore them and place his own spirit in them (37:14). He won’t just play paleontologist and reassemble bones on an examining table, but he will breathe new life into them.
The Lord proposes an odd method for restoring his people: opening their graves! Now the original context makes this rather metaphorical—the Lord plans to bring his people back to the land of Israel, not literally to open everybody’s tomb. However, there are a few burial-related points worth mentioning. For the ancient Israelites, it was a cursed situation to not be buried or to be buried apart from one’s family on non-ancestral land. For example, we see the Exodus-era Israelites bringing the bones of their forefather Joseph from Egypt to bury them properly in the Holy Land (Exod 13:19; Josh 24:32). Reburying bones in the right place was not unheard-of (e.g. 2 Sam 21:12-14). Being buried in the right land was akin to living in the right land. The Lord’s blessing would “unbury” the exiled people from foreign nations and restore them to the land.
New Testament Tomb Robbing
However, Jesus literally opens Lazarus’s grave and calls him out of it. In addition, on the night of Good Friday, Matthew reports that “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt 27:52-53). So robbing people out of tombs is not just a nice metaphor. Of course, the ultimate “tomb robbery” is Jesus’ resurrection. Lazarus is merely brought back to life only to die again, but Jesus is raised by God in order to destroy death forever, to never die again. The tomb does not have the final word. In fact, some of the ancient Easter liturgies describe the tomb or the earth as “giving birth” at the moment of the resurrection.
The Defeat of Death
Jesus’ resurrection proclaims the ultimate defeat of death, and the beginning of the end of its reign over humanity. It inaugurates a new era of death-defying tomb robbery. Ezekiel’s vision of Israel’s restoration reaches new heights in the New Covenant: no longer is the vision only about restoring the ancient Israelites to the promised land of Canaan. Now it is about restoring all humanity from the land of exile, sin, and separation from God back to communion with him. Jesus’ resurrection is only the first among many. Every redeemed person will rise again. Jesus’ empty tomb won’t be the only one. He wants to rob them all.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.