I’m coming to question the commonly accepted idea that Ezekiel 37 merely uses the picture of a general resurrection as a “metaphor” for the return from exile. Most scholars will argue that Ezekiel did not necessarily have any idea of a literal resurrection of the body. Rather, he used this is as a picture of how God was going to raise Israel out of the Babylonian exile.
I don’t disagree with this in full. Ezekiel 36-37 is clearly about the return from exile. But perhaps the point is that return from exile, for Ezekiel, is constituted by the bodily resurrection of the people of God? Why do I say this? Well, if you want to understand the Bible as a unity, you need to understand that the Torah is bracketed by Genesis 3 and Deuteronomy 3. That is, it begins with God’s intent to fill creation with His Presence through humankind, human sin, and human exile from Paradise.
(Genesis 3:23-24) therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
Likewise, the Sinai covenant sets forth a way of life for the children of Israel, which, if they do not follow, will result in exile. A deeper study of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 27-30 reveals that the blessings are a reversal of the Edenic curses and the curses are a renewal of those curses. The curses climax with the exile from the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 30 then brings this to a head. We’ll read it backwards. First, focus on the life/death language.
(Deuteronomy 30:15-19) “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,
Adam was promised life for obedience, but he disobeyed and died. Now, with the Sinai covenant, God promises Israel life for obedience and death for disobedience. Then listen to Moses’ prophecy of Israel’s story:
(Deuteronomy 30:1-6) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
In other words, Israel, though she was invited to find life through obedience to Torah, will choose to disobey Torah and thereby choose death, like Adam. Even so, God will be faithful to His promises, and will return Israel from exile. When He does, He will circumcise their hearts so that they may obey the Torah, so that they may, in turn, live. Thus, Torah begins with the introduction of death through Adam’s disobedience and ends with the prediction of restoration at the return from exile.
The Prophets are more aware of these things than is often noted. For example, Hosea understands that Israel’s disobedience is a recapitulation of Adam’s, writing “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” (6:7) But we’ll focus in on Ezekiel. Ezekiel is all about God’s faithfulness to His people in the midst of exile. First thing we need to establish is that Ezekiel is plainly aware of Moses’ life/death language for obedience and disobedience. Hence we have passages like:
(Ezekiel 3:18) If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.
(Ezekiel 18:21-23) “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
Next, we’ll look at Ezekiel’s prophecy of return from exile in ch. 36-37. He plainly has the prophecy of the circumcision of the heart in mind when he speaks of the return from exile:
(Ezekiel 36:24-28) I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
He envisions the coming to pass of all the blessings of Sinai:
(Ezekiel 36:29-30) And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.
And he interprets this as a restoration of Eden:
(Ezekiel 36:35) And they will say, ‘This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.’
Now, we move to the famous prophecy of Ezekiel 37. We’ve already established that Moses’ language of death and life is close to Ezekiel’s heart. We’ve established that Ezekiel associates the return from exile with the blessings of Sinai and the eschatological restoration of Eden. This helps us understand why Ezekiel paints the return from exile as a resurrection:
(Ezekiel 37:1-3) The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”
The language of “bones living” is carefully chosen. We’ve seen that Israel is “dead” in exile because of disobedience, as Deuteronomy 27-30 mandated. But we also know that Moses painted Israel’s return from exile as a choosing of “life.” Thus:
(Ezekiel 37:4-14) Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
The house of Israel is “raised from the dead.” This isn’t a metaphor chosen randomly and without purpose. It is based on the language of life and death that begins in Torah. It is based on the theme of return from exile as a return to Eden. And it therefore provides the backdrop for the New Testament understanding of Israel’s Messiah. Jesus the Messiah is the faithful one, totally faithful to God’s commandments for Israel. Thus, as Habbakuk said: “the righteous one shall live by faith.” Messiah was utterly faithful, and thus found life in a resurrection. Israel’s election is thus concentrated in Him, and all who embody His faithfulness find life in Him. The climax of the return from exile is in the new heavens and the new earth, where the whole creation returns to Eden and those in the Messiah are raised in glorified bodies.
Thus we find, yet again, that the Old Testament is “Jesus-shaped.” Jesus’ identity as the Messiah of Israel is not found in scattered “prophetic passages” across the Old Testament text. Rather, it is found in the fact that Israel’s story is coming to a climax, and there are innumerable threads waiting to be tied together. Jesus ties them together in a way that is elegant, leaves very few loose ends, and solves great mysteries of God’s purposes for Israel and through Israel for the world that are found in the Hebrew Bible. Maranatha!