One of the lectionary readings for tomorrow’s service is Ezekiel 37:1-14, which I read in Robert Alter’s beautiful translation. In this passage, Ezekiel famously prophesies:
“O dry bones, listen to the word of the LORD, Thus said the Master, the LORD, to the dry bones: I am about to bring breath into you and you shall live. And I will lay sinews over you and bring up flesh over you and stretch over you skin. And I will put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
Alter notes that although many readers throughout history (Jewish and Christian alike) were inclined to read these verses as indication of some future resurrection, the much more likely meaning is a prophesy of return from the Babylonian exile. In recent years, I have really fallen in love with the way the prophets of the Hebrew Bible speak to the people in exile to promise them return from exile and restoration from destruction. Ezekiel’s use of resurrection is a metaphor: Just as God can make living bodies from dry, long-dead bones, God can ensure a people’s safe return from exile and build back up all that had been destroyed. If these things are true, surely God can also build us back up from the ruins and sorrows of our lives. Now, as I wrote earlier this week, I don’t really believe in an intervening God, so it’s not necessarily that I believe that a divine hand will part the heavens and fix everything wrong with my life—or in the world in general. Rather, I find tremendous hope in these passages that humanity can make right what is wrong and can fix what is broken: that all things can be restored to wholeness.
In the copy of Alter’s The Hebrew Bible that I have, verse 14 of Ezekiel 37 is not only the end of the lectionary passage I was reading, but it’s also the end of a page. I knew that there was something naggingly familiar about Ezekiel 37, though, so I figured that I’d turn the page and keep reading. As soon as I saw it, I felt silly for not having thought of it earlier: Ezekiel 37:15-17 (that is, the very next few verses and the top of the very next page) are a favorite Mormon prooftext. In this passage God tells Ezekiel to:
take you one stick and write upon it “For Judah and for Israel joined to him,” and take another stick and write on it “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for the Israelites and all the house of Israel, joined to him.” And put them together each to each as a single stick for you, and tehy shall be one in your hand.
In Mormon circles, the “stick of Judah” here is popularly understood as the Bible, and the “stick of Ephraim” as the Book of Mormon; thus, this passage is frequently seen as prophecy of a future “Restoration.” This conception of Restoration holds that humanity—and Christianity—have gone astray, but that the coming forth of the Book of Mormon alongside the Bible heralds the restoration of priesthood authority and true doctrine to the earth, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now on earth to correct previous mistakes and to exist as the one true church on earth.
It’s surprising how well this passage holds up to an interpretation of a bringing together of the Bible and the Book of Mormon (the latter of which is subtly but explicitly associated with Joseph and Ephraim within its narrative). However, in context, it is very clear that this passage is referring to another kind of restoration; indeed, the previous edition of the Latter-day Saint Old Testament Sunday School manual (I’m not familiar with the current edition and can’t be bothered to check) was forced to concede that this prooftext was only “one of the things” represented. Following on the heels of the dry bones prophecy (and preceding an explicit interpretation of this metaphor), it’s clear that the restoration that this passage is interested in is the kind that the dry bones prophecy itself speaks of: Things are wrong, but they will be made right. Things are broken, but they can be repaired.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Community of Christ both identify as Restoration churches. In their early (shared) history, Charles Harrell argues (in his excellent book “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology), they understood restoration in as “the return of all creation to its Edenic state,” something much closer to the original message of Ezekiel than the pro-Book of Mormon prooftexting of the chapter. These days, of course, the Mormon conception of Restoration is the one I described earlier: the world has gone astray, but God has restored proper teaching and practice in the form of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In contrast, Community of Christ has made efforts to reinterpret its understanding of restoration. In D&C 156:5e, for example, Wallace B. Smith makes a reference to:
the essential meaning of the Restoration as healing and redeeming agent
“Healing and redeeming” is the kind of restoration that is really happening in Ezekiel 37, no matter how neatly it seems to support contemporary Mormon conceptions of Restoration. Reading Ezekiel 37 this morning, I loved the way that the dry bones prophecy conveys that message of restoration—and I find that I find much more hope and value in this interpretation of Ezekiel 37:15-17 than I do in the prooftexted version that I memorized as a kid.
I’m glad to be in a church that values “restoration” but understands it in this other way. This morning, even before reading through Ezekiel, I spent time reading in Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, a text that’s widely used and widely cited by those associated with Community of Christ’s Seminary. This passage from Migliore struck me as exactly what Community of Christ is doing:
Religious communities have a continuing responsibility to search for what is central in their faith heritage and to examine all their doctrines and practices in that light.
I admit that sometimes I get frustrated by how much Community of Christ has set aside from its heritage—there are parts of early Mormonism that I think are redeemable despite being problematic or just plain weird. However, at the end of the day, I’m much happier to be part of this faith tradition that is willing to reinterpret its heritage rather than keep a fundamentalist grip on the past.
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