The longer I study the prophetic books, the less I talk about the prophets as people. I see more and more how the authors of the books shaped the words and used stories about prophets to speak to later concerns. More and more I quit looking for who Amos or Jeremiah really were and focus on why writers presented these figures in the way they have.
And yet, the more I follow this path, the more I distance myself from what many people find most compelling about the prophets: how real they were. I’ve listened to enough sermons, read enough books, and done enough internet searches to know that people on all sides of the theological spectrum find the prophets interesting as people. Whether you think ancient prophets predicted the future, called folks back to pure worship, or challenged unjust social systems, chances are that you conjure in your mind the face of a fiery preacher rather than a bookish writer.
I’m reminded of this distance between my own interests and those of most folks whenever I see mention of a prophet’s tomb. This week I read an article about the purported tomb of Ezekiel, south of Baghdad. And that reminded me of my own experience of visiting the Tomb of the Prophets in Jerusalem in the early 1990’s.
When I saw this sign on the Mt. of Olives, I smiled. When I found out that it claimed to contain the bones of Malachi, I laughed. Just a few years before, I had completed my dissertation on Malachi, arguing to my own satisfaction that the book was functionally anonymous. Others have gone further, claiming that the book isn’t really a separate composition at all but rather a piece of Zechariah made independent so that the collection could be The Book of the Twelve rather than The Book of the Eleven.
The tomb of an anonymous prophet. Of course, I had to visit. I had to take a picture. Which I did. (Sadly, those glasses were in style at the time.)
Maybe it was the darkness of the cave or the fact in Jerusalem everything oozes holiness. But I did experience something mysterious and sacred peering into the tomb of a prophet I suspect never existed. It became a place of honoring what the prophet had come to mean, what people had made of a story about him, what chain of significance linked back to this place. For me, it was also place to think about what writing about Malachi had meant to me.
The article mentioned above suggests that the tomb of Ezekiel functions not only to honor a prophet but also to hold on to a religious past that is too quickly being lost. Tombs give us a place to go to honor someone and something, a way to make the abstract more concrete and touchable.
I’m not surprised at the excitement that erupts when someone claims to have found the tomb of Jesus’ brother or Caiaphas. Artifacts help us feel a connection with stories that matter. A former teacher of mine says that Jerusalem itself is one big icon. It is a window into contemplation of sacred things. Things that might not have happened happen in our own experience.