What can we learn from the story of the empty tomb?
Easter raises many questions. Among the most common are these: Was Jesus a historical figure? Did he die on the cross? Who was responsible? Was the tomb empty? Was he resurrected? The first four questions are best answered by historians, the latter two by Christian theologians. I am neither. I am what is called in Hebrew a darshan, an interpreter of Jewish stories. Since the authors of the Gospels were Jews and almost all the characters in their stories are Jews, I am including the Gospels in my purview as darshan, and as a darshan I work within the parameters of the story regardless of its historicity. I don’t ask Was the tomb empty? because the story tells me it was empty. Instead, I ask What can we learn from the story of the empty tomb?
To answer this question, we must look to the ineffable Name of God, the Ark of the Covenant, and Holy of Holies—all of which the Jewish authors of the Gospels were well aware. The Name of God familiar to all Jews then and now is YHVH, a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Comprised of four consonants and zero vowels, YHVH is literally unpronounceable and as such expresses the iconoclasm at the heart of Judaism and its ineffable and formless God.
In the Book of Exodus, YHVH gives Moses detailed instructions regarding the construction of the Ark of Covenant, which holds the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. God tells Moses to make a cover for the ark featuring two carved cherubim facing one another and with their wings turned to one another but not touching one another. “It is there that I shall meet you,” God says to Moses, “on top of the ark, in the empty space between the two cherubim that are on the ark.” (Exodus 25:22).
Working within the parameters of the story, we have to ask why it is that God would meet Moses in the empty space between the wings of the two cherubs? The answer, I suggest, is simple: the ineffable and formless YHVH is best encountered in empty and formless space.
The same can be said of the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Holy of Holies was a room built to hold the Ark of the Covenant but, once the Ark was lost, contained nothing at all. We know this because the historian Tacitus records how the Roman general Pompey entered the Holy of Holies after the fall of Jerusalem and found nothing but an empty room (Tacitus, Histories, Book 5:11-12). Again, empty space rather than an altar or icon is the best way to “represent” the formless and ineffable YHVH.
“The answer, I suggest, is simple: the ineffable and formless YHVH is best encountered in empty and formless space.”
With this in mind, let’s turn to the story of the empty tomb.
While each of the four canonical Gospels addresses the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion in its own way, they all agree that the tomb was empty. Why? Because in the minds of the Jewish authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John the tomb of Jesus must be empty just as the meeting spaces between the cherubs’ wings and the Holy of Holies are empty. And for the same reason: the ultimate Godhead is beyond all form—even the form of Jesus.
For Christians, the work of Easter is to affirm their faith in the empty tomb as proof of Jesus’ resurrection. For the rest of us the work of Easter is to move beyond name and form, and to embrace the emptiness of ark, temple, and tomb as a reminder that the God who can be named, sculpted, painted, is not the eternal God.