Exile is a powerful concept in the Hebrew Bible.
In addition, it turns out to be transformative as Christianity emerges half-a-millennium later.
Life in Judah and Jerusalem in the 590s and 580s BCE changed dramatically. The proactive invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 597 was a warning shot by an emerging world power.
Nebuchadnezzar arrived in Jerusalem with a threat and a promise. The threat was that Judah and Jerusalem’s political, economic and social elite would be compromised.
The promise was that if Judah and Jerusalem resisted, they would be destroyed.
In 597, the Babylonians skimmed the cream off the culture of Judah and Jerusalem.
The poets, musicians, priests and artists – and the core of the political infrastructure – were exiled to a ghetto “by the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 139). The poem is raw and pointed, tinged with politics and revenge.
Then, a decade later, the house of cards collapsed. Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem. That time, he was wearing military gear rather than the polite attire of diplomacy.
Zedekiah – the last king of the Davidic Dynasty – was humiliated as he saw the destruction of Jerusalem.
The royal nursery was emptied, and all of the infants were slaughtered in the presence of the king. And, then, his eyes were gouged out, and he was carried off to Babylon in chains.
His story is a picture of a fate worse than death. The promise of a Davidic dynasty that would never end (see 2 Samuel 7) died that day, with respect to a geographical and political Judah.
Years before – sometime after 597 – Jeremiah sent a letter to the first cohort of exiles in Babylon (see Jeremiah 29).
He urged the exiles to settle in, to build houses, to plant gardens, to raise children and to work toward making their exile a place of peace, including willing the good of the people with whom they are living: the Babylonians.
In a split-screen, we see Ezekiel in Babylon, part of the crème skimmed from the political and cultic culture of Jerusalem.
The one-time priest became an enduring prophet who challenged the status quo and offered renewed ways of adapting to crisis.
A significant fruit of the exile was a great transformation. The regional – even tribal – faith of Judah and the Judah-ites emerged as a global religion: Judaism.
Most of the old practices of the religion of Judah were transformed. The synagogue transcended the Temple. Jews in exile discovered they could keep the covenant through reciting the tales of old in a new context. The oral traditions became written and revered traditions in the Torah.
Judaism emerged as a religion of hope. It was, at least, a tradition-based religion that hoped for (and hopes for) the restoration of the Temple and the Messiah, the anointed one.
In the first century, especially after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, a Jewish sect emerged that was called Christianity. The Christ in Christianity is Messiah. Soon, the sect spread to non-Jews who embraced the hope.
Christianity is, at least, part of the strange fruit of the Babylonian exile. Without the exile, the Davidic dynasty of 400-plus years of anointed kings never would have moved from a string of anointed kings in the past to the hope for the Messiah.
Our world now is in a hard place, reminiscent of the Black Plague in the 16th century and the unfortunately named “Spanish Flu” a century ago.
We find ourselves in an exile, of sorts, that is health-related rather than a clash of world powers.
What shall we take from history and faith that might encourage us in these uncertain days?
Jeremiah and Ezekiel each attempted to undo a proverb oft repeated in the streets of Jerusalem and in the Babylonian ghetto of the Judah-ites: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
They rejected the blame game and asserted that each person is responsible to address contemporary situations.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel set aside any claim to privilege and chose instead to identify with those who were suffering.
The prophet, Isaiah of the exile, was more direct: He declared the exiles were, in fact, the suffering servant who would bring liberation and redemption to the now-lost Judah.
Solidarity with the suffering always is the first step toward liberation, redemption and renewal.
History – and the Holy Scripture of Jews and Christians – documents that the return from exile was not the establishment of normal. Everything was transformed.
Judaism emerged in and after the exile as life lived in the memory of the covenant (with Noah, Abraham, Moses and David).
We are in coronavirus exile. We have a chance to reflect upon what was, to experience what is, and to hope for and work toward what might be in the months and years ahead.
John Claypool was no stranger to exile, personal, geographical, institutional and more. Through it all he would say, “The worst thing is not the last thing.” Indeed. In God’s world, hope endures.
Columbus Roberts professor of theology and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion in the college of liberal arts at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.