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Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Meditation on Exile, both Ancient and Modern

The reading for Sunday, May 1, 2016:

2 Kings 17:  5-20

How interesting to read this text in light of all the migration, forced and voluntary, happening through the world today.  We live in a time when more humans are on the move across the globe than any time since the end of World War II.  Our various cultures will be shaped and changed by this movement.

Our thinking about exile is both similar and different to how the ancient Israelites saw exile.  We see evidence of that thinking in the text.  The text tells us that the Assyrian exile comes as God's punishment for the wrongs of the king:   "7 This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshipped other gods 8and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had introduced. 9The people of Israel secretly did things that were not right against the Lord their God. They built for themselves high places at all their towns, from watch-tower to fortified city; 10they set up for themselves pillars and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree; 11there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the Lord carried away before them. They did wicked things, provoking the Lord to anger; 12they served idols, of which the Lord had said to them, ‘You shall not do this.’ 13Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.’"

Historians might explain it otherwise, explaining how the Israelites lived in a bad location, between various warring countries, which meant that armies were always crossing the land of Israel.  Historians would say that Israel and Judah were the weaker countries in a region of heavily armed, fierce fighting cultures.  Historians would tell us that these smaller, weaker countries were living on borrowed time and that it should have come as no surprise that they were conquered.

But generations after the forced exile saw it as God's punishment, and some of them saw it as their task to figure out how to get back to God's favor.  They would have centuries to wrestle with this question, as generation after generation was subsumed by whatever empire ruled the world at the time.

If we read the Gospels deeply and then do some research, we might see the Pharisees in a more favorable light.  They did not insist on purity laws because they wanted to make Christ's ministry difficult.  They thought that if they could get the Jews to perfect their observation of all the laws that God gave them in the early days, then God would look favorably upon them, and all that was lost would be restored.

Humans are prone to this thinking, and especially humans who have lost so much--or who come from families/cultures who have focused on the loss.

Some theologians might remind us that from these great losses come great growth.  We might argue that if cultures don't go out into different parts of the world, they will become more and more insular and eventually die.  Historians might tell us that exile inoculates a culture against extinction.  If a group stays in the same geographical spot, they are easier to destroy.  If parts of the group have migrated, they can regroup, even if a genocide has occurred elsewhere.  We see this dynamic with both centuries of Jewish culture and Christian culture.

I realize this idea is small comfort when one has lost one's homeland and everything that matters.  One does not sit in the ashes and say, "From this event will come great art and then a stronger culture."  And yet, it is usually true.

I'm interested in the various communities that are formed by exiles.  Often they are more vibrant than the ones left behind.  Exile can teach us what is important, what we value.  We see this trajectory in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles of the ancient Israelites.

We live in a time of exile of all sorts.  Some of it is geographical, as people become ever more mobile and countries more unstable.  Some of it has to do with psychology, as we are required to make adjustments in the face of what we thought we knew having to change.  Some of us must leave our families and some will have our families leave us.  Some must shed identities.

In a time of exile, it is good to remember the value of creating community in the place where one has washed up.  It is good to remember that although we may feel abandoned, God is there with us.

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