Echoes from a distant past
This study of the response of the people of G-d to the Exile is premised by the notion that our sense of self, or identity is shaped primarily by three things, our experiences, our thoughts and the interaction of these with the way we identify and see ourselves already. In this way our identity acts as a lens or filter through which all of the events of life are processed.
A cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals the pervasive extent to which the people of G-d experienced exile, isolation and dislocation.
According to the dictionary of Biblical imagery, sin, exile and restoration form a pattern in Old Testament literature. “The prototype is the expulsion from the garden… other scenes follow…Cain is banished…Jacob is forced to flee … Joseph is sold into slavery” The period of slavery in Egypt formed the clearest expression of Jewish identity, and the wilderness wanderings in particular are emblazoned on the Jewish psyche. They continue to be celebrated annually alongside Passover and Pentecost at the festival of Booths, also called Tabernacles.
The book of Judges gives us the clearest representation of the pattern; the people of G-d would fall into sin, usually idolatry or following after the patterns of the nations around them. The consequence would be exile or banishment. Usually G-d sends a prophet to exhort his people, and there is salvation offered through the preservation of a remnant.
When we discuss the Exile in this context we refer to the Assyrian exile of the ten tribes followed by the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the temple in 587 BCE. John Bright writes; “the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile mark the great watershed of Israel’s history.”
We now look more closely at the impact, pervasiveness and significance of exile on Israel’s self-perception. The impact of an event looks primarily at the short-term consequences of an event, largely from an individual perspective, whilst significance may take hundreds of years to be outworked and have a ripple effect. This is examined from the point of view of both individual and society.
Jewish scholars concede “It is impossible to discuss the topic of ‘‘Jewish memory’’ without emphasizing the crucial role of the idea of exile in its construction” .
The people of G-d in exile face an existential crisis. The culpability of their own actions and thoughts leads them to question their identity.
“Can we still be called the people of G-d when we are his enemies, under his judgment?” “Without hope of a homeland how can we find rest?” “Without a land and doubting our special divine human relationship does our existence matter?”
“How do we redefine ourselves? How are we to sing the Lords song in a strange land?”
The methods of subjugation used first by Assyria and then Babylon left an indelible mark on the psyche. While the exiles hardly feature in Babylonian records at all they feature centrally in the thinking of the exiles.
Power writes “Nebuchadnezzar spent a month rounding up the greater part of the population of Jerusalem and the surrounding villages and forming them into long lines to march to Babylon. Everything of value was taken from the temple and the palaces. The city walls were torn down and on 19 August 586, the departing army set fire to the city and the temple. Judah was at an end.”
There is the creation of the intelligentsia/ leadership vacuum overnight. This results in the highlighting and accentuating of existing divisions and polarizes communities.
In times of pressure and stress we see also the following principle at work; the closer the relationship the more intense the conflict , seen particularly between those who stayed in the land and those who returned.
With guilt and culpability comes the temptation to break ranks. To blend in with the crowd is more attractive. There is a pressure to assimilate to the prevailing culture. Spiritually this could be viewed as temptation. A temptation to take the easy path at the expense of the narrow road, even if this resulted in a loss of the promise. A nation hearing again the lament of Esau over his lost his birthright for a bowl of soup.
Pate et al point to the heart of the prophets message when they write; “Idolatry was not merely a violation of the law. It struck at the heart of the relationship between God and His people. The central covenant formula in the Old Testament is the statement by Yahweh that “I will be your God you will be my people.”Idolatry is a rejection of this relationship.”
In his seminal work Keller writes: “The abominable temptations and enticements which were part of everyday life in Babylon remained indelibly fixed in the minds of the exiled Jews. Through the centuries until the time of Christ the brilliant metropolis was for them: “Babylon the Great, the mother of Harlots and abominations of the earth.” (Rev 17:5) The idea of Babylon as a cesspool of vice is rooted in the vocabulary of every modern language.”
The Exile must have taken comfort from the fact that his time of servitude is limited. (Isaiah 40:2) Bailieu points out “Jeremiah encourages the exiles to settle in their new country and patiently await the term of seventy years prescribed for their return; he warns them against false prophets who predict Judah’s impending liberation”
Deep grief characterizes such a breakdown in relationship. The exilic experience is saturated by multiple losses, beginning with loss of self-determination. Closely allied to the apparent undoing of the promises of G-d is a loss of identity, which is the subject of this study.
Loss of prestige as G-ds prophetic judgment left the people’s dignity in tatters. The prophets proclaimed woe and shame. There was no room left to expunge culpability.
Exile meant that one’s freedom of action was cut off. Someone else had you by the hand. There was no recourse to natural justice. While there are few descriptions of what occurred for individuals, there is little doubt that torture was common, and injustice brutal. This was particularly true under Assyrian rule.
This deep grief goes far beyond the loss of objects, the vessels of God and the Golden shields of Solomon. These changes are multi -generational and pervasive in nature.
James Scott paraphrases Nietzsche when he writes; “Exile is not merely a physical condition of spatial separation from a literal homeland, but rather a metaphor for the loss of an idealized intellectual topography, whether sociopolitical cultural, moral or spiritual.”
In contrast to this the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez emphasises the importance of the literal promise of land to the marginalized. He quotes a group of Christians about to be “exiled” by a government project;
“These fields are our entire life, our entire support. They give us food. Thanks to them we can send our children to school.”
Role of the Prophets
Breuggemann and creative articulation
Breuggemann’s approach is both dialogical and pastoral. He draws parallels between the late twentieth Century Church in America and the people of God going into Exile. His view of the role of the prophet is akin to a midwife. They lead the people of G-d into exile (preparation) Sustain them through the exilic experience (interpretation) They assist them in the transition out of exile, as a remnant (reorientation).
Bruegemann writes; “The ancient community of exiles learned, first of all, to express sadness, rage, anger and loss honestly. The Israelites lost nearly everything when they lost Jerusalem”.
These tasks are not dissimilar to those of a prison chaplain, whose most important question is “Where is the presence of God in the midst of these trying circumstances?”.
Breugermann picks up in his work on the exile the call to affirm the radical Holiness of G-d as the antidote to assimilation. The language to create the new vision , new society, redefining relationships, and delineation of the exile is held lightly by the prophet. Out of pastoral concern, they lead the people of G-d to inform their thinking, change their action and reclaim their identity.
The prophetic task of Grief
Allen states: “The prophetic literature sets the exile as the great divide between judgment and salvation” The prophets encouraged the people to reexamine their world;
Looking inward – self- awareness and personal holiness
Looking outward – At the societies around them
Looking around – Analyzing own societal structures anew/afresh
Looking upward – To G-d; or Renewal of faith
When we look at the role the prophet’s play in creating and reordering Jewish society, and compare their role with Worden’s tasks of grief, we see some interesting parallels.
Worden deliberately chose the word tasks to emphasise that we are active participants in the grieving process. In much the same way the prophets of G-ds people encourage them that they are still to sing in the strange land God has called them to.
Firstly they were encouraged to accept the reality of the loss. Judah was encouraged to see Exile as God’s strange work, not something which works against his purposes.
They were encouraged to experience the pain of grief. Lament over sin and Godly sorrow were encouraged, particularly as concerns idolatry.
To adjust to an environment that has changed. They were to sing the Lords song in a strange Land.
To emotionally relocate the pain they feel and invest it into telling their children the story of their people and of the time which is to come, when they will return to the land from which they have been taken. The exilic period is acknowledged as a time of creative flowering, in which tremendous effort is given in putting together the scriptures, of writing and articulating the Jewish story.
We now examine what other significant consequences the exile had for the people of G-d.
Scalise writes “One can trace in the Old Testament the theological argument that the people of God had to experience in exile in order to take in the transformation to a new way of life for Israel. This transformation involved accepting the discipline of Babylonian conquest and authority as a punishment for sin and rebellion against Yahweh, followed by repentance and restoration.” Next we examine some of those long-term consequences which constituted a new way of life for Israel.
Most significant was the answer to the call to growth in personal holiness. While collective guilt for the exile is acknowledged as a nation, the individual wrestles with the part they played.
At the same time as extended families became separated, immediate family would become important as the keystone of Jewish society. This is most clearly seen in the pharisaic group. Every family head becomes a rabbi.
Thus the movement is from Temple to household. This in itself causes difficulties
We see the emergence of a paradox; on the one hand there is a greater sense of connection through shared experience, yet greater dislocation through emerging sense of otherness. We see something akin to this sense of otherness in Australian aboriginal experience in the wake of the stolen generation.
There is a growth of Messianic expectation and Messianic thinking, encouraged through the prophetic writings which continue until the time of John the Baptist.
There is a sense of corporate repentance as a nation and the eventual return to the land (albeit a remnant). Many chose to stay in Babylon. The elevation of the prophetic voice as scripture
Deep changes were also experienced at a societal level. We see an escalation of tensions between Cult and non-cult members, paving the way for the entrenchment of Sadducaic and Pharisaic as core groups in Jewish religious life.
Bruegemann writes “Judah has two tasks in this crisis of life and faith. It had to let go of the Old world of King and of Temple that God had now taken from it. It had to receive from God’s hand a new world which it did not believe possible and which was not other one it would have preferred to have chosen.”
Politically we see the growth of an increasingly politically dislocated elite allied with ongoing political instability and plagued by suspicion as Palestine continues to languish under a succession of foreign powers.
With the loss of the ten tribes effectively assimilated into the peoples around them, they enter into popular mythology.
We began this study with the hypothesis that our sense of self, or identity is shaped primarily by three things, our experiences, our thoughts and the interaction of these with the way we identify and see ourselves already.
The Exile is a major theme, which has had a lasting impact on the actions and thought and way in which the Jewish people understand and think of themselves, that is to say their sense of identity.
This essay began with a brief historical overview of the exiles of Judah and Israel to the Assyrians and Babylonians respectively. It then went on to explore the exile as existential crisis. This was further expanded as we explored the impact of the exilic experience on the individual. We examined in some detail the methods used to subjugate and limit the freedom of those in bondage.
We examine the role played by the prophets of G-d as they seek to minister to the exiles as they travel into, through and out of Exile. Here we referred particularly to the work of Bruegemann, and Worden’s tasks of grief as an appropriate response to loss.
No experience so significant leaves a people unaltered. We drew some conclusions as to what lasting significance this held for Jewish society. What rips occurred to the fabric of Jewish society? How were they mended? What were the resulting institutions, players and powerbrokers in the aftermath?
In conclusion we inferred what impact this may have on Jewish identity. How exile has shaped the people of G-d as a nation, through both dislocation and reconnection; and how it impacted the psyche of a people on an individual level.
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