Updated: May 12, 2019
"God is mean" my daughter tells me.
I had just finished explaining what happened to Israel during the exile. I ask her why she thinks God is mean.
"He made them sad." She tells me.
"That's not good! Do you like to be sad?" I ask her. She shakes her head no and we think about that for a minute.
"Does Daddy ever make you sad?" I ask.
"Is Daddy mean?"
Well this is not going as well as I hoped.
I took ten minutes to talk to my kids and explain why sometimes their dad has to "make them sad" after they do something wrong or mean to one another. A glimmer of understanding seems close, but one kid farts, and it's only giggles for the rest of our devotional.
Such is the life of a parent. But I am not worried. We spend 10-15 minutes every night in the scriptures and in prayer and song. We will continue to reinforce the idea of God's goodness and faithfulness in spite of failure for the next couple of decades. Reading through the Old Testament quickly and thoughtlessly might leave us with the impression that God is mean, angry, vengeful, and ready to wipe us all out. Only through a more careful reading and consideration of the text (the story) do we see the same God revealed through Jesus in the God of the Old Testament.
What is an Exile?
Someone who is unable to return home.
Lamplighters Y2Q2, Page 1, Green Question
As we have discussed in other blog posts, the story and context is key to understanding the Bible. The same holds true when it comes to understanding the Exile. The idea of the exile is woven into the entirety of the text. Many people think this is because the Bible took its final shape while Judah was in exile in Babylon.
Babylon was a large kingdom and rose to prominence at several times throughout history. In the time period of about 650-550 BC, Babylon takes over a huge swath of area. Like their predecessors and neighbors, the Assyrians, Babylon had an exilic policy after conquering an area.
The primary reasons to move people are political. If you capture the aristocracy, its skilled laborers, and the richest citizens and move them to your own nation, then the primary center of power moves away from the conquered nation's capital and towards your own. Additionally, keeping one's enemies close allows Babylon to ensure that far-flung plots never get started.
But Why Israel?
My daughter was not upset at the Babylonians for being Babylonians, though. She was upset that God was a party to this whole fiasco. How could God take people away from their homes? Separate families? Use a nation as evil as Babylon or Assyria to punish Israel?
These are all very instinctive thoughts. To start helping us understand the answer, we need to move back to the promises that God made to Abram in Genesis.
What does exile mean to you?
Why does exile seem like an especially cruel punishment?
How could God use evil people to accomplish his good will?
Consider the sports coach. One of her team members cheats in a game and is kicked out. The coach must keep the player out of the next two games according the league they play in.
Is the coach mean for enforcing the rules on her player?
If the coach let the player in, would that be good or bad? For whom?
A Story of Exile
In Genesis 12, we meet Abram (soon to be Abraham) and we notice that Abram leaves his family (except Lot) and travels to a land that God promises to him. Several stories later, Abram is promised an heir in his old age and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and would inherit the land of Canaan. Being a practical kind of guy, Abram gets to work making an heir with Hagar, an Egyptian slave. Their son, Ishmael, looks poised to be the promised heir that will inherit the land. In a surprise twist, though, Abram is renamed and told that his really old wife Sarah (also renamed) would have a child, Isaac, who would be the heir. It is hard to under-emphasize the importance of this covenant between God and Abraham in Genesis 17.
Through the rest of the story of Genesis, we see that Abraham's descendants all come to occupy this area in and around Canaan. According to the account in Genesis, the promised land looked something like this when Israel returned from slavery in Egypt:
We get a picture that relatives and family (albeit highly dysfunctional, somewhat murderous family; so... regular family) now surround the promised land. God tells the Israelites upon their return to Canaan that, they must push out these other nations. The primary purpose seems to be God's concern with the faithfulness of Israel. He does not think that they will be able to withstand the intercultural influence of their neighbors if they allow them to remain in the land.
The story of Israel's exile is tied to their actions and faithfulness in the land. It starts when Israel enters the land. After initial success, they fail to drive out the other nations and also fail to fully conquer the land. For a full discussion of the conquest, check out this article. After the period of local tribal politics and conflict (called the time of Judges), the Israelites band together to demand a king. They make Saul their first king. After his disastrous reign, the Israelites get a better king in David. David's reign is followed by a time of unity in Israel. King Solomon takes this time of peace to build the Temple and several palaces for himself and his many wives. Upon Solomon's death, the kingdom divides and begins a long decline towards exile. King after king in the north follows after foreign god and continues in the sins of their fathers. Some kings make small efforts to turn back to God, but none of the kings' reigns are characterized as good and righteous by the writer of Kings or Chronicles.
In the Southern Kingdom, the leaders and prophets tend to fair a bit better, but still turn to foreign gods time and time again. Only a handful of Kings are characterized as serving God faithfully; as such, their kingdom lasts a little longer than the northern kingdom before being destroyed and taken into exile.
These two accounts tell us how the exile, but we want to know why? Why did God bring Israel into Exile and is our God still good even though he did this to his children?
Why was Israel taken into Exile?
God promised to give them over to foreign nations if they chased after their foreign gods. Lamplighters Y2Q2, Page 1, Yellow Question
When we take passages and stories in the Bible out of context, it is fairly easy to make a case that God is a moral monster. In other words, if you do not take the entire backstory into account and understand the choices of Israel in their proper context, then our God can look monstrous as he allows foreign nations to inflict atrocities on his people. These consequences make so much more sense when you look at the nation of Israel's actions in context and on a timeline.
Before the Israelites come into the land, God gives them the command,
"Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the Land it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. Leviticus 18:24-28
God is partially concerned with keeping the promised land (and his covenant people) holy and pure. This means that no unclean, detestable practices should take place in Israel's territory. God also wants to be honored for the work he has done for Israel. He constantly reminds Israel that it was he who brought them out of Egypt, who brought them through the wilderness, who conquered the land for them. When Israel worships and honors other gods, it is common for God to give Israel over to those foreign gods and nations. He will honor their choices so that they can see what it is like to live as slaves to Ba'al or Ashteroth. They quickly find that those gods and their servants oppress Israel with slavery, death, and unbearable taxation. This is when they cry out to their God to save them. God allows Israel to enter these cycles of apostasy because he never forces anyone to follow him. In context, God actually becomes an extremely generous and forgiving God who allows people to turn back to him again and again.
In addition to understanding God's actions in context, understanding them on the timeline of the Bible gives us better perspective. When reading the narrative accounts in scripture it is easy to think that they are "journalistic accounts" from a newspaper or eye-witness history that we might find on one of our library shelves today. These accounts often give their chronology in ways that we are not used to, though. The most common way is by giving the account in relation to a ruler or king. So if we were to do this today we might say something like, in the second year of President Obama's reign. This would might mean in the year 2010, since he was elected in 2008, though he was not inaugurated until 2009, so it could refer to 2011. Dating things this way is imprecise and relies on the relative dates of other events (which is why we do not use this system anymore). When we look at these accounts, though, these types of details are important for us to take in the overall timeline of events. It might seem like God is being petty or impatient until you realize he waits for decades between giving warnings and carrying out his punishments. God's calls for repentance are always intended to turn the hearts of people away from their idols and towards their good God. The exile itself is an excellent example. God does not fulfill the promises he made to bring the people into exile until hundreds of years of apostasy and idolatry. He even brings his judgement in stages. First the northern kingdom, which would be a very real and terrifying example for the southern kingdom. Still, the people of Israel fail to act righteously. They fail to turn back to God no matter how many chances they get.
Israel is ultimately vomited out of the good land and left to suffer the consequences of their actions.
When did God promise he would bring Israel into Exile? (Read Deuteronomy 28 for a hint)
Why did he say he would do this?
What was the overall purpose behind exile? Does God do it just because he is mean and angry?
Pretend your room is very messy (some of you don't have to pretend that hard). Your parent comes in and tells you that if you don't keep your room clean, then they will one day pick up all the toys that are not put away and give them away. Your parent tells you this many times. They even send your sister and brother to remind you. For years your room stays messy and dirty, with very little change.
Should you be mad when they carry out their promise one day?
Is it unjust and mean for them to do the thing they said they would do?
After the Israelites return from Exile, they rebuild the temple, but it is a sham compared to Solomon's temple. They weep and wail and wonder what to do now that they have returned to the land. Some Israelites even become so concerned about the possibility of another exile that they begin to add to the law of Moses. They build what they call hedges around the law to make sure that no one will even come close to violating God's laws and bring them in danger again of Exile. Instead of turning their hearts towards the Lord, they shackle everyone down and give them no choice but to follow God.
When Jesus arrives on the scene, these folks are called the Pharisees. They do not care that the poor are being taken advantage of, that the sick and dying lie in their own filth around Jerusalem, but if you pick up your mat on the Sabbath, you can be sure they will admonish you for it.
Jesus has a striking encounter in several of the Gospel accounts where he confronts the corruption of the Temple and its leaders. After clearing the Temple courts of money changers and those selling doves at exorbitant rates to the poor, he tells the leaders of the Temple:
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John 2:19
Jesus was speaking of his own body as a new Temple. If Jesus' body was the Temple that was destroyed and rebuilt, then how should we think of the concept of exile? Is this idea outdated and irrelevant because of Jesus? Or should we continue to reflect on how we are still a people in exile?
We languish in exile when we understand our own contributions to the problem. We see in our lives each and every day small ways in which we give into idolatrous practices. Living in slavery in Babylon is difficult, but made much worse when you know you could have turned to God earlier and not have experienced the consequences of your own unfaithfulness.
How are we still in Exile?
We live in a place not fully under the rule of King Jesus Lamplighters Y2Q2, Page 1, Red Question
Even upon their return, Israel knew that something was wrong. Their Temple was lame, their walls were not holy but hole-y, and the people continued to live comprised lives apart from their God. What had happened? Wasn't God supposed to show up after their exile and restore his kingdom in power and glory? Didn't the prophets promise a day of reckoning for the evil empires that oppressed and killed Israel?
The Israelites had to wait another 400+ years after their return from Babylon and Assyria to encounter the promised Messiah. Jesus brought what he called the "Good News of the Kingdom of God." He talked all about the Kingdom and how it was arriving with him. Many people became excited and thought that Jesus would be the one to throw off their oppression, kill the Romans and herald in a lasting kingdom that would rival all other nations in power and majesty.
Jesus disappointed anyone who thought this way because Jesus brought a new kind of kingdom. Jesus' kingdom was truly "of Heaven" and his enthronement occured on the cross. The mission Jesus embarked upon was much larger than the nation of Israel. He looked beyond this one people group and saw the exile of all mankind from the garden of Eden. He calls us to return to the garden, washed free from our sin, no longer enslaved to the snake and his seed.
Jesus is the triumphant snake-crusher that has made a new way into a better Kingdom. We can enter into this new Kingdom, but are also called as ambassadors to spend time in the kingdom of this Earth. We are called as exiled gardeners to expand the kingdom of Heaven until Jesus returns as THE King.