The Bible’s Three Stories: Story 2—Exile and Return (2/19/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Today is part three, story number two in our series on the three macro-stories of scripture. Hopefully, by now, you are all aware of the new development in Bible study which appeared on the scene in the late Twentieth Century, called story theology.
Story theology maintains that to understand the wisdom and truth which can be derived from scripture, one must not attempt to separate the truth from the stories. The stories themselves contain the truths, a fact best evidenced in the realization that Jesus himself taught using stories.
Jesus didn’t use stories to confuse us, but rather he used them to point us toward understanding. No, there weren’t really ten bridesmaids and a widow with a lost coin and a prodigal son. Those are all stories which convey real truth, truth beyond what can be found in the simple documenting of historical facts.
And by now you know there are three ways to approach the Bible according to story theology. First, the Bible can be viewed as one long story, beginning with creation and ending with a vision of the end of the world. In between is all of history. A second way of considering the Bible from the viewpoint of story theology is to view it as a collection of stand-alone stories. The creation, Noah’s ark, Jonah, the historical stories of the kings of Israel, the gospels—all of these are stories which can be studied individually, and stand on their own merits.
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A third way story theology approaches scripture is the way we are approaching scripture in this series. This approach holds that there are three macro-stories underlying all of the Bible. This approach maintains that there are three extremely important themes which shine through the Bible as a whole. These themes, according to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, are the Exodus story, the story of exile and return, and priestly story.
In the first week of this series we examined the idea of story theology, and its importance for understanding the Bible. Last week we studied the Exodus story, and perhaps discovered that in addition to being a story about a group of nomadic tribes some three-thousand years ago, it is also the story of our present-day relationship with God, and the nature of what it is to be a human being.
Today, we will examine the second macro-story of scripture, the story of exile and return. The story of exile and return is historically grounded in the story of the Babylonian Exile, also called the Babylonian Captivity. This event—the Babylonian Exile—is one of the most important events in the Judeo-Christian tradition. More than any other single event in the history of Israel, it shaped the self-understanding of the Hebrew people in a way that shapes our own self-understanding today, as 21st Century Christians.
The Babylonian Exile occurred in 587 B.C. when King Nebuchednezzar of Babylon conquered Judah, the nation we today call Israel. As was the practice at that time, once a nation was conquered, the most important people of the conquered nation were taken off their land—exiled. The idea was simple. If the religious and political leaders of a people were taken away from their country, those who remained behind would be easy to control.
It was about fifty years later that King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, and with the “Edict of Cyrus,” the Hebrew people were permitted to return to their homeland. If we were to examine all of the political and theological results from the Babylonian Exile, we could have a sermon series that lasted the entire year! Rest assured, my plan is to highlight the major political and theological implications, and move on by next week.
First, to understand the significance of this event, we must acknowledge that prior to the Babylonian Exile, the temple in Jerusalem was considered to be God’s house. It was in the holy area at the back of the Temple, where none were permitted except for the High Priest, and him only one time each year, that Yahweh was thought to reside.
Yahweh was not the only God. But he was the greatest God, and he was the God of the Hebrew people, his chosen people, and in some sense Yahweh was connected with the land of Canaan—the promised land of Israel.
How could the Jewish people reconcile the fact that their God was the greatest God, and yet their God’s home, the sacred temple, had been destroyed along with all of Jerusalem? This was a question that played on the minds of the priests and prophets who were exiled to Babylon.
The only answer was that Yahweh must be allowing this to happen in order to punish his people for their sinful disobedience. This line of thinking is what has come to be known as the Deuteronomistic History. The Deuteronomistic History is a re-telling of the history of the Jewish people, from Yahweh’s original choosing of the Jews as his people with the promise to Abraham that a great nation would arise through Abraham’s descendants, up until the time the temple was destroyed and the people were exiled to Babylon.
This Deuteronomistic History was written to explain how it was that God’s chosen people were continuously being overrun by foreign powers who worshipped other gods. It is God’s punishment for Israel’s sin. And this Deuteronomistic History is the second group of books in the Bible. The first group—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are called the Pentateuch, or the Torah. They are the “Law books.” The second group, which is comprised of Joshua through Second Kings, is called the Deuteronomistic history, and this history was written in part to explain why God allowed the Babylonian Exile.
There is much more, however, to the Babylonian Exile than the fact that it accounts for the writing of large parts of the Bible—not only the Deuteronomistic History, but many of the writings of the prophets. Beyond this, it changed at a very fundamental level the way the Judeo-Christian tradition thinks of God.
Before the Babylonian Exile, our religious heritage was based on temple worship. After the exile, many Jews were dispersed throughout the world. How could they maintain their cultural and religious traditions if the only proper place of worship was the now destroyed Temple in Jerusalem? And how could they worship the God Yahweh if Yahweh was attached to the land of Canaan, and they were living in other parts of the world? It was necessary for the Jewish people to develop writings. It was necessary for them to build places to study and worship. And so they built synagogues. They came to regard their writings not as history, but as divinely inspired revelations. The regard we have today for our churches, and for our Bible, is a direct result of the change in thinking that occurred as the Jewish people were dispersed after the Babylonian Exile.
Before the exile, God was attached to the land. After the exile, God was attached to the written word. This had, and continues to have, both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, it liberated the practice of religion, and provided the opportunity for religious people to become more spiritual and less legalistic.
On the negative, a tendency grew toward objectifying religion. A tendency toward regarding the written word as inerrant appeared on the scene. And its frightful results can be seen today, with well-meaning people insisting that the stories in the Bible are in all cases completely historically accurate. And the result is that if we follow their reasoning, we now have two gods, two infallible perfections in the universe: the first God is our living God, the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all creation; and the second god is a man-made book.
Something else, something amazing, happened during the Babylonian Exile. It was at this time, or within a few hundred years of this time, that all over the world, religion started changing. The human mind was developing, and a new concept was appearing to humanity for the first time: monotheism, the belief that there is only one God in the entire universe.
The religion in Persia at the time of the exile was Zorasterianism. Zorasterianism held the belief that there was not actually a god of the Jews, and a god of the Syrians, and a god of the Canaanites. Zorasterianism held that there was only one God, the God who brought all of creation into being, and that God’s name was Ahura-Mazda.
Many Old Testament scholars believe that monotheism was born during the Babylonian Exile. Most scholars believe that the book of Isaiah was actually written by three different people—the original Isaiah, who wrote in the Eighth Century BC; Second Isaiah, who wrote during the Babylonian Exile; and Third Isaiah, who wrote after the exile. Scholars often point to Second Isaiah, which covers Isaiah chapters 40 to 55, as the first truly monotheistic writings in our Judeo-Christian tradition.
It would probably be enough to say that the Jews brought monotheism—the idea of a single God in all of creation—back from Babylon. That would certainly be enough to consider the Babylonian Exile of great significance for our religious tradition. But there is more.
Zorasterianism had several other ideas about the universe which the Hebrew people adopted. Among these ideas are the following: Angels. There are no angels in our tradition in the writings that preceded the Babylonian Exile. When the Jews returned to Israel, they brought the idea of angels with them. The devil. There is no concept of a devil, at least not in the sense of a powerful cosmic force, in the Hebrew scriptures prior to the Babylonian Exile. Hell. Hell is another concept we borrowed from the
Zorasterians, one that most of us wish our Hebrew predecessors had left in Persia. The afterlife. Again, prior to the Babylonian Exile, Jewish scripture gives no indication that Yahweh promised anything other than a good life here on earth. With the idea of a monotheistic God, of course, came the idea that this all-powerful being could maintain our being even beyond the grave.
That, in as brief a telling as possible, is the story of the Babylonian Exile. But we must remember that according to story theology, there is even more here than meets the eye. Story theology holds that the historical Babylonian Exile is a story that is played out over and over again in our spiritual lives. Spiritually, this story applies to our lives today in two ways: culturally, and personally.
The cultural exile may not directly apply to most of us in this place today, but there are countless millions around the world who live in exile. They are exiled from the comfort and safety most of us expect in our lives, from the basic necessities which we take for granted.
And we needn’t look to the third world to find these exiles. Our homeless shelters right here in Wichita are filled with those who are culturally exiled from a society that tries desperately to pretend they simply do not exist. We have all felt a longing for home at some point in our lives. The circumstances vary from our first week at Grandma’s as a child, to our first month at college, but we have all experienced the feeling of being exiled from that on which we find our anchor, our home.
But few of us can imagine what it would be like to be exiled not for a set period of time—a week at Grandma’s as a child, or a month out of town on business—but rather indefinitely. We can hardly imagine what it is like for a homeless person with schizophrenia, or a child living in hopeless poverty in the third world, for whom the story of exile and return is only half true, because the exile is permanent, and there is nothing to return to.
But we all know the personal side of the story of exile and return, for we are all exiles in our own ways. We experience our exile as a sense of alienation. No matter how we try, we can never get completely comfortable, because we feel…lost. We have within us a yearning for something we can’t quite put our finger on. We know there is more to life than what we have found, and we sense that time is slipping away, and one day the clock will strike twelve, the ball will be over, and we will not have danced all the dances we were meant to.
It’s not an anguishing, tormented exile. It’s a subtle sense of being estranged, quietly lonely in a group of people, secretly fearful in a room filled with laughter. The existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger called this being “inauthentic.” It means that we allow our culture to shape us, and we do everything in our power to fit into the mold society has prepared for us, but at its core our very existence is “inauthentic.”
The answer, of course, is to live our lives in an authentic manner, being true to who and what we are, regardless of what the world around us tells us we should be. But that, I imagine we can all agree, is much easier said than done.
So if we live our lives in exile, if we are living inauthentically, what is the solution? The solution for exile, of course, is found in the title of the macro-story: exile and return. The solution for exile is return. And this is where the story of exile and return merges with the Exodus story we examined last week. Like the Exodus story, the story of exile and return involves a journey.
Once again we have the image of life as a journey. And we have a decision to make on this journey, because this journey can be made either in the presence of God, or outside the presence of God. But ultimately, the return from exile is a journey made with God. Our lives become inauthentic when we make the decision God has no part in our journey. Life then becomes a journey into exile.
When we recognize that life itself was created to be a journey with God, the journey becomes an Exodus—a return to the promised land. We are always travelling. And we get to decide the direction of the journey.
So the first two macro-stories of scripture fit together rather nicely. The Exodus story and the story of exile and return tell us that life is a journey, and that the journey is meant to be made with God. But the third story deals not so much with the journey as with the destination.
The third story is the priestly story, and it is necessary because life was not only meant to be a journey with God, but it is ultimately a journey to God. God is both our companion on the journey, and the ultimate destination of our journey.
But how can we, as estranged, non-perfect beings, ever hope to be united with God? Groucho Marx said he would never join a club that would have him as a member. We could put a religious twist on that idea and say, “It just wouldn’t be heaven if people like us were there!”
And so we have the priestly story, the story of how we are reconciled with God. Marcus Borg points out that the priestly story is not a story of bondage and journey, but rather a story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and salvation. And next week we will look at the priestly story through the history of Israel, and then turn our attention to the story’s pinnacle: Jesus.
“Atonement” literally means “at-one-ment,” and the doctrine of the atonement attempts to explain how it is, through Jesus Christ, we sinful creatures can become one with God. There are many ways to view the atonement. Many consider it by far the most important aspect of Christianity.
We will look at the different ways of viewing the atonement, and I promise you: I will not tell you how you must think about it. But I believe you will agree it deserves some thought. Next week: the priestly story. See you then.