2020 is in the rearview mirror, but she won’t let go. Civil unrest, political divisions, and COVID restrictions–many people feel as if they are exiles even if they are living and working in their own homes. Others wonder if God has forgotten about them, about us. The violence we’ve seen in the news, the anger and frustration that we see on social media, these are all issues rooted in the story of the Garden of Eden (Ge 2:5-3:24).
In Hebrew, the author’s description of the garden tells us “the tree of life [was] in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9). This descriptive imagery symbolizes both God’s ideal plan for humanity as well as our present reality, the result of choosing our way over God’s plan. The tree of life’s central location in the garden represents God’s paramount goal for humanity was life in all its wonder and fulness. That was the heart of the divine project. The other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree from which God warned humans not to eat, was nearby the tree of life, but it was off-center. And so, just as the tree was not centered in the garden, we read that as soon as the humans eat its fruit (3:6), every area of their lives becomes askew and off-balance. They are no longer comfortable with who they are (e.g., they realize they are naked, 3:7). Their relationship with one another is fractured (e.g., the male blames the female, 3:12, and their intimacy is so estranged that they can no longer share a single name, 3:20). They now struggle with the creation itself (e.g., the woman’s pains in childbirth increase, 3:16, and the man’s work becomes toilsome due to thorns and thistles, 3:17-19) and even their relationship with God is impacted (e.g., they hide from God, 3:8).
Because their lives are now out of harmony with heaven and earth, God no longer wants the humans to eat from the tree of life. God’s will for them–life–has not changed. Rather, it is the circumstances of the moment that have changed. If the humans now eat from the tree of life, in their present condition, they will live forever in discord with God, other humans, creation, and even their own selves. So God exiles them from the garden (3:23-24) as an act of judgment, but even more as an act of love and compassion. Though humans had rejected God’s plan for their own way, the story emphasizes God’s continued care for his human creatures. We see his concern prior to their judgment and exile, when God calls out and asks them where they are, knowing that they are hiding. He asks them how they know they are naked, have they eaten from the tree, what have they done, all the while knowing exactly what had occurred. In this way God offered them opportunities to confess their sin and reconcile their relationship with him (opportunities they unfortunately do not fully embrace). After pronouncing judgment but before exiling them, God sees they are uncomfortable with their nakedness. God could have reprimanded them for not accepting themselves as he had created them. Instead, in an accommodating act of service, he lovingly removes their tattered fig-leafs and provides them with more suitable attire (3:21). Even after they are sent into exile, God does not forget them nor does he give up on his plan for them–life. The remainder of the Bible is the story of God’s reclamation project for his lost creation, his effort to redeem them from their exile. Humans, however, in the midst of our exile often miss the beauty of the Biblical story and misunderstand God’s plan to restore his creation to life everlasting.
Subscribe to receive email notification of new posts.
First, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t realize it is a story about forgiveness. After the garden story, we read about the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain kills his younger brother Abel, so God punishes him. Cain will be exiled to a nomadic life of wandering in the East. Cain protests that this curse is too much to bear, that without the protection of his family clan others will surely kill him. To show God’s continued concern, that exile does not mean we are forgotten, God places his mark of protection on Cain and promises that anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over (Ge 4:11-16). Within four generations, however, God’s offer of grace to Cain is misunderstood. The compassionate protection of God becomes the privileged right of humans. God’s mercy is now a man’s threat. Lamech boasts to his wives that he had killed a man. If Cain was avenged seven times then Lamech would be avenged seventy-seven times (Ge 4:23-24)!
In stark contrast, Jesus taught his disciples a radically different way. His followers should be like God, dispensing undeserved mercy and demonstrating unconditional love. When Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone when they wrong us, Peter thought a reasonable number would be seven times. Jesus, however, rejected this. Not seven times, Jesus said, but seventy-seven times. And so Jesus inverted the Cain and Lamech story. The story of increasing violence and vengeance was to be replaced with a new story of unlimited forgiveness despite wrongs incurred (Mt 18:21-22). As Christians, we bear the mark of Christ, a mark that challenges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44).
Second, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t understand it is a story about inclusion. Later in the Old Testament story, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire, who exiled conquered people groups by scattering them throughout their empire. Even later still, the southern kingdom of Judah was also conquered, this time by the Babylonian Empire, who sent the Jews into exiled communities throughout Babylon. Yet God did not forget the Jews in exile. The opening vision of Ezekiel (Eze 1:4-28) describes a mobile throne on which God comes from Jerusalem to be with his people in their exile. And Isaiah prophesied that God would go through his people’s trials with them and proclaimed the hope that God would ultimately bring them back from the east, west, north and south (Is 43:2-7).
The Jews did return from their exile in Babylon, but the “lost tribes” of Israel scattered among the nations did not return. Over the centuries, hope developed among the Jews that the the tribes would return when Messiah came. Jesus took this nationalistic hope and re-centered it back onto God’s inclusive purposes. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus spoke of people from east, west, north, and south (an allusion to Isaiah’s vision) coming to sit alongside Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets at a feast in the Kingdom of God (Lk 13:28-29). Since Jesus proclaimed right before this that the entrance to the kingdom is narrow (Lk 13:23-24), one might think the returning ones were the lost tribes of Israel. But Jesus tells his Jewish audience that many of them would weep because they would find themselves thrown out of the kingdom. Matthew clarifies the identity of these new arrivals from east and west by placing this statement by Jesus immediately after the story of a Roman Centurion whom Jesus said had faith greater than anyone he had encountered in all Israel (Mt 8:8-13). That is, the Roman would be at the feast. So the promise of people returning to the kingdom feast was not a statement about the lost tribes of Israel, or not just them. It was the return of the lost tribes of Adam; that is, a return from exile open to all nations and people. This hope was embedded in God’s covenant with Abraham. His seed would bless all nations (Ge 22:18). It was also the fuller understanding of Isaiah’s own prophecy.
Even in the narratives of the Old Testament we see God’s unfolding plan has an inclusive strand even as its primary focus was momentarily on Abraham and his descendants. As the story of Abraham’s family unfolds, we see family lines break off along the way, yet occasionally descendants from these other lines wander back into the grand narrative. Lot separates from his uncle Abraham. His descendants become the Moabites. Generations later, a Moabite named Ruth re-enters the story and becomes the ancestor of both King David and Jesus the Messiah (Mt 1:5). When twins are born to Abraham’s son Isaac, the covenant continues through the younger, Jacob, and not the older, Esau. Yet Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, apparently produce the early form of the Old Testament book of Job. The setting of Job is the land of Uz, which Lamentations 4:21 identifies with the land of Edom. Job, the righteous man who suffered greatly, was an Edomite. After Sarah’s death, Abraham marries a second time and one of his second wife’s sons is Midian. Generations later, we meet a priest of Midian named Jethro, who becomes Moses’ father-in-law and serves as a wise counselor to Moses (Ex 18). Even the accursed Canaanites, the people to be driven from the land by Joshua and the Israelites, were not completely exiled from the story. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, helped Israel conquer Jericho and became an ancestor of both David and Jesus (Mt 1:5). These are just a few of the side stories in the Bible that hint to us the plan of God was not exclusive to the Jews but included all the nations.
Finally, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t recognize it is a story about reconciliation. Jacob, the one through whom the promises of Abraham were to pass, stole his older brother’s birthright and blessing. Because of his actions, Jacob ended up in exile, sent away by his parents to live with his mother’s family in order to avoid his brother’s wrath. Yet God did not forget Jacob in exile. He promised to bless him and Jacob was blessed. Eventually, Jacob began the journey out of exile back to his homeland. Soon he received a report that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with a contingent of men. The reader wonders if we are about to experience another Cain and Abel story. Will the older brother again kill the younger? Instead, we read that as Jacob repeatedly bows down in submission as he approaches his brother, Esau runs to cover the remaining ground between them. Esau then throws his arms around Jacob’s neck, not in anger but in joy, and he kisses him. Then they both weep (Ge 33:4). Esau tells Jacob he had also been blessed by God. He had long since put aside his anger at his brother for his deceptive actions and Esau longed to be reconciled to his estranged brother. Now, God had truly blessed him for Jacob was home (Ge 33:9).
The story of Jacob and Esau is likely the basis for Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), though the father takes the place of Esau in the parable. Like Esau, the father runs to meet the returning exile, throws his arms around him, and kisses him (Lk 15:20). It is easy to see that the story emphasizes the importance for exiles to desire reconciliation with God, our Father. But Jesus also wanted us to seek reconciliation with other humans. There is an older brother in Jesus’ parable that we sometimes overlook. “But his older brother was in the field” Jesus continues the story (Lk15:25). How will this brother respond? Will he respond like Cain, who killed his brother “in the field” (Ge 3:8)? Or will he respond in reconciliation like Esau (and like the father in the parable)? The older brother’s response was somewhere in between, though closer to Cain’s response than Esau’s. He was angry his younger brother had left while he remained behind (in his words) to “slave” for his father (Lk 15:29). He was also angry that his father threw a party for this wanderer but never showed such honor to him for his continued work in his father’s home and fields.
Jesus’ message to the Jews hearing this parable was that they shouldn’t be like the older brother. Though they were God’s servants longer, as Abraham’s descendants, they should welcome these new members of God’s family, the Gentiles and other “sinners” they currently looked down on. Instead of rejection and anger, they should be like Esau, who welcomed back his younger brother Israel/Jacob. Today, Christians stand in the place of Jesus’ Jewish audience then. Will we be like the prodigal’s older brother, demanding God do things our way and angry when God blesses others we don’t think deserve his grace? Or will we be like Jacob’s older brother, happy with what God has given us and rejoicing to accept the returning lost members of our family?
We are all exiles in this world but we are called to be God’s witnesses through the empowering Spirit of Christ. Peter tells us that, though we are exiles, we should live such good lives that even those who falsely accuse us cannot help but glorify God because of what they see. We are also called as exiles to respect the government God places over us (1Pe 2:11-15). The war we fight is against sinful desires and spiritual powers, not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). While we are free, we are told we must not abuse this freedom by using it as an excuse to do evil. Instead, we are slaves to God and so servants to those made in God’s image (1Pe 2:16).
During the height of the Civil War, when many Northerners grew weary of the conflict and were ready to cede the Southern states, Edward Everett Hale wrote a short story to rekindle the imagination as to why a Union of States was so important. His short story was called The Man without a Country. The main character in the fictional story joined Aaron Burr’s insurrection in the West and was subsequently captured and court-martialed. During his trial, the young man foolishly asserted, “D—-m the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The judge’s response was that he would indeed never hear again the name of the United States nor would he see her. The young man was reprimanded to the custody of the Navy and until his death (over five decades later) the man with no country was transferred from ship to ship while remaining at sea. Crews were given orders never to speak about the United States in his presence and he was never allowed to come within sight of the American shore. On the occasion his ship put to shore, it was always a distant one. Through the years he earned the respect of the officers and sailors with whom he sailed. At the end of his life, he was graced by a single final conversation about the nation from which he was exiled, during which he asked numerous questions about its growth and condition. The love he expressed to his companion was so strong that the friend could not bring himself to tell the man about the division and decimation brought upon the States through the then-current Civil War. At the man’s death, a slip of paper was found marking a verse in the Bible, “They desire a country, even a heavenly: where God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (He 11:16, KJV). He asked to be buried at sea but requested a stone be set up either at the site of his rebellion or his trial which read, “In memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.” Though an exile, he developed a deep respect and love for the country he never heard of or saw again and he truly learned the meaning of forgiveness, inclusion, and reconciliation.
We are called to trust God in exile. This world in its present fallen condition is not our home. As exiles, we are to join in God’s inclusive plan for forgiveness and reconciliation centered in the life and reign of Jesus Christ our Lord. We may be in exile, but we are not forgotten. God is with us, and he will lead us home.
Subscribe to receive email notification of new posts.