The Discombobulation of Exile

Let’s continue working through our short blog series on what Old Testament exile might have to teach 21st century believers in the western world. We’re using Walter Bruggemann’s book Cadences of Exile as a jumping off point. Make sure to check out the first post in this series because each post will build on the previous ones.

The Babylonian exile has some striking similarities to our own cultural climate. Though this specific exile started in Babylon, it was eventually taken over by the Persians, who provided support for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, written about in Ezra and Nehemiah. Over the course of several generations, the nation of Israel had gone from a global superpower, to later be run out of their own homes, overtaken by another nation. The entire experience had to be discombobulating.

Though many Christians globally are exiled in a geographical sense, like the Israelites, our sense of exile today is a sense of emotional loss. Christians were once understood to be the leaders of society throughout the western world, now many core Christian understandings about society are seen as damaging. We are, in a unique way, in our own time of exile, having to relearn how to exist as followers of Jesus when doing so stands in contrast to society as a whole.

What can we learn from the Babylonian and Persian exile?

Brueggemann shares 5 characteristics about the Babylonian exile that can be instructive to us in our own time of exile:

1. The Israelites understood that in their time of exile, disengagement from the power structures of their new geographical home was necessary, in order to exist as an alternative community.

2. Having been delivered by God out of captivity many generations before, Israel made it a practice to “think and rethink and rearticulate its faith and practice in light of its liberation” (pg. 102).

3. In exile, Israel had to make up everything as it went along. “This was a process of deep transformation of what was borrowed, transformed according to Israel’s central passion for liberation and for covenant” (pg. 103).

4. In exile, Israel lost many of their community bonds their previous home made easy, and they became a segmented community of extended family units and tribes.

5. The community of Israel was socioeconomically marginal. “Israel was indeed a new church start.”

Two things here should jump off the page:

1) First, the Israelites learned to accept they were no longer in charge of determining the direction of their society as a whole.

2) Second, the Israelites focused on existing as an alternative community exemplifying a different path for life than the predominant narrative around them.

Followers of Jesus today should deeply consider how their lives might operate differently if they embraced those two learnings.