The Importance of the Exile

We’re going to start a little differently today, by doing a Bible reading first off. So please grab your Bibles and turn to 2 Kings 24. Someone please read 2 Kings 24:10-16.

 10 At that time the servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. 11 King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city, while his servants were besieging it; 12 King Jehoiachin of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, his mother, his servants, his officers, and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign.

13 He carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house; he cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which King Solomon of Israel had made, all this as the Lord had foretold. 14 He carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land. 15 He carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon; the king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials, and the elite of the land, he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. 16 The king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, seven thousand, the artisans and the smiths, one thousand, all of them strong and fit for war.

This is it. This is what the Bible has been warning people were coming for a while. A foreign king—King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon—has conquered Judah. He has plundered the land, particularly it says he takes everything from the Temple. This is basically the destruction of the Temple of God—the thing that represents God’s home on earth, the heart of Israel, and now it’s destroyed. And then he carries off all the important people—official, soldiers, people with skills, and only leaves the absolute poorest in the land—probably so they can work the land for the Babylonians. He takes all these people away and brings them into Babylon.

Judah is gone.

The people of Israel are in Exile.

This is a big deal.

People are torn from their homes. From their land. From their people. From their families. Their entire country is destroyed.

But that’s not why this is a big deal to them. To remember why it’s a big deal, we have to remember who these people are and the stories they believe about themselves and have told themselves about their place in the universe and their relationship with their God.

And to do that, we have to remember where we started.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Abram. He was a wealthy, older man, from a place called Haran. If we look at that map, we can see where Haran is, and strangely it’s in the middle of the area that would later become Babylon.

Abram wasn’t of any special birth. His people were the people who would later become Babylonians. Other than his wealth and status, nothing really made him special—in fact, if there was one downside to his life, it was that he and his wife had no kids and were now too old to have kids. So they had all this wealth and status, but one of the really things they wanted was kids. And they had none.

And then one day, Abram heard from God. As a Babylonian, Abram probably had a lot of gods he would have grown up knowing about, but this God spoke to Abram.

This God claimed Abram as his own, saying he would make his name great and give him children that would become many nations. All Abram had to do was obey.

And the first test of Abram’s obedience was God asked him to move to a new land that God would show him and give to him.  This land was far away from Haran, because remember this is in the ancient times. To travel a group as large as Abram’s family, servants, and property, there would be a lot of slow walking.

But Abram obeyed and he and his family traveled all the way from Haran to a new land that at the time was called Canaan. It was a beautiful land between a river and the sea and when he got there God said to Abram, “To your descendants I will give this land.”

Even as well off and rich as Abram was, this would probably seem crazy. Abram was wealthy, but he didn’t own even a city. To say all this land would belong to his descendants? That he would be the father of an entire nation? Abram didn’t even have any kids! I’m sure he wondered how that would even be possible, and if maybe this new God of his was a little crazy.

But Abram trusted God, trusted that this land would belong to him and his children and his children’s children. And he and God made a covenant, in which God told Abram that God would be the God of Abram’s entire line, all of his children and descendants forever. That he would make them a great nation, in this new land, and that he would always and forever have their back.

God changed Abram and his wife’s name as a sign of this covenant, to Abraham and Sarah. And while both Abraham and Sarah had laughed at the thought of God giving them a child, in the end he did give them a child, a boy named Isaac.

God’s covenant and promise didn’t stop with Abraham. It extended to Isaac, and to Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau.

Jacob and Esau had some intense sibling rivalries. They were twins but Esau was the first born, the one who should have inherited the land and the wealth. But in the end Jacob bargained for and stole Esau’s birthright and blessing, and Esau was so furious that Jacob fled from the land that God had given his family. He fled back to the land of the Chaldeans, the land that would one day be the empire of Babylon.

Jacob made a home there. He married two women and had eleven sons and a daughter while he was there. He could have stayed with his father-in-law Laban his entire life and inherited his father-in-law’s land and wealth, since Jacob had married both of the man’s daughters. But this wasn’t his land, wasn’t the land God had intended him to be on, so even though he was afraid that Esau would kill him the moment he stepped back into Canaan, he took his family and he went back.

On the journey back Jacob had an encounter with a stranger who basically attacked him and Jacob wrestled him all night. Jacob demanded a blessing from this stranger, and it turned out this stranger was God. Because Jacob had wrestled with God and men, God renamed him “Israel.”

With a new name, Israel crossed back into the land of his people, the Promised Land.

Esau did not kill him, but instead greeted him with joy, and they lived there in the Promised Land—given to them by God—for many years.

But Jacob had twelve sons, and they inherited the sibling rivalry of their father’s generation. They hated their youngest brother, Joseph, because Jacob favored him. They hated him so much they wanted to murder him. But instead, they sold Joseph to some passing slave traders.

They told Jacob that his favored son was dead, and Jacob believed it and mourned.

But Joseph was not dead. He was taken to Egypt and sold to a man named Potiphar.

Joseph was a stranger in a strange land, a land that was immense and wealthy, with a ruler who viewed himself as a god. It would have been easy for Joseph to try to assimilate and become like the Egyptians in order to not draw attention to himself, to worship the Egyptian gods, and to recognize the pharaoh as the god-king he claimed to be.

But Joseph refused. He stayed loyal to God and tried to live as God would have him. This landed him in some trouble, when he refused to the seduction of his master’s wife. He ended up in jail where he languished for many years.

Joseph remained loyal to God, even at this incredibly low point in his life where he was literally rotting in jail far away from his home land, with no family or person to even care he was there. He probably thought he might die in that jail. But while in jail he met two servants of the pharaoh and he interpreted their strange dreams accurately.

One died. But one—the cupbearer, the man trusted with ensuring Pharaoh’s own cup was not poisoned—lived. He forgot Joseph for two years, but then when he heard that Pharaoh had a dream, he remembered Joseph who had accurately interpreted his dream.

Joseph was pulled out of jail. Pharaoh described his dream which no one else understood. And Joseph told him that it meant there would be seven years of plenty, and seven years of famine in all the land. He also then proposed how Pharaoh and Egypt could survive this—by storing up all the grain during the years of plenty and ration it out to the people during the famine.

Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph his second in command, to execute this plan. So suddenly Joseph, a slave, was the second most powerful man in the most powerful nation in the world.

Meanwhile famine hit the land of Canaan, and Jacob and his sons were starving. They heard there was food in Egypt, so Jacob’s sons went to Egypt to ask for food.

There were some shenanigans involving Joseph pretending to be someone else and testing his brother’s to see if they had changed their ways, but the end result was that Joseph was reunited with his family, and all of the house of Jacob moved to Egypt to survive this terrible famine.

God used Joseph’s horrible situation of becoming a slave to save Jacob and his sons from this famine.

But in Egypt they were slaves, like Joseph. And their children’s children were slaves. And at first maybe things were okay while they remembered Joseph and his actions that saved Egypt. But over time, things got worse and worse for the descendants of Jacob.

These people, who were supposed to be God’s chosen people, were no longer free, no longer in the land God had given them, and as they became more and more oppressed, they began to think maybe God had forgotten them.

But God raised up a deliverer, a man called Moses. He was saved from Pharaoh’s wrath by his mother who floated him down the Nile river. He was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses grew up and ended up fleeing Egypt alone, and going to live in the land of Midian.

Moses could have stayed there forever. He married a woman named Zipporah. He had kids. He could have stayed there forever. But one day he had an encounter with God in the form of a burning bush.

This God told him he was the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the God of Moses’s ancestors. And he told him his name, a sacred name of Yahweh, which meant “I am who I am.” God called Moses to go back to Egypt to free his people and return them to the land which God had promised to Abraham.

Moses didn’t want to. He didn’t think he was cut out for that kind of work. But in the end, he obeyed. He went back to Egypt. He spoke against Pharaoh. He represented God as God sent wonders and plagues down on Egypt to show the Egyptians once and for all that the God of the Hebrews was more powerful than the gods of the Egyptians. And in the end, the descendants of Jacob were able to leave Egypt to go back to the land of Jacob, the land of Israel.

It was a hard journey and on their way home they stopped by Mount Sinai and Moses talk to God and received the laws that would govern their people. In the end because of some disobedience, it took them forty years to reach the Promised Land, the land of Jacob who was also called Israel.

Finally they were home. God led them to victory against the Canaanites who lived there already, and the people of Israel were home.

In Israel they flourished. God led them to victory against invaders and preserved them through tumultuous time. They became a nation with a king who led them to victory and enabled them to build a Temple.

And then…suddenly. It’s all gone.

Babylon has taken them over. Defeated them. Exiled them.

Why did we recap this? What does this all mean?

Israel is the Promised Land. That God promised Abraham at the very beginning. God promised Abraham that this would be his land forever, it would belong to his descendants forever. And yes, for a brief period of time, God moved them to Egypt so they would survive the famine and things went bad there, but in the end God restored them to the Promised Land, and they flourished. And God had their back. And promised them that a son of David would rule Israel forever.

Forever.

Imagine discovering that forever wasn’t as long as you thought. Apparently forever only meant until the Babylonians showed up and killed your king’s line.

This would be an extreme crisis of faith, the likes of which it’s hard for us to understand. People would suddenly doubt everything. Had Israel been promised to Abraham? Did God mean what he said about David? Did God even care?

Who even are they as a people if God would allow such a thing to happen? What does it mean to be the people of Israel if there is no Israel? What does it mean to be God’s chosen people if God allowed them to be conquered? Why would God allow them to be conquered? Why would God allow his Temple, his home on this earth, to be destroyed? What did any of this mean?

These questions plagued them. Suddenly they were asking themselves if there was any point to their culture, to their way of life, to their religion, and their God.

To answer this, they wrote down their stories. Remember for a long time these stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses would have been handed down in an oral tradition. So scholars wrote the stories down. They wrote down the history of their people as they understood it. They wrote down their wisdom, their thoughts on God, and their rationale on why God would allow this to happen.

And in these stories, they found hope.

With the stories of Joshua they remembered that their God was powerful enough to conquer human powers if he chose. With the stories of Joseph and Moses, they remembered this wasn’t the first time the people of Israel had been removed from the Promised Land and been restored. With their wisdom, they remembered that sometimes times are hard and sometimes life seems futile and rough for no reason, but in the end God is there. With the words of their prophets, they remembered that God had promised that they would survive this. That there was a light at the end of this tunnel.

In Exile, the people of Israel found their identity in a way they never had before. And instead of losing hope and disintegrating as a people, they became more confident in who they were and that even this terrible experience God would use to grow them as a people.

They found faith even in this horrible time that God had their back and would restore them in the end.

They discovered that their faith was not in a nation or a king. But in God.

Once upon a time, there was a man that God created a paradise for. He lived there for many years, but in the end he was exiled from Paradise. This is the story of Adam. This is the story of Israel. This is the story of us. And we have to have faith that even through the times of Exile, the times of horror, the times when it seems like God is nowhere to be found, he is there, he has our back, and one day he will restore us all to Paradise.

This is our faith, a faith that truly discovered who it was in Exile, a faith that can survive Exile. People already have survived it, and we can survive it to if required.

Next week we’ll study one of these stories, of how even in Exile they found their strength and learned that God had their backs. But for today this is where we’ll stop.