Monday, February 06, 2006

Exile, Cont'd

We have seen that the rules that govern God's people's relationship to culture are contingent upon their possession of the land. When the covenant community is sojourning in the land as strangers (Heb. 11:8-16), this relationship can be described as "pilgrim politics." The example of Abraham demonstrates, as we have seen, that the patriarchs were cultically and religiously distinct, but culturally homogenous.

But when Israel ceased to wander and settled in the land, the rules changed. Now they became a theocratic army whose mandate was not to dwell peacefully alongside the Canaanites, but to utterly destroy them.

(Interestingly, the strictness and rigidity shown in Israel’s universal withdrawal from pagan culture only applied to those living within the bounds of the land of Canaan. Outside Israel’s borders things remained as they had always been under the Abrahamic arrangement. This is demonstrated by the fact that Solomon engaged in friendly dealings with delegates from Tyre (I Kings 5:1ff) and with the queen of Sheba (I Kings 10:1ff), without any hint that he was compromising or doing anything wrong.)

But what about the Babylonian captivity? What happened then?

Well, if the land plays such a significant role in determining God's people's relationship to the surrounding culture (as I have argued), then the situation during the exile is exactly what we would expect it to be:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.'" Jeremiah 29:4-7

God’s covenant people, once again, were exiles without a homeland. As resident aliens in a pagan land they were culturally similar to the inhabitants of the land while remaining religiously separate from them. When outside the borders of the theocratic domain, Israel returned to the pilgrim ethic that characterized the patriarchs before the institution of the Mosaic covenant. They engaged in such common cultural activities as building houses, planting gardens, taking wives, and producing offspring, all the while praying for the welfare of Babylon. In exile, Israel’s distinctiveness and particularity was once again solely cultic (which explains why Daniel was willingly instructed in the pagan arts and literature of Babylon and even agreed to advise his ungodly rulers, while at the same time refusing to defile himself by eating Nebuchadnezzar’s delicacies or worshiping Darius, Dan. 1:1-8; 2:16; 5:17; 6:13). As during the period between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, Israel was religiously distinct but culturally homogenous.

But as Ezra 9:1-3, 10-12 shows us, when Israel returned to their land after their exile was ended the rules reverted back again to those of the theocracy: No more cultural assimilation. All of life -- the cultic and the cultural, the sacred and the secular -- was again to be considered holy.

In our next post we'll take a look at the cultural role of believers under the New Covenant. Hang on to your hats, because here's where things get really interesting....