Dr. David L. Petersen
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins
“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down.” So begins Psalm 137, a psalm that refers to a momentous time in the history of the Israelites. Between 600 and 580 before the Christian era, many of the leaders and much of the population of Judah were forcibly removed from their land and taken to several cities in the Babylonian empire. It was a wrenching event, since the centerpiece of their religion, the temple in Jerusalem, had been destroyed, and many of their cities had been burned to the ground. Their religion had focused on, among other things, the offering of sacrifices, which according to their beliefs could only be offered at the temple. Such religious practices were no longer possible. The people had lost their homes, their land, and their central religious shrine.
Fortunately, most, if not all, of us, will never experience that sort of exile. We know about other exiles, for example, the exile of the Cherokee people in the first half of the nineteenth century from their homeland in Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. But that is not something we’ve lived through. There are, however, other kinds of exiles, if we mean by exile "a prolonged and usually forced living away from our normal lives due to dynamics over which we have no control." We can be sent into exile by economic forces, by ill health, by social forces, and by psychological forces.
We can be sent into exile due to economic forces. This happened to my father’s family during the depression. My grandfather was employed by a woodworking company, which had lost much of its business. As a result, he moved his family to Arkansas, where they were able to live off the land and at much less expense than would have been the case had they stayed in Illinois. They were really in exile, away from all their family, away from their church, and away from the place that they knew as home. This wasn’t self-exile; it was a forced migration due to pressures against which they could not stand. We know people in that kind of exile.
We can be sent into exile due to the forces of ill health. A person can be forced to leave one’s healthy self and made to live with a compromised body. Last month, Sara and I visited a friend who is in the final stages of her struggle with brain cancer. We knew her as a terribly bright, energetic, and funny person. I worked with her on a number of editorial projects and within the context of our professional society. That was then; this is now. Now, she lives in exile from that former self, having suffered brain damage from the cancer and paralysis from a stroke. She is in exile, isolated from the person she formerly was. We know people in that kind of exile.
Social forces can drive people into exile. Children can be subjected to bullying and ostracism on social media and in person, so much so that they become suicidal. Jamel Myles, a nine year old who lived in Denver, committed suicide last month due to over a year of bullying at his grade school. He confronted social forces against which he could not stand; he lived in a social exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
Psychological forces can send us into exile. When a parent, a spouse or a child dies, the forces of grief batter us like a flood. We are moved away from the comfort of home to a land that is desolate, missing the person whom we had loved so much. Grief can move someone into a psychological exile. We know people in that kind of exile.
All of us are subject to these powerful forces that can drive us into various times of exile. How can we respond? The Old Testament offers at least three resources for how to live in exile and they come from three different biblical books.
First, the book of Lamentations. This brief book expresses the feelings of shock and grief that ancient Israelites experienced when their country was defeated, their capital and temple was destroyed, and much of the population was taken into exile. The poet uses the technique of personification, allowing us to hear how the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman, responds to these events:
“She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks” Lam 1:1
She says, “For these things I weep, my eyes flow with tears…my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”(1:16). “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me.” (1:12).
There is a clear message for us: Mourning and crying are a normal, even essential, response to exile. They help us cope with the deep emotions created by the experience of exile.
The message: Mourn and weep!
A second Old Testament response to exile occurs in Psalm 137. This psalm is a song about two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the defeated city; Babylon is the city to which the Israelites had been exiled. We hear their voices from where they now live in exile:
“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs:
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither.” (Vv. 1-5)
Not only had the Israelites been taken into exile, they had been ordered by their captors to entertain them with songs that they had sung at home, before they were taken into exile. To this, the Israelites said "No way. We are putting our musical instruments up in the willows and we are not going to forget Jerusalem."
There is a clear message for us: One can resist the forces that have put us in exile. We may not get out of exile. But that doesn’t mean we give in. And we must remember what is like to be “at home.”
The message: Resist and remember!
The third Old Testament response comes from the book of Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah himself was not taken into exile by the Babylonians. Rather, he was forcibly moved to Egypt by some of his fellow Israelites. Before being taken to Egypt, he wrote a letter to those in the Babylonian exile, telling them how to survive.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they 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.” (Jer 29:5-7)
Jeremiah knew that some of those who had been taken into exile expected to return soon. And he knew that others were despondent, living away from their home. We don’t often think of prophets as offering “pastoral” advice, but that’s exactly what Jeremiah did. He told those in exile: try to live productive lives, build houses, have families, and pray for the city where you live since your welfare depends on its welfare. Those may have been surprising, even shocking words for those who received his letter, but they were wise words.
There is a clear message for us: when we are in exile, we should build and pray, especially for the welfare of where we have been put so that we can live and flourish.
The message: Build and pray!
Most of us live in some sort of exile at one or another point in our lives. There is no one way to respond when we are in exile. But our religious tradition offers us at least three cogent and compelling ways to respond:
Mourn and weep!
Resist and remember!
Build and pray!
Dr. David L. Petersen is a Plymouth member, Old Testament scholar, and an editor of the Common English Bible,