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Exile in the Bible: An Ethic of Loyalty and Subversion

Exile in the Bible: An Ethic of Loyalty and Subversion

Responding to Injustice Like Jesus Does

Have you ever been targeted by a bully? Bullies on the playground or workplace (or wherever) diminish and abuse others. Maybe you have experienced a powerful bully—the coercive force of unjust governments or social systems that use you for their own gain.

We want to live in a world free of bullies and the trauma they inflict, but bullies are still here. Playground bullies and oppressive power structures stay ready to objectify, blame, and harm others to get ahead. So how do we respond to bullies of all kinds?

Our protective instincts usually spark two responses.

  1. Give up and compromise. We withdraw or conform to whatever the bullies want in order to make life as smooth as possible.

  2. Blow up and counterattack. We strike back and make the bullies pay for all the suffering they have caused.

Many have experienced those natural “fight or flight” reactions. But what about a response rooted in love and wisdom—a different option entirely?

Jesus of Nazareth, who lived under brutal Roman oppression during the first century C.E., taught neither violent resistance nor timid conformity. Instead, he embraced a way of life similar to his ancestors who experienced exile under the oppression of other power-hungry empires.

The New Testament authors sometimes associate Jesus’ loving resistance and subversive loyalty with previous Israelites like Daniel and his friends, who learned to stay true to Yahweh while suffering injustice in exile. Their loyal love for Yahweh stood in stark contrast to the Babylonian empire, and Jesus’ loyal love for humanity subverts human power structures too. This subversive loyalty is something we can think of as “the way of exile.”

Pain in Exile

The opening creation account in Genesis 1-3 shows how God wants humans to live in a Heaven-and-Earth space—a good and beautiful place where humanity’s way of life and God’s way of life overlap. This is a type of home where everyone belongs—where strangers become friends and friends become family, and there is peace between everyone.

But that’s not where we live right now. We live in the painful reality of a world that is far from God’s ideal. Living outside of that good home, we tend to fear our enemies and be suspicious of strangers. Our families divide and break, along with our hearts. There is so much pain, and it can remind us of the pain of the people in the Bible who experience exile.

Are we in a sort of exile right now? Is there hope of healing? And for exiled people in the Hebrew Bible, such as Jeremiah and Daniel, what does it mean to live in exile?

The Way of Exile Rebuilds with Love

In 587 B.C.E., the nation of Israel gets attacked by Babylon, a powerful bully in the ancient Near East. Thousands of Israelites are slaughtered, and survivors are driven from their homes, forced to serve the Babylonian empire in a strange land. Life in Babylonian captivity is not fun.

Imagine having to live with and serve the people who killed most of your family and destroyed your hometown. Imagine how natural it would be for the Israelites to hate their new surroundings and the people actively harming them. It’s a logical response, and many would instinctively hope for the opportunity to take control of Babylon rather than be controlled by it. But God doesn’t lead the people toward a takeover. He leads them toward love for their enemy and neighbor.

God sends the prophet Jeremiah who instructs Israel to do the unthinkable. He tells them to pray for Babylon’s peace and to seek the welfare of the city. He says they should unpack and settle in, plant gardens, build houses, get married, and have kids. Jeremiah assures them of a brilliant future ahead—one that will not be won with war. He promises them that one day, God will return them to their homeland (see Jer. 29:4-11).

This bright future would come neither through violent overthrow nor through timid conformity—this change would start with the peoples’ choice to trust Yahweh by loving their neighbors and blessing the community they have found themselves in. This choice requires loyal love for God and his own way of life.

The Way of Exile Resists without Violence

Babylon captures a few of Israel’s royal elite—Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The Babylonian authorities assign Daniel and his friends to study and labor in the courts of the king, and they spend years learning about Babylon’s gods and working for the very empire that tore them from their home. They could have chosen to abandon their trust in God and become bitter, but they instead choose to listen to Jeremiah’s words and to serve the king of Babylon—all without sacrificing their loyalty to God.

They set themselves apart from the mainstream ways of life by trusting God more than the pleasures that come with conforming to Babylon’s empire (e.g., Dan. 1:8-9, 5:17). When the king demands that Daniel and his companions bow to Babylonian gods, they humbly and firmly refuse. And later, when prayer to Yahweh is declared a crime punishable by death, Daniel still refuses to hide or stop offering his daily prayers (see Dan. 6:4-11).

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah refuse to compromise their loyalty to God while in exile to Babylon... and they never stop blessing the corrupt king (Dan. 3:12-18, 6:21-22). Their non-violent protests rely on the power of God’s love instead of the tempting-but-false power of coercion or defensive retreat.

As the story unfolds, we see how their willingness to trust God brings divine power to subvert the control of the empire (Dan. 3:28-30, 6:25-27). For Daniel and his friends, living in exile means enduring real pain while striving to stay true to Yahweh and his wisdom.

Jesus Is the Way

When we get to the story of Jesus, Rome is the new bully in town. Many Israelites have already rebelled against the Roman empire (e.g., the Maccabean revolt, 167-160 B.C.E.), and many still hope for a new rebellion to begin. Others have given in and conformed to mainstream Roman culture, doing whatever it takes to appease those in power. But Jesus embraces the same subversive loyalty that Jeremiah talked about and that Daniel and his friends practiced while living in exile in Babylon.

Jesus invites a tax collector named Matthew (who is a willing participant in Rome’s economic oppression) and a zealot named Simon (who is a violent opposer of Rome’s governance) to leave their old life and follow his new way of life (see Luke 5:27, 6:15). Jesus has to constantly remind his followers to resist violence, to love the people they can’t stand, and to continue caring for and blessing both the oppressors and the afflicted in their society (see Luke 6:27-36; Matt. 5:38-47). Jesus shows them how loyal love for God and others can undermine oppressive cultures without the use of coercion or hostility.

Jesus did “overthrow” the tables of the money changers because they were excluding non-Israelite people who had come to Jerusalem’s temple to worship Yahweh, but he did not lay a hand on anyone unless he was healing them (Matt. 21:12-14). He remained gentle, humble, and compassionate, and he was not afraid to move against mainstream culture with truth. He boldly critiqued Israel’s corrupt leadership, which eventually led to his arrest and murder. And he also washed his betrayer’s feet and allowed the Roman guard to pierce his own.

No returned violence or coercion. No hiding or cowering into conformity. Instead, Jesus humbly gives his life in love to overturn the corrupt powers that drive Heaven and Earth apart.

Modern people are not the exiles in the Bible, but we experience similar pains. When we feel bullied by unjust people and oppressive systems in our world, we can react with words or actions we might instinctively think will help. We may want to clench our fists and hit back, or compromise and hide out to stay safe. But the way of exile in the Bible shows us a new option—a loving response that aligns with God’s work restoring all creation. He’s reuniting his home to ours, so that his will can be done on Earth as it is in Heaven, and partnering with him right now in our world is the way of exile that reflects the advice of Jeremiah, the attitude of Daniel, and ultimately the love of Jesus.

By following Jesus, we can learn to stand up for the oppressed without becoming oppressors ourselves. We can forgive, bless, and pray for those who cause harm. We can seek the welfare of the countries, cities, and towns we find ourselves in. Because loving resistance, stable conviction, and subversive loyalty are the way of exile, the way of Jesus.

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