O God Where Art Thou?
First Presbyterian Church
March 10, 2014
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we 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?
There are two major events in the Hebrew scriptures that stand as magnetic poles around which the rest of the Hebrew scriptures or the Old Testament are attracted. These are exodus and exile. Exodus may less of an historical event, certainly idealized history if it could be called history. This is the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt and arrival at entrance to the so-called “promised land.” This story is the focus of the first five books of the Bible. These five books called the Torah are the centerpiece of Jewish worship still today.
The other event can be established historically. That is the exile or the Babylonian captivity. The dates for that range from the first deportation of prisoners from Judah to Babylon in 597 BCE to the actual return of the captives to Judah between 520 and 515. This event shapes the story of the ancient Israelites in significant ways that I am going to speak about today.
Jerusalem the city in the larger nation of Judah was always in the zone. In the middle of the fertile crescent along the Mediterranean Sea, Judah is in the midst of a trade route connecting Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Whoever lived there would be a vassal of whatever superpower was in control at the time, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome in ancient times.
The notion that somehow Judah or Israel could be independent is politically impractical. Even though the prophets and the storytellers wanted to blame the Babylonian captivity on the sins of Israel, that God was punishing them through the victory of their enemies over them, it is more theological fantasy than political reality. They could have been on their knees day and night and done everything in the Torah to the letter and then some and still have been conquered by whatever superpower needed the land.
But there was a period of independence during the time of David and Solomon. After Solomon’s death in the 10th century, the kingdom divided into north and south, Israel and Judah respectively. Then in 722 the northern kingdom was dominated by the Assyrians. Judah hung there for another 150 years. Eventually, it too, fell.
This was a brutal event. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. The king saw his family killed before his eyes. He was then blinded and taken away in chains. All of elites, the educated and the leaders were taken in captivity. The rest remained, homeless, enslaved, chattel.
One would think that this would be the end of them. These conquered people, like so many others, would be assimilated into the conquering culture, taking on their captors’ religion, culture, and values. Perhaps that would have been the case, had it not been for the Persians who in turn conquered the Babylonians in 538 and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.
As it turned out, the Exile proved to be a pivotal turning point in Jewish history and in Western history. They wrote scripture, including a major rewrite of the Torah and then made the Torah a centerpiece of Jewish life and worship. Upon return, they rebuilt the temple, established new customs and laws, and developed a new understanding of God.
The tragedy and loss of exile also became a crucible for creativity.
Because these stories have become sacred scripture, this event has also become a metaphor, perhaps even an archetype. We can think of our own loss, grief, or up-rootedness as experiencing exile. You can feel the weight of grief in the haunting words of Psalm 137,
there we sat down and there we weptwhen we remembered Zion.On the willows therewe hung up our harps.
There is no song within to sing. If you have experienced that degree of loss, you know what that means. If you haven’t, I hope you never do. Just because exile can lead to creativity that doesn’t mean the exile was OK. It wasn’t and it isn’t. It just means that it didn’t kill you.
The exile did not kill Jewish identity. The fact that we are talking about this story today shows that the story of this people not only did not die, but in fact, it shaped Western culture. God moved from a location-bound tribal deity to the creator of the universe. While that process had begun before the exile, it was the experience of exile and return that monotheism emerged and ultimately became the dominant concept of God for Jews, and later Christians and Muslims to this day.
This creativity of re-imagining God took place in different ways by different people. The prophet Ezekiel writing in this time put God on wheels. God was seen as inhabiting the temple in Jerusalem. This temple built by Solomon was believed to be God’s permanent house and it would stand forever. So what happens to God when his house is destroyed? The obvious conclusion is that God died with it. The Babylonian god was stronger. But Ezekiel disagreed and he had a vision, we know the song, “Ezekiel saw a wheel.” Ezekiel put the 'mobile' in mobile home. He put wheels on that trailer. The wheel moved the presence of God from Jerusalem and the destroyed temple to Babylon to be with the exiled people. God wasn’t tied to the building but was present with the people in their exile.
Another development is one that I find seriously problematic. It is survival theology. Sometimes survival theology is rough and coarse. It has left a problematic legacy. I mentioned earlier that it wouldn’t have mattered if they had been praying all day and been perfect saints. Eventually, if you live in a war zone, you will get bombed. Judah was going to be conquered by someone at some point. But for theological survival they needed a reason. Why did the enemy destroy God’s people and God’s house?
The notion that supernatural agents do not interfere in life was probably not available to them. If supernatural agents, god or gods, control events then you have to explain them in some way.
One obvious answer would have been that the gods of the enemies were stronger. If that was the case, then it would be painful but reasonable to accept this truth and take this new conquering god as your own god. What other choice is there?
Plan B was to say that no, our god is tougher than their god but our god allowed it to happen. Why? Our god was punishing us for our sins. After a period of repentance god would restore us. That is why we have all of that literature in the Bible in which God comforts the people and says they have paid double for their sins. They didn't invent this notion on the spot. This idea of God who punishes and restores was available, it just became central in explaining the experience of exile.
This legacy is hugely problematic. We see it today in attempts to blame suffering and tragedy on supposed sins. If you turn on the television or radio right this moment, you will hear some preacher somewhere ranting that God is punishing America for allowing sin of some kind to flourish unabated.
So in response to the angst of exile we have a movable god who is present with us and we have a god who is tougher than their god or gods but is using our enemies to punish us and will restore us.
But there is more. How do you keep your identity as a people of God and how do you keep your relationship with this God in a strange land when there is no infrastructure and no sacred place? They found a couple of ways. They didn’t invent these out of whole cloth, but drew them from their tradition and made them central. They are:
1) You remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. You pray and you rest on the seventh day.
2) And you practice circumcision. It is a patriarchal religion. It is a guy thing although hard to imagine that a guy would have invented that one. They must have really felt bad for their sins.
Observing Sabbath and practicing the ritual of circumcision keeps you set apart from the surrounding culture and allows you to keep your identity and your faith in a strange land. Here is the ingenious part. You need to show that this Sabbath-keeping is woven into the cosmos. You do something bold. You rewrite your creation story, your story of origins.
The priests come alive during the exile. The kings are not going to be any help. There is no government, no politcal city to defend. Now it is time for identity and meaning-making. Here is where the priests step into the light.
The priests take Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, and they rewrite it in one chapter. The Babylonian myth, Enuma Elish, is a violent creation myth. Marduk slays Tiamat the sea monster and from her carcass creates the dome above and the earth below. From her blood come the gods who rule the cosmos. They complain that the work is too heavy so they create human beings to be their slaves. It was a mythology that kept the social order intact and the people controlled.
When the Jewish priests rewrite this story, they sweep away all of the gods. Shamash the sun god becomes the shemesh, a common noun. God puts the sun in the sky. Tiamat the sea monster becomes tehom or the deep or the watery chaos. They demythologize all of the extraneous gods and have one God create heaven and earth and all its creatures. All are pronounced good. God creates human beings and pronounces them good in God’s image, not as slaves. Then God rests on the seventh day. They put that story at the beginning of the Torah and then go through and edit and rewrite the whole Torah from the point of view of monotheism. It was ingenious.
Through millennia Genesis 1 has been unquestioned as to how Earth came to be. It is only now in the time of modern science within the last few centuries that this story has become inadequate to explain the universe and the place of humans in it.
My point is that it is amazing that it has lasted that long and has been so influential. It came out of an experience of exile and grief. It was creativity that arose from need. The experience of homelessness, of godlessness, drove them to question everything, to return to their tradition and to draw from it and to draw from what was around them and to create a new understanding of what it means to be human. They deserve a standing ovation.
They didn’t even think they were being creative. They may have thought that these truths had been revealed to them. That is the experience of artists, musicians, storytellers, and discoverers. On my radio program I spoke with James Cone who wrote The Cross and the Lynching Tree. I asked him how he came to write his book and he said, “The book wrote me!”
I heard a painter say that she really didn’t paint the scene but she uncovered what was already there. A musician said that the lyrics and tune came to him from the outside. That is what it feels like. One can imagine that creative bursts might be attributed to a supernatural agent outside of us. But it likely comes from our unconscious, that aspect of ourselves of which we are not consciously aware taking shape and becoming conscious in the creative act itself.
Exile may be a metaphor to help us in our time. The historic exile of the ancient Israelites in Babylon was about a particular conquered people. The story of it and the response to it became more significant than the event itself. The old ways of understanding themselves and their lives were not adequate to maintain their self-understanding in a new situation. They needed to reinvent themselves and to discover their place in the universe as they understood it. It was this crucible of loss that gave rise to the creation of meaning.
This is what John Shelby Spong is speaking about when he speaks of believers in exile. We no longer live in the universe of Genesis 1 or of the Bible or of the creeds. The god that has held us and kept us for two millennia and more is no longer credible in a literal sense at least. The god of John Calvin's time and the understanding of the universe and of the purpose of humankind in the time of Calvin no longer work.
Modern science has rendered us homeless, in exile. I realize that not everyone necessarily feels this. Many do. For those us who are believers in exile, this feeling is one of being out of place, in which the song of faith no longer can be sung. The harps have been hung on the willow tree. The song of God who created the world and who saves us from sin through Jesus on the cross and who will come again to bring us to a new creation is a song hard to sing in this foreign land.
But I also think that this is a time of creativity. This is not just about theology or religion. This is about what it means to be a human being in this new universe with all of its challenges. What we do in the next 50 years or so may shape life on earth for millennia to come. There is an urgency. Great creativity is happening as we begin to regard Earth as home and as sacred not just a resource to exploit.
Drawing from pearls of wisdom, science and art, we are needing to tell our story again. What does it mean to share a planet? What is a good life? How can we include all in a just and compassionate world? How can we live in balance with Earth and with one another? What does it mean to be human? Who and where is the sacred, the holy, God?
This creativity is for us whether our experience of exile is a collective big picture exile or our own private exile of grief and loss. For those of us whose lives have been ripped away and who can no longer sing the Lord’s song in this foreign and barren land…for us, too, there is a promise.
From that period of exile came this scripture. It is Isaiah 43:19:
I am about to do a new thing;now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?I will make a way in the wildernessand rivers in the desert.
If there is a sermon I have or a wish that I have to communicate it is that we don’t give in to fear regarding change. Don’t silence too soon new notions, even heretical ones whether from you or from others. Good and healing ideas will find a way to last, those less so will fade. A time of creativity means that ideas are in flux. Even our cherished beliefs about ourselves, what we are to be or do, or about God may need to be revisited as our ancestors revisited them and learned new songs by the rivers of Babylon.