Reasons For Exile

In the previous study we saw how our lives are watched by others. So it matters how we live. This happens whether we want it to or not. So being secretive is not helpful, particularly as Christians, because people will only wonder what we are trying to hide.

Live openly with your neighbours and let them be blessed by the love that exists in your life through Christ.

Let’s look further into this prophetic word from Ezekiel:

In the morning the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, did not the Israelites, that rebellious people, ask you, “What are you doing?”
‘Say to them, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: this prophecy concerns the prince in Jerusalem and all the Israelites who are there.” Say to them, “I am a sign to you.”
‘As I have done, so it will be done to them. They will go into exile as captives.
‘The prince among them will put his things on his shoulder at dusk and leave, and a hole will be dug in the wall for him to go through. He will cover his face so that he cannot see the land. I will spread my net for him, and he will be caught by my snare; I will bring him to Babylonia, the land of the Chaldeans, but he will not see it, and there he will die. I will scatter to the winds all those around him – his staff and all his troops – and I will pursue them with drawn sword.
‘They will know that I am the Lord, when I disperse them among the nations and scatter them through the countries. But I will spare a few of them from the sword, famine and plague, so that in the nations where they go they may acknowledge all their detestable practices. Then they will know that I am the Lord.’
Ezekiel 12:8-16

Here we have confirmed that which I said yesterday, that this display – although intended to provoke his neighbours and draw questions – was to say something about Jerusalem.

This is one of many prophecies in the bible that speak of the Israelites being scattered among all the nations of the world. I remember that I used to think that this scattering happened only after the Roman intervention in 70 AD, but as I learned more of history, I began to see that it began a long time before that. The invasions that occurred during the period of history of Ezekiel’s life certainly took many Israelites away from their homeland. And when things changed and the people were allowed to return home again, not all chose to do so.

Even before that, there were those captured in various wars and battles, taken away to work in slavery. Many of these had families in foreign lands, and many kept and taught their faith. And later, after the Chaldeans became weakened, the Greeks came, and they also took slaves. And then, of course, the Romans.

To me, there are two main purposes to the scattering. The prophecies about it make it clear: “Then they will know that I am the Lord.” And I think this speaks of both purposes, although most often only one purpose is interpreted from these words. So I will try to explain.

The most common interpretation is the face-value interpretation, and is pretty obvious. That, by the process of exile and denial from the homeland, the chosen people of God will come to their senses and realise that they have lost all because of their rebellion and idolatry. This was prophesied from the time of the Exodus, when Moses gave the warnings of what would happen if the Israelites did not remain true to the covenant. And so it was seen also as the Lord being true to his own words, through his prophet.

As is often the case, the result is not 100% effective – and even this was predicted in prophecy. Not all who were exiled appreciated all the reasons for this. And there is a known historical and cultural reason why this is the case.

In ancient times, it was thought that each nation, each people, and sometimes each city, had their own god. The god was to protect that region and the people in it. This is the reason why the Romans built the Pantheon. These days, the purpose of the building has been converted to that of a Roman Catholic basilica. But the original purpose was a physical demonstration to show how the god of the Romans is stronger and superior to the gods of the peoples they had conquered.

This had been demonstrated through victory in battle and conquest, and so it must be true. That is how they thought. So the Pantheon is a large round domed building and originally, in the centre, was a plinth on which stood a statue of the Roman god, Mars. And close to this was another sculpture which was common in Rome (and you may have seen a similar sculpture in many museums that display Roman artefacts). This was of a she-wolf with twin baby boys feeding on her teats. These boys were the bastard sons of Mars: Romulus and Remus. When older, they founded a city in Italy, but true to the nature of their father, they were belligerent with each other. Romulus killed Remus and took sole control over the new city, naming it after himself: Rome.

With this ancient lore came the reasoning that whoever ruled in Rome was somehow related to divinity and so deserved worship as a god. So the presence of the she-wolf statue was every bit as important as the presence of the statue of Mars, because to the Romans this represented gods among men, of which the emperor was one such.

Around the circular edge of this domed building are many alcoves. Each has a small plinth set at a lower level to that of Mars. And on these were placed the idols and gods of all the nations, regions and cities that Rome had conquered and brought under their authority.

On the one hand, their rule is correctly recorded in history as being enforced through sheer brutality and butchery. But on the other hand, when you truly understand what the Pantheon represents, then you also understand that any rebellion in the empire is a rebellion against the order of things both physical and spiritual as understood by the Romans. A rebellion was a blasphemy against the god-emperor and, as he represented the sons of Mars, this was also a blasphemy against their god, Mars.

Of course, despite being controlled and then defeated by the Romans, there is the god of one nation that was missing from the Pantheon. And this was the god of the Israelites. There was no idol in the temple in Jerusalem for the Romans to take away and place in the Pantheon. With the Israelites we have something completely different. This was even a frustration to the Romans, because they were never able to physically demonstrate how the god of the Israelites was inferior to Mars and his twin sons, and so inferior to any true Roman.

And how interesting and meaningful that this very building is now dedicated to the worship of the one true god that they could not parade around the streets of Rome before placing in a subservient position below Mars. The god of the Israelites and of we Christians is now the focus of this place.

And for those who want the complete teaching about this, the name ‘Pantheon’ means ‘all gods.’ What is slightly strange is that this is a Greek word and not Latin. But these 2 cultures shared the same religion, although with different names for the gods, and Romans always respected the fact that the sciences and the arts were greatly developed by the Greeks. To know Greek and to read Greek literature and sciences – this was respected and encouraged in Rome.

This type of cultural thinking about gods did not begin nor end with the Romans, it is very ancient indeed. The Israelites were not immune to this kind of thinking and mentality – and that was one of the big problems. Although the Israelites are god’s chosen people, he is not the god only of the Israelites. But often, when the Israelites spoke about ‘our god’, they meant in this tribal and limited way that was demonstrated by such things as the Pantheon. And there were negative consequences to that way of thinking.

One such negative consequence was to believe what was the norm for those ancient times: that if your nation was defeated, then the god of your nation was inferior to that of the conquering nation. So, while not totally abandoning the god of your ancestors, it would seem proper to bow the head and bend the knees to the ‘superior’ god of the foreigners. This begins the process of ‘going native’, and this process also had the side-benefit of bringing more acceptance within the foreign culture, and the availability, even if still a slave, of employment in a better capacity, with the resulting improvements in life and pay for yourself and your family.

You need to understand that this was not only a temptation, but many would accept this as being the right thing to do. In addition to that, many of those who acted in this way would not accept the accusation that they had abandoned the god of their forefathers and ancestors. Only that they had accepted the ‘true order’ of things.

Of course, the true order is that there is only one God. Some call him God of gods, but in truth there are no other gods at all. There is only and there has only even been just one God. We do not need an idol to him, because we have each other – created in his image. And so as we honour and love each other, we honour our one God.

There is no idol in the temple, synagogue or church because God is spirit, and is omnipresent. He can’t be carried on a plinth to the Pantheon, because he is already in the Pantheon and everywhere else.

I have mentioned before about how the prophetic words spoken through Ezekiel would divide his people. There would be those hardened, because they had been following the way of the world and set off down the road of ‘going native’ – and these people and their descendants were among those most strongly opposed to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple in later years.

But there were also those, as with the scriptures we read before, whose hearts were changed from stone to flesh, who recognised the true order of things and how it is completely different to the way that things are understood in the world. These are the ones who understood that there is only one God, and that all the gods of the nations are not gods at all.

These are the ones who come into a realisation that the exile is a punishment from God to teach them that the Lord is the real and one and only God. That they have no right to the nation of Israel because of heredity, but only have a right through personal dedication to and identity with the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

OK, so that is the ‘surface’ meaning and purpose of exile. But there is another.

This truth that the Israelites were to understand for themselves – this is a truth not only for them. They may be God’s chosen people, but that did not mean that salvation was only for them. There is the specific covenant that exists specifically for the Israelites, but there is an older covenant that was not supplanted and that exists for all humanity. This is the covenant of Noah. And Jews do not say that, because you are not a Jew, therefore you are damned. Theirs is a special covenant, but they are taught that the Lord is the god of the whole world and wants all men and women everywhere to be his.

But this teaching is not available to everyone everywhere. What can be done about this?

Of course, I do not have much direct scriptural authority for this, but it does exist. There are the passages – already referred to – in Genesis, and other interesting scriptures in the books of Moses. And then other prophets also, for instance Jonah, who seems to have been a prophet to the heathen and not to the Jews. Then the many stories of god speaking prophetically to rulers and leaders of other lands – the ‘writing on the wall’ for instance is just one of many.

But God wants to be acknowledged, praised and thanked by all – not only the Israelites. And this scattering of the Israelites into the world was but one opportunity of spreading this message into other nations.

In this sense, we can bring thanks to the Lord for this mercy of exile and diaspora. Today, of course, we have better opportunities for spreading the knowledge of our Lord. Let us all ask for wisdom to use this wisely and with humility.

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