Home Sweet Home
Listen to “Home Sweet Home” By Fred Smith
Much of the controversy around immigration lately is how many of the decisions are swayed by whether or not the migrant is bringing talent that will benefit the country or is simply a drain on already stretched resources. This is not a new issue.
Thousands of years ago, the leader of Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar, carried off 10,000 of the defeated Hebrews into exile. He did not take everyone – only the military commanders, craftsmen, artists and educated. He carefully selected the best of the society and left the poorest to fend for themselves. Those taken were not going as slaves but were relocated there to serve in government, business, and culture. Nebuchadnezzar was a great builder and appreciated talent. He had more than enough slaves, but he needed what Israel had in abundance – talent.
He skimmed the best and left the rest.
Today, we hear that evangelicals may well be in a time of exile. We no longer have a kingdom, or we have been absorbed into a culture that is foreign to us. It is tempting to think of that as a time out or a period when we are simply waiting for the next turn of history. In so many ways, ours could be as productive as it was for Israel. In fact, it may well have been a period of time that shaped them for not only survival but genuine growth.
They are not driven like cattle or forced in the harsh ways typically reserved for the conquered. Instead, they are carried by God into exile. It is not brutal punishment but intentional discipline and the only remaining solution for their corruption after years of warning. They are exiled but not extinguished.
Upon returning many years later they are not the same people who left. An entire generation has died but, more than that, the exile altered them to the point of even renaming them. Prior to the exile they were Hebrews or Israelites, but the term Judaism and Jew was first used to describe them by the Babylonians. They were the people from Judah, and they have been that ever since.
But it changed their identity and their religion in other ways.
Without a Temple there was no place for sacrifices and without sacrifice there was no place for the priesthood as that was their main function. Without the priesthood the preeminent place was given to the sages and scribes. It is in exile that the scholars and moral authorities are established as leaders. It is in exile that the sharp distinctions between the privilege of the priestly class and the balance of the people begins to break down.
What becomes most important is the study and teaching of the Torah. Observance of Scripture replaces the rituals of sacrifice and it is during the exile that Ezra collects the first canon of Hebrew Scripture and Jews become people of the book.
As a minority without a central place of worship they begin to gather in congregations that are called synagogues for the first time. They come together in homes, beside rivers, in the country and create places of reading, prayer and study. Worship is detached from Temple ritual and decentralized. These home groups become the central structure of Judaism.
Simplicity replaces the ornate nature of the Temple. What becomes important is Torah and observance – not ceremonies, maintaining the priesthood, and a building.
Detached from the maintenance and focus on a fixed place of worship in Jerusalem, it became easy to carry Judaism to other places. The first spread of Judaism actually occurs when traders and craftsmen begin to explore the much larger world during the exile. Israel became not only a nation of international traders but Judaism became portable.
No More Nostalgia
Yes, there were many who were only nostalgic and while they settled reluctantly into Babylonia, they never took advantage of the changes. They did not listen to Jeremiah’s counsel to make the most of their situation but remained homesick.
Susan Matt is a historian studying nostalgia and she writes that, “In society at large, nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.” In fact, nostalgia was such a problem during the Civil War that doctors diagnosed 5,000 clinical cases in Union soldiers and determined that 74 men died from the affliction. Military officials prohibited Army bands from playing “Home, Sweet Home,” while ministers and officers avoided references in sermons and speeches that might touch off a new outbreak.
Perhaps we need to do the same. Stop talking about exile. Stop talking about and longing for what used to be. Stop worrying about what it means to be evangelical. Instead, take this opportunity to reinvent ourselves over time as a people with a new name, new institutions, new priorities, and a new future.
Art by Thomas Hart Benton
You can purchase my book “Where The Light Divides” here.