By Josh Butler

What is exile? It’s a prominent theme in Scripture, but one that can feel ambiguous today. Does it have any relevance to twenty-first century life in Tempe, Arizona?

We’ve just started a series called Exiles: Faithful Presence in our Cultural Moment, where we’re exploring the book of Daniel: how it speaks to idolatries and ideologies we still wrestle with today, and what it means to live faithfully to Christ in our time and place.

In this first blog post, I want to zoom out from the book of Daniel, to frame exile as a theme in the Bible as a whole, hopefully giving us some firmer hooks on what exile actually is.

Banished from Eden

Exile shows up at the beginning of the biblical story. When Adam and Eve rebel against God, they are banished from Eden. Tasting the forbidden fruit, they are driven from the garden (into exile), where they receive the punishment God had warned them of: “when you eat from (the forbidden tree) you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17 NIV). They don’t die immediately, but exile is a type of death: a distance from the life we were made for in the presence of God, and a trajectory towards the ultimate distance in the grave.

There is a logic to the punishment. Like Adam and Eve, the root of our problem is the desire to be like God rather than with God, choosing independence and autonomy over worship and relationship (Gen. 3:5). And the reality is, to run from the light is to find oneself in darkness. To flee the campfire is to enter the cold. To liberate ourselves from the love and life we were made for in our Creator is to set out on a path that leads to destruction and death.

Adam’s story is our story. Our hearts, too, have broken trust with God, sailing downstream on a river called exile, that ultimately crashes over a waterfall onto the rocky shores of death below.

Yet we were made for home. Exile speaks to our distance from the life we were made for in the presence of God. As Augustine famously put it, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”[1] The gospel is the story of a God who comes to find us in the distant land and bring us home.

Israel’s Story

Adam is, in many ways, a prologue to Israel’s story. Like Adam, Israel is brought into a lush garden—the Promised Land—where they are to dwell with God and feast on the abundance of the land. Yet like, the two trees, that of Life and that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they are faced with two options: the Law sets before them one path of communion that leads to blessing, abundance, and wholeness (the Way of Life); and another of disobedience, where they try to play God and redefine the knowledge of good and evil for themselves (the Way of Death) (Deut. 28). Back in the Garden, the two trees are a foreshadowing of the Law.

As in Eden, God’s people are encouraged to “choose life,” but again and again they choose the road that leads to distance, destruction, and death. Much of the Old Testament is the story of God’s people repeatedly rebelling against him, buying into the seductive lies of the enemy, choosing to redefine good and evil on their own terms, tasting the “forbidden fruit” of rebellious ways—and it ultimately leads to exile.

God patiently pursues his people for generations, amidst their idolatry and injustice, but eventually his patience comes to an end. God’s protective presence leaves the land, and Babylon invades: demolishing the Temple, ravaging the land, and carrying the people into captivity. Like a new Adam and Eve walking away from Eden, Israel is evicted and sent packing from the Promised Land eastward into Babylon.

This is where we find Daniel. And Daniel’s not alone. Much of the last third of the Old Testament (particularly the Prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and the other minor prophets) is written from the perspective of a people in exile: surviving in a foreign land, amongst a people hostile to the ways of God.

Here, the question arises: where is God in exile?

The God of Exile

From one angle, it appears that God has left the building: the departure of his protective presence is what allowed exile to take place. Yet, from another angle, God is active in exile. God calls Babylon his “sword,” her king “my servant,” her armies his armies “to bring disaster on the city that bears my Name.”[2] What?! This is crazy. How is God present in the godless, brutal butchers desecrating his holy home?

God declares he is at work in this event: chastising his people, driving them from the land, giving them over to what they’ve chosen, in hopes that the experience of destruction downstream will shake them to their senses and drive them back to the life they were made for—with him.

Like Israel, we have rebelled against God and can find ourselves in a distant land—one that is often hostile, difficult, and oppressive. Even though it can feel at times like God’s left the building, we can be confident that God is sovereign and mightier than even the darkest powers that rage against us, and will ultimately be victorious over them to deliver us as his people back into life with him.

Bringing Us Home

Exile helps us understand the work of Jesus. In Christ’s incarnation, he is sent by the Father and crosses the chasm to find us in our alienation in the distant land. On the cross, Jesus bears our exile, Israel’s exile, Adam’s exile—taking our distance from the presence of the Father upon himself, in his vicarious humanity, in order to bring us home.

When Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is entering the depths of our alienation, all the way into the tomb (Matt. 27:46 ESV; cf Ps. 22:1). When Jesus predicts he will be “rejected” and “handed over to the Gentiles,” he is using Old Testament language for Israel’s exile—as king, he is bearing his people’s punishment.[3] During Jesus’ crucifixion, he is mocked and forsaken and darkness hangs over the land—all Old Testament images for the wrath of God toward those in exile.[4] When Jesus prays that “this cup” of his impending death be taken from him, the cup was a major Old Testament image for “the cup of God’s wrath” in exile.5

Jesus goes all the way into the grave, entering the fullness of our ultimate distance from God—to be united with us there and raise us up with him into fullness of life. Jesus comes for us in exile, and finds us in the distant land, in order to bring us home.

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As we explore this theme of exile in the book of Daniel, and what it means to live faithfully as exiles today, we do so with our hope firmly rooted in Christ the Faithful One, who is sovereign over history and whose presence is with us in our cultural moment today. We can be confident that he is sure to bring us firmly through any distance into the fullness of life with him.

[1] Augustine, of Hippo, 354-430, “Book 1, Chapter 1” in The Confessions of Saint Augustine (White Plains, NY: The Peter Pauper Press, 1947).

[2] Jeremiah 25:9, 29; 43:10; Ezekiel 21; cf. Ezekiel 30:24–25 (NIV). Jesus also alludes to Babylon’s armies as God’s armies in Matthew 22:7.

[3] See Mark 8:31; Luke 18:32 (NASB); cf. 15:1. On “rejected” (apodokimasthenai): see Jeremiah 6:30 (apodedokimasmenon / apedokimasen in LXX); 7:29 (apedokimasen in LXX); 8:9 (apedokimasen in LXX); 14:19 (ἀποδοκιμάζων ἀπεδοκίμασας in LXX—“completely rejected” in NRSV). On “handed over (paradothesetai) to the Gentiles”: see Leviticus 26:33 (διασπερῶ ὑμᾶς εἰς τὰ ἔθνη in LXX—”you I will scatter you among the nations [Gentiles]” in NRSV), 38 (ἀπολεῖσθε ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν in LXX—”You shall perish among the nations [Gentiles]” in NRSV); cf. Psalm 106:41 (παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς εἰς χεῖρας ἐθνῶν in Ps, 105:41 LXX—”he gave them into the hand of the nations [Gentiles]” in NRSV); Ezra 9:7 (ἡμῶν παρεδόθημεν ἡμεῖς καὶ οἱ βασιλεῖς ἡμῶν καὶ οἱ υἱοὶ ἡμῶν ἐν χειρὶ βασιλέων τῶν ἐθνῶν in LXX—”we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands [Gentiles]” in NRSV); Hosea 8:10 (τοῦτο παραδοθήσονται ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν in LXX—“they shall be delivered to the nations (Gentiles),” English translation of LXX). See Jeremy Treat’s discussion in his excellent book, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).

[4] On mocking: Psalm 39:8 (NLT); 79:4 (ESV); 102:8 (NET). On darkness: Exodus 10:21 (NIV); Amos 8:9–10 (NIV); Mark 13:24 (NIV). On forsakenness: Psalm 22:1 (NIV—note that mock is used in v. 7)

[5] Mark 14:36; cf. Mark 10:38–39. On OT context: Psalm 11:6 (NKJV); 75:8; Isaiah 51:17, 22; Ezekiel 23:31–34; Habakkuk 2:16.

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