The Babylonian Exile and the Church

The Babylonian Exile and the Church September 28, 2018

Baruch ben Neriah, the friend and secretary of the prophet Jeremiah, found his prophetic mission to be completely intertwined with that of Jeremiah. When Jeremiah was barred from the Temple, Baruch was sent to the Temple to read the Lord’s condemnation of Israel’s sins:

 Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote upon a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the LORD which he had spoken to him. And Jeremiah ordered Baruch, saying, “I am debarred from going to the house of the LORD; so you are to go, and on a fast day in the hearing of all the people in the LORD’s house you shall read the words of the LORD from the scroll which you have written at my dictation. You shall read them also in the hearing of all the men of Judah who come out of their cities. It may be that their supplication will come before the LORD, and that every one will turn from his evil way, for great is the anger and wrath that the LORD has pronounced against this people.” And Baruch the son of Neriah did all that Jeremiah the prophet ordered him about reading from the scroll the words of the LORD in the LORD’s house  (Jer. 36:4-8 RSV).

He saw, with Jeremiah, the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Likewise, as he would follow wherever Jeremiah would go; when Jeremiah fled to Egypt, Baruch went with him. Some suggest Baruch died in Egypt, while others believe he eventually made his way to Babylon after Egypt was likewise conquered by Nebuchadnezzar.

In the spirit of his life experiences, the words of the book of Baruch indicate not only the cause of the fall of Israel, but also how the people of Israel would find themselves restored:

Why is it, O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies, that you are growing old in a foreign country, that you are defiled with the dead, that you are counted among those in Hades? You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom. If you had walked in the way of God, you would be dwelling in peace for ever (Baruch 3:10-13 RSV).

Israel, representing the heavenly kingdom of God, is contrasted with Babylon, the realm of the dead.

In the kingdom of God there is the purity of the Spirit of Life, while in Babylon, there is only the defilement of death. The fountain of wisdom is not only found in the kingdom of God, but has God as its source; those who drink of it will live with the holiness of God. This is the stream which Jesus offers the Samaritan woman at the well (cf. Jn 4:14), and what we must drink from if we want to find the peace and comfort of God. If we, instead of sipping from this fountain, take off on our own wisdom apart from it, and try to discern for ourselves what we should do as a result of our limited knowledge and desires, we will slowly defile ourselves, finding all kinds of justifications along the way for the evil that we do, just as the people of historical Israel did before the Babylonian exile. Then, we shall not have the life-giving Spirit in us; rather, we shall find ourselves empty and confused, indeed, suffering from our own delusions, as we find ourselves taken outside of the kingdom of God, walking as one of the many damned in our own self-made hell. While Nebuchadnezzar was the historical instrument for Israel’s exile, Israel had already lost its place with God because of their rejection of the way of charity:

Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation  (Jer. 22:3-5 RSV).

The desolation of Israel was only an extension of the desolation which had already occurred in the hearts of the people of Israel. They had been called by Wisdom to a higher path, to the path which combined orthodoxy with orthopraxy, truth with charity. But their leaders turned them away from this path. Calls of holiness, which were one with calls with charity, were ignore. As they neglected charity, so their ties with the truth were also lost, for truth and goodness are one. It should not be surprising, therefore, that they would be numbered among the dead, once they had turned against charity. For without charity, they, like us, became nothing. They lost it all. The Spirit of Life is found where charity is found; death and destruction are found when charity is denied.

But even when numbered among the dead, defiled with uncharity, the people of Israel had hope. Despite turning their backs on God, God did not turn himself away from them. He called prophets to chastise them, to tell them the restitution they needed to make to end their defilement, and with that, to end their exile. Just as the prophets predicated the return of the people of Israel from the exile once they returned to God, so those who find themselves defiled by sin can return to grace through the entrance of Jesus Christ in their lives. He descended down into the depths of Hades, reaching out to all those who have been exiled from the kingdom of heaven because of their sins, so that he can lead them out of their spiritual prison and to the holiness and life which God intended them to have (cf. 1Ptr. 3:18-20).

The prophet Jeremiah, and Baruch with him, witnessed the death and destruction which is wrought when charity is lost. They saw the collapse of Israel, of the holy people of God, as they took their holiness and way of life for granted. They saw that even those of the chosen elect of God, Israel, could turn away from the fount holiness, from the life-giving Spirit, and experience dire consequences for their actions. And yet, despite it all, the people of Israel remained even in exile. There was no complete destruction of the people of God, though they suffered for their sins and became numbered among the sinners of the world, experiencing hell on earth as a result of their own actions. They could be rescued. Sin and death do not have to have the last word.

While the allegorical relationship between Babylon and hell represents an important lesson, we can and should learn from the Babylonian exile, there is also a typological pattern which can be seen established by the Babylonian exile. That is, we see those who are called to holiness and have been chosen by God to be a special representation of his grace to the world, such as it is clear the historical of Israel was and the Jewish people continue to be in their own unique way, can still turn away from God, fall into great sin and error, thanks especially to their leaders, and find themselves experiencing the wrath of God turned against them as they suffer the consequences of their sin (individually and communally). The wrath of God in this instance is a reflection of God’s intention for Israel being by ignored its leaders. God intended Israel to follow one particular path, but its leaders, failing to heed the wisdom of God, turned away from God’s intention and led them to a path which ran contrary to God’s desires. The difference between God’s intention and the historical reality made the foundation for God’s wrath. Such wrath should not be seen as an irrational passion or a disregard or change of God’s mind for his intention: Israel remained chosen, but because they are chosen, when they fail to live up to God’s expectations, they will suffer even more the consequences of their misdirection.  God’s anger serves as a vehicle for his purificatory will for Israel, a will which is founded upon his love for Israel and a desire to see it well-watered from the spiritual wisdom which he gave to it. Israel suffered for its shame, and yet, even in its exile, the people were still chosen by God, and when they reembraced God’s will for them and allowed the consequences of their sin to be fulfilled in history, Once they saw the consequences of their actions, changed their ways, and worked to restore the justice they had ignored after turning away from the path of wisdom, God brought the people of Israel out of Babylon, returning them to the land of Israel so they could serve as his example among the nations.  Likewise, we Christians must learn that when we see the leaders in our church turn their backs on charity, on goodness, on the holiness of God, we might ourselves suffering from a kind of exile; the institution will suffer, and the people of the church will find themselves viewed with suspicion, numbered among the criminals because of what was allowed to happen in the church. The church will go on; the gates of hell will not succeed, but the church will need to be purified. God will allow the nations of the world to punish the church, to correct it and redirect it, so that the institution with its leaders and the people inside will find themselves once again walking the way of God, uniting praxis with teaching, so that the church once again can be what it was meant to be, “a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.”[1] The example of the Babylonian exile, therefore, serves as a fit reminder to Christians: being God’s chosen sacrament to the world comes with obligations, which when they are not met, will lead to consequences which we do not like; on the other hand, it also shows that even in the midst of God’s wrath, when the nations of the world rightfully decry us in the way we have turned away from the path God established for us, we remain, and as we remain, we remain with hope that we can overcome our failings and find ourselves restored like the people of Israel after the Babylonian exile.

[IMG=Baruch by Pomponio Amalteo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

[1] Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium. Vatican translation. ¶1.


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