What Good Can Come From Exile?

Michael Metzger

The Babylonian exile was an indictment for idolatry. Indictments are not good things, but good things came from the Babylonian exile.

Throughout scripture, God’s people are often living in exile (2 Chr.36:17-20). Exile is the result of unfaithfulness to God, serving other gods. The challenge is God’s people rarely recognize they’ve been serving other gods.

Take the Babylonian exile. For 1,000 years, the Judeans had been idol worshippers. God warned them that punishment was on the way. It came in the form of three deportments to Babylon. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God pronounced the Judeans “exiles whom I have sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer.29:20).

This isn’t hate language. It’s love language. God knows idolatry gives us a false sense of wellbeing. Idols are fake gods. Worship a fake god you get fake lives, fake smiles, a fake sense of wellbeing. Love seeks shalom—real wellbeing—even if it requires exile.

To what end? The end of idol worship. A 1,000-year habit is hard to break, however. It requires a paradigm shift—70 years in the case of the Judeans in Babylonian exile. What good came from that? After Babylon, the Judeans lost all desire for idolatry.

That’s a really good thing that came from exile.

And there’s more. In his 2013 Erasmus Lecture, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted several other good things that came from the Babylonian exile. They all sprang from what he called a “creative minority,” the sons of Judah. They were the first to recognize exile.

And they had cultural capital. The sons of Judah had served in King Jeconiah’s courts in Jerusalem. So King Nebuchadnezzar brought them into his courts. He had the sons of Judah learn the language and literature of Babylon. It took three years (Dan.1:4).

The good that came from this was the Judeans were exposed to other cultures. They were pushed out of their insular “us/them” world. The Judeans wrestled with the best ideas that Babylon brought to the table. This enhanced Jewish beliefs, leading to a great flowering of Jewish thought according to Sacks. That’s good.

This led to the Judeans learning how to build bridges between different civilizations. The first was between Babylon and Judaism. In the following centuries, especially through trade during the Middle Ages, the Jews linked China and the West. That’s good.

Third, as the Jews built bridges, they came to appreciate the contributions of other cultures and vice-versa. Judaism became recognized as making great contributions to the wider world. Rabbi Sacks cites such examples as Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, and so on.

We see this to this day in the US. For most of the 20th century, the Jewish community has comprised about 3.5 percent of the American population. Yet, as David Hollinger has shown, the contribution of the Jewish community to science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture is both brilliant and unrivaled.[1] That’s good.

The Western church could use some of this goodness. Even though it has an impressive cultural output (books, music, and so on), the Western church operates largely outside the arenas in which the greatest cultural influence is exerted. It’s very much like the Judeans before Babylon. That’s not good.

But we can fix this. In 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) said Europe’s renewal depended on the creative minority. He too cited the sons of Judah. My sense is America’s renewal depends on a creative minority. It seems to me our first move ought to be to find today’s sons of Judah.

Not easy. Today’s sons (and daughters) of Judah are a modern Diaspora—dispersed throughout the Western world. They’re disconnected from one other. It’s a level of complexity the original sons of Judah didn’t face, as they were all in one city. Oh well. It is what it is. We have to try to fix this.

Want to help? God seems to be pulling together a few sons and daughters of Judah locally. If we can get our act together (no guarantees!), and you’re a son or daughter of Judah, we’d love to serve you. The Western church is in exile, and exile is an indictment for our idolatry of the Enlightenment. Indictments are not good things, but good things came from the Babylonian exile. They can come from today’s exile as well.


[1] David Hollinger, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture (Princeton University Press, 1996).


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