…the biblical experience of exile is one of the most radical experiences that humanity has ever undergone.
People of God in the Night, by Eloi LeClerc, O.F.M.
Our summer assignment for Year 3 proved to be a slim little book with emotional impact. People of God in the Night introduces the theme of the exile experience from the point of view of those taken captive and living in Assyria. For generations they hold hope for their return to the Promised Land – until the southern kingdom is also defeated. The Babylonians not only forcibly remove leading citizens of Judah—anyone with the wealth or influence to mount resistance–they destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. Those in exile are shaken to their core. “All the stars have gone out at once. In their place, infinite emptiness.”
I looked to the earth, to see a formless waste; to the heavens and their light had gone. (Jer 4:23)
“No one can go through such distress without falling into a bottomless despair,” the author writes, “unless one encounters at the bottom of the abyss an indestructible hope.” With the exile, the faith of the people of God is broken down and rebuilt on a new foundation.
Our instructor, Jim McGill, compared the two formative experiences of Judaism, exodus and exile, to stages in one’s life.
The exodus, or the wandering in the wilderness, resembles the experience of adolescence or young adulthood. The outcome is uncertain, the experience may be traumatic, but there is great possibility ahead. Possibly even adventure. One is in the processing of learning or of becoming something. It’s a moment of discovery.
The exile experience he likened to maturity and a midlife crisis. Adults achieve a certain amount of security or status, and suddenly it all vanishes. There may be outside forces involved, but there are internal failures for which they must accept blame. The experience is frightening. It’s the great fear of those who no longer feel sure of anything. (Much as all Americans felt on September 11, 2001.)
This is the dark night of the Israelites in exile. Ultimately, however, they find God present even in their despair. What develops is the birth of faith as trust. They undergo a transformative experience.
As with Jacob’s epic struggle with an angel, however, the change comes at great cost. They walk away limping.