16 February 2007

Antony sent me a reference the other day. It was a short article suggesting that the prayer in Nehemiah 9 might corroborate NT Wright's idea that Jews during the post-exilic, intertestamental and new testament times still thought of themselves as 'in exile.' The prayer seems to go through covenant history without ever explicitly talking about a return from exile and characterises the people's situation now in this way: 'Behold, we are slaves to this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold we are slaves' (Neh 9:36). Doesn't this make it look like they're still in exile?

Well, not if you read Nehemiah carefully. In Neh. 1:1, 1:3 and 8:17 the author does explicitly characterise these people as those who survived or returned from exile. And in chapter 9, if you look closely, you'll see the language of the end of the prayer is an echo of phrases used to describe the ungodly monarchies in Israel and Judah rather than the exile. In 36-38 we are not in the position of having refused admonishment, and not 'in the hands of our enemies' as in v 30 about the exile. Instead, we are once again in the position of being 'ruled over by our enemies' and 'being admonished by leaders' as in vv 27-28 when the exile was looming.

Wright's redefinition of exile-while-not-in-exile seems to have blinded many readers to the genuine history. Think!

These guys are in their own land, but their grip on it is precarious. They're not thinking "Woe is us, we must not really be back from exile" -- they're thinking "Whu-oh, we need to get our act together or it will happen to us again." Actual literal exile was a genuine immediate threat. Nehemiah and the Jews of his time did not think that they were still in exile. So later Jews could not think 'We're still in exile.' They'd have to think, 'Ezra & Nehemiah returned from exile, but we're back in it.' And it's difficult to find a point in their history between then and Jesus that would have been a good time for them to come to that opinion.

It is the Promises, not the Condition, that are the key. Wright is correct that the Jews were aware that those promises had not been fulfilled. Where he's wrong is in making an indissoluble bond between God's promises of the future and some imagined present mindset of exile. For Wright, it seems, the Scriptures constantly use cosmic language to lend significance to events within space/time. I think it's more likely, frankly, that God uses events within space/time to help people being to perceive that which is cosmic and beyond them. When Jesus came it had become clear that God's promises of a blessed future were not fulfilled in the return from exile or even in the imperial success of the Maccabees. God's promises were about something beyond politics and land, and the Jews were already wrestling with that 'beyond' in their attempts at classical apocalyptic.

Jesus came, in the fulness of time, not to answer the question 'How do we return from exile?' but the deeper question 'Since the promises were not really about return, what were they about?'
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