Exile and Return: God Concealed
What is God?
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The exile of the Jews is among the more famous long-term events in the history of the world. Around the year 70 CE, following a brief and violent revolt against Roman rule, the second temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from their land. This exile was not to one region but all over the known world. Within a century, Jews could be found everywhere from Spain to India. The Jewish population in Israel steadily diminished following a second revolt around 135 which led to augmentation of the exile. This exile, the longest in human history, is known among Jews as the Galut Edom, or Roman exile, since the ancient kingdom of Edom to the south of Israel is traditionally considered to be the ancestor of the Romans.
The exile lasted for almost 1,900 years, until the events leading up to the year 1948. This number, 1,900 years, is huge by the standards of human history. When one considers that recorded human history has lasted a little longer than 5,000 years, this makes up a sizable percentage of the written historical record. Political considerations aside, the return from this exile is widely considered to be one of the more remarkable events in world history. In fact, there are many people who consider it to be the most remarkable event in human history. Who could have predicted such a thing at any time over the previous 1900 years? Who could have predicted it even 100 years ago?
It turns out that the Torah may have predicted it. Before we get into how this is possible, it should be noted that the Bible critics reject all this. That we can find Biblical predictions of exile and return is beyond question. They are found in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The issue is what exile it is referring to and when those verses were written. In fact, this is one of main sources of evidence that both Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written significantly after the other books. This theory thus advocates a very late (post 500 BCE) authorship of both books. Many in this group say that it was none other than Ezra who was the author.
What are these verses in Deuteronomy? In chapter 29 we read: ‘And when all these things shall come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have given to you, and you shall return to your hearts while among all the nations that Hashem your God has driven you to. And you shall return unto Hashem your God and you shall listen to His voice as all that I command you today, you and your children, with all of your heart and all of your soul. And Hashem your God will return your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will return and gather you from all of the peoples that Hashem your God dispersed you to. If you have been driven to the ends of the heavens, from there Hashem your God will gather you and from there He will take you. Hashem your God will bring you to the land that your ancestors inherited, and you shall inherit it, and He will improve you and increase you even more than your ancestors.’ (30:1-5).
The exile that would precede this return is prophesied in great detail in an earlier chapter (28). Among the more dramatic of these exile verses is: ‘And Hashem will disperse you among all the nations from the end of the earth to the end of the earth, and you shall serve other gods there that neither you or your forefathers were familiar with, made of wood and stone. And among those nations you will not relax or find rest for your feet, and Hashem will give you there a raging heart, and eyes lacking vision, and despondency of the soul’ (28:64-65). In later verses we find another reference to the exile: ‘And My anger will be kindled against them on that day I will abandoned them and I will hide My face from them, and they will become prey, and many evil and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, “Is it not because our God is not among us that all those evils have found us?” And I will hide My face completely on that day because of all that evil that they did, for they turned to other gods’ (31:17-18).
The first question to ask about all this is why this exile was really necessary? How bad could things have gotten that this was the only recourse? Second, what is the point of an exile if the return was pre-ordained even before the exile happened? Couldn’t they same thing be accomplished with no exile to begin with? Third, this image of God as the ‘Bringer of exile’ is that harsh unforgiving deity that strikes many as an Old Testament tyrant. While it is true that the tyrant does bring them back from exile, the obvious damage will have already been done. Finally, how can God be said to ‘hide His face’ from them if all this is being orchestrated by none other than God?
Why was exile necessary? The Torah explicitly answers this question. It was because the Israelites, or Judeans, or Jews, had abandoned Hashem and the Torah. You abandon Me, and I abandon you. It’s a simple equation. The only problem is that God never abandoned them. All the way through the exile God was there, making sure that they remained in exile. If that is called abandonment then what does it mean to not be abandoned?
Exile is not real abandonment. It is a state of ‘divine concealment’. God is still lurking in the crevices but God’s glorious presence is no longer apparent. This is the classic understanding of the phrase ‘I will hide My face from them’. The ‘face’ is still around, but it is hidden. Is this a worse fate than complete abandonment or is it somehow better? Perhaps we should ask the Ten Lost Tribes that question.
The relationship of the Jews to God is anything but normal. To be the Chosen People is to be a people who can never truly relax and rest. It means to be a people who are hounded wherever they go for the most terrible of crimes, notwithstanding the fact that they didn’t commit them. It means to be accused to blood libels for 1,000 years, of murdering a god, being subjected to religious inquisitions, forced conversions, pogroms beyond count, exile from exile, and ultimately, a Holocaust.
You can’t make this stuff up. This is not abandonment. This is divine concealment. It is God’s way of dealing with stiff-necked people who just can’t get the program down in their own land, so they need to be jarred into submission/realization in exile. The two exiles were profoundly influential in shaping the Jewish people. The Babylonian exile made them into the Jews. It enabled them to found a second temple society and religion that was a major step forward from the Biblical society and religion that predated it, and it created the core of what would become rabbinic Judaism. The Roman exile forced the Jews to disperse around the world, spreading the fundamentals of Judaism, and learning every imaginable skill of survival and productivity. It enabled the development of the Jewish intellect and the ability to examine everything from every possible angle. The Jews would not have become the Jews had it not been for exile.
God’s role in all this, God’s image, is not of a Biblical tyrant. It is of a Biblical will. This is God’s plan being put into practice, being made to happen by hook or by crook. Nothing is going to get in God’s way of making this thing work. If it means putting His people into exile for 2,000 years, so that’s what we’ll do. If it means blood libels, pogroms, exiles from exiles, forced conversions, despair, confusion, rage, a Holocaust, then so be it. Did God make the Holocaust happen? That question is a killer for anybody who attempts to touch it. Nothing really answers it and any crass attempt to get to the bottom of it from a religious perspective is sure to end in argument and accusations of either heresy or unthinking cruelty. So what’s the answer?
We don’t know. We have seen indications of God letting things just happen, just allowing them to go haywire to a degree that seems beyond the norms of haywire. We’ve seen God as the Creator of evil, in spite of the obvious theological implications of such a title. But we haven’t seen God actually pull the trigger. Perhaps this is why the Torah says that God ‘hides His face’. He doesn’t even want to watch when it finally happens. He wants to turn the other way, even though He can hear the screams and smell the smoke.
Perceiving the Image
It’s not only about exile. It’s also about return. That exile was harsh beyond any degree imaginable. That Holocaust remains inexplicable by any standards of the normal rules of the game. But God is not necessarily playing by the normal rules of the game. God makes up the rules of the game as it goes along. This image of God, the great ‘Exiler’, is a harsh image for a harsh phase of God’s career. It is not an unjustified image. It happened, and it happened with a vengeance. God may be able to get out of it by saying that He ‘looked the other way’, but that really doesn’t serve as an alibi. God was there, knowing it was going on, and He hid.
But hiding is also part of the plan. Letting things go haywire is just as essential as micromanaging things back during Exodus times. It’s probably a good deal tougher for God to hide His face while the world goes crazy then it is to hand-deliver Manna every day in the wilderness. Does anybody think God wants to be doing this? Does anybody think God enjoys being subject to scathing criticism for the way He runs the world, resulting in everything from the creation of rival religions, to accusations of cruelty, to atheism? Does anybody really believe that God wants to hear the screams and smell the smoke and know that He really has to hold Himself back and not intervene?
This is a tough image. But exile, at least in this case, means return. This is the parallel image of exile. That image is much more pleasant to perceive. It shows God making good on His promise, showing that it was all for a purpose that worked out in the end. Of course, it’s not over yet, and nobody knows what lies in store in the future, but certain things have happened already and they are enough to project an image.
It is an image Jews from all over the world, speaking 100 different languages and inhabiting 100 different positions on the religious spectrum, somehow finding their way back there in spite of every reason in the world to stay wherever they are. It is an image of Sefaradi and Ashkenazi and Yemenite and Ethiopian, living in a small land surrounded by enemies and even living next door to enemies, making things happen against all odds, screwing up regularly, but pushing on nevertheless. It is an image of the world astounded by what is happening there while remaining righteously indignant over the moral outrage of a Holocaust-surviving nation rebuilding on the soil that Bedouin had grazed their sheep for centuries, refusing to let their enemies drive them out through war, attrition, politics, or propaganda. It is an image of a people struggling to find who they are after 2,000 years of wandering, slowly discovering how the old can mesh with the new, and painfully understanding that sometimes it can’t. It is this collage of images, a chaotic mixture of many colors and many flavors, each trying to talk louder than the next but somehow they all get heard.
Is God still indifferent or still hiding His face? Is this the real return or is it a false positive? Does anybody know? Do we want to perceive this image and to understand what it is trying to convey?
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