2. God's Story: The Missio Dei (cont.)
Movement 2. Exile and Godforsakenness
The next major movement following creation and covenant is that of exile and godforsakenness. Just as the most foundational biblical covenant is that which God enters into with Adam and Eve (and, by implication, the rest of creation), so also the most foundational exile, the exile which is the lens through which all other exiles are to be viewed, is the exile of Adam and Eve from the garden in Eden. It is essential that the reader realizes the active role God plays in this event. Exile from the garden is not simply the inevitable consequence of the actions taken by Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Rather, exile, and all that comes with it, is imposed by divine decree. It is God who creates enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, it is God who increases the woman’s pain in childbearing, it is God who curses the ground because of the man’s actions. It is God who will no longer allow the humanity to walk and talk with him in the shade of the garden. God “banishes” humanity, humanity is “driven out” of the garden, and God ensures that they will not be able to return. Humanity is exiled and creation is cursed and broken.
This fundamental exile of humanity from the garden goes on to be worked out in two other major exilic occurrences, and both of these events are connected with further covenants that build upon the original covenant made with Adam, Eve, and all creation. The second major exile occurs in Genesis 11, at the end of the primordial history. Although an exceedingly bleak history, there is a moment of hope when God reaffirms his original covenant with humanity by entering into a covenant with Noah and his descendents. Yet, the narrative of the occurrences on the plain of Shinar at a city called “Babel” brings the primordial history to its lowest point. At Babel, God not only fractures the earth, he fractures humanity, and drives the nations into exile. Humanity is scattered over the face of the earth. Upon until this point in the primordial history God had appeared to be committed to renewing creation, despite its ongoing brokenness. Even the devastation wrought by the flood is a part of this. Although the flood is terrible, God is still actively working to make the world new again. But at Babel things are different. Now it appears that God is no longer working to make things new. Instead of being present, even if God’s presence means judgment, God seems to withdraw. Humanity is scattered and, to the horror of the reader, God seems to abandon humanity, and all creation, to itself and to the consequences of its own actions. The movement into godforsakenness that began at Eden now seems to have come to completion. The primordial history ends and God does not renew his covenant.
But, after an indeterminate amount of time, God remembers the covenant he made with creation through Adam, Eve, and Noah’s family. Therefore, he enters into a covenant with Abram and Sarai, renamed Abraham and Sarah, so that the exile of the nations can be brought to an end, and so that creation can be made new. God reaffirms this covenant with Abraham’s son Isaac, and with Isaac’s son Jacob, renamed Israel, and in this way the Israelites are born and become God’s chosen people. Israel is to fulfill the role of Adam and Eve, she is to become God’s true humanity. Acting as God’s vice-regent she is to make all things new and bring exile to an end. But, once again, it is not long before things go wrong. Israel, fails in her vocation, and instead of becoming a part of God’s solution she becomes a part of the problem. Therefore, as Tom Wright concludes: “That which was wrong with the rest of the world was wrong with Israel, too.” Consequently, Israel, too, goes into exile. She is removed from the land in which God rooted her, and her holy city, Jerusalem is destroyed and the temple of her God is desecrated and burned with fire. Indeed, even after Israel returns to the land, she continues to live within an exilic state, as she is ruled by pagans or, at best, compromised Jews. Therefore, the exile of all creation from the garden, moves to the exile of the nations at Babel, and culminates in the exile of God’s called-out-people, Israel. Therefore, the movement of ever-specific covenants, and ever-deeper exiles can be diagrammed as follows:
Covenant Partner: [Humanity]-[The Nations)]-[ Israel ]
Exiled from: —— [ -Eden- ]-[ — Babel — ]-[the Land]
This exile must be understood as the experience of complete abandonment by God. The state of exile is the state of godforsakenness. In order to grasp the extent of this forsakenness it is useful to put this argument into trinitarian terms. First of all, God the Father abandons his children. The Father abandons creation. Even more shocking, the Father abandons his firstborn son, understood within the biblical narrative as humanity first of all and Israel secondarily. Secondly, God the Son abandons his beloved. The notion of the people of God as the Son’s Beloved, is appropriate because the First Testament language of God as Lover, and God’s people as his beloved, is taken up in the Second Testament in the language of Jesus as the groom and God’s people as his bride. Within the state of exile, the one who was once called Beloved becomes the one who is called Godforsaken. Thirdly, God the Spirit of life of vision and of comfort, abandons creation to death, to blindness and to sorrow. Nowhere is this more vividly portrayed than in the account of the Spirit’s withdrawal from the temple in Jerusalem. Without the Spirit, exile is a foregone conclusion. Therefore, all Israel can to in such a situation is lament… and die serving pagan rulers in a foreign land.
The way in which this movement subverts any claims that assume God’s presence and God’s blessing deserves to be explicitly highlighted. The state of “manifest destiny” is fragile at best, but is more likely a completely illusory notion used by powers in order to justify self-serving actions. Recognizing exile and godforsakenness challenges all who claim to have a monopoly upon God, upon truth, or upon goodness. The movement of exile is just as subversive to the powers as the creation movement.
However, the question is this: how does exile and godforsakenness fit into the missio Dei? If some hesitancy was required in speaking of the Father’s purposes for creation, surely even more hesitancy is required here. However, the motif of covenant helps us to find at least the start of an answer to this question. Because a large part of God’s missional intention is that his mission should be done through his representatives, exile reveals how committed God is to acting only through his covenant partner(s). Furthermore, godforsakenness is, paradoxically, a part of God’s ongoing sustaining of creation. As the flood narrative shows, God’s response to humanity’s continual breaking of the covenant and of the world could potentially destroy the entire created order. Therefore, instead of choosing to be present in a way that would cause the world to be destroyed, God chooses to become absent. Indeed, godforsakenness is then to be understood as an act of God’s covenant faithfulness. God has committed himself to his creation and to his people and so, instead of being present in a way that would abolish that covenant, God removes himself. Furthermore, because God’s mission is to love and to be loved, the experience of godforsakenness reveals the extent to which God is willing go in order to not impose himself forcefully upon his creation. Therefore, as much as the experience of godforsakenness is the experience of exile for creation, godforsakenness occurs because God chooses to go into exile away from those he loves, and those whose love he desires. Creation goes into exile because God exiles himself from creation. This also develops the theme of God’s humiliation that begin with the self-limitations God imposed upon himself when he birthed the heavens and the earth. Here, God is revealed as so humble that he will not fulfill his mission except through his covenant partner. If God’s covenant partner fails, then God also fails. If God’s people become helpless, God, too, shares that helplessness. This, indeed, is a bleak picture. The darkness that has swirled around the story seems to have become impenetrable. God will not be present with creation so that creation will not be destroyed by his presence. Yet creation, apart from God, is doomed to destroy itself. This movement seems to leave us with the conclusion that even God is incapable of bringing about his missional purposes in the world. The movement of creation and covenant told a story of God with us. The movement of exile and godforsakenness tells a story of God not with us.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, and Jesus and the Victory of God.