1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
NOTE TO MY GENTLE READERS: This fall I am part of the Teaching Team for the Bible Study Discussion program at MDPC and plan to use this blog to share my thoughts as we go through our study of Nehemiah and 2 Corinthians. I encourage comments from BSD participants as well as my Gentle Readers.
LESSON ONE: NEHEMIAH OVERVIEW
After studying the overview of Nehemiah in Lesson One, I'm thinking about how the experience of exile shaped the faith of Nehemiah and the Jews in Babylon, preparing them for return to Jerusalem and the restoration of obedience to God. Last week Mary Fuller encouraged us to put on our 3-D glasses and immerse ourselves in the story of this book, so here are my 3-D reflections on our reading.
I had a small taste of the experience of exile when I left my hometown of San Antonio for college in New York at the age of seventeen. Excited about the opportunity to attend Cornell University, I didn't realize how different the people and culture of the Northeast was from that of south Texas. My fellow students spoke with different accents. I couldn't find Tex-Mex, BBQ or Dr. Pepper anywhere on campus. Instead there were lots of bagels (donuts gone wrong); grinders (Italian hogie sandwiches) and codfish on Fridays (yuck).
Within a few weeks the small group of expatriate Texans in the college banded together to put Texas flags in our dorm rooms, celebrateTexas Independence Day (March 2!) with tortilla chips and bean dip from parental care packages, and watch UT football games (when available). Being from Texas was not a good thing in the eyes of many of our peers who thought we were all cowboys, rode horses and were rednecks. Really. The experience made us aware of what set us apart as native Texans, and so after graduation it wasn't surprising that we all returned to Texas for work or graduate study.
In contrast to my experience of being a Texan among Yankees, Nehemiah didn't have the experience of growing up in Jerusalem and relocating to Babylon. He was born in Babylon into a Jewish family of exiles. In fact his parents were probably also born in exile. Yet he and many of the other exiles treasured their Jewish heritage and maintained a strong connection with the Holy City. Although they could not worship in the temple and offer the Mosaic sacrifices, they could gather for prayer, praise and the reading of the books of Moses. Priests like Ezra provided teaching and continuity so that the people would remember God's word and His promise to restore them to Himself and to Jerusalem. . The experience of being isolated within a nation that was pagan made them identify strongly with their faith and heritage and set them apart from the people around them. As the psalmist said, they could not forget Jerusalem and longed to be restored to it and to their relationship with God.
Nehemiah's strong emotional response to the news from his brother about the incomplete restoration of Jerusalem is an example of how God used the exile to prepare His people to be restored to relationship with Him. Now they know who they are and why they have been set apart by God for a purpose. It makes me wonder if we were relocated to a place where Christians were a distinct minority if our children and grandchildren would relate to Jesus or to the religion or lack of religion of the larger culture around them?
When our faith is challenged, either because we have been removed from what is familiar to us or because those around us are promoting beliefs that are different from ours, we are forced to examine our assumptions carefully. Author Ross Douthat in his recent book Bad Religion (click here for my review) observes that historically Christianity has been strengthened when it is forced to define itself against the popular heresies of the day. Likewise, Judaism was strengthened during the exile when Jews like Nehemiah defined themselves against the pagan religions of the people who surrounded them in Babylon and Persia.
Paul advises us: " Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be renewed by the transforming of your minds that by testing you may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. " (Romans 12:2) The Jews were tested in exile and some, like Nehemiah, did not conform to the cultural pattern around them but discerned the will of God for them. Today we are also tested by the cultural trends around us, but it is not always easy to discern when we are conforming ourselves to the values of the world rather than to the values of the Word.