When I left off, I had just been quoting from page 1 of Walter Brueggemann’s, The Land: Place As Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, and we noted on the walk of the Christian faith, we are not the only ones in places of exile. We left off saying that we can least afford to lose the promises we’ve been made which connect who we are with where we’re bound — the three things our stories are to remind us of while we’re in exile. We’re intent on remembering who we are, which connects us with our story and the promises made to us — and in connecting with the past, we are assured of a future. Part of that is illustrated in our interconnectedness with our family. Somewhere there’s a photograph when I was an infant, with me and my mother and my grandmother and my great-grandmother and my great-great-grandfather that was printed in the newspaper under the heading “Five Generations.” Things like this were once taken note of, especially in smaller communities. We’re down to just three generations now, but someplace we have photographs of my kids with their great-grandfather. We have old family photographs copied, someplace, with names written on the back as best anyone could remember who they were, knowing that if we didn’t write them down now, they’d be lost. (Not this photo!) And we have some stories. Connecting with the past is important for a people in exile.
I left off with Brueggemann on the land, and we’ll pick up there. He discusses the fact that in the Old Testament, “land” is partly literal, but partly also a symbol. The two meanings cannot in fact be separated at times, and he uses the term in the same fashion. “A symbolic sense of the term affirms that land is never simply physical dirt but is always physical dirt freighted with social meanings derived from historical experience.” To affirm the fact that “land” means something more, deeper, in Hebrew than just dirt, consider the name: ha’aretz, meaning “The Land”, which is not simply a name for a newspaper, but it’s a loaded term. Brueggemann writes, “Land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith. Biblical faith is a pursuit of historical belonging that includes a sense of destiny derived from such belonging.”
[T]he quest for meaning as it has been interpreted is not first on our agenda, precisely because it is rootlessness and not meaninglessness which characterizes the current crisis. There are no meanings apart from roots. And such rootage is a primary concern of Israel and a central promise of God to his people. This sense of place is a primary concern of this God who refused a house and sojourned with his people (2 Sam 7:5-6) and of the crucified one who “has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
He stresses a difference between “space” and “place.” Space is “an arena of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free of pressures and voice of authority.” He compares it to a weekend or a holiday.
But “place” is a very different matter. Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued. Place is indeed a protest against the uncompromising pursuit of space. It is a declaration that our humanness cannot be found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, and undefined freedom.
Whereas a pursuit of space may be a flight from history, a yearning for a place is a decision to enter history with an identifiable people in an identifiable pilgrimage. Humanness, as biblical faith promises it, will be found in belonging to and referring to that locus in which the peculiar historicity of a community has been expressed and to which recourse is made for purposes of orientation, assurance, and empowerment. The land for which Israel yearns and which it remembers is never unclaimed space but is always a place with Yahweh, a place well filled with memories of life with him and promise from him and vows to him. It is land that provides the central assurance to Israel of its historicality, that it will be and always must be concerned with actual rootage in a place which is a repository for commitment and therefore identity.
He moves along to consider Israel as God’s homeless people… for they are a landless people throughout most of the Old Testament (and, in fact, throughout most of history).
First, “Israel is embodied in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the earliest presentations as sojourners on the way to a land whose name it does not know.” In Genesis, “the way of faith requires leaving a land and accepting landlessness as a posture of faith.” Brueggemann notes that the sojourn is freely chosen, not imposed, and means to totally throw one’s self on Yahweh “to be led to a better place, one characterized by promises not known either in Ur or in one’s father’s house.” Sojourner, as used here, is defined as being “in a place, perhaps for an extended time, to live there and take some roots, but always to be an outsider, never belonging, always without rights, title, or voice in decisions that matter. Such a one is on turf but without title to the turf, having nothing sure but trusting in words spoken that will lead to a place.”
Second, “During the period when Israel had left the slavery of Egypt and was not yet in the land of promise… it remembered itself as wanderer.” Here the faith of the fathers is less apparent and the stress is upon being without resources, and lacking vigor and hope for the promise. Again, they are landless. “The wanderer is different from the sojourner-pilgrim because he is not on the way anywhere. He is in a situation in which survival is the key question.” … “For Israel the wilderness period provided a double image and memory… In the wilderness, bereft of resources, faith is not easy… [a]nd when faithlessness is linked to landlessness, Israel is lost.”
Israel’s third memory of landlessness is the exile. Although the northern tribes were exiled to Assyria in the eighth century, it is the sixth century Jews in Bablyon that provide the central image of exile for the Bible. The exiled Jews were not oppressed, abused, or imprisoned. But they were displaced, alienated from the place which gave identity and security. Duringthe exile the Jews were alienated from all the shapes and forms which gave power to faith and life.
The exile is for the Bible the sharpest point of discontinuity when none of the old traditions or conventional institutions any longer seem valid or trustworthy. Exile without land or even prospect of land was indeed Israel’s null point when every promise seemed void. This event of landlesness evoked rage and anger (cf. Ps. 137) but also yearning pathos (Lam. 1:2, 3, 6, 7, 21). Exile is being cut off with no way back. But strangely, this “null point” also became the context for Israel’s most remarkable expression of faith, the lyrical celebration of God’s faithfulness to exiles. …Precisely in the context of landlessness do the promises loom large. It is in the emptiness of Israel, exposed and without resources, that promises are received with power, that risks are run, and hope is energizing. Yahweh’s strange promise is either especially directed toward or peculiarly discerned among the landless. Faith is precisely for exiles who remember the land but see no way to it.
Now, let’s consider the three things I said were important for an exiled people to remember:
- They must remember who they are, and who their people are.
- They must remember what they have been promised.
- They must remember where their home is.
And let’s consider displaced peoples. I mentioned Nehemiah the other day, but I omitted a list of names from my discussion. Ask anyone what the most boring part of the Bible is, and they’ll tell you: genealogies. But surely they must have been important to somebody, or they wouldn’t have bothered to write it down. I kinda gave part of the answer already… they wrote it down because it tells who they are. And not only that, the genealogies will trace ones ancestry back to one of two people — someone who had land or someone who was promised land. If you could trace your lineage from Abraham, it was a big deal (you recall the question came up with Jesus). If you were a descendant of Abraham, then you were heir to a promise of land, of place. If you were in between, in exile between having land and having a place once more, then it was important to know who you were, so you could reconnect.
I wrote a few years ago before anyone started visiting here about The Importance of Story, and I told the story of the Mennonites. In my little corner of the planet, there are a lot of Russian Mennonites who know a little something of persecution and displacement, even fleeing one’s homeland in voluntary exile. There’s a funny thing about Mennonites which one can pick up fairly quickly… it’s important to them who their relatives are. People are distinguished from one another by who their fathers are. At first blush it seems merely practical since there surnames and many given names are quite common… but in fact as you listen, it becomes deeper. The Mennonites in my region tend to know who their mother’s cousin’s husband’s father is. I’ve quipped before that when you marry into a Mennonite family, your new spouse will come with an “owners’ manual,” and often two of them, or more. These take the form of inexpensively-bound documents, normally 8.5×11? and about 1/2? thick, detailing every aunt, uncle, cousin, and ancestor for several generations back. There’s a pastime called “The Mennonite Game” where two Mennonites who have never met will sit down and figure out how they are related. I’ve witnessed this game played and won an alarming number of times. All of this is relevant because Mennonites have something in common with Israelites in one respect. Historically they know what it’s like to lose their land and be without it. And their genealogies will often trace back to “the old country”, where some ancestor had land. In the absence of land and place, genealogies become important as a manner of proving you belong, of not forgetting who you are.
When we read the Bible, the genealogies make little sense to us, but they reinforce the idea that we are reading about real people with real stories who are fitted into the grand narrative in between the promise of land and place and the Shalom of its realization.
With the introduction of Shalom, I’ve likely started into subject matter for the next post though. For now, let’s think about how story connects us with who we are and what we’ve been promised. I remember we once turned on a tape recorder to catch my grandfather telling the story of how he and a friend decided to build an airplane — they’d seen one fly over head, once. We knew that stories like this are either recorded somehow or they are lost forever. How do we keep our stories as a people in exile? What stories do we tell? How aware are we of the impact of telling stories versus losing them? What of this sense of place as something distinctly different from mere space?