Governmental life for Israel in the Old Testament went through stages. Israel lived as a tribal confederation for many years after leaving Egypt, but then excelled under the monarchy. Although Saul was not the greatest of kings, David and Solomon helped to guide Israel to covenant faithfulness while also extending the boarders of Israel to their greatest lengths. It was during this time that the Temple was built and religious life flourished. The glory of the monarchy, however, did not last. After the time of Solomon, the kingdom divided. While the monarchy continues, the books of Kings and Chronicles detail a succession of kings in which the kingdoms spiral more and more into idolatry and unfaithfulness. It appears that the people have forgotten, or are neglecting, the covenant blessings and curses that God spoke through Moses so many years ago.
Eventually, God can ignore or dismiss Israel’s disobedience no longer. Around 740, Assyria conquers Israel and takes them into exile. Later, beginning in 608 and culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 586, Babylon conquers Judah and takes them into exile. While the Israelites will later be able to return to the land during the reign of Cyrus, things are never the same. Israel and Judah go into exile as autonomous nation states, but they will return as a scattered people living under foreign rule. This change will cause an identity crisis for God’s people. The role of Israel has always been to be a blessing to the nations: to be a people through whom God would usher in redemption for the entire creation. Since the time of the exodus, Israel has been an independent nation. Politically, socially, economically, Israel was sovereign over itself. That time though is no more. Except for a short period during the Maccabean Revolt, Israel will no longer be a sovereign state. How is Israel now to live in a foreign land?
Israel was drawn into exile because it failed to live up to its covenant obligations with God. Exile was thus a religious problem. Israel needed reminded of their covenant obligations. Israel needed to return to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the land in which they lived was a land of competing dieties. The gods of the Assyrians and Babylonians were a threat to Israel’s covenant loyalty. Learning to live in a foreign land was not just a social question but also a religious question.
Michael Goheen, in his book A Light To The Nations, discusses two great dangers that this identity crisis posed for Israel: withdrawal or assimilation. One danger for Israel was to isolate themselves from the greater culture in order to protect their identity, beliefs, and religious practices. However, this act of withdrawal would make it difficult for Israel to fulfill its role as a light to the nations. The opposite danger was to become so identified with the surrounding culture that Israel could no longer be distinguished from everyone else. Withdrawal might keep Israel safe, but it would make its message meaningless. Assimilation, however, would remove the distinctiveness of God’s people. In order to be faithful to their calling, Israel must navigate the difficult tightrope of walking between two extremes. To somehow maintain their “alternate identity,” Israel would need to learn again who they were as a people and what their role was for the world. They would need to draw on their rich story to form their current identity.
Ultimately though, the prophets remind us that God’s plan of redemption is not contingent on Israel’s success. While God hopes to use Israel as a light to the nations, even if Israel fails God will be victorious. No matter what Israel does or does not do, God will usher in a worldwide kingdom through the reign of the Messiah. All nations will stream to God. The redemption of the creation will be achieved. God’s new creation will come.
As we think about our own lives, we struggle with the same dangers that Israel struggled with in exile: withdrawal and assimilation. We struggle with the extremes of escaping the greater culture to our safe place, thus rendering our message irrelevant, or becoming so ingrained in the surrounding culture that we lose our distinct calling. As a church and as a people, we must discover a middle ground, a way to faithfully live out our calling among the nations. This will require wisdom and discernment. But it is essential if we want to be faithful witnesses for God.