Exile and return: Covid style
Meg Warner on the Israelites’ return from exile, and ours
Yesterday, for my daily hour of exercise, I walked around a nearby park. I have done this so many times in recent months that I didn’t expect to see anything I hadn’t already seen a hundred times. But I was in for a surprise. I saw hundreds, literally hundreds, of university students sitting in tight groups on the ground, talking and drinking. I was rocked back on my heels. I hadn’t seen anything like it for 12 months. Once I had recovered from my shock, I reflected that it was like a sneak preview of a return to the old life, much like the way daffodils, pressing their way out of frozen ground, offer a sneak preview of the return of spring.
The return is coming. Like spring, it seems to be taking forever to get going, but soon, soon we will be returning to our old lives, or something like them, and gatherings of hundreds of people will go back to being ordinary.
I’ve spent the last months of the lockdown teaching ordination students about the Old Testament. We are all exhausted, but one class has really taken off – a class in which we’ve explored the Old Testament accounts of the exile. The story of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, the Israelites’ forced migration to Babylon and their eventual return, has never rung truer to students. That is because what we have experienced over the past year, at the hands of Covid-19, has been a kind of exile. Sure, it hasn’t been a geographical exile, but in being stuck inside our homes we’ve been exiled from our lives as surely as if we’d all been bundled off to a city in Iraq.
If lockdown has been a kind of exile, then what we’re preparing for right now is a kind of return, and the biblical accounts may just have some important wisdom to share with us about what that return might be like.
The Israelites looked forward to their return to Jerusalem, just as we are looking forward to ours. In fact, they longed for it. In Babylon, they had been challenged not just to get through the days, but also to remember who they were. They had suffered their first major military defeat, Jerusalem had been violated, and they had been forced to live thousands of miles away from the Temple. The exiles had to come to terms with questions about whether their God was as strong and as faithful as the Babylonian gods, and also about how they could continue visibly to be God’s chosen people, without access to daily Temple worship. So they longed to return home…
Meg Warner is Tutor in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language at Northern College, Manchester
This is an extract from an article published in the May 2021 edition of Reform