Exodus, Exile, and Migration: A Presentation to Texts and Traditions Teachers

Photo: Zoltan Major/Shutterstock

PRESCRIPT: Recently, I was invited to give a presentation on the theme of “Welcoming the Stranger: Exodus, Exile, and Migration – Effects on the Current World” at the Annual Meeting of the Victorian Association of Texts and Traditions Teachers (VATTT). Texts and Traditions is a stream within the Religious Studies curriculum in Victorian high schools that examines religious traditions from the standpoint of their sacred texts, the literary forms in which those texts appear, and how those texts and their interpretation inform the historical and contemporary experience of different faith communities. Here is the text of my presentation; however, because the presentation itself was delivered in a less formal manner, there was some ad hoc editing and re-arranging of the text as I went along. This is, as it were, the “full and formal” version.

It being the age of Google, it will come as no surprise to anyone that it only takes a very quick, very superficial online search of the Bible to uncover any number of passages that instruct the people of Israel in how they are to deal with and treat the foreigners and migrants who live among them. Indeed, my own quick and superficial search uncovered at least 265 passages in which the words “foreigner”, “stranger”, or “alien” are mentioned – often in connection with Israel’s own experience of exile, wandering, and migration. A typical example is Exodus 22:21:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

Or Numbers 35:15:

These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there. (Numbers 35:15)

There are other such passages – Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 19:10 and 34; Numbers 15:26; Deuteronomy 24:14 – and on and on and on. Time and again, the people of Israel are commanded by the Law and reminded by the prophetic tradition to deal justly and compassionately with their neighbours and with the resident – and transient; it is with intent that I emphasise the word transient – foreigners living among them. To be sure, some of those passages emphasise separation and difference; but they are vastly outnumbered by passages of the type which I have quoted above.

But beyond the bald fact of the sheer number of these injunctions is the less frequently noted reality that these commands are often accompanied by one of two contextualising statements that provide, as it were, both the background for the injunction and its deeper meaning. These statements are often overlooked or treated as mere addenda to the commands; but in the context of exodus, exile, and migration, it seems to me that these statements are, if anything, as or even more important than the command itself.

The first such statement reminds the people of Israel that they were foreigners and strangers in the land of Egypt, where they were enslaved and oppressed precisely because they were not Egyptians. For you were aliens in the land of Egypt. And for the people of Israel, that very fact of alienation, that very fact of “being the other” was central to their own identity, marked and celebrated in the sacred event of Passover. By reminding the Hebrew people of the centrality of this experience of otherness to their own self-understanding, this contextualising statement calls on them to be who, in fact, they are: the “other” who understands the dehumanisation that “otherness” involves, and who accordingly refuses to apply the prejudicial criteria of “otherness” to those who are strangers and foreigners among them – precisely because no-one is a stranger or foreigner to God.

For, indeed, the word alien conjures up stronger imagery than merely “foreigner” or “stranger”: it evokes a sense of menace, of the one who is so utterly other, so strange and different that they are removed from us, without any common ground between “us” and “them”. In the context of alien, difference is not a virtue or even a vice: it is a threat, to be deflected or contained before it can cause any harm. The centuries of anti-Semitism that preceded the 20th century enabled the Nazis to quite easily depict – and their audiences to quite readily accept – the image of the Jewish people as not “really human”, that they were not really “people” as we are. And this depiction, and this acceptance, lead directly to the horrors of Dachau and Auschwitz and Belsen and all the appalling consequences of industrialised murder.

And in Australia in the years since 9/11, how easily have we accepted the depiction of our Muslim sisters and brothers as “other”, as a “threat” that is less than human and which therefore warrants inhumane responses? This is not to deny the atrocity of 9/11 or of any terrorist attack, by whomever caused and for whatever reason; it merely – if it is possible to use the word “merely” in this context – indicates the extent to which we ourselves are guilty of the prejudice of “otherness”, of dehumanising and reducing human beings to the category of threat: a process that has lead both to the bandying about of vicious prejudices in our media, and to the obscenity, not just of the so-called “War on Terror” and Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, but of the sanitising of this obscenity behind phrases such as “extreme rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” that are in turn rationalised by other phrases such as “border security” and “national interest”.

The second contextualising phrase that often accompanies the commandments regarding foreigners is a reminder that the Hebrew people are not the indigenous people of the Promised Land; it is a land that Abraham lived in as an alien, and into which they have come as foreigners and outsiders. This is spelled out, for example, in Deuteronomy 26:5:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien

And again in Genesis 17:8, as part of God’s promise to Abraham:

And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:8)

In other words, the Promised Land comes to the Hebrew people not as a right but as gift, a gift that involves responsibility and stewardship – not just for the land, but for the people living in it. Importantly, this involves and includes people who come into the land after the Israelites; the land is not to be locked up as a fortress and held sacrosanct for one people over against all others. To be sure, the land is gifted to the Hebrew people as their own particular dwelling place, the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but it is from the very gifting of land in covenant that the Hebrew peoples derive an understanding of themselves as a species of resident alien, as outsiders occupying a land to which they were not indigenous.  The land was not theirs to possess by exclusive right, but to hold as a light to all the nations, an embodiment of what life lived in relationship with God entailed and promised for all humankind.

Surely this understanding of what the Promised Land is and involves could not be more relevant than to our present situation in 21st century Australia, in which an understanding of ourselves as a resident alien people occupying a land to which we are not indigenous is urgently needed – especially in a context in which our political leaders presume to declare on our behalf that it is we – the migrants, not the indigenous people – who shall determine who comes to this nation and the circumstances under which they come here – as though we were the indigenous people of this land, as though we hadn’t callously brushed aside the claims of indigenous Australians in our occupation of this country. Our failure to understand ourselves as resident aliens both enables the justification of our original displacement of indigenous Australians, and our subsequent active mistreatment of those who come to this country as refugees and asylum seekers.

I submit to you that the contextualising statements from the Hebrew Scriptures which I have outlined above, represent two “wings”, as it were: “wings” that spell out the twin evils of our present national approach to asylum seekers, refugees, and the whole question of exodus and migration. The first “wing” spells out our acceptance of the evil of alienation, of the categorisation of the other as “alien” and “threat”, instead of understanding that we are all of us alien, we are all of us other. The second “wing” articulates how our acceptance of the evil of alienation is informed and infected – and I use the word “infected” advisedly – by our acceptance of the evil of colonisation; or, more precisely, the evil of believing that the historical fact of colonisation expunges the reality of indigenous identity, in much the same way that some Christians have a supercessionist view of the Hebrew Scriptures vis-à-vis the Gospels and the Epistles.

Which provides me with a neat segue a question that I am sure many of you are by now thinking: why am I, a Christian minister, blathering on about the Hebrew Scriptures? Aren’t I meant to be giving you a Christian perspective on the matter under discussion?

Well, yes, I am. But the point is, I can’t give you a Christian perspective without first starting with the Hebrew Scriptures. And not just because Christians and Jews have this shared textual tradition either; but because the focal point of Christian faith, Jesus of Nazareth, was himself a Jew, thoroughly grounded in the precepts of the Law and the prophetic tradition – and you will be astonished at how often you need to remind people of this fact. Accordingly, in his disputes with the religious authorities of his day, and in the teachings which he directed at his disciples and those who came to see him, it was from the basis of this textual tradition and the sacred history of Israel that Jesus spoke.

But it is in the person of Jesus himself that we discover another singular fact: he was a wanderer. He travelled incessantly, moving all through the regions of Galilee and Samaria and even up into Phoenicia which is in modern day Lebanon. Jesus never settled down or stayed anywhere for long; and the example which he established, his disciples would later take up also – most notably in the persons of Paul and Peter; but also, if tradition is to be believed, in the likes of Phillip and Thomas.

To be sure, the model of the wandering teacher was part of the cultural background of the eastern Mediterranean of the Roman Empire; Jesus was hardly the first or the last of the type. But since Christianity makes certain claims about who Jesus is, and the significance of his life and ministry with respect to God’s covenantal promise to Israel, the very fact that he spent his entire ministerial life on the road informs – or, at east, should inform – the Christian understanding of exile, exodus, and migration.

St Francis of Assisi, himself a wanderer who lived a life of radical poverty in solidarity with the dispossessed of the world, was fond of quoting the following passage from The Gospel According to Luke:

Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Luke 9:58)

In his ground-breaking television series Civilisation, first aired in 1969, historian Kenneth Clark observed that the medieval church could not bear Francis’ call to give up temporal power and all the trappings that came with it, and quickly suppressed the movement he founded as heretical. In this age in which the church, having declined the opportunity to voluntarily surrender power, has instead been stripped of it, I wonder how much of the way we cling to our identification of church as property and buildings and location is symptomatic of a desire to still be in control, to still be calling the shots and determining other peoples’ lives for them. And I wonder, too, how much this need for the permanent and the concrete informs and infects – again, that word used advisedly – our attitude to the issues of exile, exodus, and migration; that instead of following the example of the wandering, homeless, stateless Jesus of Nazareth, we behave rather more like landlords or property developers or microstates desperately seeking to preserve our ever-shrinking hegemony against the forces that lie beyond our borders.

But on this theme, the Gospel According to Luke is rather instructive. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration delves deeply into the sacred history of Israel: Jesus’ transformed appearance, the ascent of a mountain, the cloud from which the voice of God issues are all redolent of Moses’ encounters with God on Saini; and the presence of the prophet Elijah along with Moses at this event, are part of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus as the fulfilment of messianic expectation.

But there’s one curious passage I particularly want to draw your attention to in Luke’s Transfiguration narrative. It occurs in Luke 9: 30-31:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9: 30-31)

Note that word “departure”. With the benefit of hindsight, we read this a reference to Jesus’ own death and resurrection, and rarely stop to consider: why does Luke use the word “departure” instead of a more direct phrase like “death and resurrection”, or even something like “the fulfilment of his teaching”? Is there something which Luke is attempting to convey in his use of the word “departure”?

We understand what that “something” might be once we turn to the original Koine Greek in which Luke was written, and we discover that the word “departure” is rendered in Greek as:

exodos = exodus

In other words, Luke describes Jesus as one who is about to undertake an “exodus”. And that exodus is not merely his leaving this world and this life – because in his Resurrection, he returns, albeit in the glorified form anticipated by the Transfiguration event itself. Rather, Luke uses this word exodos precisely because he is trying to convey to his audience the idea that embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is the entire sacred history of Israel. And more specifically, that Israel’s experience of alienation and foreignness, of exile and wandering and eventually settlement in the land promised in covenant, are themselves metaphors for humanity’s alienation from God through sin, its wandering in exile from God, and its eventual restoration to relationship with God. All this, Luke asserts, are accomplished in Jesus: in his death and resurrection, humanity’s exile is brought to an end; and while the full restoration is yet to be accomplished, nonetheless, all human life is brought within the compass of God’s grace: there are none who are exiles, none who are beyond the orbit of God’s restorative love.

So what does all this imply for us as Australians in the 21st century as we contemplate the issue of exodus, exile, and migration? It seems to me that if we adopt the Lukan model of marrying the redemptive mission of Jesus with the idea of Israel’s experience of exile being a metaphor for human alienation from God, then we have a useful framework for understanding exodus, exile, and migration in theological – and therefore, distinctly more human – terms.

Firstly, it enables us to see the sin that lies at the heart of much of human experience of exodus: the sin of oppressive government; the sin of exploitative economic systems; the sin of great powers using weaker nations as proxy battlegrounds; and, in more recent times, the sin of human induced climate change, which, as Pope Francis pointed out in his encyclical Laudato Si,  impacts most devastatingly, and most immediately, on the poorest and most vulnerable communities. These sins – of aggression, of exploitation, and of reckless wastefulness – are the same sins that have driven human migration across the whole of history. And it helps remind us that when people move, they do not do so because they want what we’ve got; they move because they have to, because their lives are under threat from the very reality of sin itself.

Secondly, this framework enables us to identify the sin that perpetuates the human experience of exile, of the wandering and precariousness that militate against the formation of relationships and community. And, ironically, this sin is vested in the grand edifice of the present system of international human rights treaties, which enable governments to make grand gestures which they have no intention of fulfilling; which enables the ratification of human rights legislation they have no intention of being held accountable to; which enables the formation of human rights agencies and organisations which they have no intention of adequately funding or resourcing. And thus it is that people spend decades – indeed, entire lifetimes – in squalid refugee camps despite being assessed as “legitimate” refugees who ought to be able to access the protection of law and treaty; thus it is that countries like Australia can declare their own borders sacrosanct, and dismiss entire categories of people as “economic refugees” – as though economics had nothing to do with the kind of oppression that might drive people to seek safety elsewhere – all the while requiring our poorer neighbours in the Pacific and South East Asia to bear the brunt of receiving, accommodating, and sustaining refugees; and all the while ignoring the justice claims of our indigenous peoples. This is why someone like Donald Trump actually quite interests me: repulsive and narcissistic and crude though he may be, by his very gaucheness and vulgarity he becomes the Great Disruptor who exposes the deep hypocrisy lurking behind the benign face of international diplomacy.

Thirdly, and finally, this Lukan framework enables us to see the redemptive possibilities of migration, of the restorative potential that overcomes the sin and suffering of exodus and exile, and which reconciles people to one another in a way that embodies and reflects the reconciliation implicit in God’s desire for covenantal relationship with humankind. Luke is often described as the most “Gentile” of all the Gospels – a fact that itself serves to remind us of the embeddness of the Christian Scriptures in the textual tradition of Israel. Luke was almost certainly written to a community of Gentile Christians traumatised both by the failure of the Jewish rebellion against Rome that ended with the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70; and by their own alienation from the synagogue and the mainstream of Jewish religious life – and, by implication from their Jewish Christian sisters and brothers, who at that time still made up the majority of the early Christian community. Like the later Revelation According to John, which was a letter of hope to Christian churches suffering persecution during the reign of the emperor Domitian, The Gospel According to Luke is a letter of hope to an early Gentile Christian community suffering the trauma of exile and alienation. And the message is this: exodus comes to an end; exile comes to an end. Through the decisive action of God in the person of Jesus, we are brought home, we migrate from a place of wilderness and dehumanisation, to a place where we become fully human, and enter into the fullness of life characterised by covenantal relationship with God and with one another.

As a nation of exiles, as a country which the poet A D Hope in his poem Australia described as a place

Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores

we are challenged by Luke’s description of Jesus’ exodos to name and confront the sin that lies at the heart of the human experience of displacement and exile, and to become a society which embodies the redemptive possibility of migration, the restorative, humanizing power of reconciliation, relationship, and community.  No-one pretends that the issue of displacement, and the movement of people across international borders is a simple one that can be addressed through simplistic means. All the more tragic, therefore, that we all-too-often plump for a simplistic set of “solutions” that are more concerned with winning elections and appealing to base human instincts than they are about addressing the human tragedy that is the refugee experience. All the more tragic that the bulk of the Australian public appear to embrace a prejudice-ridden nationalism that ignores the facts of our own history of occupation, never mind acknowledges the brutal realities of displacement and statelessness. All the more tragic that, as a nation, we are not prepared to face the complexity of this issue for fear that this will force us to consider all the ways in which our national and international policies create or exacerbate the very conditions that force people to seek asylum in other nations, including our own.

The Gospel According to Luke, with its framework that marries the redemptive mission of Jesus with the sacred history of Israel, challenges us to reflect on our own self-understanding as a society. We, who are a nation of immigrants, do we understand what it means to be “other”, or do we practice the prejudice of “otherness”? We, who made a nation by dispossessing the original inhabitants of this land, do we hold this land as gift available to others, or as exclusive possession defended by xenophobic assumption? Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, and its harking back into the Hebrew peoples’ own experience of exodus, call our attention to the choices that lie before us, and to the consequences of these choices. Christ came to bring us life, and life in all its abundance; let us, therefore, in the words of that other Deuteronomic warning, choose life that we may live; we, and those who come to us, seeking freedom from the sin of exile.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2019. All rights reserved.