Ezra and Nehemiah… rewriting history

In my local emergent cohort, we have been reading Phyllis Tickle’s Prayer Is a Place: America’s Religious Landscape Observed.  As this book has been in the back of my mind, I have been thinking about how we look back and view history.  As my carpool buddy Tim put it, we are always rewriting history and every history has a slant.

As I dove into Ezra and Nehemiah then this week with our Disciple study, I have been wrestling with how they, too, are rewriting history.  They come parading back into the land they were so visciously torn away from and suddenly begin setting themselves apart, above, against those who are already in the land.  They are so terrified of being punished again by God, of being sent back into exile, of having all of this tenuous peace destroyed that they immediately begin talking about righteousness and what makes them righteous.  All of the foreign wives they fell in love with and the children of those marriages have to go.  This is about purity, this is about a common identity, this is about trying their darndest to not make the mistakes of the past.

I found myself greatly disliking these two books as I read them through this time.  I lamented the fact they were so exclusionary, so focused on works and rightousness and reclaiming what was theirs.  I had never seen the texts in that way before, and it troubled me.
But I realized that we also have a group of people who grew to experience God very differently in the land of exile than their brothers and sisters who were left behind in Israel.  And so when they come back, they find folks who did not sit by the waters of Babylon and weep.  They find folks who managed to go on worshipping God in the land without the temple.  They find folks who are now complete strangers to them… adversaries.
Having this revelation about Ezra and Nehemiah helped me to see how difficult it is to lay claim to a space in the world without pushing others away.  In any attempts to define ourselves, we inevitably also say what we are not.  We tell our stories in such ways that show how we have arrived at a certain place and that might mean that others must be written out of our histories.  Is this a good or a bad thing?  Is it simply reality?
Alongside these two accounts, we also find the prophet Haggai who tells this story without such an exclusionary tone. We find the story of Esther who was in the diaspora and who saved her people by her relationship with the gentile king.

What a wonderful thing it is that our sacred texts can hold these contradictions together.  That we can witness to both our struggle to self-identify and to include, to be a people among people and to be a people set apart.  What it means to be faithful in this world is not a black and white story, but it is a complicated interweaving of telling our stories, saying who we are and who we are not, working to make the best of our lives in a given place, our attempts to be faithful, our mistaken journeys down wrong paths… and through it all, God is still God.

And thanks be to God that in each of our readings of these sacred texts we are lead deeper into a realtionship with God.

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