A Nation of Exiles

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In 1 Peter 2:9-12, Peter mixes two seemingly contradictory Old Testament themes. The first is that of the exodus and establishment of God’s people within the promise land. 1 Peter 2:9-10:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

These two verses are rich with allusions to Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Hosea and are worthy of study to understand the richer context Peter is suggesting. In summary, Peter is leveraging God’s redemption of Israel and His establishment of them as a nation within the Promise Land as a metaphor for what God was doing with Peter’s audience. God has redeemed them and is setting them apart as a unique people group to glorify His name to the nations. These people would be in the center of God’s redemptive work in the world.

While this first point is often made and commonly known, the second allusion Peter makes is too often glossed over. This allusion complements and expounds the first. 1 Peter 2:11-12

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Scherl; An der Sowjetfront: Auf dem Wege ins Flüchtlingslager - Mit dem ihnen verbliebenem Panjewagen bringt eine Familie ihre gerettete habe auf einer der großen Ausfallstraßen  Stalingrads in Sicherheit. PK-Aufnahme: Kriegsberichter Gehrmann (Sch) 5870-42, Oktober 1942

Russian Refugees

The first allusion leaned on Israel and on its occupation of the Promise Land. This second allusion leans on Israel’s expulsion from the Promise Land through the nation’s defeat. The first references Israel’s freedom while the second references Israel’s enslavement. One is of joyful homecoming while the other is of tortuous abduction. One of God’s protection and one of that protection removed. These should seem mutually exclusive because they are. So why is it that Peter alludes to these two images in the same breath?

The key to understanding Peter’s point is found in the Old Testament context of these two words, sojourner and exiles. Sojourner (paroikos) references someone who lives in a foreign land while exile (parepidēmos) references the same idea but from the opposite direction: someone forced out of their land. These same words are found scattered through the Septuagint (greek translation of the Old Testament). The Hebrew words are ger and towshab. Their definitions are slightly different, though. Ger referred more to a temporary inhabitant or someone without inherited rights (think Ruth) while towshab simply means a foreigner. Ger and towshab are often found in pairs just as in 1 Peter 2.

The first place these two words are found together is Genesis 23:4 when Abraham is attempting to buy land to bury Sarah from the Hittites but they instead would rather gift it to him. He says, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” This is more than just a statement of fact; this was Abraham’s life and calling. From the time God first spoke to him, he would be a man who would live in a foreign land not his own. It wouldn’t be until 400 years later that God would finally fulfill His promise of giving Abraham’s descendants this land. 

What is fascinating about Peter’s allusion to this passage is the immediate next verses when the Hittites respond. “The Hittites answered Abraham, “’Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.’ Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land” (Genesis 23:5-7). In response to Abraham’s “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you” the Hittites reply with, “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us.” Both statements were true: Abraham was both a stranger without his own land and a prince of God. It almost sounds like 1 Peter 2. This prince of God, a prince without land, then bows before them instead the people bowing before a prince. This is what made Abraham Abraham. 

And this is what his descendants were to be. A people who, though “a holy nation,” would willingly and humbly bow before those they could exhort control over. They were to be a people who were always sojourners and foreigners at heart so they would take care of the sojourners and foreigners. This was to be a defining mark of this “royal priesthood,” which is why ger and towshab show up the most together throughout Leviticus dictating how God’s priests were to care for the stranger and alien just as their brothers. “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). Then, near the end of Leviticus, God says, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). Even when God’s people finally had a home, they were still to be strangers and foreigners with their God.

This then became the rationale for many of God’s commandments to His people:

Exodus 22:21 – “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9 – “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 10:19 – “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

Nasa Space Station PhotoThis also became the rationale for the later expulsion of the people of Israel from their land. When God’s people forget their call to be sojourners, it’s time for a field trip. We always long for home. It is what’s safe, known, and our’s. Home is what often tempts us to stay behind when the Lord is on the move. And when home becomes motive against others, God steps in to remind His people who they are to be. When we get so caught up in building our own homeland that strangers and foreigners become a threat to us, we have missed the exact mission God has invited us to be a part of. Our identity individually and corporately is not found in a land with physical borders but rather in the removal of borders that divide people. As soon as we forget what it means to not belong, we start failing to care for those who don’t belong.

Perhaps this was the lesson God needed His people to learn when He sent them Babylon. Before being taken away, He said to them in Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Truthfully, most of us do not live in a foreign land and yet we still do not “seek the welfare” of the land we live in. We isolate and condemn from afar. Either that or we have so fully assimilated that we are indistinguishable. Our call is still the call of Abraham; to be sojourners and exiles in a land that is not ours for no land is ours. We trust and serve a King of all heaven and earth to Whom borders, whether physical or other, are merely human constructions. May we be a people who through faith recognize that we are strangers and exiles on earth (Hebrews 11:13) so that we may reach the strangers and exiles of our world.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.