Just as the human condition cannot be understood apart from the categories of guilt and grace, it cannot be understood apart from the categories of displacement and placement. Since the Protestant Reformation, many in the church have tended to described mankind’s situation post-fall in legal terms. Yet litigation is far from the only metaphor that the biblical writers employ. In the biblical imagination, sin is the quintessential displacer. When God’s people sin, they are exiled. Seen through this lens, the biblical story after Genesis 3 isn’t just about guilt, it’s about dislocation. It’s not just about atonement, it’s about placement.
In Genesis, exile is a covenantal punishment. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve rebel against God’s explicit instructions and death is the foretold consequence. However, their death isn’t immediate, at least not in the literal sense. First, they are exiled from the garden—this is the consequence of their sin, reminiscent of death in that they’re separated from Eden (i.e., immediate access to the presence of YHWH). The presence of death indicates separation from home. Eventually, exile “became a metaphor for political disenfranchisement, social inequality, and alienation from God,” argues Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor in Enduring Exile. The fallen condition of mankind is one of dislocation.
While the plight of man is to wander, the mission of God is to place. Yes, the Israelites are sinful and deserve no home, but God is merciful and eager to pursue them. Adam and Eve wanted autonomy and ended up wandering. In the book of Exodus, we see the giving of God’s law at Sinai as the conclusion of his people’s sojourn. Insofar as the Israelites respect the theocracy, they can have the promised land as a place to call home. Of course, it’s not only God’s law that implies placement, it’s also God himself. A return to home means a return to immediate access to YHWH—access to the Temple. Furthermore, the return home brings with it an accompanying hope for a future Davidic ruler who will secure the placement of Israel once and for all.
Thus just as exile is a consequence of sin, so too is placement the fruit of a reconciled relationship with YHWH. Home isn’t an end in itself—home represents a healed relationship, just as exile typifies a ruptured relationship. Whenever the Israelites have a ruptured relationship with YHWH, they are in exile, irrespective of their location. Indeed, making “home” and security ends in themselves, apart from God, is what leads to Israel losing those very things. The Israelites' freedom can be lost through their passions and sins. They can be away from the presence of YHWH even when they live near the Temple. They can lose their identity and culture even as they remain among family. Moses interpreted Adam and Eve’s banishment as spiritual death; the prophets interpreted Israel’s spiritual death as banishment.
The life of Christ illustrates the fact that sin leads to displacement. Jesus’s life—beginning with displacement in Bethlehem, climaxing with the Son of Man having no place to lay his head—embodies the metaphor of death as exile. In the life of Jesus, we see the life of Israel played out in miniature.
Christians must recognize the displaced condition of the world, but we must not accept it. We must work to transform the world. No doubt some will balk at the idea that God’s people should seek placement here and now. Isn’t our home heaven? Aren’t we merely aliens and sojourners here on earth? An illustration might help. In 1 Peter 3:21, we see that the church corresponds to Noah’s ark—it’s a vehicle for redemption. In the ark, Noah’s family was already saved in that they were protected from drowning. Yet, they were not fully safe until the boat landed. Indeed, they were adrift, wandering even as they were stationary and grounded. They were placed in that they had a floor to stand on, but that floor had yet to reach the mountaintop upon which they could finally rest. Their salvation had an already component and a not-yet component.
Similarly, the church, like the ark, is given a home on an earth that is yet to be fully redeemed. This in-between living is complex and difficult to navigate. Yet this has always been the calling of God’s people. If God’s kingdom is already among us, then we should be taking those aspects of creation that don’t yet reflect that reality and transforming them into what they will one day be, by God’s grace and our participation. If the condition of exile is the result of separating oneself from YHWH, then what might a community formed by the presence of YHWH look like? If exilic culture is fearful, then placed culture would be joyful. If exilic culture is enslaved, placed culture would be free. If exilic culture is disordered, placed culture would be ordered. If exilic culture is contentious, placed culture would be harmonious.
The bad news of sin is that before Christ’s return, we are all alienated and displaced to one degree or another. The good news, however, is that Christ has come to be the new Joseph—leading us to a new place.
Dustin Messer is vicar of All Saints Dallas in Dallas, Texas, and teaches theology at The King's College in New York City.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.