Monday, October 01, 2007

Exile and The Problem of the Remnant

Exile and the Remnant

During the tenuous times of the ‘historical’ exile, the proliferation of what might be termed ‘remnant’ theology was developed. It was most likely developed in an effort to make sense of the delay of the second exodus and the ongoing tribulations felt by those Jews in captivity. The theology of a remnant can be traced to the canonical book of Isaiah, especially chapters 56-66. This theology of a remnant dealt with the issue of exile through the obedience and faithfulness of a few.[1] The general thinking was that if God was indeed going to be faithful to his covenant then he would have to preserve at least some of Israel. So even though the nation experienced the punishment for her sins collectively, there was still a reason for the individual to be faithful to the covenant. A careful reading of several texts of the Second Temple period seem to point to the developing view that only a remnant would survive to see the blessings of the restoration.[2] At its core this theology consisted of this basic story: the people transgress against yhwh’s will and thus anger him; yhwh is said to destroy the godless among the people; while yhwh spares the remnant.[3]

The existence of a remnant theology has recently been used to call into question the power the concept of exile and return had over the Judaism(s) of the Second Temple period.[4] It is argued by Seifrid, in rather syllogistic fashion, that a belief in a continuing exile demands that generally the Jews regarded themselves under a corporate guilt (guilt for Seifrid is equivalent to sin) and lamented their condition; but since remnant theology insists that Israel is divided into two groups, the pious and the wicked, the sin of the people as a whole can no longer be considered absolute, as an exilic reading would require; no corporate sin, no continuing exile.[5] Seifrid essentially wonders how the nation as a whole can be under sin, while at the same time the remnant, still under the umbrella of the nation can be considered faithful.[6] But Seifrid’s critique seems to be flawed on at least two fronts. Firstly, no one who argues for a continuing exile thinks that this state is due to the Jews sense of guilt. But as the prophets in the Scriptures of Israel are fond of saying, the exile is because the nation has failed to live by the covenant and failed to be obedient to yhwh.[7] Secondly, his notion that the concept of national sin can not coexist with remnant theology seems to be a quarrel with the idea of remnant theology itself, rather than that of a continuing exile. If Seifrid is right then why did these Jews hold to any view of restoration at all? What value would they see in nurturing any hopes related to ethnic or national Israel?[8]

It is possible, of course, that restoration was simply such a strongly held traditional belief, clearly expressed in the Scriptures, that removing it completely from the theology of these groups would have been impossible.[9] There is, however, another motivation that would make sense of the inclusion of the theology. The continuation of Israel in some form, even after judgment, offered the opportunity of vindication for the teachings or 'way' of the remnant group. Elliott writes:

It is a feature of these writings…that Israel would eventually come to the knowledge that the righteous were correct all along, even openly honoring them. Since Israel was the larger unit over against which these groups defined themselves, since Israel was the group they argued with and protested against, and since Israel shared with these groups similar claims on a common inheritance, it can be seen how a fuller restoration would grant to the cause of the remnant groups an especially satisfying, and ultimate, vindication.[10]

The faithful remnant of the present, having perceived an unprecedented degree of apostasy in the nation, and having voiced its protest against the present state of things and against Israel, firmly believed that its message of protest and teaching about the true righteousness would eventually be vindicated. This vindication would not only be by the Gentile nations being brought into the fold, but even more significantly, by the ‘elect’ nation itself, as they would come to honor the remnant group and eventually join their cause.[11]

But in most of these texts, while a return from exile is acknowledged, the teaching is that exile is an ongoing condition, one that may never end in historical time. The burden of these authors consequently fits within the same framework of an exilic narrative; i.e. to provide the necessary information and consolation so that the readers of their messages are able to cope with the discouraging course of history and to renew their confidence in the God who governs and directs all of history.[12]

But even if these texts only envision a return from exile within the sectarians own group, the wide variety of texts certainly would speak then of competing groups who would view themselves as the true remnant. Thus showing that the exile and return motif was a strong way to talk about who was the true remnant, and thus proving that the motif still carried strong currency in the Second Temple period.

[1] On remnant theology see, R. E. Clements, ""A Remnant Chosen by Grace" (Romans 11.5): The Old Testament Background and Origin of the Remnant Concept," in Pauline Studies: Essays Presented to Professor F.F. Bruce on His 70th Birthday, ed. Donald Alfred Hagner and Murray J. Harris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 106.

[2] In Hebrew tyrav or hljylp, the concept of remnant, following the usage in the Hebrew Bible, assumes that sectarians at Qumran were the true representatives of the biblical remnant and it is they who will therefore survive into the end of days. This notion appears in 4Q393 (Communal Confession) frag. 3.7, where the author sees himself and his fellow (sectarians?) as the remnant of the patriarchs in accord with God’s covenant with Abraham. See Schiffman, "Concept of Restoration," 207.

[3] See the discussion in Antti Laato, Who Is Immanuel?: The Rise and the Foundering of Isaiah's Messianic Expectations (Åbo: Åbo Academy Press, 1988), 88-94.

[4] Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Justification (NSBT 9; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 21-25.

[5] Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness, 22.

[6] Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness, 23. Ironically, the idea of a remnant theology might have been the impetus for a more individual conception of restoration, an idea that suggests the covenant endured through those individuals who despite the rebellion of the nation as a whole remained faithful to yhwh. See Gary W. Burnett, Paul and the Salvation of the Individual (Biblical Interpretation Series 57; Leiden: Brill, 2001), 81-82; Géza Vermès, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (New York: Penguin Press, 1997), 68-9.

[7] Seifrid seems to think that the conception of national sin is highly superficial when compared to Paul’s view of sin. Seemingly setting up the continuing exile as a foil to the heart of Paul’s real thought on sin. See Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness, 22.

[8] Not to mention Seifrid’s assumption that the sin of Israel is somehow their quilt, and not their disobedience? So Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness, 22, 24-5.

[9] According to Neusner the motif of exile and return itself was a self fulfilling prophecy which all Judaic systems have incorporated, regardless of whether it ever meshed with reality. See Jacob Neusner, "Exile and Return as the History of Judaism," in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Conceptions, ed. James M. Scott (JSJSup 56; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 221-38. One of the main reasons for this was the authoritative nature of the scriptures Jacob Neusner, Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 63. Neusner posits that this paradigm of exile and return, even when the Jews in question had no experience of exile and return, tells us more about the power of religion not merely to respond to world, but rather to define the world. See Neusner, Judaism When Christianity Began, 58.

[10] Elliott, Survivors, 636. cf. 1 En. 90.30; Jub 1.25

[11] Elliott, Survivors, 637.

[12] Vanderkam, "Exile in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature," 109.

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