February 2, 2021

What’s in Your Luggage?

Ezekiel’s life of exile offers us hope

Efraín Velázquez

What’s in your luggage?” asked the police officer at recently inaugurated Idlewild Airport (today JFK) in New York. For Arcadio it was one more question in the long history of Puerto Ricans and their complicated relation to more than one colonial power.

Going into Exile

In those bags he and Adelaida carried their earthly belongings, the ones they chose to bring as they left their Caribbean colony. Ironically, Arcadio had opted for the metropole, the Empire State, the “Babylon” he had rejected until now. He and Adelaida were reliving a tragedy of millennia before them, that generations after would follow, by ones and by thousands, on their own feet and yet against their will, a new wave of tears flowing away from the place they know as home. Arcadio and Adelaida were American citizens, neither refugees nor migrants. But in their hearts, moving to the United States was not just moving abroad; it was marching into exile.

What would the prophet Ezekiel say to Arcadio, my grandfather, a child of the countryside brought up with stories of how his kin had lost lands after their homeland was invaded in 1898. Gone was the autonomy Spain had granted the previous year. With the new rulers came a devalued currency, extravagant interest rates affixed to farm loans, and a series of natural disasters that ravaged the crops that powered the national economy. As the new century unfolded, half of the smallholding arable land turned into industrial-size sugarcane plantations. Utilities and railroads laid down on private lands profited at the expense of the impoverished population. Puerto Ricans experienced the fate of other former Spanish colonies and tributary states before and since, oppressed by economies of extraction even as they had fought for their independence. Like Judah to Babylon or Assyria or Egypt, Latin America had turned into somebody else’s backyard, its land, resources, and revenues in the hands of foreign and local elites.

On the island of Puerto Rico local hostility to overlords boiled over into armed protest. The climax came when a handful of Arcadio’s countrymen attempted to assassinate the American president, among other acts of violence. “What’s in your luggage?” was an appropriate question for this imposingly tall and muscular man. But his kind eyes and disarming smile helped to soothe away the officer’s suspicions.

Settling into Empire HQ

Ezekiel did not fly to his Tel Abib destination in today’s southern Iraq. Nor did he volunteer. He didn’t inspire suspicion, either; only indifference. Settling next to the Kebar River (Eze. 1:1), he faced a bleak future. Abram had left this region centuries before, pursuing God’s call to the Promised Land, the same country Ezekiel had now been forced to abandon, reversing his ancestor’s memorable footsteps.

His luggage may have included a scroll fragment—a very rare artifact, perhaps a treasured text hanging from his neck, as with the Ketef Hinnom scroll.1 Or his amulet may have been the seal of his clan. He may have possessed a generational incense shovel or even a portable incensary. Pentateuchal instructions forbade the burning of the special ketoret (incense) outside the sanctuary (see Ex. 30:34-38), a rule violated often. A temple to Yahweh in Arad evidences that they burned incense (with cannabis) during monarchical times; it was likely destroyed during Ezekiel’s childhood, with Josiah’s reformations (see 2 Kings 22). Unauthorized high priests must have faced expulsion or death, as faithful King Josiah’s reforms raised Judahites’ expectations.

The Lord alone can provide guaranteed hope and a new heart.

Ezekiel carried the implements he had expected to use in priestly ministry, but circumstances would work against carrying out his priestly calling. Those with him on this forced march, Babylon-bound, were traversing their own trail of tears.

Happy Exiles

But not everyone. Often enough, too often indeed, two humans will represent three perspectives. Against Ezekiel, some Judahites bore no qualms about switching fringy Judah for metropolitan Babylon. During the previous regime, Mesopotamian sympathizers in the Judahite court had enjoyed Assyria’s favor and profited from the prevailing market. The political stability of the Pax Assyrica (Assyrian Peace) had stimulated the mass production of staples such as oil and wine, even if the resultant trade favored the foreigners and their local lackeys more than ever.

Before Ezekiel’s days, Hezekiah and his allies had pursued an African superpower, Egypt’s twenty-fifth dynasty “Black Pharaohs.” These rulers had provided military assistance to Judah and other Levantine kingdoms against Assyria (see Isa. 30, 31; 2 Kings 24:7), but not because of altruistic concerns. Kushites had implemented an economy of extraction over local Egyptians and sought revenue from their client states. Once Assyria conquered the Levant and Egypt, however, they brought the region under their hegemony and reestablished local pharaohs.

The biblical texts reflect these imperial shifts, always emphasizing Yahweh’s sovereignty and lordship. Yahweh’s eighth-century prophets thundered against the ruling classes for their social injustices among other disgraces. Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah advocated for the oppressed and denounced skewed interpretations and trampling of God’s covenant. But after that high point of Hebrew propheticism, Judah succumbed under Manasseh, who ruled as an Assyrian vassal.

Then Josiah appeared, promising Judah a new day. Anointed king after decades of militarization and heavy taxation, he chose reformation and resistance. His reformation in 622 B.C. (2 Kings 22:8-20) exposed the book of the Law in the rubble of the Temple the very year of Ezekiel’s birth. Ezekiel grew with sermons of fiery prophets ringing in his ears as he lived through the national disintegration that had been foretold. Josiah’s reforms motivated him and inspired high expectations for Judah’s future. But hardly anything changed in the exploited lives of corvé laborers, widows, and aliens. Well-meaning King Josiah was unable to curb oppression and marginalization. Neglect of the core of Yahweh’s covenant yielded nothing in the way of relief for new or older sufferers.

In his optimism, Josiah turned to political maneuvers: he rebuffed Assyria and Egypt’s native pharaohs of the twenty-sixth dynasty to back the emerging Medo-Babylonian coalition. His political miscalculation against the voice of God through an Egyptian monarch (2 Chron. 35:21, 22) drove him to premature death in Megiddo, an Armageddon for Judah that shattered all hopes for Ezekiel’s generation. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian invasion crushed Judah’s short-lived autonomy. And yet there were Judahites glad to move to Mesopotamia and the metropolis.

Call and Baggage

Ezekiel left Jerusalem in 597 B.C. Five years later God called him to prophesy on the day he should have been installed as a priest (Eze. 1:1, 2). Judah’s dystopic reality, the Macondo of his days,2 replaced the ideal reign Ezekiel would have expected from Josiah’s reforms. The Hebrews had been warned about the consequences of having kings ruling over them (Deut. 17:14-20). Stories of judges and kings, bearing matching names and enduring similar fates, seemed like a pathetic merry-go-round of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Biblical history testifies that hierarchical monarchy and, before it, judge-led, egalitarian theocracy worked only sporadically and with limits. By contrast, Ezekiel’s call envisioned the Spirit of God showing order in the midst of chaos (Eze. 1:4-28). Ezekiel’s visions offered assurance of Yahweh’s sovereignty, character, and glory (Eze. 20:9, 14, 22; 36:20-23). Yahweh’s commitment was not to a building, city, or nation, or even a political or economic system.< /p>

Ezekiel saw that Yahweh transcended everything. That transcending power was present with him even in exile. God instructed him to become a mophet—a “sign” or “show”—call him the Muppet man and Lego player of his era: eating a book, building a model of Jerusalem, cooking over manure, etc., a “show and tell” that went on for a year. Then he was instructed to pack again (Eze. 12:3), this time with minimum baggage and for a more solemn performance. His audience expected economic and political change. Their hopes were on ideologies—the empire, or the monarchy, or theocracy. None of these was it. The Temple would be destroyed. Many would be uprooted. Many would die. Their focus should be on the covenant and packing an “exile’s luggage,” Ezekiel warned.

Traveling Light

Ezekiel’s mophet show presents the paradigm of Arcadio and Adelaida, life travelers who are “pilgrims and strangers” (see 1 Peter 2:11, 12). In his book we may recognize allusions to earth’s original creation and loss of original perfection. Adam and Eve, humanity’s first refugees, had to exit with exiles’ luggage, leaving everything behind. And so it continued: Noah left his house, Abram departed from Ur, the patriarchs wandered, as did the Israelites after leaving Egypt. Victims of oppression, from long ago to now, understand about traveling light.

Ezekiel’s most dramatic, most agonizing “show and tell” came at the loss of the love of his life. He had depicted God’s glory, mercy, and judgment before people who kept looking for hope in human proposals. So often the optimism of those who seek justice in the human realm finds disappointment and emptiness. Our sinful nature taints human efforts that often climax with seeking power. God is different: His character and the restoration of His image in His creation are what drive His justice.

Ezekiel’s death-march depiction at God’s command (Eze. 12:1-6) was no romance.3 Its brutality has been repeated enough through human history, reaching to our day: Africans on the Zanzibar and Atlantic slave routes; First Nations of the Americas; Armenians, Greeks, and Turks marching toward exile and death during World War I; Jews, Soviets, Germans, Chinese, Koreans, and more during the second world conflict; Congolese, Palestinian Arabs, the forced Aliyah, the Vietnamese and Cambodians. More recently: Bosnians, Azeris, Tutsis, Hutus, Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians, Yazidis, Rohingya. Forgive if I omitted your pain—my list is not exhaustive.

Leaving home with little or no luggage, victims of oppression and prejudice read Ezekiel and identify personally with the message of exile.

Prophetic oracles were not really intended to bolster national pride and expectation of an earthly utopia. Such never took place, and Jesus knows it cannot (Mark 10:42, 43). God’s children, in exile and on pilgrimage, encounter wonderful systems theory and flawed, failed, and failing human practice. The ideal of our ideas may flourish for a while and yield delectable fruit. But none will provide forever the justice and peace we all need. The Lord alone can provide guaranteed hope and a new heart to live in that reality (Deut. 30:1-6). Meanwhile we live with “exile’s luggage,” focusing on the essentials and being aware that our God will show His glory through us.

Exile Hope

Arcadio knew he must travel light; knew that he was a pilgrim. He arrived in New York City penniless, worked hard, and succeeded, surrounded by prejudice and racism. But alcohol enslaved him, along with gambling, and promiscuity. His heart grew cold amid oppression; he came to care for nothing but his family and his tyrant vices. Then, miraculously, God gave him a heart of compassion and obedience (see Eze. 36:26). He accepted Christ. It cost him his business. He returned to his island, a poor mechanic with eight mouths to feed.

He never made the history books. At the end of his pilgrimage he left little of earthly belongings. But he left a heritage of love and kindness. Arcadio knew that the fight he had chosen to lead in his youthful days was of limited scope. He was disappointed by those who promised change and never delivered. To the age of 90+, he followed the political experiences of Latin America closely. He never saw his oppressed people achieve prosperity or the promised liberation. He reminded everybody to pack light because we are pilgrims, we are exiles. Our hope is Ezekiel’s hope.

Ezekiel knew, and taught, better than “Grandpa Cayo,” the doom of hopes anchored in economic systems, political parties, educational agendas, or ecclesiastical plans. Only God could perform the miracle of restoring the valley of the dry bones (see Eze. 37; cf. Gen. 1). Hence his skepticism of prophets who promised what he knew they could not deliver, given their basis of human effort.

Those who listen and hear the prophet well will not expend their energy on lifting heavy bags of personal possessions this side of eternity. They will be on the side of biblical justice, peace, and hope. But they understand Ezekiel’s mind-boggling vision of the glory of God returning to Jerusalem, retracing Abram’s steps all over again, headed, not for a geographical or political Zion, but an eschatological arrival in the New Jerusalem.

Ezekiel and the company of biblical prophets were mostly exiles, detached from triumphalist national expectations, oppressive manifest destiny, or narratives of self-victimization. They were actively campaigning on behalf of the needy of their world. And we may join our voices and actions to theirs, committed to biblical justice but clear eyed about the possibilities. We are exiles, and we mean to go home soon; home to Zion.

And you, what’s in your luggage?

  1. A small silver scroll with the priestly benediction, found in Jerusalem.
  2. Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional town, in his One Hundred Years of Solitude, that grows and thrives, only to disintegrate.
  3. For insight into its impact on victims, see Ps. 137.

Efraín Velázquez is president of the Inter-American Adventist Theological Seminary.