This post continues a series of Lenten reflections. Part one is here.
By David Ney
I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd.
— 2 Chron. 18:16
Where are we? We’re here. And here is, among other things, a time of scattering. Scattering, in the Scriptures, is something people do, such as when the farmer scatters seed upon the ground in the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13). More often than not, however, it is the people themselves that are scattered. They scatter themselves and others. The people of Israel scattered across the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw (Ex. 5:12) and in defeat, they were often scattered by their enemies, as we see in 1 Kings 22:17: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd.”
The scattering of seed, and even the scattering of people, recalls creation’s mandate to multiply and subdue the earth. Many interpreters have read Genesis 11, the story of the tower of Babel, with reference to Genesis 1. God scatters the people from Babel over the face of all the earth to fulfill his original divine commission. This being said, here as elsewhere, the scattering of people is presented as problematic. To be scattered in the Scriptures is to be subject to divine judgement. To be scattered is to be vulnerable, lost, alienated, alone. Far from others and far from God. The experience of being exiled from the Garden is, for Adam and Eve, the experience of being scattered. Thus the Law warns: “‘And you I will scatter among the nations,’ says the LORD, ‘and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste’” (Lev. 26:33). The prophets unfold the terms of this promised scattering by the hand of the Assyrians and Babylonians again and again and again as they declare, “I will scatter,” “I will scatter,” “I will scatter.”
In the Prophets, “I will scatter” is an ominous apparition which you turn from only to find that it is staring you again in the face. But what is so eerie about this prophetic testimony is not just that it greets you everywhere you turn, but rather that the LORD makes it clear at every turn that he isn’t just allowing the scattering, he is doing it: “The Lord himself has scattered them” (Lam. 4:16). To be scattered is to be alienated from others and from the LORD, and yet the one who resists this scattering opposes the LORD.
In our own day, the term “scattered” as it pertains to people, has been psychologized. He’s scatterbrained, we say. We now think of scattering almost exclusively in terms of interiority. It is something you feel, when you don’t feel centered or mindful. It is the pressure of being pulled in many directions, the frustration of finding yourself no longer in control, the feeling of coming to pieces. Psychology and neuroscience have thus become tools to unpack what it means to be scattered. There is some basis for this modern point of view in the Scriptures. People can be scattered in the ways they feel and in what they believe. For instance, Paul urges the Ephesians to grow up so that they will no longer be blown here and there by every wind of teaching (Eph. 4:14) and in the Epistle of James, those without faith are described similarly as blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6).
In the Scriptures, though, being scattered almost always has to do with bodies. Bodies are scattered when they are driven from the land and when they are separated from each other. In 1 Samuel 4 the Israelites are defeated by the Philistines and four thousand men are killed on the field of battle. The Israelites then bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines because they think it will guarantee their success. They form a battle line against the Philistines, but they are again defeated and each man flees to his own tent. There is a far greater slaughter this second time, for 30,000 soldiers fall that day.
In the Old Testament success in battle depended upon holding the line. When you hold the line your shield is supported by the shield of the guy next to you, and his spear which protrudes from the line is a threat to anyone who would seek to destroy you. But when you break the line, the battle is lost. The troops that turn and run and scatter across the countryside are supremely vulnerable. They have nothing to protect their backs, and they can be easily killed by those chasing them. It is simply a matter of time before they trip and fall or slip as they try to climb a ravine or hide in a cave. You get the impression that as soon as one army breaks rank the party begins for the other; they are full of joy that their lives are no longer in grave danger. And if they are bloodthirsty, they are eager for the slaughter to begin. From age to age, commanders have called out desperately to their troops, “Hold the line! Hold the line! Hold the line!”
When the line breaks though, a new call rings out: “every man to his own tent.” This was perhaps a matter of hiding out, as it was for Sisera when he tried to conceal himself in the tent of Jael (Judges 4). But fleeing to your own tent also embodied a shift in priorities. I go to battle on behalf of my people and to defend the land of my compatriots as well as my own. When I flee to my own tent, I let go of this concern and direct my attention entirely to my own affairs, my own land and my own family. And who could blame me! I tried standing next to my brothers in battle but it wasn’t working out for me. Our opponents were pressing hard against us. I was hot and tired. A few of us fell in battle. I knew I had to get out of there while I still had time. Famous last words. The guy fighting next to me isn’t safe when I break rank. But neither am I. My person and my land are suddenly up for grabs, thrown into the balance, when I break the line.
How do we know, scripturally, that a people have been scattered? The answer is quite simple. Look. Where are their bodies? “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd” (2 Chron. 18:16). You know people have been scattered when you look up and you see them no longer together and in one place, because every man has fled to his own tent.
Being scattered, though, isn’t just bad news because it brings physical hardship and vulnerability. It is bad news because a lack of physical cohesion corresponds to a lack of moral cohesion. The soldier breaks the line when he is no longer held by a common purpose, just as his breaking the line is itself a breaking of that purpose. Judges 21:25 says, “And In those days Israel had no king”; Israel had no king and what was the result? With no governing institutions to draw them together in common life and purpose, “all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” Having a king, of course, would cause all sorts of problems in the long run, but it is hard to think of any bleaker assessment than this from an ancient point of view. What does it mean, in the Scriptures, when everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes? It means that they have broken rank and have fled to their own homes. Everyone doing what is right in their own eyes is thus a sure indication that the people have already been defeated. Those who do what is right in their own eyes no longer have any concern for others. They serve only themselves. They have let go of their interest in having God as their king. That’s why they ask for an earthly one.
Sticking together physically helps us stick together morally. “Do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing” (Heb 10:35). Don’t do it, because once you are scattered physically, your common faith will begin to erode! When things that hold us together physically, like family units, or institutions, or in-person church services aren’t in place, we find that we begin to wander morally.
In Taiwan I had an uphill battle convincing my wife Jamie’s family that I had honorable intentions in my relationship with her just because I was from the West. Westerners get off the plane in East Asia, they look around, and notice that their parents aren’t around, that their pastor isn’t there to tell them what to do. The accountability structures which held their youthful impulses at bay are no longer in play, and many fall off the deep end. Their bad reputation with the locals follows their bad behavior.
There is a version of this in the United States: going to college. It’s an extremely dangerous thing, going to college. The biggest problem isn’t, as fundamentalists tend to think, that your professor is a pagan and will surely pollute your mind. The biggest problem is where you are. It has everything to do with your body. You are suddenly on your own and you can do as you please. You have been scattered physically, and that opens the door for a moral scattering to follow.
“All things are lawful for me,” says the person who has been given over to living a scattered life, “but not all things are beneficial,” St. Paul retorts! All things are lawful for me — but not all things build up (1 Cor. 10:23). Building up, not tearing down! That is the reason why he has been given apostolic authority, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, twice. Being built up is the opposite of being scattered, because it means being built up together, in unity. St. Paul describes this being built up together in a very particular way. To be built up is to be conformed to the image of Christ. St. Paul thus urges his brothers and sisters in Philippi:
Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:2-4)
This scattering has been more of a hardship for some than for others. For some of you it has given you the chance to buckle down with your computer and get stuff done. Many of you have continued through this time of scattering, to enjoy the company of family and sometimes even friends. But for others you’ve been scattered in a way that has been personally devastating. You’ve lost your job; you’ve lost your routine; your life has become disordered; you feel as if you’ve lost contact with the outside world; the lights have gone out, and the darkness is now your closest companion (Psalm 88:18). By and large however, we’ve been protected from the worst of the scattering. I spoke to someone who described the hospice where she worked as a chaplain as a Gehenna, a smoldering garbage keep of corpses. Those who work in hospices are, of course, used to people dying, though not in the numbers they are seeing now. The horror of the hospice today isn’t that it is a place of death. The horror is that it is a place where people now go to die alone. Those they love have been taken from them. They are lost and confused and afraid. They have no one to pray with, no one to hold their hand, no one to give them last rites.
As we have been subject to the experience of being scattered physically, we’ve come face to face with an even more ominous phenomenon: the scattering of our culture as people give themselves over to “do whatever seems right in their own eyes” (Jdg. 17:6). Everyone, it seems, has become their own expert. Everyone is an epidemiologist. Everyone is a pundit. Everywhere you go in America today you see people going their own way; people refusing to do this or insisting that everyone else do that. Most sensible people have finally vowed to be “moderate” in opposition to those that are too uptight on that side and those who aren’t cautious enough on the other. But everyone’s “moderate” is a different “moderate.” Where are we? We are here? But not just here. We’re here and here and here and here and here and here and here. “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Here has become an icon, a somewhat embarrassing one when it comes to the status of America within the wider world, of what it looks like to be a morally scattered people because here is here and here and here and here and here and here. The urgency of this problem can hardly be understated. We have turned and broken rank. We are vulnerable and many have died. If ever a unified agreement about a course of action has been called for, it is now. And yet we can’t agree on what to do about the pandemic. But not just the pandemic: we can’t agree about pretty much everything else that matters. America, and worse still, the American church, is at war with itself.
The battle lines are drawn, and the enemy has been engaged. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. If it has moral significance, you’ll be able to line up Americans, often millions, on each side of the divide. It doesn’t matter whether it is life and death issues like abortion, euthanasia, or immigration, or trivial and local matters like who to elect as your dogcatcher. This moral scattering may prove more dangerous than the physical scattering we have experienced as we have been driven apart and forced to embrace physical isolation. Since we’ve all been forced to go our own way, we’re vulnerable to believe that this is the moment to do what is right in our own eyes; to assert ourselves and boldly lead the way.
When Israel rebelled against King Rehoboam, the cry rang out among the Israelites, “To your tents, O Israel, Look after your own house O David!” Breaking rank enacts division, and it ultimately leads to civil war. (1 Kgs 12:16). Maybe the grace God has in mind for us is seeing that we must go forward together, or not at all. Now is the chance we have, as a community, and as the Church, to think in a fresh way about what it means to live and act as though we aren’t just individuals but members of one Body. Now is our chance to stand in the gap by bringing people together rather than driving them apart.
In the end, though, our experience has helped us to see, quite keenly, that the forces at play that toss us to and fro and that scatter us are too big for us. Being scattered has helped us to see that in the end it isn’t about what we do or don’t do — whether it comes to opening our doors or wearing masks or celebrating the Eucharist. It is about what God is doing through all that we are experiencing, and in the midst of it. All that we can say with confidence is that the scattering will end when God decides that it will end.
This sounds like extremely bad news. How can we be expected to hold things together if God is scattering us? Who can fight against the Lord and win? But in actual fact, that it is the Lord himself doing the scattering is the only good news we have. Because while divine scattering is an act of uncreation, it is also an act of re-creation. The seed that is scattered will become the seed of new birth, for “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). God scatters his people as an act of judgement and mercy both. As the LORD says through his prophet, “I will scatter you among the nations and disperse you through the countries, and I will purge your filthiness out of you. And I shall be profaned through you in the sight of the nations; and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezek. 22:15).
We long for things to be as they once were. We long to be together, again. And yet we are scattered. Here we are. And here we shall be until God brings us to another here. We have been asked to sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it upon us (Lam. 3:28). But remember this: as Jeremiah sits alone in silence he sees, maybe for the first time, that the “steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23). Jesus “saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). He sees us as we are, yet he doesn’t turn away. He sets his face toward Jerusalem: his compassion for his scattered flock is a compassion which loves unto death. We are unable to gather that which has been scattered. We seek the Lord, because gathering is something only he can do. “At that time I will gather you.” At what time? At the time of the Lord’s anointing. “At that time I will gather you,” the Lord says through Zephaniah. “At that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes” (Zeph. 3:20). What then remains for us to do but seek the Lord? Is there anything else to do? Come, Lord Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. David Ney is associate professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry.