Probably around the same time Amos arrived in town, at the idolatrous temple in Bethel, God was asking another prophet in the Northern Kingdom to do something even more outrageous: “Get yourself a prostitute wife and have some kids with her.” Of course, Hosea’s peers did not understand. Hosea was likely a middle to upper-class man. He was supposed to be an upstanding citizen. But his life decisions led people to say he was a “fool” and “out of his mind” (9:7).
In some ways, the nation of Israel was founded from the beginning on idolatry, as the people quickly made a golden calf and called it their God, Yahweh. Now, the people are again worshiping God at a golden calf in Bethel. Yet they say they know God. This claim would be their undoing. It was one thing not to worship God—but to worship a distorted image of God–while still calling it God–was fatal.
Through the risk and suffering in this prophet’s personal life, God communicated His own grief and spurned love with His people. Hosea models the gut-wrenching risk of love, especially the grief of God trying to love the people He created. Perhaps Paul was reflecting on Hosea’s life and marriage when he later wrote that our marriages tell a story of love: ideally, the story of God loving his people (Eph. 5:32).
Hosea compares Israel to a “silly dove, easily deceived and senseless—now calling to Egypt, now turning to Assyria. When they go, I will throw my net over them; I will pull them down like birds of the air . . . I will catch them” (7:11-12). This description is a callback to Jonah (Jonah means dove in Hebrew). Just like Jonah cared more about God blessing himself or his country (crying over a weed but getting angry when God saved an entire city) so these people don’t mourn over the right things but rather cry when their comfort is disturbed (7:14) The nation does not realize the dangerous situation she’s in because of her outward prosperity. Her corrupted priorities were symptoms of the malaise that had crept in through their idol worship—their unfaithfulness to the God who had rescued them in the first place. They cared so little about the right things their strength was being sapped and they didn’t even know it (7:8-9). They were already living the curse.
Despite Israel immediately prostituting herself to that golden calf, God was said to have married the nation, the people of Israel, when He entered in covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. Now, even though she had continued to abandon Him to play the whore with every other idol in sight, He still wanted to be with her. However, just as Gomer, Hosea’s wife, was sold into slavery in the interim, God’s people too would be led back into slavery. They would be exiled. But . . . as the story played out before their eyes between the prophet and the prostitute, God wouldn’t be angry with them forever. Just like Israel in Egypt, just like Hosea and Gomer, He would buy his people back out of slavery to be with them again.
Imagine the haggard shepherd, Amos, fresh off his journey from the Southern Kingdom (not six miles from Bethlehem). Imagine him stepping into the sanctuary in Bethel, where worship of God and country had been molded together in the shape of a bull. Imagine him dusting himself off and shutting the worship service down with breaking news from God.
Tracking along with the opening chapters of Amos, we can again imagine Amos on his way up to the capital, calling out the surrounding nations as they fight against the God of Creation, before leveling the charge against the divided kingdom of Judah and Israel (Amos 1 & 2). Then, when he arrives at the temple in Bethel, he calls out every family sitting there (3:1), the housewives living in luxury while they disregard others (4:1), the at-ease upper-echelon (6:1-3), the pastors, politicians, and entertainers (6:5) are all held responsible.
Not since Moses’ warning in Deuteronomy had a prophet reminded God’s people that the state and survival of the nation hinged on faithfulness to God. Prophets of old had spoken to the kings. Now, Amos is condemning not just the leaders, but the citizens of the Northern Kingdom.
Almost no citizen is spared other than the “poor and needy.”
The country had experienced leisure, luxury, and security, while profiting from loopholes and pushing aside the poor (5:12). Did they not remember these were the very same curses they had called down upon their heads? But now another voice cries out on behalf of God, in the middle of their worship: “I hate this! I refuse to take one more look at your so-called worship of Me. Stop this cacophony of singing and music. Instead, let justice—that mighty river—flow and flood like a continuous stream of righteousness” (5:21-24).
This is also the first time that a tremor is felt in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. No name is given, but dredging up the dreaded prophecy of Moses, Amos predicts exile. Another nation will come and take over their Northern Kingdom of Israel (6:14). The words had to have landed like a hammer on the congregation.
That’s when the priest in charge of Bethel, Amaziah, had enough. He stepped forward to put an end to this uneducated shepherd’s yapping. He knew the law was on his side. He hadn’t been listening; he hadn’t heard that God was not on his side, even if the government was. Looking at this disheveled fellow, he says, “Go back to where you came from, and ply your trade in the Southern Kingdom if you’re looking for food. This is the king’s property and this is God’s house, the temple of our kingdom” (Amos 7:10-14).
But Amos doesn’t back down, “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. I was herding my sheep and keeping the sycamore trees when Yahweh snatched me away and sent me here. So listen up! You’ve told me to shut up. You want me to preach to someone else but not our own people. Well guess what? Disaster is coming on your family. Your land is going to be given away out from under you. And everyone in this land is going to be exiled away from it” (7:14-17).
Amos boldly reminded Israel that–just as Moses had warned–disaster would follow their sin. His words devastated and angered those choosing sin over God. Yet his message concludes with a hope that the exiles could savor after they watched his warnings of captivity come true. God would raise up a new city of David, a new people of His own, planting them Himself, never to be uprooted (9:11-15).
Israel too was a country divided. The Northern Kingdom had split off years ago. They were coming out of a time of “prosperity and relative peace from pesty neighbors.” Years of fairly stable leadership had “created luxury and ease for many and spawned poverty and injustice for numerous others” (1). There had been grassroot stirrings that things were not right; a growing feeling of malignancy was creeping through the country’s moral fabric. The king at this time was a man named Jeroboam II. “He did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 14:24). His namesake, Jeroboam I, was the founder of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who had quickly steered the people of God toward idolatry (1 Kings 12).
However, in the middle of all this stands Jonah, a man of God, who speaks for God and assures the king that God will restore the borders of the land. Jonah, in his lifetime, assured the nation that others would not infringe on their territory. But actually, the story of Jonah is the story of God caring about other nations, and opposing the pride of Israel, the people known by His name—all through the same mopey, reluctant prophet.
What we see follow in the book of Jonah is best described as satire. Perhaps, looking back, people realized just how silly this prophet was. Jonah himself was real, as seen by how Jesus references him alongside other historical figures (Matthew 12:38-42). But the book of Jonah makes a statement about the patriotic figure and his country. The people bearing the name and waving the banner GOD, if their resident “man of God” is any indication, seem to be the ones who respond least appropriately to Him. While the winds and waves obey His command, “pagans” from other countries bow the knee on a dime, and even the livestock repents when confronted with God’s word, the man of God from the people of God is vomited out by the fish that just can’t stomach his pride.
Jonah also shows an amazing lack of awareness for his surroundings. While the sailors offer sacrifices to Yahweh overhead, he vows in the belly of the beast that if God rescues him, he will worship Him in the temple . . . presumably the temple in Bethel presided over by a cow statue. The place they called “the house of the Lord” had never had God in it! Later, he is seething over God’s patience and compassion with the Assyrians (Ex 34:6-7) . His distortion field is massive: he can’t stand God for being so good, or see how twisted his own desires are, as he weeps for a weed when God preserves the entire populace of the Assyrian capital, including their cattle.
As Christians–God’s people who are supposed to represent him today–let’s read Jonah understanding that it was written to satirize people like us. When economic prosperity or simply a history of religiosity lead us to condemn God’s love for those we call our enemies, be careful. We may find ourselves swallowed up. Or as God asks Jonah—no matter what you think about what God is doing—“Is it right for you to be angry?”
C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 39.
God had humored Moses and gone with Israel. Now it looked like a big mistake. After arriving to the land God had promised to give Abraham generations ago, nobody wants to go in! At the climax of the movie, the hero, finally able to fulfill destiny, turns back and says, “Nah” (Num 14).
Now, after the previous generation of ingrates has died off, God has once again brought the nation of Israel up to the border of the land he promised their ancestors. But this land, and the relationship with God, came with some warning labels. Before they cross the Jordan river, Moses divides the people into two groups who then scale two mountains that sit across from one another, forming a natural amphitheater. One recites all the good words, the blessings that will come if they follow God. The other group recites all the bad words, the curses that will come down on their heads should they forget God. From one side of the mountain echoed . . .
If anyone creates something wonderful that they then secretly treat as God;
If anyone does not honor their parents;
If anyone cheats others through self-made loopholes;
If anyone mistreats or makes fun of the handicapped or helpless;
If anyone deprives the immigrant, the refugee, the single mom, or the foster children justice;
If anyone is sexually perverted, dishonoring their family or creation;
If anyone secretly murders his fellow human;
If anyone uses money as an excuse to kill people;
Let them be cursed (Deut 27).
And then from other side of the valley, they heard:
If anyone listens to and follows Yahweh . . .
You will be blessed in the city and in the country;
You will be blessed by work, investments, and a family that produces and provides for you;
Yahweh will disrupt the plans of your enemies;
You will be known as unique and gifted people;
You will make whatever you do better, and bless others with your wealth;
If you listen to and follow Yahweh;
If not, all these things will flip and become curses for you.
You will suffer all the plagues I inflicted on Egypt—to set you free—if you turn and become the oppressor. Instead of rescuing you, I will send a foreign, unfeeling army to besiege you. You will be scattered all around where you can worship whatever you want. But you will have no peace. (Duet 28).
Both groups rededicated themselves to Yahweh, signing themselves up for all the blessings and curses that would follow.
But immediately after the ceremony, God levels with Moses: not only is he going to die soon, but also God’s people are going to quickly turn away from him, and inherit all the curses they just said yes to. Even though they had just promised to live by what God said–blessings, curses, and all–they wouldn’t do it. They could do it, and Moses had urged them to choose life and remain loyal to the God that loved them (30:11-14). But their hearts would need to be circumcised, fundamentally changed, before they could truly love him with all their heart and soul (Deut. 30:6). Until then, they would experience both, blessings and curses.
Moses already knew. He knew the character of the people and their children, whom he had led for so long. He knew the nature of his own twisted heart. They could not remain loyal for long. And so, instead of a song of celebration, Moses goes off to die after singing a song of doom over Israel.
From the outset, the nation was founded on this story.
It was possibly the biggest wedding ever planned. Yahweh had descended to the mountain. The people of Israel had consecrated themselves, preened for the ceremony. They had covenanted together and exchanged vows—but with a wrinkle. Because when God came down in his terrible glory, thunder and fire, voice like a trumpet, and power that made the mountain tremble, his bride cowered. They could not bear his voice. Instead, they sent the best man—Moses—on ahead to arrange things. They had said, “I do,” to one another with lengthy vows, done the equivalent of exchanging rings (the two stone tablets, a symbol of their covenant), and shared a meal. Then it was time for the big party.
But first, God asked Moses to come up to him. Why not go ahead with the party? God was laying out plans for how he would literally pitch his tent among them so they could be together. They had to figure out the logistics of how this God—so good and but also so uniquely different (hear: holy)—could live with his people. No one had been near to God since before Adam and Eve had been exiled from his presence in Eden. But as God and Moses planned, all hell was breaking loose below them.
Maybe their fidgeting was understandable. This wasn’t 40 minutes of picture-taking. They had been waiting on God and Moses for 40 days! Israel wouldn’t wait any longer; it was time to take things into their own hands. They begged Aaron to make a Yahweh for them. They would still love God . . . just, in their own way. So they spent all their money, all the wealth they had accumulated since God had rescued them from slavery down in Egypt, and Aaron used his talent to make an idol to represent Yahweh. “Here are the gods who rescued you from Egypt,” Aaron says. “Now let’s get this party started!” And then an orgy of eating, drinking, dancing and sex ensues as the people pleasure themselves without their husband.
On the mountain, Moses saw Yahweh’s eyes burn with wounded rage. He almost wiped them out that day. Moses managed to hold him back, remind him who he was and what he had promised (Ex 32:14). Even then, Yahweh couldn’t bring himself to go any further with his people who had so quickly and callously rejected him (33:3). Only, again, when Moses begged him, and said there was no point in them going to the land he had promised them if he wasn’t with them, did Yahweh agree to go (33:12-17).
God carefully laid out two more stone tablets, like rings—the symbol of their commitment to one another. A commitment both he and Moses knew Israel would break. Yet he would still vow himself to Israel again. Then he reminded them why he would do it. He said, “I am Yahweh. I am an empathetic and gracious God, not with a quick temper, overflowing with loyal love and integrity, always loyally loving thousands upon thousands, and faithfully carrying away twistedness, betrayal, and failure. But I never fail to bring evildoers to justice, even if it takes generations” (Ex 34:6-7).
Moses knelt before Him and cried, “Please, Yahweh, go with us! You’re right, they’re fickle people. Carry away our twistedness and our failure . . . and make us your own!”(34:9).
It wasn’t going to be easy. They had hurt Yahweh, apparent by the fact that even after his tent was standing, and Yahweh entered the tent, no one was allowed to enter—not even Moses (40:35).
We will get fidgety. We are still just as fickle. But as we start this journey through exile, let’s soak in this story, and remember God’s character, even after he is brutally betrayed: patient, loving, compassionate. He still makes a way to be with his people, even when they turn away from him. In a sea of instability, not least of which is our own affections, let’s never forget his integrity is our anchor.
If y’all are anything like us, the exile part of Biblical history is the haziest. Even in our Bible story sets we love and use in our ministry in Madagascar, we basically jump from King David to Jesus, with a brief stop to hear how Isaiah predicts Jesus.
But in terms of Israel’s story–the story of the descendants of Abraham–exile is a critical epoch, a fulcrum. Much like how we view our own wars as Americans, or 9-11, or, now, COVID-19, the exile is a major historical event for Israel that divides her history into two parts: pre-exilic and post-exilic.
So, we want to give some brief background info and starting definitions as we try to dive deeper into the words of the prophets around exile. If you want to go further in your study, here are a couple of great resources to explore:
In the meantime, here are some ideas to get us started.
Exile connotes the loss of all that is familiar and comfortable. Emotionally, it is characterized by confusion. In the Bible, exile starts in the Garden of Eden, when humans decide to define what is good or bad on their own, without God. As a result, they can no longer live with God and they are cut off from him, Eden, and life itself. But God promised to bring them home and defeat their enemies through another person.
God promised Abraham, one specific human, he would bless the world through him. Though he told Abraham to leave his home, he would give him another home in the Promised Land. Year after year, people waited for God to bring them home to this place. And though God continued to work through people (like Moses) and save Abraham’s people from death, slavery, etc., they never quite got back to the Garden. Eventually God did come to live with them. They finally made it into the Promised Land. They built a flourishing empire under some good kings—like King David that made people believe that perhaps everything was coming back together. But it wasn’t to be.
God had already warned them that their people would continue to do things their own way, and it would lead to ruin. The one kingdom split into two, the Northern and Southern kingdoms, and people began worshiping everything but Yahweh their God. God continued to use people, prophets, to try and rescue the nation from itself. But eventually, both Israel and Judah were attacked, defeated, and exiled by other nations. And the hope became that, somehow, God would not only return them to their Promised Land but come to live with them and rule over them again.
The Divided Kingdom: North and South
Under King Saul, then David, and finally Solomon, the Hebrew people had been a united nation. However, due to bad leadership, buried tensions resurfaced and the nation split in two. The Northern Kingdom was known as Israel, as it comprised most tribes from Israel. The Southern Kingdom was primarily the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with Jerusalem still as its capital and, importantly, the temple where God lived. The Southern Kingdom was called Judah. To centralize spiritual power, the kings of the Northern Kingdom made a new capital in the city of Samaria, and a new temple in the city of Bethel. The temple at Bethel was home to a golden calf idol that Northern Israelites worshiped as Yahweh.
Israel’s capital, Samaria, was sacked in 922 BC by the Assyrians, and the people of the Northern kingdom were either enslaved back in Assyria, or culturally assimilated with others imported into the territory. Assyria tried to conquer the Southern Kingdom at this time as well, but God prevented it.
Judah’s destruction was a slow burn. First, in 587 BC, the Babylonians forcibly removed all the most educated people and exiled them to Babylon (think of Daniel and his friends). Then, when Babylon’s new territory would not submit, they completely razed the city in 593 BC.
Beginning with Moses, Israel needed a go-between. Moses is the prototypical prophet: speaking to God’s people on God’s behalf, but also empowered and used by God to deliver his people. In this way, prophets, and those of their ilk, are always a partial fulfillment of God’s promise to defeat evil through the “seed of the woman” (Gen 3:15).
Later, Yahweh began the tradition of communicating with the nation of Israel through these prophets. Through men and women like these, God tried to pull the nation of Israel back from the brink. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about prophets, whether then or now, is that they were not officially part of either the ruling class or the religious class—they were not priests or kings. They could be anybody. They stood outside of these as a third eye of sorts, a way for God to hold his people, and especially their leaders, accountable.
It’s also important to remember that although we know these people as true prophets today, they were not acknowledged as such during their lifetime. Prophets and messages of all kinds existed during this time, both good and bad, true and false. Often, the things they warned of happened after they were gone. In this way, prophets are usually honored—acknowledged, even listened to—in hindsight.
America is not Israel. Yet, the story of Exile, as told through the pages of the Bible, is the story of how the mighty fall, how an entire nation, that had outwardly pledged allegiance to God, had actually always believed God pledged allegiance to them. It is the story of the corrosive effect of power, as rulers and religion do violence to the weakest in society. It is the story of how God will not leave the guilty unpunished, even through multiple generations, even those he had wanted to bless.
But it is also the story of profound hope. Not the kind of hope that only glimmers when the sun is shining, but hope that radiates out when all is darkness. God is always calling his people back, sending them prophets to hold them accountable and remind them of his promises. Ultimately, the exile is how God prepared a nation for the Messiah, Jesus. You see, all God ever wanted was a human through whom he could bless the entire world. So eventually, Jesus comes to be that human, through whom God would start to bring everything back together.
“These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:11-13, NRSV).
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on March 2, 2022 (this week!). Throughout church history, Lent has been a time which many Christian faith traditions have set aside to fast, to pray, and to actively anticipate the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter.
This year, we want to focus during the six weeks of Lent on God’s words to His people, the descendants of Abraham, through the prophets. The story of the descendants of Abraham climaxes in the fulfillment of God’s warnings to them through the prophets: that if they did not obey His commands, He would send them into exile, putting them at the mercy of other nations. These messages are accusations of sin, calls for righteousness, and finally, promises of hope in a future redemption after the time of exile.
That hope is ultimately fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. He is the plot twist that brings Israel’s exile to a close. His coming makes obedience possible for those who accept Him . . . and, conversely, also makes them exiles and misfits in their own families, nations, and cultures, as new members–first and foremost–of God’s new family in his eternal kingdom.
Please join us in studying God’s words through the prophets. As we reflect on the plight of the descendants of Abraham as exiles, may God teach us how to live as exiles in our world, awaiting a future hope of ultimate redemption when Jesus returns.
We will post 12 times over the next six weeks, starting with an introduction post this Tuesday. Each post will be a storied reflection on one of God’s messages through some of His prophets: Moses, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi, and, finally, John the Baptist.
Each post will be organized into three sections: read, watch, and listen. First, you can read the storied reflection on the prophet’s message. Then, we’ll link a Bible project video to watch, which will provide an overview of that prophet or book of the Bible. Finally, we’ll share scripture passages from each prophet’s story and book of the Bible. We encourage you to listen to these passages–on your commute, while you’re washing dishes–throughout the week. Where we can, we will include other helpful resources, too.
We’re looking forward to taking this journey together!
It’s me, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.
This story is called, Priests . . .
When the Prince of Creation chose Moses to be the leader for those tribes of Abraham, he also appointed Aaron, to be a a sacrificer, the one to carry the curse of those tribes of Abraham to the Prince of Creation. So then, the Prince appeared to Moses: “Mosesy! Say this to Arona . . . ‘When he will do this work, let him shower. He will have one male zebu secured. It will be killed by him in order to cleanse by blood the his own curse because of the curse upon his household.
After, he will have two male goats secured. And the one, slit the one’s throat, in order to cleanse by blood the curse of those tribes of Abraham. And the blood of this male goat and the blood of this male zebu sprinkle around that taboo place of sacrifice there. After, one male goat will be taken by him, the second. This male goat, do not kill this one, but there on the head of this male goat his two hands will be placed, the curses of those tribes of Abraham, all of them then and there, will be narrated by him. If that is done, this male goat will be thrown out by him to wander far away out there. With that their curse will be far away from them, and with that will be their relationship with the Prince.
But this also will be a rite that must be done by them, year after year after year that they may pass down this work through the generations, the tribes of Arona will pass it down through the generations, that’s down through his household.'”
“Yes,” said Moses. And so, you see, Moses went, the Prince’s decree was narrated to Aaron by him. Aaron also did what followed the rite made by the Prince.
But those tribes of Abraham, they grew and they became many. And the wrong they did became even greater still. So, Aaron sacrificed year after year and his offspring also passed that work down through the generations.
That is the story taken from there in the Holy Writings, so that the Prince had relationship with those tribes of Abraham.
It’s me, the Traveler, and I have a story to tell you. It’s a story from a book of holy writings called the Bible. This book is a collection of many stories, and they have all been brought together to tell the whole story. It is the story of our ancestors, and our story. Let me tell it to you.
Now then, when Moses and Aaron had told the story of the Prince of Creation’s message to the tribe of Abraham there, they went also to the king there, that is the King of Egypt, you know, to tell the story of the Prince’s message.
So they, what they do at this point is the Prince had them bring many signs to do before this king. And even though they told the story the Prince of Creation’s message to the king, even though, there before the king, they did all those signs the Prince had them bring, the king resisted them and did not send the descendants of Abraham there to that other land.
So then at that point, the Prince spoke to Moses and Aaron, and says, “There this one sign I’m going to do, and that’s what’s going to get you out of this land here. So, tell those in the tribe of Abraham: All of you, get a male sheep, fat, one year old, and nothing wrong with it . . . every family, every house. And on the day that I come, you will kill this sheep. And his blood you will drip on the sides and over the top of your doorways. And then it’s meat, don’t eat raw but roasted. And you all eat it quickly; you’ll be going.
When I come in the night, that house with blood I’ll pass over, but those with no blood I will, instead, kill . . . the firstborn male animal and the firstborn male human. This is also a rite for you every year, every year: you will get a sheep, kill it, eat it together, have a party, and remember how I bought you back when you were slaves here in this land of Egypt.”
And so, you see, when this message was done concerning all these things, Moses and Aaron retold the story of the message to the tribe of Abraham there. And they did everything in keeping with what they had just retold to them.
So then, on the day of the Prince’s coming, when Prince of Creation came . . . at night, he passed over those houses with blood, but those with no blood he, instead, killed. At once, all the firstborn animals were dead in that land, and the firstborn human, up unto the firstborn of the king.
At that point, the king got summoned Moses and Aaron, saying, “Right now, right now, you all take the tribe of Abraham and get out of my land.”
Moses and Aaron took the tribe of Abraham there, immediately, left the land, and they were gone. And as they left, they were afraid. They had seen the enormous sign done by Prince of Creation to buy them back from slavery in the land of Egypt, so that they were able to travel to the land given by the Prince to Abraham. And they thanked the Prince, and they worshipped the Prince of Creation.
I did it again. It’s a new village, no one knows me; I let my local, dark-skinned, Malagasy teammates get out of the car before me . . . and it still takes me less than a minute to draw a crowd of about 50 of my new best friends. Only I find out as I approach the crowd and an older man starts yelling at me that we are not best friends. We’re not even on the level of Facebook friends.
I didn’t catch the first part of what he was saying. But as I walked up, I began to hear him. “Bonjour vazaha! Bonjour! What took you so long? Don’t you care about us? We all know you’re the only one who can save us. After all, you vazaha rule this world. You’re God’s righthand man.”
To which I responded, “Uh . . . how’s that, sir?”
From where we were standing it’s a bit of a surreal scene. We’re in an open field that sits higher up, so you can see a long way off, all the way to the waiting ocean, probably about 20k away. And as far as you can see, where there should be fields full of corn, cassava, and lentils . . . there is nothing. Absolutely nothing except sand and red, dead, land. The only living plants hanging on are the sparse trees and the cactus, and even they are beginning to wilt. It’s been over two years since even one drop of rain has fallen in these areas. Its a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Yet, from where we are standing, we can also see maybe around a thousand people milling around for market day. But what are they doing at market when there are no crops? In this growing desert, people have two options for survival: they are eating the fruit of the cactus they can find or family members making money in other towns are sending them money to buy imported products at market like rice and drinks. And so, as people slowly starve, scraping by on what is left and the cash their family can pull together, local sellers of imported goods and foreign companies make a little extra cash. Win, win.
But back to the old man. “You know, we pray to God,” he tells me. “But we know that you vazaha are his favorite children. And look! We pray for deliverance from this drought and famine and what happens? You visit us and bring us food!” As he says this he motions to the tracks of the dozens of white Land Cruisers and Hilux, just like the one I drove into town, delivering USAid-funded food to the surrounding villages. He’s not wrong. From his perspective, they prayed and people that look like me sent food.
“But, O princely one . . .” I say, which is how they refer to respected older men here, (I tried to see if Tessa would call me that but it hasn’t stuck yet) “It’s true that I am a vazaha and that my country has sent food to you. But we are both humans made to be God’s representatives. We are from the same ancestor . . . Adam.”
Let me pause and explain: vazaha is the word or title referring to foreigners, usually of European descent and usually those with light skin. That’s even easier to recognize because while there are local people of Arabic or Indo-Pakestani origin, they are not called vazaha. And, spoiler alert, being vazaha is one of the hardest parts of cross-cultural communication for anyone who is one here in Madagascar.
The old man wasn’t having it. “God did not make us the same. We have a saying here: vazaha Njanahary hita maso (foreigners are gods the eye can see). You are white and we are black. You are clean and we are dirty. He has blessed you with possessions and power. So we say we pray to God, but we pray to you vazaha. Because you are seated at the right-hand of God. So have mercy on us vazaha.”
I’m a missionary. I went on to share with the old man how there actually is a Man seated at the right-hand of God. He’s not white, but He is a foreigner, named Jesus, and He is God’s only perfect human representative. I told him, if there is anything different between us, it is that me, and the dark-skinned, Malagasy brothers with me, are covered in the blood of that Man, Jesus. His is the king of the world, and we serve him.
But I was haunted by his words as we got back into the Hilux and drove away. Not because I have never heard anything like that working here before. Oh no, much the contrary . . .
Vazaha are more powerful than Malagasy, immune to magic and Malagasy rules of society.
Vazaha are angels from heaven, which is why they’re so white.
Vazaha eat children. If a child does something bad they will be taken by a vazaha.
Vazaha do not have blood.
The Malagasy parable that says, “Biby ty vazaha” (vazaha are more creature than they are human).
These are just a few of the things I have heard said about me in particular, much less other vazaha. What exactly it means to be vazaha from a Malagasy perspective could fill up books. But recently, a profound irony dawned on me: during this time of COVID crisis and now, driving through the middle of drought-riddled fields, everyone was coming to me, and other vazaha, for help, not because I know the King of Creation, but because they do look at me as a kind of god.
I’m pretty sure that’s not what my pastors and seminary professors had in mind when they sent us here.
Can you believe it? I’m a missionary! My job is literally to help people turn away from false gods and lead them toward the God of gods and King of kings. . . Jesus. And here I was, inadvertently helping feed a mixed-up system of idol worship. Because, here in one of the world’s poorest countries exploited by world powers, I have so much influence, so much authority, so much power comparatively, that I’m viewed as a demi-god. And let me tell you–as someone who knows myself pretty well–that scares the stuffing out of me. Because while I do try, I often do not resemble the GodMan, Jesus. Often I do behave more like a white, capricious god from a land of abundance. Sometimes I do act as if I’m the one who’s supposed to save people here from all the troubles they bring to me. Sometimes I do act as if I’m the only one who knows Jesus here.
Lord have mercy.
When we pulled into the circle of huts, there was another white truck already there. A local agency was handing out food. The strange things was, as soon as we got there the NGO workers quickly wrapped things up and took off. We found out later that they are selling the aide in every village, so that the NGO workers are making a little extra off of every family they give to. These people who already have nothing are even exploited through food relief. It was only because a white American showed up that the food was suddenly given out with no further extortion. The workers were afraid that a USAid employee had actually shown up in that God-forsaken place to observe the distribution. Thankfully, they don’t know had badly they’re underestimating an American’s need for things like A/C!
We found our way to the small, wood hut where our friend was waiting. One of my long time friends, Manoely, is from this town, and had spent the last few days on his own out here delivering a little bit of food and sharing God’s good news in, as he put it, “afo be faharoe” (the second hell). I can tell he’s more emaciated than when we left him. Still, his smile and infectious laugh light up the little hut as he tells us what happening and connects with his sister who is hosting us.
I should have known it was coming. I’ve been here long enough to know better. As our team of four sits and chats with Manoely, his sister enters the hut with two sodas. “We don’t have much. But here’s a little something to quench your thirst. We would gladly give you some cold water, but all the well-water here has gone salty.”
Manuely elbows me, “She was going to give you some beer! That’s what the other pastors ask for here.” We all laugh.
This is Malagasy custom. Guests are always treated with the highest honor. But as we ask, we discover they bought the sodas at market for about a week’s wages. We debated giving the drinks back to them, but Manoely informed us that to do so would shame his sister. So we drank our very expensive soda. And while we did, large bowels of rice and bowls of quickly-cooked sheep meat were placed before us. The food that had just been given by God’s righthand representatives to their starving, third-world subjects had quickly been converted into an offering.
And so I sat there; my white, very human, very privileged self; eating relief rice and drinking soda bought with hard-earned money, preparing to get in my truck and quickly leave this village in the red, dead dust as I relax in the A/C. As I sat there, watching an emaciated, Malagasy brother and sister serve us their only sustenance as they laughed and leaned into one another, I just couldn’t help from thinking, “So who are the better gods, really? Which of us is really representing God?”