Our first reading for today, Ezekiel 37:21-18, is a beautiful summary of who Jesus is and what He came to do:
Thus says the Lord GOD: I will take the children of Israel from among the nations to which they have come, and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land. I will make them one nation upon the land, in the mountains of Israel, and there shall be one prince for them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. No longer shall they defile themselves with their idols, their abominations, and all their transgressions. I will deliver them from all their sins of apostasy, and cleanse them so that they may be my people and I may be their God. My servant David shall be prince over them, and there shall be one shepherd for them all; they shall live by my statutes and carefully observe my decrees. They shall live on the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where their fathers lived; they shall live on it forever, they, and their children, and their children’s children, with my servant David their prince forever. I will make with them a covenant of peace; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them, and I will multiply them, and put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling shall be with them; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Thus the nations shall know that it is I, the LORD, who make Israel holy, when my sanctuary shall be set up among them forever.
Who is Jesus? Like Ezekiel prophesied, He is a decedent of King David (Mt. 1:1, “Jesus Christ, the son of David”); a servant (Mt. 20:28, “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve”); a shepherd (Jn. 10:11, “I am the good shepherd”), and God’s sanctuary, God’s presence dwelling among His people (Jn. 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”). And what did Jesus come to do? Like Ezekiel prophesied, He came to gather the children of Israel from among the nations to which they had been scattered, make them one nation, and restore them to the promised land. In other words, in the language of the Old Testament (which was Jesus’ language), Jesus came to bring about a New Exodus. To understand this, we need to do a quick review of salvation history:
Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Jacob, or Israel, had twelve sons. One of these sons, Joseph, was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt (c. 1900 BC). Joseph eventually rose out of slavery to become the second most powerful person in Egypt and was able to save his brothers when they came to Egypt during a time of famine. In Egypt, Joseph and his brothers, the twelve sons of Israel, grew and multiplied. They became the twelve tribes of Israel. Eventually a pharaoh came to power (c. 1600 BC) who reduced the twelve tribes to harsh and bitter slavery which they then endured for many years.
At the appointed time (c. 1446 BC), God called his servant Moses who led the twelve tribes out of their slavery in Egypt and through the dessert all the way to the border of the promised land. Moses, however, was not the one who led the twelve tribes of Israel into the promised land, that was Joshua. Joshua and the twelve tribes crossed into the promised land through the Jordan river which, like the Red Sea had done, parted into two to let them through (c. 1406 BC). Once in the land, the twelve tribes settled in different regions. Ten tribes settled in the North and two tribes, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, settled in the South.
For many years the twelve tribes existed as a loose confederacy, governed by charismatic figures called the Judges. But eventually the twelve tribes asked for a king to unify them under a single monarchy. The first king was Saul, who was wicked. The second king, but the first real king, was David. It was under David and his son Solomon that the twelve tribes existed as a single nation. The unity was short lived, however. It lasted from about 1020 to 922 BC. Under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the nation was split into two. The ten northern tribes formed the Kingdom of Israel and the two southern tribes formed the Kingdom of Judah.
Both kingdoms eventually became very sinful. Ezekiel, once again, describes this well: “they defile[d] themselves with their idols, their abominations, and all their transgressions.” Because of their sinfulness, they were both eventually sent into exile. The Kingdom of Israel was exiled first, by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and the Kingdom of Judah was exiled second, by the Babylonians in 587 BC.
The first two tribes to be exiled by the Assyrians were the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, which were located in the northernmost part of the promised land. The other eight tribes were eventually exiled as well. For the majority of the people, this was a complete exile; for some, it was not. The majority were completely exiled, scattered among “the nations,” and they never returned. These became the lost ten tribes of Israel. Some, however, remained behind. These intermarried with the Assyrians who also remained behind. This was the origin of the Samaritans (Samaria was the capital of the Kingdom of Israel during the time of the Assyrian exile). Because of their intermarriage with the Assyrians, the Samaritans were considered “half-Israelites/Jews” and were looked down upon by “full-Israelites/Jews.”
Although the two tribes which constituted the Kingdom of Judah were also sent into exile, but by the Babylonians, they weren’t “lost” like the ten tribes of Israel. They were eventually allowed to return to the promised land. The Persians ended up conquering the Babylonians and Cyrus II, the king of Persia, allowed two tribes to return to the promised land in 537 BC.
With all this history in mind, it’s finally possible to understand how Jesus brought about a New Exodus and what that New Exodus consisted in:
Jesus (whose Hebrew name is equivalent to Joshua) inaugurated the New Exodus at the exact same place where the Old Exodus ended: the Jordan River. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist is the first event of Jesus’ public life (c. 30 AD). When the Old Exodus ended, the Jordan River opened up to let the twelve tribes of Israel pass over into the promised land. When the New Exodus began, and Jesus when down into the river, the heavens opened up (Mt. 3:16, Mk. 1:10, Lk. 3:21). This is the first indication that the New Exodus is different from the Old Exodus. Whereas the Old Exodus is a horizontal exodus, a movement from one place on earth (Egypt) to another (the promised land), the New Exodus is a vertical exodus, a movement from one state of existence (mortal life on earth) to another (eternal life in heaven). The waters opened up to let the twelve tribes into the promised land; the heavens opened up to let Jesus and all the members of His Mystical Body (The New Israel, the Church) into heaven.
The New Exodus that Jesus inaugurated was also different because it was about salvation from slavery to sin, whereas the Old Exodus was about salvation from slavery to the Egyptians. Finally, it was different because the salvation Jesus came to bring wasn’t just intended for the twelve tribes of Israel, but also for “the nations,” the Gentiles. It was, however, intended for the twelve tribes of Israel first. Before the Resurrection, Jesus declares: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). But after the Resurrection, Jesus declares: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19). So Israelites/Jews first, Gentiles second.
So, after inaugurating the New Exodus by His baptism, and after His temptation in the desert, Jesus immediately goes to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali (Mt. 4:12-16). This is very intentional. Jesus begins His work of restoration in precisely the location where the exiles began. Zebulun and Naphtali were the first tribes to go into exile. So it is the land that they once occupied to which Jesus first brings restoration. It is in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali that Jesus calls the first of the twelve apostles (Mt. 5:18-22). In calling these men, Jesus is gathering the twelve tribes of Israel and both restoring and reconstituting them as a single unified reality which is the New Israel, the Church. In this way, Jesus is also acting as a New David who, as king, was the one who unified and ruled over the twelve tribes.
After bringing restoration to Zebulun and Naphtali, Jesus proceeds to bring restoration to the lands of the other tribes in the order in which they were exiled. And He does so quite systematically. This is made especially clear in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, Jesus begins His work of gathering, teaching, and healing in the northern region of Galilee (Lk. 4:16-9:50). He then makes his way through the middle region of Samaria (Lk. 9:51-10:37). And eventually He arrives in the southern region of Judea (Lk. 10:38 and on). Jesus is retracing the steps of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles (North first, South second) and bringing restoration along the way.
It is in the southern region of Judea, and specifically in the city of Jerusalem, that Jesus accomplishes the New Exodus. In Jerusalem, by His passion, death, and resurrection (c. 33 AD), Jesus brings about our salvation from slavery to sin. This saving work constitutes not only the reversal of the exiles of Israel and Judah, insofar as these exiles were consequences of sin, but also the reversal of the Great Exile of eternal separation from God which is the ultimate consequence of sin.
That Jesus saw this saving work as a New Exodus is evident from Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. Just before Jesus leaves Galilee in the North to make His way to Judea and Jerusalem in the South, He takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain and is transfigured before them:
While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.Lk. 9:29-31
After His saving passion, death, and resurrection, after accomplishing the New Exodus, Jesus commissions the twelve apostles to continue His work: “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And this is what they do as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. The early Church, led by the twelve apostles, brings Jesus’ saving work of the New Exodus to more people: first to Israelites/Jews and then to Gentiles. In doing so, the apostles gather more people into the New Israel, they unite more members to Jesus’ Mystical Body, which is the Church, so that a greater multitude may one day enter into eternal life. For that is the goal of the New Exodus: to save many souls from slavery to sin so that, when this earthly life is over, they may pass over into the promised land of heaven.
But the apostles did not complete Jesus’ saving work. We too are called to take part in this New Exodus which has been accomplished for us by Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus still has more restoration to bring to our lives, our families, and our world. Jesus can gather us from among the places to which we have been scattered (or “social-distanced”). He can restore us to unity in our schools and churches. And He can save us from our sins and bring us to the promised land heaven, if we let Him.