In my course titled “Biblical Literature and the Ancient World” taught at the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University, I use one of the sessions to explore the topic of universalism and particularism, both in the Bible and in contemporary religious life. In the Bible, I ask students to explore what is something of a paradox. The Book of Ezra represents a rather narrow, particularistic understanding of the covenant community. This biblical work emerges from a Judean community that had recently returned to Judea following the Babylonian exile. The so-called "restoration" had been decreed by the Persian king Cyrus, conqueror of Babylon. Pursuing a theology that came to see exile as punishment for covenant disloyalty--an idea inherited from pre-exilic prophets like Jeremiah--the leaders of this Judean community are depicted as rejecting the participation of any elements of the community that had not experienced exile. If the Babylonian exile was God's way of punishing and purifying the covenant community, then only those who had experienced the exile were eligible for participation in that covenant community.
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)