It is a painful thing to be a vagabond. Most of my life, I have lived as a vagabond in areas that that largely been transient and filled with other vagabonds like myself, people uprooted from their homes and who feel like strangers wherever they may roam in their lives, seeking roots but afraid to show loyalty to a region or its people without feeling trusted or belonging first. In many cases, this rootlessness happens through little or no fault of the vagabond themselves, as family problems or economic or political crises impel people to leave their native areas and travel far afield. Once one develops the habits and the competence at living in exile,d it becomes very difficult to ever feel home again knowing the dangers faced in this present world, especially to those who are not enmeshed in deep family and social bonds. Even in this highly individualistic age and society, having strong social and familial networks can be the difference between life and death, between success and homelessness.
We read of the first vagabond from human civilization (although, in truth, the Bible describes all human life after the fall as a state of vagabondage and being cut off from the source of life that is in God) in scripture as being the punishment for murder, in Genesis 4:8-16: “Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. Then the Eternal said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.” And Cain said to the Eternal, “My punishment is more than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.” And the Eternal said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken from him sevenfold.” And the Eternal set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him. Then Cain went out from the presence of the Eternal and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.”
In this particular account we see a striking mercy from God to a murderer who deserved death. As was the case in Eden, God asked Cain a rhetorical question (at least, a question that He already knew the answer to) as a way of prompting Cain to confess and seek repentance and restoration. As his father and mother did, so Cain lied and refused to own up to his sin, and so God made him a vagabond in vagabond-land (the land of Nod appears to correspond to Central Asia, the quintessential home of nomads and the place of the most developed Shamanistic religions of the world, which would periodically infuse heathen beliefs into the religious systems of Eurasia ). Instead of repenting even after his punishment, Cain whines and is given a sign that would show that God had allowed him to live in exile out of mercy rather than receive death, as God sought at this early stage of human history to curb mankind’s thirst for blood and vengeance.
This is not the only case in the Bible where an act of killing leads to fairly swift exile. In a passage already examined elsewhere , we have seen that Moses’ sense of social justice led him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster, an act which was seen and which forced him to flee the wrath of the Pharaoh, in Exodus 2:11-17: “Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. And when he went out the second day, behold, two Hebrew men were fighting, and he said to the one who did the wrong, “Why are you striking your companion?” Then he said, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” So Moses feared and said, “Surely this thing is known!” When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters. And they came and drew water, and they filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.”
Here again we see violence connected with living as a vagabond. For seeking to defend the life and dignity of his brethren, and helping them to stand united against the common threat of Egyptian oppression, Moses was forced to flee the death penalty from an angry Pharaoh. Even from this brief passage, though, we may see that there are some striking differences between Moses’ killing and Cain’s. For one, Moses’ killing was not an antisocial act of murder that cut him off from the company of civil society, but rather a prosocial (if vigilante) act of attempted justice. When Moses fled Egypt as a vagabond, his basic prosocial tendencies, and strong sense of social justice, led him immediately to defend the underdog (in this case, seven young women) against some local bullies that kept them from watering their father’s flock, and to help them gallantly. As a result of these basic prosical tendencies, Moses had the character to eventually lead Israel while Cain remained a vagabond in vagabond land and his descendents never acquired any sort of social justice in their attempts at cultural leadership.
At times, vagabondage was not the result of having done anything wrong at all. The judge Jephthah was driven out and became a vagabond for the sins of his parents, as we can read in Judges 11:1-3: “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, but he was the son of a harlot; and Gilead begot Jephthah. Gilead’s wife bore sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out, and siad to him, “You shall have no inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and dwelt in the land of Tob, and worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him.” Here we see that simply for being the son of a harlot, Jephthah was driven out from Israelite society as a vagabond and went out raiding to make a living with worthless and rootless men. Of course, eventually the people of Gilead brought him back to deliver them against the threat of the Ammonites, but here we see a case where, like Moses’ situation, someone ended up as a vagabond without losing those prosocial tendencies that allow someone to be a godly leader.
The same is true of David, whose vagabondage is discussed at too much length for the scope of this essay. However, it should be noted that like Jephthah, David was not at fault for his vagabondage, as his vagabondage too was the cause of jealousy, namely the murderous jealousy of Saul towards the love and devotion of the people and the approval of God for David that Saul lacked through his own disobedience and rebellion against God’s commands through the prophet Samuel. David’s prosocial tendencies again demonstrated his fitness to rule over God’s people, and these tendencies can be seen vividly in a number of incidents, perhaps most politically in 1 Samuel 30:26-31: “Now when David came to Ziklag, he sent some of the spoil to the elders of Judah, to his friends, saying, “Here is a present for you from the spoil of the enemies of the Eternal–to those who were in Bethel, those who were in Ramoth of the South, those who were in Jattir, those who were in Aroer, those who were in Siphmoth, those who were in Eshtemoa, those who were in Rachal, those who were in the cities of the Jerahmeelites, those who were in the cities of the Kenites, those who were in Hormah, those who were in Chorashan, those who were in Athach, those who were in Hebron, and to all the places where David himself and his men were accustomed to rove.”
Here we see that although David had lived a life of vagabondage through no fault of his own, being hunted by Saul continually, and eventually being forced into a Philistine exile simply to keep Saul from chasing him again and again throughout the wilderness of the Negev and its surrounding regions, he never forgot his heritage nor ever lost sight of the people whom he was destined to rule as a shepherd after God’s own loving heart. His generosity to his people, his support of justice, and his identification with the humble never ceased, even as a vagabond, and so we may see that not all vagabonds are rootless wanderers over the face of the earth as a result of their own sin, nor do all vagabonds lose sight of the greater society to which they ultimately belong even if they may temporarily live as pilgrims and sojourners without a place to be firmly rooted into the ground.
Perhaps my own experiences as a somewhat rootless vagabond over the face of the earth, someone whose hands are free from blood guilt, whose longings for home and intimacy and connections remains undiminished in all of my travels, and whose prosocial behaviors and drive for social justice are consistent and notable enough to draw some attention in the larger outside world have led me to be more attuned to the fate of vagabonds than most people are. After all, even in this highly mobile world, most people remain close to and somewhat connected to their own family networks and the social networks they establish when young. Few of us are driven around the world far from home and hearth to seek our daily bread and intimate connections among strangers. Those of us who are vagabonds in vagabond land, though, share a connection of a similar state of being cut off from the greater society around us, a bit more transient and a bit more aware of the temporary nature of our existence. We must remember that not all who wander around as vagabonds do so for being wicked souls, but rather there is sometimes a deeper reason and meaning for their wandering, and deeper lessons to be learned so that God’s will may be done for His people.