Israel’s Life in Exile

The consequences of the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of the population of Judah to Babylon were devastating. The number of people killed by the Babylonians probably were in the thousands; many of the buildings in Jerusalem and several cities of Judah were destroyed, among them Azekah, Bethel, Beth-Shemesh and many others. Devastation was everywhere.

As a result of this devastation, the social, political, and religious life of Israel were radically changed, forcing the leaders of the nation to reevaluate their relationship with God and their place in the world as God’s people.

The leaders of Israel knew that their relationship with Yahweh did not end with the destruction of the temple and the burning of Jerusalem. This reevaluation led some people to believe that the exile was the dawn of a new beginning: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

This message of hope is also expressed in the ministry of the prophet of the exile who proclaimed the coming of Yahweh to liberate his people. Although he is called Deutero-Isaiah, his name is unknown. He probably continued in the traditions of the disciples of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 8:16), who proclaimed that Yahweh was the Holy One of Israel.

Deutero-Isaiah proclaimed that the nightmare of the exile, the dark night of Israel’s soul, had come to an end: “Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel” (Isaiah 44:23). In a future study I will introduce Deutero Isaiah’s message in more detail.

The exile brought many challenges to Israel’s faith. One of these challenges dealt with Israel’s survival as a nation: how could Israel live in exile and at the same time retain their religious and ethnic identity? The exile also brought into question the power of Yahweh to deliver his people. Deutero-Isaiah’s polemic against the gods of Babylon is an indication that the destruction of the nation posed a serious challenge to the faith of many Israelites. To many people, Marduk, the god of Babylon, was a powerful god and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem called into question Yahweh’s power to deliver his people.

Many lost their faith in Yahweh, unable to understand how their exile related to their belief that Yahweh was their protector, the one who fought for them. The fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed their faith in the proclamation of the prophets who declared that the temple was their assurance that God would deliver them from the hands of their enemies.

Others, however, explained the exile on the basis of the covenant. According to the writers of the Deuteronomic history of Israel, the exile was Yahweh’s judgment and punishment for the people’s violation of the demands of the covenant:

“Because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you. The LORD will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand . . . It shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout your land; it shall besiege you in all your towns throughout the land that the LORD your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 28:47-52).

John Bright says that although the faith of Israel was in crisis, it survived through the trials and tribulations of the exile. Eventually this faith was renewed and it found the direction and refinement that would set the tone for the centuries to come (Bright 1981: 343). The exile also served as a time of rediscovering covenant faith and building new structures for the social and religious life of the nation.

One of the changes that occurred in exile was the integration of the Jewish population into Babylonian society. The Old Testament indicates that there was an integration of the people of Israel into Babylonian society, to the point that some people even took Babylonian names. For instance, Zerubbabel, the leader of the Jews who returned from Babylon to Palestine after the Exile (Ezra 2:2) has a Babylonian name; his name means “seed of Babylon.” The name Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah, is probably Persian in origin (Ezra 1:8).

There was a Jewish community living near the Chebar canal, at Tel-Abib. When the prophet Ezekiel was called to prophesy to the people living in Babylon, he wrote: “I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar. And I sat there among them” (Ezekiel 3:15). The book of Ezekiel reveals that the people who were in exile in Babylon were not restricted to one place; there was free movement of people within the community.

Many Israelites owned their own homes. While in Babylon, the people had the freedom to congregate. Ezekiel 8:1 mentions the prophet sitting at home while the elders of Judah were visiting him. It is possible that Ezekiel’s house was used as a meeting place to talk about the political and religious situation of Jerusalem and Babylon (see Ezekiel 14:1).

In fact, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the people in Babylon urging them to build houses there: “Build houses and live in them” (Jeremiah 29:5). The reason for this exhortation is because Jeremiah had predicted that the exile would last seventy years. In addition, Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles indicates that the Babylonians allowed the people in Babylon to have regular contact with the people who remained in Judah.

Many people found prosperity in Babylon. Those who adapted to life in Babylon acquired profitable employment and many became rich. Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king of Persia (Nehemiah 1:11). A cupbearer tasted the wine of the king and guarded the living quarters of the palace. Others had money to buy food, wine, and other commodities (Isaiah 55:1-2). Still others had enough silver and gold that they could sponsor some people to return back to Jerusalem (Zechariah 6:9). This prosperity was possible because many people chose to accept Babylonian customs and religion and adapt to Babylonian society.

There were many other challenges to the people’s understanding of themselves as the people of God, and these challenges forced the nation to change many of its practices and beliefs. There were three areas where changes precipitated radical results.

The first area was the people’s understanding of Israel as a nation ruled by a king. The monarchy had ceased to be and kingship was never reconstituted. The end of kingship challenged the promise that David’s dynasty would continue forever. There was a crisis of credibility in Israel’s God.

Second, there was a change in their understanding of their religious life. The temple was destroyed even though most people thought it to be inviolable. The Babylonians shattered the theology of the inviolability of Jerusalem and the temple, the so-called Zion theology. In exile the lack of a temple generated a crisis of faith: How can God be worshiped without a temple?

The third issue that required an evaluation was the promise of the land that God gave to Israel: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Psalm 137:5-6).

The land, which was considered to be a holy land, had been a unifying factor in Israel’s religious and cultural life. Because of the exile, Yahwism had been torn from its nation, its cult, and its land. As a result of this reevaluation of Israel’s relationship with God, Yahweh was conceived as a God not localized within the boundaries of the land of Israel, but as a universal God.

In response to these challenges posed by the exile, three things happened that transformed Israel and brought new life and new hope to the people.

First, the exile revealed the tenacity of Israel’s faith. The exile brought about the need for personal religious response. Religion became individualized and Jerusalem ceased to be the only place where the worship of God was possible.

Second, the exile brought about the need for an agonizing reappraisal and refinement of religious traditions. Canonical activity quickened in Babylon as holy books began to replace the holy temple. In exile there was the development of the synagogue. The synagogue became a place for prayer, study, and local worship.

Third, the exile brought about the need for a theological response to the events leading up to the exile. The people understood that Israel was unable to keep the covenant. All three major prophets of the exile, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah, show the need for a new kind of covenant, a new saving act of God. In exile there is the development of the idea of monotheism, remnant theology, and the concept of the suffering servant, an idea that grew out of the remnant concept.

In my next study on the exile of Israel, I will study the ministry of Deutero-Isaiah, that great unknown prophet who ministered to Israel during the exile. It was Deutero-Isaiah who reinterpreted Israel’s faith. It was he who spoke about the restoration of Israel in terms of a second exodus. He also interpreted the suffering of Israel in light of God’s purpose for the nations.

Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Bibliography:

John Bright, A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981.

Studies on the Exile of Israel

Israel in Exile

The Babylonian Exile

The Lonely Widow

The Tenacity of Israel’s Faith

Dashing Babies Against the Rocks (Psalm 137)

The Myth of the Empty Land

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