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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Babylonian Exile: Continuity and Change

The exile represented the first foreign experience for vast numbers of Judeans. It saw the creation of countless emigré communities scattered throughout the Near East, safe havens where some semblance of their former lives might be maintained. The half century of Babylonian rule remains a virtual dark age due to the paucity of contemporary documentation. Still, a partial sketch can be made of life outside Judah by comparing the relatively well-known beginning and end stages of the exile, especially as reflected in prophetic texts.

Jehoiachin, the royal household, and Jerusalem's elite who had surrendered in 597 BCE were transferred to the city of Babylon, where they became state pensioners. Cuneiform documents from Nebuchadrezzar's thirteenth year (592) record that “Jehoiachin, king of the land of Judah,” and his five sons, together with other foreign dignitaries confined to Babylon, received food rations. Other Judeans besides the former king were on the same roster; Nebuchadrezzar's bookkeeper noted that among the artisans transferred from Jerusalem (whom the Bible leaves unnamed) were Gaddiel, Qoniah, Semachiah, and Shelemiah the gardener. They were just a few of the many skilled workers from conquered countries employed to Babylon's advantage.

At some point, Jehoiachin fell on bad times and was imprisoned, a punishment often meted out to those guilty of treason. It was not until 562, in an act of amnesty upon the accession of Amel-marduk (the biblical Evil-merodach), son of Nebuchadrezzar, that Jehoiachin was pardoned and his pension restored. Yet despite such vicissitudes in the king's fortunes, the exiles continued to hold him in high respect; they numbered their years in Babylonia from the start of Jehoiachin's exile, and some may even have entertained the hope for an eventual restoration of the monarchy upon their return to Judah. Such an eventuality must have seemed more palpable when Zerubbabel, a grandson of Jehoiachin, was appointed by the Persian authorities as governor of Judah in the first repatriation in 538 BCE.

The main body of exiles, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands, were settled in the border area between Assyria and Babylonia that had been heavily damaged during the wars between the two powers, in towns whose names suggest that it was official policy to reclaim wastelands, such as Tel-abib (“Mound of the Flood”; Ezek. 3.15 ) and Tel-harsha (“Mound of Potsherds”) and Tel-melah (“Mound of Salt”; Ezra 2.59 ). These communities of Judeans seem to have been self-governing units; the elders of Judah and the heads of families took over communal duties with the blessing of the Babylonian authorities. Not only Judeans, but also deportees from Tyre, Ashkelon, Gaza, and other cities are known to have maintained a semblance of their former national identities in communities that were organized along ethnic lines. In this respect, Babylonia contrasts sharply with Assyria, where the forced mingling of exiles had been the rule. Generations later, when return to Judah was an option, the list of Judeans who made the trek home (a copy of the register is preserved in Ezra 2 ) shows that the exiles had held on to genealogical records as well as oral family traditions, so that even the various orders of liturgical personnel could take up their positions when given the chance. Thus Jeremiah's picture of a comfortable exile, described in his letter to those who were clamoring for a quick return home, was not mere wishful thinking:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29.5–7 )

Yet at the same time, the maintenance of ethnic identity by the exiled Judeans was tempered by their contact with Babylonian society. Language, for example, was always a ready vehicle for assimilation. Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Near East, replaced Hebrew in daily discourse and commerce; and though Hebrew seems to have remained the preferred literary vehicle, parts of Ezra-Nehemiah and of the late biblical book of Daniel are written in Aramaic. Babylonian month-names, in their Aramaic renditions, replaced the common Hebrew ones, and epigraphic finds indicate that the Hebrew script, which had been in use during the period of the monarchy, gave way to Aramaic script. Later tradition credits Ezra the scribe with transcribing the five books of Moses into the new script, at the same time preserving the original Hebrew text. Furthermore, the Judean onomasticon underwent a profound change, and in just one generation, Babylonian personal names, some including the names of Babylonian deities, were adopted by the exiles; even among the family of the Davidides, one finds names like Zerubbabel (“seed of Babylon”) and Shenazzar (“the god Sin protects”). For sure, fashions did change in another generation or two, when Hebrew names were again given to children as national feelings revived, as can be seen in the female name Yehoyishma (“the Lord will hear”), bestowed by a father with the Babylonian name Shawash-shar-usur (“the god Shamash protects the king”). But a divide had been crossed. A telling measure of the cultural changes that the exile engendered can be seen in the description of the New Year's convocation held in Jerusalem a century and a half after its start: Ezra read aloud from the scroll of the Torah in Hebrew to the assembled crowd, and was assisted by Levites who translated the text into Aramaic “so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8.1–8 ).

Perhaps the greatest issue facing the exiles was the lack of organized public worship. Because Israelite ritual law prohibited sacrifice outside the borders of the Promised Land, as all other lands were considered “unclean” (defiled by idolatry), the exiles could not reestablish communion with their God through traditional means. A psalm of lament recalls their plight:

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign land?

(Ps. 137.1–4 )

The solution reportedly contrived by the Syrian army commander Naaman sometime in the late ninth century when he adopted the God of Israel as his god—he constructed an altar to the Lord in Damascus on soil brought from the land of Israel (2 Kings 5.15–19 )—was an impractical answer for the multitudes living in Babylonia. Besides, prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel taught that the Lord's distancing himself from his people by the destruction of the Temple was part and parcel of their punishment. Only a contrite heart could win them forgiveness. Under these circumstances certain ritual acts, whose observance was not restricted to the national home, properly acquired new significance. The weekly Sabbath rest and the covenant of circumcision developed into clear ethnic markers of the exiles. It is just possible that an institution that might be termed a “protosynagogue” took its first steps. At public gatherings on fast days, the exiles lamented the loss of their former homeland and prayed for a speedy return. On such occasions the teachings of prophets and the reading of sacred texts from preexilic times may also have filled the spiritual void.

We can experience a fair measure of the spiritual climate among the exiles by turning to the book of Ezekiel, the collected oracles of a prophet who was among those deported with Jehoiachin. In exile, Ezekiel ministered to the Judeans living in Tel-abib, a town in southern Babylonia on the Chebar canal (which ran through Nippur), for close to thirty years. He was visited regularly by the elders of Judah, who came to hear his pronouncements on matters concerning national destiny. From the start the fate of Jerusalem was uppermost in their minds. Ezekiel assured his listeners that the city was doomed: he had seen its people's errant ways and insisted on the justice of the punishment awaiting them. Many of his listeners still held to the view that their suffering was the consequence of inherited guilt, the sins of the fathers being visited on the children and grandchildren. But the prophet countered with a lesson in the doctrine of individual responsibility—“It is only the person who sins that shall die” (Ezek. 18.4 )—urging each one to consider their ways “with a new heart and a new spirit” ( 18.31 ). And as sure as he was of the punishment, so he was of the restoration. Once the news of the city's fall reached the exiles, Ezekiel turned his attention to the future. Though Israel remained undeserving of God's mercy, he envisioned the revival of the dry bones of both houses of Israel, forcefully repatriated to the land of Israel in a new Exodus. The prophet's utopian program for rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple remained an unrealized dream; at the same time, it most certainly contributed to keeping the hope of redemption alive.

In contrast to this picture of life as it developed among the Judeans in Babylonia is the one that can be pieced together concerning the exiled community in Egypt. Only scant information is available on the refugees who had fled southward after the murder of Gedaliah at Mizpah. The military leaders responsible for the assassination considered Egypt a safe haven from Babylonian reprisal, and towns in both Upper and Lower Egypt became home to many of them. They may have joined other Judeans already living in the Nile Valley; besides those who during hard times looked to Egypt as a natural sanctuary, one should not forget that soldiers from Judah had fought in the ranks of the Assyrian army when it invaded Egypt close to a century earlier, and some of their number may have stayed on and settled there. Jeremiah settled in Tahpanhes in the eastern delta, where he continued to provoke the anger of his fellow Judeans, on one occasion over their continued worship of the “queen of heaven” (Jer. 44 ).

Nothing is known of this southern Diaspora scattered about Egypt, save for the small community at Elephantine, an island in the Nile just north of the First Cataract, near modern Aswan. A collection of Aramaic ostraca and papyri dating from the end of the fifth century BCE discovered on the island contains the records of a military garrison of Judeans in the employ of the Persians. In addition to legal deeds concerning the private affairs of individuals (marriage and divorce, sales and purchases), a memorandum discussing the proper observance of the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread is of particular note. Unlike their former compatriots in Babylonia, however, the Judeans at Elephantine served the God of Israel at a temple where animal sacrifices were offered, and there is also some evidence that they reverenced Aramean deities. Yet this significant difference in religious practice did not alienate them from the leaders in Judah and Samaria, to whom they appealed to intercede on their behalf before the Persian authorities concerning the reconstruction of their house of worship. Still, the ex-Judeans at Elephantine were passed over by history until their rediscovery in modern times, when their affairs were reconstructed as an exotic footnote.

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