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The Exile of Israel to Babylonby James Tissot (1896)

The devastation of Judah caused by the Babylonian invasion and the anger and despair of the people is expressed in the book of Lamentations. When one considers the devastation caused by the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the deportation of the people to Babylon, one would expect that such a comprehensive devastation of a nation might bring about the end of their religious life. However, it did not.

The history of Israel during the Babylonian exile is very sketchy. Since the biblical sources do not provide enough information about Israel’s life in Babylon, it is difficult to recreate the conditions of the people in exile. The book of Kings ends with the destruction of Jerusalem to which an appendix was added to announce the release of Jehoiakim in 560 B.C., after thirty-seven years in prison, by Evil-merodach, the son and successor of Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:27-30).

A sketchy history of the exile can be developed by compiling information from several different sources. The book of Chronicles ends with the fall of Jerusalem, although some of the narratives dealing with the temple and its cultic functionaries may reflect a post-exilic situation. An appendix to the book of Chronicles describes Cyrus’s proclamation giving liberty to the exiles (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). The writings of Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah also give a snapshot of life during the exile. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal with events that happened at the end of the exile, primarily the return of the Jewish people from Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple.

The people of Judah not only adapted to their circumstances, but they emerged from exile with a renewed sense of mission and with a new form of religious faith that developed through the adversity of life in Babylon. In fact, it was the suffering and affliction of the exile that forced the leaders of the nation to reevaluate their religious experience in Babylon, an act that eventually gave birth to Judaism.

There is no denial that many Judeans lost their faith in Yahweh, since they were unable to understand how the devastation of their nation fit into the faith they had come to embrace, a faith which declared that Yahweh was their protector and the one who fought for them. Many people were unable to reconcile the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple by the Babylonian army with their view of the inviolability of Zion in a way that could preserve their faith.

The vast majority of Judeans, however, emerged from the ordeal of the exile with the belief that Yahweh had brought about the events that led to the destruction of the nation because of the disobedience of the people. They concluded that Yahweh had evoked the curses stipulated by the covenant and had exacted judgment and punishment on his people for their violation of the demands of the covenant. Although many Judeans were indignant with the initial devastation, a feeling expressed in the book of Lamentations, the people came to accept God’s judgment upon the nation. It was in the midst of the paroxysms of hopelessness that the people’s faith matured and they learned to accept the affliction they had suffered at the sovereign hand of their God.

The people who were deported to Babylon were deprived of the moorings that gave them their identity as the people of God. They were uprooted from their native land and taken to a pagan environment. They were removed from their cultural environment, from their place of worship, and from their ancestral land and forced to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land (Psalm 137:4). Many of those who were forcibly taken to Babylon, died there and never again saw their homeland.

As a result of the exile, many changes took place in the religious and social life of Israel. There was a challenge for the people to change and to innovate if they were to survive as a people and as a nation. As a result of the exile, there were three main areas where changes precipitated radical results.

First, the monarchy had ceased to exist, and kingship was never reconstituted. The end of kingship challenged the divine promise that David’s dynasty would continue forever. The possible end of the Davidic dynasty created a crisis of credibility: Would God honor his promises to David?

Second, the temple was in ruins and the rituals carried on there were no more. The destruction of the temple was devastating to the religious faithful because they thought that the temple was inviolable. The destruction of the temple by the Babylonians shattered that theology. The destruction of the temple created a crisis of faith: How could God be worshiped without a temple?

Third, the land, which was considered holy, had been a unifying factor in the religious formation of the nation. However, as the result of the exile, Yahwism had been torn from its nation, cult, and land. As a result of the loss of the land, an important change took place in the people’s understanding of their God. The people understood that Yahweh was not a God localized within the boundaries of the land, but that he was a universal God, a God who also could be worshiped in Babylon.

Other changes took place in exile that would forever change the character and the nature of the people of Judah. The new generation of Judeans who were born in Babylon forgot their native language, Hebrew, and adopted Aramaic, the language of their conquerors, as their new language.

The exile revealed the tenacity of Israel’s faith. Deprived of the temple and of a holy city, 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.

The exile brought about the need for an agonizing reappraisal and refinement of their religious traditions. When the people were taken to Babylon, they took with them many records and documents that later were used to preserve their legal, historical, and religious traditions.

In exile a greater emphasis was placed on preserving their religious and cultural heritage in writing. The preservation of the ancient heritage of the nation included many of the traditions that were transmitted orally from generation to generation, the preaching of the prophets, the rituals of the temple, and the teachings of the priests. Canonical activity quickened in Babylon as holy books began to replace the holy temple. In exile, Israel became the people of the book.

Although the synagogues probably existed before the destruction of the temple, in exile the synagogue became a place for prayer, study, and local worship and it served as a temporary replacement for the temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue “contributed to the continuity of the Jewish people by maintaining a unique identity and a portable way of worship despite the destruction of the Temple.”

Finally, the exile brought about the need for a theological response to the events leading up to the exile. The people understood that Israel had been unable to keep the covenant. All three major prophets of the exile declared the need for a new kind of covenant, a new saving act of God. In exile there was 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.

Although living in a strange land, the people never forgot the heritage they left behind and Jerusalem remained in their thoughts and their hearts. The longing of the people for their native land was expressed by the words of the psalmist: “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).

In exile, many of the people maintained their distinctiveness as a people and it was this tenacity that saved the religious traditions of the nation and gave birth to Judaism. Also living in a foreign land, the exiles retained the belief that the land of Canaan was theirs. The people never abandoned the desire and the hope to return to the land that was given to them by God as their eternal inheritance.

The exile had a deep impact on the religious and cultural life of the people of Judah. The exile destroyed the belief in the inviolability of the temple. The exile produced the view of the universality of God and that he would be with his people even in a pagan land. The exile forced the people to reevaluate the view of the uniqueness of God and reject polytheism, the worship of images, and other pagan practices. In exile, faithful observance of the Sabbath, circumcision, and strict adherence to the Law became the signs of loyalty to God.

Claude MariottiniEmeritus Professor of Old TestamentNorthern Baptist Seminary

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Republished with permission from, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Israel in Exile.

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