The exile is a key event in the biblical account of the history of God’s people. It is the conclusion of the story recounted by the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) as well as the ‘climax’ of the parallel account in the Book of Chronicles. It is so important to the overall story of the Hebrew Bible that the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve so-called Minor Prophets) are often categorised in the threefold grouping of (i) pre-exilic, (ii) exilic and (iii) post-exilic. The pre-exilic prophets warn of the possibility of exile as punishment for the nation and the post-exilic prophets the consequences of exile.
Our concern in this post is the 6th Century BCE when the Babylonian armies captured the land of Judah and sacked the city of Jerusalem. This was not a singular event and the military violence culminated in several deportations. At a literal level the term exile refers to these deportations but in reality the exile was bigger than this. It embodies much more than the experience of those who were deported to a foreign land, like those by the rivers of Babylon in Psalm 137. The bigger picture includes those left behind and the impact of events seen as God’s judgement by the returning Judahites. Exile is a complex nexus of history and theology, like so much else we find the in the Hebrew Bible.
The Latter Prophet Jeremiah speaks of two deportations and other sources indicate there were three; in 597 BCE (Jeremiah 39:1), 586 BCE (Jeremiah 52:29) and 582/581 BCE (mentioned in Josephus’ Antiquities X. ix. 7). There is no reason to doubt the broad historicity of these events—as well as the wider narrative in Kings. Many of the features of the biblical record cohere well with Josephus and also Babylonian accounts. The latter include both narrative texts and the details found on monuments and artefacts.
The theological implication of God’s people suffering defeat, humiliation, violence and deportation is crystallised in all of its unpleasant rawness in the book of Lamentations. We will return to this short book of laments in a later post. For now we note that the exile raised the same type of questions that the more recent events of the Holocaust raise. The ‘exile experience’ is not something confined to past history as an event; it pre-empts later experiences of God’s people and the experience of individuals too. This is one of the reasons why laments are a key feature of the Hebrew Bible and why their use should not be confined to the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Of course the story did not end with exile—although for those in its midst it would have felt like it had. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, a single book in the Hebrew Bible, give accounts of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The return from exile was not a straightforward return to the way things had been. The return was followed by centuries of turmoil as the Jewish nation took on a new shape without a proper monarch. During this reshaping there was ongoing oppression by the Persians, Greeks and Romans. It was during this time that much of the Hebrew Bible was written and other parts edited.