Exile and Return - Babylonian & Persian Rule
By the time that the Jewish people met the West, in the form of the armies
of Alexander the Great (c. 333 B.C.E.), they were already an ancient
community. At the same time that Alexander set out to create the first
international empire, and that Rome was in the midst of uniting the Italian
peninsula under its rule, the Jewish people had sailed the stormy ocean of
time for nearly 1000 years. From the kingdom of David in 1000 BCE through
the devastation of that kingdom at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE, the
Jewish people, by the time of Alexander, had already produced a rich
literature of history, prophecy, and poetry. With the destruction of
Jerusalem by Rome (70 C.E.), the Rabbis of Yavneh would establish the canon
of books that would become known as the Hebrew Bible (The Tanach).
The Second Temple period stretched from the return of the Jewish people to
the Land of Israel beginning in 536 B.C.E. until the fall of Jerusalem in 70
C.E. During this period, the Jews found themselves under the rule of
Persians, of Hellenized Egypt and Syria, of the Hellenized Jewish
Hasmoneans, and of Rome. The politics of the period was marked by intrigue,
and revolt, and war, and ultimately destruction. Internally, the Jewish
people faced a number of key issues that have been part and parcel of the
Jewish experience, in various guises, up until contemporary times. How
important is political freedom? At what price? How does Judaism deal with
other cultures? Can one be both Jewish and modern? Is Jewish identity
primarily tied with politics and territory or with religion and community?
Our course will try to address some of these issues throughout the Second
Temple period through the aftermath of the suppression of the Great Revolt
(66-70 C.E.), the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 C.E.), and the beginnings of
the development of Rabbinic Judaism (70 C.E. until 200 C.E.).
In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, the exiles, perhaps as
many as 10,000, were resettled in Babylon, in Egypt, and throughout Asia
Minor. The Judaism of the First Temple period was based around a triangle of
God, Kingship, and Temple. The defeat of the armies of Judah by the
Babylonians was understood by the Jews as a form of Divine punishment. The
loss of home, and the collapse of the Jewish people's territorial base and
religious center forced people to ask - If the monarchy is no more, if the
Temple is lost, if the people of Israel no longer reside in the Land of
Israel; how will Jewish survival be ensured? Psalm 137 encapsulates both
the tragedy of exile: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept,
as we remembered Zion, as well as the central question of Jewish continuity
. . . "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
The "strange land" , Babylon, become over the centuries one of the most
vibrant centers of Jewish life, from the days of the First Exile though the
establishment of the great Talmudic centers of Sura and Pumbidita, and up
until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. It seems that even
early on, the Jewish refugee community that began to make its home in
Babylon lived in a situation of benevolent captivity. Jeremiah, the prophet
who witnessed and recorded the fall of Jerusalem in the Book of
Lamentations, who encouraged the exiles to never forget Zion and the Land of
Israel, also advocated a practical policy aimed at the reconstruction of
Jewish life "by the waters of Babylon."
"Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take
wives and have sons and daughters, take wives for your sons, and give your
daughters in marriage, that they may bear 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." (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
Based on the archaeological evidence, it seems that the exiles took
Jeremiah's advice to heart. The Bible mentions areas of Jewish settlement
along the Chebar river (Ezekiel 1:1-3, 3:15,23). A city named Tel Abib is
even mentioned (Ezekiel 3:15)! A collection of cuneiform documents found at
Nippur, and known as the Murashu texts, reveal the records of a prestigious
Babylonian banking firm of the 5th century B.C.E. Based on the evidence
provided by the Murashu texts, the Jews became prosperous merchants,
farmers, government officials, and even succeeded in the Babylonian military.
King Jehoachin had been ousted from power by the Babylonians in 597 BCE, and
replaced by the puppet-king Zedekiah. Both the Biblical text (2 Kings
25:27-30) and Babylonian sources relate to his release from captivity in 561
B.C.E. Second Kings concludes with Aevil-Merodach, the successor of
Nebuchadnezzar, releasing Jehoachin from prison, recognizing Jehoachin's
royal status as the legitimate king of Judah, and providing him with a
kingly allowance from the Babylonian government. Babylonian texts from the
royal archives include reference to food rations to be supplied to "king
Yaukin" of Judah, his sons, and other Jewish court officials. Jehoachin was
never returned to power. However, the evidence does support the view that
the Babylonians related to him and his family with respect and deference.
While in Babylon, it became popular for Jews to adopt Babylonian names. Two
of the most prominent leaders of the return to Zion that began in 536 B.C.E.
, Sheshbazzar and Zerubabel bear "modern" Babylonian names. Although
the Book of Esther cannot be read as relating to a set of definite
historical events, the historical context of the piece does relate to the
Persian period. In fact, the names of the hero, Mordecai, and the heroine,
Esther, are hebraized version of the names of two central Babylonian gods -
Marduk and Ishtar.
With all this being said, how did the Jewish people maintain their unique
national-religious identity? They suffered military conquest and dispersal,
and the gilded cage of the Babylonian captivity was relatively free and
open. No one answer can be given, however, without a doubt the classical
prophetic tradition of Biblical Israel was central in forming a Judaism that
emphasized not only the territorial and the communal, but also the personal
and the universal. The prophet Jeremiah warned against the fragile, fickle
nature of power politics. Although a Jerusalemite from a priesly family,
Jeremiah warned of making the Temple an idol, of confusing religious means
and ends. He mocked the priests who in his view had turned the Temple
service into empty ritual.
Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.
Don't put trust in illusions and say, "The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of
the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these." No, if you really mend your
ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another,
if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not
shed the blood of the innocent in this place . . . Will you steal and murder
and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and then come
and stand before Me in this House which bears my name and say, "We are
safe."? - [Safe] to do all these abhorrent things! (Jeremiah 7:3-10)
Jeremiah, like others of the great prophets, argued that the dialogue
between the human and the divine is only fulfilled when people act with
compassion, righteousness, and justice towards each other. In that sense,
the sacred is achievable not only at one specific geographical site, but in
every court, marketplace, and home. If human ethics is an essential
component of the Jewish conception of expanding sacredness, then religion is
made that much more mobile. Ezekiel, who prophesied in Jerusalem before the
destruction, continued to be a central voice among the uprooted Jews of
Babylon. In Ezekiel 18, he re-emphasizes the ethical foundation of Judaic
monotheism demanding the individual responsibility of each person for their
own actions. However, the prophets did not abandon the hope of national
restoration, nor an ideal of the return to Zion as a prerequisite for the
realization of the best of Judaism's universal message.
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the obscure figure called by scholars, Deutero-Isaiah
(the author of chapters 42-55 of the Book of Isaiah) all aspire towards a
time when the people of Israel will return to the Land of Israel, when the
Temple will be rebuilt, and the Davidic dynasty reinstated. Combined with
their burning passion for universal peace and justice is a basic commitment
to the right of the Jewish people, as it says in modern Israel's national
anthem. "to be a free people in our own land." Ezekiel 37 describes the
allegorical desolation of the "valley of the dry bones", the ingathering of
the exiles, and the rebirth of the Jewish people in their own land.
The Achaemenid-Persian Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 BCE. The crumbling of
Babylonian power and the rise of Persia opened up a new set of opportunities
for the Jewish people, and for the other nations conquered by Babylon. A
small clay cylinder, today on display at the British Museum, records Cyrus'
great edict. The announcement grants those peoples conquered by the
Babylonians the right to return to their homes, rebuild their cities and
temples. The Jews are not referred to directly, however the Book of Ezra
(1:1-3, 6:3-5) does mention a decree made by Cyrus granting permission for
the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.
With imperial backing, groups of Jews began to organize themselves for the
return to Zion. It appears that most preferred to remain in Babylon.
Babylon was home. Jerusalem was a vision. The rebuilding demanded hard
work, unknown conditions, and no small personal sacrifice. Like with the
modern Zionist movement, small groups of pioneers led the return to Zion.
The Diaspora communities offered moral and financial aid to the returnees,
and continued to prefer the vision of Jerusalem from afar rather than the
reality of the difficult work of rebuilding Jewish national existence. In
536 BCE, led by Sheshbazzar and Zerubabel, some 50,000 exiles returned to
the Land of Israel. Descendants of the Davidic line, Sheshbazzar and
Zerubabel are credited with the rebuilding and rededication of the Temple in
Jerusalem between 515-520 BCE. The rebuilt Temple, although probably a poor
facsimile to the grand imperial shrine of Solomonic times, was the most
potent sign of the Jewish people's return to the Land of Israel.
The returnees came in waves of immigration. The conditions were dangerous.
The financial situation was shaky. The security situation was marked by
clashes between the Jewish returnees and the Samaritans, who saw the
returning Jews as a foreign infiltration. However, between 458-445 BCE,
another pair of outstanding leaders arrived in Jerusalem: Nehemiah and Ezra.
Ezra Ben Seraiah was a descendant of the priestly caste, and a professional
scribe and teacher. His arrival in Jerusalem in 458 BCE marked a set of
religious reforms that would attempt to spiritually rebuild Judaism and the
Jewish people. Ezra realized that education had to play a key part in
reawakening the Jewish sense of community and identity. During the festival
of Sukkot, Ezra began the public reading of the Law in the marketplaces of
Jerusalem. The text was read in Hebrew, while priests and scribes mingled
among the masses explaining the text in Aramiac. Market days were Mondays
and Thursdays, and the tradition of reading Torah in synagogue on those
weekdays goes back to the time of Ezra. Ezra reinforced the prohibitions
against intermarriage with non-Jews, and encouraged Shabbat observance as
key elements in maintaining Jewish survival.
Nehemiah, a Jew in the service of the Emperor Artaxerxes I, was a diplomat,
engineer, and military figure. After a three day survey of the remains of
the walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians, Nehemiah
initiated a building project to refortify the city. So as not to attract
undue attention, nor the hostitilies of the Samaritans, much of the
building was carried on a night. The final result was a fortification wall
that surrounded a Jerusalem that was not much more than a village. The Walls
incorporated the area of the live-giving Gihon Spring, the City of David,
and the area around the Temple Mount. Areas that had been part of the city
since the time of Hezekiah (8th Century BCE). like the Western Hill and Mt.
Zion were left outside of the walls.
With the Babylonian destruction, the Jewish people refused to disappear from
history. They adapted to the new conditions of Diaspora, and eventually also
began to return to their national homeland. The return was led by a small
minority. Jerusalem stood again, not an imperial capital, but a provincial
village. National life - defense, economy, and cultural-religious
expression - was revived. Like all new beginnings, the achievements of the
returnees to Zion were modest, but nonetheless absolutely crucial in setting
the stage for the continuing drama of the Second Temple Period.