Daily Life Of The Judaean Prisoners
Very different, no doubt was the lot of prisoners of less exalted state.
Some of the Judaeans were employed perhaps in Babylon, but in any case quite close to the capital, where Nebuchadnezzar was undertaking important building operations. But the largest body of prisoners was settled near Nippur in the south of the country. From the prophet Yehezqel, who formed part of this contingent, we learn that the prisoners were on the bank of the river Chebar. Historians have identified this river with the Naru Kabaru of the cuneiform texts; it is one of the many irrigation canals taken from the Euphrates in this heavily cultivated region which was consecrated to Enlil, god of the earth. All this part of the country was criss-crossed with many canals for bringing water to the fields and horticultural establishments. The digging and maintenance of these little artificial rivers required numerous and properly qualified workers. Obviously the prisoners of war would have a place in this complex organization whose duty it was to open, shut and repair the sluices. It is in this sense that the well-known expression in Tehillim 137 (Super flumina Babylonis) should be understood: Beside the streams of Babylon. We know the name of several of these villages in which the Judaeans were quartered: Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, Immer (Ezra 2:59), Casiphia (Ezra 8:17) and Tel-Abib.3 In these various places the exiles were not treated exactly as prisoners. But their movements were supervised, watched and controlled. Outside their work they enjoyed a certain freedom.
In the territory assigned to them the sons of Yacob lived in closed groups. They possessed their own organization and officials; their elders and elected notables could even pronounce sentence and see to the carrying out of their decrees.
By avoiding so far as possible all contact with the Chaldaeans and refusing to mix with the other exiles from different countries in Asia, they managed to preserve intact their national character. They were very probably grouped in clans, or at least, according to the different Palestinian villages from which they came, they lived as a family, and married within the Judaean group. In this wealthy country they led a far fuller life and one nothing like so hard as that which they had experienced in Canaan.
Without wishing in any way to minimize the moral and spiritual sufferings of the Exile, we are bound to admit that the material circumstances of the exiles, who were neither slaves nor serfs, must be regarded as very reasonable.
3 In Babylonian. Tel-Abubi (Tel of the flood). By alliteration the exiled called it: Tel-Abib, Tel of the ear of corn.
The Spiritual State Of The Exiles
The spiritual position certainly appears to have been far less satisfactory.
For ten years, from 597 to 587, that is, between the first and second deportation, the exiled Judaeans liked to believe that YAHWEH would come providentially to their assistance before the final catastrophe; in their view the Tabernacle of Yerusalem was the palladium of the City of David. YermeYah felt obliged to write to them from Yerusalem to oppose this mistake, which was being preached throughout Babylon by false prophets who promised the exiles an early return to Yerusalem. YermeYah warned what remained of the People of YAHWEH against these illusions: the Exile, he told them, would last for a long time, for seventy years, to be precise. And he was lavish with his wise advice: 'Build houses, settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters; choose wives for your sons, find husbands for your daughters so that these can bear sons and daughters in their turn; you must increase there and not decrease' YermeYah-(Jeremiah) 29:4-6.
So their trial was to continue; in fact it was only just at its beginning. YAHWEH was making ready to send to HIS disobedient people the punishment that they deserved.
One day in 587 B.C. a survivor from Yerusalem arrived in Babylon to announce the capture of the city by Nebuchadnezzar's soldiers; the city had been pillaged and burned to the ground; the Tabernacle was profaned and destroyed by fire. The City of David no longer existed.
For those weaker brethren who always hoped for a signal victory of the Egyptians over the Babylonian armies and dreamed of the glorious liberation of Yerusalem the blow was a terrible one; henceforward they had proof that YAHWEH was not strong enough to protect his people; the Babylonian gods prevailed over YAHWEH of Abraham.
As a result, without completely giving up the worship of YAHWEH, the Judaean exiles were increasingly inclined to invoke the gods of Mesopotamia. It was a further and very disquieting outbreak of syncretism.
But at this point help came from the prophet Yehezqel (Yehezqel).
Yehezqel's Message (Duration Of His Ministry 593-570)
Yehezqel, who belonged to a kohenly family, was among the first group of those deported. Three years after his arrival in the land of exile he saw a hand which was holding out a scroll to him; at the same time he heard a voice, telling him, 'son of man, eat this scroll, then go and speak to the House of Yisrael' (Yeh.. 3:1). This was a symbol of the set apart message which he was to give to the Chosen People.
Yehezqel's message is one of great richness, but it is also very complex. It seems that there were four messages.
Message Regarding Yisrael's Guilt:
Prediction Of The Punishments To Be Undergone By The People Of YAHWEH
Some of the Judaeans deported to Babylon seemed to think that they had been unjustly punished by YAHWEH. Why did he treat his people so harshly when he ought, surely, to have dealt kindly with them? Yehezqel undertook to enlighten his proud and obstinate fellow-countrymen.
During the first six years of his ministry he tried to show the Chosen People how they were guilty in the sight of YAHWEH. Repeating the fundamental teaching of Devarim with some vehemence, the prophet blamed his companions for the acts of idolatry; he reminded them of the worship they had paid on the high places to the Asheras, the raised stones on which they had poured libations of wine or oil; he told them of YAHWEH's anger for having burned their new-born children in criminal sacrifice; Yisrael, he proclaimed, was an unfaithful people; they would undergo a punishment to match their sin. The kingdom of Yahudah would shortly experience the most terrible time of its whole history; Yerusalem would be destroyed; the Tabernacle would be burned to the ground.
Hearing all these disasters predicted the exiles protested. Were the sons once more to pay for the sins of their fathers? Why should the exiles in Babylon suffer calamity because of the mistakes of their forbears? That was the cry of despair that went up from the exiles on the banks of the Euphrates.
On this point Yehezqel was able to comfort them a little. The old Yisraelite proverb; The fathers have eaten unripe grapes; and the children's teeth are set on edge was obviously not applicable universally. The prophet preached the principle of personal responsibility, an idea which, after all, had never been entirely unknown in Yisrael. Nevertheless, in the circumstances it assumed the appearance of a solemn advance in the history of ideas and in the theological context.4
For this reason YAHWEH would to some extent spare the innocent; they would be able to regroup and form the little 'remnant' so often mentioned by the prophets; and this 'remnant' would form the nucleus of the future Yisrael.
But for the time being, the exiles must get ready to suffer the most fearful trials.
4 Note that the formulation of this principle does not put the theory of collective responsibility entirely out of court. Each individual is responsible for his own yeshua while remaining, for his own part, responsible for the future yeshua of his social group
The Proclamation Of Yeshua
Time passed, Yehezqel's prophecies were fulfilled one by one, Yerusalem fell. Despair reigned among the Yahwists in Babylon.
Yehezqel's destiny appears here in a curious light. Previously his compatriots cherished the dangerous illusion that YAHWEH would protect them in the final resort against the horror of national annihilation, but Yehezqel foretold terrible and very full punishment. Now that the Chosen People had experienced the very depths of misfortunes and believed that all was lost irreparably, the prophet began to preach a doctrine of dazzling hope. YAHWEH of the Covenant, he proclaimed, was almighty and present in all places -even there, on the banks of the Euphrates. Had not he, Yehezqel, seen with his own eyes the 'splendour' of YAHWEH in that dazzling theophany in which the Assyro-Babylonian Karibu, guardians of the tabernacles and servants of the pagan gods, were harnessed to the chariot of YAHWEH? This strange and splendid vision was an affirmation of the true YAHWEH's transcendence, and also of his omnipresence, which was no longer to be regarded as tied to the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle which was now destroyed.
The people were not to be discouraged. YAHWEH was the Almighty. From dry bones HE could cause a new people to rise (the vision of Yehezqel, 37: 1-14).
Prediction Of The Return Of The Exiles To A Palestine Renewed
Yehezqel solemnly foretold that, freed from the pagans (Ammonites and Edomites) who had settled there, the Promised Land would shortly see the return of the exiles. And there the People of YAHWEH, made clean at last, would be united to YAHWEH by a very close and universal Covenant.
This implied a complete reorganization of the community; the temptations and abuses which had led Yisrael to its ruin would have to be eliminated. And this was how the prophet saw the future of the Chosen People, reformed into one nation and re-established on Mount Zion.
It would be a perfect kingdom, equally divided among the tribes (Yeh. 48). For perfect worship there would be a perfect Tabernacle whose carefully established and fully detailed plan Yehezqel had received. The plan could not be carried out, perhaps, topographically or architecturally, and must probably be regarded as a symbolic view of Judaism. Thus YAHWEH would once more dwell in HIS Tabernacle. From the tabernacle in Yerusalem would flow the celebrated spring of water (Yeh. 47:1-12) bringing fertility even to Arabah, the sterile plain to the south of the Dead Sea whose waters would then be sweetened. This was a symbol of the set apart presence which would be manifested throughout the entire country and would be manifested throughout the entire country and would penetrate each faithful soul and there cause the seeds of righteousness to germinate.
But the children of Yisrael were not yet to count on YAHWEH's definitive victory. Gog, King of Magog, the figure of Anti-MessiYah and the Prince of Evil, would endeavour to overthrow the theocratic organization which would then have been established in Yerusalem. In the time to come Yisrael would once more experience many disappointments before seeing the manifestation of the fullness of set apart honour in the Promised Land.
Prophecy Of The Shepherd And Messiah (Yeh. 34)
This coming of the Shepherd, a symbol of the king, the ideal leader ardently desired by all, is nothing new in the Scripture. Why was this shepherd so ardently desired?
Simply to take the place of the wicked shepherds of the flock whose blindness has disqualified them. Thus they are to be dismissed. It is YAHWEH HIMSELF who will bestow on the body of HIS faithful followers one Shepherd, the 'MessiYah', HE who is called 'MY Servant'.
Yehezqel's Spiritual And Doctrinal Contribution
At the outset Yehezqel, as we have observed, appeared as one of the most active of workers for Judaism, with his impetuous desires for national renaissance and spiritual regeneration. He laid the foundations of a remodeling of worship which came to constitute the line of defense of Yahwism against the seductive attraction of paganism.
The great spiritual reform effected by Yehezqel consisted in the proclamation of a spiritual belief; it is with the heart that a man makes contact with his Creator.
Then at the more theological level we find him going further than the teaching of Yisraelite monotheism which was far too inclined to regard YAHWEH as the national Sovereign Ruler, betaking HIMSELF at pleasure to the Tabernacle in Yerusalem to deliver HIS oracles. The tabernacle had just been destroyed by the will of YAHWEH HIMSELF as a punishment for HIS rebellious people. But YAHWEH still continued HIS excellent and everlasting reign. Thus the prophet proclaimed that YAHWEH was the Almighty not only of the land of Canaan, but the Almighty One of the universe, the sovereign Master of the world.