II. The Spiritual Activity Of The Judaeans In Babylon
From The Death Of Nebuchadnezzar To The Appearance Of The Liberator
(altogether, about thirteen years, 562-549)
Nebuchadnezzar was too authoritarian a sovereign to allow any group of prisoners of war to hold up their heads. Those Judaeans who were incautious enough to venture on any move towards revolt were thrown into prison sold as slaves or, more simply, put to death. Fortunately, Yehezqel's preaching, which was entirely spiritual in nature, was not regarded as subversive by the Babylonian authorities; the prophet had permission to speak freely. But no real changes in the treatment of the prisoners could be observed during the first fifteen years of the captivity.
The Material Life Of The Judaeans On The Banks Of The Euphrates
Directly after Nebuchadnezzar's death (562), a considerable change can be seen in the living conditions of the exiles.
Avilmarduk, the new monarch of Babylon, eager to alleviate the lot of the unfortunate Jehoiachin, who had been a prisoner for thirty-seven years (2 Melechim 24:27-30), allowed him to eat at the royal table. During the reign of this new sovereign and his short-lived successors the more humane nature of the government was manifested in the progressive slackening of control of the prisoners.
A number of exiled Judaeans started business as merchants and some of them even succeeded in making large fortunes. Some of them, who ten years previously had arrived in this foreign land as exiles, by this time possessed large estates and thousands of slaves (Yeh. 2:65).
Hope placed in YAHWEH, Sovereign Ruler and Protector
On many occasions the faith of several of the Judaeans seems to have been rather wavering, but a 'small remnant' remembered having heard the voices of the prophets in the recent past. This nucleus of faithful Yahwists preserved in their hearts a tender memory of YAHWEH's protection. Thus when the exiles began to be fairly free to organize themselves the first concern was to form a group around their spiritual leaders, who continually encouraged them and fostered the hope that they should place in YAHWEH their Sovereign Ruler and Protector. For this purpose they used to meet, first under Yehezqel and afterwards under certain 'elders' in some private houses; there the sacred books were read, they were reminded of the principal themes of the preaching of the prophets, the Law was explained; with care and spiritual profit they meditated on the Word of YAHWEH. Under the direction of a presiding elder or a scribe the sons of Abraham once more came together in community to receive spiritual teaching and to take part in prayer in common. This was the origin of the organized worship which, at a later date, at the time of the diaspora, was to become the synagogue.
The Judaeans continued to use their Hebrew language, although at this period Aramean was beginning to be used fairly generally in the Jewish colonies in Babylon. The colonies of exiles visited each other and corresponded: they wrote to their co-believers in Yerusalem and remained in close touch with them. National unity was thus founded on a solid basis.
In this foreign land their leaders took good care that the people did not forget their ancestral traditions and spiritual anniversaries. With increased fervour, and so far as the new circumstances of their lives enabled them to do so, the exiles celebrated the great festivals: the Passover, Pentecost, the Feast of Tabernacles, the day of Atonement (Yom ha-Kippurim) and many others besides. With a severity unknown in the happier days of life in Canaan they kept the Laws about circumcision and the Sabbath. They observed the Law prohibiting unclean foods very carefully and also the fasts of devotion.
But it is the spiritualization of their belief that should be emphasized here. Many of the faithful began to understand that submission to the will of YAHWEH, obedience to the Law and prayer of the heart were certainly more efficacious than the sacrificial offering of animals in the Tabernacle court. On this point the ancient as well as the more recent prophets had endeavoured to enlighten the followers of YAHWEH. Two centuries previously Amos and Hosea had already cried out:
'I reject your oblations
and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle.
For it is love that I desire and not sacrifices;
the knowledge of YAHWEH and not burnt offerings.'
More recently Yehezqel had insisted on the outstanding value of interior prayer, prayer from the heart. A small group of Judaeans, torn by the sufferings of exile, began to understand the need for a spiritual transformation to bring them nearer to YAHWEH.
There were, of course, a certain number of apostates who were led away by the great splendour of the Chaldaean ceremonies. But gathered round the spiritual leaders there was a faithful nucleus which maintained the flame of Yahwism in all its purity. They had come to understand the great truth that, on the day when they would be allowed to return to Yerusalem and rebuild the Tabernacle there could be no question of returning to the former errors and disastrous compromises; the theocratic society, re-established on new foundations, would have to be inspired by genuine faith based on the Law of YAHWEH.
The Literary Activity Of The Judaean Exiles In Babylon
The material heritage had disappeared with the fall of Yerusalem. Fortunately, they had been able to save what belonged to the historical and juridical heritage. In the two wheeled chariots, of the kind represented on the Chaldaean bas-reliefs, had been hidden a great number of those scrolls on which scribes in Yerusalem and Samaria had copied the sacred texts. In addition to the carrying of these return to Yerusalem to Babylon there must also be taken into account the prodigious oriental memory which could retain without difficulty chapter after chapter of the Law.
Very soon there occurred an amazing manifestation of literary activity in legal and historical matters among the exiled Judaeans.
The materials that the exiles had at their disposal quite certainly numbered hundreds of scrolls; but it was all complete disorder. There were obviously contradictory legislative texts of different periods. What had to be done, then, was to examine this great mass of legal material, and to eliminate from it all the ancient decisions which were no longer in accord with conditions then prevailing. The Laws also had to be arranged as logically as possible in harmony with the needs of daily life. In addition, the whole body of material needed to be completed, to be connected together and classified to form a coherent body of Law.
Work of a similar nature was required with the historical material. Some of the scrolls dealt with episodes of the period of the Judges: they related what had occurred in the northern Yisraelite region. Others dealing with the same subject were however concerned with events occurring in the southern Judaean kingdom. In addition, there was information of the greatest interest about the life of David, but there was nothing about Schmu'el. By chance, that was related elsewhere. One scroll set forth the history of the Judaean monarchy with no mention at all of the schismatic kings who occupied the throne of Samaria.
In short, there was no attempt at synthesis. The whole mass of material was in a fragmentary state, without connection or order. It is to the honour of the literary group in Babylon that they managed to achieve a methodical classification and clarification of the texts by adding the required explanations to this mass of information.
The preparation of this admirable work was due exclusively to the scribes deported to Babylon. These learned jurists and historians produced a work that can really be termed monumental; it emerged as the legal and historical corpus; from these two elements they formed a single entity as complete as it was possible to be; this was the lively and authentic account of the adventure of Yisrael.
In the time of Hezekiah (716-687) there was a similar attempt at unification and in the reign of Josiah (640609) a sort of academy had also begun to make a collection of national traditions. But there was nothing comparable, really, with the effort made and the result achieved by the scribes of the Exile. Here we have an immense Devarimic fresco: the Book of Yahshua Ben Nun, the Book of Shophtim, the Books of Schmu'el, the Books of Melechim.
The authors of this great history of Yisrael remained anonymous.
It would be quite wrong to confuse these scribes with their predecessors -kohens of the Tabernacle or officials of the royal household, responsible for recopying, commenting and, if necessary, clarifying the texts of the ancient scrolls. It was a humble enough part that they played on occasion though that in no way excluded their being 'inspired' in accordance with Jewish traditions.
The men of learning who thus set to work in exile possessed a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. They were men of YAHWEH, their souls imbued with the teaching of the set apart books. In difficult cases their contemporaries came to consult them, just as nowadays people ask advice of a legal expert or a theologian. They then solved the difficulties, indicating the spiritual or legal solution to be adopted. In a short time they were given the title, which they certainly deserved, of 'doctors of the Law'. This was an indication of the importance of their social or spiritual function, for in the civilization of Yisrael the two functions were usually indistinguishable. These doctors were held in equal reverence with the prophet and the kohen. Indeed, after the Exile, when there were no more prophets, the 'doctors of the Law' were of greater importance than the kohenly class and were to become real guides of Yisrael.
These are the words of the book written in Babylon by Baruch son of Neraiah, son of Mahseiah, son of Zedekiah, son of Hasadiah, in the fifth year, on the seventh day of the month, at the time when the Chaldaens captured Yerusalem and burned it down. Baruch 1 :1-2
The Return To Yahudah An Illusion?
The Mesopotamian authorities, whether Assyrian or Chaldaean, were the originators of the system of deporting the populations of rebel countries. Up to this time the conquerors had never allowed prisoners of war to return to their native country. With some show of reason the governments of these countries regarded these successive additions of foreign manpower as a vary valuable national asset, since usually the reported peoples were quickly integrated into the native population; and this was entirely to the state's advantage.
Yet all the prophets, from YeshaYahu to Yehezqel, proclaimed quite clearly that the terrible trial laid on Yisrael by YAHWEH would be a heavy punishment certainly, but a temporary one. It was impossible to doubt the different revelations of the great prophets whose predictions were always fulfilled. The 'remnant', which in misfortune and by meditation had come to an understanding of YAHWEH's plan, awaited with unshaken confidence the fulfillment of the promise -their early return to the Promised Land.
For the historian in modern times who examines the political scene of the Middle East at that period, there seems no likelihood of such a return occurring. Towards the end of the sixth century B.C. the Middle East had only recently been divided into three great kingdoms and at that time seemed quite stable.
Examination of the map shows that the Assyrian empire had been shared out between two conquerors, Babylon and Media. The king of Babylon took the valley of the Euphrates, as well as the vassal provinces of the west (Syria) and the south (Canaan) as far as the Egyptian frontier. The king of Media had settled in the valley of the Tigris, incorporating in his new dominions the provinces situated, roughly speaking, to the north of the river.
In addition, in Asia Minor, the State of Lydia had just been established, with Sardis as its capital, governed by the celebrated Croesus. His territory stretched from the west of Median Cappadocia and Babylonian Cilicia as far as the Aegean Sea.
These three sovereigns of Babylon, Media and Lydia seemed to have no ideas of supremacy; in any case they appeared to have no intention of engaging in a general conflict whose outcome would remain very uncertain.
It should be added, for the account to be complete, that Egypt, then extremely weak, refrained for the time being from causing trouble in the way that she had often done in the past.
It was a rare occurrence for the Middle East to be so quiet.
Just at this time among the Jewish communities of the Euphrates a group of exiles awaited in complete faith the appearance of an unknown conqueror. According to the prophecies he was to bring fire and the sword to the whole of the Fertile Crescent from the coasts of the Persian Gulf to the land of the pharaohs. He would cut in pieces the armies which attempted to stand in the way of HIS triumphal progress, He would overthrow kings and enter all the capitals as a conqueror. Proud Babylon would have to bend the knee. Finally, in a gesture of generosity unprecedented in history, he would authorize the deported Jews to return to the land of their fathers. The 'remnant' would then be able to return to Yerusalem; they would even be allowed to rebuild the Tabernacle of YAHWEH destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar's rage.
Ideas of this kind might appear almost to be the product of a fevered imagination. And yet it was just in this way that events turned out.