When David was king, all of Israel and Judah were united under his leadership. Even under Solomon it had survived together. By 921 BCE, though, the country had been split in two, Israel to the north, Judah to the south. In 720 Assyria and its allies conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and forced its people into exile from which many never returned to their homeland either through death or by choice. Babylon began to chew up the southern kingdom of Judah in 605, taking away many of the young men of the army and their leaders and deporting them to Babylon as exiles. It was only the first such deportation. More than 10,000, including the remainder of the army, craftsmen, nobles, priests, King Zedekiah and prophets like Ezekiel found themselves on the road to Babylon about eight years later. The Babylonians took the top levels of society, the rich and influential, leaving the ordinary folks behind and forcing them to learn to make do with no governance and no leadership.
While the remainder in Judah struggled, the exiles in Babylon found that they weren’t in the same situation as their ancestors had been in Egypt. They were permitted to retain their religious practices and their crafts, live in their own neighborhoods and, in general, were treated almost as guests rather than conquered enemies. It’s no wonder that when Cyrus the Great of Persia overthrew Babylon in 538 and declared that the Jews could return to their homeland not everyone chose to go back.
Returnees and anyone who has been away from home for an extended period might have great expectations of what it will be like when they get back home. Many had never known the old home place except through stories and songs of their parents and grandparents but some might have remembered the place very well. It must have been a huge shock to realize that the Jerusalem and Judah that they had left or had been told about no longer really existed. It was almost like having to start all over. The temple had been destroyed, outsiders had moved in and intermarried with those who had been left behind, strange religious practices had crept in with the outsiders, and they had found their own way of doing things. Now this crowd of returning exiles, even if they were long-lost relatives, had to find a way to successfully regain what they had lost as well as turn the people back to God. Ezra and Nehemiah had a plan for that.
When the people had some time to get settled, all the priests, Levites (assistants to the temple priests), temple workers (like the gatekeepers, singers and servants) and the people were gathered before what was known as the Water Gate. Ezra the prophet, flanked by lay officials, opened a scroll and began to read the Torah, the books of Moses containing the law. He read all morning and then all afternoon. The Levites in the crowd interpreted the law in terms the people could understand. Many were in tears of repentance but they were dismissed with instructions to go, eat richly, drink wine and not to forget to send some of their own food to those who were not so affluent. It was a holy day, so everybody should celebrate!
The group reassembled the next day and heard more of the Torah. In the reading was God’s command to the Hebrews that each family was to build a temporary shelter and live in it for a week in remembrance of the escape from Egypt and the simple huts they had used during the long journey to the Promised Land. It seems appropriate that the first celebration after the return from Babylon was the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), centered around a symbol that represented a return from another kind of exile. Perhaps it helped them put their own journey in a religious context.
I wonder if the Babylonian exiles ever really remembered their ancestors in the exodus and tried to see similarities in their situations. Did they remember the stories they had learned as children in Judah and so could teach them to their own children in Babylon? They were allowed to practice their religion, but had they forgotten great parts of it? Did they not have prophets and priests and rabbis to keep the stories of the faith alive? They saw the hole left in their own lives when they were forced to leave home, but did they think about the holes in the community and the families that were left behind? I guess it’s hard to think about much beyond self and survival when uprooted by something. It’s even harder to think that the people that remain go on and their lives change in unknown ways. Those changes only become apparent when there is a return.
Whether from Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, or from point A to point B, exile and return is a recurring story of sin, repentance and redemption. People get complacent and forget what is right and wrong (or change their minds about it).They get into messes that alienate them from friends, family and a center of their lives they call “home,” and then have accept the rupture they have caused. They don’t have to go any further than the front door of their house or perhaps a couple of miles down the road. Exile doesn’t have to mean long distances; it can be as close as the distance between two people standing next to each other.
Exiles can end and restoration can take place. Both can be learning experiences, just as the re-reading the experiences of the past can. The saying that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it may be truer than we know, but remembering the past can form reconnections with what has been lost. For the Babylonian returnees and for us as real or potential exiles, God was and is waiting for us to reconnect.
If that isn’t worth the trip, I’m not sure what would be.