{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
The Emergence of Judaism

During the years of exile Israel became a religious community which was not related to any political entity or cultic center. This fact made changes in her thinking and her political institutions which have continued to the present. Although some Jews would later return to Jerusalem, the majority would continue to live at a distance from the Holy Land. Their ties would be cultural and religious, but not political.

The term Israel is frequently used to describe the earlier period of Jewish life, when the tribes dwelt in proximity to one another and religious life was conveniently centered in one central sanctuary. As a political unit, Israel was a world power in the days of David and Solomon, and even after the division of the kingdom she remained a political force to be reckoned with. After the Exile, Judah remained a subject state which, except for the Maccabean interlude, was dependent upon the great powers among whom she lived - Persia, Macedonia, the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Syrian Seleucids, and Rome. Her people lived not only in Palestine, but also in Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. These Jews might visit Jerusalem at the great religious festivals (cf. Acts 2:8-11), but they had found their livelihood in a wider world and made some adaptations to a wider culture.

Exilic and Post-Exilic Judaism was the heir to the Law and the prophetic writings of Pre-Exilic Israel. The Exile itself had underscored the need of faithfulness to Israel's God. Idolatry had been the besetting sin of the Pre-Exilic period, and those who had suffered the loss of home and Temple could be expected to turn in horror from the sins which brought on the Exile.

The Israeli scholar, Yehezkel Kaufmann, had summarized the effect of the Exile upon the Jewish tendency toward idolatry ("The Biblical Age," in Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, p. 79):

Vestiges of an ancient fetishistic idolatry reinforced by foreign influences, continued to exist among the people down to the fall of Judah. It was the catastrophe of the Fall that aroused in the people a spirit of remorse. The pious viewed the sin of idolatry as the critical national sin. The prophets had predicted doom for the worship of gods of wood and stone. God-fearing kings such as Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah had destroyed idolatrous cults, but had been unable to root out idolatry entirely. The Fall worked a revolution. The nation accepted the verdict and they drew the ultimate conclusion from their monotheistic faith: all traces of idol-worship must be extirpated. It was thus in the realm of the cult that the final victory of monotheism in Israel too place. Henceforth Israel was a nation jealous for its Jealous God.

The rejection of idolatry had, as its positive side, a deepening appreciation of Israel's historic monotheistic faith as enunciated in the body of sacred writings known as the Torah, or Law. Torah must not be thought of as law in the restricted sense of rules for conduct. The Torah contains such, of course, but it includes a great deal more. The Hebrew Torah (Pentateuch) - the first five books of the Bible. Parts of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy give us codified law, but much of the Torah instructs us by example. Biographies of godly men - Abraham, Joseph, Noah, Moses, and a host of others - provide instruction. The evil deeds of men so realistically described, provide instruction also. Bad examples as well as good examples are necessary if we are to understand life in its totality. The evil must be shunned, and the good imitated, but both are illustrated and described in the Torah of Israel.

Kaufmann observes the need for Torah in Exilic Judaism (The Religion of Israel, p. 448): "With land, temple, and king gone, only one contact with the holy was left, the divine word." There were no Jewish altars in Babylon. The Jews shrank even from singing the songs of Zion in the land of exile (Psalm 137:4). The Scriptures - the Bible of ancient Israel - filled the vacuum produced by the crisis of Exile.

Not only the Law, but Pre-Exilic prophetic writings were studied by faithful Jews in Babylon. Daniel tells us that it was his study of the prophecies of Jeremiah that caused him to humble himself before God in anticipation of the day when the enforced exile would come to an end (Daniel 9:1-19). In contemplating the time when a new Temple would be built in Jerusalem, the priests and their descendants concerned themselves with the minutia of the Levitical laws. Those whose hearts were still in Zion occupied themselves with the Scriptures. There they learned both the reason for the Exile and the manner of life which the people of God should live both in the land of their captivity and, at a later time, in a restored Zion.

The synagogue, the characteristic institution of post-exilic Judaism, had its roots in the religious needs of those who could not attend the Temple worship to which they were accustomed. Orthodox Judaism permitted but one Sanctuary, that which had first been built by Solomon in Jerusalem. The Temple was the successor to the older Tabernacle, a movable structure which had been built during the period of the wilderness wandering before Israel, under Joshua, entered Canaan. The sacred ark, the most important element in the Tabernacle, had later been located at Shiloh where "the temple of Yahweh" (1 Samuel 1:9) was located in the days of Samuel. Shiloh was destroyed during the battles between Israelites and Philistines, and the Ark had no permanent abode until David brought it to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:1-19). From that time to the present, Jerusalem has been considered the religious center of Jewish life and the only appropriate place for the Holy Temple.

No Temple was built in the Jewish settlements of Babylon. The exiles did need to have occasions of fellowship in prayer and Bible study to augment their personal devotional times. Out of this very real need the institution known as the synagogue gradually developed. The synagogue became the community center for Jewish life.

During the Exile there arose a change in the linguistic habits of the Jews. Aramaic, the language of diplomacy in the Persian Empire, became the vernacular of the Jews - both those who returned to Palestine and those who remained in the eastern provinces of the empire (see Life Among the Exiles).

Jews who spoke only Aramaic would not be able to understand the Hebrew Scriptures without an interpreter. The custom arose of reading the Hebrew Bible in the synagogue service, after which an explanation would be given in the vernacular Aramaic. This oral explanation in time became a discourse, interpreting and applying the Biblical message. Generations later these explanations, or "targums" were themselves written down, but in their early history they were simply explanations of the Biblical text, ranging from word-by-word translations to quite free paraphrases. More liberties were permitted with the prophetic literature that with the Torah which was accorded the highest degree of inspiration in Jewish thought.

The reading of the Scripture was probably preceded by a prayer. In later Jewish practice the reading from the Torah was preceded by the recitation of the Shema' - Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; and Numbers 15:37-41. The Shema' gets its name from the Hebrew word "hear," the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 which begins, "Hear, O Israel!"

The institution of the Sabbath, frequently neglected by the Pre-Exilic communities, became the hallmark of Judaism during the Exilic Period. From sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday the Jew refrained from all work. The Sabbath became a day of rest and worship. In addition to the sacred festivals of the Levitical calendar, the Jews of the exile observed fasts in memory of the national calamities attending the fall of Jerusalem (Zechariah 7:3,5; 8:19). Later the Feast of Purim was observed to commemorate the victory of the Jews over their foes in Persian times (Esther 9:27-32).

Corporate worship did not take the place of personal devotion for the godly Jew. Daniel made it a practive to pray three times daily with his face turned toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:11). Confession of sin and prayers for divine compassion were certainly stimulated by the Exile. Those who, in a spirit of haughtiness, presumed upon God's goodness in Pre-Exilic times would now see their plight in the light of His holiness. The author of Lamentations cried out, "Turn thou us unto thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old" (5:21).

It would be dangerous to generalize on the attitude of Babylonian Jews toward their idolatrous associates. Some, probably, had little contact with their non-Jewish neighbors. We do know, however, of many Jews who rose to important positions in the political and business world of the time. Daniel in the courts of Babylon and Persia; Nehemiah the cupbearer to Artaxerxes Longimanus; and Esther the queen serve as notable examples of Jews who were in no sense isolated. We also know that some Jews made a name and fortune for themselves in the world of commerce. The business archives of the Murashu family of Nippur provide as early example of Jews who became successful men of business. (Cf. H. V. Hilprecht and A. T. Clay, Business Documents of Murashu Sons of Nippur Dated in the Reign of Artaxerxes I and Albert T. Clay, Business Documents of Murashu Sons of Nippur Dated in the Reign of Darius II.)

One result of this new chapter in Jewish life was the impact which Jews had on their non-Jewish associates. Prior to the Exile conversion was largely a matter of living in the land of Israel and assimilating Israelite culture. Ruth the Moabitess determined to serve Naomi's God when she returned with her to Bethlehem, whereas Orpah, Ruth's sister-in-law, returned to Moab and served the gods of Moab (Ruth 1:14-16). During and after the Exile, however, Judaism became a missionary religion. The Jews looked with scorn on the idolatry which once had been so great a temptation to their fathers. They saw idolatry as something evil not only for themselves as Jews, but for all men. A significant and growing number of converts or "God-fearers" looked upon Judaism as the true religion and turned their backs upon paganism. The early church found a ready audience that had been providentially prepared by Post-Exilic Judaism for the preaching of the Christian gospel.

Esther and the Persian Court < | The Emergence of Judaism | > Cyrus and the Rise of the Empire

{Old Testament History}

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