Posted by foryourfaith on April 14, 2013
Israel disappeared from the world map about 1,500 years after God told Abraham, in Canaan, “All the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever” (Genesis 13:15). But in 586 BC, the Babylonian army invaded and wiped out the last vestiges of a Jewish nation. Soldiers leveled the cities – including Jerusalem and the temple – and dragged survivors off to exile in Babylon.
More than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from home, the Jews lost their identity as a nation. They had no king to rule them, no city to call their own, and no temple to which to offer their sacrifices of repentance. They were just another race of conquered people stirred into the racially diverse soup of the Babylonian empire.
In exile, after the destruction of nearly everything that set the Jews apart as a unique nation chosen by God, they began to re-evaluate their faith. They wanted to know how this tragedy could have happened, and if it was permanent. So they studied their traditions, laws, and history – searching for answers.
They were apparently treated well and could do as they pleased in the communities where they settled. Scholars speculate that the Jews started synagogues during this time, as a substitute for the temple. Though Jewish law permitted sacrifices only at the temple altar in Jerusalem, the people could gather at the synagogues – often in people’s homes – for fellowship, study, and worship.
It was during the time of exile that the Jews compiled and edited much of the Old Testament stories and teachings into the written text we have today. Among the books polished into final form were those of earlier prophets who had warned that the nation was headed for destruction if the people did not abandon their idols and evil behavior, and return to God. Also finalized during these years were the books of Israel’s history, from Joshua to 2 Kings. Even the five books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, were probably molded into their final form during and shortly after the exile. Collections of psalms were probably put together during this time, and formed the basis of what was toe become the book of Psalms. Lamentations was written at this time, giving a heartbreaking description of the fall of Jerusalem and the temple.
Understanding the likely setting behind these books helps explain why the Jews preserve as much of their unflattering history. For in these stories and teachings they found the answers they sought about their disastrous exile. So they made a point of preserving what was so relevant to their situation.
Exiled Jews wanted to know what they had done to deserve such a horrifying fate. The stories they studied clearly showed that they broke their covenant with God – they were in breach of contract. During the exodus, the Israelites agreed to set themselves apart from other nations as a people devoted to God and his laws,. In return, God promised to bless them with national prominence, prosperous harvests, large families and victory over enemies. Disobedience, however, would produce the exact opposite. Listed among the many sad consequences was this: “You shall be plucked off the land . . . The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other” (Deuteronomy 28:63-64).
This is exactly what happened to them. After centuries of disobedience – idolatry, injustice, immortality – the Jewish people got the punishment they had been warned about. The stories of their history show God’s patience with them, expressed by his many attempts to turn them away from sin by sending corrective punishment. This is especially clear in Judges, a book featuring repeated cycles of sin, followed by deliverance. This cycle repeated itself over and over.
Even the stories of David’s adultery and of Solomon’s idolatry late in life are preserved, to show that God punishes sin even among revered heroes. David’s son born from the adulterous affair died. And Solomon’s kingdom was later split in two: Israel to the north and Judah in the south.
As later kings and their people continued ignoring their covenant – especially by worshipping idols – God sent prophets to warn them about what would happen. In 722 BC, Assyrian invaders decimated the northern nation of Israel and scattered the people abroad. Jews watching in Judah failed to see the connection between sin and judgment there, and in 586 BC suffered the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians.
Stories compiled during the exile clearly showed that the Jews lost their nation because of their long history of sin. The follow-up question was whether or not they were still God’s chosen people. Would God take them back after what they had done?
The implication in their tradition was that whether or not the Jews were devoted to God, he was devoted to them. He would punish sin, but he would forgive and restore.
When all of these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, and you and your children obey him with all your heart and with all your soul. . . then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples.
This is exactly what the Jews in exile needed to hear. So they became determined to preserve these teachings and stories—along with some embarrassing history – as a source of hope for themselves and a sacred warning for the generations to come. These writings helped the Jews preserve their faith, re-establish their commitment to following God’s laws, and restore their national identity.