The idea that Jerusalem was totally destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II, the kingdom of Judah wiped off the world stage, and the Israelites plunged into unconsolable despair is, in many ways, the creation of the Bible. One of the most evocative turns of phrase in the entire text, the opening verses of Psalm 137, is a searing portrait of sadness.
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors, for amusement,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on alien soil?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.
Psalm 137 was popular from the earliest years of Jewish liturgy and is still sung by devout Jews before the grace after meals. [...] Psalm 137 is also one of the most popular psalms in Christian hymnals, used often during Vespers, or evening services, and put to plaintive melody in the musical Godspell.
Yet the impression this psalm leaves of the Exile is misleading at best. [...] Babylon wasn't that bad for the Israelites who lived there. Details are impossible to come by, and plenty of mournful remembrances survive in the Bible, such as Ezekiel's famous plaint that Israel in exile had become "dry bones." But far more clues suggest that the Israelites lived a full and fruitful existence in Babylon. Jeremiah 29 reproduces a remarkable letter that the prophet sent to "the priests, the prophets, the rest of the elders of the exile community, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon." Jeremiah quotes God as commanding the Israelites:
Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.
Babylon is not anathema to Israelite prosperity, God suggests; in fact, Israelite prosperity depends on Babylon's success. The defeated must strive to make their conquerors excel, for in so doing they ensure their own success. Exile, God reiterates, can be good. "I will single out for good the Judaean exiles whom I have driven out from this place to the land of the Chaldeans," God says in Jeremiah 24, using the word Chaldean to suggest the deportees have returned to the birthplace of Abraham. "I will look upon them favorably, and I will bring them back to this land."
The biggest challenge the Israelites faced in the Exile was answering the question Where is God? During the monarchy, the Israelites had believed that God dwelled in his house in Jerusalem and promised that the House of David would reign forever. If so, what happened to God when his house was sacked and David's heir deported? Did God exist anymore? Here the prophets made their most profound contribution to Western religion. Ezekiel, writing during the Exile, declared that God's real presence was not to be confused with his temporary presence on earth. Ezekiel speaks of watching God's spirit leave the Temple Mount, then visit him in Babylon. Ezekiel relates the Israelites' experience in exile to their experience in the Exodus: Just as God showed dominion over Israel no matter where they were, including Egypt, so God shows dominion in Babylon: "As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness in the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you."