2016-06-30
Excerpted with permission from "Where God Was Born."

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."

How God became "everywhere"
Read more >>


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  • The importance of this message to the future of religion cannot be overstated. From the moment God promises land to Abraham until Moses' death on Mount Nebo, the underlying theme of the biblical story is that wandering is only a temporary state for the Israelites. Their destiny lies on the land, where they will fulfill God's vision and create a holy community on earth. This idea is consistent with Ancient Near Eastern religion at the time, in which gods were affixed to different locations. But the Israelites' experience of living on the land goes horribly wrong, of course, and the prophets must deliver a different message: Wandering is holy, too. God is not exclusively a figure of the land; he's also a figure of the wilderness. He's a figure of all lands.

    God is everywhere.

    This simple idea changed the world because it meant the god of the Israelites did not reside just on a mountaintop in Jerusalem--he could live along the banks of the Euphrates, on the shores of the Nile, or alongside any river or mountain, anyplace in the world. This notion could have been a mere platitudinous response to the crisis, but it took hold because of how the Israelites responded to their national trauma. The towering significance of what happened by the rivers of Babylon is that the Israelites did not merely weep; they set about redefining what it meant to worship God. They invented Judaism.

    The exact details of this birthing are not clear. Some of the exiled Judaeans clearly began to worship other gods; some seem to have suggested rebuilding the Temple in Babylon. But the majority seem to have understood that the bulk of their practices from Jerusalem were dead and that they needed new ways to honor, debate, and interact with God. One idea they adopted was to gather in small groups and discuss the words of the Lord. These congregations, "by the walls and in the doorways of their houses," as Ezekiel puts it, were temporary human sanctuaries that could replace the displaced holy sanctuary. These congregations were also more populist than the Temple in Jerusalem, which was limited to the priests. Later these sanctuaries would mature into synagogues.

    Another custom that rose to prominence was celebrating the Sabbath. The idea of taking one day a week to rest, renew, and honor God goes back to the first wilderness experience in the Sinai. But as Jeremiah notes, the tradition never stuck: "They would not listen or turn their ear; they stiffened their necks and would not pay heed or accept discipline." So the prophets trot out the idea again and this time raise the stakes. As Isaiah notes, redemption now depends on obedience.

    If you call the sabbath "delight,"
    The Lord's holy day "honored";
    And if you honor it and go not your ways
    Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains-
    Then you can seek the favor of the Lord.


    With the loss of holy space, holy time becomes important.

    A further notion that grew out of the Exile involved distinguishing the Israelites from their neighbors. Among so many different conquered people walking the streets of Babylon, the Judaeans were deeply concerned with maintaining their sacred identity. Ideas such as ritual purity, circumcision, and marrying only within their own community took on heightened, ritualistic meaning. We are witnessing the emergence of a religion.

    But the sine qua non of this evolution was the elevation of text to the core of the faith. The importance of narrative and written law to Israelite religion had been emerging for many centuries, going back to the Ten Commandments, the first thing written down in the biblical story. This appreciation of recorded words continued to evolve through the monarchy, when portions of the written Bible began to enter Israelite public life. But the Exile accelerated this tendency. With no access to sacred sites, sacred text became Israel's lifeline to its past. As Jeremiah's letter to the exiles indicates, priests were becoming more important-and more focused on directly serving the population, not just worshiping God in the Temple. They began to edit the myriad of oral and written traditions of Israelite history and combined them into a unified canon. The Bible may not have been born in Babylon, but it certainly came of age here.


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