Following the destruction of Jerusalem, much of Judah’s population was deported to Babylon. However, many residents did remain in Judah, especially in rural areas. When the deportees returned to the land, a conflict resulted between these two groups since each identified themselves as the “true Israel.” In essence, the conflict appears to be a social one, setting the rural population of Israel against the elite who were exiled. The exiles believed that Yahweh had gone to Babylon with the people, and they describe the land of Israel as essentially empty. In contrast, those who remained in the Promised Land continued to develop and to produce religious literature, including Lamentations and perhaps the final edition of the Deuteronomistic History.
Lamentations is a collection of reactions to the fall of Jerusalem. Traditionally, the book is attributed to Jeremiah, but modern scholarship suggests that he is not the author and that there may have been more than one poet who contributed to the composition of Lamentations. The genre of Lamentations is that of a funeral dirge, grieving over the destruction of Jerusalem in a series of poems. Laments over destroyed cities were common in the ancient world and especially from Sumeria. As with the biblical laments, in the antecedent literature the destruction of cities is usually attributed to the deity, who has become angry at the city. Thus, Lamentations fits in with the overarching theme that Israel’s fate was a deserved punishment for its failure to honor God properly.
Although most of the psalms are difficult to date, Psalm 137 suggests that its author was one of the exiles who had lived in Babylon. The author describes a scene in which the captors taunt the Judeans and the shattered belief that Jerusalem was an undefeatable city. The psalm raises the question of how to worship Yahweh when promises have been broken and the people are now living in foreign captivity. The answer is the transformation of the religion of Israel into Judaism, a theme that is the focus of the remainder of the present study.
Obadiah is the shortest book in the Hebrew Bible, consisting of only twenty-one verses. Little is known about the author, but many scholars date it to the sixth century BCE, although the fifth century is also a possibility. Like Nahum, the book of Obadiah is a freestanding oracle against a foreign nation. In this case, Obadiah focuses on Edom, which participated in the destruction of Jerusalem. Obadiah suggests that it will be the returning Israelites who will destroy Edom, reclaiming their ancient borders and their former glory.
Ezekiel was a priest who was exiled to Babylon in 597 BCE, and the book that is attributed to him is one of the most unusual in the Bible. The book of Ezekiel is one of the long prophetic books in the Bible, but it differs widely from the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, the book of Ezekiel is mostly prose, and it follows a strict chronological order. Most of the text is in the first person, and it shows less editing than the other prophetic books. Moreover, many scholars now suggest that most of the work can be attributed to the prophet and not to a later school of disciples.
Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah who was exiled during the first deportation to Babylon. Unlike that of Jeremiah, Ezekiel’s prophetic career took place entirely outside of Israel. Ezekiel received his first vision five years after his exile. Ezekiel also believed that God was no longer linked to the land but was in exile with his people in Babylon.
The book of Ezekiel uses physical and literary devices in delivering the prophet’s message. Most notably, the text uses a variety of unusual prophetic gestures, including the symbolic eating of the scroll that God had given him, lying on his side for long periods of time, and shaving his head. He relies heavily on allegory and metaphor, so much so that he is referred to as a “maker of allegories” (Ezekiel 20.49, NRSV). Finally, the book of Ezekiel mentions important figures from Israelite tradition more frequently than that of any other prophet. In sum, Ezekiel was a gifted writer whose work and imagery were highly influential on later authors.
The book of Ezekiel presents important themes that are central to the text and often unusual in content. Ezekiel’s inaugural vision is the longest of all inaugural visions in the prophets, covering chapters 1.3–3.15. Ezekiel’s pronouncements against Israel are also distinctive. Like other prophets, Ezekiel does denounce the continued worship of idols; however, he is less concerned with the issue of social justice. Also, he is particularly focused on the issue of purity and impurity, demonstrating his preoccupation with priestly matters.
Although much of the book of Ezekiel is unusual, this does not mean that the text shares no affinities with other works. In fact, there are themes and phrases that are common to both the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These include the belief that Jerusalem was punished for its sins, attacks on prophets who predicted peace, and the eventual restoration of divine favor for Israel. This indicates that correspondence continued between Jews in Judah and Babylonia and that the two prophets may have shared some views. In addition to the similarities with Jeremiah, Ezekiel also has affinities with the Priestly traditions. These include shared themes and vocabulary with the Holiness Code found in Leviticus 17–26 and an emphasis on the special status of priests, as opposed to Levites. Perhaps the most notable connection with the P tradition is the recurring theme of the glory of Yahweh. In the Deuteronomistic Historians, the glory of Yahweh was associated with the ark. However, Ezekiel has a vision where the glory of Yahweh actually leaves the Temple and heads east toward Babylon, signaling that God has left the land in order to be with his people in exile.
The book of Ezekiel closes with a series of visions describing the restoration of Israel, Jerusalem, and the land. God will punish Israel’s persecutors, and the LORD himself will be the new leader of the people, replacing “corrupt shepherds.” Another vision indicates that the northern and southern kingdoms will be reunited. Ezekiel also provides a detailed description of the future age with Jerusalem and its Temple at the center. In keeping with Ezekiel’s concerns for ritual purity, access to the Temple is restricted for foreigners, and priests must be particularly concerned with matters of ritual cleanliness. Lastly, the land of Israel is divided among all twelve of the tribes, including the Levites, who previously had no tribal land. The geography is not historical but utopian, featuring an equal division of land among all of the tribes with the new Jerusalem at its center.
Implications for Our Study
The exilic period represents an important turning point in the history of Israel. While some would remain in the land of Israel, many more were relocated to Mesopotamia, never to return to the Promised Land. As a result, Judaism began to evolve in two different geographical locations somewhat independently of one another. Judaism no longer could be understood just as a religion centered around the Promised Land; now it was also a religion of dispersion, with differing groups claiming that they represented the true Israel.