Returns from Exile Ezra 1–2 and Isaiah 34–35 and 40–55

At the end of Nebuchadrezzer’s long reign, the Babylonian empire entered a tumultuous period in which four different monarchs ruled during a four-year period. In addition to the problem of succession, the Babylonians held a far-flung empire that probably overextended their resources. As a result, the Persians to the east (modern Iran) seized the opportunity to attack their vulnerable neighbor. The results were swift and definitive as Cyrus captured the Babylonian king Nabonidus and entered Babylon in 539 BCE. This period is also critical for Judaism since Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon ended the captivity of the Jews in Mesopotamia and many returned, beginning in 538.

            Our sources for this period are plentiful, including the biblical texts of Ezra and Second Isaiah. In addition to these are Babylonian and Persian records and the work of Greek historians such as Herodotus. Despite this wide range of sources, we have very little describing the events that occurred among the Jews living in Babylon during the sixth century. Furthermore, only the book of Ezra discusses the actual return of the exiles to the Promised Land.

The Priestly Source

The sixth century was also an important period for the development of the P source of the Pentateuch. While actual dating of the P source is hotly debated, overwhelming evidence indicates that at the very least this period represents a major stage of development for P. This also indicates that the priests continued to be highly influential on formative Judaism even during a time when the Temple was in ruin. The Priestly writers were concerned not only with preserving the past but also with promoting the sustained worship of Yahweh. For the Priestly school, the main issue was how to worship God in a foreign land. The answer included the continued observance of the sabbath, the dietary laws, and circumcision. These were all practices central to Judaism that were not tied to the land and therefore could be practiced anywhere.

Exilic Edition of the Deuteronomistic History

The Priestly writers were not the only school that remained active during this period. The sixth century also was a time that saw a major revision of the Deuteronomistic History. Since the Deuteronomistic writers saw a link between the observance of the law of Moses and the fate of Israel as a nation, the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem and the exile itself needed to be interpreted within these parameters. For the historians the answer was clear: Yahweh was angry with Israel for its failure to observe his laws, and the subsequent invasions and deportations were all a part of God’s divine punishment.

Second Isaiah

Although Isaiah 40–55 show similarities in language and style with the earlier parts of the book, internal evidence indicates that chapters 40–55 were written later than First Isaiah. Such differences include repeated references to Babylon instead of Assyria, two statements about Cyrus of Persia, and an anonymous speaker who does not identify himself as Isaiah. All of this leads to the conclusion that Second Isaiah was composed sometime in the sixth century in Babylon, not in eighth-century Jerusalem.

            In Second Isaiah, three primary themes are prominent. The first is the comparison of the imminent return from the Babylonian exile to the Exodus from Egypt. Israel’s return to the Promised Land is deliberately compared to the Exodus in 40.3–5 and 55.12–13, but the author also makes it clear that this exodus will be different. The people will not leave in great haste as before. Furthermore, the experience will not be one of testing in the wilderness; since the exile itself was a period of testing, God will provide abundance and ease of passage for the return.

            A second theme in Isaiah 40–55 is the reference to the “servant of Yahweh.” The servant is one who will be given God’s spirit in order that he might establish justice throughout the world. In the end, the servant will be oppressed and will bear the guilt of the people. The identification of this servant has proven to be elusive for scholars, but there is no shortage of theories. These theories fall into two major categories, the first of which is to identify the servant with one individual. A second approach suggests that the servant is a personification of Israel, which has suffered and been God’s mouthpiece for the entire world. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that no definitive identification is possible and that the ambiguity of the servant passages may be deliberate.

            Second Isaiah also emphasizes the importance of strict monotheism. This is remarkable since this is the first passage in the Bible to explicitly state that there is no God other than Yahweh. Second Isaiah attacks the idea of idolatry, satirizing the idea that a god can be fashioned out of a tree and then the remnants used to make a fire and cook a meal. The prophet proclaims that other deities are powerless and that it is Yahweh alone who ultimately controls all events.

Implications for Our Study

The events of the sixth century demonstrate the remarkable resiliency of Israel. The practice of removing people from their land and exiling them was utilized as a means of obliterating nationalistic ties and forcing captive nations to assimilate themselves within the larger populations of the host nation. However, Israel managed to maintain its identity and its religious loyalty despite these circumstances. Jewish literature of the period illustrates this most clearly by showing how Israel not only continued to worship Yahweh away from the Promised Land but also became more conservative. Without the land and the Temple, the strict observance of the law of Moses became the focal point of religious devotion and national identity.