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Story of the Bible, Act 4: The Exile

After the escape from Egypt, the Exile is the most important event in the life of God's people in the Old Testament.

From the eighth century BC the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah were menaced by super-powers like Assyria and Babylon, and gradually got weaker. The northern kingdom of Israel was the first to fall – after 20 years of attacks by Assyria during which some of its people were taken into captivity, its capital Samaria fell in 722 BC. Many of the remaining people were dispersed throughout the Assyrian Empire, and others were brought in to replace them. As a nation, Israel was over.

Judah lasted longer, but at the end of the seventh century its decline began. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem in 605 BC. Repeated attempts to resist him led to repeated defeats. Large numbers of the Judeans were taken into exile in Babylon in 597 BC, 586 BC – when Jerusalem was sacked and burned – and 582 BC. Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, tried to escape but was blinded after seeing his sons slaughtered (2 Kings 25.7). 

For the stories of the last years of the kingdom of Judah and the Exile, read 2 Kings 25, 2 Chronicles 35–36, and the book of Jeremiah. The book of Daniel is set during the Exile, as is Psalm 137, which begins with 'By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion', and the book of Ezekiel.  

However, in 539 BC the Persian King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return. These stories are told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Exile was important for lots of reasons. It meant the temporary end of Temple worship and the sacrificial system, which meant that the people had to think about what was really important in their faith. Could they really worship God without the things that had always supported them in their believing? It also saw the emergence of real scholarship, as scribes who could understand and interpret the Hebrew Scriptures – like Ezra – grew in prestige and significance. It meant that Jews were able to survive as a nation without being attached to the geographical land of Israel.

Christians have drawn on the image of Exile to express our own relationship to the world. 1 Peter 2.11 says, 'I appeal to you, my friends, as strangers and refugees in this world!' Revelation 17.5 refers to 'Babylon the Great', the oppressive power that dominates our earthly exile.

As the people of God, we're not entirely at home in this world. But God brought the exiles home, and he has a home in heaven for us. 

Author: Mark Woods, 15 April 2020 (Last updated: 29 July 2020)

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