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Diaspora will not be the death of a religion. The concept may seem to make sense to us, but the realization of this is what turned desperation of a displaced people into a lasting religion. The Babylonian exile of the Jews had such monumental and lasting effects, it has become proverbial. There have been many events in Jewish History that can be seen as specific turning points. Arguably, the most pivotal turning point may have been within the years of about 632 B. C.
E. – about 332 B. C. E. During this period, the seeds of what would become known as the Jewish diaspora were sown; the Messianic dream made the most important contribution to a group of people yearning for familiarities and finally culminating with the Hellenization of the entire Middle East ushered in by Alexander the Great. In the latter half of the 6th century, tensions rose and the Babylonian powers drew strength from the lands it conquered and left in its wake.
“The westward expansion of Babylonia at the expense of Egypt set in motion the developments that ended in the destruction of the kingdom of Judah” (Scheindlin 1998:20). As we read in lessons 2 and 3, in 609 B. C. E, when the Babylonian general (who then became the king), Nebuchadnezzar, defeated the Egyptian forces in Syria, they set their sights on Judah. This is where the two cultures converged in an attempt to defend themselves against the mighty Babylonians, whom by this time already had control of Mesopotamia. In 597, the deportations from Judah to Babylonia began.
This is when the shift from the need to worship in a temple to worship within the home also began. The reason for this shift in practices of the Jewish people developed due to the separation of the people from their traditional house of God. In their efforts of crippling the over 400 year old Judean monarchy, the Babylonians not only figuratively wounded this small nation but literally had as well. In 587, the Judean puppet king, Zedekiah endured the consequences of a faltered revolt attempt and inadequate help from Egypt.
When the walls of Jerusalem were breeched by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops, “…Zedekiah’s sons were killed before his eyes and he was then blinded and taken to Babylon. Jerusalem was burned to the ground and its walls leveled” (Scheindlin 1998:20). By 586, the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, of Jerusalem, and of the Solomonic temple as well as the mass deportation to Babylonia and flight to Egypt overcame these already battle hardened people. As we learned in lesson 3, people did not always see eye to eye on how to view those responsible for their exile.
“The Judean-Israelites were subject to scorn and ridicule. The psalm urges them to remember all this, to keep the anger burning within themselves, and to wait for the day of divine retribution, which will be terrible and vicious” (Benjamin Lesson 3). Whereas in the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29, Verses 5-7, the message is more to make the most of what you have and not to wish for anything but peace and for kindness when it came to the Babylonians. However, no matter the consequences, the Jewish people were determined to continue their beliefs and practices.
Though forced into dispersion, the Judean population in Babylonia struggled with the concept of becoming acculturated and how to do it without losing their religion. The memory of their kingdom, the dream of restoring its greatness and the principle of Monotheism gave way to the creation of religious institutions and the Messianic age. During what became known as the Messianic age, the exiles began to prosper under Persian rule. For many, life was not as miserable as it had been in the beginning. In 539, Cyrus the Persian conquered the Babylonians.
The Judeans were finding themselves with an increase in the quality of life so much that some in the upper echelon were able to rise to prominent roles within the Persian Empire. The turning point came. In 538, the Persian province of Judea had begun its restoration and the exiles were starting to return home. This is when it really became clear that though the exiles were able to return to Judea, even if they chose to stay, whether it was in Babylonia or Egypt, they would still a sense of belonging to the people of Judea through factors such as history, family and most importantly, religion.
In 515, the second Temple was completed, though it was said it could not compare to the splendor of its predecessor. During this period, there were efforts to reconstruct the walls of Jerusalem. The monumental task of reconstruction did not become a reality until Nehemiah, a Jewish courtier of Artaxerxes I used his imperial authority in the last half of the 5th century. Around this time, Ezra the scribe from Babylonia institutes the Torah as the law of the land on commission from the Persian emperor.
We have Aramaic documentation confirming this in the Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. From around 445-433 B. C. E, the first accounts of the reading of the Torah in Synagogues, the Judean authorities wanted to create uniformity among the way the religion was practiced. “These new rules about conversion and marriage, along with a sacred book that could be taken anywhere, would serve the function (whether intended or not) of making it increasingly possible for Jews to live in different parts of the world and among other peoples” (Benjamin Lesson 3).
This period of more clearly defined parameters dictated and decreed by Ezra and his contemporaries helped the Jewish people with continuing the religion of the Judeans before them. The institution of the Torah as the law of the land ensured that no matter where the Jewish people may find themselves, they were still just as connected to their religion as the Judeans in Jerusalem. Alexander the Great first attacked in 334 B. C. E. As the Persian Empire found itself war with the Macedonians, the culture began to shift into the Hellenistic era.
By 333, the Macedonian kingdom had conquered and ruled all of the territories that included the Jewish diaspora. Though the Greeks were not a monotheistic culture as the Jewish people were, they still found themselves once again assimilating to the ruling empire. This once again catapulted the Jewish people into learning a new language and blending with the culture while strengthening the bonds of their own religion. This shift into the Hellenistic era enforced the need to assimilate while asserting religious differences. This emphasized that religion can continue no matter where one may find themselves in the ancient world.