James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage that they bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfares of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29. 4-7 NRSV
Even when the world as you know it ends, life still goes on, and we have to make sense of the conflict, the struggle and our place within it. The communal memory becomes important, the stories parents have told their children, the history of families. In the midst of competing narratives what is the story that one can identify with? With the loss of the Davidic monarchy, the temple, the land of their ancestors the people did something amazing, they recast their identity. They dug deep into their narrative, they began bringing together their stories, and in fact much of the Old Testament is brought together at this point. Stories of creation and exodus begin to be the patterns in which the present is made sensible and the community begins to come up with answers to the hardest question, “why did this happen?” They don’t come up with just one answer, they come up with many. They bring together their stories and the Torah (typically translated into English as law, but it is a term that is much more than what we understand as law in our context) begins to be center of their life. Practice and story come together to bind together this community in exile.
This does not mean that everyone agrees, there is not a central authorizing authority for the narrative at this point, it is constructed mainly by the remnant of the elite (everyone else would have been illiterate at this point) from both the priestly and prophetic side. Some of the central ideas to emerge include:
Justice: a sense of living in harmony (shalom) with God’s desire for the way things are to be structured in society. This includes a strong sense of economic justice, compassion for the widows, orphan, immigrant, and the dispossessed. It is from this vision that many prophets operate out of, and this is a central image for the prophetic hope. The new Jerusalem, the new Israel is to be a place of justice where the nations around can look and say “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 3b, NRSV) and within God’s plan the nations will stream to Jerusalem.
Purity/Holiness: For us there is often a tension between Purity/Holiness and Justice, but it was not necessarily seen that way by the Jewish people. Especially for priests there are practices that are to be done to prevent the contamination of unholiness from infecting them as a people and making them repulsive to the holiness of God. It also becomes a powerful way of distinguishing between themselves as a Hebrew people and the nations around them who are the Gentiles, the unclean ones. This tends to be more of a priestly focus and there are conflicts between which will dominate going forward, but at the root both justice and holiness are practices which distinguish them from the hostile surrounding culture.
With these two distinctive directions emerges a new strand of a hope for a new beginning, a new temple, a New Jerusalem, a new anointed (and Davidic) king, a messiah. Wrapped up within the memory of the stories of creation and the exodus of the people from Egypt hope springs forth of a return home and a new beginning:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make away in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people who I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. Isaiah 43.18-21
2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55, which reflects the time of preparation for the return home, while Isaiah 1-39 deals with the time before the exile) in particular is full of this vibrant hope, along with other voices. Empires rise and empires fall, and a generation later Babylon falls to Persia (modern day Iran) and Cyrus (who Isaiah interestingly calls Messiah/Christ-same word in Hebrew/Greek) makes possible the beginning of a return home. Their stories and practices have maintained their identity and given them hope of a new beginning. With the return to Jerusalem, the land, and the possibility of reconstructing the temple comes yet another transition. It is to that transition that we turn next.