Faithful God, help us to remember that wherever we go, and through whatever terrain we traverse, both familiar and new, that you are with us. In this time of worship together, may we find you wherever you dwell: in the stories of those who have gone before us, in this supportive community of spiritual travelers, and within our own hearts. Amen.
As we continue to “get our story straight” this summer and explore many of the important stories of our faith that we all should know, the story that we will focus on today is the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem in the 6th century BC.
The Babylonian Captivity is one of the episodes of world history that had a critical impact on the ancient people of Israel, on their homeland, and on their unfolding cultural and religious identity. 586 BC is a year that every Old Testament professor asks their students to memorize. That is when the Babylonian Empire completed its conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah and succeeded in capturing the city of Jerusalem and destroying its temple.
Leaving a wake of violence, death, and destruction in their path, the Babylonians also captured many of Judah’s people and took them into exile in Babylon. And it should be noted that the folks they exiled were primarily the wealthier and educated class who could be of use to the empire – priests, royalty, artisans, state officials, army officers, and the like. Plenty of peasants were left behind in Judah to fend for themselves under this new foreign rule.
The Babylonians continued their imperial rule for another forty-seven years before they were conquered by the Persian Empire in 539 BC (another year your Old Testament professor will make you memorize). While the Babylonian conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar, was a name that drew boos and hisses from the people of Judah, the Persian king, Cyrus, was actually viewed as a hero.
The Persian defeat of Babylon was seen as a victory of sorts for the people of Judah because, as you heard in those opening verses from Ezra, they were now allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild their city, their temple, and their culture. In general, the Persians were much more tolerant and accepting of local cultures, religions, and customs than the Babylonians had been. Cyrus and his successors offered a certain level of autonomy to local officials and allowed people to practice their own religions and cultural customs.
We shouldn’t forget, however, that Persia’s primary interest was to preserve its own power. Despite Ezra’s depiction of him, Cyrus probably didn’t just do this out of the goodness of his own heart. This policy of local autonomy was a useful political strategy. Keep the subjects happy and they are less likely to rebel against the empire. And having both an organized society and loyal subjects in the province of Judah was also helpful for Persia because it was a strategic military post that was close to Egypt (which was a troublesome foe).
Nevertheless, the shift to Persian rule was another major turning point for the people of Judah. Those who had been in exile could now return home and rebuild their home and their lives.
And so, they had to figure out how to rebuild. What was important to them? What did they need? What was distinctive about their culture, heritage, and beliefs that made them who they were?
One of those things was the temple. For as long as it had been destroyed, they wanted to rebuild it and to restore their temple worship life in Jerusalem. The temple was God’s house. The temple was symbolic of the covenantal relationship between the people and God. For this reason, the temple is largely the focus of the book of Ezra.
Another was the city of Jerusalem itself. And the book of Nehemiah focuses on the rebuilding of the city walls and repopulation of the city. A thriving Jerusalem was indicative of a thriving Jewish society in Judah.
Ezra was a priest and a scribe. Nehemiah was governor of Judah. Both served Persia, at the pleasure of the king, and were given imperial authority to pursue these rebuilding projects.
But probably the most important project of this time of rebuilding was the final compilation and redaction of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). This time brought about both renewed interest and ability for the people to write their story as they understood it and to solidify their religious laws – their guiding religious principles and understanding of their relationship with God.
In addition to the Torah, it was during this time that many of the books of the prophets were edited into their final forms and a new history book was composed (the books we know as First and Second Chronicles).
All of these projects – the temple, the city, the books – illustrate a people working to rebuild what had been lost. And, in the process, perhaps they were also coming to terms with and making some sense of their own experiences and the past they had collectively endured.
The eighth chapter of Nehemiah contains a scene where Ezra goes out into the city square and reads from the book of the law of Moses to the people all morning long. And then he and the Levites offer their interpretation so the people can understand it.
And the people respond by weeping. It’s an emotionally charged moment. Perhaps their tears are expressions of grief over their many losses. Perhaps some were tears of remorse for their own past failures to uphold the laws and ideals they held dear (that is part of what’s implied in the text). Perhaps some were tears of joy, of relief, at this new experience of restoration and hope for the future. Maybe it was some combination of all of those things.
Ezra and Nehemiah go on to tell them that this is a holy day to rejoice. And they are sent on their way with encouragement to eat rich food, drink sweet wine, and spend the day in celebration. It’s not a day to mourn; it’s a day to party.
Throughout this time period, after the return of the exiles, we encounter a people reclaiming their heritage, culture, and home; renewing their commitment to God; and finding their way forward into a new chapter of their story.
What I find most interesting about this period of biblical history are the theological questions and ideas that emerge. When we read the Old Testament, we can see the impact of the Babylonian Exile all over the place: in the stories and texts of the Torah that were written and compiled in the Persian era, in the warnings and judgments of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, as well as in their words of hope for restoration, in the book of Lamentations, and in the psalms from this time period. Psalm 137 is one of the clear examples of this:
By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)
The invasion and capture of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the deportation of the exiles was a profound rupture in the collective life of these people that led to some big questions: Where is God in all of this? How do we worship God in exile? How shall we worship without a temple? Where does God dwell now that God’s home has been destroyed? Why did God let this happen to us? Was this somehow our fault for failing to uphold our covenantal responsibilities? Did we let God down? If so, will God forgive? Will God deliver us? Can that which was destroyed ever be restored?
In exile, they didn’t know if or when they would be able to return home. And what would they find when they got there? Would those who left die in exile? Would even their children be able to return? The people of Judah faced an uncertainty that all refugees, all displaced people, face.
It’s the same uncertainty more than 12 million Ukrainians face right now. Some are trying to decide if they should just make a life for themselves in a new country. Others have stayed in Ukraine, despite the danger. All of them still facing so much uncertainty as to if, when, and how this war will end. And what will happen then?
The UN estimates there are more than 100 million people displaced worldwide as a result of violence, conflict, persecution, or human rights violations. 100 million.
The story of the Babylonian Exile ought to remind us that our compassion, our love, and our help should be with all displaced persons on this earth, all victims of war and violence, and other disasters too. I believe that is where God’s heart is too. We are called to offer help and care to those who are displaced and those who are trying to rebuild their lives. Thank you to our Missions Commission and many of you who have helped others in this way!
When the exiles of Judah finally did return home, they had to figure out how to rebuild not only their lives, their city, and their temple, but also their theology to some degree – their understanding of God, their relationship with God. They had to find their way forward, not knowing what the future would hold.
They had to ask themselves: How would they claim and honor that which was worth preserving from their past? How would they work through the trauma of this great rupture in their lives and the grief they had endured? How would they begin this new phase of their journey?
These are relevant questions for us too. We also experience profound ruptures to the lives we’ve built sometimes. It is in our human nature to want stability and routine. And we need the security and refuge of family and friends, community, meaningful work, and a sense of purpose.
And we know how devastating it is when one part of our lives comes crashing down around us. Illness, loss of a loved one, a breakup, a lost job – all can be a profound rupture that can bring down the various metaphorical temples and city walls we’ve built for ourselves of health, family, community, career. We may experience a kind of exile, as a result.
What then? We might find ourselves searching for God’s presence in the midst of it all. We face uncertainty. We wonder what will unfold.
And, like the exiles who returned home, we also sometimes find ourselves facing the project of rebuilding our lives. And we too have to figure out how to work through our past experiences (whatever they may be), process our feelings, and come to terms with our experiences. Sometimes we find a new sense of meaning or new learning and grow as a result. But that can also take time.
And when we find ourselves accompanying others on a journey like this, we can certainly learn something from the rabbit who listened (in our children’s story earlier) and be a supportive presence and a listening ear, rather than trying to rush another person’s process of rebuilding.
It strikes me that when we face these times when we must both claim our past and move into the future that we would be wise not to rush ourselves either.
We would also be wise to be open to new things – rebuilding is not necessarily the same trying to replicate the past.
In fact, rebuilding is not only something we do in the wake of experiences of rupture. In many ways our daily living and our daily practice of faith involves an ongoing process of deconstruction and rebuilding. Though there is continuity, we are not the same today as we were yesterday.
And, through it all, we would be wise to look for God’s presence not only in the temples we have built for ourselves, but in the very temple of all creation, here with us, in our daily living, – for that has always been God’s home.
God has been there all along. God has been faithful. Even in rupture. Even in exile. In the daily lessons we learn along the way. And God is definitely at work alongside us in our times of reconstruction, rebuilding, and moving forward into a new future.