There are two central aspects of this process which must be traced back to the period of the Babylonian Exile at the end of the First Temple period. It is here, we suggest, that the beginning of the split between reality and ideal can first be perceived.

In that same lament quoted above, that has come down to us in the book of Psalms, we hear of the exiles in Babylon defiantly responding to the torments of their captors, by resolving never to forget Jerusalem and their homeland: they will always remember their great capital city.

It is possible to suggest that as they sit in Babylon, singing songs of Zion and remembering Jerusalem, the city that they are remembering is not the city that actually exists at that moment – destroyed and in rubble. Rather, they recall the proud city of which they had been a part, with Solomon’s Temple standing at its summit. They knew the reality – they had witnessed the fall; of the city themselves, but we suggest that they choose to remember the Jerusalem before its destruction.

If this suggestion is correct, then this moment represents the beginning of a long and extraordinary process of mythicalisation, whereby Jerusalem becomes an “imagined” city, with little reference to her real, earthly qualities.

Another process that begins in Babylon, a few years before the final destruction of the Temple, is the development of the theological interpretation which will have an overwhelming influence on the way that Jews view the possibility of a return to Zion.

In a correspondence recorded in Chapter 29 of Jeremiah, who was the leading Prophet of the pre-destruction era in Jerusalem, the exiles turn to the old Prophet and ask for advice: How should they conduct themselves in their exiled lands of Babylon? The advice Jeremiah gives is significant. He tells them to wait in Babylon, living normal lives “building houses and planting gardens”, until G-d decides to bring them back.
Thus, the decision is in G-d’s hands. It was G-d who had been responsible for their exile and it would be G-d who would bring them back. G-d is quoted as saying,
“I will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile”
(Jeremiah 29:14).

In saying this to the exiles, Jeremiah is acting according to the prophetic idea that states that G-d is behind everything that happens to Israel, and that exile must be regarded as Divine punishment. In line with this idea, return to the land will come after a period of punishment when Israel’s behaviour has persuaded G-d that true repentance for past sin, has taken place.

Thus, the return of the nation Israel, just like its defeat and exile, are removed from the realm of this worldly politics and are placed firmly in a theological context of dependence on Divine decision-making. In this theological scheme of things, the only initiative that the Jewish people are entitled to take, is one of prayer and repentance in order to prepare the way for G-d’s ultimate decision. This theological construct would be decisive for the future unfolding of the Jewish narrative regarding the return to the Land of Israel.

Fifty years after the destruction of the First Temple, when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, the Jews were given the opportunity to return to the Land of Israel and permitted to rebuild their Temple. Naturally, in the circumstances, this was understood as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise and as representing the hoped-for Divine intervention. The theological paradigm was strengthened. These two developments, both of which began in Babylon, were to prove extremely influential in the future relationship between the people and the land of Israel.

 

 

 

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06 Jul 2005 / 29 Sivan 5765 0