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April 25, 2012Missiology

The Exiles of Israel: A Closer Look

We are continuing through our series from the HCSB Study Bible. It is often missed that, to understand the Bible well, you do have to understand the people, context, and story. A big part of that story is The Exiles of Israel.

If you do not yet have an HCSB Study Bible, you should. I will give one away to a random person who tweets or "likes" this post on Facebook. Here is what you should tweet:

Understanding the Bible means understanding the story: The @HCSB Study Bible helps: http://bit.ly/IJ5S76

Two related but distinct concepts that shaped the history of Israel are "exile" and "Diaspora." The "exile" is the forced removal of the bulk of the population, especially of the skilled and upper class people, from their homeland to another country. There were several Jewish exiles. The first was the exile of the Israelites of the northern kingdom (Samaria) carried out by the Assyrians. It occurred in two phases, first in 734 b.c. under Tiglath-pileser III (2Kg 15:29) and then, climactically, in 722 under Shalmaneser and his successor, Sargon II, when the city of Samaria was destroyed and the northern kingdom ceased to exist (2Kg 17:5-6). The next major exile involved the destruction of the southern kingdom (Judah) and the city of Jerusalem. It, too, took place in several phases, all under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (Jr 52:28-30), the most terrible of which was in 586 b.c. (Jr 52:29). This was when Solomon's temple was destroyed and the dynasty of David came to an end.

The third major exile of the Jews took place under the Romans and also was in two phases. In a.d. 70 the Roman general (later emperor) Titus destroyed Jerusalem and Herod's temple. A second Jewish rebellion (called the Bar Kokhba revolt after the name of its Jewish leader) took place under Emperor Hadrian in the years a.d. 132-136. This was a bloody struggle, and at the end the victorious Romans decreed that no Jew would be allowed to live in Palestine. All of these events involved exile, the forcible deportation of Jews from the Holy Land by their conquerors.

The "Diaspora" is the scattering of Jews across the world. This process began around the time of the destruction of Samaria and it continued in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile. The story of Esther, for example, involves Jews dispersed across the Persian Empire; this dispersion persisted even though the Persians allowed the Jews to return to their traditional homeland. We know of some specific Jewish enclaves. For example, there was in the fifth century b.c. a Jewish community in Elephantine (in southern Egypt), and beginning in the third century b.c. there was another such community in Alexandria (in northern Egypt). The Jewish Diaspora has involved places as diverse as ancient Rome, medieval Spain, Yemen, Iraq, Russia, Germany, and the United States. It continues to this day even though there is now a Jewish homeland in Israel. Esther also accurately characterizes the experience of Jews in Diaspora. On the one hand, the Jews are a positive contribution to their host countries and are often highly successful, but on the other hand, they are relentlessly and often unjustly persecuted.

Exile and Diaspora are the punishments God imposed on Israel for idolatry and unbelief (Dt 28:64-68; Is 6:11-12; 39:1-7; Jr 6:1-8; 19:1-13; Ezk 5:5-12; Am 8:1-12). Perhaps the primary passage on the subject is Dt 29:24-28: "All the nations will ask, 'Why has the Lord done this to this land . . .' Then people will answer, 'It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord . . . They began to worship other gods . . . Therefore the Lord's anger burned . . . The Lord uprooted them from their land in His anger, fury, and great wrath, and threw them into another land where they are today.'"

But this is not the whole story. The prophets also claimed that God would restore David's fallen dynasty (Hs 3:5; Am 9:11) and give Israel a New Covenant to replace the one they had broken (Jr 31:31-34). And now, while Israel is in disobedience and Diaspora, the Gentiles are brought into the New Covenant (Rm 11:25-32). The true end of exile will be when Israel turns to their Messiah, Jesus, mourning over Him whom they have pierced (Zch 12:6-14).

Duane A. Garrett

Ph. D., Baylor University

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The Exiles of Israel: A Closer Look