By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song; and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalms 137:1-6)
The destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon represents a tremendous shock to the Jewish people. It may be hard to imagine today what it must have meant back then, because we really have no basis of comparison.
In those days normative Judaism meant living with the constant presence of God, which was always accessible at the Temple. Miracles occurred there daily and could be witnessed by anyone. For example, whichever way the wind was blowing, the smoke of the sacrifices always went straight to heaven. Feeling spiritual today is nothing compared what it was like to feel spiritual in the Temple. With such intense spirituality it was clear that God was with the Jewish people.
The same thing could be said for the land. One miracle that the land exhibited was that every six years there was a bumper crop so that the Jews could take the seventh year -- the sabbatical year -- off from labor. It was amazing.
Now all of that is gone. The land, the Temple, God's presence. No wonder they wept by the rivers of Babylon. However, even in exile God is looking after the Jewish people, even if His presence now is concealed. We see this with the preparation God lays for the exile. In the previous chapter we noted that when the Babylonians first attacked Israel, they took away 10,000 of the best and the brightest with them. That seemed like a disaster at the time, but now that all the Jews are coming to Babylon it turns out to be a blessing. Why? Because when the Jews arrive in Babylon, there is a Jewish infrastructure in place. Yeshivas have been established, there is a kosher butcher and a mikveh. Jewish life can continue and as a result we see hardly any assimilation during the Babylonian exile.(1)
Let's jump ahead in time, 2,500 years to the Jewish migration to America. How different was that? Starting at around 1882, millions of Jews fleeing from persecution in Czarist Russia start coming to the New World. But they don't find yeshivas and synagogues there. And what's the consequence? We get the single greatest mass assimilation of Jews in Jewish history.
Therefore, this turn of events in Babylon turns out to be a tremendously positive thing. It's a great example of God putting the cure before the disease, which we see over and over in Jewish history.
God has made a promise to the Jewish people at the time of Mount Sinai that they will be an "eternal nation" and He is going to keep it:
"Thus, even while they [the Jewish people] are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject or obliterate them, lest I break my covenant with them by destroying them. For I am the Lord their God; I will remember them because of the covenant I made with their original ancestors whom I brought out from the land of Egypt, in the sight of the nations, so that I might be their God."(Leviticus 26:44)
In all of human history, exiles of an entire people out of their country have been very rare. It's a highly unusual phenomenon to take a whole people and throw them out of their country. Multiple exiles are unheard of, since, after the first one, the people generally disappear -- they simply become assimilated among other peoples. As a matter of fact, in human history, multiple exiles and dispersions are unique only to the Jewish people.(2)
And yet the Jews survive despite exile, because God has promised that they will be an "eternal nation."
LIFE IN EXILE
While the Babylonians could be very cruel in their wars and conquests, their attitude toward the exiled Jewish community is "live and let live." And life in Babylonian turns out not to be too awful.(3)
They even appoint a community leader who is the representative to the Babylonian authorities for the Jewish community, beginning not long after the exiled King of Judah, Jehoiachin (2 Kings 25:27). He is given the title of Resh Galusa in Aramaic. (4)
(Aramaic was the international language of the ancient Near East. It is a Semitic language, and it is closely related to Hebrew. It is the language in which most of the Talmud is written. The Jews of Babylon speak Aramaic and even when they return to the land of Israel, they continue to speak Aramaic.)
This word Resh Galusa means in Hebrew Rosh Galut, and in English, "Head of the Diaspora." (Diaspora, incidentally, is a Greek word, meaning "dispersion.") The Resh Galusa is a person who is a direct descendant of the House of King David. Even though he's not a king in the land of Israel, he's recognized as not only being the representative of the Jewish community in Babylon but also having noble status. As we shall see, over the next 1,500 years, 43 people will hold that title. They will all trace their ancestry back to Zerubavel son of Shaltiel son of King Yehoyachin (second to last of Judah) and all the way back to King David. This is a noble line that's always preserved in Jewish history.(5)
In Israel there was a similar, but even more prestigious position to the Resh Galusa in Babylon -- the Nasi -- the president of the Jewish supreme court, the Sanhedrin. The position can be traced back to the sages who led the Jewish people after Moses, but the titled is specifically associated with the leaders of the Sanhedrin during the Second Temple period and after its destruction. From the time of the Second Temple onward (similar to the Resh Galusa in Babylon) the position will be hereditary and held by the decedents of Hillel until 429 CE, when it is finally abolished by the Byzantines.(6)
The oldest Diaspora community in the world is the Babylonian community. There's no question that Jews have lived in Babylon way before the Iraqis. And when the Jews came back to the land of Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were many so-called "Bavli" Jews coming in from Iraq who could trace their ancestry all the way back to this time of the Babylonian exile.
Why they stayed there so long is because the Babylonians and later the Persians and the Ottomans made life in that part of the world relatively easy. (For example, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, Sultan Bazid welcomed them with open arms.)
This is not to say, however, that all was peaches and cream. The Book of Daniel tells the story of Jewish young men who refuse to eat non-kosher food or to bow to idols, and who are thrown into a fiery furnace by Nebuchadnezzar. They miraculously survive, causing Nebuchadnezzar to issue an edict forbidding anyone to blaspheme the God of Israel.
WRITING ON THE WALL
The last king of Babylon is Belshazzar. Like many of the other neighboring kings, Belshazzar is well versed in Jewish prophecy. Why? Because in the polytheistic world, the God of Israel had a reputation. He had to be reckoned with and therefore the rulers kept up with Jewish beliefs and took Jewish prophets, such as Jeremiah, and their prophecies seriously.
Belshazzar is aware of what the prophet Jeremiah had prophesied at the time when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Israel:
"And this whole land [of Israel] shall be a ruin, and a waste, and these nations [the tribes of Israel] shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when the seventy years are fulfilled, that I will punish the king of Babylon ..." (Jeremiah 25:11-12)
Naturally, this is something Belshazzar is worried about and so he keeps a count. But he miscalculates by one year.(7) When the year 371 BCE arrives, Belshazzar thinks the prophecy will not come through -- God has abandoned the Jews and will not restore them to Israel as promised in Jeremiah prophecy:
"or thus said the Lord, "After seventy years for Babylonia have been completed, I will attend to you, and I will fulfill for you My favorable promise -- to return you to this place." (Jeremiah 29:10)
In celebration, Belshazzar throws a huge feast and brings out for all to see the Temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from Jerusalem. He orders his consorts and concubines to drink from Temple cups and to praise "the gods of gold and silver, copper, iron, wood and stone." (Daniel 5:1-5)
At that moment, a large unattached hand appears and starts to write on the wall. Belshazzar is shaken to the core, but no one can tell him what the strange message on the wall means.
Finally, the queen recommends that a man be sent for who has a reputation for "extraordinary spirit, intelligence and understanding." This man, of whom it is said that "the spirit of God is in him," is the prophet Daniel.
Daniel has no trouble reading the writing on the wall. It says:
"God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end ... your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians." (Daniel 5:25-28)
That very night invading hoards of Persians and Medes attack. The king and all his party are killed. Only Nebuchadnezzar's grand-daughter, Vashti, survives. She will come to marry the King of Persia, Achashverosh, and unwittingly start in motion one of the great sagas of Jewish history which happens in the days of the Persian Empire.
1) see Talmud: Gittin 88a; Sanhedrin 38a.
2) Nor only is the concept of multiple exiles and dispersion unique in history, the very survival of the Jews is a singular event. No other nation has ever survived without a homeland, yet from the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE until the rebirth of the modern State of Israel in the 20th century, the Jewsih people survived in Diaspora without a state.
3) See Talmud-Pesachim 87b-88a: Ulla said: "[They were exiled to Babylon] so that they should vbe able to eat an abundance od dates and engross themselves in Torah study."
4) See: Talmud-Sanhedrin 5a.
5) see I Chronicles 3:16-19; Seder Olam Zuta
6) see Talmud-Pesachim 66a; Yad-Sanhedrin 1:3.
7) For a detailed discussion of the different Kings of Babylon and Belshazzar's error see: Talmud-Megillah 11b-12a; Otzer Ha'Iggeres p. 149.