The Jews In Babylon - Outlines Of Jewish History


The Jews In Babylon - Outlines Of Jewish History

The Jews In Babylon

1. Babylonian Exiles.

Nearly two thousand five hundred years ago Jerusalem fell under the siege of Nebuchadnezzar, and a great many Jews were led away captives into Babylon. Daniel was one of these captives, and Ezekiel was another; and most, even of the rank and file, were men of some character and some learning. Gradually, the exiles took up the position rather of colonists than of captives. Lands were allotted to them, they grew to love and own the soil they cultivated, and their prophets kept alive in them the sense that, though Babylonians now instead of Palestinians, they were still Jews.

The name of Jews instead of Israelites came into use from this period, as the greater number of the Babylonian exiles belonged to the kingdom of Judah. No records, in which much trust can be put, have come down to us of the fate of the ten tribes which made up the kingdom of Israel. Thousands of them, it is certain, were carried off into foreign captivity when Palestine was invaded by Shalmaneser about 130 years before the fall of Jerusalem. The ten tribes have thenceforward no separate history.

2. Persian Conquest of Babylon.


Forty-eight years after the destruction of Jerusalem the whole of the Babylonian kingdom passed into the power of Cyrus the Persian. Two years after his conquest he told the Jewish exiles in Babylon that any or all of them, if they liked, might return to the land of their fathers, and become his Syrian instead of his Babylonian subjects. He gave them permission also to rebuild their temple, and he restored to them the holy vessels which had been taken away by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops when they sacked Jerusalem.


3. The Influences of the Exile.


Fifty years, we must remember, had come and gone since the fall of Jerusalem. Sorrows, that seem quite unbearable at first, grow with time to be lightly borne. ‘By the waters of Babylon,’ the first exiles had sat down and wept, but on its banks by-and-by their children ran and laughed. They ‘hung their harps on the willow trees,’ and refused to sing the songs of Zion for a year or two, or may be ten. But by degrees the ‘strange land’ grew homelike, and the harps, we may be sure, were taken down, and strung, and tuned. After a while every one has to live in the present, however dear or sad the past may be.


The Jews in Babylon learned to face their life in captivity, and to make the best of it. In many respects they were the better for it. They grew, indeed, to be truer patriots in exile than for generations they had been in possession. The loss of their country seemed to rouse them and to steady them. They became more patient and united, and less childish and discontented. The counsels of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and of the other unnamed prophets of the exile, were listened to in Babylon as they never had been in Palestine.


The law of Moses was read, and the Psalms of David were probably sung in mean little meeting-houses, but these poor places were crowded, and included more devout worshippers than had ever assembled in the marble courts of the temple. Many people think that it is to these earnest exiles in Babylon that we owe the small beginnings of our present synagogues. The word ‘synagogue’ comes from the Greek, and means an assembling together; and though the word itself does not come into use till long after the return from the captivity, yet places of assembly for prayer and praise were quite common all throughout Judea long before historians talk of them by the name of synagogue.

4. How Cyrus’s Permission was received.


To many of the Jewish settlers in Babylon, and especially to those who had been born there, Palestine must have come to sound like England does to her colonists—as a name, whenever and wherever heard, brimful of the tenderest loves and longings, but still more or less a name. To old folks the old land is a memory, to young people a hope, but to old and young alike the land where they live and work is home. And Jews are particularly homelike in their natures, soon fitting into, and growing fond of, and looking native to, any spot whereon they settle.


For some time they had been fairly and even generously treated by the people who had led them captive; and thus when the Persian proclamation was published, there was no eager ungrateful rush to leave Babylon, and to return to their own land under the protection of the conquerors of their captors. Love for the old scenes was strong, but a sort of loyalty to the new weakened the love a little, and made duty a difficult choice.


5. The End of the Exile.


The liberty of return which Cyrus gave closes the Babylonian captivity. Those Jews who remained in Babylon remained as voluntary exiles. With some, and they were not few, the sense that Babylon was the land of their children proved more potent than the remembrance that Palestine was the land of their fathers. Neither country was theirs. And in Babylon they were comfortable; and that condition, in making up one’s mind, counts for much.


The fair land of promise was certainly to all the land of their dreams, but it is not quite as certain that it was to all equally the land of their desires. Some 42,000, however, brave and faithful men and women, decided to make use of Cyrus’s permission, and under the leadership of Zerubbabel crossed the Euphrates, and set out for the Holy Land; those who remained behind gave plenty of good wishes, and willingly forwarded supplies.

Excerpt From Outlines Of Jewish History From B.C. 586 To C.E. 1885 By Lady Katie Magnus