Exile: Babylon and Beyond
Exile saturates Jewish sacred text, practice, and thought. From the first couple’s banishment from Eden, early in Genesis, to the Babylonian captivity, which closes Second Chronicles, the Hebrew bible is filled with themes of loss, wandering, and desire for return. Even the Exodus, Judaism’s foundational tale of escape from human oppression and entrance into service of God, carries a strong exilic theme: “Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
An arc similar to the path of the Tanakh [Hebrew bible] – from Creation, with its seeds of exile, through Revelation, toward Redemption; and then back to exile again – is repeated in practice, over the course of each Shabbat, across the annual festival cycle, and in the schedule of Torah readings.
Deuteronomy closes with the People on the banks of the Jordan, hopeful but not yet home; we never pass this point, in the annual reading cycle (an invention of Jews in exile), instead linking “Never again was there a prophet in Israel like Moses….” immediately to “In the beginning.” Before the very first portion ends, Eve and Adam have already been expelled from Eden.
Moreover, Babylonian captivity infuses centuries of Torah interpretation and Jewish philosophy: After Babylon, Jews can never un-know that, however close to the promised Land we get, exile is always just beyond the horizon….And that holding onto the “Promised Land” will be harder and require a more sustained ethical commitment than we’ve managed so far.
But Babylon has many meanings and values in- and outside Judaism.
In the Torah, Babylon [Bavel] is the site of the Tower and neighbor to town of Ur, from which Abraham’s family set off and later returned in search of spouses. Prophetically, Bavel is both a threat, a consequence for misbehavior, and the city whose welfare we are told to seek (Jer 29:7). Historically, Babylon is a foreign cultural center, the site of one of the ancient world’s longest lasting, most developed, and most diverse settlements. It is also the base of much creativity, including centuries of aggadah [lore] and halakhah [law] still central to Judaism.
For Jews, Babylon eventually becomes a crazy patchwork of motifs: distant origin, traumatic captivity, and creative center. Christians, Rastas, and others bring additional perspectives. In U.S. politics, Babylon has become a cracked mirror reflecting tyrants, colonizers, and oppressors – who, all too often, look disturbingly like us.