Dislocation, variously conceived of as exile, Diaspora, or, more neutrally, living outside the land, was a recurrent motif in Israel and Judah’s collective memory. In addition to the Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles, there was a series of more voluntary migrations, which meant that already by the close of the sixth century B.C.E. a significant number of Jews were settled across Mesopotamia and North Africa in a network of communities that would spread and become more populous over the ensuing centuries. Living outside the land was a common part of the Jewish experience.

The Babylonian deportations of Judeans in the early sixth century and the returns of some exiles at the end of the century to what had become the Persian province of Yehud exerted an enormous influence on the biblical imagination. The Babylonian Exile came to be seen as a crisis out of which, by dint of the theological innovation of the prophets, scribes, poets, and people, Judaism would emerge resilient. This pattern of exile and return was largely accepted as a valid historiographical construct in the study of the Hebrew Bible, although more recent scholarship has challenged this paradigm. Scholarship has uncovered a diversity of theological perspectives on the concept of dislocation; exile is variously interpreted as a final and lasting punishment, as a metaphorical and supratemporal representation of a range of social ills, and as a crisis that nevertheless introduces tantalizing possibilities for a new life in a new place. Largely informed by biblical treatments, theological interpreters continue to use exile and dislocation as tropes for exploring sociopolitical marginalization, spiritual alienation, a feeling of separation from God, and the existential condition.

Historical Context.

Beginning with the eighth-century prophecies of Amos and Hosea, biblical sources indicate that the threat of exile hovered over the Levant for centuries as the great empires of Mesopotamia extended their control to the west and south. The Assyrians, while not the first to use exile against their enemies, were notable in their use of deportation as a tool for empire building: if local rulers refused to submit to foreign rule, the conquerors would seize control of the government and deport key segments of the population, such as elites and skilled workers. The deportees were relocated elsewhere in the empire and often compelled to perform corvée labor, while populations from other regions were often resettled in their place. The Bible itself records how Assyrian propaganda relied on the fear of deportation to intimidate subject peoples in its account of the royal Assyrian official, the rabshakeh, who forecasts exile in 2 Kings 18:31–32. Indeed, in ancient Near Eastern treaties exile is a standard punishment for disobedient vassals, and in the biblical covenant between Israel and Yahweh it features prominently among the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26.

The exiles of the north.

The first substantial deportation recorded in the Hebrew Bible was carried out in the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians (2 Kgs 15:29). The exile of 733–732 B.C.E. was the end result of the Syro-Ephramite crisis, in which Israel allied with Aram and Tyre to resist the expansionist ambitions of Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745–727 B.C.E.), the Assyrian monarch who made repeated incursions to the west and claimed dozens of deportations in his annals. Much of the northern territory was assumed into the Assyrian provincial system, while Samaria and some of its surrounding hill country was granted vassal status.

In 720 B.C.E., the Assyrian monarch Sargon II carried out a second deportation as retribution for the refusal of King Hoshea in Samaria to pay tribute. Sargon II claimed to have deported 27,290 northerners, a highly inflated number; 2 Kings further reports that he absorbed the former kingdom of Israel into the Assyrian provincial system and, as was Assyrian custom, settled others “in place of the people of Israel” (17:5–6, 23–24).

On the one hand, the paucity of references to northerners in the Assyrian records suggests that descendants of these exiles may have lost their sense of group difference, eventually giving rise to the tradition of “the 10 lost tribes.” On the other hand, the exiles were permitted to settle among their kin and compatriots and were not forcibly assimilated. Despite Assyrian propaganda that threatened total exile, in reality, “the exile of the north” was partial; the Assyrians exiled a limited portion of the populace, leaving many northerners in the land. Furthermore, before the Assyrians conquered Samaria, a significant number of northerners fled to the south, bringing their traditions and literature with them, as is reflected in the biblical record. Thus, despite the Bible’s portrayal of the wholesale removal of the Samarians from their land, the dispersion of the north was not total and included both voluntary and involuntary migrations.

The exiles of the south.

Assyrian sources record the deportation of Judeans, also in highly exaggerated numbers, after Sennacherib’s 701 B.C.E. campaign. (This exile may be referred to in Mic 1:16; 2:4–5; 4:6 and perhaps 4:10.) Vivid royal palace reliefs in Nineveh depict the siege and capture of the city of Lachish in Judah, including the removal of booty and the forced migration of its inhabitants.

The more substantial Babylonian exiles of the early sixth century would assume precedence in the biblical imagination, surpassing not only the earlier Judean exile but even the “total” exile of the north. First, in 598 B.C.E., the Judean king Jehoiakim refused to pay tribute (2 Kgs 24:1–2) and the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem. Jehoiakim’s successor, Jehoiachin, surrendered to the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar II in 597 B.C.E. (2 Kgs 24:12, which is also related in the Babylonian Chronicles); the Judean king, the royal household, and members of Jerusalem’s elite were deported to Babylon (Jer 52:28), among them the prophet Ezekiel. While Judah was permitted to maintain some measure of independence, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah, of royal Judean lineage, to replace the exiled king.

With the hope of Egyptian support, Zedekiah was emboldened to withhold tribute, which unleashed the force of the Babylonian army against Jerusalem. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians breached and razed the city, destroyed the Temple and palace, and executed members of its citizenry—and a second wave of exiles was deported (Jer 52:12, 29; 2 Kgs 25:11).

Jeremiah 52:30 notes a subsequent third and smaller deportation in 582 B.C.E., perhaps as retaliation for the murder of Gedaliah, the governor of Judah who had been appointed by the Babylonians; Jeremiah also notes that many Judeans—including the prophet himself—fled in anticipation of reprisals (Jer 41:17—43:7). The biblical totals for these deportations vary and are inconclusive; modern estimates have suggested that between 50 and 90 percent of the population remained in the land.

The exilic communities.

In the wake of the Babylonian conquest of Judah and Jerusalem, there would have been a number of different Jewish settlements outside the land, which would have had a mix of those forcibly deported and those who migrated (or fled) under threat or voluntarily. There are two of particular note. First was a colony of Jewish mercenaries in Elephantine, an island in southern Egypt; Jeremiah 44:1 indicates that some may have fled there to escape Babylonian retribution, even as it also notes that there were already Judean exiles in place (Let. Aris. v. 13). The Elephantine papyri, an archive from the fifth century B.C.E., presents a lively diasporic community that maintained its own temple to Yahweh and celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread. There is no indication that the Elephantine settlers viewed their residence outside the land as problematic or that they were interested in returning. A second major settlement of Jews was in Babylonia. The Babylonians appear to have allowed the exiles to maintain their ethnic identity by settling in Jewish enclaves; Ezekiel reports on a community residing along the Chebar canal in Tel-Abib (1:1; 3:15), near Nippur. Babylonian contract tablets suggest these communities thrived. During this period, some of the hallmarks of Jewish practice, including circumcision, dietary regulations, and keeping the sabbath, emerged as a means to reinforce group cohesion and to establish identity markers; these “portable practices” could be maintained in a foreign land.

The extent and effect of the deportations to Babylon continue to be disputed. Scholars debate whether the Babylonian Exile was a seismic interruption in national life or whether there was an essential continuity between life before and after; and they debate the scale of the exile or whether exile was, from the start, a theological and literary embellishment or even invention. In addition, the biblical picture of a “return,” the antipode to exile, has been questioned and, in some cases, scaled down, meaning that many scholars no longer view the term “postexilic” as relevant or useful. Some have argued that regardless of the scope of the exile and the return, the significance of exile is that it provoked changes in Judah’s self-understanding, including its religion, sense of identity, and conception of ethnos.

Most agree that given the Bible’s fragmentary history of the deportations of Israel and Judah, which are difficult to corroborate from independent sources, it is easier to speak of the conceptualization of dislocation within biblical literature; that is, regardless of the historical realities of the experience, we can productively consider exile as an essential feature of biblical poetics and theology. While they disagree on its historical contours, scholars concur that exile was, in any case, theologically interpreted in a variety of different ways by biblical authors.

Terminology and concepts.

The biblical text and, even more so, later interpreters make theological claims about dislocation through the terminology that they use to describe it. From the outset, therefore, it is helpful to distinguish between two terms related to dislocation, interrelated though they may be: “exile” and “Diaspora.” Each has a distinctive valence reflecting different psychosocial implications, as well as different theological positions.

In biblical theology, the interpretation of dislocation as “exile” or “Diaspora” turns, in part, on the role of the land of Israel. The land can be an absolute gift or, as is made vivid in the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26, a gift that is conditional; if Israel abandons the covenant, it risks exile. In Diaspora, the land may still be of concern, something that is not to be abandoned and that provides the orientating location; but a diasporic view also holds that it is possible to seek the welfare of one’s people in a foreign location and, indeed for some, there may have been no desire to return.

In the biblical text, exile is primarily designated by the Hebrew nouns gālût and gôlâ; these terms are overwhelmingly used to describe either the forced migration of Judeans to Babylon or those Jews deported to Babylon. The terms šěbî and šĕbît, which have the sense of “captivity,” can occur synonymously or as a parallel term, giving the sense of a prisoner-of-war status. While the exiles in Babylon were not thus confined, the term lends to exile the associations of involuntary separation and restriction that are a part of being deported to a foreign land. In scholarship and theology, exile connotes a forced migration or deportation. It carries pejorative tones that presume it is a state to be remedied; this is the state that is most often invoked in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and finally Ezra, which describe the edict of the Persian king Cyrus in 538 B.C.E. as a release from exile. “Exilic” texts have in common an emphasis on the forced nature of the deportation and loss, even when it is self-imposed, a fleeing in anticipation of foreign retribution.

The term “Diaspora” (literally “scattering”) comes from the Greek and is not used to render the Hebrew gôlâ and gālût, “exile”; occurring less frequently than the latter, it correlates to other Hebrew terms signifying dispersion (e.g., Deut 28:25; 30:4; MT Ps 147:2 //LXX Ps 146:2; Isa 49:6; Jer 15:7; MT Jer 34:17//LXX Jer 41:17; Dan 12:2). The term “Diaspora” refers to emigration or fleeing, although the agent of the dispersion is usually Yahweh and not a foreign potentate; further, the locus is not confined to Babylon. While the nuance of “Diaspora” in the biblical text can be as negative as that of “exile,” scholars sometimes prefer the term “diasporic” to describe literature that assumes a certain accommodation to living away from the homeland—and a sense that it is possible to survive and even thrive in the adopted country, even if one’s center is elsewhere (see, e.g., Dan 1–6 and Esth). If “exile” requires, even looks forward to, a return, “Diaspora,” by contrast, holds a more neutral or even a more positive view of the current situation. Diasporic literature may be mindful of the ancestral homeland, but the nostalgia for it has lessened, if not disappeared. Diasporic living stops short of assimilation, however, because the community maintains its distinctive identity and its status as a minority people. This may, indeed, go beyond the (Greek) biblical sense, in which “Diaspora,” the spreading abroad of the people, may portend their eventual annihilation.

Interpreting Dislocation.

It is axiomatic that there is a difference between what “actually happened” in the various dislocations that Israel and Judah experienced and how these were interpreted in the biblical text and in later sources. The framing and interpretation of dislocation in the Hebrew Bible include at least three major thematic arcs that would resonate with later interpreters: a literal exile that would come to a close, a metaphorical exile that transcended time and space, and imaginative speculations about the vicissitudes and possibilities of diasporic living.

A limited exile: The histories.

A number of biblical books view the exile as lasting for a finite period of time; Yahweh, having punished the people, returned them to their land in 538 B.C.E., using the Persian king Cyrus as his agent. This view developed over time; prior to Cyrus’s intervention, some texts conceived of the exile as final, not finite. In an earlier iteration, 2 Kings ended with a notice about the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E., which, like the earlier exile of the north, was regarded as permanent. The announcement “So Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Kgs 25:21) mirrors the earlier announcement that “Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day” (2 Kgs 17:23). In both cases, exile was interpreted as a punishment for the people for not heeding Yahweh’s prophets and not turning toward Yahweh (2 Kgs 17:7–18, esp. 13–14; 2 Kgs 17:19 and 24:2). However, when Cyrus captured Babylon and permitted deportees to return to their homelands, Judean history effectively resumed. Now it was possible to envision the Babylonian Exile as a discrete moment in that history, which could be divided into preexilic, exilic, and postexilic phases. This periodization is presumed in the books of Ezra–Nehemiah, Chronicles, Isaiah, portions of Jeremiah (esp. 29:10–14), and Ezekiel. Scholars have pointed out that this implication of a temporary exile that ended is but one view, even though it has come to dominate the Hebrew Bible and scholarship. The notion of a finite exile ignores not only other biblical perspectives but also the reality of thriving communities of Jews who did not return to the land.

There is a second essential component to the interpretation of exile put forth by Ezra–Nehemiah and Chronicles: “the myth of the empty land.” In 2 Chronicles 36:20–21, the entire population is deported, a claim that may have been suggested by 2 Kings 25:21. The chronicler further explains why the land had to be cleared of people by adducing the practice of the sabbatical year (Lev 25): “until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill 70 years” (36:20–21). Ezra, ignoring the claims of any who may have been left in the land, asserts that those who returned from the Babylonian Exile, the gōlâ, constitute the true people of Israel. It is no coincidence that this view was propounded in particular by those Babylonian exiles who anticipated and accomplished their return to the land.

Prophetic literature.

The myth of exile–return also informed new prophetic writings, as well as the redaction of earlier prophetic collections. The prophetic literature covers a vast period from before the Assyrian conquests through the Persian period, including the major periods of deportation. Its depiction of exile and dislocation is far from uniform, reflecting as it does earlier and later engagement with the concept, not to mention layers of interpretation that were added to the received words of the prophets. Much of this literature was redacted to cultivate an expectation of return, which may not have been envisioned in its earliest strands. This is most vivid in 2 Isaiah, those chapters that were added to the prophecies of Isaiah of Jerusalem to describe the return as a new exodus, but is evident, too, in the earlier prophetic works of Amos and Hosea, where later redactors fostered the hope that exile would not last forever.

Amos reflects the period of the Assyrian threat, with its specter of deportation, a manifestation of imperial domination. In its earliest form, the book includes deportation as a central feature of the inevitable political defeat of Israel. Deportation as a threat for entire nations or for a more limited elite of those nations appears in the oracles against the (other) nations (Amos 1). Similarly, in Amos 5:27, 6:7, and 4:3, there are descriptions of exile as deportation, interpreted as a punishment by Yahweh for wrongdoing. What happens after exile is not in the prophet’s vision; deportation is, rather, a facet of a total and final destruction (8:2; 9:4). In a later exilic redaction, Amos 2:4–5 was added to include Judah among those punished. A postexilic redaction makes the following additions: Amos 9:7–10, which signals a distinct concept of exile as purification (in which Yahweh sifts sinful Israel), and Amos 9:14, which develops the notion of a restoration—although not clearly a return—which now subsumes deportation into a larger exile and restoration complex.

Second Isaiah contains few depictions of the period associated with the exile, literal or otherwise, which the prophet steadfastly maintains has drawn to a close. Exile is invoked primarily to announce its end, to highlight the call to return, which is the prime focus of the poetry with its vibrant images of return and restoration. In 2 Isaiah, exiles are rendered metaphorically as prisoners and debt slaves in order to proclaim them released; the exilic period is evoked as a period of servitude and as a prison sentence in order to proclaim it over: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:2). A number of these metaphorical descriptions of exile are drawn from an overarching system of associations that converges upon a common notion: Israel’s need for Yahweh’s redemption; the multiple images of exile collaborate to describe exile, at its heart, as the dire state of needing a redeemer (goʾēl), which in turn contributes to the prophet’s depiction of the return to Jerusalem as a new exodus, a major current in his poetry.

An enduring exile.

In other books, Cyrus’s edict does not mark a clear change in the relationship with Yahweh, which was thought to be an essential marker of the end of the exile. This uncertainty is reflected in the number of texts that try to reconcile predictions of the duration of exile with contemporary political realities. In the Second Temple period, this view developed into a motif of an “enduring exile” for which the political shifts of the late sixth century B.C.E. were not significant. The motif would become a dominant interpretation of the Babylonian Exile late in the Second Temple period, as is evident in a range of works, including 1 Enoch, Damascus Document, Jubilees, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and 4 Ezra. The motif takes two forms, both of which assert that exile is not simply a matter of geographical displacement, which paves the way for a more metaphorical understanding of the concept and thus makes possible, too, its extension.


The first form of the motif rejects the periodization of Israelite history advanced in 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1–2. Some authors argued that the exilic period extended until a certain historical moment, such as the rise of the Maccabees; this implies a belief that Israel would effectively remain in exile until it achieved political autonomy. Others maintained that the exile continued to the present day and would only end with an eschatological intervention. In both, the Babylonian Exile was not regarded as a past event.

Speculation about the length of the exile often focused on Jeremiah’s claim that the exile would last for 70 years (Jer 25:11–12; 29:10). In chapter 25, Jeremiah introduces the notion of a 70-year period associated with exile, although there is no explicit mention of restoration after the period has passed. The prophet’s letter to the Babylonian exiles, in Jeremiah 29, anticipates an exile of 70 years and that the exiles will eventually be returned (v. 14). While Jeremiah’s letter counters the expectation that the exile will be permanent and irrevocable, there are points left open for interpretation, which would give rise to the kind of speculation that would yield the motif of the unending exile. Jeremiah 25:1 suggests the period began in 605 when Nebuchadnezzar became king, making the approximate end of the period in the Persian conquest of Babylonia in 539 and the edict to return; this would be the end point as interpreted by 2 Chronicles 36 and Ezra 1. If, however, the beginning of the period of Babylonian domination were reckoned with the exiling of Judah’s populace (with either the first deportation in 597, to whom Jeremiah 29 was addressed, or the second in 586), then the end of the period would arrive significantly later—not until 527 or 517, many years after Cyrus had allegedly liberated Israel from the Babylonian yoke.

Jeremiah may not have intended the figure “70” to be taken literally but rather as signifying a period of long duration; the period may simply be rhetorical, like the “40 years” that Ezekiel allots for the devastation of Judah (4:6). Early theologians, however, were eager to come up with more exact coordinates for when the 70 years began and ended. In 519 B.C.E., long after Cyrus’s edict, Zechariah has a vision in which an angel asks why the period of divine wrath, associated with the 70 years, appears not yet to have passed (1:12). Most vividly, Daniel 9 reinterprets Jeremiah’s “70 years” (v. 2) as a period of “70 weeks” of years (v. 24). This exegesis draws on the idea, expressed in Leviticus 26:34 and applied in 2 Chronicles 36:21, that the exilic period would end only when “the land had made up for its sabbaths.” The product of these influences yields a chronology in which the period that began with the Babylonian Exile would endure for a total of 490 years. In this scheme, the duration of Jerusalem’s devastation is given as “seven weeks” (Dan 9:25), or 49 years—a period that roughly corresponds to the span between the destruction of Jerusalem and the edict of Cyrus. The reference is significant because it effectively denies that Cyrus’s proclamation ended the exile. For the author of Daniel 9, the period of the Babylonian Exile was just the first phase of a much longer exilic period that would come to an end during the crisis under Antiochus IV Epiphanes.


In the second (and sometimes related) form of the motif, exile becomes a metaphor for political disenfranchisement, social inequality, and alienation from God. To suffer any of those conditions is, in effect, to be in exile, marking a profound transformation in the interpretation of exile.

This notion of exile as a metaphor for other discontents is evident even within the biblical corpus. Even as Ezra 1:1 asserts that Jeremiah’s discrete exile has been completed, it qualifies this view in 9:8–9, after the return: “for a brief moment, favor has been shown by the LORD our God, who has left us a remnant and given us a stake in his holy place, in order that he may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance in our slavery. For we are slaves. …” In other words, Yahweh has permitted a remnant to return and rebuild the Jerusalem Temple, but that remnant is not politically independent: the residents of Yehud are still “slaves” to the kings of Persia, just as, according to Chronicles, they had been “slaves” to the kings of Babylon (2 Chr 36:20). Whereas 2 Isaiah had earlier optimistically announced a release from foreign servitude (40:1–2), Ezra expresses both the idea that exile is, in essence, slavery (as it is described, too, in 2 Isa) and the idea that exile has continued. Thus, Israel can still be in exile even though the people have returned to the land that Yahweh promised to their ancestors. In the exodus typology that informs 2 Isaiah’s account of the return, Yahweh rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and established them in Canaan, where they would serve him alone. But in Ezra’s view, even after the return to Judah, Israel has not been released from servitude to foreign powers.

Furthermore, the description of exile deployed by various biblical books paved the way for extended associations. Jeremiah describes exile with a range of metaphors, including that of a spurned lover (30:12–17), allusions to the bereavement of Rachel (31:15–17), and references to Israel’s wilderness experience (31:2–6). Through these images, exile is associated with a range of meanings that include, but are not limited to, geographic, political, scriptural, and emotional dimensions; this extension of meaning would change how the Babylonian Exile was received by later interpreters. In 2 Isaiah, exile, too, had been rendered using metaphors like servitude (40:1–2) and barrenness (54:1). In 3 Isaiah, written after the edict of Cyrus, exile will in turn become a metaphor for other social and political situations that require Yahweh’s intervention. Further, exile takes on a paradigmatic, increasingly dehistoricized meaning, becoming a figure for disenfranchisement in general. While 2 Isaiah had used exile as a backdrop to foreground the activity of Yahweh, thereby looking back on exile as a thing of the past, 3 Isaiah asserts through a revalorization of the language of captivity that this exile continues into the present—most startlingly for Jews who reside in Jerusalem, not unlike Ezra’s assertion that “we are slaves,” even in the land.

The affective dimensions of an exile would come to be regarded as applying to distress arising from a variety of circumstances. Psalm 137 provides one of the more acute expressions of exilic longing: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion” (v. 1). The pain of dislocation gave rise to the poet’s rhetorical, “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (v. 4). Despite its vivid depiction of exile, Psalm 137 was written long after the Babylonian Exile, nonetheless drawing its subsequent hearers into the exilic context. It, in turn, would be interpreted to apply to other and later experiences of marginalization.

In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. and the loss of any illusion of political autonomy, exile would be construed as suprahistorical so that even those within the land were living in exile, beyond the center of political power. This is most vivid in 4 Ezra, where Ezra, although he lived shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple (not the First) and resided within the land, uses the sixth-century B.C.E. exile to Babylon as a trope to discuss the status of those living in Judea in the late first century C.E. (3:1–2; 7:3–16).

In the texts that present the motif of the enduring exile, exile now signified not only forced migration and living in a foreign land under foreign domination but also a variety of alienations: political disenfranchisement within the land, a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a feeling of separation from God. In this new interpretation of exile, which was not limited to its geographic dimension, exile persisted beyond the edict of Cyrus and despite repatriation; it was a condition that could not be resolved simply by returning to the land, as the jubilant promises of 2 Isaiah suggested.

Diasporic living: Diaspora narratives.

In the Second Temple period, too, a number of narratives arose that reflected on issues of diasporic living. Writing long after the Babylonian period, authors appealed to the early “exilic” period to provide a setting for literature about some of early Judaism’s most loved figures—figures through whom Jewish communities explored the possibilities, as well as the dangers, of living with the double-consciousness of Diaspora. Through these figures, authors could consider the question of Psalm 137, namely, how to “sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land,” in a more open-ended fashion. Sometimes called “Diaspora literature” or “Diaspora novels,” these works include Daniel 1–6 and the book of Esther; the genre might also include the Septuagintal Tobit, who is part of the Assyrian, rather than the Babylonian, Diaspora, and Judith, which takes place in the land but figures a heroine who encounters dangers not unlike Daniel, reflecting the author’s understanding that a Jew in a land dominated by foreigners can be vulnerable in ways similar to a diasporic Jew. To this may also be added the tale of the three youths in 1 Esdras since Zerubbabel figures there as a Diaspora hero in the vein of Daniel 1–6.

Daniel 1–6 offers a diasporic model of resistance to foreign power. Daniel keeps Jewish dietary laws in the foreign court with outstanding results (1:1–20) and prays to his God despite the Babylonian edict prohibiting him from doing so (6:6–10). Jerusalem remains at the forefront of his and the reader’s mind from the very first chapter and throughout. Daniel 6:10 describes his diasporic orientation when he returns to his home, “which had windows in its upper room facing toward Jerusalem”; there he would “get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” Judith similarly refuses to partake in the fare at the Assyrian general Holofernes’s table in order to keep kosher (Jdt 12:1–2, 19) and secures leave to pray (vv. 6–9). Their radical adherence to traditional Jewish pieties both threatens and subsequently assures their survival.

The genre of Diaspora literature presents a range of models for diasporic living. The major Jewish figures in the book of Esther, for example, give no indication of what, if any, normative Jewish practices they keep while in Susa, the Persian citadel; they manifest no concern for Jerusalem; and, most remarkably, God is not mentioned once in the course of the narrative. And, yet, Esther risks her own life to save her people from a lethal edict. To be sure, the lack of conventional pieties was judged serious enough that later diasporic Jews substantially reshaped the book by adding the texts of prayers that were uttered by Esther and Mordecai; their prayers refer not only to God but to other practices such as keeping kosher and are preserved in the Septuagint. Even in the Septuagint, however, the book of Esther emphasizes diasporic living over return; in neither the Greek nor the Hebrew tradition do the characters evince a longing for the homeland or a desire for Jerusalem. There is no sense that Esther and Mordecai want to or should overthrow the Persian king Ahasuerus; instead, they redirect him to preserve their people. The book’s theology is distinctive in suggesting that God may be evident through a remarkable series of coincidences that allow Esther to preserve her people (Esth 4:13–14); this is not unlike the story of Joseph, with which it is often compared, in which God does not appear, although Joseph asserts that God works through human events to preserve Israel (Gen 45:5–8; 50:19–21). In both, diasporic survival depends on the bravery of Jews of high position in accordance with divine providence.

Taken as a group, these diasporic narratives meditate in different ways on what it means to be a Jew living outside the land—the dangers and opportunities of diasporic existence. They provide subtle reflection on the vicissitudes of living in a foreign land, in which the Jews vacillate between annihilation, survival, and even success. Their sense of the possibility and the adumbration of the dark realities of being the outsider have made them literature of lasting appeal, across time and place, especially for those who wrestle with the challenges of their own diasporic existences.

Ancestors in a foreign land.

Dislocation figures prominently in stories of Israel’s ancestors, providing a major theme of the Pentateuch. Much of the Hebrew Bible is judged to be the product of those who personally experienced exile in the sixth century B.C.E. or of their descendants. It is not surprising, then, that the experience of migration, forced or voluntary, influenced Israel’s recollection of even her more distant past. In the Primeval History, Genesis 1–11, Adam and Eve are “sent forth” or “driven out” from Eden (3:23–24); Cain is, by his own description “driven away” to live “as a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (4:14); and the builders of the tower of Babel are “scattered” to become many nations of different tongues (11:8).

Dislocation figures, too, in stories about the most venerable ancestors of Israel: Abram is called to migrate from Mesopotamia and then, almost immediately after he and Sarai reach the Promised Land, descends to Egypt, in a prefiguring of the Exodus (Gen 12); Jacob, only after he is exiled from his family and the land for a maturing sojourn with his greedy uncle Laban, is renamed Israel, eponymous ancestor of the nation (Gen 32); and Moses is raised in the Egyptian palace by Pharaoh’s own daughter, who identifies her foundling as a “Hebrew” from the start (Exod 2). Over and over again, the memory of these figures, for whom the experience in a foreign land is essential, is invoked in the biblical and midrashic tradition as identity-conferring for Israel. In the biblical text, the nation is Jacob/Israel, the children of Abraham, the flock of Moses; the exilic experiences of these figures fundamentally shape Israel’s self-perception.

In the redactional process, earlier narratives about the dislocation of the ancestors of Israel would be recast in light of the exile paradigm; so, too, the return from exile comes to mirror the other great deliverance in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt. In this way, dislocation and exile provide the thematic shaping to the Hebrew Bible and further mark the internal divisions of the canon.

Most manuscripts of the Jewish canon end major divisions with Israel outside the land. The Torah ends before Israel’s grand entry into the Promised Land, which is particularly revealing if it is a truncation of a Hexateuch or a “Primary History” (Genesis—2 Kings). If so, this would reflect a deliberate decision to mark the end of the narrative with Israel perched on the edge of the Jordan, an expression of the returned exiles’ sense of the paradigmatic nature of their recent exilic experience.

The final chapter of the Former Prophets, 2 Kings, explicitly ends the retelling of the ancient history with the Babylonian Exile; this decision thus extends the historical sweep begun with the portrayal in Genesis of the creation of the world through the rise of the kingdoms and down into the exile of north and south. The ending is seismic, a rupture in history, although the seeds for renewal are evident in the repentance that Deuteronomy advocates.

Most manuscripts of the Ketubim (the Writings) invert the chronological order of the books of Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah, with the result that the Bible as a whole concludes with Cyrus granting Jews permission to return to the land and not with Ezra–Nehemiah’s account of the return and the reconstruction of the Temple, an exegetical move suggestive of Israel’s suspended dislocation even as its end is announced. The book of Ezekiel, which in the majority of the manuscript witnesses rounds out the first three books of the Major Prophets in the Masoretic Text, ends with a utopian vision of restoration in which Yahweh returns with Israel to a restored Temple and a restored Zion. It could further be argued that the book of the Twelve, which concludes with Malachi’s warning to watch for Elijah, provides another look toward the end of exile, albeit more eschatologically and broadly conceived.

In this way, exile and Diaspora serve as the setting for profound meditations on the relationship between Yahweh and the people “in a foreign land” and would be received, in the wider history of interpretation, as an occasion for existential reflection on the human condition. The redactors who shaped the canon highlighted the memory of exile as a formative experience. This is another way that “exile endures,” through a canonical framing that assists the readers of scripture in highlighting a biblical motif that resonates throughout multiple books.

Reception History.

The metaphorization of exile not only provided a tributary to the motif of the unending exile but also was an integral part of the pseudepigraphical impulse; it would play a part, too, in the canonical shaping of the Hebrew Bible so that earlier compositions addressed to one exiled population were reactualized for another situation, another populace, another time. The motif of an enduring exile would provide the basis for significant trajectories in the thought-world of ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Matthew’s genealogy mentions the Babylonian Exile as a defining rupture in history (1:11–12, 17), Hebrews 11:13 describes earthly existence figuratively as “exile,” and 1 Peter 1:1, written to the Gentiles, addresses them figuratively as “the exiles of the dispersion”; Philo described the human soul as “exiled” on earth; and the Mishnaic tractate ʿAbodah Zarah appears to interpret the Jews within the land as in gālût. Martin Luther envisions the church enduring a “Babylonian captivity,” in need of reformation.

The Babylonian Exile continues to enjoy a rich reception history. Psalm 137 provides a prelude to the Jewish grace after meals during weekdays, situating the reciter within the exilic question of how to worship “by the rivers of Babylon,” in a foreign land; “By the rivers of Babylon” opens (and provides the title for) a Rastafarian song of liberation and resistance sung by The Melodians.

Among academics, the Babylonian Exile provides the initiating concept in Diaspora and refugee studies, by which the study of the exile in the Hebrew Bible is further enhanced. Among theologians, exile continues to be a durable metaphor for reflecting on other crises that render a people powerless, deprived of rights, or otherwise marginalized; the Bible, then, becomes a literature of and a resource for tactics for survival. In a historic meeting in 1989, the Dalai Lama, comparing the Tibetan experience to that of the Jews, sought insight from Jewish scholars about strategies for survival in the face of exile. “Internal exile” has, further, been claimed as a desirable stance, a productive theological identity, from which to resist and bear witness to the dominant power structures, not unlike the use of exile in the Qumran community.

The Babylonian Exile of the Jews remains a moment of great historical significance and resilient metaphor by which Jews and Christians, in a variety of different ways, continue to give expression to their theologies. Its flexible meanings encompass a range of experiences, including a perceived alienation from divine affection, disenfranchisement, and intentional estrangement from the status quo. Exile remains a power figure for understanding the past, interpreting the present, and framing future expectations.




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Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor