Would the religion of Israel survive the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and Judea in 586 BCE? Were the leaders of Judea, taken into exile in a distant land, destined to diminish and disappear—as was the case of so many other nations destroyed and dispersed by the armies of Babylon? What of the Judeans left behind in the ruins of their homeland? Would the culture of ancient Israel survive, or would the Jews ultimately disappear?
These were life and death questions after the destruction the Temple first built by Solomon in Jerusalem. How would the Jews respond to the greatest religious and social cataclysm that a nation can suffer? The prophet Jeremiah advocated continuity and community, promoting the view that the destruction and exile were not the work of a foreign and superior god, but rather that the Babylonians were instruments of chastisement sent by the God of Israel. Jeremiah’s advice-
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29-4-7).
Thus began the history of Babylonian Jewry, a community that thrived in the land we now call Iraq for more than two thousand years.
The “Babylonian Captivity” came to an abrupt end, with the defeat of Babylon in 539 BCE by Cyrus the Great. In the interest of securing their vast empire, which stretched from the borders of India to southern Egypt, the Persians allowed subject nations to retain their communal lives and religious practices. Therefore, the Persians allowed the Jews to return to Palestine and to rebuild their city and their Temple. The Bible treats Cyrus and his royal successors as divinely ordained heroes, fulfilling a divinely ordained plan. With Cyrus’ ringing decree begins the Second Temple period heralding all later Jewish messianic hopes-
The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up (2 Chronicles 36).
We know little about the early Persian period in the Land of Israel, except that the Jews in Jerusalem and its environs were in crisis. The returnees from Babylonia were far more ideologically driven than the Jews who had stayed behind. The prophets railed that the Temple was rebuilt too slowly, and that Jewish observance was too lax. The Bible describes efforts by leaders such as Nehemiah and Ezra to reestablish Judaism at a time when the time-honored tools for determining the Divine will, the Urim and Thumim, were gone, and the prophetic voice was growing dim. Scripture and its interpretation were increasingly seen as the best way to discern God’s will. The “Torah of Moses” and the other early books of the Bible became the ideal vehicle to reconstruct the Jewish people on firm God-given foundations. This method of interpretation, later called midrash, allowed the Torah to serve as a divine oracle, and a vehicle for the reconstruction of Judaism in the Persian Empire and beyond.