Exile (Hebrew galut), or forced migration, is a theme that recurs throughout the Hebrew Bible, starting with Adam and Eve, who are forced to leave Eden (
The threat and the reality of exile resurface time and again within the Hebrew Bible and punctuate some of its major canonical divisions. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Pentateuch/Torah) end with Israel anticipating its entry into the Promised Land but perched on the edge of the Jordan River, still in exile; the fulfillment of the promise of the land is still elusive. The next section of the canon, the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy through Kings), ends with the Babylonian captivity.
Historically, Israel and Judah experienced a number of major exiles. Foremost among these was the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians around 720 B.C.E. These exiled people were presumably deported and scattered within the Assyrian Empire, although we know little of their fate. Their dispersal gave rise to the tradition of the “ten lost tribes of Israel.” In 597 B.C.E., the elite of the southern kingdom of Judah, including the prophet Ezekiel, were exiled by the Babylonians; and in 586 B.C.E., when the temple was sacked and burned by the Babylonians, a new wave of Judean exiles arrived in Babylon. Others fled to Egypt, although a significant number of Judeans also remained behind in Judah. By the sixth century B.C.E., there were vibrant pockets of Jewish exiles living in both Egypt and Mesopotamia.
For these Jewish communities, living in exile posed a challenge, if not a crisis. As the psalmist most poignantly articulated, “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (
In one sense, the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E. ended when King Cyrus of Persia issued an edict in 538 B.C.E. allowing the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city and their temple (