Kirk of Kildaire Faith Challenge

Curriculum Writers’ Bible Study Notes

Exile: 2 Kings 23:31-25:30 and Psalm 137

What happened?

In 587 BCE the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonian forces.  This was a culminating and catastrophic event in a series of incursions of Babylonia into Judah from roughly 598 to 581 BCE.  King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah three times (roughly 598, 587, 581; though some report 597, 586, and 580), each time deporting kings and leaders of Judah into Babylonia and leaving the poorest and least powerful behind.  This series of invasions and deportations is called both the “exile of Judah” and the “Babylonian captivity.”  It is one of the central preoccupations of the Old Testament, leading the writers of the OT to ask “What does it mean for the faith of Israel that this community, which takes itself to be the beloved partner of Yahweh, is so vulnerable to the vagaries of international politics and so helpless in the face of brutalizing power?”[1]

The question that occupies the OT is, of course, a theological question.  But critical to understanding the theological question is an understanding of a geopolitical question: How did Babylonia come to invade and deport Judah?

Rough timeline of the Babylonian exile[2]

605 – 601

(2 Kings 24:1)

Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylon, is battling the Egyptian King Neco (the one whom Josiah was fighting when he died in battle) for control of Carchemish (at the Euphrates river, far north of Jerusalem).  The Egyptians are fighting on behalf of the Assyrians and exacting severe tribute from Judah.  When Nebuchadnezzar’s father dies, he returns to Babylon to secure his throne and then finishes the war in Carchemish.  He pursues the Egyptians south to Hamath and Ashkelon (just south of Jerusalem), ravaging the countryside as he goes.  Now King Jehoiakim (the son of Josiah) must pay tribute to Babylon instead of Egypt.  In 601 Neco and Nebuchadnezzar meet in battle again in Gaza, but the battle was a draw.  Nebuchadnezzar goes back to Babylon and Jehoiakim withholds his tribute. 

600

Nebuchadnezzar stays home.

599

(2 Kings 24:2)

Nebuchadnezzar enlists local Chaldean, Aramean (or possibly Edomite), Moabite, and Ammonite troops to harass Judah (for tribute?) while he fights the Arabians. 

598

(2 Kings 24:8-11)

Jehoiakim dies and his young son Jehoiachin takes the throne.  The Babylonian army invades Judah and besieges Jerusalem.  Soon afterwards Nebuchadnezzar himself arrives in Jerusalem.

597

(2 Kings 24:12-17)

Nebuchadnezzar orders Jehoiachin and his entourage to be taken to Babylon.  Zedekiah, another son of Josiah, is appointed king.  The practice of deporting kings and leaders was common in this time.  The Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans all deported the leaders of lands that they conquered.  Usually those deported included the King and the royal family, leading military men, military personnel, and craftsmen.  Only the poorest were left to tend the crops.  It is unclear how many were deported: Jeremiah says 4600 were taken during all three deportations; 2 Kings says 10,000 were deported in 597 alone.[3]

596

Chaldeans again are sent to harass Judah.

595

Nebuchadnezzar is preoccupied in Babylon crushing a rebellion.

594 – 593

Egypt sends ambassadors from Edom, Moab, and Ammon to Jerusalem to confer with Zedekiah.  Nebuchadnezzar has Zedekiah brought to Babylon, where Zedekiah manages to convince Nebuchadnezzar of his loyalty.  Zedekiah is sent back to Jerusalem, where he remains faithful for some time.  The Chaldeans serve as Nebuchadnezzar’s patrols in the Negeb (to guard against Egyptian incursions) and tribute collectors.

589

Hophra of Egypt (the successor of Psammeticus, who was successor of Neco) persuades Zedekiah to rebel against Babylon (by not paying tribute?).

588-587

(2 Kings 25:1-2)

The Chaldeans (Babylon’s enforcers) siege Jerusalem.  Egypt joins Judah but is soon repelled.

586

(2 Kings 25:3-5)

 

(2 Kings 25:8-12)

 

(2 Kings 25:22-26)

Jerusalem’s defenses collapse.  Zedekiah tries to escape to the desert, but is caught, arrested, and sent to Babylon.

 

 

The second deportation and destruction of the temple.

 

 

Gedaliah is appointed governor of Judah.  Judeans who had scattered when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem gather to him.  He urges obedience to Nebuchadnezzar and is assassinated.  Other Judeans, fearing reprisal from the Babylonians, flee to Egypt.

582 - 581

There is little Biblical account of the third deportation, except in Jeremiah 52:23-30.  There are records of exiles living in villages along the Chebar river (see Psalm 137

 

Geopolitical reasons for the exile[4]

Judah was a tiny kingdom set in the middle of very powerful nations to the south (Egypt) and to the north (in sequence, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia (modern Syria, Iraq, and Iran)).  Despite the bible’s grand claims for the Davidic line, for most of its existence, Judah was a client state that lived under the influence of one major power or another.  Judah did not have the resources to exert an independent political or military force.  The northern nations dominate the fate of Judah (and Israel before it), but Egypt always tries to reassert its power over Judah and the northern nations.

Assyria (745-609 BCE)

The Assyrian empire (its capital city was Ninevah, the city God told Jonah to prophecy to) rose to power under Tiglath-Pileser III in 745 BCE.  In 722 Assyria dominated Israel (the northern kingdom) and sent many of the Israelites into exile.  Assyria was experienced by Israel as a brutal force.

By 663 BCE Assyria had expanded its military control into Egypt.  It had completely dominated the Middle East.  It was a costly expansion, however, marked by recurring revolts and internal tension among its ruling class.  From 652-648 BCE, Ashurbanipal (then king of Assyria) was engaged in civil war with his brother, the regent of Babylonia.  Ashurbanipal won, but the effort exhausted his political and military power.  When Ashurbanipal died (627 BCE) many of his subjects, including Babylonia, Judah (under King Josiah), and Chaldea, began to reassert their independence.  Between 614 and 609 BCE, the Chaldeans, with help from Josiah of Judah, destroyed the Assyrian state.[5]

It was in this period of Assyrian weakness that Judah, under King Josiah (639-609), was able to reassert its independence and undertake Josiah’s reforms.

Babylonia (605-540 BCE)

By 605 Assyrian power had completely vanished and Babylonia began to rise in power, first under Nabopolassar and then under his son, Nebuchadnezzar.  In a war with Egypt for control of the northern region at Carchemesh (see timeline above), Babylonia defeated Egypt and came to full power in the Middle East.  To secure its southern flank exposed toward Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar subjected Judah, which at times revolted, sometimes with help from Egypt.  It is this period of time to which the above timeline refers.

In 562, Nebuchadnezzar died and less than two decades later, Babylonia ceased to be a political or military power, largely because of exhaustion and weak leadership.  By 540 BCE, Babylonia was dislodged from a position of power.

Persia (550–330 BCE)

In 550 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated his Medan overlord and began to expand his rule.  He pushed east toward Babylonia and conquered it.  Cyrus reversed the Babylonian policy of deportation and permitted the captives to return to Judah in hopes that his generosity would make Judah more cooperative subjects.  Cyrus’s plan worked, for Judah regarded Persia as a benign power.  Cyrus authorized the rebuilding of the temple.[6]

Theological reasons for the exile[7]

Biblical texts concerning the exile of Judah read the events of the 6th century BCE from a completely different interpretive angle than the geopolitical one.  The biblical texts understand the collapse and exile of Judah as a decisive intercession of Yahweh into the history of the people of Yahweh through the agency of foreign powers.  Yahweh is the central character and decisive agent in the public process of history.  This claim pertains not only to Israel, who knows the name of Yahweh, but even to other worldly powers who may not know Yahweh’s name.

The texts of 2 Kings 23-25 put this claim to work in passages such as:

·       24:2-4: The Lord sent troops to destroy the towns of Judah as the prophets had warned.

·       24:13: The Lord had warned that someday the treasures would be taken from the royal palace and from the temple.

·       24:20: The people of Judah and Jerusalem had made the Lord so angry that he finally turned his back on them.  That’s why these horrible things were happening.

Everything that happens can be understood in terms of Deuteronomistic theology, which we’ve seen before:

Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  (Deut. 30:19-20)

If Israel is faithful and obedient, it will live long in the land that God promised Israel’s ancestors.  If Israel is disobedient, it will be punished.

According to the theology of Deuteronomy, Israel’s history reads as follows:

  • God redeems Israel from slavery in Egypt, demonstrating God’s freedom, sovereignty, and power. (Exodus)
  • Through 40 years in the wilderness, God shapes Israel into a people to be governed by God’s laws.  If they are obedient to God, it will be well with them; if they are disobedient it will not be well. (Exodus through Joshua)
  • In the Promised Land, the people are unable to remain obedient to God.  God sets up judges to help them remain obedient. (Judges)
  • Eventually the people demand a king.  Though God objects, God gives them what they wish. (1 Samuel 8)
  • Kings become powerful and wealthy and begin to tolerate worship of other gods, place their trust in political alliances rather than in God, and exploit the poor of the land. (2 Samuel through 2 Kings)
  • God sends prophets to warn of coming judgment and to call the kings back into right relationship with God. (books of history and prophets)
  • Unwilling to heed this call, the kingdom first divides (922 bce; 1 Kings 12 through 2 Kings 13) and then falls to foreign powers: Israel to the Neo-Assyrians in 721 bce and Judah to the Babylonians in 587 bce (2 Kings 14-25 and Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Isaiah 40-55).
  • God is faithful and Israel is eventually restored (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah).

God is the decisive agent in this chain of events; Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus only the characters that mediate God’s agency.  Note also the hopeful tone with which 2 Kings ends.  This is not the end, for here is a glimpse of liberty.  Surely God will (and does) act just as decisively to liberate Judah.

Commentary on Psalm 137[8]

Psalm 137 is a lament psalm, the only psalm that can be dated with certainty.  It can be divided into three parts:

vv. 1-4: Express the exiles’ grief.

vv. 5-6: The literary and conceptual heart of the poem; the importance of remembering.

vv.7-9: Express the exiles’ rage and desire for revenge.

Memory is the theme that runs throughout the psalm.  Remembering Zion implies faithfulness to God’s place and to God’s purpose in the world.

 

1-4

“our captors . . .our tormentors”

A reference not only to the exile itself, but to the taunting, sarcastic nature of the request for songs, as if to say, “Where is your God now?”

5-6

“my right hand”

Which plucks the strings of the lyre.

 

“my tongue”

Which sings

7-9

“who repays you”

Grief, quite naturally, turns to anger and revenge, not only toward Babylonia, but also toward Edom, who participated in the ravaging of the countryside.

 

“dashes them against the rocks”

A shocking turn of sentiment; but how frequently did we hear similar sentiments after 9/11?

 

Possible Concepts

This is one of those units about which I think it is important just to get the story straight.  Perhaps this can be the focus of the 2 Kings portion of the unit.  Here are some concepts we might think about:

·       It is sometimes hard for us to see God at work in crises, but God is with us all the same.

·       If we are heading in the wrong direction, it sometimes takes a terrible crisis to turn us around.

·        

For the psalm, here are lots of possible concepts:

·       Grief and anger are natural reactions to extreme situations.

·       Remembering is one way to be faithful: we are faithful to God when we remember God and God is faithful to us when God remembers us.

·       Remembering past crises helps us to avoid future crises.

·       Expressing grief and anger with in prayer helps us defuse our feelings so that we do not act them out.

·       Even when our prayers express feelings that are unpleasant or scary, God hears us and loves us.

·       Remembering and expressing our feelings about a crisis are steps toward forgiveness.

·       It is often children who suffer most from war.

·       If we are honest, we have to admit that we have all wanted to take revenge at one time or another.

Possible lesson plans

2 Kings: crime scene investigation

Psalm 137: this is a wonderful opportunity to teach about prayer, or to do a mission project around the theme of refugees.  What is it like to be far from home?  How does it feel to know that you may never see your home again?  How do you learn to sing the old songs in a new land?

Possible memory verses

Matthew 11:28: If you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest.

Psalm 137:1-6

2 Corinthians 12:9: My kindness is all you need.  My power is strongest when you are weak.

Joshua 1:9: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.  (NRSV)

Psalm 46:1 God is our mighty fortress, always ready to help in times of trouble.

Isaiah 41:10: Don’t be afraid.  I am with you.  Don’t tremble with fear.  I am your God.  I will make you strong as I protect you with my arm.

2 Corinthians 1:4: God comforts us when we are in trouble, so that we can share that same comfort with others in trouble.

References

Achtemeier, Paul J., ed.  Harper’s Bible Dictionary (New York: HarperCollins, 1985).  Herein cited as HBD.

Aharoni, Yohanan and Michael Avi-Yonah.  The MacMillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1993).  Herein cited as MBA.

Birch, Bruce C., et al.  A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).  Herein cited as TIOT.

McCann, J. Clinton, Jr.  Psalms.  New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1999).  Herein cited as Psalms.



[1] TIOT, p. 323.

[2] MBA, pp. 123-125.

[3] HBD, p. 287.

[4] TIOT, pp. 319-323.

[5] HBD, pp.77-78.

[6] HBD, p. 775.

[7] TIOT, pp. 323-

[8] Psalms, pp. 1227-1230.