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Exile in the Hebrew Bible

Exile was a recurring experience for ancient Israel and Judah and profoundly affected the shape and formation of the Hebrew Bible.

The Flight of the Prisoners

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 (Gen 3:23-24). The story of Israel’s formation begins when Abraham is exiled from his kin and his land to the land that Yahweh promises to him (Gen 12:1-2). Jacob and Joseph spend time in exile and Moses lives his whole life in exile.

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?” (Ps 137:4). Living outside the Promised Land, without the temple, Jewish exiles were compelled to develop new ways of forming a community and worshipping Yahweh. Many managed not simply to survive but to thrive. Some regarded exile as Yahweh’s use of foreign powers to punish his people; they called for the people to repent (“to turn back”) to Yahweh so that they might be restored. In this view, exile was not simply geographic displacement but had become a reflection of the spiritual, even existential, condition of estrangement from Yahweh.

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 (2Chr 36:23, Ezra 1:1-4, Ezra 6:3-5); this was viewed as an affirmation of Jeremiah’s prophecy that the exile would end after 70 years (Jer 25:11-12, Jer 29:10-11) and was heralded by Isaiah’s call that all exiles should return to the homeland (Isa 48:20). But, in another sense, the developing notion of exile as an existential condition—a spiritual separation from Yahweh—meant that geographic return alone could not bridge the divide or end the exile. Indeed, a number of writers in the later Second Temple period, among them the authors of the books of Daniel and 4 Ezra, understood the exile to endure many centuries later and still anticipated a fuller restoration.

  • Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

    Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.