7.5 Exile and Return -- Evaluation
The Exile marks a major division in the religioius tradition, and a crisis in the history of Israel. We cannot just glide into a new unit without consideration of the magnitude of the changes that occurred at the beginning of the 6th Century.
As we contemplate the two-fold collapse of the country -- the destruction of Israel, and then 125 years later, the downfall of Judah -- we are stuck by the specactular nature of the failure of God's project among humanity. The first attempt ended with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the protected sanctuary God provided them. The second attempt ended with the Flood. The third attempt was a more limited effort, focused on a hand-picked individual out of all the families on earth -- Abraham and his descendants. It was a sort of pilot project that, if it succeeded, could be extended to other nations: Israel as the "model village." After 1500 years of profound interaction with this community -- visions, angels, miracles, deliverers, oppressors, the Law, priests, prophets, kings -- God calls it quits. The whole enterprise ends in blood and fire. And Jeremiah was the final witness, the voice of God pronouncing the death sentence.
Yes, we remember that after a suitable interval a remnant does return, and hope in the Promise is rekindled. But it is too easy after the fact to overstate the continuity with the past. In actuality, the collapse of Israel-Judah was an ending, politically and spiritually. All Israel disappeared forever, and only a remnant of Judah eventually returned...to what? To a history of prolonged servitude as a vassal state under Gentile empires, or a petty kingdom resisting the blasphemies of Hellenism. Over 500 years would pass after the return from Exile before God would once again enter history decisively.
The interval between Exile and Incarnation was largely marking time...like Israel in Egypt so long before: Israel just waiting and suffering, listening for a Word from God that didn't come, passing on to their children stories of past deliverances, past prophets and kings. On the one hand, Israel's main accomplishment in these centuries was to resist the dominant political and cultural currents that threatened to dissolve her indentity as completely as the Assyrians had erased all traces of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century. But not all activity was defensive: Jewish scholars translated the Scriptures into Greek in the 3rd century at the command of King Ptolemy of Egypt. The Septuagint was a counterblow against Greek philosophy: for the first time ever, Gentile scholars were exposed to the history of the Hebrew God's words and acts in their own language.
After the Exile there were two paths open for Israel: one of resistance and separation, holding on rigorously to holy tradition, resisting all change and all outsiders. This is the path of racial purity. Yet this was ultimately sterile: doing more of the same thing, keeping the walls up, celebrating and revering God's acts in the past. The Pharisees and Sadducees were two groups who advocated this alternative. The second path was one of positive interaction with the Gentiles, which until now had been largely excluded from the Promise and Presence of God. But how to do this without denying the Torah and pandering to Greek polytheism? This alternative lay beyond the abilities of rabbis and philosophers, and ultimately depended on God Himself -- it needed a new revelation, a new Exodus, a creative new Word that would be consistent with His past words but break new ground. It would have to be no less than a fourth attempt of God to cohabit with mankind.