Through the lens of the Babylonian Exile
In 722 BCE our story begins when the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian invader. Its cities were besieged, and their inhabitants captured and transported disappearing from history as the “ten lost tribes of Israel”. As was the practice at the time, the Assyrian invader replaced them with others who intermingled and intermarried with those who were left behind. Israel had always been a far more fertile region than the Southern Kingdom, but now their crops were destroyed and even the topsoil removed. Their priests, part of a sizeable bureaucracy in the North, fled to the court of Hezekiah in Judah, bringing with them their own customs, traditions and oral history which in due course were recorded.
Then in 586 BCE, it was the turn of the Southern Kingdom, comprising essentially the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, to suffer annihilation and displacement, for in that year, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II ordered the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, rendering it uninhabitable in order to prevent the setting up of a regional government. The conqueror took captive a great number of notables from the city including the royal family, those in leadership positions and those who could write. Many of those sent into exile were used as forced labour on Nebuchadnezzar’s ambitious programme of public works, as were captives from conquered territories all over the Empire. This involved not only public works such as the draining of the marshes and the construction of the city walls but also such majestic projects as the building of the Ziggurat, a large stepped structure like a tower which was supposed to connect Heaven and Earth, and the hanging gardens of Babylon.
Those in the Southern Kingdom were deported in batches, some in 597, others in 586 BCE, so there were a number of separate exiles, and the Hebrew Bible articulates the voice of those in exile, as for instance in Isaiah 53, Ezekial 37; Isaiah 43 and Psalm 137, written long after the Psalms’ attribution to King David, and recently recaptured in the words of a contemporary pop song by Boney M:
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Other examples may be found in the Book of Lamentations, and Job’s personification of the nation’s suffering encapsulated in his rueful inquiry: “Why me?, Lord”.
These experiences led to the merging of separate traditions
The Exile was both a spiritual and a political experience. The tribes that emerged in the hilltops of Canaan in the early Iron Age, eventually to coalesce in an ethnic identity called Israel, originally came from different places and carried with them their own separate traditions. Abraham is reputed to have travelled from Mesopotamia south to Egypt and thence back to Canaan, under a promise that he and his seed would inherit this land forever, and Moses is said to have led his people out of slavery in Egypt to this so-called promised land. Both traditions underpin a claim to the land by divine mandate, and Joshua similarly so by conquest. One cannot totally exclude the possibility that originally a small group of people, probably nomads from the tribe of Levi, may have exited from Egypt and settled in Canaan, but when this experience was recorded many hundreds of years later it merged into a general history with that of Judah.
These separate experiences were elaborated over time rather than created and they ultimately coalesced to form a great national saga. The story of one became the story of all, and when the time came during the exile to ask the Job-like question “Why has all this happened to us?” those who were best equipped to answer were those whom historians now describes as the Deuteronomists – scribes who were familiar with these stories and who had studied the texts. Their role was to preserve, edit, correct, and adapt the material they were presented with, and in so doing, they not only preserved the nation’s identity, they created a whole new identity against the background of their collective trauma. This school interpreted the Exile as a punishment from God because the people worshipped idols – a retrospective theological analysis stemming from the post-exilic period.
Deuteronomy is addressed to the peoples of both Israel and Judah. For Israel, Moses was the ancestral Exodus figure, but for Judah, it was Daniel, that mythical personage who walked in the lion’s den and prophesied during the captivity in Babylon. The religious unification of Israel and Judah therefore begins with Deuteronomy, and as a byproduct of the merging of these separate traditions, defunct Israel’s identity was saved by embedding its traditions with those of Judah in a theologically constructed tale of shared experience of slavery and redemption, as subsequently developed and expanded.
So when the scribes wrote Exodus, its provenance was not the exile in Egypt but the story of the exiles in Babylon, and the experience in Babylon was retrospectively embellished as the legend of the Exodus. The scribes depicted their forebears as slaves in ancient Egypt just as they had been in Babylon. “We will survive this experience and lay claim to a new promised land”, they philosophised – an attitude symptomatic of orthodox Jewry’s line of thinking to the present day. The exilic and post-exilic periods therefore form the catalyst for the creation of the Hebrew Bible, and in creating a shared identity between the peoples of the north and those of the south, the scribes cemented the Moses/Exodus/Sinai tradition as the centre-piece of Second Temple Judaism, constituting in the process an effective denial of the fact that Israel originally emerged from Canaan.
Two editions of Deuteronomy emerged during this period, each involving a considerable rewriting of events. The underlying political purpose was to endow those who had returned from the exile with an identity, and the Hebrew Bible filled in the gaps with the message that if you worship other gods (as did Solomon, for example) you will lose the land.
The Exodus tradition explains why the Northern and Southern kingdoms collapsed, and the explanation lies in the fact that the text of the Hebrew Bible was elaborated during this period by Judeans and reflects the outlook of the Southern Kingdom. It has a thoroughly Judean bias and the kings of the northern kingdom are given a very bad press, especially in the Books of Kings. They are depicted as traitors and apostates, and as rebels against the true succession of the House of David. Most of them are denounced for not being exclusive enough in their veneration of the one true god, Yahweh, and the history of the northern kingdom is presented as one well merited series of disasters after another.
When the time came for succeeding generations of Jews to return from Babylon after an absence of a biblical “seventy years”, not all returned, and those that did were a different people. They called themselves the Golah – an elite “who tremble at the word of God”. Upon their return, they found a thriving community in their homeland, which they regarded as unclean and impure because they had not suffered as they had. Under the guidance of the prophets Ezra and Jeremiah, they established themselves as a Second Temple community for whom intermarriage, interbreeding and trade with the local people was strictly forbidden. However, the archaeological evidence (or, rather, the lack of it) suggests that those who returned may have been only a small band. It is hardly likely that the elders themselves would have returned since it was a very long journey, and those who did were able to forge their own destiny and establish a new community separate and distinct from the local inhabitants.
In this way, rather than being a collection of origin stories about events, peoples, prophecies, and tales pertinent to the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah and passed down over the centuries, the Hebrew Bible metamorphoses instead into a collection of stories elaborated by a Jewish elite in post-exilic seventh century Jerusalem and designed to endow themselves with an identity, notwithstanding that their own connection to the ancient world and the events about which they wrote was interrupted, distant and virtually non-existent..
Illustration at top: The Ishtar Gate.
 See Daniel L Smith Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile in the series Overtures to Biblical Theology published by Fortress Press Minneapolis, 2002. On page 50 Smith Christopher quotes Gerdian Jonker (The Topography of Remembrance, The Dead, Tradition and Collective Memory in Mesopotamia, Studies in the History of Religions 68, (Leiden: Brill 1995) 47-48 on the Assyrian policy of utter devastation which included not only a scorched earth policy but also of disinterring the dead and removal of top soil in prime agricultural areas. He infers that the Babylonians practised similar policies. Reference supplied courtesy of Dr Susanne Glover.
 Reigned 605-562 BCE.
 On the ziggurat, see http://www.bible-history.com/babylonia/BabyloniaThe_Ziggurat.htm
 See further “Reprise: the exile was the catalyst for the Deuteronomists’ and their writing of the Hebrew Bible” in the page entitled “The ‘discovery’ of the law book in the Temple”.
 This is but the first stanza.
 These tribal allegiances are explored in more detail in the pages entitled ”Israel as a People emerged from Canaan, not Egypt” and “The religion of Ancient Israel and Judah was polytheism”.
 The role of the Deuteronomists is considered in more detail in a subsequent chapter.
 I Kings, 9:6-7: “But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples”.
 Matthew Sturgis, It ain’t necessarily so – Investigating the truth of the Biblical Past, Charnwood, Leicester, 2001 (2003), pp 198-199.
 A chronology of the restoration period appears on the following page.
 Dr Susanne Glover, It Ain’t Necessarily So, WEA lecture series, 1 August to 26 September 2012, Lecture 2.
 Ibid, Lecture 6: “Did Judah steal Israel’s history?”