587 BC, and why it matters

(This is the first in a series “7 Dates and Why They Matter for Anglican Faith”)

By Derek Olsen

From our current perspective, the politics and history of the Ancient Near East 2500 years ago look like successions of waves on a beach as empires ebb and flow on the world stage. Foreign names and foreign places: The defeat of Sinsharishkun and the fall of Nineveh; containment of the Egyptians at Carcemesh; the fading of the Hittites and the rise of the Neo-Babylonians. And yet, one relatively minor episode in the succession of names and places dotting ancient history had a revolutionary impact on how we think about God and what we believe as Christians.

From what we can tell from primary documents—clay tablets, stone stele, temple carvings, ancient hymns and the like—many of the peoples of the Ancient Near East held a philosophy of religion called henotheism. That is, they had their gods but recognized that other peoples had other gods as well. Gods tended to be thought of in regional terms. To put a finer point on it, clans and tribes told stories about their gods that were intimately tied to their lives and to their geographies. A god wasn’t “just” a god, rather it was god X who made himself known to ancestor X at place Y in such-and-such a way. When cultures clashed the wars were not just occurring on the physical realm, the gods of the peoples were pitting their strength against one another. And the events of which we speak begin with just such a war…

In the waning years of the 7th century BC and the opening years of the 6th, Judah and its capital Jerusalem were still under the reign of kings from the line of David. For a brief time under King Josiah it enjoyed a period of relative independence from the whims of the empires around it. Josiah’s death in battle against Egyptian forces was the beginning of the end, though. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was on the rise with Nebuchadnezzar at its helm. Under threat of invasion, Judah began paying a heavy tribute to Babylon. Chaffing under this burden, King Jehoakim thought the moment opportune to rebel, counting on the Babylonians being distracted by troubles on the other side of the empire. In the year 601 King Jehoakim gambled but it was his son, the new King Jehoachin who had to face the music. In 597, a large Babylonian army surrounded the city which quickly surrendered in the face of the superior force. The Babylonians were lenient; rather than sacking the city, they took the city’s elite—the king and his household, the government, many of the priests (including the priestly prophet Ezekiel)—into exile in Babylon. The king’s uncle Zedekiah was put in charge of what was left.

Ultimately, Zedekiah proved no wiser than his brother Jehoakim; he too revolted against the Babylonians in 589. This time the Babylonian response was not only swift but ruthless. After an eighteen month siege, Jerusalem fell and the Babylonian army descended upon it in fury. The city was pulled to the ground. The Temple built by Solomon was utterly destroyed; the city’s inhabitants killed, sold into slavery, or scattered across the land. Babylonian client states—Edom in particular—savaged anything that was left.

Now—this story in and of itself is not unique. It has played out in hundreds of times and places; only the names change. What makes this case different is not the record of the events themselves. Rather, what is remarkable is the response to it. Ironically—but perhaps not surprisingly—the place where we turn now is the community of exiles in Babylon. With the destruction of their homeland they could have given up. They could have assimilated into the people around them. Instead it prompted them to write, record, and consider who they were. Cut off from the land of their ancestors and the geography of their god, they could easily have turned to the worship of the new gods of their new place. But what happened instead was a revolution.

Although we cannot be certain of times and places, most scholars believe that it was this community displaced in Babylon that was responsible for forming the heart of what we know today as the Old Testament. The great stories of the ancestral patriarchs and matriarchs were collected and woven together. The records of the early years of the kingdom of Israel and its split into Israel and Judah were updated and reworked. The words of the prophets were gathered and formed into stable collections. The songs of the Temple were collected even if there was no place left to sing them. And—we believe—above it and behind it all, the hand of God and the breath of the Spirit were moving, working, and inspiring. What had before been scattered scrolls and remembrances became a coherent collection, a body of writing that recorded the people’s story of themselves and their dealings with their god. And it is one we revere to this day.

Indeed the catastrophe of 587 and the events surrounding it are well represented in our Bibles. The book of Jeremiah records the histories and prophecies of the years before and immediately after the crisis. We have Jeremiah’s own feelings, poetry, and sermons as well as the events that befell him recorded by the hand of his scribe Baruch. Ezekiel balances Jeremiah; while Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was taken away in the first group of exiles and proclaimed the Word of God to the exiles in Babylon, and narrated events as the Spirit directed. The book of Lamentations communicates the shock and horror of the sack of Jerusalem. The book of Obadiah too responds not only to the fall of the city but the abominable acts of the Edomites in the tragic aftermath. The two great histories—the political history of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings and the condensed ecclesiastically-focused history of 1 and 2 Chronicles—both tell of the events leading up to the tragedy in their own ways. Psalms 74 and 78 reflect on the destruction of the Temple itself.

Considering the psalms in light of these events, Psalm 137 comes in particular to the fore. Many know this as the beautiful psalm whose end is marred by disagreeable verses unworthy of Scripture. Indeed, our current Daily Office lectionary makes verses 7-9 optional whenever this psalm rolls around. Coming up short at these words is inevitable if our morality is intact. But what these words point to—more basic than morality—is the humanity of those who wrote them. Read Lamentations. Read Obadiah. Then read Psalm 137. These are not simply words of cruelty but of pain, of despair, of wrath coming from the darkest places of human experience. Happy are we who do not understand them—having not seen the bodies of our children in the ruins of our homes. These words put us in touch not with the anonymous ebb and flow of historical tides but of the real people crying to the skies thousands of years ago—the same skies we turn to in pain as well.

Before turning aside from this psalm, however, Psalm 137 gives one more clue to understanding the revolution of 587 BC. In verse four the psalmist plaintively asks one of the key theological questions of the day: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song upon an alien soil?” Remember, in the henotheistic thought of the day, they were no longer in the territory of their god. They were no longer in the lands where the god of their ancestors walked but in the fields of Enlil and Marduk. How could they sing the songs of YHWH into the ears of foreign gods? Ezekiel answers at the very head of his prophecies. The vision he receives by the banks of the Chebar is not just a vision of a god in glory, but of a god on the move. The angelic chariot, the mobile throne, is one of the key features of the vision—and for a reason. Casting aside notions of territories and places, Ezekiel sees a god not contained by space and time but free to dwell in the midst of the people whom he had chosen.

At some point in this process, in the reading, the reworking, the meditating, and the writing the people taken out of Jerusalem came to a profound realization. Their god was not “a” god, one among many. Rather, this being who had become personally entwined in their lives and stories was none other than “the” God—not just the god of a region, of a bounded place, of a strip of land along the coast of Palestine, but the very Creator of heaven and earth. Henotheism gave way to monotheism. And the rest—as they say—is history.

The wheel of fortune turned and the Persians overcame the Neo-Babylonians. The Persian Cyrus allowed the exiles to return home, to rebuild their city and its temple. Some of the exiles stayed, but—taking with them the collections of books that told the history of their relationship with God—more left. Ezra and Nehemiah tell their stories. But the events of 587 were forever marked in the Scriptures that they passed down and that, in turn, we have received. As a result of this tragedy, the people of Israel clarified their history and self-identity in a narrative about their on-going covenant relationship with the being who they—and we—believe is none other than the One God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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