Return from Babylon to Zion
The Bible exposes the destruction of the two Jewish states as divine punishment for their sins, particularly the sin of idolatry. After the mass deportations, some inhabitants did remain: the Babylonians were particularly concerned to re-settle the ruling classes.
In Babylonia, the Jews' economic position was quite good and they enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. (This situation continued for those who remained there after the Return to Zion, until the 10th century CE). The destruction of the state and the Temple were traumatic experiences. Emphasised by the prophets, they aroused both the desire for revenge and feelings of repentance. The Jewish religion underwent a major development in the Babylonian exile; the synagogue, perhaps the most important institution in Jewish life, almost certainly started there as a substitute for the destroyed Temple. Furthermore, the close proximity of non Jews must have had some influence on the Jews' theology and religious thinking. The exiles never abandoned hope of returning to the Land of Israel. Even the prophet of doom, Jeremiah, had assured them that they would ultimately return. In the exile, Ezekiel's prophecy of the dead bones being revived must have nourished this hope.
When the Persians conquered Babylonia, the Jews considered it an act of God. Cyrus, the new ruler, embarked on a policy of restoration and reconstruction. Permission was given to the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
The first return in 538 BCE involved 42 360 free men and 7 337 slaves; the territory assigned to them was small, comprising Jerusalem and its environs.
The returning Jews suffered great hardship, as well as constant harassment from the colonists whom the Assyrians had settled in Samaria after the conquest of Israel. These were known as Samaritans; they had accepted a form of Judaism and were preparing to build their own temple on Mt Gerizim. By 515 BCE the Temple at Jerusalem had been rebuilt, but the general condition of the settlers was by no means good. In 458 BCE a second group of Babylonian Jews came to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra, whom the new Babylonian ruler had appointed governor of the Jerusalem settlement. This group comprised 18 000 men as well as women and children.
The return of Ezra and his small band was carried out under divine guidance. In his memoirs Ezra writes "I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us since we had told the King that the hand of God is good upon all that seek him."
Ezra was authorised to investigate the situation in Judah in accordance with the law of God. He was also entitled to appoint judges.
Next step: The Restoration
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