I realize that this is the third post thus far entitled “new exodus” and I have as of yet mentioned neither what the New Exodus in fact is nor its significance. Instead, I have given thoughts on the divine name revealed to Moses in the Exodus event and the meaning of that name. This lead into a discussion of the significance of the historical faithfulness of God as revelation. The Jews were anticipating and hoping for a decisive act of God which would be the definitive revelation of God’s faithfulness and indeed his deity. Until this future and final action, according to the Biblical record, God’s faithfulness and even his deity are openly questionable. It is only the historical revelation of God that will bring this questionable-ness to an end.
OK – here’s where I say what the New Exodus is: the decisive event that the Jew’s were waiting for that would bring the definitive revelation of the “God who will be” faithful to his covenant promises was the ending of exile. The ending of this exile was often described with exodus-like imagery and language. The “New Exodus” is a way of speaking of the ending of the Jewish exile while investing it with the epochal significance of replacing the Exodus as the defining event in Israel’s history and their revelation of God.
As a quick historical review the “exilic” period of Israel’s history officially began in 586 B.C. when Babylonian armies sacked Jerusalem, destroying the temple and exiling most of the people of Jerusalem (excepting the poorest) to be slaves in Babylon. This period of deportation ended when Cyrus issued the decree for the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple in 538 B.C.
However, while this physical deportation to Babylon ended in 538 B.C., there are many reasons for believing that according to the Jewish people, the exile had not in fact ended. This point is crucial for understanding the message of the Old Testament as a post-exilic canon of literature and for understanding the historical context of the New Testament. There are two distinct interpretations of this phenomenon. The first, of whom the leading exponent is N.T. Wright, is that the Babylonian exile was believed to have not ended. The second interpretation, offered by Brant Pitre, disagrees with Wright in that he believes the exile had not ended because there were in fact two exiles – one in which the ten northern tribes were deported by the Assyrians around 727 B.C., and the second, in which the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin were deported by the Babylonians beginning in 597 B.C. and again in 586 B.C. and 581 B.C. Of these two exiles, the Babylonian exile of the southern kingdom had ended, but the Assyrian exile of the northern kingdom had not ended. For this reason, then, according to Pitre, in the days of Jesus it was still believed that the exile had not yet ended.
I believe that Scripture points to the conclusion that both are true: neither the Babylonian nor Assyrian exiles had truly ended.
1) The first reason is the clearest literary example that the Babylonian exile itself was not believed to have ended. This is found in Daniel 9, esp. vv. 24-27. Daniel had been reading the writings of Jeremiah and after concluding that the appointed time had come for the exile to end, began to pray and fast for its fulfillment. While praying, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and in essence explained that the exile was in fact not over, the time of fulfillment had not come, and that instead of their being 70 years of captivity, their would be seventy “sevens” (i.e., 490 years).
2) With regard to the exile of the northern kingdom, there are a number of scriptures, especially in Jeremiah, which speak of both Israel and Judah coming back together. This gathering never happened and yet remained unfulfilled.
Jer. 3.18 – “In those days the house of Judah will walk with the house of Israel, and they will come together from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers as an inheritance.
Jer. 30.3 – “For behold, days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel and Judah.’ The LORD says, ‘I will also bring them back to the land that I gave to their forefathers and they shall possess it.’”
Hos. 1.11 – “And the children of Judah and the children of Israel will be gathered together, And they will appoint for themselves one leader…”
3) Additionally, all the promises given in conjunction with the announcement of the return from exile were not fulfilled. One example will suffice. Isaiah 35 speaks of ecological renewal, bodily restoration, freedom from ungodly beasts, the cessation of suffering and the arrival of everlasting joy simultaneously with the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. This could be demonstrated many times over throughout the prophetic literature. When the exile was to end, it was expected that Israel would be freed from its enemies, the creation would be restored, justice would go to the ends of the earth. At this point, forget the renewal of creation and global justice, after the return from the Babylonian deportation, the Israelites still continued under the domination of foreign powers. Theologically, this meant that the exile had not yet ended.
4) The exiles left Babylonian according to the decree of Cyrus to return and rebuild the temple. Though the prophet Haggai could say that the glory of the latter temple would be greater than the glory of the former (Haggai 2:9), the historical reality is that the second temple was quite lackluster when compared to the former. This is so simply in terms of the quality and comparative magnificence of the building. More importantly, though while with the first temple we have glowing reports of the glory of Yahweh descending and filling the temple (e.g., 2 Chr. 7), there is nothing comparable in the entire period of the second temple. No where is it ever said that Yahweh himself returned to Zion by dwelling in the temple.
5) A further reason is the on-going lament over the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the Davidic Monarchy in 586 B.C. This can be exemplified in the book of Psalms. This collection of songs is evidently a post-exilic redaction as shown by Psalms that celebrate the return from exile, such as Psalms 107, 147 and possibly 66, 96, 98, 132 and others. Nevertheless, laments over the fall of Jerusalem and prayers for the ending of the exile remain in the collection:
Ps. 74:2b-7 – “Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell. Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary. Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there. At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work. They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.”
Ps. 79:1 – “O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.”
Ps. 89:38-40 – “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust. You have broken through all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.”
Ps. 106:47 – “Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.”
Ps. 126:4 – “Restore our captivity, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negev.”
Ps. 137:7 – “Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
Other examples could include Pss. 42-43, 68, 80, 85, and 102. What could this phenomenon mean, that after the exile had ended, the prayers and laments of the exilic condition were collected as part of the nation’s continuing liturgical material? What would it mean for the people who had already come out of exile to lament the exile and pray for its ending? It seems that in a significant way (especially considering the poignant and potent language used in some of these Psalms) the Jewish people believed that the great restoration related to the fall of Jerusalem and the exile had not yet in fact happened. It remained in the future and hence the past events should still be lamented and the future events prayed for.
Other reasons could be given, but these five points develop a case that after the Babylonian captives returned to the land, the promised had not been fulfilled and the exile had not yet ended. The faithfulness of Yahweh to his covenant promise to Abraham was still awaited. Hence the ending of exile and the new exodus were future events anticipated as the definitive revelation of God through his historical intervention on behalf of his people and his creation.