THE EXILE and RESTORATION
Suggested Readings: Ezra 7:11-26; Nehemiah 8:1-12; Nehemiah 13:4-31; Tobit 7-8; Judith 10:20-14:5; Judith 14:11-15:3; Esther 7:1-8:2; 1 Maccabees 2:1-48; 1 Maccabees 3-4; 2 Maccabees 7; 2 Maccabees 12:38-46
The Books of Chronicles ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and the taking of the Jews into captivity to Babylon in 587 BC. This is called the Babylonian Captivity. When Cyrus the Persian defeated the Babylonians in 538 BC, he allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.
Ezra and Nehemiah, which were once one book, tell the story of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem. Ezra was a priest and a scribe (a person who copied holy books and important letters). He arrived in Jerusalem with a letter from the Persian king, Artaxerxes, instructing the Jews to do whatever Ezra demanded of them “for the house of the God of heaven,” that is, to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 7:11-26). Ezra also had the law of Moses read to the people, who re-committed themselves to faithfulness to God’s law (Nehemiah 8:1-12). Nehemiah was the butler of King Artaxerxes who went to Jerusalem as governor to re-build the walls of the city, making it safe from attack (Nehemiah 2). He also began a reform of Jewish worship and practice (Nehemiah 13:4-31). There is debate among scholars over the chronology of these events, whether Ezra returned to Jerusalem before Nehemiah, under Artaxerxes I (464-425 BC), or whether he came after Nehemiah, under Artaxerxes II (404-358 BC).
In time, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and the Greeks took control of Palestine. 1 and 2 Maccabees tell the story of the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled Judaea and started a campaign to destroy the Jewish faith and force the Jews to adopt Greek culture. He profaned the Jewish Temple by dedicating it to Zeus, the Greek god (2 Maccabees 6:2). Mattathias, a faithful Jew, organized a revolt against the Greeks, along with his sons, Judas Maccabeus (the “hammer”), Jonathan and Simon (1 Maccabees 2:1-48). The Jews won liberation and the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, became kings (1 Maccabees 3:1-4:35). The Jews re-dedicated the Temple (1 Maccabees 4:36-61). The history of the Maccabees includes an account of the first Hanakkah (1 Maccabees 4:56-59), the martyrdom of a mother and her seven sons (2 Maccabees 7), and the prayers of Judas for those who died in battle (2 Maccabees 12:38-45).
Books of the Old Testament that tell stories of the Jewish people during the Babylonian Captivity are Tobit, Judith, and Esther. Tobit tells of a pious man who is blind. Convinced that he is near death, he sends his son, Tobiah, to collect money he had deposited in another town, hoping that it will help Tobiah avoid poverty. He is accompanied by the archangel Raphael, who is disguised as a relative of Tobiah’s named Azariah, and who helps him to catch a fish with healing powers. On their journey, they meet the family of Raguel and his daughter, Sarah, who is afflicted by a demon named Asmodeus. Seven times Sarah has married, and each time her husband was killed by Asmodeus on their wedding night. Tobiah and Sarah fall in love, and Raphael instructs Tobiah on how to use the fish to send the demon away. Tobiah and Sarah wed and pray for a long and happy life together. After collecting the money, Tobiah returns to his father and heals him of his blindness with the fish. Raphael reveals his true identity, and Tobit sings a song of praise for God’s faithfulness and protection.
Judith tells the story of a Jewish widow who lives in exile in Bethulia, a town “on the way to Esdraelon, facing the plain near Dothan” (Judith 4:6), after the destruction of Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria sends his general, Holofernes, to invade Bethulia. The Jews refuse to surrender to him, so he besieges the town and cuts off their water supply. Judith counsels the Jews not to surrender. She goes to Holofernes’ camp and seduces him with her beauty and flattery. After a banquet, Holofernes takes Judith to his tent. He gets drunk and falls asleep. While Holofernes sleeps, Judith cuts off his head! Without their general, the Assyrians are attacked and defeated by the Israelites.
The Book of Esther tells the story of a beautiful young woman who is brought to the court of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, and is chosen by him to be his new queen. Her uncle, Mordecai, learns of a plot to kill the king and warns him through Esther. The king’s advisor, Haman, becomes enraged at Mordecai when Mordecai refuses to bow to him because, as a Jew, he bows only to God. Haman convinces the king to sign a decree ordering that all Jews be killed. Esther arranges a banquet and appeals to Ahasuerus on behalf of her people. When Haman is revealed as the enemy of the Jews, the king departs in anger. On his return, he finds Haman on his knees, pleading with Esther for his life. The king thinks that Haman is assaulting Esther and orders him to be hanged. He then issues a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves, and they defeat their enemies. This victory is celebrated by the annual Jewish feast of Purim.
WHAT TRUTHS DOES THE HISTORY OF EXILE and RESTORATION REVEAL ABOUT GOD?
- Faithfulness to God in prayer, worship and right living are necessary to live a fulfilled life.
- God’s faithful ones may suffer, but God will save them, if not in this life then in the hope of the resurrection. It is good and holy to pray for the dead.
- God sometimes uses the least likely among His people to save them from the designs of the wicked, when they turn to Him for rescue.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.