The Primeval Revelation

Chapter 12: Work on Genesis During the Babylonian Exile

The shock experienced by the citizens of Jerusalem when Nebuchadnezzar's seasoned troops breached the walls of their city in 586 BC was only the beginning of their sorrows. Their king would soon be captured, their temple would be raped, their city would be hiroshimized into cinders. They would look back over their shoulders for the last time to see the billowing smoke of what had been Zion the Impregnable City, as they walked in clanking chains toward the rivers of Babylon.

Their one great comfort was the precious parchment rolls of the Scriptures they carried with them. As it turned out, the exile was a blessing in disguise which occasioned a boom in the production and development of sacred writings. The people who suffered spiritual deprivation without the roof of a temple over their heads, sought shelter under God's inspired words - those already written, those still in the process of production, and those being re-formatted. The prophet Ezekiel composed his great book there and restored courage with his powerful influence. Other priests and prophets worked diligently on the sacred writings during the five decades of exile. The sacred words became a much-frequented forum for a rendezvous with God. They were also protecting bulwarks preventing their surrender to anarchy and despair.

Without this spiritual support the disillusioned exiles might have turned against God in anger. Why had He allowed idolaters to overrun them, those blood-maddened murderers who ripped infants from the bellies of their women, raped the virgins, and fastened the feet of their priests in iron chains? Is God powerless? Or is He not concerned about us? War strongly affected the contents of the Bible whose pages sometimes boil over with disaffected feelings of a spiritually traumatized people.

Many a distraught person has rejected God after disaster struck. Some get down on their knees and strike their breasts, but others shake their fists toward heaven. When an earthquake crashed the roofs of churches down upon the heads of worshipers at Sunday Mass in Portugal many years ago, survivors were numbed into insensitivity, confused in mind. Rightly or wrongly, some observers of Portugal's subsequent history attribute to that tragedy a downturn in the Catholic spirit of that nation.

We can imagine that Israel's exiles, weeping under willows besides the streams of Babylon, ruminated over the horrors they had seen. They could not forget those violent pangs of bodily hunger, the searing throat, their utter helplessness as starving neighbors collapsed to the ground never to rise again. Others went mad. Or they shrieked and ate the flesh of their infants.

The iron ring which the Babylonian military clamped around their city was a strangle-hold upon its throat. The siege mocked their sufferings night and day, from January 15, 588 B.C. to July 18, 586, two years and six months. Nebuchadnezzar's troops made sport of killing any who ventured out to forage for food. The Book of Lamentations grieves in hollow-toned threnody the sorrows of the besieged:

All her people groan
as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
to revive their strength.
"Look, O Lord, and behold,
for I am despised" (Lam 1:11).
My eyes are spent with weeping;
my soul is in tumult...
Because infants and babes faint
in the streets of the city.
they cry to their mothers,
"Where is bread and wine?"...
As their life is poured out
on their mother's bosom (Lam 2:11 ff.)

Worse things followed as the famine took its toll:

Look, o Lord and see!
With whom has thou dealt thus?
Should women eat their offspring,
the children of their tender care? (Lam 2:20).
The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
They became their food
in the destruction of the daughter of my people (Lam 4:20).

When the wall was finally breached spoiling soldiers sprang grossly into the Holy City shouting lust and blood and violence. King Zedekiah with his men of war made a run for it through a gate between two walls. In vain. They didn't get beyond Jericho.

Racing troops caught them there, then herded them in triumph to be dealt with by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. He was waiting in the city of Riblah some 250 miles to the north. The conquering king, splurging the passions of vengeance boiling within, called Zedekiah's sons to the center of the ring and killed them, one by one - indulging again the primeval orgasm of lust for blood that Cain had fathered long ago. He made their father Zedekiah stand by to watch until the lifeblood of the last of his sons soaked the contaminated soil. Then Nebuchadnezzar's eyes lit upon Zedekiah himself. The show was over! He gouged out the king's eyes. While eye sockets bled, chains began to tighten around him for the journey to Babylon, seven hundred miles away. The once proud king of Judea and his people shivered through all this, experiencing a revulsion against a merciless, boundless, relentless flood of evil as deep and black as the original chaos from which God had extracted an orderly creation.

Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, received orders to return to Jerusalem after the Nebuchadnezzar had finished with Zedekiah. He should terminate and finalize the city, object of the king's wrath. The temple and remaining houses he tagged for destruction by fire. Methodically he directed the crews to apply their torches, sledge hammers and crowbars. Not a stone should remain upon a stone where Solomon's temple had stood proudly for centuries. The city walls which had stubbornly held back his troops should be flattened, scattered and pulverized.

That done, Nebuzaradan next surveyed the surviving prisoners. He put chains on those he considered useful, upper and middle class citizens, and dispatched them to begin a nine hundred mile march to Babylon. Setting off, they followed the great curve of the fertile crescent. Their clanking chains and rumbling wagons followed the road northward to Aleppo for several hundred miles and there turned sharply to the southeast. Their enforced destination lay six or seven hundred miles in that direction, in areas around Babylon where Baghdad stands today (see Map 7, The NIV Study Bible). The Second Book of Kings describes the events tersely:

(Nabuzaradan) burned the house of the Lord, and the king's house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen (2 Kings 25:9-12).

A thoroughly distraught people, therefore, tried to put their lives together again in Babylon, the land which is now Iraq. A psalmist put into immortal words the melancholy of their arrival:

By the waters of Babylon
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors mirth, saying,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How shall we sing the Lord's song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave
to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
If I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy (Ps 137:1-6).

This was a time of intense grieving and reflection. Some were saying, "The Lord has become like an enemy" (Lam 2:5). Can they still trust in Him? How can a good God be so cruel? In this context, priests and prophets read the ancient records to the people and led them in prayers to do penance for the sins they had committed:

Let us test and examine our ways,
and return to the Lord!..
"We have transgressed and rebelled,
and thou hast not forgiven...
I called on thy name, O Lord,
from the depths of the pit" (Lam 3:40 ff.).

The inherited text of Genesis may well have been instrumental in their conversion. From its ancient message they could recognize their God once more. It was probably at this time that the book received its quasi-final form in writing. The work was "apparently crafted by Judean clergy in Babylonia, (who) restructured and extensively supplemented the initial segments of the Israelite national epic of late monarchial times" (S. Dean McBride, Jr. in Harper's Bible Commentary, p. 23). "Genesis itself was collected from many different traditions" writes Lawrence Boadt ("Genesis" in The International Bible Commentary"p. 348). He continues: "Theologies that reflect different stages of Israelite religious thinking have been sifted and combined to express a larger and deeper understanding of God's relationship and revelation to Israel in the finished product than any single earlier source had been able to express" (ibid. p. 359).

A gifted priestly author, working with collaborators and with the received traditions, under inspiration of the Lord, somehow, somewhere, sat down and copied our opening words: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." He respected the traditions he had received, which are valid for all times and everywhere, but he sought to shape them also to bear a special message for his forlorn people. Genesis would rally a people to new hope in their ancient faith.

Restoration of Monotheism

The exiles must first of all make a U-turn from polytheism to monotheism. They must cease and desist from their deeply rutted habits of bowing down to the starry hosts (cf. 2 Chron 33:5), and of burning incense before idols. They must turn back to worship God alone, as Genesis taught of old.

The prophetess Hulda was but one of many who had foretold exile because of idolatry: "Thus says the Lord:... Because they have forsaken me and have burned incense to other gods ... therefore my wrath will be poured out upon this place" (2 Chron 34:23,25). The Chronicler, writing after the return from exile, made this final assessment: "They kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, till the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, till there was no remedy" (2 Chron 36:16). That last phrase "till there was no remedy" was the Chronicler's key to unlock the mystery of the evils which had befallen the people. Decadence had ruined the morals of the people of Jerusalem to the point of no return. Moral rejuvenation in situ had become impossible. To regain the people for Himself, God had to move them away; away to Babylon and there reason with them through the priests, prophets, and the Bible. He would discipline them there, then accept a Remnant who would again call upon Him with faith and trust. The Prophet Ezekiel excoriates them for the many sins they were committing and for the decadence into which they had fallen:

Behold, the princes of Israel in you, every one according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you. You have despised my holy things, and profaned my sabbaths. There are men in you who slander to shed blood, and men in you who eat upon the mountains; men commit lewdness in your midst. In you men uncover their fathers' nakedness; in you they humble women who are unclean in their impurity. One commits abomination with his neighbor's wife; another lewdly defiles his daughter-in-law; another in you defiles his sister, his father's daughter. In you men take bribes to shed blood; you take interest and increase and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; and you have forgotten me, says the Lord GOD. Behold, therefore, I strike my hands together at the dishonest gain which you have made, and at the blood which has been in the midst of you. Can your courage endure, or can your hands be strong, in the days that I shall deal with you? I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it (Ezek 22:6-12).

The situation had deteriorated to the point that even priests had gone over to idolatry. Membership in the priestly class was no longer a sure guarantee of orthodoxy. Ezekiel looked for faithful priests to serve the Remnant after they would return to Jerusalem. He solved the problem by excluding all priests from immediate service at the altar except descendants of Zadok. The groups of priests who had scandalized the Israelites by pursuing idols must bear the consequence of their action: "They shall no longer draw near me to serve as my priests, nor shall they touch any of my sacred things... However, the Zadokites who cared for my sanctuary when the Israelites strayed from me, they shall draw near me to minister" (Ezek 44:13,15).

Against this chaotic dissent by priests and the masses, the book of Genesis does not respond with scoldings and lamentations. The book takes a serene view, remains above the storm, takes the high road by exhibiting the majestic presence of almighty God who made heaven and earth. His awesome power and His love for the people must draw them back to their inherited faith.

Genesis may also have served as a specific antidote against the polytheism practiced by neighbors of the exiles. The Assyrians and Babylonians made much of their gods and arrayed them in hierarchical pecking order. They would take the idols of conquered nations to their home temple and place them in an attitude of servitude to the conqueror's god. But when they sacked the temple of Jerusalem they found no idols of Jahweh to take away. Jews made no graven images of Jahweh. The Babylonians did what was next best: they destroyed the temple and took to Babylon the gold, silver, and bronze objects of temple worship, thus advertising the power of their gods over the Lord God of the Jews. The Prophet Daniel relates the hair-raising specter which appeared when King Belshazzar, successor of Nebuchadnezzar, treated the temple instruments with contempt. He tells the story well, featuring characteristic flourishes of rapid fire repetitions:

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his lords with whom he drank. Under the influence of the wine he ordered the gold and silver vessels which Nebuchadnezzar, his father, had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, to be brought in so that the king, his lords, his wives and his entertainers might drink from them. When the gold and silver vessels taken from the house of God in Jerusalem had been brought in, and while the king, his lords, his wives and his entertainers were drinking wine from them, they praised their gods of gold and silver, bronze and iron, wood and stone.

Suddenly, opposite the lampstand, the fingers of a human hand appeared, writing on the plaster of the wall in the king's palace. When the king saw the wrist and the hand that wrote, his face blanched; his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook, and his knees knocked (Dan 5:1-6).

The Lord God was not to be trifled with by the puffed up kinglet. That same night King Belshazzar was slain.

The opening chapters of Genesis do not condescend to have the Lord God debate with the trash of tribal idols on a level playing ground. Just as the Magisterium of the Church today takes the attitude of the father of the prodigal son and awaits hopefully for dissenters to come home, so Genesis presents the Lord God as rising infinitely above competing false gods of nations. Elohim is not a partisan god of the Jewish nation alone, is not at war with other nationalist gods. He is the Creator of heaven and earth, the Supreme Being of the cosmos, the God of every nation. The text begins majestically: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." He alone is Almighty God, and all other so-called gods that nations adore are not to stand besides Him.

The very ancient tradition of Genesis is also an antidote against a tendency of some Jews to attempt to monopolize God for their nation alone. The God of Adam and Eve in Genesis is Creator of the entire human race, of all nations and peoples. Even if the Jews might be tempted to make Jahweh a partisan god for Israel and an enemy of competing nations, the author of Genesis does not allow the Supreme Being to be claimed by Israel alone to the exclusion of other nations.

The Prophet Jonah is a prime example of this narrow-mindedness of some contemporary Israelites. The author of that book rejects the idea that God belongs to Israel alone, and not to the entire world. By use of irony and a story-teller's robust humor, the author of that book marches a petty-minded Jonah to Nineveh. The Jewish Jonah proudly preaches down to the lesser folk of Nineveh that in forty days God would destroy them. He was itching to see it happen. But the Ninevites spoiled his expectations by their repentance. God then decided to spare the city. That made Jonah angry. He wanted action. HIS God should beat THAT nation into the ground. When God didn't do so, Jonah was thoroughly disgusted with life. God responded by reminding the prophet that the people of Nineveh also belong to the God of the Israelites.

It is quite remarkable, then, that the exalted Lord God of the very first pages of Genesis is not at all a particular god of the Israelites. He is and remains always the Lord of heaven and earth. It is a sign, we may assume, that the human redactors had an ancient tradition to work with and did not dare to change its import. Like Mount Everest, the God pictured in Genesis does not bow down under the weight of human climbers. Rather, the text elevates our partisan biased minds to empathize with the Lord God who made not only our nation, but all nations of the world. The final human redactor of Genesis, whatever his Jewish sentiments might have been, did not allow nationalism to corrupt the pristine purity of the ancient tradition which he had received. He did not match the God of Israel against the gods of other nations, but preserved for us the God of Adam and Eve who is Creator of all nations. The fact that later in the Bible the Lord God sets the Israelites apart from the other nations to be specially His own (see e.g. Lev 20:26) does not make Him a lesser God than He is in the first chapters of Genesis. God is and remains the Lord of all peoples throughout the Bible.

A Remnant Returns to Jerusalem With Genesis

In the year 539 B.C. King Cyrus of Persia overthrew the Babylonian Empire. The Jews, already forty seven years in exile, immediately fared better under his more benign rule. Persian kings took an entirely different stance toward the gods of conquered peoples: they positively wanted the idols of conquered peoples to remain where they were, to keep the people peaceful. King Cyrus invited Jews to return to Jerusalem and to take with them the objects which had been taken from the temple (see Ezra 1, with explanatory footnotes in The NIV Study Bible, p.673).

A Remnant of true believers was ready, after 50 years in exile, to begin a new life in Jerusalem. An innovative and benevolent Persian King Cyrus opened the way for their return. With Zerubbabel as leader, 42,360 Israelites marched 900 miles back to their abandoned city, accompanied by 7337 menservants and maidservants, with 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels, and 6,720 donkeys (Ezra 2:64-66). Packed into the baggage, most likely, were scrolls on which were inscribed our chapters of Genesis. The returnees made the long march with the warm encouragement of the Prophet Ezekiel echoing in their newly hopeful hearts. He promised that God will purge their hearts to despise idol worship and to renew their regard for the true God alone:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. And you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ez. 36:25-28).

The travelers arrived in Jerusalem with fervent aspirations of new converts. The journey had lasted about four months (cf. Ezra 7:8-9). Today a plane can beeline the 550 miles from Baghdad to Jerusalem in about an hour, flying west by south-west. But the returnees from the ancient Babylonian Exile had to trudge the round-about route via the fertile crescent, at first on roads along the Euphrates River in a northwesterly direction, then southward to Jerusalem, a journey of about 900 miles. Counting in the days of rest this averages to about 7.5 miles a day, perhaps double that on travel days. After arriving in Jerusalem in 536 BC they set about to rebuild the temple immediately. But the work was called to a temporary halt during 530-520 B.C. The Samaritans and others had written to King Artaxerxes who had succeeded Cyrus that the Jews were a dangerous people and should by no means be allowed to build their temple again. Artaxerses then issued the order to stop the work. After this interruption lasting ten years, work began again in 520 and the temple was completed in 516 (see notes in The NIV Study Bible,674). They celebrated again the offering of sacrifices and the singing of the psalms, and continued to foster and develop the Bible, including the magnificent chapters of Genesis One-Three which are the object of our study.

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