Read Exodus 19-35:3; Leviticus 7:22-27, 11-20, 23-27;
Deuteronomy 4-26; Jeremiah42-52; Ezekiel 29-34
& Daniel 3-8
Judgment brought repentance and renewed religious fervour
The loss of the temple and sacrificial system left a vacuum in Jewish religious life and identity that had to be filled with something. Sin (failure to keep Torah) had brought this destruction upon them, but there was no more sacrifice for sin without the temple where such sacrifices had to be made. So how could the people find any redemption?
There was only one thing they could do, seek redemption through repentance and obedience to the commands of the Torah that could be followed outside of the temple, such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, purity laws, and dietary prescriptions (1). The captives set about purifying their religion by rejecting all foreign gods and practices and focusing on that which God had commanded through Moses (2). They gave up all idolatry and were never again led into its evil practices as they been before. A vital sense of repentance was created, and private devotion and prayer encouraged. Their elaborate nation-wide ceremonials, great festivals and temple sacrifices were replaced with local community prayer, fasting and Sabbath observances. The latter included assembling the people together for prayer and the reading of the scripture (3). Study of the Torah became the focus of practice, with weekly meetings in public study houses (1). The result was the rise of the Synagogue among the Jews dispersed throughout the Babylonian Empire (4). Having Jewish life in the dispersion revolve around the Synagogue, and the teachings of the Synagogue, protected the Jews from the integration that had caused the northern kingdom of Israel to disappear into the melting pot of nations.
Priestly role of teaching Torah now open to all men
This rise of the Synagogue in turn resulted in a significant shift in the role of teaching the people the meaning and practice of Torah. From Moses until the end of the first temple period the Levitical priesthood had been responsible for the whole sacrificial system; maintenance of the tabernacle and then the temple; ministering to God through music, song, prayer and incense; and with teaching the people Torah observance, reading the books of Moses to them and explaining their meaning (Deut. 17:18-20; 28:58-63; Deut. 30:9-10; Deut. 31:24-26; Joshua 1:8; Joshua 23:6; 2 Kings 22:13; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Kings 23:21; 1 Chr. 16:37-40; 2 Chron. 18; 2 Chron. 31:2-3; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 8; Neh. 10:28-29; Neh. 13:1 & Daniel 9:13). Jewish religion had centred on the Temple and the Temple was the domain of the Levitical priests, only they were qualified to serve in its precincts.
There were no such restrictions on service in the Synagogue. As Synagogues were established wherever ten Jewish families could gather, many of them did not have any Levites as members, so the reading of Torah and leading of the services often fell to those of other tribes. Thus a new class arose as scholar, teacher and spiritual leader to explain God’s expectations to the common people – the Rabbi (4). Although not an official title until after the destruction of the second temple, the function of rabbi began to develop during the Babylonian captivity.
Aramaic was the international language of the ancient Near East. It is a Semitic language, closely related to Hebrew. The Jews in Babylon quickly adopted the Aramaic language as they started businesses, traded with their neighbours and rose to positions of political power and social influence. The language of the Torah remained Hebrew. As increasing numbers of Jews, particularly the younger generations, spoke Aramaic in their everyday lives, the Synagogue Torah reading increasingly included explanation of the meaning of the text in Aramaic. (5)
From repentance, to observance, to legalism
The necessity of remaining as a distinct people while scattered throughout the Babylonian empire expanded the rabbinical role from just reading and explaining the Torah to ‘building a fence’ around the Torah, legislating additional laws and enforcing cultural traditions and customs to keep the Jews separate from all other peoples (6). Thus began the development of oral traditions added to the Torah to explain its meaning in practice as a minority in a pagan society (7). Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, plus additional laws instituted by the rabbis, plus the customs of the community, became jointly known as halakhah and all became binding on every member of the community as Jewish Law or “the path that one walks / the way” (8). Whereas the prophets speaking God’s heart to His people made it easy for the most simple person to understand what God requires of us; “to act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God“ (Micah 6:8), the teachers of the law made it so intricate and complicated that only highly trained scholars had any hope of understanding all the requirements they attributed to God.
Halakhah הֲלָכָה, is often translated as “Jewish Law” although a more literal (and more appropriate) translation is “The Way” or “the path that one walks”. The word is derived from the Hebrew root ‘Hei-Lamed-Kaf‘, meaning to go, to walk, or to travel. Halachah is “the way” for a Jew to walk through life, “the way” a Jew is directed to behave in every aspect of life; encompassing civil, criminal and religious law.
During the Babylonian captivity teachings began to emerge in connection to the Torah that were not in the text. These involved interpreting, modifying and enacting rules of conduct for every aspect of Jewish life. This body of teaching continued to be developed over the following centuries and became extensive, dictating every aspect of Jewish life by the time of Christ.
Halakhah was developed from three sources:
1) Mitzvot D’Oraita (Commandments from the Torah)- the 613 mitzvot (commandments) that were developed by the rabbis from what God gave the Jewish people in the Written Torah. Some are direct quotes from scripture but others have a fairly tenuous relationship to what is written in the Torah. These 613 mitzvot are subdivided into 248 positive commandments, “mitzvot aseh” (commandments to do), and 365 negative commandments, “mitzvot lo ta’aseh” (commandments not to do).
2) Mitzvot D’Rabbanan (Laws Instituted by the Rabbis) – these rabbinic laws are also referred to as mitzvot (commandments) and are considered to be as binding as Mitzvot D’Oraita. Mitzvot d’rabbanan are commonly divided into three categories: gezeirah, takkanah and minhag.
…..a) Gezeirah (literally “fence”) are the fence rabbis built around the Torah – laws instituted to prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah mitzvah. For example, a gezeirah commands Jews on the Sabbath (Shabbat) not to even handle an implement that could be used to perform ‘prohibited work’ (such as a pencil, money, or a hammer), because someone holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work.
…..b) Takkanah (literally remedy or fixing) is a rule unrelated to biblical laws that was created by the rabbis for the public welfare. For example, the “mitzvah” to light candles on Chanukkah, a Jewish holiday instituted after the Hebrew scriptures were written.
3) Minhag Mitzvot are customs that developed for worthy religious reasons and had continued long enough to become a binding religious practice, often referred to in the Gospels as “traditions of the elders“. These ‘traditions of the elders‘ are considered a binding part of halakhah (the ‘Oral Law’ / the ‘Way’), just like a mitzvah, a takkanah or a gezeirah. (8, 9)
The word “minhag” is also used in a looser sense, to indicate a community or an individual’s customary way of doing some religious thing. For example, it may be the minhag in one synagogue to stand while reciting a certain prayer, while in another synagogue it is the minhag to sit during that prayer.
Imagine how audacious it would have sounded when Yeshua (Jesus) came and claimed to be “the Way” (John 14:6). Instead of following the Halachah of the community, He was the embodiment of the Halachah of God. He challenged the culture of His people with the culture of His kingdom.
“…the God we serve is able to save us … But even if He does not…“
585 BC King Nebuchadnezzar celebrated his conquests by making an image of gold, thirty metres high and three meters wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then he summoned the provincial officials to the dedication of his image, among them were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who would now have been in their thirties and spent half their lives in Babylon. These three refused to fall down and worship the image of gold that Nebuchadnezzar had set up and so were tied up and thrown into a blazing furnace that had been heated seven times hotter than usual in the king’s rage. The soldiers who threw them in were consumed by the flames, as were the ropes that bound them, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were walking around unharmed in the furnace with a fourth man whom Nebuchadnezzar described as looking like a son of the gods. Such was the impact of this that Nebuchadnezzar promoted these three faithful ones and decreed that anyone who spoke against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses turned into piles of rubble. (Daniel 3)
A true friend urges repentance
Three years later Nebuchadnezzar had another dream which greatly disturbed him. Again, none had the wisdom or courage to give the king the interpretation of his dream except Daniel. The dream contained a warning that Nebuchadnezzar would be cut down and appear destroyed, left wandering with the wild animals and eating grass like cattle for seven “times” until he acknowledges that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men, at which time his kingdom would be restored to him. Daniel pleaded with Nebuchadnezzar to repent and renounce his sins by doing what is right and being kind to the oppressed. Twelve months later, as Nebuchadnezzar’s heart was lifted up in pride declaring: “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my power and for the glory of my majesty,” God’s judgment fell upon him, and he became so insane that he was driven away from people and lived out in the open eating grass. In due season Nebuchadnezzar repented of his pride, raised his eyes toward heaven and his sanity was restored, and with that his kingdom as well. (Daniel 4)
Wrongdoing brings fear, which incites rebellion
Back in Judah, the Babylonians had allowed some of the poorer survivors of their conquests to remain to tend the land and placed Jedediah, a grandson of Josiah, over them (2 Kings 25:22). He was soon murdered (2 Kings 25:25) and the people, fearing that Nebuchadnezzar would avenge his death, decided to flee into Egypt (2 Kings 25:26). Jeremiah had warned them against taking this decision (Jer.42:9-22.) but was overruled and, along with his scribe Baruch, was dragged along with them (Jer.43:6-7). They settled in the Egyptian town of Tahpanhee (Jer.44:1), and built a Jewish community there, keeping many of the customs of their heritage but continuing in disobedience to God and every direction He gave them through His prophet Jeremiah. Tradition has it that they eventually stoned Jeremiah to death (13) (14) (15). In 569 BC Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt in fulfilment of Jeremiah 43:8-13; 46:13-26 and Ezekiel 29:19, taking captives back to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC and was succeeded by his son, Evil Merodach in 561 BC. Just five years later Evil Merodach was succeeded by Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law Nabonidus. Then in 553 BC Nabonidus left his son, Belshazzar, to reign as coregent in Babylon while he travelled west into Arabia to gain more land and rebuild temples in the Assyrian city of Harran. (13) Neither Nabonidus nor Belshazzar were popular with the people, having alienated the priests, politicians and military alike.
Empires come and go
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel, who was now about 67yo, had a prophetic vision while lying on his bed. Scripture records five interwoven prophetic visions which Daniel received over a period of 68 years. These fuelled Jewish Messianic expectations and speculations. The first, as we had seen, was back in the second year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, 604 BC, when as a teenager Daniel had a vision of the king’s dream of a great statue with golden head, silver chest, middle and thighs of bronze and legs of iron that was struck by a stone that became a great mountain which filled the whole earth (Daniel 2). In Daniel’s second recorded vision, 52 years later, the great sea of humanity was stirred, and four different beasts came up out of it (Dan. 7:2). These were four kings (Dan. 7:17) who correlated to the four kingdoms depicted in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:31-41).
The significance of these four beasts was that they were Gentile kings whose kingdoms would rule over Israel one after another until the coming of Messiah.
As in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, they were judged by the Ancient of Days who gave everlasting dominion and glory and a Kingdom to “One like the Son of Man” (Daniel 7). These first two visions both began with a depiction of that already ruling over the Jews – the Babylonian Empire.
The first beast in Daniel’s vision was “like a lion and had eagles’ wings” (Dan 7:4). The lion is used as a symbol for Babylon in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:7; 49:19; 50:17), and eagles symbolize Babylonian armies (Jeremiah 49:22). This correlates with the head of fine gold in Nebuchadnezzar’s image, whom Daniel had identified as Nebuchadnezzar, to whom God had given the kingdom of Babylon (Dan. 2:37-38). Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian ruler who had conquered the Jews in his expansion of the empire. (14) “Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it.” (Dan. 7:4). This could be referring to Nebuchadnezzar’s mental break and restoration (Dan. 4:19-37) or just to the weakening of the kingdom after his death.
Daniel’s third vision, just two years later and still under Belshazzar’s rule, was of a ram and a goat and the fierce king who would arise in the latter time of the goat’s kingdom (Daniel 8). This was depicting the next two kingdoms that were yet to rule over Israel, and it correlated with the next two beasts of Daniel’s earlier vision.
In 539 BC, the first major event predicted in these prophetic visions took place, Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians. Belshazzar sought to display his greatness by holding a massive feast for a thousand of the Babylonian nobles, gave orders that the gold and silver vessels from the temple in Jerusalem be used for the wine as they praised the gods of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone. The sudden appearance of a hand writing on the wall revealed what they had been too busy reveling to notice – God’s judgment had arrived, and the kingdom of Babylon had been given to the Medes and Persians. That same night Belshazzar was slain by the Medo-Persian army who had diverted the Euphrates River so they could enter under the city wall through the lowered water.
The second beast was like a bear (Dan. 7:5). The second kingdom in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream had been the chest and arms of silver, which would arise after Babylon (Dan. 2:39a). This kingdom is seen in Daniel’s third vision as a ram with two long horns, one longer than the other, and none could stand against him as he came from the east butting westward, southward and northward (Dan. 8:3-4). That ram is identified as the kings of Media and Persia in Daniel 8:20. The bear of Daniel 7 is described as being “raised up on one side”, just as the ram had one horn longer than the other, and Persia was stronger than Media. The combined strength of the Persians and the Medes led to the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC with the resulting extension of their empire over much of the Middle East, including Israel. Isaiah had prophesied the Medes overthrow of Babylon 175 years before (Isaiah 13:17-20), noting their disdain for silver and gold, the very gods that Belshazzar was worshipping when they broke into the city, overran it and killed him (Daniel 5). (15) Jeremiah had also prophesied that God would raise up the Medes to destroy Babylon (Jer. 51:11, 28-31).
As we continue on our journey towards Messiah’s birth, we will see how accurately Daniel’s prophesies foretold what was to come and how each historical fulfilment increased the expectation that God would send their Messiah.
1. Thomas, Christine M. Exile to Babylon and Diaspora. Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. [Online] Winter Quarter 2006. [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.] http://www.religion.ucsb.edu/faculty/thomas/classes/rgst116b/JewishHistory.html.
2. Hooker, Richard. The Jewish Temples: After the Babylonian Exile (538 – 332 BCE). Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Exile1.html.
3. Tidwell, Josiah Blake. The Captivity of Judah. Bible Hub. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug. 2016.] http://biblehub.com/library/tidwell/the_bible_period_by_period/chapter_xv_the_captivity_of.htm.
4. Dell Markey, Demand Media. What Effects Did the Babylonian Exile Have on the Jewish Religion? The Classroom. [Online] 18 Aug 2016. http://classroom.synonym.com/effects-did-babylonian-exile-jewish-religion-7222.html.
5. Spiro, Ken. Babylonian Exile. SimpleTo Remember.com Judaism Online. [Online] [Cited: 16th Aug 2016.] http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/babylonian_exile/.
6. Landis, Brad. A Hedge Around the Law. Bradlis7. [Online] 9th October 2013. [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.] http://s.bradlis7.com/2013/10/a-hedge-around-the-law/.
7. Jacobs, Louis. Encyclopedia Judaica: Halakhah. Jewish Virtual Library. [Online] [Cited: 24th Aug 2016.] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0008_0_08206.html.
8. Rich, Tracey R. Halakhah: Jewish Law. Judaism 101. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.] http://www.jewfaq.org/halakhah.htm.
9. MJL. Halacha: The Laws of Jewish Life. My Jewish Learning. [Online] [Cited: 7th March 2020] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/halakhah-the-laws-of-jewish-life/
10. Emil G. Hirsch, Victor Ryssel, Solomon Schechter, Louis Ginzberg. Jeremiah. Jewish Encyclopedia. [Online] 1906. [Cited: 26th Aug 2016.] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/8586-jeremiah.
11. Bible Pages. The prophet Jeremiah – where did he die? Bible Pages. [Online] 28th July 2016. [Cited: 26th Aug. 2016.] http://www.biblepages.net/eya124.htm.
12. Sacred Texts. Chapter XXXII Of The Death of the Prophets; How They Died, and (where) Each One Was Buried. Sacred Texts. [Online] [Cited: 26th Aug. 2016.] http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/bb/bb32.htm.
13. Timeline for the Life and Times of Jeremiah. Generation Word. [Online] [Cited: 22nd Oct. 2016.] http://www.generationword.com/notes/jeremiah/prelim-notes.pdf
14. Rashi. Daniel – Chapter 7. Chabad. [Online] [Cited: 23rd Oct. 2016.] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16490/jewish/Chapter-7.htm#showrashi=true.
15. Walvoord, John F. 6. The Medes And The Persians. Bible.org. [Online] [Cited: 23rd Oct. 2016.] https://bible.org/seriespage/6-medes-and-persians.
In the comments section below share your thoughts on what you have read and consider the following questions…
* What is your response to difficulty and hardship?
* What has God taught you through the troubled times in your life?
* What were some of the healthy responses that the Jews had to their great losses?
* What were some of the unhealthy responses that they had to their losses?
* In seeking to live wholeheartedly for God, how can we avoid becoming legalistic or judgmental?
* Has your church made up extra rules to try to make your people pure and righteous?
* What are the customs in your church? How do those customs strengthen your community? Do any of those customs cause any problems?