Exile in the Hebrew Bible by Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

Exile (Hebrew galut), or forced migration, is a theme that recurs throughout the Hebrew Bible, starting with Adam and Eve, who are forced to leave Eden (Gen 3:23-24). The story of Israel’s formation begins when Abraham is exiled from his kin and his land to the land that Yahweh promises to him (Gen 12:1-2). Jacob and Joseph spend time in exile and Moses lives his whole life in exile.

The threat and the reality of exile resurface time and again within the Hebrew Bible and punctuate some of its major canonical divisions. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Pentateuch/Torah) end with Israel anticipating its entry into the Promised Land but perched on the edge of the Jordan River, still in exile; the fulfillment of the promise of the land is still elusive. The next section of the canon, the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy through Kings), ends with the Babylonian captivity.

Historically, Israel and Judah experienced a number of major exiles. Foremost among these was the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians around 720 B.C.E. These exiled people were presumably deported and scattered within the Assyrian Empire, although we know little of their fate. Their dispersal gave rise to the tradition of the “ten lost tribes of Israel.” In 597 B.C.E., the elite of the southern kingdom of Judah, including the prophet Ezekiel, were exiled by the Babylonians; and in 586 B.C.E., when the temple was sacked and burned by the Babylonians, a new wave of Judean exiles arrived in Babylon. Others fled to Egypt, although a significant number of Judeans also remained behind in Judah. By the sixth century B.C.E., there were vibrant pockets of Jewish exiles living in both Egypt and Mesopotamia.

For these Jewish communities, living in exile posed a challenge, if not a crisis. As the psalmist most poignantly articulated, “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4). Living outside the Promised Land, without the temple, Jewish exiles were compelled to develop new ways of forming a community and worshipping Yahweh. Many managed not simply to survive but to thrive. Some regarded exile as Yahweh’s use of foreign powers to punish his people; they called for the people to repent (“to turn back”) to Yahweh so that they might be restored. In this view, exile was not simply geographic displacement but had become a reflection of the spiritual, even existential, condition of estrangement from Yahweh.

In one sense, the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C.E. ended when King Cyrus of Persia issued an edict in 538 B.C.E. allowing the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city and their temple (2Chr 36:23, Ezra 1:1-4, Ezra 6:3-5); this was viewed as an affirmation of Jeremiah’s prophecy that the exile would end after 70 years (Jer 25:11-12, Jer 29:10-11) and was heralded by Isaiah’s call that all exiles should return to the homeland (Isa 48:20). But, in another sense, the developing notion of exile as an existential condition—a spiritual separation from Yahweh—meant that geographic return alone could not bridge the divide or end the exile. Indeed, a number of writers in the later Second Temple period, among them the authors of the books of Daniel and 4 Ezra, understood the exile to endure many centuries later and still anticipated a fuller restoration.

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor, "Exile in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/places/related-articles/exile-in-the-hebrew-bible


Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor
Associate Professor, University of Virginia

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor is an associate professor and an award-winning teacher at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Enduring Exile: The Metaphorization of Exile in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, 2011) and is currently working on a book on the Song of Songs.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.

an official command

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

The structure built in Jerusalem in 516 B.C.E. on the site of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians seventy years prior. The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans responding to Jewish rebellion.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

According to tradition, the ten Israelite tribes lost with the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E., after which only the southern tribe of Judah remained. The tribes were lost through assimilation and deportation.

Gen 3:23-24

23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garde ... View more

Gen 12:1-2

The Call of Abram
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of y ... View more

Ps 137:4

4How could we sing the Lord's song
in a foreign land?

2Chr 36:23

23“Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusa ... View more

Ezra 1:1-4

End of the Babylonian Captivity
1In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, t ... View more

Ezra 6:3-5

3In the first year of his reign, King Cyrus issued a decree: Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices are ... View more

Jer 25:11-12

11This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.12Then after seventy years are completed, I w ... View more

Jer 29:10-11

10For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon's seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this plac ... View more

Isa 48:20

20Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,
declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,
send it forth to the end of the earth;
say, “The Lord has redeemed his ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.