Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The End of Exile: The Reception of Jeremiah's Prediction of a Seventy-Year Exile

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The End of Exile: The Reception of Jeremiah's Prediction of a Seventy-Year Exile

Article excerpt

In his recent book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright has renewed his oft-repeated contention that the Second Temple period was widely understood as a period of ongoing exile. In his view, this idea is one that "ought by now to be non-controversial but which continues to be stubbornly resisted in certain quarters"1 Despite Wright's latest effort to root out the resistance, important strands of evidence cannot be tidily accommodated within the overarching narrative he lays out.2 In this essay, I consider one strand of evidence by examining Second Temple reflection on the return from exile in relation to Jeremiah's prediction that Israel would serve the king of Babylon for seventy years (Jer 25:11-12).

Central to Wright's ongoing scholarly project is the idea that the New Testament is best understood in relation to the basic Second Temple Jewish worldview. This worldview was shaped by the belief that the historic return from exile did not bring the exile to an end; it was not "the real return from exile" because it did not bring with it the promised restoration.3 If one accepts Wright's understanding of "exile" as nonrestoration, I am in complete agreement. Wright, however, goes beyond this understanding to assert that consciousness of ongoing exile was so much a part of Second Temple Jewish self-awareness that its influence can be assumed even when it is not mentioned.4

It is my contention that Jews in the postexilic period were concerned not so much with the continuation of exile but with its end: the exile had ended, but full restoration had not followed. Thus, far more formative for Second Temple Judaism was the dissonance created by the fact that the pattern of sin-exile-restoration had not unfolded as expected. This is exactly the opposite of the assertion of Robert P. Carroll, whom Wright quotes to launch his case: "Much of the literature of the Second Temple period recognizes a category of exile after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/86, but it does not recognize any return in subsequent centuries. This literature ... represents Israel as being in exile for centuries; virtually permanent exile."5

But is it true that the literature of the Second Temple period "does not recognize any return" from exile? The way that postexilic biblical and Second Temple Jewish literature handled the prophet Jeremiah's prediction that the exile to Babylon would last for seventy years is evidence of the belief that the exile had ended with the return from Babylon. Although the prediction of a seventy-year exile is not interpreted uniformly, there is considerable consistency in viewing the exile as limited in duration and completed at the time of the return from Babylon under Cyrus. This is true even of texts that cast the Second Temple period in generally negative terms. Often these texts sustain a hope for further action by God, but this hope does not typically reflect a sense that the exile had not come to an end.

I."Exile": Geographical Displacement or a Political and Theological State?

In attempting to discern whether there was in Second Temple Judaism a sense of ongoing exile, it is important to be clear about what is meant by the term. The normal sense of exile, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in modern parlance, has to do with removal, usually by force, from one's homeland.6 Yet many, including Wright, use the term to describe Israel's experience of captivity to foreign powers regardless of whether that enslavement is experienced outside of Israel's homeland.7 Wright regards continuing exile "as a political and theological state rather than a geographical one"8 The equation of exile with subservience to foreign powers and the perception of divine disapproval was evident in an early article by Michael A. Knibb, and its continuing influence is illustrated in a more recent article by James C. VanderKam.9 VanderKam surveys the meanings of the term exile in the Hebrew Scriptures. After examining ways in which the term is used to describe literal or historical experiences of removal from the land, he identifies an additional sense "in which the language of dispersion and captivity may be used . …

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