Resources from a Messianic perspective



It was not headline news when six elderly Jews living in Iraq fled to Israel and were reunited with family. 28 others in advanced age decided to stay behind and to live out the rest of their days in that war-torn country.

Without question, the consequences of the war in Iraq have been far reaching. But it has also played a role in the final chapter of a saga that began over 2,500 years ago. It is the story of the Jews of Babylon.

Shimon thought about the choice that lay before him. The grandson of Jews who had been taken captive by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C., he had lived all his life in Babylon. His life was prosperous, much more so than the standard of living experienced by his ancestors in the kingdom of Judah.

His religious life also was meaningful to him. While there was no Temple to serve as the focal point of worship, he was very much involved in the new Jewish house of prayer and study—the synagogue.

It was there that he learned about the reasons for their exile away from the land of his fathers. The people had forsaken the pure worship of Adonai, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in its place they had embraced many pagan practices (2 Chron. 36:14-16). In addition, for 490 years they had neglected their responsibility to give the land rest once every seven years by withholding farming as God had commanded (2 Chron. 36:21). Thus their captivity would match the ignored 70 sabbatical years.

But now as the prophet Daniel had just reminded these exiled Jews, the 70 years had come to an end (Dan. 9:2). Shimon was witnessing the fulfillment of the words recorded by Moses long ago and echoed by Hosea:

"Then the LORD your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you" (Deut. 30:3).

"For the sons of Israel will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, and without ephod or household idols. Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days" (Hosea 3:4-5).

This was that day. Just a few months previously, Babylon had been conquered by Persia under the reign of Cyrus. Word had spread quickly among the Jewish people when Cyrus issued his decree that all the people whom had been taken captive by Babylon could return to their homelands (Ezra 1:1-3). That meant Jews could return to the land of Israel.

Shimon had to make a choice. Should he stay in familiar surroundings or take a 900 mile journey to a place that he had only heard about? 900 miles! Who could walk such a distance? Who could leave behind a successful life for an unknown and neglected land inhabited by enemies?

Shimon could. He could do so because he was one "whose spirit God had stirred to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:5). Like Daniel, he understood that their exile was justly carried out, but his ultimate calling was to return to the land of his heritage and to serve the True and Living God.

He would follow the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua the High Priest. People from the various clans of Israel, along with priests, Levites and servants, would join them. Shimon and his fellow travelers would make the trek across the Fertile Crescent northwest along the Euphrates River towards its headwaters, then across to Lebanon and finally south to Jerusalem.

When they reached the city, a great task awaited them. From the rubble would arise new homes and a rebuilt Temple for worship. Later, under the direction of Nehemiah, the walls of the city would be rebuilt. Altogether, just under 50,000 people made the journey back to Israel. But they were only a remnant. The vast majority of the exiled Jews chose to stay behind in Persia. Some, like Daniel who was in his mid-eighties at the time, could not make the long journey. But others remained because of personal choices.

The Jews of Persia flourished. Many of them attained high levels in government, including Esther who became Queen. Others became successful in business and were merchants, craftsmen, bankers and scholars. Aside from paying taxes to the Persian kings, they enjoyed autonomy and lived according to Jewish law. By the time of the story of Esther, Jews were living in 127 provinces throughout the realm. Life was comfortable and it was good.

No longer would they lament, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion" (Ps. 137:1). Instead, there was contentment when sitting beside the rivers of Babylon. And Jerusalem, originally the place of their "chief joy" (Ps. 137:6), became a fading memory.

Moreover, it was in this setting that Judaism formed its new spiritual foundations. Babylonia became the center of Jewish scholarship, with the establishment of many prestigious rabbinical academies. For the first time Judaism became centered around the synagogue, which produced a new emphasis on scriptural interpretation and application. Jewish sages emerged who sought meaning in a world without a Temple and priesthood.

It was an environment influenced by Zoroastrianism, an indigenous religion that had been founded one century before the arrival of the Jews. Zoroastrianism was largely based on an oral tradition. Similarly the Jews of the Babylonian exile developed an oral tradition that was said to carry the same weight as the written Law of Moses. These injunctions were collected by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi in the Second Century A.D. in a work called the Mishnah. Subsequent rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah, known as Gemara, were added from 200 to 500 A.D.

Together, these writings comprise the Babylonian Talmud, a large compilation in many volumes that formed the authoritative source for the new Judaism. The Talmud covers diverse topics, including daily living, justice, rituals and festivals. While it diverts theologically from many biblical principles, it does contribute significantly to our understanding of the biblical world by providing us with extensive details on the Temple, the priesthood and ways that sacrifices were conducted in Jerusalem.

Zoroastrianism also emphasized the need for individuals to choose between the conflicting principles of good and evil. From this time onward, Judaism would likewise teach that all people possess yetzer ha-tov ("the good inclination") and yetzer ha-rah ("the evil inclination"). Humanity is thought of being drawn in these two directions and when the evil inclination gets the upper hand, sin is the result. Instead of teaching the need for atonement and sacrifice, Babylonian sages taught the importance of doing mitzvot ("good deeds") and practicing ethical behavior.

A popular metaphor employed by the rabbis was that of a scale in which each life is in a state of balance, tipping back and forth as the weights of goodness and evil are applied:

The world is judged by the majority of its deeds, and an individual is likewise judged by the majority of his deeds. A man should therefore always regard himself and the world as half-meritorious and half-guilty. If he performs one good deed, happy is he, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world toward the side of merit. If he commits even one transgression, woe to him, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world toward the scale of guilt, as it is said, "But one sinner destroyeth much good." On account of a single sin this man has committed, he has destroyed for himself and for the entire world much good. (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b)

In time the Jewish population in the former Babylonian empire would reach over one million people, thus creating an alternative community to the biblical land of their past. The implications are significant:

  • Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., represented a former existence and an obsolete religious system.
  • Babylon represented a new way of life and a religious system that was relevant in a world without a Temple and priesthood.

Down through the centuries, great numbers of Jews continued to live in the land of their exile. In the twentieth century 150,000 Jews still lived in this region that became the modern nation of Iraq. But when Israel became a nation once again in 1948, Iraqi Jews became the target of mob violence and persecution. Over 100,000 fled to Israel as refugees. Their number continued to dwindle up until the present when only a handful of elderly Jews remain. Clearly, after 2,500 years we are living in the end of an era.

But the effects live on. Thus in order to understand modern Jewish society, we must turn to the lives of their ancestors in Babylon, not Jerusalem. Even though the Bible limits itself to the accounts that occurred in Judea after the exile (with the exception of the book of Esther), two parallel Jewish worlds existed for five centuries. And even though Jerusalem was restored by the returnees from captivity as a focal point for Jewish life and worship, the belief system that would endure and has been held by Jews since that time is Babylonian in nature.

Modern Judaism, with its emphasis on continual reinterpretation of Scripture, symbolic application of the sacrificial elements of the Law, and a non-literal understanding of the Messiah, has its roots in Babylon.

It is Christianity that emerged from the foundations of pre-exile Judaism. Christian beliefs are based on more literal interpretations of Scripture, on the need for actual atonement for sin, and on a real Messiah who became our Salvation.

It is this Messianic faith alone that maintains continuity throughout Jewish history. From Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and David and Solomon, to the faithful Jews who returned from Babylonian captivity, to Yeshua (Jesus) and His disciples, and ultimately to the early Church that was initially comprised of Messianic Jews. There is a chain that has not been broken. There is a continuity of belief, uncompromised and complete, that has never left Jerusalem as its home.

In light of this history, what are the implications for today?

God is still calling people to prosper in His way, not our way

As God declared to the Jews in captivity, "I know the plans that I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope" (Jer. 29:11).

God has declared repeatedly that He is committed to providing for the physical needs of people, even to the point of abundance. Unfortunately, in every generation and every place, the temptation is great to amass wealth and to seek success and pleasure. But Godly prosperity is never separate from a genuine trusting relationship with Him. God is saying to the Jewish people and to people of every nation and tribe—find your purpose for living in Him, not in the things of this world.

God is still calling people back to His Word

The Jews who returned to Jerusalem, also returned the Scriptures to a place of prominence. As Nehemiah records, "All the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel" (Neh. 8:1).

It is clear that they sought to understand the very message that God had given. The same is true for all of us. The answers to questions of faith rest in the Word of God. If we are to discover those answers, it means we have to open the book and read the words for ourselves rather than just relying on others to tell us what they mean.

God is still calling people back to Himself

God never forgets us. We may stray or even intentionally turn our backs on Him. But His desire to be in fellowship with us never wavers. Just as He proclaimed to the people in exile, He is proclaiming to us today:

"Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'Return to Me, that I may return to you" ( Zech. 1:3).

Returning to God, means returning to the things represented by Jerusalem. For it is there that we encounter principles that are enduring and real—namely confession and repentance from sin, belief in Messiah Yeshua who became our atonement, and faithfully serving the LORD wherever He may lead us.


Dr. Galen Peterson
© 2008 American Remnant Mission