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Historical Response to Exile

The Babylonian exile is one of the most important events in the history of Jewish people described in the Old Testament. When the Babylonians captured the Jewish capital Jerusalem, the most passionate Jews were deported from Jerusalem to Babylon in order to make the Jews weaker and destroy their national and religious unity through the violent division of people into different groups that destroyed the Jewish diaspora. The events of the Babylonian exile were reflected in the Old Testament in different ways, and thus raised various interpretations depending on the context in which they are mentioned. For example, Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 refer to this issue, but describe it in different ways. There are many reasons for such a difference including the mentioned texts’ genres (Psalms are written in the form of poetry while Jeremiah 29 is the historical chronicle with a cited letter of the prophet) and their authors’ personalities (the narrators of Psalm 137 are the exiled Jews while Jeremiah is a prophet who lives in hermitage and judges the people mentioned in the letter). The texts of Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 accomplish each other through the demonstration of different dimensions of the same event, and thus mutually provide a full perspective concerning the Babylonian exile.

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The text of Jeremiah 29 consists of the chronicler’s note concerning the prophet’s letter, and the letter itself. The use of a chronicler in the narrative helps to make the prophet’s passionate letters more abstract. As for the letter, it consists of seven words of God: in the first four, he commands his people to wait for the return to Jerusalem, not to believe the false prophets, and to believe in God in contrast to those Jews who stayed in Jerusalem. God also explains that the exile is the punishment for the Jews’ sins, comparing Shemaiah of Nehelam and Jeremiah, and promising that Shemaiah will be punished along with other false prophets. God speaks through his prophet Jeremiah, and in this way, his speech is twice indirect: it is noticed by Jeremiah, whose words are also transmitted by the chronicler. The specifics of the text include the fact that the exile is not interpreted as something bad, and the Babylonians are not cursed for their deeds. Thus, with the help of his prophet God claims: “I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7), “I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7), “all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:20), etc. In this way, it is possible to say that the text of Jeremiah 29 is personally colored because of the constant use of the pronoun ‘I’, but the point is that it is used by God, and thus the text does not facilitate the reader’s personal emotional engagement in the issue described. The text is rich in bright metaphors: “we sat down”, “we wept”, “we hung up our harps” (Ps. 137:1-2), as claimed by the narrator to express the grief of his exiled people. In this way, the loss of the people, whose state and temple were destroyed, is reflected through a wide range of poetic images.

The first verse of Psalm 137 begins with the personal views on the exile expressed through the contraposition of Jerusalem and Babylon: “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1). The author uses the pronoun ‘I’ or ‘we’ in almost every verse and in this way, perfectly describes the atmosphere of full emotional involvement in the situation. The narrator is one of the exiled Jews, and thus he tells the story of certain group of people who lost their native land after the war against Babylon. The Psalm is a combination of a song of grief and a prayer because the author once asks God to remember how the Edomites provoked the destruction of Jerusalem (Ps. 137:7). The Psalm begins with the collective grief of the people, and ends with the cursing of these people’s counterpart – the Babylonians. In such a way, the text provides a perfect description of an average exiled Jew’s emotional state during the described period.

The main common feature of Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 is the historical event described in both texts. Due to the texts comparison, it becomes clear that “the remaining elders among the exiles, and… the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer. 29:1) are those who wept “by the rivers of Babylon” (Ps. 137:1). The texts operate with the same interpretation of the events described: the exiled Jews are contraposed to the Babylonians and those Jews who remained in Jerusalem. The exiled Jews are considered the people of Israel, while others are just ‘others’. The general feature that differs the people of Israel from ‘others’ is their specific connection with God: thus, in Ps. 137:7, the narrator asks God: Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’”. It is clear that such prayer means that God has some specific personal relationships with the Jews in contrast to the Edomites, for example. The same is clear through the relevant passage from Jeremiah 29:12, “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me”. The specific relations between God and his people are obvious, and such relations are the reason why he sends prophets to the Jews.

The most important difference between Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 is their style explained by the difference in genres. As a poetic text, Psalm 137 describes the exile through the prism of deep emotions provoked by the personal experience of the narrator. The personal involvement of the narrator is constantly underlined, and in this way, the text creates an effect of the reader’s closeness to the experience and emotions described. In contrast, Jeremiah 29 is written in a very cold and distant manner without any personal involvement. The historical chronicle with a cited letter of the Jewish prophet serves as a reliable historical source that describes the past with the reference to the authentic documents. Despite the passionate character of the letter of Jeremiah, it is important to note that all of the written letters are always in quotation marks in the book of Jeremiah because they are cited by an impersonal chronicler who serves as a narrator. Thus, the reader of Jeremiah 29 feels no personal emotional involvement in the issue, but rather perceives it through the objectivized model of the event. In such a way, the reader follows the argument of Jeremiah and perceives the situation through the most authoritative point of view approved by God Himself (because Jeremiah is a prophet, and his judgement is right). With the use of such narrative perspective, the authors of both texts achieve different effects. It is also important to underline the difference in the texts’ expressions concerning the future. The book of Jeremiah is written by God’s prophet who undoubtedly knows the future owing God’s revelation. Thus, when Jeremiah reveals the word of God, he uses the verb ‘will’; for example: “I will let you find me… I will restore your fortunes… I will bring you back” (Jer. 29:14) “It will be a long time” (Jer. 29:28), etc. In other words, when God says anything, he does not doubt because he is almighty and knows that he will realize everything he wants. In contrast, the verb ‘shall’ in Psalm 137 is used twice only: at the end of the text, when the exiled Jews curse their enemies: “Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9). In other words, the text of Psalm 137 is full of uncertainty and doubts concerning the future of the Jewish people. This detail perfectly expresses the emotional state of the exiled people.

Through the analysis proposed, it is clear that Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 provide two different perspectives regarding the same historical event of the Jews’ exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. The difference in genres gives an opportunity to express two sides of the same issue. Thus, the letter of prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29 is addressed to the narrators of Psalm 137. In this way, both texts give a full picture because the reader can understand both the exiled Jews’ feelings provoked by the exile directly, and their prophet’s distant judgment concerning the issue addressed to the exiled people. The differences in both content and style of the texts demonstrate the difference between the Jews’ personal experience of the exile and their prophet’s authoritative response to that. It is also possible to claim that Psalm 137 and Jeremiah 29 respectively provide human and divine perspectives on the issue described.

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