World religions: forged in a fiery furnace

They lived in a foreign land and stubbornly refused any form of integration. Today they are acclaimed for this. With their stubbornness they have written a chapter of world history. This is the background to a recent midweek service based on a Bible study theme.

The temple was burning! The place where God manifested Himself was going up in flames. On 20 August 586 before Christ, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, had the city of Jerusalem looted and burned and laid siege to it. He had conquered Judah long before, but the population had been too defiant. Now the state was destroyed, and the chosen people were crushed.

The methods of power politics

The intellectual elites were deported to Babylon. This was a typical method used by the Chaldeans to ensure their domination over the conquered territories. For one, they had hostages and, secondly, in the case of uprisings there were no leaders to lead any possible revolts.

The exiles were rather well treated. They lived in settlements which they were even allowed to administer themselves. They had access to higher education and were given good positions as officials in the Neo-Babylonian empire.

The assumption behind this: once the elite of the country had assimilated the values of the rulers, they could be sent back home and entrusted with the administration of their homeland. After all, who back home would rise up against their own compatriots?

Assimilation is useless

The Babylonians had, however, made a serious mistake in applying these methods to the Jewish people: God’s people refused to allow themselves to be used. If necessary, the exiles were prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to preserve the religious core of their culture.

This is what the book of Daniel tells us: first, there is the story of Daniel himself, who continued to pray to God despite a royal ban and ended up in the lions’ den. Then there is also the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three friends who, having refused to worship the king’s statue, were thrown into the fiery furnace.

This was the Bible study topic in the latest midweek service. Its central message: God saves and blesses those who trust Him. In addition to the spiritual dimension, this event is also of universal historical significance. Without such men of the calibre of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Judaism and Christianity would probably not exist in its present form, namely as a religion based on written scriptures.

Publish or perish

The Jewish exiles began to understand something very important at the Babylonian universities: they discovered the value and power of the written word. And they used their knowledge and skills to preserve their religious and cultural identity in this foreign land. And all the more so, when some, upon returning home, discovered that their own people had forgotten much of it.

Had the deportees already taken writings or records into exile with them? Or did they only begin to write down during their exile what had until then been passed on orally? Or did they only begin to write things down after their return home? Or had they already collected text fragments? In scientific circles there is a lively debate on all these questions.

The birth of the Bible

There is a consensus, however: the destruction of the first temple and the Babylonian exile was the decisive impetus for the emergence of the holy scriptures of Judaism and, consequently, the Old Testament of Christianity, as well as the transformation of Israel’s ritual observance of its beliefs into a religion based on written scriptures.

It took quite a while before this was the case, however. Jewish scholars only began to agree as to what belongs in their Book of Books in the first century AD. Not too long before that, the Romans had destroyed the third and so far last temple—because the people had been too rebellious. Sometimes history repeats itself …

Foto: Sergey Novinzon / fotolia

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