Disobedience and Exile

One of the supposed indicators in the Hebrew Bible for a Deuteronomistic passage is that of a threat of exile as punishment for disobeying the will of God, seeing this as specifically relating to the Babylonian exile of Judahites after 586 B.C.E. But such a consideration of exile as punishment is not something that need necessarily only have appeared in so late a period among the Judahites as King Josiah’s time or later. In fact, for more than a thousand of years before, exile, as part and the process of a city’s falling to an enemy, had been viewed among Israel’s neighbors as a result of punishment for having displeased the divine, as we’ll see in some examples below. Yet, even within the Hebrew Bible itself, cutting across the boundaries of centuries and/or hypothetical source-critical strands, are earlier descriptions of exile as a result of displeasing God (Adam and Eve, Cain, the people of Babel), often, one way or another, attributed to Deuteronomistic influence. However, the wider motif of threat/promise of the divine in response to dis/obedience on the part of the worshipper(s) is, in fact, an integral part of prophecy itself, even outside of Israel, as we’ll also see below, and can even be said to be at the heart of any religious system utilizing divination of any kind (either inductive, like haruspicy and astrology, or non-inductive, like dreams and ecstatic utterance) to determine the divine will. In this regard, the similarity of the Israelite prophetic approach to that of other foreign prophets, some much earlier, is important to the Prophetic Perspective I mentioned in an earlier post, proposing particularly the Israelite prophetic guild and its supporters as the origin for the Old Testament writings as a whole. This essentially eliminates the need for attributing such passages reflecting threats of disasters (inter alia, exile) for disobedience or promises of blessings for obedience to either Deuteronomistic influence or directly to the Deuteronomist.

One of the most traumatic events in the history of Mesopotamian culture was the fall of the Sargonid Dynasty of Akkade and subsequent destruction of that city in about 2150 B.C.E. While the proximate cause of the downfall was barbarian invasion, this invasion was understood as due to the god Enlil’s displeasure. The great king Naram-Sin determined to rebuild the Ekur, Enlil’s temple in Nippur, but both times he sought divinatory input, he was declined permission. But that didn’t stop him:

When in (his) seeking an omen
     about the temple,
building the temple
     was not in the omen,
and a second time
     seeking an omen
     about the temple,
building the temple
     was not in the omen:
he, to change
     what had been
     entrusted to him,
denied, O Enlil!
     what had been told him.
Jacobsen, The Harps that Once… (Yale University Press, 1987), p. 367

There follows a description of Naram-Sin’s dismantling of the temple, and the destruction of a certain number of objets d’art among the architectural features, along with the entirely unnecessary cutting down of the trees on the ziggurat. A double curse against Akkade is pronounced by the gods, resulting in a few generations with the result, as the end of this piece which Jacobsen characterizes as an “admonitory history” (The Harps that Once…, p. 359) relates, that “Akkade is destroyed!” Naram-Sin’s flagrant disregard of the omens relating to rebuilding the Ekur (and the apparently indiscriminate/sacrilegious nature of its demolition) was considered the reason for the removal of the overlordship from and destruction and abandonment of Akkade, leaving it a barren, unihabitable waste. Indeed, it was apparently never resettled, and its location is now unknown.

Another extremely traumatic event impressing itself upon Mesopotamian memory was the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur, just a decade or so before 2000 B.C.E. While in the Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur (ANET 611-619), the reason given by Enlil for this event is “Ur was granted kingship, it was not granted an eternal reign” (ANET 617, l. 368), in the Lamentation for Ur (Jacobsen, The Harps That Once…, 447-477), the destruction is described as “the storm ordered by Enlil in hate” (p. 460), suggesting perhaps another reason. The Lamentation for Ur, however, does include a moving description of families among the people of Ur being separated in the disaster, and scattered into exile and slavery:

The mother left
     before the daughter’s eyes
     —the people mourn—
The father turned away
     from his son
     —the people mourn—
Spouses were deserted in the city,
     children deserted,
     goods scattered around,
the dark-headed people
     were driven off from them
     into slave quarters.
Jacobsen, The Harps That Once…, p. 462

The Lamentation for Ur dates, according to Jacobsen, to the first decades of the twentieth century B.C.E., within living memory of the fall of Ur. The Lamentation for Sumer and Ur can only be more broadly dated to the Isin-Larsa period (1950-1700 B.C.E.).

Moving on to the later eighteenth century B.C.E. we come to those letters from Mari which include prophecy as collected in the first section in Martti Nissinen, et al., Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East (Writings from the Ancient World 12. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003). While there are 50 letters included in this section, not all of those which are more fully preserved explicitly provide examples on the issue at hand, though letter number 1 is a classic and beautiful example. The letter is from Nur-Sim to the famous King Zimri-Lim, who had lost his throne for a time and lived in exile before regaining it. He is reminded in this letter of a prophecy from the god Adad of the city Kallassu that he must provide a particular estate and perform a zukrum, a “commemorative sacrificial ritual” (note b, p. 20). Adad says to Zimri-Lim:

Having restored him to his ancestral throne, I again gave him a residence. Now, since I restored him to his ancestral throne, I may take the estate away from his patrimony as well. Should he not deliver (the estate), I—the lord of the throne, territory and city—can take away what I have given! But if, on the contrary, he fulfils my desire, I shall give him throne upon throne, house upon house, territory upon territory, city upon city. I shall give him the land from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Nissinen, 18-19

That last part is highly Deuteronomistic, wouldn’t you say? It dates to about 1725 B.C.E., well over a thousand years prior to the dates typically assigned to the Deuteronomistic History, and we find the same motif appearing in an identical context: according to the word of a prophet, a divinity requires obedience which will result in increased well-being for the obeyer, while disobedience will earn loss of everything, and exile. The language itself is quite striking, even aside from the parallels. Examination of the rest of the letters (and the examples from other sections of the book) reveals further examples of both explicit requirements with explicit threats/promise, and cases where one or the other are implicit, or where it’s difficult to judge due to the state of preservation of the letter. Suffice it to say, obedience was something that was implicitly understood as necessary in the case of such prophecies even when consequences were not explicitly formulated by the deity.

Though these are only a handful of samples in the support of this subject, they suffice to emphasize a point. Non-inductive prophecy had a long history prior to the Hebrew Bible and any dates that anyone wants to attach to its component books and/or sources. However, I would suggest that just as these earlier cultures understood both disobedience and exile to be intimitately linked among themselves in their own writings, so it was with the Hebrew prophets all along. That is, the Hebrew prophets were just like the earlier prophets of Mari, in relaying messages which spelled out or implied, in the case of disobedience, various horrific consequences, one of which was recognized, as far back as the even more ancient Sumerian authors, as exile. These were part and parcel of all the cultures at the time, and for centuries later, when battles were fought hand to hand, mere feet away from one another, from city walls, and the loss of a city’s independence would mean slaughter of inhabitants and the enslavement and exile of survivors. As we know that such understandings existed long before the Hebrew Bible came to be written, and it is more likely than not that the authors would be aware of such as part of the general cultural world in which they lived, it is not at all likely that they would only have invented such a perspective later in their history, solely after having suffered the consequences. If they were anything at all like their neighbors, and I think we should all agree they were, the Israelites will have had an understanding from the earliest days of their existence, indeed will likely always have had, whatever their origins, that disobedience of God would lead to exile and other bad things. In this light, this “disobedience and exile” motif should not be considered evidence of a Deuteronomistic source, but only rather of an understanding of history that was shared by many cultures over many centuries, as shown above.


  1. I have written a book on biblical history that you may be interested in. The name of the book is “The Fourth Day: Why the Bible is Historically Accurate”. Presently, biblical history uses the events of the Bible and the theories of secular historians to develop the biblical timeline. I take a unique approach in my book by using only information from the Bible to develop the biblical timeline. By doing this I have uncovered several historical questions. Did the Persian Empire only last 21 years or over 200 years? Is there a 300 year period in Egypt’s history, shortly after the Biblical exodus, in which Egypt did not have a Pharaoh? Was Ahasuerus of the book of Esther, claimed by experts to be Xerxes, actually Cyrus? My book can be viewed on lulu.com at the following address: http://www.lulu.com/dmthompson


    Darren Thompson

  2. Kevin:

    For an interesting twist on your argument here, see Lemche’s “‘Because They Have Cast Aswy the Law of the Lord of Hosts’–or: ‘We and the Rest of the World’–The Authors Who ‘Wrote’ the Old Testament”, SJOT 17/2 (2003).

    Regards and Happy Trails,

    Scott Needham,
    Boulder, Colorado, USA

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