During the twelfth century A.D., it’s estimated that 40,000 Jews were living in the region that had been Babylonia and is now called Iraq. With 28 synagogues and 10 rabbinical schools, the community was flourishing. But its fortunes waxed and waned under successive rulers—Persians, Muslims, Mongols, and others. Today the Jews in Baghdad number fewer than 10!
The largest exodus of Jews from Iraq occurred in the years following the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Anger over Palestinian Arab defeats triggered hostility, violence, and government suppression of Jewish citizens in Iraq. And the call went out from the Zionist movement, “O, Zion, flee, daughter of Babylon. . . .Come out of her Babylon!” They were words taken from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures (Jeremiah 51:6, 45), and they prompted the exodus of more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in what, in another biblical reference, was called Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.
The refugees from Iraq were joined in Israel by others fleeing similar threats in Yemen and Libya. And then there was the remnant of Jews left by the European holocaust, Adolf Hitler’s program of genocide that exterminated six million Jews—about a third of the global Jewish population! Broken and grieving, surrounded by enemies, these survivors set about building a nation.
Survivors. It’s a powerful word that communicates pride and determination as well as the echo of trauma. It’s the word preferred by those who have suffered domestic violence and yet carry on building a new life. It’s a word we could use to describe families fleeing war zones or natural disasters, neighborhoods recovering from wildfires or mass shootings, or Native American families holding on fiercely to their culture despite the depredations of history and poverty.
It’s a story that’s as old as time. The broom of history has swept away entire nations, kingdoms, and empires, as the scattered shards of archaeology attest. Where are the descendants of the eastern Mediterranean’s Hittites today? What happened to the original inhabitants of Easter Island or the mysterious unknown people who carved the Nazca Lines into the desert plains of southern Peru? They’re gone!
The prospect of total genocide has been faced by many peoples since ancient times. The biblical record focuses particularly on the challenges faced by the nation of Israel. Located at the strategic intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and threatened by the empires that surrounded them, they cried out to God: “Alas, Sovereign LORD! Are you going to destroy the entire remnant of Israel in this outpouring of your wrath on Jerusalem?” (Ezekiel 9:8).
Remnant. It’s a word we don’t use much outside of sewing and fabric outlets today. Remnants are those leftover pieces of material offered at a heavy discount because they are too small to be truly useful. But the Bible uses the word remnant in the same sense that we use the word survivor today, with the same echoes of trauma—but also of hope.
When the Persian conqueror Cyrus arrived on the scene in 540 B.C., Israel was at its lowest ebb; its people were crumbs caught up in the machinery of empire. Of the original 12 tribes, 10 had been conquered and forcibly relocated by the Assyrian empire, after which they disappeared into the mists of history. The remaining two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, along with some from the priestly tribe of Levi based in and around Jerusalem, had suffered no less than three consecutive conquests by the Babylonian. Each incursion brought more devastation that ended in lines of miserable prisoners stumbling toward Babylon.
The prophet Jeremiah grimly recalled the destruction: “Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down. The whole Babylonian army, under the commander of the imperial guard, broke down all the walls around Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan the commander of the guard carried into exile some of the poorest people and those who remained in the city, along with the rest of the craftsmen and those who had deserted to the king of Babylon. But Nebuzaradan left behind the rest of the poorest people of the land to work the vineyards and fields” (Jeremiah 52:12–16).
Temple, palace, city walls, people . . . a calculated and categorical genocidal attack aimed at wiping out the Jewish religion and culture. Permanently!
But there was a remnant—“the poorest people of the land,” as well as those exiled to Babylon, struggling to maintain their identity in the land of their conquerors. And there was a promise. In the prophecies of Isaiah, made more than a century beforehand, were these words: “For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 37:32).
But, more than a vague hope of survival, Isaiah had conveyed an incredibly detailed message from God, even naming the man more than a century before his birth, whose decree would make restoration possible “I am the LORD, the Maker of all things, . . . who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,’ and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’ who says to the watery deep, ‘Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’ who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid” ’ ” (Isaiah 44:24–28).
Daniel 5:30 tells us that Babylon was conquered by the kings of Media-Persia, who proved to be more enlightened and humane overlords from the Jews’ perspective. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai tell the story of Cyrus’s decree permitting the return of about 42,000 exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem, including the temple—although it was a much humbler structure than the grand edifice the Babylonians had destroyed.
After 70 years of exile the remnant people had survived. But they were determined not to neglect their faith as their ancestors had so often done, thus risking the removal of God’s protection over their nation. At a public reading of the laws of Moses, the people wept, realizing how far they had drifted from the tenets of their faith (Nehemiah 8). But their tears motivated them to action. Not only did they work hard to rebuild Jerusalem, but they also corrected the direction of their lives where they saw they’d gone wrong, they reinstated the priests and Levites in their religious roles, they began to celebrate the holy festivals again, they prevented commercial activity on the Sabbath day, and they ensured that their community no longer oppressed its poor. It was a thoroughgoing national and spiritual revival and an opportunity for a new start.
You may say, “Thanks for the history lesson, but so what? How is this relevant to me?” This gets interesting, since the cities of Jerusalem and Babylon are referred to in the Bible’s final book of Revelation, which focuses on the final events that will propel earth to its end, something humanity may even have a hand in, given our penchant for nuclear weapons, pollution, and otherwise fouling or denuding our planet. Despite being written about 600 years after Cyrus, In Revelation, God continues to use Jerusalem and Babylon as symbols of the last-day people movements and religio-political powers: the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of evil.
Echoing Jeremiah, as the Zionists did centuries later, the call goes out in Revelation 18:2, 4: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! . . . Come out of her, my people.” Like the Jewish exiles in ancient times, God’s remnant is pictured here as living within the doomed and corrupt system of Babylon but needing to return to true worship. Amid the persecutions and chaos of that time, there stands a group of people who demonstrate faithfulness and endurance: “the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus” (Revelation 14:12). Many theologians see this remnant group as carrying the messages of the three angels of Revelation 14: the message of the “eternal gospel” to every person on earth, the message of an end-time judgment, the message to worship the Creator, the message of the fall of Babylon, and a warning against getting dragged down with it.
Again, this remnant is a group of humble survivors, traumatized by their history and beset by troubles. But they are the people who, instead of needing to rebuild Jerusalem, as the Jewish exiles did, are given an incredible gift: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ ” (Revelation 21:2–4).
It’s a new start. A new life. It’s the beginning of forever.
Kent Kingston is associate editor of the North American Signs of the Times® and the editor of the Australian edition. He lives with his family near Lake Macquarie, Australia.