Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Babylon
Even in biblical times, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv functioned as two spiritual centers among the people of Israel. In Jerusalem the Temple served the people and in the Diaspora it was Tel Aviv, which is the same name mentioned in Ezekiel 3:15 although it is spelled Tel Abib.
“And I came to Tel Abib to the captives who dwelt by the river Kebar, and as they sat there, I sat there also, and marveled among them for seven days.”
King Nebuchadnezzar was the first to bring the children of Israel captive to Babylon. At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah was active in Jerusalem. In the immediate vicinity, the Assyrian Empire that had ruled the region for 300 years was slowly crumbling.
Meanwhile, to the east and south, two new superpowers, Babylon and Egypt, fought to replace Assyrian rule between the Euphrates and Sinai. At the heart of it all was the biblical kingdom of Judah, caught in a bit of a dilemma over the geopolitical conflict between the two superpowers. It is in this spiritual and political environment that the prophets moved. For 20 years Ezekiel served as a prophet in Babylonian exile on the banks of Kebar, a tributary of the Euphrates near Tel Abib.
The two centers of faith – Jerusalem at home and Tel Abib abroad – shaped the Jewish people about 2,500 years ago. Before his listeners, Ezekiel prophesied the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the future redemption of Tel Abib. Just as nowadays Jerusalem on the mountains and Tel Aviv by the sea seem to be two opposite poles in the Land (faith and science), so in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Jerusalem and Tel Abib were two different centers of faith among the Jewish people.
sons of priests
Ezekiel was the son of the priest Buzi, whose name means “God strengthens”. Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah priest and lived under the kings of Judah Josiah, Jojakim and Sedecias. His name means “the name of God is exalted”. During these years, people lived in exile. It is much the same today, with the majority of the Jewish population living in North America and Europe rather than in their own country.
In Israel, as abroad, God must be served. Jeremiah dealt with those who remained in Jerusalem, and Ezekiel with those who were in exile. Each Jewish community had its own unique needs, and this is evident in the different promises of the two prophets.
Ezekiel prophesied nearly 1,000 km east of Jerusalem at Tel Abib on the Kebar River. He reminded his listeners that the voice of God can also be heard in exile and that the Almighty will not forget his children abroad. He also shared his promises to the Jews of Zion from time to time.
Ezekiel prophesied to the exiles of Babylon who had lived there for five years. King Zedekiah ruled Jerusalem at the time, planning an uprising against the Babylonian conquerors shortly before the destruction of the Temple.
In his first promise, Ezekiel speaks of the wheels of a living chariot touching the earth. His prophecies contain mysterious tales, such as the appearance of the glory of God, which Ezekiel also takes with him on journeys where he has seen a temple and Jerusalem. The Jews of Babylon longed for Zion, their homeland and the Temple. In his promises, Ezekiel answers the questions and the voices of the Jews exiled in Tel Abib. How is a Jewish life in exile possible? Is the diaspora a punishment? What does this say about exiles? What does this say about those who remained in Zion? Ezekiel spoke to the hearts and needs of the Jews in Babylon.
Until the destruction of Jerusalem, Ezekiel called on the Jews of Babylon to recognize their transgressions and accused them of being exiled to Babylon because of their sins. He warned them that unless they repented, Jerusalem would be destroyed and they would become slaves. Just as the prophet Jeremiah was ministering in Israel at the same time, Ezekiel warned that the Temple in Jerusalem is not an automatic guarantee of defense or salvation. Moreover, Ezekiel, like his colleague in Jerusalem, warned against false prophets among the people and pointed out that political machinations against Babylon were futile. Ezekiel and Jeremiah predicted and witnessed the destruction of the Temple, Jeremiah in the Land and Ezekiel Abroad.
Jeremiah was a lamenting prophet. His prophecies showed his great knowledge of the geopolitical situation in the ancient Near East. As a prophet in Jerusalem for over 40 years, he foresaw political processes like the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah and the trauma of exile. In his promises he criticized the people of Jerusalem, he criticized the false covenants which were unclean in the eyes of God.
Jeremiah prophesied this disaster over and over again. He warned the people of Judah that it is not good for Israel to make military pacts and surrender to corrupt financiers. And yet they followed the false prophets. The people trusted other voices that praised the liberalization of the financial market. The same can be said of Israel today. One has to ask: Are people following God, or new ideas?
On the other hand, Jeremiah was also a political realist and said that whoever wants to survive must emigrate to Babylon:
“Whoever remains in this city will die either by the sword, or of hunger, or of the plague. But whoever goes out and crosses over to the Chaldeans who besiege you, he will live and take his life as spoil.
As Ezekiel addresses his congregation in Babylon, so Jeremiah addresses his here in Judah. His promises are also relevant these days, a moral and strong voice against the complex politics of the modern state of Israel. Today we hear similar things, how many Jews ask for a foreign passport to be able to flee the country. After all, if even a prophet like Jeremiah suggested leaving to survive, then he must still be allowed to do so today.
After the destruction of the Temple, Ezekiel stopped prophesying reproof and calamity and continued to prophesy comfort to the people of Israel. He proclaimed the return of the exiles to the Land of Israel and saw the rebuilding of the Temple. Ezekiel proclaimed a glorious future for a renewed people in the land. Ezekiel describes his prophecy with visions and images of a new future and underscores it with God’s active work with words like “God’s hand” and “God’s Spirit.” Ezekiel’s dramatic vision of the “Valley of Dry Bones” while still in exile in Tel Abib so many millennia ago foretold the restoration we see today. And in doing so, he gave the Jews exiled to the banks of the rivers of Babylon new hope.
Ezekiel’s vision refers to a political restoration of Israel, a “resurrection of the people”. The idea that God also intervenes in the “kingdom of the dead” and frees his people from it is not unique to Ezekiel. In the modern history of Israel, the biblical text has taken on a new application through the atrocities of the Holocaust in the last century.
Whether in Jerusalem or Tel Abib on the Kebar River or Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast – the God of Israel was then and now, on Earth or in exile, the same God. But the people of Israel are also the same people who bring both joy and sorrow to God in every generation, whether in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.