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Jeremiah's prophecies on the return to Zion

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Question: Publication date: 08-01-2006
Title:   Jeremiah's prophecies on the return to Zion
Content:   Dear Daat Emet,

I have a question about the prophecies in Jeremiah (29:10): "For thus said the Lord: When Babylon's seventy years are over, I will take note of you, and I will fulfill to you My promise of favor -- to bring you back to this place." As far as we know, this prophecy was fulfilled almost exactly (there is the matter of the seventy years). What rational reason is there for this remarkable accuracy? [Assuming the prophecy was not written in a later period, after the return to Zion.]

Thank you,

Yalin

Answer: Publication date: 08-01-2006
Title:   Jeremiah's prophecies on the return to Zion
Content:   Dear Yalin,

We will look at two aspects of your question:
1. Based on the religious view, from within the world of Torah, we will see the problematic nature of the prophecy.
2. Based on the findings of extra-Biblical research we will see that we have no findings about the timing of the building of the Temple.

One of the problematic things in looking at a prophecy as "proof" of a Divine revelation is the words of the prophet himself. In general, prophets did not intend to foretell the future; they meant to guide the people and give them hope, and therefore they did not speak clearly, in a way which would allow us to check their prophecies.

See, for example, the words of Jeremiah's "prophecy," which states "When Babylon's seventy years are over." What do these words mean? There are many ways to explain them, as we will show below. Therefore believers will always confirm, in retrospect, the prophet's words, putting events which did happen into the framework of the prophet's words.
To better explain our words we will cite a rabbi accepted by religious Jews, Rabbi Nissim the son of Reuven Girondi (the Ran, b. Barcelona, 1320-1380):
In his opinion, the reason why those who forecast the end-days err is because the words of prophecy are unclear. With this excuse he explains why the two redemptions which the people of Israel have undergone -- the redemption from Egypt and the return to Zion -- caused confusion.
In the redemption from Egypt there is confusion in the Scriptures. In one place it is written: "And He said to Abram, 'Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years" (Genesis 15:13).
In another place it is written, "The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years" (Exodus 12:40).
According to Chazal, the people of Israel were only enslaved for 210 years (Nedarim 32a).
The contradictions in the Scriptures are resolved by changing the starting point of the count.
This lack of clarity led some of the tribe of Ephraim to err and try to leave Egypt early -- they counted the 400 years from the time G-d made His promise to Abraham (the Covenant Between the Pieces), as one would think correct, when in practice, according to Chazal, they should have started the count only 30 years later, from the birth of Isaac (Sanhedrin 92b).

this is also what happened with the return to Zion --
Jeremiah "promises" that when Babylon's seventy years are up, there will be a return to Zion. When do the Jews start counting the seventy years? As opposed to what is written in Jeremiah, in the book of Daniel it is written, "In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, consulted the books concerning the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord that had come to Jeremiah the prophet, were to be the term of Jerusalem's desolation -- seventy years" (Daniel 9:2). One says they are the years of Babylon and the other the years of Jerusalem's desolation. Which is correct?
About the words of Daniel it is said in the Talmud that Daniel erred in his calculations (Megillah 12a).
This is the count of seventy years which Chazal attributed to various thinkers:
1. Belteshazzar calculated from the beginning of the kingdom, from the year Nebuchadnezzar rose to power -- and erred.
2. Achashverosh calculated from the exile of Yehoyachin and interpreted the words "of Babylon" as the Babylonian exile -- and erred.
3. According to Chazal one must count starting from the exile of Tzedkiyahu, "the destruction of Jerusalem" (Megillah 11b).
4. According to the prophet Chananyah the son of Azor, who prophesized "Hananiah said in the presence of all the people, 'Thus said the Lord: So I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from off the necks of all the nations, in two years'." He counted the seventy years from the reign of Menasseh, who erred and misled the nation (Palestinian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11:30).
So far we have seen the confusion, the lack of clarity, and the perplexity in the words of Jeremiah, as interpreted by religious people, according to Scriptural texts and Chazal's interpretation.
Now we will discuss the issue according to the scholars, that is, based on extra-biblical findings.
The only findings which researchers have is Nebuchadnezzar's rise to power (605 BCE) and of Koresh [who, it is possible, was the one who wrote Koresh's declaration to the Jews, as mentioned in Ezra] (538 BCE), which is a gap of 67 years, not 70. Researchers, therefore, have no evidence upon which to verify when the dedication of the Second Temple occurred. It was only based on the Scriptures that scholars devised the following time line:
Rise of Babylon: 605
Exile of Yehoyachin: 596
Exile of Tzedkiyahu:586
Koresh's declaration: 538
Dedication of the Temple: 515
The closest possibility is the years between the exile of Yehoyachin and the dedication of the Temple, a gap of 71 years
According to Chazal the Second Temple was dedicated in 530 BCE -- a gap of 156 years from the year set by scholars. It is impossible to check if Jeremiah's prophecy came true.

Since we have been dealing with prophecies about the return to Zion, we will bring words of the prophet which have not come true:
"And I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places to which I have banished you -- declares the Lord -- and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you" (Jeremiah 29:14).

As you know, the era of the Second Temple was an era of Jewish diaspora. Aside from the community in Eretz Israel, there were flourishing Jewish communities in Babylon and in Elephantine, Egypt. There were also smaller (less significant) communities in Turkey, Cyprus, and Lebanon. G-d did not gather the Jews from all over the world.

"In that day -- declares the Lord of Hosts -- I will break the yoke from off your neck and I will rip off your bonds. Strangers shall no longer make slaves of them" (Jeremiah 30:8).

The period of the Second Temple, after the return to Zion, was mainly lived under foreign rule: Persia, Greece, and Rome, aside from 80 years of political independence under the Hashmonaens, a time that did not know satisfaction nor serenity.

Thus, too, the prophecies of Isaiah, which were meant to cheer the nation and renew its hope, were proved false:
"And nations shall walk by your light, kings by your shining radiance. Raise your eyes and look about: they have all gathered and come to you. Your sons shall be brought from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders" (Isaiah 60:3-4).
As Prof. Uri Rapaport, in his book "From Koresh to Alexander" (Open University Press), wrote: "Because of Koresh's declaration, many of the Babylonian exiles were prompted to return to Judea. Thus the hope which found expression in Isaiah's second prophecy was realized. But this hope was not realized through supernatural means. The crooked hills and mountains on the way to Judah did not turn into a plain, and the crests did not become valleys, as the second prophecy of Isaiah had it (Isaiah 40:3-4). When they arrived in Judea the returnees had to deal with not a few problems."

Do not be puzzled why religious people will explain away the prophecies which proved false; it is their way to explain all such instances as due to happen at some future date, a date which is always yet to come.

Sincerely,

Daat Emet


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