Review of J. Ahn, Exile as Forced Migrations

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Ahn, John J., Exile as Forced Migrations: A Sociological, Literary, and Theological Approach on the Displacement and Resettlement of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (BZAW, 417; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2011). Pp. xviii + 306. Hardback. €89.95. $135.00. ISBN 978-3-11-924095-5.

In yet another book on the displacement of people during the Neo-Babylonian hegemony, John Ahn applies a fresh approach to old problems and well-known texts. His proposal is grounded on the notion that three quite different displacements of inhabitants took place in the sixth century from the area around Jerusalem to Mesopotamia. He strongly argues for three waves: 597, 587, and 582. In doing so, he reproves Old Testament scholars that have an inclination to focus only or primarily on the exile of 587. In his view this was not the paramount event of exile, but was rather just another wave of displacement of persons.

After a review of scholarship, Ahn turns to the field of social sciences and especially to the discipline of refugee studies. Here he elaborates on two types of distinctions. First, he points to the fact that refugee studies distinguish three forms of forced migrations: (1) Derivative Forced Migrations are the result of geopolitical and cartographic rearrangements. For example, because the border between Belgium and Germany shifted several times, the eastern Belgian villages of Eupen and Malmédy and their villagers changed nationalities from Belgian to German and then back to Belgian without ever moving; (2) Responsive Forced Migrations are to a high degree voluntary movements of people who are transported away from zones of fear: war, oppressions, and effects of the forces of nature; (3) Purposive Forced Migrations refer to displacements of persons who resettle under direct military threat. Contemporary newspapers too often report all three types of migrations.

Parallel to these distinctions, three types of displaced persons can be identified: (1) Those who are on the move as a result of “Development-Induced Displacement or Resettlement.” Workers from Mediterranean countries who were invited to work in the industries of Western Europe provide a clear example; (2) “Internally Displaced Persons” are those who move within the borders of their own country. Farmers whose lands were claimed for industrial projects such as building dams or constructing harbours, and were therefore moved to other plots of land are a good example of this category; (3) Finally, “Refugees” are those people seeking safety elsewhere. Ahn gives some illustrations of these categories by referring to scholarship on displacement from six modern developed states, arriving at the not very surprising conclusion that all types of migration and displacement are, in the end, based on changing economic factors. Since he also refers to my own country in connection to studies on the migrant workers and their offspring, I would like to mention a different example from the Netherlands. After the reclamation of greater part of the former Zuiderzee, new land was created that was distributed by the government to farmers from all corners of the country, aiming at a mixture of a cross section of Dutch society around 1950. Subsequently, when parts of the area became urban, this policy was abandoned.

Ahn then applies these categories to the three waves of displacements from Judah to Mesopotamia. The exile of 597 is, in his view, an example of a Derivative Forced Migration since it resulted from the remapping occurring after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. The “exiles” can be labelled as Development-Induced Displaced Persons, since the Babylonians did not bring them to the urban areas but forced them to work on the “irrigation canals” of Babylonia. The events of 587 are to be seen as a Purposive Forced Migration. The members of this wave can be construed—according to Ahn—as Internally Displaced Persons, since their move to Mesopotamia did not cross an internationally recognized border. Persons fleeing to Egypt and other regions in 582 were part of a Responsive Forced Migration and are also seen by Ahn as Internally Displaced Persons.

Several critical remarks of Ahn's historical reconstruction and classifications are in order at this point. Ahn interprets the “rivers of Babylon” as the “irrigation canals” of Babylonia, thus solving the riddle of the plural noun in Psalm 137. His contention, if I understand it correctly, is that the Judahites of 597 were put to work on these canals in order to beat back their salinization. As far as I can see, there is no evidence for this position. Ahn refers to a set of canals that are mentioned in the Murašu documents. These texts are, however, written almost two centuries after 597 and do not refer to forced labour on the canals. Unfortunately, Ahn has overlooked the publication of a set of texts that are part of a larger corpus of Neo-Babylonian administrative inscriptions to be edited by Laurie Pearce and Claudia Wunsch.[1] In these texts descendants of the Judahite migrations appear in contexts that clearly show them to have worked in relative freedom in agricultural areas in Southern Mesopotamia. A further difficulty is Ahn's classification of the migrants of 587 and 582 as Internally Displaced Persons, since in moving to Mesopotamia they did not cross an internationally recognized border. This is a severe anachronism for the situation of the sixth century. First of all, the concept of internationally recognized borders did not exist in those days, so this conclusion requires much more caution. Besides, Ahn's classification could only be true from a Babylonian perspective, for to them Judah and Egypt belong to the empire. From the point of view of the displaced persons themselves, however, his classification is inappropriate since in their mental map they crossed a border to a foreign land.

Ahn's quite simple applications of modern concepts to features of the sixth century are problematic. He does not adequately take into account the hypothetical character of such concepts that can even function as procrustean beds in describing and understanding modern states of affairs. Besides, many of his remarks on the sixth century are based on theory-laden observations. The biggest problem historians of the ancient Near East have in describing and understanding exile, displacements, and forced migrations in that distant era arises from by the mere fact that evidence on the period is very scarce.

Ahn then moves to readings of the parts of the Hebrew Bible that he construes as reflections of the various waves of displacement. He starts out with Psalm 137. The first six verses of the hymn are related to the first generation of displaced Judahites. It is only in the later addition, vv. 7–9, that the voice of the 587 group that experienced the destruction is heard. Although he makes some interesting exegetical remarks, I do not fully agree with his analysis, especially since I think Psalm 137 is not a lament, but an early example of a “topical song” and that in vv. 5–9 the migrants offer their “song of Zion.”

He connects Jer 29 with what he calls Generation 1.5. From research into the succession of generations, it is clear that after a considerable time in a completely new situation, a new generation with its own view of reality emerges. He quite ingeniously combines the date given in Jer 28:1—the fourth year of Zedekiah, 595/94—with an internal rebellion in Babylon mentioned in a rather late Babylonian chronicle, viewing them as supplying the backdrop for the exchange of letters in Jer 29. Although this chapter is to be seen as the result of a long process of redaction, Ahn isolates remarks from it as the prophet Jeremiah's directives to Generation 1.5 in Babylon, whose loyalties are twisted.

Ahn then turns his attention to Isaiah 43. In this chapter a distinction between a majority and a minority group is apparent. The majority is well on its way to assimilation into the Babylonian way of life, while the minority—labelled Jacob—resists this development. This move to maintain a traditional identity is paralleled by numerous observations on migrant communities where the third generation—or parts of it—show a tendency towards fundamentalism. In Ahn's view the prophetic summons to turn and return to Jerusalem should be construed as some sort of solution for this minority group. This is an interesting point of view, and while reading I was wondering whether such an interpretation would make sense for other parts of Deutero-Isaiah or Jeremiah's Book of Consolation (Jer 30–33).

The final text he discusses is Num 32. He construes this chapter as a narrative foil for Ezra 8:21 and the “mixed marriage crises.” I must confess that in my view this intertextual connection is not prima vista apparent. Nevertheless, I agree with Ahn that issues of intergenerational solidarity—and the loss of it—are at stake.

Ahn has written an interesting book on the “exilic” period that, however, invites further research, since his arguments are not as solid as he might hope.

Bob Becking, Department of Religious Studies and Theology, Utrecht University

[1] L. Pearce, “New Evidence for Judaeans in Babylonia,” O. Lipschits and M. Oeming (eds.), Judah and the Judaeans in the Persian Period (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 399–411; eadem, “‘Judean’: A Special Status in Neo-Babylonian and Achemenid Babylonia?,” O. Lipschits, G.N. Knoppers, and M. Oeming (eds.), Judah and the Judaeans in the Achaemenid Period: Negotiating Identities in an International Context (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 267–77. reference