‘The Rivers of Babylon’: Michael O’Brien Brings the Story of Babylonian Exile to Life

BOOK PICK: This is a story about the power of hope and finding beauty amid calamities.

‘The Rivers of Babylon’
‘The Rivers of Babylon’ (photo: Ignatius Press)


Michael O’Brien 

Ignatius Press, 2022

395 pages, $21.95

To order: ignatius.com


The history of the Jewish people is one of glory, oppression, migration, persecution and survival.

Perhaps the only explanation for this tenacity, a refusal to stay down against all odds, is that the Lord never abandons his chosen.

Canadian author Michael O’Brien brings home a piece of this long history in his latest novel, The Rivers of Babylon.

It is told through the eyes of the prophet Ezekiel (“Yezekiel,” according to his proper Hebrew name.)

The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel presents the reader with an array of visions that seem almost hallucinatory, even frightening, until we realize they are signs from the Almighty. 

We know the great prophet was among thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who were forced into exile by the Babylonians around 600 B.C. 

The prophets, including Jeremiah, had been warning that the Jews would suffer for turning away from God and taking on pagan ways. And suffer they did. 

As Yezekiel states in the novel: “It must never be forgotten that Israel’s chastisement has come about chiefly because of mingling with the alien nations and their ways. And the defilement of the Temple.”

O’Brien’s great imagination brings the story of exile to life with the use of myriad gritty details — the devil in the details, as it were. 

First, there is the forced march from Jerusalem to Babylon. Those who can’t keep up are killed and thrown away as so much refuse. O’Brien makes readers feel what it is like to be dislocated from one’s home with no idea what the future might bring, walking barefoot for miles and miles, day after day, with nothing but rags for clothing.

Once settled in their new home, alongside the River Kebar, there’s a new set of challenges, no less daunting than the march: building and dredging canals by hand under a boiling sun, feeling the lash of overseers for not working fast enough, and living with the tentative rights of a slave. Then there are the mosquitoes and leeches.

“The following day is another canal dredging. I am covered with leeches, the sun blazes mercilessly, and our crew is driven by an unusually brutal overseer,” Yezekiel says. 

“He has no patience for our attempts to burn off the leeches. … I do not think any of us escape lashing on our backs.”

It’s clear that O’Brien has a concern not only for the Jews, but for all who face oppression.

In his novel Sophia House, a Polish Catholic, at great personal risk, hides a young Jewish boy who has escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in the Second World War. 

In Island of the World, which many consider his masterpiece, readers reflect on his love for Catholic Croatia and its struggles through the Second World War and then under communism. 

The River of Babylon is ultimately about resilience — and remembering who you are, no matter the circumstances. 

The exiled Jews soon learn to make brick from river mud and build their own homes. They return to Sabbath services. Some marry and have children and even rise to moderate levels of self-sufficiency and peace. And there’s the return to prayer.

This is a story about the power of hope and finding beauty amid calamities.

As Yezekiel sits by the river at night, he shares his thoughts. 

“I roll onto my back and gaze at the stars. As long as there are stars, I reassure myself, as long as there are stars so high beyond the reach of human evil, all will be well in the end.”