Babylonian Exile by Bob Becking

Many readers will be familiar with Ps 137, either as a church hymn or in the adaptation by Boney M., “By the Rivers of Babylon.” This anthem presents the situation of the exiled Judaeans as rather dreadful. Is that a correct image?

The Babylonian exile was a period in the history of ancient Israel. That exile started with a two-stage deportation—597 and 587 BCE—and presumably ended with the conquest of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 538 BCE. The Babylonians, originating in what is now southern Iraq, rose to a power position by the end of the seventh century by putting an end to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Their king, Nebuchadnezzar II, extended the empire to the east and to the west. On his way to control the trade routes to Egypt, he was confronted with the resistance of the Kingdom of Judah. In 597 he conquered Jerusalem, exiled parts of the population, including King Jehoiachin, and installed Zedekiah as puppet king. This event is reported in the Hebrew Bible (2Kgs 24:8-12), as well as in the Babylonian Chronicle.

Hoping for support from Egypt, this vassal king rebelled against the Babylonians. They answered with a fierce attack on Jerusalem in 587 BCE, ruining the city and its walls. The temple for YHWH was demolished. The temple vessels, symbols of the divine presence, were taken away to Babylon together with again many Judahites. The area was transformed into a Babylonian province. For this second and decisive conquest, see 2Kgs 25:1-7. A Babylonian inscription recording the set of events is as yet not found.

Based on 2Chr 36:20-21 and the information in 2Kgs 24-25, which states that all Judah was lead into exile, a myth of the empty land was constructed: during the exile the land of Judah was seen as uninhabited. Archaeological evidence, however, has made clear that, although the area around Jerusalem was sparsely inhabited, there remained a not insignificant group in Judah to till the land and to pay the yearly tribute to Babylon.

In the Hebrew Bible, the exile is conceptualized as a divine punishment for the trespasses of Judah, its leaders as well as its people.

What evidence is there from outside the Bible for conditions in Babylon during the exile?

Excavations in Mesopotamia have revealed a few traces of the Judahite exiles. Firstly, excavations at Babylon have surfaced a variety of so-called assignment lists. These texts list names of prisoners at the Babylonian court who were allowed rations of food. Some documents refer to *Yahu-kin and his five sons as regular receivers of portions of food on behalf of the Babylonian king. The king was kept alive as diplomatic spare change for a future situation.

Secondly, a group of cuneiform inscriptions from al Ya-hu-du (“the city of Judah/Yehud”) and some other places in southern Mesopotamia, indicate that exiled Judaeans were working as pioneers in newly reclaimed agricultural areas. Their role was to supply food for the population in the urban nucleus of Babylon. The documents make clear that the Judaeans lived together in an ethnic group. They were not treated as slaves. A majority remained living there even after the change from Babylonian to Persian rule. These are indications that life in the exile was not as dreadful as suggested by Ps 137.

How did the Babylonian exile end?

In 539 BCE the Persian king Cyrus the Great succeeded in conquering the city of Babylon and thus bringing an end to the Babylonian rule. In a few decades the Persians had occupied an area stretching from the Indus River to the Nile. The famous Cyrus Cylinder is often seen as extrabiblical evidence for the historicity of the decree of Cyrus in Ezra 1. Recent rereading has shown, however, that the text concerns the return of divine images from cities surrounding Babylon, from where they were exiled by Nabonidus. This passage has nothing to do with Judaeans, Jews, or Jerusalem. Besides, it was not before the reign of Cyrus’s son Cambyses that the area around Jerusalem became part of the Persian Empire; by then the postexilic period had started. The return from exile was a long process of waves of returnees.

Bob Becking, "Babylonian Exile", n.p. [cited 19 May 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/places/main-articles/babylonian-exile

Contributors

becking-bob

Bob Becking
Professor, Utrecht University

Bob Becking taught for thirty years Hebrew Bible at Utrecht. He is currently preparing a monograph on the Cultural History of Elephantine in the Persian Period. Latest book: Bob Becking, Ezra-Nehemiah, HCOT (Leuven Peeters, 2018)

In 597 and 587 BCE, some residents of Judah were forced into exile in Babylon.

Did you know…?

  • The deportation from Jerusalem in 597 is reported in the Hebrew Bible (2Kgs 24:8-12) as well as in the Babylonian Chronicle.
  • Evidence on the march of the Babylonians to Jerusalem in 587 is found in the Lachish Letters. These inscribed ostraca date from the period just before the conquest of Jerusalem. They contain letters written by the officer in command at Lachish expressing his fear of the foe.
  • Archaeological evidence indicates that the land of Judah was not uninhabited during the Babylonian exile.
  • Some biblical stories are set in an exilic context (Ezekiel; Daniel).
  • Excavations in Mesopotamia have revealed traces of the Judahite exiles in Babylon.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A song or poem that is religious in nature.

A subordinate, often a king who is subject to a more powerful king or emperor.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Ps 137

Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem
1By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.2On the willows there
we hung up ... View more

2Kgs 24:8-12

Reign and Captivity of Jehoiachin
8Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign; he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Nehusht ... View more

2Kgs 25:1-7

1And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, ... View more

2Chr 36:20-21

20He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of ... View more

2Kgs 24-25

Judah Overrun by Enemies
1In his days King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up; Jehoiakim became his servant for three years; then he turned and rebelled against ... View more

The writing system of ancient Mesopotamia, consisting of wedges pressed into clay.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

The Persian name for the province including the territory of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem.

Ps 137.

Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem
1By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.2On the willows there
we hung up ... View more

The last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, ruled from 555–539 B.C.E. Nabonidus promoted worship of the moon god Sin over the national god of Babylon, Marduk. Nabonidus spent much of his reign at the oasis of Tayma in the Arabian desert, leaving his son Belshazzar in charge of the empire. Nabonidus was defeated by the Persians under Cyrus in 539 B.C.E.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Ezra 1

End of the Babylonian Captivity
1In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, t ... View more

2Kgs 24:8-12

Reign and Captivity of Jehoiachin
8Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign; he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Nehusht ... View more

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