Babylonian captivity

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The Babylonian captivity (or Babylonian exile) is the period in Jewish history during which a number of Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were captives in Babylonia. According to the Hebrew Bible, there were four deportations of Jews to Babylon: After the Battle of Carchemish during the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim, Daniel and his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were among young Jewish nobility carried off by Nebuchadnezzer to Babylon.[1] The exile of King Jeconiah, his court and many others in Nebuchadnezzar's eighth year; Jeconiah's successor Zedekiah and the rest of the people in Nebuchadnezzar's eighteenth year; and a later deportation in Nebuchadnezzar's twenty-third year. These are attributed to c. 605 BCE, 597 BCE, c. 587 BCE, and c. 582 BCE, respectively.

After the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 538 BCE, exiled Jews began to return to the land of Judah. According to the biblical book of Ezra, construction of a second temple in Jerusalem began at this time. All these events are considered significant in Jewish history and culture, and had a far-reaching impact on the development of Judaism.

Archaeological studies have revealed that only a minority of the population of Judah was deported, and that, although Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, other parts of Judah, centered around Hebron, the birthplace of Judaism, continued to be inhabited during the period of the exile. The return of the exiles was a gradual process rather than a single event, and many of the deportees or their descendants did not return.

Biblical history of the exile[edit]

In the late 7th century BCE, the kingdom of Judah was a client state of the powerful Assyrian empire. In the last decades of the century Assyria was overthrown by Babylon, an Assyrian province with a history of former glory in its own right. Egypt, fearing the sudden rise of the Neo-Babylonian empire, seized control of Assyrian territory up to the Euphrates river in Syria, but Babylon counter-attacked and in the process Josiah, the king of Judah, was killed in the Battle of Megiddo (609 BC), although the circumstances are obscure.

After the defeat of the Egyptians by the Babylonians at Carchemish in 605 BC, Jehoiakim began paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. At this time, some young nobility of Judah (such as Daniel, Shadrac, Meshak, and Abendnogo) were taken to Babylon. But in the following years two parties formed at the court in Jerusalem: one pro-Egyptian and the other pro-Babylonian.

In 599 BCE, the pro-Egyptian party was in power and Judah revolted against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon began the Siege of Jerusalem (597 BC),[2] and Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, died in 598 BCE with the siege still under way.[3] He was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin also called Jeconiah, aged eighteen.[4] The city fell about three months later,[5] on 2 Adar (March 16) 597 BCE, and Nebuchadnezzar pillaged Jerusalem and its Temple and took Jeconiah and his court and other prominent citizens (including the prophet Ezekiel) back to Babylon.[6] Jehoiakim's uncle Zedekiah was appointed king in his place, but the exiles in Babylon continued to consider Jeconiah as their Exilarch, or rightful ruler.

Despite the strong remonstrances of Jeremiah and others of the pro-Babylonian party, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon and entered into an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra of Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar returned, defeated the Egyptians, and again besieged Jerusalem. The city fell in 587. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city wall and the Temple, together with the houses of the most important citizens, and Zedekiah was blinded, and taken to Babylon, together with many others. Judah became a Babylonian province, called Yehud Medinata (Judah Province),[7] putting an end to the independent Kingdom of Judah. Rabbinic sources place the date of the destruction of the First Temple to be 3338 HC (423 BCE)[8] or 3358 HC (403 BCE),[9] while modern historical dating is c. 587 BCE.

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle of the destruction of Jerusalem under the Babylonian rule

The first governor appointed by Babylon was Gedaliah, a native Judahite; he encouraged the many Jews who had fled to surrounding countries such as Moab, Ammon, Edom, to return, and took steps to return the country to prosperity. Some time afterwards, however – it is not clear when, but possibly 582 BCE – a surviving member of the royal family assassinated Gedaliah and his Babylonian advisors, prompting a rush of refugees seeking safety in Egypt. Thus by the end of the second decade of the 6th century, in addition to those who remained in Judah, there were significant Jewish communities in Babylon and in Egypt; this was the beginning of the later numerous Jewish communities living permanently outside Judah in the Jewish Diaspora.

According to the book of Ezra, the Persian Cyrus the Great ended the exile in 538 BCE, the year in which he captured Babylon.[10] The exile ended with the return under Zerubbabel the Prince (so-called because he was a descendant of the royal line of David) and Joshua the Priest (a descendant of the line of the former High Priests of the Temple) and their construction of the Second Temple in the period 521–516 BCE.[10]

Archaeological and other extra-biblical evidence[edit]

Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem, his capture of King Jeconiah, his appointment of Zedekiah in his place, and the plundering of the city in 597 BCE as described in 2 Kings in the Bible are confirmed by a passage in the Babylonian Chronicles:[11]:293

In the seventh year, in the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched to the Hatti-land, and encamped against the City of Judah and on the ninth day of the month of Adar he seized the city and captured the king. He appointed there a king of his own choice and taking heavy tribute brought it back to Babylon.

Tablets describing ration orders for a captive King of Judah, identified with King Jeconiah, have been discovered during excavations in Babylon, in the royal archives of Nebuchadnezzar.[12][13] One of the tablets refers to food rations for "Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yahudu" and five royal princes, his sons.[14]

Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian forces returned in 588/586 BCE and rampaged through Judah, leaving clear archaeological evidence of destruction in many towns and settlements there.[11]:294 Clay ostraca referred to as the Lachish letters from this period were discovered during excavations; one, which was probably written to the commander at Lachish from an outlying base, describes how the signal fires from nearby towns are disappearing: And may (my lord) be apprised that we are watching for the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signs which my lord has given, because we cannot see Azeqah.[15] This correlates with the book of Jeremiah,[16] which states that Jerusalem, Lachish and Azekah were the last cities to fall to the Babylonians. Archaeological finds from Jerusalem testify that virtually the whole city within the walls was burnt to rubble in 587 BCE and utterly destroyed.[11]:295

The biblical books of 2 Kings and Jeremiah give varying numbers of exiles forcibly deported to Babylon and at one time it was widely believed that virtually the entire population was taken into captivity there. However archaeological excavations and surveys enable the population of Judah before the Babylonian destruction to be calculated with a high degree of confidence at approximately seventy-five thousand. Taking the different biblical numbers of exiles at their highest, twenty thousand, this would mean that at most twenty-five percent of the population were deported to Babylon, the remaining seventy-five percent staying in Judah.[11]:306 Although Jerusalem was destroyed and depopulated, large parts of the city remaining in ruins for one hundred and fifty years, numerous other settlements in Judah continued to be inhabited with no signs of disruption visible in archaeological studies.[11]:307

The biblical book of Ezra includes two texts said to be decrees of Cyrus the Great, conqueror of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, allowing the deported Jews to return to their homeland after decades and ordering the Temple rebuilt. The differences in content and tone of the two decrees, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic, have caused some scholars to question their authenticity.[17] The Cyrus Cylinder, an ancient tablet on which is written a declaration in the name of Cyrus referring to restoration of temples and repatriation of exiled peoples, has often been taken as corroboration of the authenticity of the biblical decrees attributed to Cyrus,[18] but other scholars point out that the cylinder's text is specific to Babylon and Mesopotamia and makes no mention of Judah or Jerusalem.[18] Professor Lester L Grabbe asserted that the "alleged decree of Cyrus" regarding Judah, "cannot be considered authentic", but that there was a "general policy of allowing deportees to return and to re-establish cult sites". He also stated that archaeology suggests that the return was a "trickle" taking place over decades, rather than a single event.[19]

As part of the Persian Empire, the former Kingdom of Judah became the province of Judah (Yehûd medîntā') with different borders, covering a smaller territory.[19] The population of the province was greatly reduced from that of the kingdom, archeological surveys showing a population of around thirty thousand people in the fifth to fourth centuries BCE.[11]:308

Exilic literature and post-exilic revisions of the Torah/Pentateuch[edit]

The exilic period was a rich one for Hebrew literature. Biblical depictions of the exile include Book of Jeremiah 39–43 (which saw the exile as a lost opportunity); the final section of 2 Kings (which portrays it as the temporary end of history); 2 Chronicles (in which the exile is the "Sabbath of the land"); and the opening chapters of Ezra, which records its end. Other works from or about the exile include the stories in Daniel 1–6, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the "Story of the Three Youths" (1 Esdras 3:1–5:6), and the books of Tobit and Book of Judith.[20]

The Priestly source, one of the four main sources of the Torah/Pentateuch in the Bible, is primarily a product of the post-exilic period when the former Kingdom of Judah had become the Persian province of Yehud.[21] Also during this Persian period, the final redaction of the Pentateuch took place.[11]:310

Significance in Jewish history[edit]

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners.

In the Hebrew Bible, the captivity in Babylon is presented as a punishment for idolatry and disobedience to Yahweh in a similar way to the presentation of Israelite slavery in Egypt followed by deliverance. The Babylonian Captivity had a number of serious effects on Judaism and Jewish culture. For example, the current Hebrew script was adopted during this period, replacing the traditional Israelite script. This period saw the last high-point of biblical prophecy in the person of Ezekiel, followed by the emergence of the central role of the Torah in Jewish life. According to many historical-critical scholars, the Torah was altered during this time, and began to be regarded as the authoritative text for Jews. This period saw their transformation into an ethno-religious group who could survive without a central Temple.[22]

This process coincided with the emergence of scribes and sages as Jewish leaders (see Ezra). Prior to exile, the people of Israel had been organized according to tribe. Afterwards, they were organized by smaller family groups. Only the tribe of Levi continued in its temple role after the return. After this time, there were always sizable numbers of Jews living outside Eretz Israel; thus, it also marks the beginning of the "Jewish diaspora", unless this is considered to have begun with the Assyrian Captivity of Israel.

In Rabbinic literature, Babylon was one of a number of metaphors for the Jewish diaspora. Most frequently the term "Babylon" meant the diaspora prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. The post-destruction term for the Jewish Diaspora was "Rome", or "Edom".


The following table is based on Rainer Albertz's work on Israel in exile.[23] (Alternative dates are possible.)

609 BCEDeath of Josiah
609–598 BCEReign of Jehoiakim (succeeded Jehoahaz, who replaced Josiah but reigned only 3 months) Began giving tribute to Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BCE. First deportation, including Daniel.
598/7 BCEReign of Jehoiachin (reigned 3 months). Siege and fall of Jerusalem.
Second deportation, 16 March 597
597 BCEZedekiah made king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon
594 BCEAnti-Babylonian conspiracy
588 BCESiege and fall of Jerusalem. Solomon's Temple destroyed.
Third deportation July/August 587
583 BCEGedaliah the Babylonian-appointed governor of Yehud Province assassinated.
Many Jews flee to Egypt and a possible fourth deportation to Babylon
562 BCERelease of Jehoiachin after 37 years in a Babylonian prison.[24] He remains in Babylon
538 BCEPersians conquer Babylon (October)
538 BCEDecree of Cyrus allows Jews to return to Jerusalem
520–515 BCEReturn by many Jews to Yehud under Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest.
Foundations of Second Temple laid


  1. ^ Coogan, Michael (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ Geoffrey Wigoder, The Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible Pub. by Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. (2006)
  3. ^ Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Hebrew Bible, Continuum International, 1996, page x. ISBN 0-304-33703-X
  4. ^ 2Kings 24:6–8
  5. ^ Philip J. King, Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), page 23.
  6. ^ The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. by Michael D Coogan. Pub. by Oxford University Press, 1999. pg 350
  7. ^ Yehud being the Babylonian equivalent of the Hebrew Yehuda, or "Judah", and "medinata" the word for province
  8. ^ Rashi to Talmud Bavli, avodah zara p. 9a. Josephus, seder hadoroth year 3338
  9. ^ malbim to ezekiel 24:1, abarbanel et al.
  10. ^ a b Second Temple Period (538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) Persian Rule.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher (2001). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-684-86912-4. 
  12. ^ Thomas, David Winton (1958). Documents from Old Testament Times (1961 ed.). Edinburgh and London: Thomas Nelson. p. 84. 
  13. ^ Cf. 2Kings 24:12, 24:15–24:16, 25:27–25:30; 2Chronicles 36:9–36:10; Jeremiah 22:24–22:6, 29:2, 52:31–52:34; Ezekiel 17:12.
  14. ^ "Babylonian Ration List: King Jehoiakhin in Exile, 592/1 BCE". The Center for Online Judaic Studies. Retrieved 23 August 2013. "Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yahudu" 
  15. ^ Translation from Aḥituv, Shmuel. Echoes from the Past. Jerusalem: CARTA Jerusalem, 2008, pg. 70.
  16. ^ Jeremiah 34:7
  17. ^ Bedford, Peter Ross (2001). Temple Restoration in Early Achaemenid Judah. Leiden: Brill. p. 112 (Cyrus edict section pp. 111–131). ISBN 9789004115095. 
  18. ^ a b Becking, Bob (2006). ""We All Returned as One!": Critical Notes on the Myth of the Mass Return". In Lipschitz, Oded; Oeming, Manfred. Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-57506-104-7. 
  19. ^ a b Grabbe, Lester L. (2004). A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period: Yehud - A History of the Persian Province of Judah v. 1. T & T Clark. p. 355. ISBN 978-0567089984. 
  20. ^ Rainer Albertz, Israel in exile: the history and literature of the sixth century BCE (page 15 link) Society for Biblical Literature, 2003, pp.4–38
  21. ^ Blum, Erhard (1998). "Issues and Problems in the Contemporary Debate Regarding the Priestly Writings". In Sarah Shectman, Joel S. Baden. The strata of the priestly writings: contemporary debate and future directions. Theologischer Verlag. pp. 32–33. 
  22. ^ A Concise History of the Jewish People | Naomi E. Pasachoff, Robert J. Littma | Rowman & Littlefield, 2005 | pg 43
  23. ^ Rainer Albertz, Israel in exile: the history and literature of the sixth century BCE, p.xxi.
  24. ^ 2 Kings 25:27

Further reading[edit]



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