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Babylonian Exile

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

Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate
Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate

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.

  • becking-bob

    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)