Babylonian captivity

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The Flight of the Prisoners (1896) by James Tissot; the exile of the Jews from Canaan to Babylon

The Babylonian captivity or Babylonian exile is the period in Jewish history during which a large number of Judeans from the ancient Kingdom of Judah were forcibly relocated to Babylonia by the Neo-Babylonian Empire.[1] The deportations occurred in multiple waves: After the siege of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, around 7,000 individuals were deported to Mesopotamia. Further deportations followed the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon's Temple in 587 BCE.[1]

In the biblical account, after the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Jerusalem, which resulted in tribute being paid by the Judean king Jehoiakim.[2] In the fourth year of Nebuchadnezzar II's reign, Jehoiakim refused to pay further tribute, which led to another siege of the city in Nebuchadnezzar II's seventh year (598/597 BCE) that culminated in the death of Jehoiakim and the exile to Babylonia of his successor Jeconiah, his court, and many others; Jeconiah's successor Zedekiah and others were exiled when Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem in his 18th year (587 BCE), and a later deportation occurred in Nebuchadnezzar II's 23rd year (582 BCE). However, the dates, numbers of deportations, and numbers of deportees vary in the several biblical accounts.[3][4]

The Bible recounts how after the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire to the Achaemenid Empire at the Battle of Opis in 539 BCE, exiled Judeans were permitted by the Persians to return to Judah.[5][6] According to the biblical Book of Ezra, construction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem began c. 537 BCE in the new Persian province of Yehud Medinata. All of these events are considered significant to the developed history and culture of the Jewish people, and ultimately had a far-reaching impact on the development of Judaism.[1]

Archaeological studies have revealed that, although the city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, other parts of Judah continued to be inhabited during the period of the exile. Historical records from Mesopotamia and Jewish sources indicate that a significant portion of the Jewish population chose to remain in Mesopotamia. This decision led to the establishment of a sizable Jewish community in Mesopotamia known as the golah (dispersal), which persisted until modern times.[1] The Iraqi Jewish, Persian Jewish, Georgian Jewish, Bukharan Jewish, and the Mountain Jewish communities are believed to derive their ancestry in large part from these exiles; these communities have now largely immigrated to Israel.[7][8]

Biblical accounts of the exile[edit]

Clay tablet. The Akkadian cuneiform inscription lists certain rations and mentions the name of Jeconiah (Jehoiachin), King of Judah, and the Babylonian captivity. From Babylon, Iraq. Reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, c. 580 BCE. Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin

In the late 7th century BCE, the Kingdom of Judah was a client state of the Assyrian empire. In the last decades of the century, Assyria was overthrown by Babylon, an Assyrian province. 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. In the process Josiah, the king of Judah, was killed in a battle with the Egyptians at the Battle of Megiddo (609 BCE).

After the defeat of Pharaoh Necho's army by the Babylonians at Carchemish in 605 BCE, Jehoiakim began paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Some of the young nobility of Judah were taken to Babylon.

In the following years, the court of Jerusalem was divided into two parties, one supporting Egypt, the other Babylon. After Nebuchadnezzar was defeated in battle in 601 BCE by Egypt, Judah revolted against Babylon, culminating in a three-month siege of Jerusalem beginning in late 598 BCE.[9] Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, died during the siege[10] and was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah) at the age of eighteen.[11] The city fell on 2 Adar (March 16) 597 BCE,[12] and Nebuchadnezzar pillaged Jerusalem and its Temple and took Jeconiah, his court and other prominent citizens (including the prophet Ezekiel) back to Babylon.[13] 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 warnings by Jeremiah and others of the pro-Babylonian party, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon and entered into an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra. Nebuchadnezzar returned, defeated the Egyptians, and again besieged Jerusalem, resulting in the city's destruction in 587 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city wall and the Temple, together with the houses of the most important citizens. Zedekiah and his sons were captured and the sons were executed in front of Zedekiah, who was then blinded and taken to Babylon with many others (Jer 52:10–11). Judah became a Babylonian province, called Yehud, putting an end to the independent Kingdom of Judah (Because of the missing years in the Jewish calendar, rabbinic sources place the date of the destruction of the First Temple at 3338 AM (423 BCE)[14] or 3358 AM (403 BCE)).[15]

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 and Edom to return, and he took steps to return the country to prosperity. Some time later, a surviving member of the royal family assassinated Gedaliah and his Babylonian advisors, prompting many refugees to seek safety in Egypt. By the end of the second decade of the 6th century BCE, 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,[16] the year after he captured Babylon.[17] 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 from 521 to 516 BCE.[16]

Archaeological and other extra-biblical evidence[edit]

First campaign (597 BCE)[edit]

Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem, his capture of its king, his appointment of another in his place, and the plundering of the city in 597 BCE are corroborated by a passage in the Babylonian Chronicles:[18]: 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.

Jehoiachin's Rations 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.[19][20] One of the tablets refers to food rations for "Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yahudu" and five royal princes, his sons.[21]

Second campaign (589–587 BCE)[edit]

Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian forces returned in 589 BCE and rampaged through Judah, leaving clear archaeological evidence of destruction in many towns and settlements there.[18]: 294  Clay ostraca from this period, referred to as the Lachish letters, 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 were 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."[22] Archaeological finds from Jerusalem testify that virtually the whole city within the walls was burnt to rubble in 587 BCE and utterly destroyed.[18]: 295 

Aftermath in Judah[edit]

Archaeological excavations and surveys have enabled the population of Judah before the Babylonian destruction to be estimated to have been approximately 75,000. Taking the different biblical numbers of exiles at their highest, 20,000, this would mean that perhaps 25% of the population had been deported to Babylon, with the remaining majority staying in Judah.[18]: 306  Although Jerusalem was destroyed, with large parts of the city remaining in ruins for 150 years, numerous other settlements in Judah continued to be inhabited, with no signs of disruption visible in archaeological studies.[18]: 307 

Archaeologist Avraham Faust suggests that between the deportations and executions caused by the Babylonians, plus the famines and epidemics that occurred during the war, the population of Judah may have been reduced to as little as 10% of what it had been in the time before deportations.[23]

Conditions in exile[edit]

In Mesopotamia, the exiled Judeans were relocated to agricultural settlements, with one notable settlement being Tel-Abib near the city of Nippur. Biblical scholar Niels Peter Lemche suggests that the exiled Judeans experienced a lifestyle scarcely less prosperous than what they were accustomed to in their homeland.[1]

However, there is evidence for hardship. For example, exiled Jewish leaders were suspected of national disloyalty and were reduced to peasantry, where they worked in agriculture and building projects and performed simple tasks such as farming, shepherding and fishing. This ended when the Persians conquered Babylon. Exiled Jewish commoners were nostalgic about Judah and, due to circumstance, were forced to abandon temple-based worship. They mostly worshipped in private homes and kept some religious traditions such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, reading of the Psalms and Law.[24]

Persian restoration[edit]

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,[25] but other scholars point out that the cylinder's text is specific to Babylon and Mesopotamia and makes no mention of Judah or Jerusalem.[25] 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.[26]

As part of the Persian Empire, the former Kingdom of Judah became the province of Judah (Yehud Medinata[27]) with different borders, covering a smaller territory.[26] The population of the province was greatly reduced from that of the kingdom; archaeological surveys suggesting a population of around 30,000 people in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE.[18]: 308 

A 2017 exhibition in Jerusalem displayed over 100 cuneiform tablets detailing trade in fruits and other commodities, taxes, debts, and credits accumulated between Jews forced or persuaded to move from Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar around 600 BCE. The tablets included details on one exiled Judean family over four generations, all with Hebrew names.[28][29]

Most Jews who returned were poor Jews and either saw the exile as "spiritual regeneration" or "divine punishment for sins". One reason why wealthy Jews stayed includes economic opportunities, which were relatively uncommon in Judah.[24]

Exilic literature[edit]

The exilic period was a rich source 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 Judith.[30] The Book of Lamentations arose from the Babylonian captivity. The final redaction of the Pentateuch took place in the Persian period following the exile,[18]: 310 and the Priestly source, one of its main sources, is primarily a product of the post-exilic period when the former Kingdom of Judah had become the Persian province of Yehud.[31]

Significance in Jewish history[edit]

Depiction of Jews mourning the exile in Babylon

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 alphabet was adopted during this period, replacing the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.[citation needed]

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 redacted 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.[32] Israeli philosopher and Biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann said "The exile is the watershed. With the exile, the religion of Israel comes to an end and Judaism begins."[33]

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 the Land of Israel; thus, it also marks the beginning of the "Jewish diaspora", unless this is considered to have begun with the Assyrian captivity.[citation needed]

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".[citation needed]


The following table is based on Rainer Albertz's work on Israel in exile, itself based mainly on biblical texts.[34] (Alternative dates are possible.)

Year Event
609 BCE Death of Josiah.
609–598 BCE Reign of Jehoiakim (succeeded Jehoahaz, who replaced Josiah but reigned only 3 months). Began giving tribute to Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BCE. First deportation, purportedly including Daniel.
598/7 BCE Reign of Jehoiachin (reigned 3 months). Siege and fall of Jerusalem.
Second deportation, 16 March 597.
597 BCE Zedekiah made king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon.
594 BCE Anti-Babylonian conspiracy.
587 BCE Siege and fall of Jerusalem. Solomon's Temple destroyed.
Third deportation July/August 587.
583 BCE Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Yehud Province, is assassinated.
Many Jews flee to Egypt and a possible fourth deportation to Babylon.
562 BCE Release of Jehoiachin after 37 years in a Babylonian prison.[35] He remains in Babylon.
539 BCE Persians conquer Babylon (October).
538 BCE Decree of Cyrus allows Jews to return to Jerusalem.
520–515 BCE Return by many Jews to Yehud under Zerubbabel and Joshua the High Priest.
Foundations of Second Temple laid.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Lemche, Niels Peter (2004). Historical dictionary of ancient Israel. Historical dictionaries of ancient civilizations and historical eras. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-8108-4848-1.
  2. ^ Coogan, Michael (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Moore, Megan Bishop; Kelle, Brad E. (2011). Biblical History and Israel S Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 357–58. ISBN 978-0802862600. Retrieved 11 June 2015. Overall, the difficulty in calculation arises because the biblical texts provide varying numbers for the different deportations. The HB/OT's conflicting figures for the dates, number and victims of the Babylonian deportations become even more of a problem for historical reconstruction because, other than the brief reference to the first capture of Jerusalem (597) in the Babylonian Chronicle, historians have only the biblical sources with which to work.
  4. ^ Dunn, James G.; Rogerston, John William (2003). Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 545. ISBN 978-0-8028-3711-0.
  5. ^ Jonathan Stökl, Caroline Waerzegger (2015). Exile and Return: The Babylonian Context. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. pp. 7–11, 30, 226.
  6. ^ Encyclopaedia Judaica. Vol. 3 (2nd ed.). p. 27.
  7. ^ The Wellspring of Georgian Historiography: The Early Medieval Historical Chronicle The Conversion of Katli and The Life of St. Nino, Constantine B. Lerner, England: Bennett and Bloom, London, 2004, p. 60
  8. ^ Dekel, Mikhal (19 October 2019). "When Iran Welcomed Jewish Refugees".
  9. ^ Geoffrey Wigoder, The Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible Pub. by Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. (2006)
  10. ^ Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Hebrew Bible, Continuum International, 1996, p. x. ISBN 0-304-33703-X
  11. ^ 2Kings 24:6–8
  12. ^ Philip J. King, Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), p. 23.
  13. ^ The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. by Michael D Coogan. Pub. by Oxford University Press, 1999. p. 350
  14. ^ Rashi to Talmud Bavli, avodah zara p. 9a. Josephus, seder hadoroth year 3338
  15. ^ malbim to Ezekiel 24:1, abarbanel et al.
  16. ^ a b "Second Temple Period (538 BCE. to 70 CE) Persian Rule". Retrieved 2014-03-15.
  17. ^ Harper's Bible Dictionary, ed. by Achtemeier, etc., Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1985, p. 103
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Thomas, David Winton (1958). Documents from Old Testament Times (1961 ed.). Edinburgh and London: Thomas Nelson. p. 84. ISBN 9780061300851.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ COJS staff. "Babylonian Ration List: King Jehoiakhin in Exile, 592/1 BCE". The Center for Online Judaic Studies. Archived from the original on 16 June 2013. Retrieved 23 August 2013. Ya'u-kīnu, king of the land of Yahudu
  22. ^ Translation from Aḥituv, Shmuel. Echoes from the Past. Jerusalem: CARTA Jerusalem, 2008, p. 70.
  23. ^ Faust, Avraham (2012). Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation. Society of Biblical Lit. pp. 140–143. ISBN 978-1-58983-641-9.
  24. ^ a b Farisani, Elelwani (2004). "A sociological analysis of Israelites in Babylonian exile". Old Testament Essays: 380–388 – via Sabinet African Journals.
  25. ^ a b Becking, Bob (2006). ""We All Returned as One!": Critical Notes on the Myth of the Mass Return". In Lipschitz, Oded; Oeming, Manfred (eds.). Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-57506-104-7.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Yehud being the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew Yehuda, or "Judah", and "medinata" the word for province
  28. ^ "Ancient tablets on display in Jerusalem reveal Jewish life during Babylon exile". Ynetnews. 3 February 2015.
  29. ^ Baker, Luke (3 February 2017). "Ancient tablets reveal life of Jews in Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon". Reuters.
  30. ^ 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
  31. ^ Blum, Erhard (1998). "Issues and Problems in the Contemporary Debate Regarding the Priestly Writings". In Sarah Shectman, Joel S. Baden (ed.). The strata of the priestly writings: contemporary debate and future directions. Theologischer Verlag. pp. 32–33. ISBN 9783290175368.
  32. ^ A Concise History of the Jewish People. Naomi E. Pasachoff, Robert J. Littma. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. p. 43
  33. ^ "Secrets of Noah's Ark – Transcript". Nova. PBS. 7 October 2015. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  34. ^ Rainer Albertz, Israel in exile: the history and literature of the sixth century BCE, p.xxi.
  35. ^ 2 Kings 25:27

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