The deportation of the people of the Judah by Nebuchadnezzar initiated a seventy-year period of captivity in Babylon. This was a time of judgment for God’s people. Like other disciplines God has chosen to use, the captivity had a purifying impact and helps shape the course of future history.
In the land. The final deportation in 586 B.C. stripped Judah of most of its population, leaving only a handful of “the poor of the land” (2 Kings 25:12) in the southern kingdom. Babylon did not follow the Assyrian policy of intermixing populations, so no foreign people were imported to replace the exiles. The story of those who are life behind is told by Jeremiah, who stayed with them when given a choice by the Babylonians (see Jer. 40-44).
Nebuchadnezzar took away the king, and appointed a governor named Gedaliah, who established his seat in Mizpeh. Archaeology has shown that most of the cities of Judah, as well as Jerusalem, had been devastated by Nebuchadnezzar.
In just 2 months, Gedaliah is murdered by a member of the royal family who fled Judah earlier. The murderer takes hostages and flees. Johanan, Gedaliah’s military commander, pursues the killers and retakes the hostages, but the murderers escape. The population is now terrified at the prospect of Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction.
Jeremiah is asked for a word from God. When the message comes some 10 days later, it is a warning against turning toward Egypt – and a promise that if the people stay in Judah there will be no reprisals. But the prophet’s word is rejected, and Jeremiah is accused of lying! The people make offerings to their pagan gods and goddesses, and seek refuse in Egypt.
The remaining people gather and migrate to a district in Egypt’s eastern delta. Jeremiah goes with them, continuing his warnings. For a time the company stays together. Then gradually they scatter. Because of their disobedience, none of these people or their descendants will return to the Promised Land.
Archaeological research provides insights into these scattered communities. Particularly significant are papyri dating to the fifth century B.C. The Elephantine papyri, which take their name from the island colony of their origin, tell of a group of Jews living on the Nile some 500 miles from the Mediterranean. The Aramaic writing speak of a temple to Yahweh, and include orders from Persian overloards to keep Passover. But they also speak of worship of at least 3 other deities, so these Jews’ worship of the Lord was not pure. Around 405 B.C., the papyri record correspondence between these Egyptian Jews and those who have retruned to Jeremiah from Babylon. Sanballat, governor of Samaria in the days of Nehemiah, is mentioned in the letters, as is the high priest named in Nehemiah 12.
The captives. There were 3 staged deportations of captives to Babylon. The first group was taken in 605 B.C. This group included choice individuals taken for special training. Among them were Daniel and the three friends we read of in the Book of Daniel.
A second group of captives was taken in 597 B.C. It is difficult to ascertain how many were in this group. A specific number is mentioned in 2 Kings 24:15, 16, but it is clear that these are members of special classes. Jeremiah lists a smaller number arriving in Babylon (52:28-30). Albright explains this by a high mortality rate on the long desert trek to Babylon.
The final deportation came in 586 B.C. This was probably the largest group taken, as it included all but the ”poor” who remained. It has been estimated that probably some 70,000 altogether arrived in Babylon.
While the captivity was a punishment, it was not marked by any unusual suffering. Archaeology tells us that the urbanized Babylonians recognized 3 levels of citizens. Awelin were free men of the upper classes. Wardu were slaves. Mushkenu were free men of lower classes. It’s likely the Jewish captives were settled and became members of this third class.
We know from archeological discoveries and from the OT that the Jews had many privileges. They were taken to several settlements, the best known being a district called Tel-abib by the river (actually a canal) Chebar. There they worked on the king’s building projects, or entered business as merchants. Babylonian records also tell us that King Jehoiachin was released from prison and given court apartments. There are even records of the food and oil ordered for him and his five sons, and his servants.
The typical exile may well have owned his own home and raised garden crops (Jer. 29:4-7; Ezek. 8:1; 12:1-7). The land on which they lived was irrigated and fertile, and many even in the early days sent money back to Jerusalem. By the time a return was possible, many decided to say in Babylon, unwilling to trade their prosperity for the privilege of pioneering the now deserted land God had given their fathers.
We also know from Jeremiah and Ezekiel that there were considerable self-government permitted. The Jewish community had its own elders, and priests and prophets played leading roles. Yet with all these privileges, Babylon was still a punishment from God. The Book of Lamentations shares with us the agony that many of the godly felt in a foreign land, where in spite of personal prosperity true believers realized they simply did not belong.
Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar the Great led the armies that had overrun the west and taken Judah. He began his conquests in 605 B.C.,and ruled for some 43 years. As a conqueror none could withstand him. As a builder, few could equal him.
The city Babylon became great under Nebuchadnezzar, and he later boasted that his building efforts had made it great. He built a third wall around the city, which written records from his day describe:
A great wall which like a mountain cannot be moved I made of mortar and brick… Its foundations upon the bosom of the abyss I placed down deeply… its top I raised mountain high. I triplicated the city wall in order to strengthen it, I caused a great protecting wall to run at the foot of the wall of burnt brick…
Nebuchadnezzar’s building efforts included temples, streets, an entire district of the city, and the great terraced mountain that he raised and covered with hanging gardens. The Greeks were so impressed by this man-made mountain of greenery that they listed it among the seven wonders of the ancient world. And all of this is described by Nebuchadnezzar with great boasting:
Huge cedars from Lebanon, their forests with my clean hands I cut down. With radiant gold I overlaid them, with jewels I adorned them… the side chapels of the shrine of Nebo, the cedar beams of their roofs I adorned with lustrous silver. Giant bulls I made of bronze work and clothed them with white marble. I adorned them with jewels and placed them upon the threshold of the gate of the shrine…
Nebuchadnezzar’s accomplishments were great. But so was his pride, as the Book of Daniel attests.
Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by a series of rulers who were never able to match his greatness. Amel-marduk ruled only 2 years. He was assassinated by his brother-in-law, Nergal-sharusure, in 560 B.C. This man was an official under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. (cf. Jer. 39:3, 13) Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.) took the throne from Nergal-shar-usur’s young son. Belshazzar, Nabonidus’s son, was his co-regent for some 10 years, and ruled from Babylon while his father lived in Teima.
Daniel lived through the rule of all of these kings in Babylon. Early in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar he won a post that made him one of the king’s closest advisors. He as served in some administrative post for 63 years when the Persians replaced the Babylonian rulers. Then, past 80, he was still valued enough to become one of the 3 principal administrators under Cyrus, who governed the 120 provinces of that great empire.
Impact of the captivity. It was during the days of captivity that the Hebrew people began to be called Jews, after the Judah. But there were other far-reaching results of the exile.
- Idolatry. The Jews had always been susceptible to idol worship. Over and over this sin had entrapped the people in Palestine, to lead king and commoner away from dedication to the Lord. But after the captivity, idolatry no longer is attractive to Israel. In fact, later attempts to force Israel to worship idols is resisted to the death. So the captivity does purify God’s people of this besetting sin of the pre-Exile people.
- Synagogue. The captivity also seems to be the source of a new institution, the synagogue. The word simply means “gathering,” and the belief is that without the temple as a focus for the nation’s worship, smaller groups of Jews began to assemble for worship and study of the written Word.There is little documentary evidence, but it seems likely that the passion for personal and group study which finds expression in the synagogue originates in this period (see Ezra 7:10). Thus a study of the Word began to take precedence over the worship rituals which had dominated Hebrew life in the days of the temple. When the temple was rebuilt, ritual and study continued side by side.
- The Scribes. The OT speaks of “Ezra the scribe” as a man who “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decres and laws in Israel” (7:10). While of the priestly line, Ezra’s authority clearly rests on his ability to interpret and instruct in the law.One reason for such interpreters is found in the fact that the Jewish people now speak Aramaic, while the OT is written in Hebrew. Thus a translator as well as interpreter became necessary. Parts of both Ezra and Daniel are written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew.Gradually the importance of these interpreters was magnified. Their writings were collected, and their explanations of the Law came to have the same weight as the Scriptures. These are the “traditions” which Jesus condemns in his confrontations with the Pharasees.By NT times the connection between the scribe and the priesthood no longer exists, and anyone who was schooled in the law and religious wisdom could win recognition as a “rabbi” (teacher).
- Times of the Gentiles. Descendants of David continued among the people of Israel. But never again has any actually sat upon the throne of a free Israel. Throughout Bible times the Jews were subject to some foreign power, whether Babylon, Persia, Rome, or some other. This period of gentile domination is spoken of in the prophets who wrote during and after the Exile. The times will come to an end when the promised Messiah returns to life Israel to the place God intends, at the head of all the nations.
- The remnant. The captivity and return establishes another OT principle: that of the remnant. Isaiah and others speak of the remnant as a message of hope for the captive Israel. No matter how the nation is judged and purged, there will always be a core of the faithful remaining to carry on the nation’s identity and to fulfill her destiny.The remnant principle is illustrated in several ways in the captivity. First, it insists that sinners will be purged. This happened in the land, as many were casualties of the warfare that swept over Judah. Many others died on their way to Babylon. But not all the unfaithful died. Some left the land to go to Egypt, and were lost from the stage of history. Others chose to remain in Babylon when the time came to return, selling their birthright for the possessions they had gained in the pagan land. These too were purged – but by posterity.When the call comes to return, it is only those moved by God who choose to leave. Thus the purified and religiously motivated turn toward Jerusalem, to establish a presence in the land of promise that testifies to their belief in God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises.