THE EXILE IN BABYLON (597-536)
After the death of Solomon there followed three and a half centuries (931-597) of continual tragedy, the price paid for a senseless domestic and foreign policy. The punishment was severe: in 721 came the fall of Samaria the capital of the northern kingdom and the complete disappearance of the Ten Tribes of Yisrael; in 587, there was the fall of Yerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom, the massacre of a great part of Yahudah and, finally, the deportation of the pick of the people to Babylon.
It certainly looked as if, historically, the Chosen People were doomed to complete destruction in a very short time. For Mesopotamia is a crucible in which were mingled and amalgamated populations of very diverse origins, working on the banks of the Two Rivers as prisoners of war under the orders of their conquerors. The Judaeans, it might have been thought, would shortly come under the influence of the common Law and sooner or later be absorbed into this cosmopolitan milieu.
A solid moral barrier against the foreign influences
But it never happened. This group from Yerusalem set up a solid moral barrier against the foreign influences which threatened their traditions and religion. And so we see the formation of a kernel of implacable resistance to any form of assimilation. Through the terrible trials which the survivors of the siege of Yerusalem went through these unfortunate people were led to meditate in their hearts on the lessons of the past. As a result there came that great spiritual progress which found expression in an ardent study of the Law, a deepening of their understanding of the revelations of the prophets, the scrupulous observance of the commandments and the quest of and interior set apartness which would place its faithful followers in fervent contact with YAHWEH. The Tabernacle, of course, was no more; but to compensate in some sort for the disappearance of ritual sacrifice (which could only take place in the court of the tabernacle at Yerusalem) the Scriptures were searched with new fervour.
It was a real regeneration of Yahwism and the beginning of an unprecedented period of spiritual progress. It was the origin of a new era which the historians term Judaism; it was, in actual fact, a defensive institutional organization of monotheism against the dangers, attacks and inroads of paganism.
The Number Of Judaeans Deported To Babylonia
On this point the Scripture provides very imprecise, incomplete and sometimes contradictory information. And the cuneiform texts do not mention it.
The following are the figures taken from relevant chapters of the Scripture:
First deportation under Jehoiachin. In 2 Melechim 24:12 we are told that the first body of prisoners amounted to 10,000 sent into exile. A few lines further down (verse 16) there is a different figure, 8,000. YermeYah (52:29) gives 3,023.
The second deportation after the fall of Yerusalem (587). YermeYah here speaks of 832 exiles; this seems a very small number if, as seems to have been the case, Nebuchadnezzar determined to inflict an exemplary punishment on the ever rebellious Judaean capital.
The third and last deportation, in 582. Here again, according to YermeYah, our only source of information, Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar's commander of the guard, deported 745 Judaeans to Babylon.
According to these figures and taking the highest for the first deportation, a total of 11,577 (10,000 +832 + 745) were sent into exile.
Scholars who have specialized in the study of this period, referring to large-scale operations of the same kind as performed firstly by the Assyrians and, later, by the Chaldaeans, emphasize that enumerations of this kind do not include either women or children, or even servants. To obtain an idea of the size of a group of prisoners the total given above should be multiplied by a coefficient of four or five. This gives a grand total of between 50,000 and 60,000 exiles.
But some authors take as the basis of their calculations the smallest numbers given in the biblical text, namely, 3,023 832 745, that is in all 4,600 men. Multiplying by four we obtain the approximate figure of 20,000 prisoners for the three deportations.
According to the same authorities, before the deportation Yahudah contained a little over 100,000 inhabitants (something like 80 inhabitants to the square mile; total area of the territory about 1200 square miles). It is thus estimated that about three-quarter of the Judaeans remained in their home country.
We need not dwell at length on this difficult and important question. Careful reading of the relevant biblical texts would seem to show that Yahudah was terribly impoverished both by war and deportations and it seems that the larger part of the manpower of the nation, both in quantity and quality, took the road to exile on Nebuchadnezzar's orders.
The Journey Into Exile
The Chaldaean bas-reliefs inform us clearly enough about the terrible conditions of the prisoners' journey. Moreover, before the Babylonians, the Assyrians depicted the prisoners on their way in the same manner.
The men had their arms tied so that their elbows were touching behind their backs. Sometimes the prisoners were chained two together, the left wrist of one attached to his traveling companion's right wrist. Once they were far enough away from their country of origin their chains were removed. The women were not bound at all and they are usually depicted sitting beside their young children on two-wheeled carts; these vehicles, transporting at the same time the clothes and the scanty baggage, were of course drawn by the prisoners.
Journeys like this could last several months (Ezra 7:9). Underfed, without the most elementary hygienic care, and traveling most of the time under a blazing sun, the prisoners sometimes fell exhausted on the plain. The corpses of the unfortunate Judaeans lay along the tracks leading to the banks of the Euphrates.
It is very probable that the columns of exiles took the usual route through Aleppo; they then went down the Euphrates as far as Babylon; a journey of about a thousand miles of actual distance traveled.
Babylon, 'Jewel And Boast Of The Babylonians' (Is. 13:19)
At last the wretched body of exiles was able to discern shining white in the distance an enormous mass of buildings dominated by a ziggurat (a staged tower) about three hundred feet high. 'Bab-ilu', proudly announced the escorting soldiers. Bab-ilu meant 'the gate of God' -the god in question was Marduk, protector of the city.
It was totally unlike the Judaean cities huddled inside the ramparts with narrow twisted streets bordered with houses tightly packed together. Babylon was defended by a series of enclosures: enormous ramparts and impassable trenches. But the city itself, in the shape of an enormous trapezium crossed by the Euphrates, was laid out according to a plan that looks almost modern in inspiration and was huge and rectangular. The wide streets intersected at right angles; Babylon was an enormous checker board. The houses rose to three or four stories, like those of Tyre.
Eight enormous gates gave access to the city. On arrival from the north, entrance was gained through the gate of Ishtar, magnificently adorned with thirteen superimposed layers of enameled bricks in which blue was the predominant colour; archaeologists have counted 575 figures of bulls, dragons and fabulous animals. This gate was surmounted by a frieze which was also enameled; the portico was crenellated.
From the Ishtar gate led the celebrated triumphal way (about half a mile long), paved with stone and bordered with royal palaces, defense works, tabernacles, high walls adorned with glittering ceramics on which were represented enormous roaring lions. In one of the architectural features near the gate archaeologists believe that they have discovered the foundations of what were called the 'hanging gardens of Babylon' regarded by the ancients as one of the seven wonders of the world. Nebuchadnezzar had married a Persian princess and he had constructed a series of terraces in stages, supported on enormous arches, to remind her of the wooded, undulating country side of her own land, on these terraces wonderful gardens had been made. Water for them was raised by mechanical means from the wells. Dominating the white mass of houses in the great city the green foliage of the palm trees proclaimed the glory of Nebuchadnezzar, builder and conqueror.
The triumphal way passed beside the enclosure wall of the tabernacle of Marduk from which rose the ziggurat in its seven stages, known as the tower of Babel. Its square base had a side of nearly three hundred feet in length and the tower was over three hundred feet high.
About halfway along the triumphal way was an intersection where it was joined by another avenue leading to the quays of the Euphrates and to the majestic bridge joining the two parts of the city. The pavement was formed of limestone slabs kept in place by pitch and on each slab at the edge of the road was carved the following inscription: 'It is I, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, son of Nebupolassar. I paved the street of Babylon with slabs of stone brought from the mountain for the procession of the great god Marduk.'
On both banks of the river were wide quays for the unloading of merchandise arriving by river to this land of merchants, this city of shopkeepers Yehezqel-(Ezekiel) 17:4.
On all sides in the city there were tabernacles (as many as fifty-three of them) of amazing size full of untold wealth. There were private houses with arrogant-looking facades. And in the outlying quarters, stood the workers' dwellings where the common people lived, the tabernacle slaves, the prisoners of war, employed for building works, who laboured for this exacting oligarchy, the mistress of the Middle East.
So far, for reasons of clarity, the narrative has been confined to the events occurring in Yerusalem until the fall of the city to Nebuchadnezzar. Attention must now be turned to the lot of the exiles transported to Babylon in three successive deportations.
The lives of the Judaean exiles on the banks of the Euphrates can be divided into three periods.
At first, a period of thirty-five years (597-562), relatively arduous, and lasting from the first deportation (597) until the death of Nebuchadnezzar (562).
Then, from 562 until 549, some fifteen years during which Chaldaean supervision relaxed. The Judaeans lived in expectation of a liberator.
Lastly, from 548 until 538, ten years during which occurred the impatiently-awaited solution of their difficulty. 539: Fall of the Babylonian empire to the assaults of Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians. 538: Edict of Cyrus authorizing the Judaean colony to return to its own country where the followers of YAHWEH would be allowed to rebuild the Tabernacle.
1. The life of the Judaean exiles in Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar (35 years: 597-562)
The Scripture tells us very little about the living conditions of Jehoiachin, the fallen king, when in exile. Fortunately Chaldaean texts discovered at Babylon furnish us with information on this point. During the first quarter of the present century, an archaeological mission under the leadership of the eminent Assyriologist Robert Koldewey, 1 brought to light a considerable number of cuneiform inscriptions, especially in Nebuchadnezzar's summer palace. From this evidence E, F. Weidner 2 discovered that the name of Jehoiachin appeared in connection with various deliveries of foodstuffs, especially oil of sesame. The dethroned king is there termed 'king of Jadahu' (Yahudah). The decipherers noticed that the rations allotted to Jehoiachin were larger by far than those intended for his Judaean entourage, which was also lodged in the Chaldaean sovereign's palace.
Thus it appears that the prisoner was treated as a king by his captor.
1 The mission was under the auspices of the Deutsche Orient Gesellshaft, founded in Berlin in 1898. Excavations were begun in 1899 on the tel 'of Babil' (namely, the site of ancient Babylon). The work, which had gone on for eighteen years without interruption, had to be stopped in 1917 on account of the British advance on Mesopotamia. Koldewey is the greatest of the pioneers of Mesopotamian archaeology. There is a good summary of his work in Vol I of Archeologie mesopotamienne by Andre Parrot.
2 'Joakin, Konig von Juda, in babylonischen Kellsschriftentexten in Melanges syriens, II, pp. 923-935. -See also, W. F. Albright, 'King Joiachin in Exile', in The Biblical Archeologist, 5, pp 49-55