The Bible and Archaeology: The Downfall of Judah—Exile to Babylon

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The Bible and Archaeology

The Downfall of Judah—Exile to Babylon

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In this series The Good News examines archaeological finds that confirm and clarify the historical record of the Bible. Several earlier articles discussed the time of the divided kingdom of the Israelites after they split into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah after the death of King Solomon. Two articles described the history of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the last issue portrayed the early years of the southern kingdom of Judah. We continue with an examination of the last years of Judah as a kingdom.

Around 710 B.C. Judah found itself in a dangerous position. A decade before, Judah's fellow Israelites in the kingdom of Israel had been conquered by Assyria. The Assyrians repopulated the land with others brought in from distant parts of the Assyrian Empire. Judah's territory had been largely devastated by Assyrian armies. Only a great miracle had saved the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the same fate that had overtaken their northern cousins.

Meanwhile, more winds of change were beginning to stir in the region. A new power, Babylon, was rising in the east. Could the tiny, weakened kingdom of Judah survive its precarious position between powerful and warring Assyria, Babylon and Egypt? The amazing story of Judah's survival is one of the themes of the Old Testament.

Hezekiah's Fateful Mistake

Soon after Jerusalem's miraculous deliverance from the Assyrians, Judah's King Hezekiah fell ill. After God healed Hezekiah, a Babylonian prince sent representatives with a message and gift of congratulations for the monarch. "At that time Berodach—Baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that Hezekiah had been sick" (2 Kings 20:12).

Hezekiah's response to what he naively interpreted as a neighborly act of kindness and reconciliation would prove costly in the end.

"And Hezekiah was attentive to them [the Babylonian ambassadors], and showed them all the house of his treasures—the silver and gold, the spices and precious ointment, and all his armory—all that was found among his treasures. There was nothing in his house or in all his dominion that Hezekiah did not show them. Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah, and said to him, 'What did these men say, and from where did they come to you?' So Hezekiah said, 'They came from a far country, from Babylon' ... Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, 'Hear the word of the Lord: "Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and what your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left"'" (verses 13—17).

Although Hezekiah proved righteous and faithful as king, he foolishly tried to impress his visitors by showing them the kingdom's wealth and weaponry. The Bible reveals that at this time God withdrew from Hezekiah "in order to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart" (2 Chronicles 32:31). God allowed Hezekiah to make this thoughtless decision. Thus the setting was established for the future Babylonian invasion of Judah and its rich capital, Jerusalem.

Manasseh: Vassal of the Assyrians

After Hezekiah's death his son Manasseh inherited the throne. It wasn't long before the young king departed from his father's righteous example and exposed himself as a wicked ruler. "Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty—five years in Jerusalem. But he did evil in the sight of the Lord ..." (2 Chronicles 33:1—2).

"So Manasseh seduced Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed ... And the Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they would not listen. Therefore the Lord brought upon them the captains of the army of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh with hooks, bound him with bronze fetters, and carried him off to Babylon" (verses 9—11).

Two Assyrian records corroborate Manasseh's submission to the Assyrians. "The name, 'Manasseh, king of Judah' appears on the Prism of Esarhaddon ... and on the Prism of Ashurbanipal" as among 22 rulers who paid tribute to Assyria (The New Bible Dictionary, 1996, p. 724).

The biblical narrative describing King Manasseh as being carried off "with hooks" (verse 11) refers to nose rings used to lead prisoners by ropes. It was a painful, humiliating and degrading punishment for those who would defy the mighty Assyrian kings.

Mighty Capital of a Mighty Empire

The Assyrian Empire, with Nineveh as its capital, appeared invincible at the time. James Muir graphically describes this empire at the time of the prophet Nahum (668 B.C):

"Assyria's expansion across western Asia could be likened to an octopus whose tentacles stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Nile, and whose head was Nineveh. At that time, Nineveh was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Recently, three of its kings had adorned the city with the wealth of their conquests and had built fabulous palaces. These were made of brick, and on the walls of the palaces were exquisitely crafted bas—reliefs which depicted their great victories. The great walls which surrounded the city measured twelve miles in circumference" (Archaeology and the Scriptures, 1965, pp. 182—183).

In spite of Nineveh's greatness, Nahum foretold not only the city's destruction but predicted that it would never be rebuilt. "'Behold, I am against you,' says the Lord of hosts; 'I will lift your skirts over your face, I will show the nations your nakedness, and the kingdoms your shame. I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle. It shall come to pass that all who look upon you will flee from you, and say, "Nineveh is laid waste! ..."'" (Nahum 3:5—7).

After its destruction, in 612 B.C, this mighty metropolis of the ancient world vanished from view. "Nineveh disappeared so quickly from sight," according to one author, "that when the Greek general Xenophon and his ten thousand soldiers passed over the site in his famous reconnaissance of the Persian Empire, he didn't realize the ruins of Nineveh were under his feet. What had happened? When Nineveh was put to the torch, everything was burnt, and gradually what was left became an artificial mound covered with grass" (Arnold Brackman, The Luck of Nineveh, 1978, p. 21).

Although few would have believed it at the time, Nahum's remarkable prediction came to pass just as he had foretold. Nineveh was rediscovered only in 1845 by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard. As a result, many treasures from its ruins adorn the galleries of great museums in several countries

A Scribe who Made an Impression

After Assyria fell, Babylon ascended to rule the region. With the rise of King Nebuchadnezzar (605—562 B.C), the days of the kingdom of Judah were numbered. Nevertheless, God sent faithful messengers to warn the nation's leaders to return to worship of the one true God before it was too late. Nehemiah said later, "Yet for many years You had patience with them, and testified against them by Your Spirit in Your prophets. Yet they would not listen; therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands" (Nehemiah 9:30).

One of those prophets was Jeremiah, who lived while the Babylonians were threatening Jerusalem. His faithful scribe, Baruch, wrote down some of Jeremiah's prophecies. "Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote on a scroll of a book, at the instruction of Jeremiah, all the words of the Lord which He had spoken to him" (Jeremiah 36:4). Archaeologists recently found a clay impression from Jeremiah's time bearing not only Baruch's name, but apparently even his fingerprint!

Tsvi Schneider, who in 1991 served as assistant librarian at Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology, writes about a seal with Baruch's name on it: "The first and best—known biblical name to be identified on a bulla [a lump of clay bearing a seal impression] is Baruch son of Neriah. Baruch was the scribe, loyal friend and political ally of the prophet Jeremiah. The inscription is in three lines and reads: 'Belonging to Berekhyahu/son of Neriyahu/the scribe.' The bulla refers to Baruch by his full given name ... Baruch son of Neriah, the seal impression tells us, was a scribe. Four episodes in the Book of Jeremiah mention Baruch, son of Neriah the scribe" (Biblical Archaeological Review, July—August 1991, p. 27).

The librarian explains that the names of three other people from Jeremiah's day, including Baruch's brother, appear in other clay impressions and seals. "It is interesting that chapter 36 of the Book of Jeremiah also contains the names of two other people whose seals have been impressed in surviving bullae: 'Yerahme'el son of the king' and 'Gemariah son of Shaphan.'"

The seal of Seriah, Baruch's brother, has been found as well. Seriah's name appears several times in Jeremiah 51 (verses 59—64). "The seal reads, in two lines, 'Belonging to Seriahu/Neriyahu' ... Seriah was the brother of Baruch, Jeremiah's scribe; both Seriah and Baruch were the sons of Neriah and grandsons of Mahseiah (Jeremiah 32:12, 51:59)" (Biblical Archaeological Review, p. 30).

These remarkable finds confirm even some of the tiniest details of the Bible— that four people mentioned in the book of Jeremiah were real people who lived in Jerusalem at the time.

The Fall of Jerusalem

The Bible's account of the conquest of Jerusalem is also confirmed by Babylonian records. First, let's notice the biblical record: "And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy. Therefore He brought against them the king of the Chaldeans [Babylonians] ..." (2 Chronicles 36:15—17).

"Then they burned the house of God [the temple], broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious possessions. And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah ..." (2 Chronicles 36:19—21).

Jerusalem was actually conquered twice. The city was first captured but not destroyed. Later it fell a second time, in 587 B.C., when it was destroyed as the Bible describes. The city was put to the torch, its palaces and temple burned and its walls demolished. The Bible faithfully describes both defeats but does not specify when the city was conquered the first time.

In 1887 several Babylonian tablets, which archaeologists call The Babylon Chronicles, were deciphered. They provided dates of the reigns of many Babylonian kings. More tablets, deciphered in 1956, give the dates of Nebuchadnezzar's reign and activities. Regrettably, one tablet is missing that could account for the years 594—557 B.C. Other than this gap, the tablets document his reign.

The Archaeological Commentary on the Bible explains the significance of the 1956 find: "Until 1956, the date of the first conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians was not known. But in that year, several cuneiform tablets were deciphered which gave an exact date for the first conquest— in 597 B.C." (1979, pp. 143—144).

Exile to Babylon

Like the Assyrians, the Babylonians deported vanquished peoples to maintain tighter control over conquered territories.

As their cousins in the northern kingdom of Israel fell into captivity by Assyria more than a century earlier, Judah's inhabitants now were taken to Babylon.

The situation seemed hopeless. Judah was devastated, and the Babylonians forcibly removed most of its citizens. Yet, in spite of their situation, God through His prophets encouraged the people not to give up hope that they would one day return to their homeland. He not only sent prophets to Judah but to Babylon as well. Men such as Daniel and Ezekiel, who both lived in Babylon, spoke of a coming restoration of Judah.

Speaking through Jeremiah, God held out hope for His people: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters ... that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace ... After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place" (Jeremiah 29:4—10).

After these encouraging words, the exiles flourished as a community in Babylon. They were so successful that after the 70 prophesied years of their exile the majority decided to stay. These circumstances nurtured the growth of two large Jewish enclaves in that part of the world, one in Babylon and the other in Jerusalem.

Archaeological evidence demonstrates the kind of favorable conditions that God promised Judah's inhabitants in Babylon. "In 1933, E.F. Weidner, the Assyriologist, took in hand to look through the tablets and sherds in the basement rooms of the Kaiser—Friedrich Museum ... Among this dull administrative rubbish Weidner suddenly found some priceless relics of red tape in the ancient world. On four different receipts for stores issued, among them best quality sesame oil, he came upon a familiar biblical name: 'Ja'—u—kinu'—Jehoiachin! There was no possibility of his name being mistaken, because Jehoiachin was given his full title: 'King of the [land of] Judah' ... Jehoiachin, the deposed king of Judah, lived with his family and his retinue in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. We may conclude from Weidner's discovery that the biblical account in the Second Book of Kings may be thus supplemented: 'And for his diet, there was a continual diet given him of the king of Babylon, every day a portion, until the day of his death, all the days of his life' (Jeremiah 52:34)" (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, 1980, pp. 303—304).

The Bank of Murashu & Sons

The enterprising inhabitants of Judah, who had come to Babylon as a defeated and captive people, were given considerable leeway by the equally industrious Babylonians. Historian Petra Eisele explains: "Although not much is known of the lives of the Jewish exiles in Babylon, enough is known to confirm their plight was not as harsh as their slavery had been in Egypt during Moses' time. In Babylon they did not live as prisoners or slaves, instead as a 'semi—free' people ... After the Persians conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and granted the Jews the right to return to their native land, only a minority of these supposedly 'poor prisoners' took advantage of this generous offer. Many did not want to sacrifice the comforts and riches they had acquired in this 'foreign' land and face the uncertainties of going back to their 'homeland.'

"As the clay tablets of commercial documents in the fifth century B.C show, even after the end of the exile, the Babylonian banks were firmly in the hands of the Jews. There was one Jewish banker whose firm, Bank of Murashu & Sons, had greatly expanded into the real estate business. It had its headquarters in nearby Nippur, and had approximately 200 branches throughout the country!" (Babylon, quoted in Editorial EDAF, 1980, p. 70).

With thriving centers in Babylon and Jerusalem, the Jewish people were better equipped to survive the conquests of the Persians, Greeks and Romans. Several centuries later, in the New Testament period, they remained firmly established in Israel. Against all apparent odds, God's promise that Judah's inhabitants would not remain in their Babylonian captivity was fulfilled.

As we will also see in future articles, archaeology has discovered much from this period to confirm the biblical record. GN

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