586 to 537 B. C. Part 1
With the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple, the people of Judah entered a period of captivity in a foreign, pagan land. Ironically, this was the land from which the people of Israel had come from generations before. Abraham had journeyed to Canaan from Ur. The sons of Jacob (Israel) had been born in Paddan-aram (northern Mesopotamia). Now as a result of God’s judgment on their sin, the Israelites were back in the land of their origin. It was from this place that they would have their “second birth” as a nation.
The History and Duration of The Exile
A short overview of the history of this period will help put the Babylonian captivity into proper perspective.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God had announced to his people that they would serve the king of Babylon for seventy years, after which he would overthrow Babylon and bring them back to the Promised Land. Though there are two different dates that this may have happened, it is thought that Daniel calculated the 70 years from 605 to 539 B. C. In Daniel 9: 1-2, he prayed in anticipation of the near completion of this seventy year period.
Experiences of the Jews in Captivity
The people who were taken into captivity settled mainly along the irrigation canals of Babylonia, such as Chebar talked about in Ezekiel 1: 1. They settled in such ruined sites as Tel-abib (Ezekiel 3: 15), Tel Melah, and Tel Harsha (Ezra 2:59; Neh. 7:61), where they were expected to rebuild the towns, cultivate the land, and multiply.
At the beginning of the exile, the people had a great sadness at the prospect of living in a foreign land hundreds of miles from Jerusalem. They were tormented by their captors, and they hung up their harps, because they could not fathom singing the songs of Zion in a foreign land.
Yet, as time passed, the captives found life in Babylonian captivity to be relatively pleasant compared to what their ancestors had experienced in Ancient Egypt years before. With some exceptions, they were generally not mistreated and even enjoyed a variety of privileges. The prophecy of Ezekiel is the clearest contemporary resource for studying conditions among the Jews during the early years of the exile. Ezekiel had his own home where the elders of Judah were free to visit him (Ezekiel 8:1). He apparently enjoyed the privilege of correspondence with the people remaining in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 29:25). Jeremiah even wrote a letter of counsel to the captives in Babylon in Jeremiah 29.
Mesopotamia is noted for its fine agricultural land, but cultivation there cannot be successful without irrigation. The Jews, though, had settled along the irrigation canals, where plenty of water was available for their crops. Some of the exiles, such as the craftsmen and smiths, were taken captive because of their skills and were undoubtedly encouraged to continue their trades in Babylonia. There is also strong evidence for Jewish involvement in trade and commerce during the captivity.
Archaeologists have unearthed clay tablets at Nippur on the Kabari Canal, containing the records of business transactions – buying, selling, and renting. Jewish names among these records indicate that many became merchants. Some grew quite wealthy. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus reports that at the end of the exile many Jews did not want to leave Babylon on account of their many possessions.
Some of the Jews, such as Daniel, Esther, Mordecai, and Nehemiah, attained important positions in government while living in the land of their captivity. It was perhaps through the influence of such trusted Jewish officials as Daniel that Jehoiachin, the exiled King of Judah, was released from prison and eventually restored to a position of honor in the Babylonian court of Evil-Merodach, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor.
Beginnings of Judaism
Undoubtedly, the greatest heritage of the Judean exile is the beginning of what has become known as Judaism. The spiritual developments, beliefs, and traditions that were initially formulated by the Judeans in exile has become the spiritual heritage of the Jewish people. Deprived of the temple and opportunities for religious ritual, the captives in Babylonia began to focus on personal piety rather than official worship protocol as they had with all the sacrifices and worship in the Temple. The two major results of the exile were the synagogue and the Talmud.
Since they had no one main Temple to centralize their worship, the Judeans began to gather in small groups for prayer, instruction, and devotions. As a result of this, the synagogue came into being as context for corporate study of the Hebrew Scriptures. It not only kept alive the traditions, institutions, and faith of the Jewish people, but it also had a profound influence on maintaining Jewish identity through the exile and down through the ages until the present day.
In general, the northern tribes had gone into captivity first and had just been assimilated into other national groups. They were not associated with Jewish beliefs any more. It was the captive southern Kingdom of Judah that preserved its heritage and survived by establishing synagogues. Even after the Temple was rebuilt, the synagogue had become such an integral part of Jewish worship that it continued to flourish as an institution. In the first century A. D., synagogues were situated at Jewish centers throughout the entire Mediterranean world. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of synagogues in Palestine at Capernaum, Chorazin, Masada, Herodium, Beth She’arim, Hammath, Jericho, and Beth Alpha.
The Talmud (from the Hebrew “to learn”) is a collection of rabbinical laws, decisions, and commentary on the law of Moses (the Torah). The Talmud today is composed of the Mishnah, the oral law that was in existence at the end of the second century A. D., and the Gemara, comments on the Mishnah by the rabbis from A. D. 200 to 500. The Talmud began to be developed in order to accommodate the needs of pious Jews living outside the land of Israel. How was the law to be applied to those Jews living in the Diaspora? How were the holy ordinances to be observed when there was no temple? The Talmud, represents developments in Judaism from the exile to the sixth century A. D. It reflects how the law of Moses was adapted, reinterpreted, and applied to meet the changing conditions of exile. It records the accumulation of traditions, institutions, customs, and beliefs of the Jews during the centuries preceding and following the advent of Christianity. This great work of Jewish literature had its beginnings during the Babylonian exile.
The People in Exile
It is difficult to determine the number of Judeans taken into captivity. The first deportation in 605 B. C. was probably a very small number, since Nebuchadnezzar was primarily interested at this time in members of the royal family and nobles whom he could train for administrative positions in his court. (Daniel 1: 1-7)
The second deportation involved the exile of ten thousand Judeans, including King Jehoiachin, his family, and officials and leading men of Judah. (2 Kings 24: 10 – 16) One might expect the third deportation to involve the greatest number of exiles, but 2 Kings and Jeremiah only mention less than a thousand, and some passages don’t mention numbers at all. The total number of Jews taken into captivity may best be indicated by the numbers of those who returned in 537 B. C. – a total of 42,360 (Ezra 2: 24; Neh. 7: 66)
The Babylonians took the people with the best training and highest rank – the craftsmen and artisans, the captains and officials, the high priest and the temple officers. It is recorded that Nebuchadnezzar captured all “except the poorest of the land” in 2 Kings 24:14. Not all of them safely arrived in Babylon, though, because 2 Kings 25: 18 – 21 says that some of them were killed at Riblah along the way.
Some of the more prominent personalities of Judah’s exilic history include Daniel, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Their lives and activities are worthy of individual consideration.
His name means “God as my Judge”. He was born into a family of Judean nobility during the reign of Josiah in 640 – 609 B. C. Daniel was probably about 15 years old when he was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and sent to Babylon in 605 B. C. He prophesied in Babylon from 603 to 536 B. C. throughout the Babylonian exile and into the Persian period of rule. Daniel was probably about 85 years old at the time of his last recorded vision.
Virtually all we know about him comes from the book that bears his name. He and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were selected to be trained in the language and literature of the Babylonians in preparation for serving in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. As they entered this 3 year training program, Daniel and his friends were assigned names that were intended to honor Babylonian deities. Daniel was given the name “Belteshazzar”, meaning “may Bel (Baal) protect his life.”
In spite of all the tempting food and opportunities placed before him, Daniel determined that he would not defile his character by disobeying God’s law. God honored Daniel’s commitment and blessed his training so that he was found to be wiser than the magicians and conjurers who served Nebuchadnezzar’s court. God even gave Daniel the ability to experience and interpret dreams and visions.
Daniel served in Babylonia about 70 years under at least three different sovereigns. He declared and interpreted the dreams and the tree vision of Nebuchadnezzar (605 – 562 B. C.) He analyzed the “writing on the wall” for Belshazzar (553 – 539 B. C.), who served as co-regent with Nabonidus. Daniel survived the transition from Babylonian to Persian rule in 539 B. C., and was appointed a commissioner in the court of Darius the Mede. He so distinguished himself in the Persian court that the king appointed him over the entire kingdom. His position gave him significant influence in the Babylonian and Persian courts. This could have been one of the reasons that Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Daniel is an excellent example of the godly influence one person can have on a pagan society.
He was the son of a Zadokite priest, and was deported to Babylonia with King Jehoiachin and ten thousand other captives in 597 B. C. Daniel lived in the royal city of Babylon, but Ezekiel lived among a colony of exiled Jews at a place called Tel-abib. He began his prophetic ministry when he was 30 years of age, during the fifth year of King Jehoiachin’s exile. Ezekiel continued this ministry for at least 22 years.
His ministry to the colony of exiles can be divided into two main periods. Up to the fall of Jerusalem, his ministry primarily consisted of preaching about the coming judgment on Judah. Ezekiel set forth the sins of the nation that were the grounds for her imminent punishment.
After the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, his ministry was one of consolation and encouragement, as he predicted the future restoration of the nation. He sought to emphasize to the exiles that God’s judgment was designed to bring them to a knowledge that Yahweh is the only true God.
Ezekiel is noted for his use of symbolic pantomimes to bring God’s message to his people. He made a model of Jerusalem and acted out a siege of the city; he ate meager rations to portray famine conditions in Jerusalem; he packed his bags and carried them out of his house to warn of the coming exile. His playacting was necessitated in part by his being mute for the first seven years of his ministry. (Ezekiel 3: 26; 33:22) Until the fall of Jerusalem, he was unable to speak except when God opened his mouth to proclaim the divine word. Ezekiel would act out a message, and his audience would inquire as to its meaning. Then God would speak through the prophet and tell the people what He wanted to say.
Although he ministered in a difficult time to a stubborn and obstinate people, his initial vision left him with an abiding sense of the glory of God. That must have sustained him through the most difficult times of his ministry.
While Daniel ministered in the royal court of Babylon and Ezekiel ministered in the colony of the exiles, Jeremiah continued his prophetic ministry in Jerusalem by declaring God’s imminent judgment on the apostate city.
He was born into the priestly family of Hilkiah and brought up in the city of Anathoth, located a few miles northeast of Jerusalem. He was called by God to the prophetic ministry in the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign. Apparently, he saw Josiah’s reforms as inadequate to prevent judgment on Jerusalem. He announced that Judah would be judged and that the people would go into exile. Because of his unpopular preaching, he faced much opposition and persecution.
He was confronted with death threats and plots against his life, and was publicly humiliated by being beaten and placed in stocks. On several occasions he was arrested and imprisoned. Yet, Jeremiah continued prophesying judgment on Judah and Jerusalem through the reigns of the last kings of Judah – Jehoiakim (609 – 597 B. C.), Jehoiachin (597 B. C.), and Zedekiah 597 – 586 B. C.)
When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B. C., Jeremiah was released from the imprisonment he had suffered under Zedekiah and allowed to stay among the people remaining in Judah. He went to Mizpah, the headquarters of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. When Gedaliah was slain, Jeremiah warned the remnant of Judah not to depart but to remain in the land. Acting against his advice, they fled for Egypt and forced him to go with them.
There in Egypt, Jeremiah continued his ministry until his death, predicting judgment on Egypt and other foreign nations, including Babylon. Because of his call and commitment to ministry, he went on preaching even when the people neither heeded nor appreciated his messages.