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Babylonian captivity

The Babylonian captivity (or Babylonian exile) is the period in Jewish history during which a number of Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were captives in Babylonia. After the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, resulting in tribute being paid by King Jehoiakim.[1] Jehoiakim refused to pay tribute in Nebuchadnezzar's fourth year, which led to another siege in Nebuchadnezzar's seventh year, culminating with the death of Jehoiakim, and the exile of King Jeconiah, his court and many others; Jeconiah's successor Zedekiah and others were exiled in Nebuchadnezzar's eighteenth year; a later deportation occurred in Nebuchadnezzar's twenty-third year. These deportations are dated to 597 BCE, c. 587 BCE, and c. 582 BCE, respectively.

After the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, exiled Jews began to return to the land of Judah. According to the biblical book of Ezra, construction of a second temple in Jerusalem began at this time. All these events are considered significant in Jewish history and culture, and had a far-reaching impact on the development of Judaism.

Archaeological studies have revealed that not all of the population of Judah was deported, and that, although Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, other parts of Judah continued to be inhabited during the period of the exile.[2] The return of the exiles was a gradual process rather than a single event, and many of the deportees or their descendants did not return.


  • Biblical accounts of the exile 1
  • Archaeological and other non-Biblical evidence 2
  • Exilic literature and post-exilic revisions of the Torah/Pentateuch 3
  • Significance in Jewish history 4
  • Chronology 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8

Biblical accounts of the exile

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 BC).

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 (such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) were taken to Babylon.

In the following years, the court of Jerusalem was divided into two parties, in support of Egypt and Babylon respectively. 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.[3] Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, died during the siege,[4] and was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah) at the age of eighteen.[5] The city fell on 2 Adar (March 16) 597 BCE,[6] and Nebuchadnezzar pillaged Jerusalem and its Temple and took Jeconiah, his court and other prominent citizens (including the prophet Ezekiel) back to Babylon.[7] 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 was blinded, and taken to Babylon with many others. Judah became a Babylonian province, called Yehud Medinata (Judah Province),[8] 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 HC (423 BCE)[9] or 3358 HC (403 BCE)).[10]

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, Edom, to return, and 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, 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,[11] the year after he captured Babylon.[12] 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 521–516 BCE.[11]

Archaeological and other non-Biblical evidence

Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem, his capture of King Jeconiah, his appointment of Zedekiah in his place, and the plundering of the city in 597 BCE as described in 2 Kings in the Bible are confirmed by a passage in the Babylonian Chronicles:[13]: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.

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.[14][15] One of the tablets refers to food rations for "Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yahudu" and five royal princes, his sons.[16]

Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian forces returned in 588/586 BCE and rampaged through Judah, leaving clear archaeological evidence of destruction in many towns and settlements there.[13]:294 Clay ostraca referred to as the Lachish letters from this period 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 are 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.[17] This correlates with the book of Jeremiah,[18] which states that Jerusalem, Lachish and Azekah were the last cities to fall to the Babylonians. Archaeological finds from Jerusalem testify that virtually the whole city within the walls was burnt to rubble in 587 BCE and utterly destroyed.[13]:295

The biblical books of 2 Kings and Jeremiah give varying numbers of exiles forcibly deported to Babylon and at one time it was widely believed that virtually the entire population was taken into captivity there. However archaeological excavations and surveys enable the population of Judah before the Babylonian destruction to be calculated with a high degree of confidence at approximately seventy-five thousand. Taking the different biblical numbers of exiles at their highest, twenty thousand, this would mean that at most twenty-five percent of the population were deported to Babylon, the remaining seventy-five percent staying in Judah.[13]:306 Although Jerusalem was destroyed and depopulated, large parts of the city remaining in ruins for one hundred and fifty years, numerous other settlements in Judah continued to be inhabited with no signs of disruption visible in archaeological studies.[13]:307

The biblical book of Ezra includes two texts said to be decrees of Cyrus the Great, conqueror of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, allowing the deported Jews to return to their homeland after decades and ordering the Temple rebuilt. The differences in content and tone of the two decrees, one in Hebrew and one in Aramaic, have caused some scholars to question their authenticity.[19] 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,[20] but other scholars point out that the cylinder's text is specific to Babylon and Mesopotamia and makes no mention of Judah or Jerusalem.[20] 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.[21]

As part of the Persian Empire, the former Kingdom of Judah became the province of Judah (Yehûd medîntā') with different borders, covering a smaller territory.[21] The population of the province was greatly reduced from that of the kingdom, archeological surveys showing a population of around thirty thousand people in the fifth to fourth centuries BCE.[13]:308

Exilic literature and post-exilic revisions of the Torah/Pentateuch

The exilic period was a rich one 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 Book of Judith.[22]

The Priestly source, one of the four main sources of the Torah/Pentateuch in the Bible, is primarily a product of the post-exilic period when the former Kingdom of Judah had become the Persian province of Yehud.[23] Also during this Persian period, the final redaction of the Pentateuch took place.[13]:310

Significance in Jewish history

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners.

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 script was adopted during this period, replacing the traditional Israelite script. 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 altered 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.[24]

This process coincided with the emergence of scribes and sages as Jewish leaders (see Levi continued in its temple role after the return. After this time, there were always sizable numbers of Jews living outside Eretz Israel; thus, it also marks the beginning of the "Jewish diaspora", unless this is considered to have begun with the Assyrian Captivity of Israel.

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".


The following table is based on Rainer Albertz's work on Israel in exile.[25] (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, 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
588 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 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.[26] 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

  • Avignon Papacy, sometimes called the "Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy".


  1. ^ Coogan, Michael (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  2. ^ Ephraim Stern (November–December 2000). "The Babylonian Gap". Biblical Archaeology Review 26 (6). From 604 B.C.E. to 538 B.C.E.—there is a complete gap in evidence suggesting occupation. ... I do not mean to imply that the country was uninhabited during the period between the Babylonian destruction and the Persian period. There were undoubtedly some settlements, but the population was very small. Many towns and villages were either completely or partly destroyed. The rest were barely functioning. International trade virtually ceased. Only two regions appear to have been spared this fate—the northern part of Judah (the region of Benjamin) and probably the land of Ammon, although the latter region awaits further investigation. 
  3. ^ Geoffrey Wigoder, The Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible Pub. by Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. (2006)
  4. ^ Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Hebrew Bible, Continuum International, 1996, page x. ISBN 0-304-33703-X
  5. ^ 2Kings 24:6–8
  6. ^ Philip J. King, Jeremiah: An Archaeological Companion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), page 23.
  7. ^ The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. by Michael D Coogan. Pub. by Oxford University Press, 1999. pg 350
  8. ^ Yehud being the Babylonian equivalent of the Hebrew Yehuda, or "Judah", and "medinata" the word for province
  9. ^ Rashi to Talmud Bavli, avodah zara p. 9a. Josephus, seder hadoroth year 3338
  10. ^ malbim to ezekiel 24:1, abarbanel et al.
  11. ^ a b "Second Temple Period (538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) Persian Rule". Retrieved 2014-03-15. 
  12. ^ Harper's Bible Dictionary, ed. by Achtemeier, etc., Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1985, p.103
  13. ^ a b c d e f g  
  14. ^  
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ "Babylonian Ration List: King Jehoiakhin in Exile, 592/1 BCE". The Center for Online Judaic Studies. Retrieved 23 August 2013. Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yahudu 
  17. ^ Translation from Aḥituv, Shmuel. Echoes from the Past. Jerusalem: CARTA Jerusalem, 2008, pg. 70.
  18. ^ Jeremiah 34:7
  19. ^ Bedford, Peter Ross (2001). Temple Restoration in Early Achaemenid Judah. Leiden: Brill. p. 112 (Cyrus edict section pp. 111–131).  
  20. ^ a b Becking, Bob (2006). ""We All Returned as One!": Critical Notes on the Myth of the Mass Return". In Lipschitz, Oded; Oeming, Manfred. Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. p. 8.  
  21. ^ 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.  
  22. ^ 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
  23. ^ Blum, Erhard (1998). "Issues and Problems in the Contemporary Debate Regarding the Priestly Writings". In Sarah Shectman, Joel S. Baden. The strata of the priestly writings: contemporary debate and future directions. Theologischer Verlag. pp. 32–33. 
  24. ^ A Concise History of the Jewish People | Naomi E. Pasachoff, Robert J. Littma | Rowman & Littlefield, 2005 | pg 43
  25. ^ Rainer Albertz, Israel in exile: the history and literature of the sixth century BCE, p.xxi.
    • page 77 with another list of dates
  26. ^ 2 Kings 25:27

Further reading


  • Yehud Medinata map, CET – Center For Educational technology
  • Yehud Medinata Border map, CET – Center For Educational technology


  • Peter R. Ackroyd, "Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C." (SCM Press, 1968)
  • Rainer Albertz, Bob Becking, "Yahwism after the Exile" Van Gorcum, 2003)
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph, "Judaism, the first phase: the place of Ezra and Nehemiah in the origins of Judaism" (Eerdmans, 2009)
  • Nodet, Étienne, "A search for the origins of Judaism: from Joshua to the Mishnah" (Sheffield Academic Press, 1999, original edition Editions du Cerf, 1997)
  • Becking, Bob, and Korpel, Marjo Christina Annette (eds), "The Crisis of Israelite Religion: Transformation of Religious Tradition in Exilic & Post-Exilic Times" (Brill, 1999)
  • Bedford, Peter Ross, "Temple restoration in early Achaemenid Judah" (Brill, 2001)
  • Berquist, Jon L., "Approaching Yehud: new approaches to the study of the Persian period" (Society of Biblical Literature, 2007)
  • Grabbe, Lester L., "A history of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period", vol.1 (T&T Clark International, 2004)
  • Levine, Lee I., "Jerusalem: portrait of the city in the second Temple period (538 B.C.E.-70 C.E.)" (Jewish Publication Society, 2002)
  • Lipschitz, Oded, "The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem" (Eisenbrauns, 2005)
  • Lipschitz, Oded, and Oeming, Manfred (eds), "Judah and the Judeans in the Persian period" (Eisenbrauns, 2006)
  • Lipschitz, Oded, and Oeming, Manfred (eds), "Judah and the Judeans in the fourth century B.C.E." (Eisenbrauns, 2006)
  • Middlemas, Jill Anne, "The troubles of templeless Judah" (Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • Stackert, Jeffrey, "Rewriting the Torah: literary revision in Deuteronomy and the holiness code" (Mohr Siebeck, 2007)
  • Vanderkam, James, "An introduction to early Judaism" (Eerdmans, 2001)


  • "Babylonian Captivity".  
  • "Babylonish Captivity".  
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