Today I begin a series of studies about the exile of Israel in Babylon. Most Christians who read the Bible regularly know very little about the life of Israel in exile. The reason for this lack of understanding of what happened to the people of God while they spent almost seventy years in Babylon is because the information about the life of Israel in exile is presented in various books of the Old Testament, primarily in Isaiah 40-55 and in the book of Ezekiel.
There were three deportations of the people of Judah. The first deportation occurred in 597 B.C., the second in 587 B.C., and the third in 582 B.C. It is possible that there was another deportation of Judeans to Babylon in 604 B.C. at the time when Babylon invaded Judah and Jehoiakim submitted to Nebuchadnezzar: “In his days King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up; Jehoiakim became his servant for three years; then he turned and rebelled against him” (2 Kings 24:1). If there was a deportation at this time, and scholars are divided on this issue, then this was the occasion when Daniel and his friends were deported to Babylon (see Daniel 1:1-3).
During the siege of Babylon in 597, Jehoiakim, the king of Judah died. The words of Jeremiah in 36:30 suggest that Jehoiakim was assassinated: “Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim of Judah: He shall have no one to sit upon the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night” (Jeremiah 36:30).
After the death of Jehoiakim, his son Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah in 1 Chronicles 3:16 and Coniah in Jeremiah 22:24) was installed as the new king of Judah at the age of 18 (2 Kings 24:8). Unable to confront the mighty army of Babylon, Jehoiachin sought terms with Babylon: “King Jehoiachin of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, his mother, his servants, his officers, and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign” (2 Kings 24:12).
The first deportation of Judah took place in 597 B.C. According to 2 Kings 24:12-16, 10,000 people were taken into exile, including the royal family, their servants, and the palace officials. In addition, another 8,000 professional people were also taken to Babylon: “The king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, seven thousand, the artisans and the smiths, one thousand, all of them strong and fit for war” (2 Kings 24:16).
The second deportation of Judah took place in 587 B.C. According to 2 Kings 25:1 the siege of Jerusalem began on the tenth day of the tenth month in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign. At that time, “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, and laid siege to it; they built siegeworks against it all around. So the city was besieged until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city wall” (2 Kings 25:1-4).
During the siege Zedekiah fled from the city but was captured by the Babylonians. As a result of his rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah was captured and punished for his rebellion: “Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, who passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:6-7).
It was at this time that the second deportation took place. Jeremiah provides the number of people who were taken captive to Babylon: “In the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar he took into exile from Jerusalem eight hundred thirty-two persons” (Jeremiah 52:29).
In addition, several religious and military leaders who took part in the rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar were executed:
The captain of the guard took the chief priest Seraiah, the second priest Zephaniah, and the three guardians of the threshold; from the city he took an officer who had been in command of the soldiers, and five men of the king’s council who were found in the city; the secretary who was the commander of the army who mustered the people of the land; and sixty men of the people of the land who were found in the city. Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them, and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. The king of Babylon struck them down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah went into exile out of its land (2 Kings 25:18-21, emphasis added).
A few months after the conquest of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar’s captain returned to Jerusalem to finish the conquest of the city:
In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month – which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon – Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the LORD, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. All the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down the walls around Jerusalem. Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had defected to the king of Babylon — all the rest of the population. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil (2 Kings 25:8-12).
The third deportation of Judah took place in 582 after the assassination of Gedaliah, the governor of Judah appointed by the Babylonians to rule over the population who remained in the land. The city of Jerusalem was in ruins, so Gedaliah established the seat of his government at Mizpah (2 Kings 25:22-26).
Gedaliah was assassinated by Ishmael, a man from the royal family. At this time, many people fled to Egypt fearful of Babylonian reprisal. The reprisal came in the form of a third deportation of the people of Judah. According to Jeremiah 52:30, “in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadrezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took into exile of the Judeans seven hundred forty-five persons; all the persons were four thousand six hundred.”
Thus, because of the people’s violation of the demands of the covenant, and as Jeremiah had predicted, Jerusalem was conquered and the people of Judah were sent into exile. As a result of the exile, the people of Israel were dispersed. Some remained in Judah, other escaped to Egypt, and thousands were deported to Babylon.
The exile brought dramatic changes to the people of Israel. The religious and political structures of the nation were destroyed; the lives of the people of Israel were radically changed, never to be the same again.
Historically, the exile of Israel is the period in biblical history that begins with the first deportation of Israel in 597 B.C. until the fall of Babylon and the edict of Cyrus in 538 B.C. However, the exile was not the end of the nation as such. The preaching of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Deutero-Isaiah provided the people of Israel with a hope for the future. This hope of restoration affirmed that in time Yahweh would intervene again in the history of Israel and would restore the people back to their homeland.
Although the temple was destroyed, many of the buildings had been burned, the king of Judah and the royal family had been deported, and many people had been killed or exiled, the devastation caused by the Babylonians was never understood as the end of Israel. Instead, Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant, Deutero-Isaiah proclaimed a new exodus, a new beginning, and Ezekiel preached about the restoration of Israel.
The prophets believed in the faithfulness of God’s promises made to Abraham and all the ancestors of Israel. They also believed God’s hesed, his covenant love, would once again be manifested and Israel would be forgiven and once again be commissioned to do God’s work in the world.
Many people in Judah lost faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel. These people could not understand how their God could allow the Babylonians to destroy the temple, God’s house located in God’s holy city. Some people believed that Marduk, the god of the Babylonians was more powerful than the God of Israel.
Although Israel had been rebellious against Yahweh and had grievously violated the demands of the covenant, the prophets never ceased believing in the faithfulness of the God they served. For instance, confronted with the rebellion of the people of Judah, Jeremiah proclaimed God’s faithfulness with the following words:
This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar– the LORD Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the LORD, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.” This is what the LORD says: “Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,” declares the LORD (Jeremiah 31:35-37).
This is the faith of the prophets. Because they knew about God’s faithfulness and his love for his people, they knew that in due time, God would reveal himself again to Israel and deliver his people from their exile in a foreign land.
In future studies I will continue to look at the life of Israel in exile and how the prophet of the exile known as Deutero-Isaiah announced the new work God was doing to redeem his people and to bring them back to the Promised Land.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on the Exile of Judah