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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Final Decades of the Judean Monarchy

The unforeseen death of Josiah had left Judah without a designated heir. Once again the “people of the land” stepped into the breach, appointing Josiah's son Jehoahaz to the throne in 609 BCE. But because Judah was now effectively under Egyptian hegemony, this independent move was rejected. Neco removed Jehoahaz after just three months and exiled him to Egypt. Jehoiakim (a throne name, given by his overlord), another son of Josiah, was elevated as king, and a crushing indemnity of one hundred talents of silver and a talent of gold was imposed on the “people of the land.”

The decade of Jehoiakim's reign (608–598 BCE) saw Judah shifting back and forth between allegiance to Egypt—to whom Jehoiakim owed his throne—and the new Babylonian overlord, who in due course arrived on the scene. The struggle between the two powers continued for a number of years, until Neco was worsted at Carchemish on the Euphrates in 605; the Egyptian army reeled back to the Nile Delta, driven by the superior Babylonian forces under the crown prince Nebuchadrezzar (a form of the name Nebuchadnezzar etymologically closer to the original and found in some biblical passages). In the summer and winter of the following year, Nebuchadrezzar, now king of Babylonia, marched his troops south. Underscoring the desperate straits of Egypt's former vassals in Philistia, a letter written in Aramaic from King Adon of Ekron to Neco urgently asks for aid inasmuch as the forces “of the king of Babylon have reached Aphek [in the coastal plain].” The heavy fighting reported to have taken place at Ashkelon and the city's destruction show that Egypt had abandoned the area, preferring, for the time being at least, to bolster its soon-to-be-tested home defenses. “The king of Egypt did not come again out of his land, for the king of Babylon had taken over all that belonged to the king of Egypt from the Wadi of Egypt [Wadi el-Arish] to the River Euphrates” (2 Kings 24.7 ).

At this juncture Judah submitted to Babylonia, but not without bitter internal controversy. The voices of those who urged surrender to Nebuchadrezzar, most prominent among them the prophet Jeremiah, were antagonistically received. The high drama of those days can be grasped by a chapter from the biography of Jeremiah (Jer. 36 ). No newcomer to Jerusalem, the prophet had been expounding the word of his God since the days of Josiah. His warning that continued disregard of the covenant demands for justice and righteousness in public life would lead to God's punishing his people was more than once met with scorn and outright hostility. The antagonism between the king and Jeremiah must have been particularly great following the prophet's censure of his sanguineous extravagances. Not surprisingly, therefore, on this particular occasion, Jeremiah chose to send Baruch, his secretary and friend, to read his words to those assembled at the Temple; he himself was barred from appearing there because of an earlier altercation with the authorities. Jeremiah predicted dire consequences if they resisted Babylonia. It was a chimera to believe that the Temple would offer them refuge, for it, too, was forfeit, just as the old premonarchic sanctuary in Shiloh had been handed over for destruction to the Philistines. His words were immediately brought to the king's attention, and though some ministers supported the prophet's stand, Jehoiakim derisively consigned Jeremiah's scroll to the fire section by section as the scroll was read, and ordered both the prophet and his secretary arrested. In the end, Jehoiakim did submit to Nebuchadrezzar, although he soon found reason to switch loyalties.

Nebuchadrezzar suffered a major setback in his attempt to invade Egypt in 601 and was forced to return to Babylonia to refit his army. This information is recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle as the main event in Nebuchadrezzar's fourth year, and it is a striking example of the evenhandedness of that ancient source. In the wake of his victory, Neco moved against Gaza, thus moving Egypt's border to the northern Sinai once again; Jehoiakim returned to his pro-Egyptian stance. Babylonian garrison troops stationed in the west took the lead in trying to bring Judah back into line, until Nebuchadrezzar himself appeared on the scene. Despite Egypt's proximity, Neco lent no support to his erstwhile client in Jerusalem. The outcome is reported in the Babylonian Chronicle in summary fashion:

Year 7 [of Nebuchadrezzar]. In the month of Kislev [December 598], the king of Babylonia mobilized his troops and marched to the west. He encamped against the city of Judah [Jerusalem], and on the second of Adar [16 March 597], he captured the city and he seized [its] king. A king of his choice he appointed there; he to[ok] its heavy tribute and carried it off to Babylon.

Sometime during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, Jehoiakim died under unknown circumstances—there is even suspicion of assassination. His son Jehoiachin assumed the throne, but within three months he submitted and threw himself upon the mercy of Nebuchadrezzar. The young Jehoiachin was indeed spared, living out his life in exile. Deported together with the king were members of the royal household and the court, as well the city's elite—officers of the army and its premier fighting units and skilled craftsmen and smiths all found themselves on the road to Babylon, where they would be employed in state service. Their total number reached some ten thousand persons, more than enough for the start of what was to become a flourishing community in exile. Foremost among the spoils were the state and Temple treasuries, including golden vessels dedicated by King Solomon. Thus, when Zedekiah, Jehoiachin's uncle and the last son of Josiah to attain the throne, was installed as a Babylonian vassal king, he took over a land much impoverished, depleted of both human and material resources.

Zedekiah's eleven-year reign, as tumultuous as any in Judah's recent history, would be the kingdom's final decade as a sovereign state. Rather than maintaining loyalty to his liege and overlord, as might have been expected, Zedekiah seized every opportunity to break free from Babylonia. To suggest youth and inexperience as the causes of this policy would be to engage in modern psychohistory. On the other hand, it is understandable that observers in the west might have thought that Babylonia was going into decline. After his victory at Jerusalem, Nebuchadrezzar faced several serious threats to his rule. During the next three years, he met Elam on the eastern front and put down a rebellion among army officers at home. In each case, Nebuchadrezzar overcame his enemies, but to some, these events suggested that the time was ripe to regain independence. Thus, in the late summer of 594 BCE, a regional conclave convened in Jerusalem to plan joint action against Nebuchadrezzar. Among the participants were delegates from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon. Egypt stood conspicuously aloof, Neco having died the previous winter and his successor, Psammetichus II (595–589), finding himself engaged in strengthening his southern border.

Talk of rebellion was everywhere, and the leadership in Judah was clearly divided over the issue. Once again, Jeremiah found himself confronting the anti-Babylonian faction in heated debate. He demonstrated his disapproval of their actions by appearing before those assembled at the Temple wearing a yoke of straps and bars on his neck, symbolic of the yoke of the king of Babylon that God had placed on the nations, not to be removed. The prophet also warned against the false hopes spawned by other prophets that the exiles would soon return. Through his contacts with that community, he knew that the unrest had reached them, and that several of their leaders had been executed by Nebuchadrezzar. Among those present at the Temple when Jeremiah spoke was Hananiah, son of Azur from Gibeon, who to the dismay of the crowd and the prophet himself removed the yoke from Jeremiah's neck. Breaking the yoke, Hananiah prophesied that just so would God “break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years” (Jer. 28.11 ).

In the end, the rebellion did not come off. Apparently a decision could not reached by the delegates, but Zedekiah was summoned that winter to appear personally before Nebuchadrezzar while the Babylonian king was on campaign in northern Syria, in all likelihood to explain his conspiratorial activities and to pledge renewed loyalty.

In 592, Egypt reappeared on the stage. Fresh from his victory in Nubia, Psammetichus II planned and executed a triumphal visit of his court and army to Philistia, Judah, and the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon: “Let the priests come with the bouquets of the gods of Egypt to take them to the land of Kharu [Syria] with Pharaoh” (Papyrus Rylands IX, 14.16–19 ). Babylonia's failure to react to this irruption into its holdings most likely stoked the smoldering embers of rebellion among its Syrian vassals, although the lengthy illness and death of Psammetichus delayed open uprising. But in early 589 the new pharaoh Apries (589–570 BCE; called Hophra in the Bible) showed his intention to continue the vigorous policy of his predecessor, launching a foray into the mountains of Lebanon. With the promise of Egyptian support in matériel and an auxiliary fighting force, Zedekiah finally broke with Nebuchadrezzar.

Only the final stages of the Babylonian retaliation against Judah can be discussed, and this merely in outline. Biblical sources focus on the siege of Jerusalem, and the parts of the Babylonian Chronicle covering these years no longer exist. Archaeological investigation, however, adds perspective: excavations at many major sites in Judah have uncovered destruction levels of burnt debris and ruins properly ascribed to the Babylonian army, either in its campaign of 598 or in that of 587. On the other hand, a number of Judean sites, particularly north of Jerusalem, show evidence of continuity, with undisturbed occupation levels into the sixth century BCE. In the key fortress of Lachish in the Judean lowlands, a collection of over twenty Hebrew ostraca was found in the rubble by the gateway; they are part of the correspondence received by Yoash, apparently commander of this strategic post, during the period of the Babylonian operations in Judah, and they hint tantalizingly at matters known to the addressee but hidden from the modern reader. One letter informs Yoash that “we are watching for the signal fires of Lachish according to signs which my lord set, for we cannot see Azekah.” Yoash was also apprised that “the army officer Coniah son of Elnathan came down in order to go to Egypt and he sent to take from here Hodaviah son of Ahijah and his men. And your servant is sending you the letter of Tobiah, the king's servant, which came to Shallum son of Jaddua through the prophet, saying ‘Beware!’ ”

Jerusalem came under siege in January 587, holding out for eighteen months until the summer of 586. The arrival of Egyptian forces did provide a short respite as the Babylonian army withdrew to meet them, but not for long. After the defeat of the Egyptians, who had once again shown themselves to be an unreliable “broken reed of a staff” (2 Kings 18.21 ), the siege resumed. In the end, severe hunger brought the city to its knees. The walls of Jerusalem were breached, probably on the north, where the topography lends itself to the setting up of siege machinery, and where a great quantity of Babylonian-style arrowheads have been recovered. Zedekiah tried to escape to the Jordan Valley and from there abroad, but he was captured and hauled before Nebuchadrezzar, who was encamped at Riblah in central Syria. After watching his sons' execution, the king was blinded—a common punishment of rebellious slaves—and sent off to exile. Meanwhile, the order was given to complete the deportation and to destroy the city. The ringleaders of the rebellion were rounded up, shipped off to Riblah, and summarily put to death, and the final destruction took place:

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon [16 August 586]—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. (2 Kings 25.8–11 )

How lonely sits the city that was once full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

(Lam. 1.1 )

In this verse, the opening line from the book of Lamentations, one feels the great sense of personal and national loss that the destruction of Jerusalem engendered. Laments over destroyed cities and sanctuaries form a distinct literary genre in ancient Mesopotamia, with roots reaching as far back as the early second millennium BCE. The poems collected in the biblical book of Lamentations probably belong to this genre, and they may have been recited at the site of the ruined Temple as part of a ritual of commemoration on designated fast days. The book is traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, but this cannot be established; similar style and language are common to several of the prophet's contemporaries, and the viewpoint expressed in Lamentations is most unlike his pronouncements. Rather, the impression is that the poet (or poets) was a member of Zedekiah's court, a veteran Jerusalemite, overcome with remorse by the grievous suffering of the city and its population. The poet acknowledges Israel's guilt, for which God had brought on her deserved punishment, but beyond this he mentions no specific sin. One wonders whether this indefiniteness results from the lament style or from the poet's inability to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy. Like the author of the book of Kings, the poet points to the nation's leaders as the culprits:

Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen oracles for you that are false and misleading.

(Lam. 2.14; see also 4.13 )

In the end, however, God's justice holds out hope for forgiveness and renewal. And with such confidence as their support, many exiles endured the hardships of life in distant Babylonia.

One might expect, or at least regard it as understandable, that Judah's conquerors would have been the prime focus of vengeful fulminations on the part of the survivors as they vented their grief and anger over the destruction. Yet surprisingly it is not the Babylonians but the Edomites who are most reviled for their behavior at the time:

Your iniquity, O daughter Edom, [the Lord] will punish, he will uncover your sins.

(Lam. 4.22 )

Were it not for the oracle of Obadiah, the smallest of the prophetic books, the role of Judah's southern neighbor in her misfortune would still be clouded. At the time of the Babylonian hegemony over the west, there had flared up centuries-long strife between Judah and Edom over the southern Negeb desert down to the Red Sea port of Elath (modern Eilat), whose trade routes were its chief asset. Illustrative of the tension of this period is a memorandum, recovered at Arad, addressed to the commander of the outpost there and ordering him to transfer troops to reinforce another position, “otherwise Edom will arrive there.” Judah regarded Edom as close kin—the Genesis narratives depict Jacob and Esau, the traditional ancestors of Israel and Edom, as rival twin brothers—and so when Edom did not support the rebellion against Nebuchadrezzar, but rather took advantage of Judah's downfall, the reaction was one of anger over familial betrayal and a call for revenge:

For the slaughter and violence done to your brother Jacob, shame shall cover you, and you shall be cut off forever.… You should not have rejoiced over the people of Judah on the day of their ruin.… You should not have entered the gate of my people on the day of their calamity.… You should not have looted his goods.… You should not have stood at the crossings to cut off his fugitives; you should not have handed over his survivors on the day of distress.

(Obad. 10, 12–14 )

There is an epilogue to the history of the Judean monarchy, not only in the two surviving kings who lived out their lives in Babylon, but also in the organization of the “poorest people of the land [who had been left] to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil” (2 Kings 25.12 ). The Babylonian monarchs, unlike their Assyrian predecessors, did not make use of population exchange as a tool of imperial rule. To administer those Judeans still on the land (their number cannot be determined), a native Judean, Gedaliah son of Ahikam, from a prominent Jerusalem family and formerly in the royal service, was appointed governor of Judah, with headquarters in the city of Mizpah, just north of Jerusalem. Refugees drifted back, and so did some of the fighting forces who had been in hiding. The prophet Jeremiah was released by his captors, and he, too, joined the coterie at Mizpah as a close adviser of Gedaliah. But the road to recovery was short-lived, no more than a few months. After the fall harvest was in, a small band of conspirators led by Ishmael son of Nethaniah, a member of the royal family, with the backing of King Baalis of Ammon (whose name can be restored to its original form Baal-yisha, from a seal impression recently discovered in Jordan), murdered Gedaliah and his entire entourage. They probably acted more out of rancor against the perceived collaborator than as rebels against Babylonia. The frightened survivors of the massacre hurriedly departed for Egypt, Jeremiah among them. Whether the Babylonians retaliated is unknown; the only record from the period tells of a further deportation from Judah five years later. The day of Gedaliah's death (the third of Tishri [October]) entered the cultic calendar of the Judeans as a day of fasting, together with the day of the Temple's destruction (the ninth of Ab [August]). These two days marked the tragic endpoints of Judah's national existence.

It is often suggested that after the Gedaliah debacle the administration of Judah was transferred to Samaria, and that this political arrangement was subsequently carried over into the Persian period. This would explain, in part, the tensions between Judah and Samaria over the appointment of a native governor in Jerusalem in the mid-fifth century BCE. It is also argued that parts of southern Judah and the Negeb were taken over by Edomites who had begun their push northward toward the end of the Judean monarchy. At a number of sites, such as Khirbet Qitmit in the Negeb and En Haseva in the Arabah Valley, impressive Edomite remains vouch for their foothold in the region. But there is a total documentary blackout for the half century of Babylonian rule, and reading back from the Persian period, when our sources resume, is full of pitfalls. Nevertheless, a few notes on life under the Babylonians can be appended to the sorry tale of opportunity given and lost. From the archaeological perspective, numerous sites, especially north of Jerusalem, bear evidence of continuous settlement during the sixth century, with Israelite culture remaining intact until the Persian period. Judah was neither totally devastated nor depopulated, as some biblical writers would have us believe. The rural population held on, eking out a living for several generations until their fortunes took another turn. For all we know, they may have adopted the viewpoint, reported of them by Ezekiel, of considering themselves the rightful heirs of the property left behind by their exiled brethren and neighbors (Ezek. 33.23–24 ). They were on the scene fifty years later when the early returnees from Babylon to Jerusalem arrived, and they were powerful enough to frighten those who came with royal authorization to restore the Temple. Even in this matter, the populace in Judah saw themselves as the legitimate successors of the exiles; it was they, after all, who had continued to make pilgrimage, “bringing grain offerings and incense to present at the [ruins of the] temple of the LORD” (Jer. 41.4–5 ). Jeremiah may have disparaged their fathers by labeling them “bad figs” ( 24.8 ), but those who had remained in the land rejected the claim that only those who had suffered in exile could take part in the promised renewal.

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