Babylonian captivity

Babylonian captivity

The Babylonian captivity, Babylonian exile, is the name typically given to the deportation and exile of the Jews of the ancient Kingdom of Judah to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar during the 6th Century BCE. The Captivity and subsequent return to Israel are pivotal events in the history of the Jews and Judaism, and had far-reaching impacts on the development of modern Jewish culture and practice.

The Kingdom of Judah () notes three deportations: The first was in the time of Jehoiachin, in 597 BC, when the Temple of Jerusalem was partially despoiled and a number of the leading citizens were removed (2 Kings 24:10-16) following the Siege and Fall of Jerusalem.

After eleven years, in 586 BC, in the reign of Zedekiah, a fresh uprising of the Judaeans occurred. The city and temple of Jerusalem was razed and a further deportation ensued (2 Kings 25:1-21).

Finally, five years thereafter, in 581 BC, Jeremiah records a third deportation (Jeremiah 52:30).


During the period of captivity, Jews continued to practice and develop their religious traditions, many of which became distinct from their origins, due to the influences of the local culture.

After the overthrow of Babylonia by the Persian Empire, in 537 BCE the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great gave the Jews permission to return to their native land, and more than 40,000 are said to have availed themselves of the privilege, as noted in the Biblical accounts of Ezra, and Nehemiah. The Persians had a different political philosophy of managing conquered territories than the Babylonians or Assyrians: under the Persians, local personages were put into power to govern the local populace.

The actual return of the exiles was consummated by Ezra, who assembled at the river Ahava all those desirous of returning. These consisted of about 1,800 men, or 5,500 to 6,000 souls (Ezra viii.), besides 38 Levites and 220 slaves of the Temple from Casiphia. With this body, which was invested with royal powers, Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded, after great difficulties, in establishing the post-exilic Jewish community. From the list given in Neh. vii. 6-73 (= Ezra ii.), which the chronicler erroneously supposed to be an enumeration of those who had returned under Cyrus, it appears that the whole Jewish community at this time comprised 42,360 men, or 125,000 to 130,000 souls. [Gottheil "et al.", cite web|title="Babylonian Captivity"|url=|accessdate=2007-11-08 ""]

Prior to the return, the northern Israelite tribes had been taken captive by Assyria and never returned, leaving the survivors of the Babylonian exile as the majority of the remaining Children of Israel. When the Israelites returned home, they found a mixture of peoples, the Samaritans, practicing a religion very similar, but not identical, to their own. Over time, hostility grew between the returning Jews and the Samaritans. According to the Bible, the Samaritans were foreign people settled into the area by the kings of Assyria and who had partially adopted the Israelite religion.

Although there are many other conflicting theories about the Samaritans' origins, many of them may have simply been Israelites who remained behind and thus had no part in the sweeping changes of the Israelite religion brought about among the captives. Alternatively, perhaps the fierce purity of the Jewish religion and cultural identity of the Babylonian Jews returning from exile, seventy years after their deportation, completely eclipsed the partial fate of the mixed group of Israelite survivors, who had practised paganism for hundreds of years in Israel (including the worship of a golden bull), and who had inter-married with the peoples sent into the territory by the Assyrians (a practice strictly forbidden by Mosaic laws, and punished by Nehemiah).

ignificance in Judaism

The Babylonian Captivity and the subsequent return to Israel were seen as one of the pivotal events in the drama between God and His people: Israel. Just as they had been predestined for, and saved from, slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were predestined to be punished by God through the Babylonians, and then saved once more. The Babylonian Captivity had a number of serious effects on Judaism and the 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, it was edited and redacted during this time, and saw the beginning of the canonization of the Bible, which provided a central text for Jews.

This process coincided with the emergence of scribes and sages as Jewish leaders (see Ezra and the Pharisees). Prior to exile, the people of Israel had been organized according to tribe; afterwards, they were organized by clans, only the tribe of Levi continuing in its 'special role'. 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 is a metaphor for the current Jewish diaspora.


Further reading

* Yohanan Aharoni & Michael Avi-Yonah, "The MacMillan Bible Atlas", Revised Edition, pp. 96-106 (1968 & 1977 by Carta Ltd).
* [ The Babylonian Exile] - Crash Course in Jewish History

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