If the mass return from exile were an historical fact, then one might expect that the archaeological traces would show an increase in the population of Jerusalem and vicinity in the early Persian Period. Recent estimates based on archaeological surveys hint into another direction.
Essay adapted from From Babylon to Eternity: The Exile Remembered and Constructed in Text and Tradition (Equinox Publishing, 2010)
By Bob Becking
Images of Exile
The noun “exile” generally has a negative overtone. This idea on exile has deep roots in history and seems to be based on the interpretation of Psalm 137 as a hymn expressing the tragic fate of Judaeans in exile. A simple historical question then would be: is this image of the exile correct? Formulated that simply, the question is rather naïve. Recreating the past is not an easy task and many pitfalls are lying on the way. They are of a rather theoretical character and will not be discussed here. Suffice it to remark that I construe history writing as a narratio on the past based on the available evidence. Such a story has the status of an hypothesis: This is my view on the past and I hope that I can convince you to share my view.
The Time Frame of the Exile
Googling on the Internet, one can find the following remark: “Babylonian captivity, in the history of Israel, the period from the fall of Jerusalem (586 BCE) to the reconstruction in Palestine of a new Jewish state (after 538 BCE).”1 Comparable remarks can be found in other dictionaries on the web and elsewhere. It is my purpose here to make clear that these data are not the hard boundaries that they have traditionally been taken for. The first year could make the impression that the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians was a surprising event without pre-history. The second part of the statement quoted would imply a quick and massive return from exile – as early as Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon leading to the reinstallment of a Jewish state. This second group of remarks on the past is highly questionable.
The Conquest of Jerusalem: Why and When?
The evidence for the conquest of Jerusalem is to be found in the Hebrew Bible2 and in a fragment in a Babylonian Chronicle:
1: The seventh year:
In the months Kislev the king of Akkad mustered his army and marched to Hattu.
2: He campaigned ag[ainst] the city of Judah and on the second day of the month Adar he captured the city and seized the king.
3: A king of his own [choice] he appointed in the city.
He took a vast tribute and took it to Babylon.3
2: He campaigned ag[ainst] the city of Judah and on the second day of the month Adar he captured the city and seized the king.
As has generally been accepted, the two Judaean kings referred to in this inscription are Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. This historical note connects the first year of Jehoiachin’s imprisonment with Nebuchadnezzar’s seventh regnal year in the Babylonian system of counting years. On that basis the event can be dated in the time frame Spring 598–Spring 597 BCE.4 A second conquest is only mentioned in the Book of Kings.5
The absence of a remark on this event in Babylonian inscriptions cannot function as an argument against its historicity, especially since the Babylonian Chronicles are rather fragmented. A quick calculation makes clear that over ten years passed between the first and the second conquest of Jerusalem. Why the delay? The Babylonians did not secure their western victories until the acts of the Egyptian kings Psammetichus II and Hofra who challenged Babylonian power with military pinpricks. In reaction, the Babylonians would have intensified their administrative grip on the Western part of the Empire. They also would have changed their attitude toward disloyal vassals into some sort of zero-tolerance politics. This shift then lead to the conquest of Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE. It therefore can be stated that the conquest of Jerusalem and the beginning of the deportation of exiles to Babylon was the outcome of an historical process in which the Babylonians wanted to strengthen their control over the area near the Egyptian border, while in the meantime some political factions in Jerusalem overestimated their own military strength as well as the ability of Egypt to come to help.6
Jeremiah 40:7–41:15 narrates a political murder. Nebuchadnezzar had appointed a certain Gedaliah as governor over those Judahites who remained in the land after the conquest of Jerusalem. The very detailed report in the Book of Jeremiah has a parallel in the much shorter note in the Book of Kings.7 It is interesting to see that the three personal names Gdlyhw, “Gedaliah,” Yšm’‘l, “Ishmael,” and B‘lyš‘, “Baalisha,” all occur in contemporary epigraphic sources indicating the historicity of the remarks in Jeremiah and 2 Kings.8
Bethel and Mizpah
The scene of the assassination of Gedaliah is set at Mizpah. This is an interesting feature in view of a recent and ongoing discussion. Joseph Blenkinsopp has developed a noteworthy thesis. In his view, it seems to be a reasonable hypothesis “that, following the elimination of the Jerusalem Temple, the old Bethel sanctuary, having survived the Assyrian conquest and the reforming zeal of Josiah, obtained a new lease on life by virtue of the favored status of the Benjamin region and the proximity of Bethel to the administrative center at Mizpah …” (Blenkinsopp, 2003: 99). In other words, he assumes that, in the “exilic” period, Bethel served as a religious center, while Mizpah functioned as the administrative center.
In the aftermath of the Gedaliah incident, a group of Judahites are hiding in Bethlehem planning to flee to Egypt.9 After heavy debates on the question whether such a move would be an act of disobedience to God,10 an important group of Judahites – including the prophet Jeremiah – decided to live in Diaspora in Egypt. According to Jeremiah 44, they settled at Migdol, at Tahpanhes, at Memphis, and in the land of Pathros. There exist only glimpses of evidence that could shed light on the early Egyptian diaspora.11 Jeremiah 44 narrates a conflict between the prophet Jeremiah and persons from the Yahwistic elite in Egypt on the desirability of the veneration of the “Queen of Heaven.” A trace of this veneration might be found in an Aramaic letter from Hermopolis from the fifth century BCE that reads in its blessing formula:
Blessing for the temple of Bethel and that of the Queen of Heaven12
Since the deity Bethel can be seen as a synonym for Yhwh, the Aramaic letter probably refers to a group of Yahwists in Egypt still venerating the “Queen of Heaven.”
It is far from certain whether the “Yehudites” from Elephantine were descendants of this first group moving to Egypt. Elephantine is the Greek name for a small island in the Nile not far from present day Assuan.13 In the Persian Period, this island was on the southernmost border of the Achaemenid Empire. Inscriptional evidence on the presence of Yehudayya in the fifth century BCE has been found.
Excavations at Babylon have surfaced a variety of so-called assignment lists. These texts list names of prisoners at the Babylonian court who were allowed rations of food. Some of these lists have been edited by Weidner.14 These documents refer, among others, to [Ia]-’ú-kinu/Ia-ku-ú-ki-nu = *Yahu-kin, his five sons and some other Judaeans as regular receivers of portions of food on behalf of the Babylonian king. The lists under consideration are dated to the thirteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar, which is 592 BCE. These documents show that the Babylonian court maintained Jehoiachin during his exile, or imprisonment. Next to that these assignment lists make clear that the Babylonians adopted a custom known from Assyrian inscriptions: prisoners at the court had a right to live. The assignment lists reveal that the Judaean royal family and its entourage were imprisoned at the Babylonian court.
Amnesty for Jehoiachin
The Book of Kings, in its present form, ends with a note on the release of Jehoiachin from prison.15 Jehoiachin had been king in Jerusalem for three months, unfortunately during Nebuchadnezzar’s siege and conquest of the city. This event took place in the seventh year of the Babylonian king.16 This implies that the release took place in spring 562-561 which was the accession year of the new king Evil-Merodakh. 2 Kings 25:27 relates that the release form prison took place the accession year of Evil-Merodakh.
The Book of Kings contains an interesting detail with regard to the date of Jehoiachin’s release. In the narrative world of the Book of Kings, it is dated on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month of the accession year of Evil-Merodakh.17 It should be noted that this is only a few days before the (spring) New Year Festival in the reign of Evil-Merodakh. I will not display here a complete picture of all details of the Akitu-festival, as it was celebrated around New Year in Babylon or the religious and interpretative implications of a Thronsbesteigungsfest for several texts in the Hebrew Bible. It is of great importance to remark that the spring equinox was an appropriate time for rearrangements in the royal administration. Court dignitaries who had acted favorably were promoted; others were demoted. In the Babylonian Epic of creation, Enuma Eliš it is narrated that Marduk - the head of the Babylonian pantheon - granted amnesty to a group of deities that had rebelled against him. Enuma Eliš was not only a narrative text on the beginnings of the universe. There is a clear connection between this creation epic and royal ideology, as has often been remarked. The deeds and doings of the gods functioned as a mirror for the behavior of kings and court. As Marduk granted amnesty to his former enemies, a just Babylonian king was incited to release his imprisoned enemies. The epic theme of amnesty was an invitation to play it out in real life. Together with the assignments lists, the amnesty for Jehoiachin hints at a slightly more positive image of the exile. This slightly more positive image is also evoked by the next piece of evidence.
Eagleton and New Jerusalem
The presence of “Jews in Iraq” – a double anachronism – in the pre-classical period is known from the documents in the Murashu-archives and is reflected in some late Biblical books (Esther, Daniel). The Murashu archives date to the reign of Darius II (424–404 BCE). They contain numerous personal names with a yahwistic-theophoric element such as Abî-Jahô. From a methodical point of view, it would be incorrect to make a one-to-one connection between the Judaeans deported by Nebuchadnezzar and the persons with a yahwistic-theophoric element in their names in the Murashu-archive by construing the latter as the descendants of the former. On the other hand, however, these documents show that about a century after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, persons with a yahwistic-theophoric element in their names were – still – living in Mesopotamia.
Recently, there are some cuneiform documents that are of great importance.18 The first document is dated to the seventh year of Cyrus, 532 BCE. The document contains the administration of the receipt of one shekel of silver. This shekel was the payment of the ilku-tax by Bunanitu, the widow of Achiqar, the governor, to Abda-Yahu. Both Ab-da-ia-hu-ú and his father Ba-rak-ka-ia-ma have clear Judaean names. The document was written in uru šapna-šar, “the City-of-Nashar; ‘Eagleton,’ most probably in the vicinity of Borsippa” (Pearce, 2006; pace Joannès and Lemaire, 1999: 28). I will not discuss all the inscriptions in great detail here.
One document is of great importance for the construction of the history of the exile. This document refers to the sale of a bovine by Hara, the daughter of Talimu to né-ri-ja-a-ma dumu of šeš(ahi)-ia-a-qa-am, “Nerî-Jahu, the son of Achiqam.” The transaction took place in alYa-hu-du, “the city of Judah/Yehud,” in Babylonia, in 498 BCE.19 The indication “the city of Judah/Yehud” or “New Jerusalem”20 reflects the politics of the Neo-Babylonians to bring deportees together in specific ethnic groups. The cities in which these persons were brought were named after the area of origin. There exists evidence for exiled communities named as Ashkelon, Gaza, Neirab, Qadeš, Qedar and Tyre.
The most important conclusion that can be drawn from these texts is the fact that obviously, not all the descendants of the exiled Judaeans immediately returned to Jerusalem after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus. Laurie Pearce published an article on this topic.21 She is – in cooperation with Cornelia Wunsch - preparing the edition of the larger corpus from which these texts stem. The inscriptions indicate that
- The exiled Judaeans remained a separate ethnic group in Babylonia, at least for the majority of them;
- Many of them were settled in newly reclaimed agricultural areas;
- A group descending from Judaean exiles lived at an acceptable level of prosperity and were organized in their own – albeit limited – organization;
- After the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, not all descendants of these exiles returned to Yehud.
It is a remarkable fact, that during the time of the archive the Judaeans and their descendants acted in various roles in transactions that were important enough to be registered. They are not only listed among the witnesses, but also as mentioned as buyers and sellers of goods and properties. Before arriving at some premature conclusions, it should be noted “that all of the transactions are in the context of work done as obligations to royal lands. These are not the transactions of entirely free people working in a true capitalistic market economy.”22 Next to that, it becomes clear that both “Eagleton” and “New Yehud” were newly established locations that were of importance for the production of food for the increasing population in the Babylonian and later Persian empire. This feature does not tally with the traditional image of exile and the myth of the mass return.23
The Myth of the Empty Land
An historical myth is a social construction of the past that functions within the value system of a community or society and serves some ideologies within that society. Our world is full of historical myths. It is the task of quality-journalism to deconstruct them, as it is the task of serious historical research to unmask them. In the traditional historiography of the Babylonian Exile, the “myth of the empty land” has been a standard fabric. The idea of the empty land assumed that during the Babylonian period the territory of the former kingdom of Judah was uninhabited. Everyone important had been exiled with the court to Babylonia. In 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar had emptied Jerusalem.24 Nevertheless there were still persons living in Jerusalem after the second conquest.25 These reports in the Book of Kings gave rise to the idea that only a few socially unimportant persons were left in the land.
Hans Barstad has deconstructed this view and unmasked it as a historical myth. His analysis of the textual data and the archaeological evidence showed that “the land was not empty.” The territory of the former Kingdom of Judah remained inhabited and these surviving groups have contributed more to the emergence of the Hebrew Bible than generally assumed (Barstad, 1996). His view is based on an evaluation of archaeological data that indicate a continuity of activities in the territory under consideration. It is remarkable that during the Babylonian period, the number of inhabitants in the area of Bethel and Mizpah is quite constant, while the habitation of Jerusalem dropped to a minimum. The evidence will be displayed below in the framework of unmasking another historical myth: the idea of a mass return from exile.26
Traces of Return in Persian Documents?
The traditional image of the Exile has as its final feature the idea of a return from exile and the formation of a Jewish state soon after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE. This part of the image is mainly based on a naïve reading of the opening verses of the Book of Ezra.27 In my opinion, the first six chapters of the Book of Ezra cannot be used as trustworthy historical information. It is more interesting to put the question: are there or are there not indications of a return to Yehud in Persian documents?
The Cyrus-cylinder is often seen as extra-biblical evidence for the historicity of the decree of Cyrus in Ezra 1. The inscription has been interpreted as showing a liberal policy of respect toward other religions. The inscription would show that Cyrus’ policy toward the descendants of the Judaean exiles was not unique but fit the pattern of his rule. Amelia Kuhrt, however, has made clear that the inscription is of a propagandistic and stereotypical nature.28 The text reflects the worldview of the Marduk priests of the Esağila temple at Babylon. They present Cyrus as a “good prince” replacing the “bad prince” Nabonidus. The return of divine images and people related in Cyrus Cylinder 30–34, if not mere propaganda, refers to measures taken on a local scale. It concerns divine images from cities surrounding Babylon, brought back to the shrines from where they were exiled by Nabonidus.29 This passage has nothing to do with Judaeans, Jews, or Jerusalem.
The famous Behistun-inscription of Darius relates in its various versions his rebellion and rise to power but does not contain historical data on the return to Jerusalem or the rebuilding of the temple.30 It should be noted, however, that written documents from the Achaemenid Empire are rather scarce. Next to that, the relative unimportance of Yehud and the Yehudites for the Persian administration clearly declares the absence of any evidence for the return from Exile.
The texts to be edited by Laurie Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch – as discussed above – show that the descendants of the exiled Judaeans continued to live in Babylonia, in “Eagleton,” “New Yehud,” and vicinity, at least until the reign of Darius II.
The Myth of the Mass Return
The idea of a massive and immediate return from exile, as reflected in the lists in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah and in the anthem Psalm 126 can be challenged. If the mass return from exile were an historical fact, then one might expect that the archaeological traces would show an increase in the population of Jerusalem and vicinity in the early Persian Period. Recent estimates based on archaeological surveys hint into another direction. The general picture that emerges is that of a demographic decrease in the early sixth century BCE followed by a very slow increase during the Persian Period. As Lipschits formulates: “the ‘return to Zion’ did not leave its imprint on the archaeological data, nor is there any demographic testimony of it” (Lipschits, 2003: 365). The evidence available cannot be connected to a theory of mass return in the sixth century. It hints toward the direction of the assumption of a process of waves of return that lasted for over a century.31
The period of the Babylonian Exile coincides with a period of global warming of an even greater magnitude than we experience nowadays followed by a drastic decline of temperature in the early Persian Period. Phrased otherwise: The “forced migration” to Babylon and the “exilic period” coincided with a process of rapid warming, while the period of “return from exile” up to the time of the mission of Ezra in 398 BCE was characterized by a likewise rapid decrease of temperature.
To understand the impact of climate change on the history of the Exile, it should be noted that the culture of Ancient Mesopotamia heavily depended on agriculture. Parry has convincingly shown the interconnections between climate change and agriculture.32 There were large urban areas where trade was of great importance. During the Iron Age, agriculture was made possible thanks to the yearly flooding of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The floods came in late spring or early summer when the ice in the northern and north western mountains was melting. The age-old system of irrigation distributed the water over the fields. All this evidence concurs with the demographic data available. Bowden has shown that after a minor decline just before 500 BCE, the population of Mesopotamia increased steadily and heavily from 480 BCE onward.
The course of human history is by no means solely dependent on circumstances provoked by climate. In any culture, technological developments are of great importance to cope with the reality. Cornelia Wunsch hinted at the importance of the improvement of the cedar plough that turned out to be instrumental in improving agriculture in Mesopotamia from the Neo-Babylonian period onward.33 This feature only underscores my assumptions.
The Temple Rebuilt
The evidence in the biblical Books of Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, and Nehemiah have generally been interpreted as an indication that the temple for Yhwh in Jerusalem had been rebuilt in the final decades of the sixth century BCE, most probably around 515. This idea has been challenged already in the sixteenth century CE by the Dutch scholar Scaliger. Recently Diana Edelman has convincingly argued that the second temple was not rebuilt before the middle of the fifth century BCE. In other words, the Darius mentioned in the biblical texts should be construed as Darius II.34
The evidence displayed shows that only a fragmented history of the exilic period can be written. Too many jigsaw pieces are gone to make a coherent portrait. A few things, nevertheless, are apparent:
- The land of Judah did not lay desolate during the Babylonian period;
- Mizpah and Bethel most probably functioned as administrative and religious centers for the people who remained;
- Many exiled Judaeans were settled in agricultural areas in order to supply the urbanized areas of Babylon with food;
- They reached an acceptable standard of living and assumedly were free to continue their religion;
- A change in climate in combination with improved agricultural technology resulted in better circumstances for living in Mesopotamia;
- The return from exile should not be construed as a massive event; the descendants of the exiled Judaeans returned in waves and many remained in Babylonia;
- The temple for Yhwh was only rebuilt in the middle of the fifth century BCE.
I will not deny that the conquest of Jerusalem, the burning of the temple, and the end of the Davidic dynasty caused pain and sorrow. The general picture of the exilic period, however, is not as dramatic as has often been assumed.
2 2 Kgs 24:13; 24:8-12.
3 BM 21946 = Babylonian Chronicle V; see most recently Glassner (2004: 230–31).
4 See Parker and Dubberstein (1956: 27).
5 2 Kgs 25:1-7.
6 Lipschits, 2005.
7 2 Kgs 25:22-26.
8 For details see Becking, 2007: 141–65.
9 Jer. 41:17-18.
10 Narrated in Jeremiah 42.
11 Later, in Hellenistic times, an important group of Jews lived in Egypt. It is, however, unclear, whether they were the descendants of this first group seeking refuge in Egypt.
12 Bresciani and Kamil (1966): 4, 1.
13 See generally Porten (1968); with Becking (2003).
14 Weidner (1939); see also Albertz (2001: 67.87).
15 2 Kgs 25:27-30.
16 Spring 598-597.
17 2 Kgs 25:27; Jer. 52:31 has it two days earlier. This would have been 2 April, or 31 March of the year 561 bce; see Parker and Dubberstein (1956: 28).
18 Joannès and Lemaire (1999).
19 See on this tablet Lambert (2007).
20 Lambert (2007): 205.
21 Pearce (2006).
22 Laurie Pearce in private communication, January 2007.
23 It might be of interest to connect the Yehudites from “Eagleton,” “New Yehud,” and vicinity with the addressees of the letter to the exiles in Jer. 29:5-7.
24 2 Kgs 24:14-15.
25 2 Kgs 25:11-12.
26 Barstad (2008) 90-134.
27 Ezra 1:1-4.
28 Kuhrt (1983).
29 Kuhrt (1983).
30 Albertz (2001) 100-102.
31 For more details see Becking (2006).
32 Parry (1978).
33 C. Wunsch, “Exposure and Appropriation: Judeans in Babylonia and the Babylonian Legal System,” conference paper Heidelberg April 2008 to be published in G. Knoppers, O. Lipschtits, M. Oeming (eds), The Judeans in the Achaemenid Age: Negotiating Identity in an International Context, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
34 Edelman (2005).
Albertz, R. 2001. Die Exilszeit 6. Jahrhundert v. Chr. BE, 7; Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln: Kohlhammer.
Barstad, H.M. 2008 History and the Hebrew Bible: Studies in Ancient Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Historiography (FAT, 61), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
Becking, B. 2006. “We all returned as One: Critical Notes on The Myth of the Mass Return,” in: O. Lipschits and M. Oeming (eds.), Judah and the Judaeans in the Persian Period, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 3-18.
———. 2007. From David to Gedaliah: The Book of Kings as Story and History. OBO, 224; Freiburg: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Blenkinsopp, J. 1998. “The Judaean Priesthood during the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods: A Hypothetical Reconstruction.” CBQ 60: 25–43.
———. 2003. “Bethel in the Neo-Babylonian Period.” In Lipschits and Blenkinsopp (eds.), Judah and the Judaeans: 93–107.
Bresciani, E., and M. Kamil. 1966. Le lettere aramaiche de Hermopoli. Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.
Edelman, D. V. 2005. The Origins of the “Second” Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem. London: Equinox.
Glassner, J.-J. 2004. Mesopotamian Chronicles. SBL WAW, 19; Atlanta: Scholars Press.
Joannès, F., and A. Lemaire. 1987. “Trois textes de § surru à l’époque Néo-Babylonienne.” RA 81: 147–58.
———. 1999. “Trois tablettes cunéiformes à onomastique ouest-sémitique.” Transeuphratène 17: 17–34.
Lambert W.G., “A Document from a Community of Exiles in Babylonia,” in: M. Lubetski (ed.), New Seals and Inscriptions, Hebrew, Idumean, and Cuneiform, Sheffield: Phoenix, 2007, 201-05.
Lipschits, O., and J. Blenkinsopp (eds.). Judah and the Judaeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.
Parker, R. A., and W. H. Dubberstein. 1956. Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C. – A.D. 76. Providence: Brown University Press.
Parry, M.L. 1978. Climatic Change, Agriculture and Settlement, Folkestone: Dawson.
Pearce, L. “New Evidence for Judaeans in Babylonia,” in: O. Lipschits, M. Oeming (eds), Judah and the Judaeans in the Persian Period, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006, 399-411.
Weidner, E. F. 1939. “Jojachin, König von Juda in Babylonischen Keilschrifttexten.” In Mélanges syriens offerts à Monsieur René Dussaud: II, 923–35. Paris: Geuthner.
Nice article. I agree with you that the notion of a "mass return" is way over-blown, and also that deportees into Assyria and Babylon were assimilated into the population and did not face discrimination. I discuss this in my article "From Xeno- Philia to -Phobia – Jewish Encounters with the Other," in Y. Levin, A Time of Change: Judah and its Neighbors During the Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 179-204.
A problem as I see it is the great reliance that people today put on Barstad's book, in particular on his review of the archaeological sites. His review of the sites is correct, but unfortunately the sites themselves were badly excavated and need to be redone.
The primary problem is Tel el-Ful. I discuss this in my review of Oded Lipschits' book in JAOS 128.1 (2008):162-4. I also discuss it in "The House of the God Who Dwells in Jerusalem." Review article of P. Bedford’s Temple Restoration in Early Achaemenid Judah, 2001, and of J. Schaper’s Priester und Leviten im achaëmenidischen Juda, 2000,” in JAOS 126 (2006) 1-14.
Tell el-Ful is the primary problem. It was excavated in the 60's based on very poor assumptions, and since then even very good archaeologists who should know better have reached conclusions by comparing their pottery to that from Tel el-Ful.
I encourage you to read my review articles.
All the best,
#1 - Liz Fried - 05/18/2010 - 14:29