By the Rivers of Babylon
King Hezekiah of Judah died in 686 BC and was succeeded by his twelve year-old son Manasseh. He was very different from his father. Over the course of his reign, he abolished his father's religious reforms and reintroduced foreign cults, particularly the worship of Baal "and made Asherah poles. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshipped them." (2 Chronicles 33:3) His wickedness evoked the vivid prophecy that God would "wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes out a dish, wiping it and turning it upside-down." (2 Kings 21:13)
Near the end of his reign Manasseh was captured by the Assyrians who led him off to Babylon by a cord attached to a hook or ring passed through his nose. The severity of Manasseh's imprisonment caused him to repent. According to the biblical account, God heard his cry, and he was restored to his kingdom (2 Chr. 33:11-13). He abandoned his idolatrous ways, and enjoined the people to again worship God. Chronicles adds that after his return "he rebuilt the outer wall of the City of David, west of the Gihon spring in the valley, as far as the entrance of the Fish Gate and encircling the hill of Ophel; he also made it much higher...He got rid of the foreign gods and removed the image from the temple of the Lord, as well as all the altars he had built on the temple hill and in Jerusalem; and he threw them out of the city. Then he restored the altar of the Lord." (2 Chronicles 33:14-16) After an extended 55-year reign he died and was buried in the garden of Uzza, the "garden of his own house" (2 Kings 21:17, 18; 2 Chronicles 33:20), not in the City of David, among his ancestors.
Right, view west towards the City of David/Ophel hill (bottom of photo) extending south of today's city walls
Evidently Manasseh's reform was not thorough. His 22-year-old son and successor, Amon (642-640 BC or 643 BC-641 BC), also "did evil in the eyes of the Lord." After two years he was assassinated in his palace by his own servants who conspired against him. Zephaniah (1:4; 3:4, 11) describes his reign as marked by moral depravity.
At the age of eight, Amon's son, Josiah (640-609 BC), ascended the throne. By the time he was 16, he had abolished the pagan cults that had regained a foothold during his father's short reign — known as Josiah's Reform by scholars. He destroyed all the objects made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts in the Temple, burning and grinding them to powder in the Kidron Valley, and even extended his efforts into the old Kingdom of Israel, abolishing the infamous high places at Bethel and Dan that competed with Jerusalem in the worship of God. A repair program for the Temple of Solomon, which, after three hundred years, must have begun to look shabby, led to the 'discovery' of a supposedly lost scroll of the Law — a major portion of the book now called Deuteronomy. Also of great importance to the survival of Judaism was the introduction of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (later adopted by Christianity). Josiah also reasserted control in the former territories of the kingdom of Israel, systematically destroying the cultic objects in various cities, as well as executing the priests of the pagan gods.
Meanwhile, the power of Assyria waned. New peoples, the Scythians and the Medes from the north and east, and the Babylonians from the south, pushed toward the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and, in 612 BC, it fell. Unfortunately, this did not mean freedom for Judah. With Assyria out of the way, the Egyptian pharaoh Neco saw his chance. Promptly he marched into Palestine toward Syria. In 609 BC, Josiah went north to confront him at the strategic city of Megiddo. He fought bravely against the Egyptian forces, but was killed.
Afterward events in Judah moved swiftly. Jehoahaz, son of Josiah, was made king, but Neco pressed his advantage by deporting the new ruler and appointing Jehoiakim, a second son of Josiah, as king.
The Babylonians, however, were unwilling to let the Egyptians gain control of the region. In 605 BC, the fearsome Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated Neco at Carchemish. Babylon thus took the place of Ninevah as the major superpower of the Near East. From there Nebuchadnezzar went on to conquer "all the kings of Hatti-land," which included Judah. Now Jehoiakim was forced to pay tribute to Babylon. After three years as a Babylonian vassal, Jehoiakim rebelled, against the advice of the prophet Jeremiah. Reaction was swift. Babylonian troops, supported by other loyal vassals, were sent to put down the Judahite rebellion. Meanwhile, Jehoiakim died (cause unknown) and was replaced by his son Jehoiachin. When Jehoiachin had ruled just three months (597 BC), the main Babylonian army captured Jerusalem, stripped the Temple and deported the king, along with 10,000 of Judah's leading citizens, to Babylonia (2 Kings 24:14).
Nine years later, Zedekiah (Jehoiachin's uncle), another puppet king placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, also rebelled. Again, the Babylonians marched on Jerusalem. Many months of siege left the people weakened by hunger, and the Babylonians succeeded in breaking through the walls at their weakest point, on the northern side. On the 17th day of the month of Tammuz (June-July) in 587 BC, they sacked and burned the Temple and razed the city walls to the ground. Zedekiah fled eastward into the wilderness, but the Babylonians "overtook him in the plains of Jericho." (2 Kings 25:5) In an atrocity worthy of the Assyrians, the Babylonians executed Zedekiah's sons before his eyes. It would be the last act Zedekiah would see. Babylonian soldiers put out his eyes and he was carried off in chains to Babylon. The rest of the populace that had not previously been deported was carried off to Babylon, leaving behind "some of the poorest people of the land to work the vineyards and fields." (2 Kings 25:12) This period, commonly known as the Babylonian Exile, marked the first great scattering of God's people to communities outside the Promised land, referred to as the Diaspora, a Greek word meaning "dispersion."
Jerusalem after the destruction
No clear accounts of Jerusalem's history after the destruction have remained. Jerusalem was no longer habitable and the area to the exteme south of the former Kingdom of Judah was overrun by Edomites, who laid the foundations of the future Kingdom of Idumea. Most of those who stayed behind in 586 BC either migrated to Samaria or settled in cities just north of Jerusalem. Jeremiah 41:1-2 relates that Ishmael, a member of the royal family, came to Mizpah (about 8 miles north of Jerusalem) and killed Gedaliah (a grandson of King Josiah's secretary) who had been appointed governor by Babylon to administer its new province.
Those inhabitants left behind seem to have come twice a year to mourn over the ruins of the city: on the "ninth day of the fourth month," the anniversary of the Temple's destruction (Av in the Jewish cycle of holidays; modern-day equivalent: July-August. The date is still marked by observant Jews with mourning and fasting); again at Sukkoth, the anniversary of the Temple's dedication. The book of Lamentations preserves what may have been the poetic dirges chanted by those who sat on the ground among the ruins clad in sackcloth with ashes on their foreheads in the traditonal posture of mourning:
"How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no-one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe. All the splendor has departed from the Daughter of Zion. Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer. In the days of her affliction and wandering Jerusalem remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old. When her people fell into enemy hands, there was no-one to help her. Her enemies looked at her and laughed at her destruction." (Lamentations 1:1-7)
The deportees, though, had an easier time. They were not persecuted in Babylon. They were settled in some of the city's most important and attractive districts and became well-integrated into Babylonian society. They met freely, bought land and established businesses. Even King Jehoiachin was allowed to live in the court and retained his title. At this point in their history the people of Judah could have simply disappeared. According to the common theology of the ancient world, the destruction of Jerusalem and the sacking of the Temple signified the defeat not only of the people of Judah, but of their God as well. The God of Judah had been vanquished and dethroned, his place taken by the gods of the victorious invader. This interpretation, however, did not take hold, because of the teaching of the prophet Jeremiah. Building upon the teachings and insights of his predecessors in the prophetic office, he affirmed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, as well as the exile, was the work of the very God they worshiped. Even though they had been defeated, their God, Yahweh, had not been defeated; rather, his will had been done and the disasters faced by the people of Judah were the result of his judgment, executed upon those who had disobeyed the commandments of the moral law. God's power was not confined to Jerusalem or Judah, it extended even to Babylon itself and God would eventually redeem his people if they remained true to him. In a letter sent from Jerusalem to the exiles, Jeremiah stated:
"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
Jeremiah went on to say that the exile would last "seventy years," after which time God would take the people "back to the place from which [he] carried [them] into exile."
Without a land and without a temple, the people of Judah managed to stay together and keep their faith alive while nurturing a hope that Jerusalem and their land would some day be restored to them. Perhaps the most poignant expression of this longing is found in the words of Psalm 137:
"By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion! How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy." (Psalm 137:1-7)
Archaeological finds related to the time leading up to the Babylonian Exile
Right, again, the so-called "Stepped-Stone Structure" (seen earlier in part 2 - the Jerusalem of David) on the eastern flank of the hill where the City of David once stood. Originally built by the Jebusites in the 11th-10th centuries BC, it was repaired and reinforced by David (2 Samuel 5:9), Solomon (1 Kings 9:15) and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:5b). Atop the lower terraces are the remains of three houses dating from the period between the reign of Hezekiah up to the Babylonian Exile (7th-6th century BC):
The most prominent of the three is a four-room house with two monolithic pillars that once supported its flat roof (note the pair of upright pillars on the small platform in the bottom center of the above photo; also below). The house had an outside stone staircase leading to a second story. The outside of Ahiel's house (east) was badly preserved, but the western side on the hill was well preserved. Inside the house were found cosmetics and housewares. In a small storage room over fifty jars were found. Its occupant was identified by an inscription on a jar fragment as "Ahiel" who settled here during the reign of one of Hezekiah's successors. It was probably a fairly attractive piece of real estate, with an impressive view of the Kidron Valley. But, in the summer of 586 BC, his house commanded a terrifying view of the siege by a Babylonian army that was about to break through Jerusalem's walls. Excavators found that Ahiel's home was one of many torched by Babylonian soldiers who ultimately destroyed the Temple, sitting atop the next hill to the north.
Not only did Ahiel have a nice house, he had that rarest of ancient conveniences, a bathroom with a carved stone toilet seat (right), complete with a second hole for males who chose to urinate while sitting down. A shallow bowl found alongside could have been used for water to flush the waste, or to pour a liming agent into the 6-foot-deep cesspit below. Archaeologists excavated the cesspit and discovered it had been left untouched since the 586 BC siege. Traces of bacteria and other wastes confirmed that the people of Jerusalem were forced to eat wild plants and weeds to avoid death by starvation.
The second of the three houses built on the terraces of the "Stepped-Stone Structure" is one designated the "Burnt-Room House" (below) by excavators. Arrowheads found on the floor amid carbonized wood from the ceiling attest to the fierce battle that proceeded the conquest and destruction by the Babylonians, as described in 2 Kings 25:8 -9: "On the seventh day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, an official of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the Lord, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down."
"House of Bullae"
A third house, the "House of Bullae," located east of Ahiel's House, is named for a collection of almost 50 clay seals (bullae) with Hebrew inscriptions found there. The floor of the house was covered by a thick charred destruction layer containing the bullae as well as pottery vessels, arrowheads and limestone cult stands, all of which attest to the character of the house as possibly an administrative center. The seals (examples, right) were made of fingernail-sized lumps of soft clay in the shape of flat disks, and were affixed to a string around a papyrus document and stamped with a seal. To open and read the document, the bulla (singular) had to be broken to separate it from the string. The fire that destroyed the house and burned the documents stored in it also fired the clay of the bullae, thus preserving them in fully legible condition. They bear dozens of Hebrew personal names, some of them mentioned in the Bible, for example:
"Azariah son of Hilkiah, the son of Meshullam, the son of Zadok, the son of Meraioth, the son of Ahitub, the official in charge of the house of God." (1 Chronicles 9:11)
"From the room of Gemariah son of Shaphan the secretary, which was in the upper courtyard at the entrance of the New Gate of the temple, Baruch read to all the people at the Lord's temple the words of Jeremiah from the scroll." (Jeremiah 36:10 )