Nebuchadnezzar by Shayna Sheinfeld

The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the first temple and the city of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But while Nebuchadnezzar II led the siege against Jerusalem and eventually destroyed the temple, the biblical narrative complicates the question of fault: rather than put the blame on Nebuchadnezzar, the destruction is said to have been caused by the Israelites’ sinning against God.

Was the capturing of Judah simply in order to safeguard Babylonian imperial power?

Nebuchadnezzar II rose to power in Babylon in 605 BCE as the second king of the Neo-Babylonian empire. In that same year, after the battle of Carchemish, Judah became a vassal state under Nebuchadnezzar. Following the Egyptian military victory against Babylon in 601, many vassal states—including Judah—rebelled and declared allegiance to Egypt. This led to Nebuchadnezzar besieging Jerusalem in 598 BCE and conquering the city. The result was that many elite Jerusalemites were exiled to Babylon. Among the exiles at this time were King Jehoiachin and Ezekiel the prophet. During this time Nebuchadnezzar also raided the temple treasury and the royal palace of any valuables (2Kgs 24:12-16). Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Jehoiachin’s brother, Zedekiah, as a puppet king, but King Zedekiah also rebelled against his Babylonian rulers. As a consequence of this second rebellion, the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem again, and this time they destroyed the city and the temple in 586 BCE. At this point many more Judahites were exiled to Babylon (2Kgs 25; Jer 52). So while the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II did indeed destroy the temple, it seems he did so out of expediency in order to protect his imperial interests as ruler, since the kings of Judah kept rebelling against Babylonian rule.

Did the Judeans deserve to be punished because of their faithlessness to God?

While the Hebrew Bible supports this historical account, it also places the blame for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and even for the Babylonian exile, firmly in the hands of the kings of Judah, who “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2Kgs 23:32, 2Kgs 23:37; 2Kgs 24:9, 2Kgs 24:19). Prophetic literature, including 2 Kings and the book of Deuteronomy, recounts the events through a lens of retribution, which can be summed up in Deut 11:26-28:

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

The lens of retribution highlights the idea that if the Israelites/Judahites did what is right in the eyes of the Lord—that is, follow God’s commandments—then they would be rewarded. And if they did not, they would be punished. While King Nebuchadnezzar was the agent of the destruction of Jerusalem, the lens of retribution evident in the prophets makes it clear that Nebuchadnezzar was simply an instrument used by God to punish the Israelites for their sins against God (Jer 25; Ezek 21).

Shayna Sheinfeld, "Nebuchadnezzar", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online:



Shayna Sheinfeld
Honorary Research Fellow , Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (The University of Sheffield).

Shayna Sheinfeld is Honorary Research Fellow at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (The University of Sheffield). Her current research projects include a textbook on women in ancient Judaism and Christianity and a monograph on the diversity of Jewish leadership in the first three centuries CE.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

An empire in lower Mesopotamia that dominated the ancient Near East in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. At the height of their power, they controlled all of the ancient Near East, including Egypt. They were defeated by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 B.C.E.

A subordinate, often a king who is subject to a more powerful king or emperor.

2Kgs 24:12-16

12King 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 Babylo ... View more

2Kgs 25

1And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, ... View more

Jer 52

The Destruction of Jerusalem Reviewed
1Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign; he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Ham ... View more

2Kgs 23:32

32He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestors had done.

2Kgs 23:37

37He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as all his ancestors had done.

2Kgs 24:9

9He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his father had done.

2Kgs 24:19

19He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as Jehoiakim had done.

Deut 11:26-28

26See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:27the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today;28a ... View more

Jer 25

The Babylonian Captivity Foretold
1The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah, in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Juda ... View more

Ezek 21

The Drawn Sword of God
1 The word of the Lord came to me:2Mortal, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries; prophesy against the land o ... View more

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