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).