Babylonian Accounts of the Invasion of Judah

According to the Bible, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s successful invasion of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple, and the deportation of King Jehoiachin, the royal family and court, and all the population of Jerusalem to Babylon was divine judgment and punishment against Judah for “all the sins that Manasseh had committed and also because of the blood of the innocent that he (Jehoiakim) shed” (2Kgs 24:3-4, 2Kgs 24:12-16). In the narrative style characteristic of their chronicles, the Babylonians recorded their invasion of Judah strictly in terms of their military action in the Levant.

What was the purpose of this military action?

For the Babylonians, military intervention in the Levant was necessary to maintain a strong buffer against Egypt. Tribute and deported populations also provided resources and manpower for Nebuchadnezzar’s ambitious program of restoring Babylon and revitalizing agricultural lands devastated in the wars his father fought and won to establish the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BCE).

How do Babylonian records describe the invasion of Judah?

Babylonian historical and administrative sources provide a chronological framework and details about the empire, but relatively few details about their military conquests. Their descriptions of Babylonian military actions pale in comparison to the vibrant annals documenting Assyrian campaigns and battles. A well-known example of a descriptive record of Assyrian military efforts is that of Sennacherib’s campaign in the Levant in 701 BCE. The narrative, inscribed on a hexagonal clay prism, records Sennacherib’s boasts of having shut the Judean King Hezekiah up “like a caged  bird.” Wall reliefs in the Assyrian court at Nineveh illustrate Sennacherib’s siege of Lachish and depict Judah’s defeated peoples lined up for deportation. These visual records of war reinforced the image of the Assyrian king as a valiant and invincible warrior.

The iconographic record of Neo-Babylonian kings, on the other hand, is more restrained. Images on stele and rock-reliefs depict the king as an obedient servant of the god(s), deserving the privilege to rule. These pious messages were established on monuments in temples and on rock faces in mountain passes at the empire’s edges. Babylonian Chronicles are terse records of royal military activities. The Babylonian “Chronicle of the Early Years of Nebuchadnezzar” describes Nebuchadnezzar’s (604-562 BCE) campaign against Jerusalem but includes no specific mention of military equipment or actions.

Sandwiched between equally short reports of campaigns of his sixth and eighth years, the record of Nebuchadnezzar’s seventh year is typically brief and remains the only cuneiform source documenting the siege of Jerusalem and the start of the Babylonian exile:

In the seventh year, the month of Kislîmu, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched to the Hatti-land, and besieged the city of Judah and on the second day of the month of Addaru he seized the city and captured the king. He appointed there a king of his own choice, received its heavy tribute and sent to Babylon. (translation from livius.org)

What happened to the deportees?

Our knowledge of Babylonian treatment of deported populations, Judeans among them, must be constructed from diverse documents in palace and regional archives. Administrative lists excavated in King Nebuchadnezzar’s South Palace in Babylon record ration disbursements to deported kings, courtiers, and other palace personnel; notably, they mention the Judean king, Jehoiachin, and five of his sons. These reports corroborate the biblical description of Jehoiachin’s captivity (2Kgs 25:27-30; Jer 52:31-34).

Texts from rural settlements document the Babylonian practice of resettling deported populations in “mirror towns,” settlements named for the exiles’ places of origin. This technique, designed to provide the manpower necessary to develop agricultural lands, capitalized on the economic benefits of community, which encouraged cooperation among people from a common geographic origin. One of those towns, āl-Yāhudu (i.e., “Judahtown”), was populated by individuals with distinctive Judean names. First attested in 572 BCE, this was one of the places to which deported Judeans were brought. Although the sources lack most details about Babylonian invasions themselves, the lives of individuals and communities they deported can be reconstructed in some detail from these administrative records, which record Judean marriages, and their participation in business and agriculture.

Contributors

  • Pearce-Laurie

    Lecturer in Akkadian, University of California, Berkeley

    Laurie Pearce is a Lecturer in Akkadian in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research on the social and economic history of first millennium BCE Babylonia focuses on cultural contact between diverse population groups. She directs the digital text projects “Hellenistic Babylonia: Texts, Images and Names”, and “Foreigners in Babylonia”, both on the Oracc platform. In 2014, she and co-author Cornelia Wunsch published Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer. CUSAS 28. Bethesda: CDL Press, a volume of cuneiform texts that record the earliest Judean settlement in Babylonia.