Many readers will be familiar with
The Babylonian exile was a period in the history of ancient Israel. That exile started with a two-stage deportation—597 and 587 BCE—and presumably ended with the conquest of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 538 BCE. The Babylonians, originating in what is now southern Iraq, rose to a power position by the end of the seventh century by putting an end to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Their king, Nebuchadnezzar II, extended the empire to the east and to the west. On his way to control the trade routes to Egypt, he was confronted with the resistance of the Kingdom of Judah. In 597 he conquered Jerusalem, exiled parts of the population, including King Jehoiachin, and installed Zedekiah as puppet king. This event is reported in the Hebrew Bible (
Hoping for support from Egypt, this vassal king rebelled against the Babylonians. They answered with a fierce attack on Jerusalem in 587 BCE, ruining the city and its walls. The temple for YHWH was demolished. The temple vessels, symbols of the divine presence, were taken away to Babylon together with again many Judahites. The area was transformed into a Babylonian province. For this second and decisive conquest, see
In the Hebrew Bible, the exile is conceptualized as a divine punishment for the trespasses of Judah, its leaders as well as its people.
Did you know…?
- The deportation from Jerusalem in 597 is reported in the Hebrew Bible (
2Kgs 24:8-12) as
well as in the Babylonian Chronicle.
- Evidence on the march of the Babylonians to Jerusalem in 587 is found in the Lachish Letters.
These inscribed ostraca date from the period just before the conquest of Jerusalem. They contain
letters written by the officer in command at Lachish expressing his fear of the foe.
- Archaeological evidence indicates that the land of Judah was not uninhabited during the
- Some biblical stories are set in an exilic context (Ezekiel; Daniel).
- Excavations in Mesopotamia have revealed traces of the Judahite exiles in Babylon.
What evidence is there from outside the Bible for conditions in Babylon during the exile?
Excavations in Mesopotamia have revealed a few traces of the Judahite exiles. Firstly, 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 documents refer to *Yahu-kin and his five sons as regular receivers of portions of food on behalf of the Babylonian king. The king was kept alive as diplomatic spare change for a future situation.
Secondly, a group of cuneiform inscriptions from al Ya-hu-du (“the city of Judah/Yehud”) and some other places in southern Mesopotamia, indicate that exiled Judaeans were working as pioneers in newly reclaimed agricultural areas. Their role was to supply food for the population in the urban nucleus of Babylon. The documents make clear that the Judaeans lived together in an ethnic group. They were not treated as slaves. A majority remained living there even after the change from Babylonian to Persian rule. These are indications that life in the exile was not
as dreadful as suggested by
How did the Babylonian exile end?
In 539 BCE the Persian king Cyrus the Great succeeded in conquering the city of Babylon and
thus bringing an end to the Babylonian rule. In a few decades the Persians had occupied an area
stretching from the Indus River to the Nile. The famous Cyrus Cylinder is often seen as
extrabiblical evidence for the historicity of the decree of Cyrus in
shown, however, that the text concerns the return of divine images from cities surrounding
Babylon, from where they were exiled by Nabonidus. This passage has nothing to do with
Judaeans, Jews, or Jerusalem. Besides, it was not before the reign of Cyrus’s son Cambyses that
the area around Jerusalem became part of the Persian Empire; by then the postexilic period had
started. The return from exile was a long process of waves of returnees.