The Kingdom of Judah
The fate of the kingdom of Judah is a central topic of the Hebrew Bible. According to the biblical stories, Judean kings ruled from the time of David, about 1000 B.C.E., until 586 B.C.E., when the Neo-Babylonians destroyed Judah, its capital Jerusalem, and the temple and forcefully resettled most Judeans in Babylon. Though the kingdom of Judah was gone, Judean scribes and priests preserved and developed the most prominent biblical literary and religious traditions during and after the Babylonian exile. When the Persian king Cyrus conquered the Neo-Babylonians in 539 B.C.E., he secured the periphery of his empire by allowing his new subjects to return home. Although some Judeans stayed in Mesopotamia, those who returned rebuilt Jerusalem, the temple, and Judean society.
Did you know…?
- According to the Hebrew Bible, David was the first king of Judah, and Judean kings ruled from about 1000 B.C.E. until 586 B.C.E., when the Neo-Babylonians destroyed Judah, its capital Jerusalem, and the temple and forced most Judeans to relocate to Babylon.
- The ninth-century B.C.E. Tel Dan Stela appears to mention a certain king of the “house of David.” This Aramean inscription does not use the term Judah, but the designation “house of David” could be our earliest reference to the kingdom.
- The name Judah (Yĕhudah in Hebrew) refers to the patriarch Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob; the tribe associated with his descendants and their territory; the kingdom centered on that tribal territory; and the community that returned from Babylonian exile.
- In Greek literature, including the New Testament, the Hebrew word Yĕhudah is written Ioudas or Iouda (Judas or Judah), the territory is called Ioudaia (Judea), its people are Ioudaios (Judean), and their customs are Ioudaismos. Though the term Judaism is derived from this latter Greek word, Ioudaismos included all Judean social and cultural norms, not just Judean religion.
What was the status of the kingdom of Judah in the ancient world?
The kingdom of Judah has had an enormous legacy, despite its small size and relative unimportance on the ancient Near Eastern political stage. It was Judean scribes who produced most of the contents of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible that we know today is the expression of select Judean theologies rooted in a particular time and place but whose impact is now global.
Around 1150 B.C.E., the major civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia collapsed, leaving a power vacuum in Canaan. The kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel in the north emerged in this power vacuum, along with Ammon, Moab, Edom, Aram-Damascus, and Philistine and Phoenician city-states, between the 10th and eighth centuries B.C.E. When Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia recovered, the territory of Judah and its neighbors became a political buffer zone, subject to these empires. This geopolitical context thoroughly shaped biblical stories.
The kingdom of Judah became a vassal to the Neo-Assyrian and, later, Neo-Babylonian kings, meaning that Judean kings had to pay tribute and remain loyal to them. In Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian documents, Judah is not exceptional. In 728 B.C.E., the Neo-Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III mentions Judah among other subjugated kingdoms that have paid him treasures, goods, and livestock (Summary Inscription 7; see
How did the status of the kingdom of Judah determine biblical theology?
Many read the Hebrew Bible as a universal, timeless book. However, its authors were primarily concerned with the fate of Judah, especially Jerusalem and the Davidic kings who ruled from there. Judean scribes included statements about the fate of the kingdom of Judah in stories about the 12 tribes attaining the land as well as the establishment of Israel and Judah (for example,
Historically, the Neo-Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom for political reasons: Israel withheld tribute whereas Judah did not (
Judean authors faced a crisis of their own in 586 B.C.E., when the Neo-Babylonians decimated Judah. They apologize for this catastrophe by blaming the Judean people, kings, priests, and prophets, accusing them of breaking their covenant with Yahweh.
In postexilic, Persian-controlled Judah, Nehemiah (