Israel’s Exile and Captivity—2 Chronicles 36:20

The ancient world of the Bible, at times the perfect picture of “milk and honey,” peace and prosperity, goodness and love, often collapsed dangerously into armed conflict and devastating warfare. Ancient Near Eastern history is filled with battles followed by exile and imprisonment. Archaeology provides important information about those exile events that appear in the biblical record.

Two primary Hebrew word groups depict the concepts of exile and captivity:

1)    galah, golah, galut – verb = to go away, to disappear, to go into exile | noun = exile, captivity

2)    shabah, shebut, shebbi – verb = to take captive | noun = exile, an exiled person

With these meanings, the terms appear in the Hebrew Bible nearly 90 times (galah and derivatives) and 115 times (shabah and derivatives), respectively, and show up in 27 Old Testament books, as follows:

Pentateuch – Genesis | Exodus | Numbers | Deuteronomy

Former Prophets (history) – Judges | 1 & 2 Samuel | 1 & 2 Kings | 1 & 2 Chronicles

Latter Prophets (prophetic books) – Amos | Hosea | Isaiah | Nahum | Jeremiah | Ezekiel | Obadiah | Joel | Zephaniah

Writings – Psalms | Job | Lamentations | Ezra | Nehemiah | Esther | Daniel

While addressing “exile events” of varying sizes and levels of intensity on several occasions throughout Old Testament history (for example the Assyrian removal of tens of thousands of Israelites from their homeland and transporting them to Assyria), the vocabulary of exile and the books employing these terms focus primarily on one specific exile—the devastating conquest of Judah and Jerusalem by Babylon in the sixth century BC. Contemporary biblical sources include especially Isaiah 40-55, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, some of the Psalms, and Lamentations. The books of Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah also address the Babylonian exile and its results.

If the Exodus marked the beginning of Israel’s existence as an independent nation, the exile brought it to an end. Lost in the 587/586 BC destruction of Jerusalem were lives, loved ones, freedom, land, the Jerusalem Temple (with God’s presence), covenant, king, and sacrificial services and personnel. It is impossible to convey in words the depth and pain of this disaster. However, while the crucible of the Babylonian exile crushed everything held dear, it also provided the space and motivation for new and innovative theological directions and ideas.

Archaeology from the time of the Babylonian captivity has revealed settlements, artifacts, and texts that illuminate the period and the actors involved in this tragic drama. For example, archaeologists have long noted the destruction or diminishment of sites all across Judah, supporting the idea of a violent overthrow and exile of the people of the land. Excavated remains on the eastern slopes of the City of David provide grim evidence of the brutal nature of the destruction: charred buildings and furnishings. One of the destroyed structures may have been a royal archive filled with scrolls. Archaeologists found in it 51 “bullae” or stamped clay seal impressions that once sealed documents consumed in the conflagration. Some of the inscriptions on the bullae have the names of fathers or position titles just as they show up in the book of Jeremiah, especially chapter 36.

Other inscriptions include several from Judah, Jordan, Babylon, and Persia:

–   The Babylonian “Jerusalem” Chronicle details the assault of Jerusalem in 597, the deposing of Jehoiakim, and the appointment of Zedekiah, the final king of Judah: “In the seventh year [598/597], the month of Kislimu, 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 Babyloni.”

–   The “Baalis” bulla inscription from Tall al-`Umayri, Jordan, names the Ammonite king, Ba`al Yasha` (Baal Saves), otherwise unknown from Ammonite king lists, but announced in Jeremiah 40:14 as the sponsor of the assassination of Gedaliah, the governor left in Judah by Nebuchadnezzar.

–   The Lachish letters—inked pieces of broken clay from just before the destruction of Jerusalem—reflect the pain and pathos of Judahites attempting to hold out against the Babylonians as one fortress after another collapses around them.

–   The Eliakim seal, found at Tell Beit Mirsim, belonging to the steward of King Jehoiachin.

–   The Gedaliah seal, uncovered at Lachish, mentioning the name of the governor, Gedaliah, whom Nebuchadnezzar placed over Judah following Jerusalem’s collapse.

–   The Babylonian inscription listing rations for captive princes and artisans, including King Jehoiachin.

–   The Babylonian Nabonidus Stele, providing the name of the Babylonian ruler on whose watch the country fell to the Medes and Persians.

–   The Persian Cyrus Cylinder that celebrates the victory of Cyrus over the Babylonians in 539 BC and which also details Cyrus’ magnanimity in returning captives to their homelands and re-establishing indigenous religious institutions like those for the returning Jews.

Such texts and artifacts establish the historical and cultural context of the most significant exile in Old Testament time—the Babylonian captivity. It is particularly at this time and under these circumstances in Jerusalem and Babylon that we witness precisely many of the same names and events in both the archaeological and biblical records. A most poignant event in Hebrew history—the massive exile of thousands of Judahites into Babylon 700 miles away, following on the heels of the destruction of Judah’s capital, temple, and, with it, its theological foundations—would in time pave the way for the rebuilding of faith and familiar surroundings through a new exodus and return to the land.


Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East.

Ackroyd, Exile and Restoration.


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