New Sources and Insights on Judeans in the Babylonian Exile

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
Tags: Ancient Near East Today, Babylonian, Exile, Judeans, Yigal Bloch
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May Ancient Near East Today

By: Yigal Bloch

The biblical books of Kings and Jeremiah present the narrative of the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and the exile of its inhabitants to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar II (2 Kgs. 24-25; Jer. 39:1-10; 52). Given the presence of Judeans in Babylonia, one would expect some of them to be mentioned in the over 20,000 known cuneiform tablets dating to the 6th-5th centuries B.C.E. (the Late Babylonian period). Indeed, they are.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners, c. 1896-1902
© The Jewish Museum, New York

The Kings and Jeremiah agree that the first deportation included Jehoiachin king of Judah and was carried out eleven years before the final destruction of Jerusalem. The last episode in both books is the release of Jehoiachin from prison by the Babylonian king Evil-Merodach (Amēl-Marduk), the son and successor of Nebuchadnezzar, in the spring of 561 B.C.E. Allegedly, Evil-Merodach then invited Jehoiachin to dine in his presence until the end of his life. Given Evil-Merodach’s death in the summer of 560 B.C.E., it seems that Jehoiachin also died during his short reign.

In 539 B.C.E., the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great. Cyrus authorized the exiled Judeans to return to their ancestral land and to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Yet, some members of the exilic community – perhaps the majority – remained in Babylonia, as both the text and the immediate context of Cyrus’s decree make clear (Ezra 1:4, 6).

A hilltop view of the ancient city of Babylon. http://www.mnf-iraq.com/ Maj. Mike Feeney

A large number of references in cuneiform texts can be found, beginning already with the first decade of the exile. A tablet discovered in Babylon mentions rations of oil given to Jehoiachin, king of Judah ([mI]a-ú-kīn(GIN) šarru(LUGAL) šá KURIa-[ḫu-du]), and five his sons. It is dated to the 13th regnal year of Nebuchadnezzar II, 592 B.C.E. The tablet, published only in part in 1939, suggests that Jehoiachin’s stay in Babylonia was, at least initially, quite comfortable. If he was indeed eighteen years old when exiled, as suggested by 2 Kings. 24:8, then at least some of his five sons were probably born in Babylonia. Three other tablets from Babylon, mentioning rations given to Jehoiachin and his sons but bearing no specific date, were also partly published.

The tablets mentioning Jehoiachin and his sons are exceptional, both in light of their early date and because they are the only evidence for the preservation of the Davidic dynasty in the exile. The vast majority of Judeans mentioned in Late Babylonian tablets are common people, not royalty. The only way to tell them from their neighbors of Babylonian or other descent is by their personal names, especially if those names express a wish, praise or thanks to a deity. Such names are called theophoric.

A tablet from Babylon dated to the 13th regnal year of Nebuchadnezzar II (592 B.C.E.), mentioning rations of oil given to Jehoiachin king of Judah and his sons. Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum, VAT 16283+

Typically Judean theophoric names mention the deity Yahweh, in different spellings, apparently because this deity was unfamiliar for the Babylonian scribes who wrote the tablets. The spellings of Yahweh in personal names are always syllabic, and include such variants as Ia(-a)-ú- or Ia(-a)-ḫu(), normally at the beginning of a name, and -Ia(-a)-ma, (-Ia)-ʾa-ma or -a-ma, mostly as a name’s final part (the latter group of spellings appears to reflect the articulation *-Yāw). Blood relatives of persons bearing Judean names were also presumably of Judean background, even if their own names are not distinctly Judean.

Until recently, the largest corpus of Judean personal names in Late Babylonian tablets was the archive of the Murašû family from Nippur, covering the period 454-404 B.C.E. In that archive, Judeans appear mostly as clients of the Murašû family’s enterprise, taking loans or renting fields, or as witnesses to business deeds of the family with its other clients. As recently as 2002, of the 163 Judeans identified in Late Babylonian tablets by Israeli scholar Ran Zadok, some 96 of them were attested in the Murašû archive.

Map of ancient Mesopotamia with the location of Nippur underlined. Most Babylonian tablets mentioning Judeans come from this city and from an area on its eastern periphery.

But until recently tablets mentioning Judeans in the century and half between the exile of Jehoiachin and the beginning of the Murašû archive have also been much sparser. Some of those tablets, written between 545 and 490 B.C.E. in the cities of Sippar and Susa, allow a glimpse into different social roles played by individual Judeans in this period and their influence on the preservation of Judean communal identity, as reflected in the relevant individuals’ personal names.

Last year, however, a large body of new evidence concerning the life of Judeans in Babylonian exile was published by Laurie Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch. It consists of 103 Babylonian tablets written in a place called Āl-Yāḫūdu (“Judahtown”) and nearby settlements, located most likely east of Nippur. More tablets from the same area are scheduled to be published soon. The new tablets, spanning the period 572-477 B.C.E., deal mainly with different aspects of managing agricultural land. They indicate that Judeans in Āl-Yāḫūdu and its vicinity were settled as tenants on crown land, in return for which they were obligated to pay a rent and to carry out a duty of service. The newly available tablets mention almost 140 individuals, recognizable as Judeans on the basis of their names. Thus, the available sample of Judeans in Babylonia is nearly doubled.

In one sense the evidence of the Babylonian tablets mentioning Judeans is disappointing; the social roles which Judeans play in those tablets and their conduct do not appear to differ significantly from individuals of non-Judean background, as depicted in Late Babylonian documents. To understand the unique aspects of Judean communal and cultural life one still has to rely on biblical sources.

Laurie E. Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch, Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer. 2014.

Yet, the biblical sources composed during the exilic and the post-exilic period also reflect Babylonian influences. Scholarly debates concerning such influences have a long history but the last year has seen some new important studies on this topic. For example, Tova Ganzel and Shalom Holtz have compared Ezekiel’s vision of the future Temple in Jerusalem (Ezek. 40-48) with what is known about the structure, both architectural and social, of Late Babylonian temples. They argue that the prophet drew on patterns of temple architecture and function known to his exilic audience from its immediate surroundings.

In a detailed argument Abraham Winitzer has also argued extensively that Ezekiel was at home in the Babylonian scholarly tradition and incorporated some elements of it in his prophecies. Finally, Irving Finkel British Museum, in a popular monograph dedicated to the Mesopotamian flood story, discusses its adaptation in the biblical book of Genesis and suggests that it reflects the Judean exiles’ direct knowledge of Babylonian literary and religious traditions.

Debate on these issues will certainly continue in the years to come. And as more texts by and about Judeans are published, the inner world of the exiles will be revealed in greater detail.

Yigal Bloch is a post-doctoral student in Assyriology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

For Further Reading

Bloch, Y. 2014. Judeans in Sippar and Susa during the First Century of the Babylonian Exile: Assimilation and Perseverance under Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Rule. Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History 1: 119-72

Finkel, I. 2014. The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London

Ganzel, T. and S. E. Holtz. 2014. Ezekiel’s Temple in Babylonian Context. Vetus Testamentum 64: 211-26

Larsen, M. T. 1995. The “Babel/Bible Controversy and Its Aftermath. Pp. 95-106 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (ed. J. M. Sasson). New York

Magdalene, F. R. and C. Wunsch. 2011. Slavery between Judah and Babylon: The Exilic Experience. Pp. 113-34 in Slaves and Households in the Near East (ed. L. Culbertson). Oriental Institute Seminars 7. Chicago

Pearce, L. E. and C. Wunsch. 2014. Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer. Cornell University Studies in Assyriology and Sumerology 28. Bethesda, Md.

Weidner, E. F. 1939. Jojachin, König von Juda, in Babylonischen Keilschrifttexten. Pp. 923-35 in Mélanges syriens offerts à Monsieur René Dussaud. Paris

Waerzeggers, C. Locating Contact in the Babylonian Exile: Some Reflections on Tracing Judean-Babylonian Encounters in Cuneiform Texts. Pp. 131-46 in Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations Between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity (ed. U. Gabbay and S. Secunda). Tübingen

Winitzer, A. 2014. Assyriology and Jewish Studies in Tel Aviv: Ezekiel among the Babylonian literati. Pp. 163-216 in Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations Between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity (ed. U. Gabbay and S. Secunda). Tübingen

Wunsch, C. forthcoming. Judeans by the Waters of Babylon: New Historical Evidence in Cuneiform Sources from Rural Babylonia. Manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection. Babylonische Archive 6. Dresden

Zadok, Ran. 2002. The Earliest Diaspora: Israelites and Judeans in Pre-Hellenistic Mesopotamia. Tel Aviv


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