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Old Testament History
The Rise of Babylon and Exile (640 BC-538 BC)

Dennis Bratcher

The Rise of Babylon
Waning Assyrian Power
     Josiah (640-609) and Religious Reforms    Jehoahaz (609)
Babylonian Control of Judah
     Jehoikim (609-598)    Jehoichin [Jeconiah] (598)    Zedekiah [Mattaniah] (598-587)
The Fall of Jerusalem and Its Aftermath
The Peak of Babylonian Power

The Rise of Babylon

The date of 640 used to begin this period relates more to the reign of Israelite kings, which provides the framework for this historical survey, than it does to the shift of power from Assyria to Babylon. However, even though there are decisive dates and battles that mark its demise, the Assyrian Empire came to an end over a span of time rather than all at once. The end of the Assyrian Empire unfolded largely during the reign of Josiah, and his death in 609 occurred as the Assyrian Empire was breathing its last. So in a real sense the era of the reign of Josiah marked the transition between these two empires.

Waning Assyrian Power

Asshurbanapal (669-627 BC ) took over the empire of Assyria after the death of his father Esarhaddon (680-669 BC). At that time the Assyrian Empire was at its peak. Esarhaddon had been an especially capable ruler, not only stabilizing the eastern frontiers of the Empire, but finally succeeding in subjugating Egypt (671 BC). However, Egypt continued insurrection, and Esarhaddon died in route to put down an uprising by the Egyptian pharaoh Tirhakah who had escaped the earlier invasion. Asshurbanapal continued the campaign against Egypt and succeeded in putting down the rebellion. A subsequent campaign in 663 resulted in the sack and destruction of Thebes by the Assyrians.

However, the Assyrians were overextended and Asshurbanapal began to struggle to hold together the vast empire. Egypt remained stubbornly resistant to Assyrian control and gradually regained independence. Rebellious elements in Babylonia, with aid from other traditional enemies of Assyria, gradually built opposition to Assyrian rule even though the king of Babylon at that time was Asshurbanapal’s brother. The Medes, Scythians, Cimmerians, and other tribes continually pressed the northern and western borders of the Empire. Arab tribes to the south and east captured outlying provinces in Syria, Edom, and Moab.

Besides the external pressures, internal division further weakened Assyrian control. Asshurbanapal’s brother who controlled Babylon finally broke with the Empire and joined several other nations in rebellion. Asshurbanapal managed to quell the rebellion in Babylon and establish a manner of control over the southern and eastern borders. There was a period of relative stability for a time. However, Egypt was lost, and the Assyrian Empire was seriously weakened. It would never recover.

After the death of Asshurbanapal, civil war broke out over a successor. Seeing their chance, the Babylonians led by Nabopolassar and aided by the Medes, drove the Assyrians from Babylon in 626. Weakened by internal conflict, the new Assyrian king, Sin-Shar-ishkin, could only fight for survival. It was only a matter of time before Babylon replaced Assyria as the new Empire of the Middle East.

Josiah (640-609) and Religious Reforms

Josiah was remembered in the biblical traditions as one of the best kings of Judah. His reforms were seen as the last genuine attempt by leaders to set the nation back on course as God’s people before its destruction at the hands of Babylon. Perhaps it was his untimely death that captured the imagination of the people as much as the reforms themselves. There is some indication that the reforms may have been only superficial, and even Jeremiah, while no doubt supporting what Josiah attempted to accomplish, seems not to have been too enthusiastic about the reforms. Still, Josiah is credited with being one of only five good kings of the Southern Kingdom of Judah during its 350-year history.

Josiah took the throne of Judah as an eight year old boy after the assassination of his father Amon. He was placed in power by the "people of the land" (2 Kings 21:24) who, for whatever political or religious reasons, objected to the assassination of Amon. We can only assume that advisers and officials actually ran the country until Josiah was old enough to take the reigns of power himself.

At about the age of 20 in his 12th year as king (628), Josiah emerged as ruler in his own right and began a series of reforms that would lead Judah to a short period of independence. As during the reign of Hezekiah, there was no separating religious and political reform. While the biblical traditions emphasize the religious dimensions, behind the scenes were an equal amount of political aspects. Part of the cause of the decadent religious situation that had been allowed to flourish under Manasseh and Amon was the pro-Assyrian policy that those kings had followed, reminiscent of Ahaz. The subservience to Assyria had weakened national identity, and thereby had also weakened loyalty to Yahweh, who was still seen by many in Israel as a national patron God. So any religious reform also meant rebellion against Assyrian control.

But by this time, Assyria was in serious trouble. Sin-Shar-ishkin was already effectively in power as co-regent with Asshurbanapal, and the Empire had already begun to crumble. The Assyrians were too occupied elsewhere to pay much attention to Israel. Josiah managed to regain control of portions of northern Israel that had been in Assyrian hands since the invasion that had destroyed Samaria in 721 BC.

By 622, having gradually expanded his influence, Josiah was ready to launch sweeping reforms of the nation itself. These are probably the most well know of the religious reforms in biblical history, since so much attention is given them (2 Kings 22:3-23:25, 2 Chron 34:1-35:19). No doubt there were several aspects to the changes Josiah introduced, but the most well know from biblical tradition was the discovery of the "the book of the torah" (2 Kings 22:11-13). During the course of extensive repairs to the Temple, a sign that reform was well underway, a book was found and brought to Josiah. The book of the torah, probably an early form of the traditions that comprise the book of Deuteronomy, had been neglected so long that people had forgotten it. After consulting the prophetess Huldah, who confirmed the content of the torah, Josiah used the book as a basis for the continuing reforms.

Guided by the principles in the torah traditions, Josiah systematically destroyed the pagan shrines, temples, and objects used in the rituals, especially those that had marked subservience to Assyria. He eliminated the practices instituted by Manasseh, and deposed, possibly executed, the priests of Ba’al and other deities (2 Kings 23:5). He abolished the outlying shrines at Bethel and Samaria that had always been a source of syncretism with Baal worship and actively promoted centralized worship in Jerusalem. He outlawed magic and sorcery. In effect, Josiah had charted a new course for the nation by the old principles of the covenant.

However, it is not at all clear the true extent of the reforms or how deeply they affected the life of the nation. Jeremiah, who was active during the peak of the reforms, seems not to have been too enthusiastic about them. And there is indication from his perspective on the religious life of Judah that the reforms were only superficial. From that view, they may have done as much harm as good by creating an atmosphere in Judah in which the people thought that their future was secured because they followed the rules of the book. That led to a false sense of security based on the existence of the Temple and the practice of the rituals without genuine transformation.

We have few details about the later years of Josiah’s reign. It is likely that the reforms continued, although later events raise questions about how thoroughgoing they actually were. In any case, the biblical record returns to the events swirling throughout the region toward the untimely end of Josiah’s reign.

As already noted, after the death of the Assyrian king Asshurbanapal, civil war broke out over a successor. The new Assyrian ruler, Sin-Shar-ishkin, was so seriously weakened by the turmoil, that he began to loose control of the Empire. The Babylonians under Nabopolassar and aided by the Medes, gained independence from Assyria in 626, with no opposition from the weakened Assyria. As Assyria grew weaker, the Babylonians were growing stronger and soon threatened to dominate Assyria.

The Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus, fearing the unknown and rapidly rising Babylon more than his now weakened arch enemy Assyria, decided to lend support to the Assyrians. By 618 the Babylonians were pressing into Assyrian territory from the south, and the Egyptians sent troops to help defend Assyria. However, part of Babylonian strength was an alliance with the Medes, and the Egyptian-Assyrian alliance was no match for the Babylonians and Medes. In 614 the ancient Assyrian capital of Asshur fell, and in 612 the capital city of Ninevah was destroyed by the Babylonians who also killed Sin-Shar-ishkin.

Remnants of the Assyrian army fled to the west and attempted to reestablish the nation at Haran. But in 610 the Babylonian alliance captured Haran and drove the survivors further west across the Euphrates. By this time the Egyptians under Pharaoh Necho, who had come to power in 610, were worried about the growing menace of a new and expanding Empire to the north, and decided to send more troops to rescue the embattled Assyrians.

However, to reach the Assyrians, Necho had to march through Israel along the major north-south corridor known as the Via Maris ("way of the sea") that passed the Israelite fortress of Megiddo and then through the Valley of Jezreel. (See PhotoTour: The Valley of Jezreel and Plain of Esdraelon). When word reached Josiah that Necho was marching north to relieve the Assyrians, Josiah decided to intervene and try to stop Necho at the fortress of Megiddo. We do not know what motivated his attempt to interfere, perhaps because of lingering animosity toward Assyria for its harsh treatment of the Israelites. In any case, it would prove disastrous.

Josiah marched north and intercepted the Egyptians near Megiddo, but was killed in the ensuing battle and the Israelites were defeated. Necho continued northward and joined the struggling Assyrians for one last-ditch effort to reestablish Assyrian control of Haran. But the effort failed and the last remnants of the Assyrian army were wiped out.

The tragic death of Josiah would have several consequences for Israel, both in the short term and long range. The immediate result may well have been a theological crisis that led to the undermining of the reforms. Part of the covenant perspective of Deuteronomy was that obedience to God brings blessings and long life. And yet the best king Israel had seen in a long time, who had faithfully obeyed God in restoring proper worship, was tragically killed as a relatively young man. That may well have raised questions about the validity of the Deuteronomic theology, and perhaps even raised questions about the viability of Yahweh worship (cf. Jer 44:15-19). These questions combined with the superficiality of the reforms that fostered a false sense of security based on external rituals to create deep seated apathy that not even the preaching of Jeremiah could shake. In any case, the reforms lost steam with the death of Josiah.

On a larger scale, the kingdom of Judah was now in peril of a different sort. Because of the defeat at the hands of the Egyptians, for all practical purposes, Judah as well as the rest of Palestine and Syria, was now under the control of Egypt. Egypt had drawn a line opposing Babylon, the new power in that part of the world, which placed Egypt in the precarious position of being the major hindrance to Babylonian expansion to the west. Even though Israel had opposed Assyria, this turn of events left Israel on the wrong side of shifting balances of power. Again, Israel found herself caught between two warring giants.

Jehoahaz [Shallum] (609)

Jehoahaz, who was also known as Shallum, succeeded his father Josiah after he was killed at Megiddo by Egyptian forces on their way to assist the Assyrians against the Babylonians. However, after reigning only three months, Jehoahaz was removed by Pharaoh Necho and sent to Egypt as a prisoner where he died. He was replaced by his brother Eliakim (Jehoiakim).

Babylonian Control of Judah

For a short four years, between 609 and 605, Judah fell under Egyptian control. The Babylonians, however, were expanding too rapidly for Egypt to contain, and during the reign of Jehoiakim the tiny nation of Judah would totally lose its independence to Babylon and finally disappear into the Babylonian Empire.

Jehoiakim [Eliakim] (609-598)

Pharaoh Necho of Egypt, exercising his newly established control of Judah after the death of Josiah, replaced the legitimate king, Jehoahaz, with his brother Eliakim, changing his name to Jehoiakim. The intent of Necho was to have a puppet king loyal to Egypt to provide a buffer between Egypt and Babylon expansion. Egypt also levied heavy taxes on Judah and the "people of the land" (2 Kings 23:34-35). This burden of taxes was compounded by the likelihood that Necho considerably reduced Israel’s territory, expanded to the north in the early days of Josiah.

Yet, Jehoiakim seemed totally blind to the plight of the country. He launched an aggressive building campaign, including a new palace built with forced labor and scarce resources. Jeremiah was an outspoken opponent of Jehoiakim’s reckless behavior that seemed more intent on self-interest than on leading the nation at a crucial time in Judah’s history (Jer 22:13-19).

The year 605 marked a decisive turning point in Middle Eastern History. The Egyptians had established a presence in Northern Syria after trying in vain to assist the Assyrians in retaking Haran. They had an outpost at Carchemish near Haran on the upper reaches of the Euphrates. The Babylonians under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar drove the Egyptians from Charchemish and then pursued them south toward Palestine (Jer 46:2-12). After a brief delay in which Nebuchadnezzar took the reigns of power as king of Babylon at the death of Nabopolasser, he continued his southern march.

By 604, the Babylonians had reached as far as the Philistine territory along the coast to the southwest of Judah. Jehoiakim, alarmed at the prospect of the hostile Babylonians so close, even though he had been put in power as a vassal of the Egyptians, declared allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar as a matter of expediency. This move, made under threat of invasion, placed Judah under the control of the Babylonians.

The Babylonians continued pressing southward into Egypt, and by 601 Nebuchadnezzar was engaged in fierce fighting with Pharaoh Necho. However, Nebuchadnezzar was unable to subdue Egypt and finally returned to Babylon at the end of the year. Jehoiakim, encouraged by this apparent Babylonian retreat, and expecting help from Egypt, withdrew his allegiance from the Babylonians (2 Kings 24:1). It was a disastrous miscalculation.

As soon as he was able, in late 598 Nebuchadnezzar sent his army to reestablish his control over Judah, the gateway to Egypt. At about this time, Jehoiakim suddenly died. There is uncertainty about what happened to him, but there are hints in Jeremiah (22:18-23, 36:30) that he was assassinated.

Jehoiachin [Jeconiah] (598)

After the untimely death of his father, Jehoiachin took the throne of Judah at the age of eighteen. However, with the Babylonians bearing down upon the city of Jerusalem, it was not an auspicious time to be king of Judah. Within three months he surrendered the city to the Babylonians, as Jeremiah has advised Jehoiakim to do. Jehoiachin was deposed and taken prisoner to Babylon, along with several thousand of the leading citizens (figures range from 3,000 to 10,000 exiles; cf. Jer 29:2, Est 2:6). This was the first of two major deportations of Israelites to Babylon that comprised the Exile.

Thirty-seven years later, when the Babylonian king Evil-Merodach (Amel-marduk) took the throne, he released Jehoiachin from prison and allowed him to live in the Babylonian palace until his death (2 Kings 25:27-30). Many in Judah still regarded him as the legitimate king of Judah and longed for his return, a situation that created unrest in Judah until the destruction of Jerusalem.

Zedekiah [Mattaniah] (597-587) and the End of Judah

After removing Jehoiachin from the throne of Judah, the Babylonians replaced him with Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle. The intent was to have a puppet king who would be loyal to the Babylonians. However, the political and religious forces in Judah would not allow passive submission to a foreign power, even though Jeremiah had been preaching for 40 years that this was, indeed, God’s will for the nation.

The nation had already been devastated by the Babylonians, both physically and economically. After Josiah’s death, Judah’s territory had been considerably reduced, the countryside had been decimated by invading armies, and outlying cities destroyed. A considerable number of the nation’s most valuable citizenry, those most capable of leading the nation in a crisis, had been removed to Babylon as exiles or more likely hostages to insure the continued submission of those left in Judah.

Zedekiah was a vacillating leader, unable to chart a clear course of action or to withstand political pressures. In 595, encouraged by prophets who in the name of God were promising a speedy return from exile (cf. Jer. 28), the deportees in Babylon attempted rebellion. Some of the leading prophets were executed and the rebellion quickly crushed, but the actions spawned rebellious thinking in Judah (Jer 29:21-23).

Encouraged by promised aid from surrounding nations, by 594 the remaining inhabitants of Judah were near open rebellion against the Babylonians. There, too, prophets like Hananiah (Jer 28), encouraged by those in Babylon like Shemaiah (Jer 29:24-27), promised a quick end to the exile and a return to normal within two years. Jeremiah was apparently the only prophet who still advocated submission to the Babylonians as the only way for the nation to survive (cf. Jer 27:9-11). He denounced the other prophets because they had not "stood in the counsel of God" and therefore were bringing a false message of hope (Jer 27-28; cf. 14:13-16). Jeremiah even wrote letters to the exiles already in Babylon trying to convince them that the exile would last for "70 years," and so rebellion was pointless (Jer 29).

Perhaps because of such vigorous opposition by Jeremiah, or perhaps because of other factors such as lack of the promised aid by other nations, the rebellion never materialized, or at least was postponed since the discontent and the attitudes had not really changed. But by 589 the simmering nationalism and resentment against foreign occupation exploded into open rebellion.  Judah had no capability of withstanding a Babylonian attack, and since only Tyre, Egypt, and perhaps Ammon supported Judah, the nation was vulnerable.

Perhaps the Babylonians were expecting the rebellion, because within a few short months Babylonian armies had arrived in Judah to crush it. By early 588, only Jerusalem and the fortresses at Lachish and Azekah were left in Israelite hands. By summer, those fortresses fell and Jerusalem itself was placed under siege.

There was a short respite in the summer of 588 as Pharaoh Hophra sent an army to relieve the siege of Jerusalem, forcing the Babylonians to disengage to meet them. Still heedless of Jeremiah’s counsel (Jer. 37:6-10), there was widespread jubilation in Jerusalem celebrating God’s deliverance of the city. But the Babylonians easily routed the Egyptian troops and returned to the siege, and the last hope of Judah faded.

Zedekiah seemed unable to take decisive action in any direction. Even though Jeremiah had been imprisoned for supposedly deserting to the Babylonians, Zedekiah sent and asked his advice, evidently hoping for encouragement. However, Jeremiah’s message still did not waver (Jer. 37:17-18). Even though Zedekiah allowed some concession to Jeremiah (Jer. 37:19-21) and apparently wanted to follow his advice, he feared for his life too much to do so (Jer. 38:14-23). Yet Zedekiah could too easily be convinced by his anti-Babylonian counselors that Jeremiah was a threat to national security (Jer 38:1-13).

In July of 587 the Babylonians finally breached the walls and took Jerusalem. Zedekiah attempted to flee the city but was captured and taken to Nebuchadnezzar’s headquarters in Syria. He was forced to watch as his sons were executed, then he was blinded and taken prisoner to Babylon where he died (2 Kings 25:5-7; Jer. 52:11).  With his death the Davidic dynasty in Judah that had reigned over the Israelites for over 400 years came to an end.

The Fall of Jerusalem and Its Aftermath

[In preparation]

The Peak of Babylonian Power

[In preparation]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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