King Jehoiachin was only 18 years old and had occupied the throne of Judah barely three months when he was led off into Babylonian captivity in 598 BCE together with his wives, his mother, his servants, his eunuchs and thousands of "the chief men of the land."
But what happened to them when they reached Babylon? And what happened there to the tens of thousands of others who joined them in exile when the First Temple was destroyed a decade later? The Bible tells us of the return to Judah half a century later but virtually nothing of what the expellees experienced in Babylon itself. It tells us even less about the fate of the northern tribes of Israel - the "10 lost tribes" - which had been marched out of history by the Assyrians a century earlier.
However, scholars have been able to gain a measure of access to these missing years from cuneiform documents unearthed in Iraq in the last century, including a trove illicitly dug up in the final years of Saddam Hussein's regime and only now nearing publication. The documents are innocuous - business records, land deeds, tax accounts - but together are able to shed light, feeble but suggestive, on this central period in Jewish history
"We have been able to make history out of dry documents," says Prof. Israel Eph'al of the Hebrew University, an epigrapher and historian of the ancient Near East.
Early last century, archeologists digging in Babylon, the capital of Babylonia, uncovered cuneiform tablets in a vaulted chamber beneath the ruins of an ancient structure believed by some to have been the base of the fabled "Hanging Gardens" of Babylon. These tablets, deciphered in the 1930s by German Assyriologist Ernst Weidner, detailed the storage of oil and other commodities and their distribution. Four of the badly damaged tablets concerned the supply of oil to "Jehoiachin, king of Judah" and his five sons. The date is five years after he was taken captive. The fact that he was being provisioned by the Babylonian authorities and that he retained his royal title suggests that he was being treated with deference even though he had been taken captive because his father, Jehoiakim, had rebelled against Babylon. Favorable treatment is also suggested by the fact that at 23 he already has five sons, indicating that the young royal was not deprived of the wives who had accompanied him.
The major source regarding the exiles in Babylonia to date is a cuneiform archive found in the 1890s by a University of Pennsylvania expedition at the site of ancient Nippur. The area, 180 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, has seen heavy fighting since the Allied incursion in 2003. The archive consisted of extensive business records maintained by the Bit Murashu family over three generations. The business details are mundane, but the people and communities mentioned in the more than 700 documents depict a rural region in which 30 percent of the population has non-Babylonian names, according to a study by Prof. Ron Zadok of Tel Aviv University.
"The Babylonians resettled many nations on their territory," says Eph'al, "not just the Jews."
In fact, only 3 percent of Bit Murashu clients had clearly Jewish names, mainly names that began or ended with "yahu," a theophoric element that embeds the name of the Hebrew God. Since some exiles are known to have adopted Babylonian names, clouding their ethnic origin, the actual figure might be higher than 3 percent.
THE JEWS in this area were at the opposite end of the social spectrum from the exiled royals and their hangers-on in the capital. "Some were small farmers who leased land," says Eph'al. "Some were low-ranking clerks. Some were fishermen. We have the record of one fisherman so poor he did not own a net and had to rent one."
The most notable aspect illuminated by the Bit Murashu documents is the ethnic cohesion maintained by all the exile groups, plainly with Babylonian encouragement. "The Bit Murashu documents show at least 10 settlements in the vicinity of Nippur whose inhabitants were defined according to their land of origin," says Eph'al.
Two exile settlements named in other documents were Ashkelon and Gaza, housing expellees from those Philistine cities seized by Nebuchadnezzar, the king who captured Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple. The two towns lived in greater harmony on the banks of the Euphrates than they have more recently on the Mediterranean shore.
These ethnic groupings constituted landsmanschaften, similar to the associations established in the United States last century by Jewish immigrants originating from the same European region. The prophet Ezekiel, who was among the exiles, preached in a village named in the Bible as Tel Aviv. Eph'al notes that the translation from the original Akkadian is not "spring hill" as in the Hebrew name of the Israeli metropolis, but a site that had been wasted in a great flood.
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the Jewish presence in Babylon has come to light only in the past decade after the cuneiform tablets, apparently illicitly excavated in the wake of the first Gulf War, reached private collectors in the West who made them accessible to scholars. Among the settlements inscribed on these documents is al-Iahudu, the City of Judah, a name used in antiquity as a designation for Jerusalem. Some 120 individuals bearing Jewish names have been identified among the 600 persons mentioned in the documents. Two-thirds of the Jewish names are from al-Iahudu and the rest from nearby. The contents of only three of the approximately 100 documents have been published so far, but the rest are expected to be published within a year or so. The site of al-Iahudu has been tentatively identified by an American scholar as ancient Borsippa (today's Birs Nimrud) on the Euphrates, about 110 kilometers southwest of Baghdad.
THE MOST dramatic evidence of the communal cohesion maintained by the Jewish exiles in Babylon is the way those who returned to Zion organized themselves. (It is not clear what percentage of the exiles chose to return to Judah after Babylon fell to the Persians and what percentage chose to remain.) Those whose families had been associated with the Jerusalem temple before the exile now identified themselves once more as priests, singers, gatekeepers and temple servants in anticipation of the rebuilding of the temple, as described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Others organized themselves by town of origin.
"These are the people who came up from among the captive exiles in Babylon, and that returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own city" (Ezra 2:1).
The Jews are the only ethnic group among the many in Babylonian exile known to have returned to their homeland, except for one other group from Neirab in northern Syria. The Jews who remained behind in Babylonia were without exception the only group to preserve their identity and way of life down through the ages until their dispersal in the current generation. Babylonian Jewry would not only survive and prosper for 2,500 years but would for centuries serve as the spiritual center of world Judaism, the place where the Babylonian Talmud was forged. The Jewish community in Babylon would be strongly reinforced a few centuries after the exile, notes Eph'al, when many residents of Judah fled eastward during the Roman period to escape severe drought and famine.
The difference between the Babylonian exile and the Assyrian exile is stark. Both nations exiled populations to punish them or to forestall the possibility of revolt. But the Assyrians, described by Eph'al as creators of "the world's first empire," also needed manpower to service their rapidly expanding realm. Their aim was to harness the exiles to this task as efficiently as possible and this meant exploiting them as individuals rather than as communities. "The Assyrian kings were determined to assimilate the deported populations," says Eph'al. "They enforced mingling of the populations and their 'Assyrianization.'"
UNLIKE THE Babylonians, the Assyrians depleted conquered areas entirely of their original population and replaced them with deportees from elsewhere, as was done in Samaria after the Israelites were uprooted.
The exiles were not treated as prisoners of war once the transfer was completed but as productive assets. They made the 1,000-kilometer trek from Israel and Judah to Assyria and Babylon over several months, not in a straight line across the desert but via the Fertile Crescent. The route crossed the Euphrates at Carchemish, on the Turkish-Syrian border of today. They traveled in groups of less than 1,000, says Eph'al, with administrators along the way charged with providing them with food. "We have a letter from a district governor complaining that many more people arrived than he had been told to prepare provisions for."
Some of the exiles to Assyria, particularly craftsmen and builders, were settled in new cities. Others were directed to sparsely settled rural areas. Parts of the defeated Israelite army were incorporated directly into the Assyrian army. Fifty captured chariots and their drivers were integrated as an organic unit into the Assyrian armored corps under King Sargon. One cuneiform tablet identifies an Israelite named Hilkiah as being in charge of scores of soldiers. Some scholars have identified a group of soldiers in Sennacherib's elite royal guard, depicted in an Assyrian relief in the king's palace, as Judahites because their dress resembles that of the Jewish defenders of Lachish shown in another relief in the same building. In some of the Assyrian records, titles are added to Jewish names like "holder of reins," "charioteer," "guardsman" (bodyguard to the king), or "chief accountant." Many were settled around the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, near present-day Mosul in northern Iraq.
Over the course of several generations under Assyrian rule, the Israelites - the bulk of the Jewish people - were in effect killed off as Jews with kindness. There is scholarly speculation that some managed to join the Jews of Babylonia to the south or even the returnees to Jerusalem. The bulk, however, simply disappeared into the population mass of Mesopotamia, a loss to Jewish demography that would grow exponentially with the millennia. In time, the legend of the "lost tribes" would lead to claims that they were progenitors of the Afghan Pashtuns, Japanese, Ethiopian Jews, the English or even American Indians. A less fanciful if more jarring notion is that the lost Israelites stayed put in Mesopotamia and that their DNA lies just below the skin of many of the current inhabitants of Iraq and Iran, perhaps even that of some of the current leadership.