Babylon – was it so awful?

We rightly mourn the terrible destructions of Jerusalem perpetrated by the Babylonians and the Romans, but the Babylonian Exile was the crucible in which our future was forged.

Babylon 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Babylon 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On July 8 this year we started the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha Be’av (Ninth of Av) which commemorates the destruction of the Solomonic Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. They not only destroyed the Temple but also razed the city of Jerusalem and took thousands of its inhabitants into exile to Babylon.
This was the second time the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem. They had already attacked it in 597 BCE but had not wreaked havoc or destruction.
They took our king Jehoyachin and the upper classes into exile and installed his uncle, Zedekiah, in the role of puppet king, and left it at that. But when, eleven years later, Zedekiah attempted to throw off the Babylonian yoke with the help of Egypt, the Babylonians got wind of the conspiracy and came back in force to inflict utter destruction, kill thousands, and take further thousands into captivity.
It looked like the end of the road for us and Jerusalem.
But who were the Babylonians? Their empire was cruel, but their people at home were civilized.
Their capital, Babylon, was one of the most beautiful in the East and their rituals were interesting. The center of the city was the multi-towered processional way that led up to the Ishtar Gate, the finely tiled and highly colored monumental arch, now reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
At the annual New Year ceremony, the local gods were paraded along the processional way and the festival of 10 days commenced with a private ritual near the gate.
Here the statue of Marduk, god of the city, confronted the Emperor, and the High Priest slapped the Emperor’s face and pulled his ears until he cried, confessed his sins and pleaded for mercy. It was only then that the High Priest, representing Marduk, gave the Emperor the right to carry on his rule for another year.
SO MUCH is clear from the early Akitu (New Year ceremony) cuneiform tablets and shows that each year the all-powerful Emperor was subjected to ritual humiliation, and made to show repentance, before he was allowed to continue his rule, and before the agricultural year could safely begin.
The ceremony took place also near to the famous ziggurat, called Etemenanki, meaning “foundation of heaven and earth,” a pretty exact specification of the Tower of Babel described in Genesis 11:4.
The tower was built with a casing of valuable burnt brick, which has subsequently been robbed over the centuries, and the resulting mass of the internal unburnt brick now remains on site as a heap of mud set in a pool of stagnant water.
Much of the rest of the city lies hidden south of the suburbs of Baghdad, in spite of Saddam Hussein having taken pains to have important sections rebuilt in the old style, to try and impress on visitors that the modern state formed a continuity with the splendors of the ancient empire.
The New Year renewal ceremonial was conducted over the first 10 days of the year, that started in Nisannu, equivalent to our first month of spring, Nisan. All the names of our other months follow the Babylonian titles, and our square Hebrew script was altered during the Exile from the previous ancient ideographic Paleo-Hebrew to the modern square script, under the influence of the shapes of the Babylonian and Akkadian cuneiform.
Similarly our yearly calculations, incorporating a leap month three times in 19 years, are derived from a form of the Babylonian Metonic cycle which corrects the lunar calendar to bring it into line with the reality of the solar system.. Even the 10 days of the Babylonian New Year ceremony are reflected in our 10 days of repentance that fall at the beginning of the year from Rosh Hashana (New Year) to the Atonement Fast of Yom Kippur.
In this connection we see that our four traditional fasts, besides the Day of Atonement and the Fast of Esther, are all connected with the Babylonians, three relating to their destruction of Jerusalem and the fourth, the Fast of Gedaliah, commemorating the day that our royalists murdered the Babylonian- appointed governor Gedaliah, when the people were expecting such terrible retaliation from the Babylonians that many fled to Egypt carrying the prophet Jeremiah with them.
When Zedekiah rebelled, Jeremiah had foreseen the terrible destruction that was to come and he had warned our people that the only way to avoid it was to submit to the foreign yoke, but he was ignored and vilified for his unpatriotic prophecies. When he saw that Exile was inevitable, he advised the people to settle in the foreign land, build houses and take wives, and live in peace with their surroundings (Jer. 29:5-7) and in a way that is what happened. The people carried on their lives, and it looks as if the Priests and Levites even continued with their religious duties.
Traditional commentators claim that the synagogue was founded during the Exile, but there is no evidence for that (in fact synagogues first appear in Egypt in the third century BCE). However there is some evidence to show that there may have been a Jewish temple in Babylon. When Ezra returns to Israel, he is short of Levites for the renewed temple and he calls for them to be sent from Casiphia (Ezra 8:17), where we can presume they were officiating throughout the Exile. Casiphia today is located near to Baghdad.
If this is correct, it would explain why Joshua the High Priest was still officiating and why he is described in Zechariah 3:4 as appearing in filthy garments. It was not, as some commentators explain, because his children had married out, but because he had acted as Cohen Gadol (High Priest) at a local Jewish temple in Babylon, away from the prescribed one in Jerusalem.
ALTHOUGH BY the waters of Babylon we sat and wept, many significant things happened there.
The calendar year and months were regulated, the Hebrew script was modernized, the priestly ritual continued and many of our traditions were collected and compiled.
It was after all Ezra who, on the Return, read the Torah to the people for the first time (Neh. 8:3), and they fell down when they heard it.
It must have been Ezra who had collected the many traditions and put them in order so the people could hear them, comprehend them, and live by their rules. They had to put away their foreign ways and partners, it was hard and even life-threatening, but it welded everyone into a nation of Godfearers that had its own religious philosophy and regulations.
It was the hardship and pressure of the Exile that had achieved this, and when Zerubbabel and the High Priest Joshua led the people back in the first and second waves of the Return to Zion, it meant that we were now a unified nation, different from the Babylonians and the early Bnei Yisrael, and welded into a people that could survive for thousands of years. We were now an entity that could weather the take-over of Jerusalem by the Seleucids and survive another massive destruction of the city by the Romans, 600 years after that of the Babylonians.
We rightly mourn the terrible destructions of Jerusalem perpetrated by the Babylonians and the Romans, but the Babylonian Exile was the crucible in which our future was forged.
The writer is a Senior Fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.