History and Sources

What does the term Babylonian Exile (or Captivity) refer to?

The Kingdom of Judah had come under military and political pressure in the late 700s B.C.E., around the time of the fall of the northern kingdom. Some southern kings even paid tribute as vassals to Assyria. In the year 597 B.C.E. the Babylonians, successors to the Assyrians as the major regional power, were closing in on Jerusalem. Though the city would hold out for another ten years, the invaders captured a number of leading Jews and deported them to Mesopotamia. In 587/6 B.C.E., the Babylonians laid final siege to Jerusalem, destroying the Temple. Along with other Middle Eastern powers, they had found it useful to take important Jews into exile, the better to demoralize the subject peoples and insure the success of the conquering regime. Exact numbers are impossible to reconstruct, but the total deportation seems to have uprooted as many as twenty thousand people. Since only the poorest and least educated were left behind, the Exile amounted to a virtually total elimination of Jewish presence in Jerusalem and its environs. The good news was that the community would realize the possibility of taking root in a new land. Prophets preached a message of encouragement and survival, devising a whole new “exilic” theology built around the hope of restoration and return. Enter the Achaemenid Persian empire stage left, exit Babylon stage right. Jewish fortunes changed under the new sovereigns of the central Middle East. In 539 B.C.E., Persian monarch Cyrus the Great decided to release the captives and allow them to return to Jerusalem.


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