The Babylonian captivity or Babylonian exile is the period in Hebrew history during which a number of Judahites of the ancient Kingdom of Judah were captives in Babylonia. After the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, resulting in tribute being paid by King Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim refused to pay tribute in Nebuchadnezzar’s fourth year, which led to another siege in Nebuchadnezzar’s seventh year, culminating with the death of Jehoiakim, and the exile of King Jeconiah, his court and many others; Jeconiah’s successor Zedekiah and others were exiled in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year; a later deportation occurred in Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-third year. The dates, numbers of deportations, and numbers of deportees given in the biblical accounts vary. These deportations are dated to 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE respectively.
After the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, exiled Hebrews began to return to the land of Judah. According to the biblical book of Ezra, construction of a second temple in Jerusalem began at this time. All these events are considered significant in Hebrew history and culture, and had a far-reaching impact.
Biblical accounts of the exile
In the late 7th century BCE, the kingdom of Judah was a client state of the Assyrian empire. In the last decades of the century, Assyria was overthrown by Babylon, an Assyrian province. Egypt, fearing the sudden rise of the Neo-Babylonian empire, seized control of Assyrian territory up to the Euphrates river in Syria, but Babylon counter-attacked. In the process Josiah, the king of Judah, was killed in a battle with the Egyptians at the Battle of Megiddo (609 BC).
After the defeat of Pharaoh Necho’s army by the Babylonians at Carchemish in 605 BCE, Jehoiakim began paying tribute to Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Some of the young nobility of Judah (such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) were taken to Babylon.
In the following years, the court of Jerusalem was divided into two parties, in support of Egypt and Babylon. After Nebuchadnezzar was defeated in Battle in 601 BCE by Egypt, Judah revolted against Babylon, culminating in a three-month siege of Jerusalem beginning in late 598 BCE. Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, died during the siege, and was succeeded by his son Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah) at the age of eighteen. The city fell on 2 Adar (March 16) 597 BCE, and Nebuchadnezzar pillaged Jerusalem and its Temple and took Jeconiah, his court and other prominent citizens (including the prophet Ezekiel) back to Babylon. Jehoiakim’s uncle Zedekiah was appointed king in his place, but the exiles in Babylon continued to consider Jeconiah as their Exilarch, or rightful ruler.
Despite warnings by Jeremiah and others of the pro-Babylonian party, Zedekiah revolted against Babylon and entered into an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra. Nebuchadnezzar returned, defeated the Egyptians, and again besieged Jerusalem, resulting in the city’s destruction in 587 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city wall and the Temple, together with the houses of the most important citizens. Zedekiah was blinded, and taken to Babylon with many others. Judah became a Babylonian province, called Yehud Medinata (Judah Province), putting an end to the independent Kingdom of Judah. (Because of the missing years in the Hebrew calendar, rabbinic sources place the date of the destruction of the First Temple at 3338 HC (423 BCE) or 3358 HC (403 BCE)).
The first governor appointed by Babylon was Gedaliah, a native Judahite; he encouraged the many Hebrews who had fled to surrounding countries such as Moab, Ammon, Edom, to return, and took steps to return the country to prosperity. Some time later, a surviving member of the royal family assassinated Gedaliah and his Babylonian advisors, prompting many refugees to seek safety in Egypt. By the end of the second decade of the 6th century, in addition to those who remained in Judah, there were significant Hebrew communities in Babylon and in Egypt; this was the beginning of the later numerous Hebrew communities living permanently outside Judah in the Hebrew Diaspora.
According to the book of Ezra, the Persian Cyrus the Great ended the exile in 538 BCE, the year after he captured Babylon. The exile ended with the return under Zerubbabel the Prince (so-called because he was a descendant of the royal line of David) and Joshua the Priest (a descendant of the line of the former High Priests of the Temple) and their construction of the Second Temple in the period 521–516 BCE.