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Cyrus and the Judean Diaspora

Ira Spar, Research Assyriologist, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art

Posted: Friday, July 19, 2013

«Toward the end of the first century a.d. Jerusalem lay in ruins, the second temple built by Herod the Great (74/73–4 b.c.) destroyed and ransacked by the Roman army. Meanwhile, in Babylon, scribes continued to copy ancient texts, inscribing some of them on cuneiform tablets made of clay. After the last cuneiform scribe passed to his fate, no one remained who could read or write documents in Babylonian, Assyrian, or Sumerian. In 1893, pioneer archaeologists and explorers digging in Iraq began to uncover vast archives of cuneiform tablets that had been buried for two thousand years. Today, philologists, archaeologists, and historians are able to combine narratives previously known only from the Bible with information gleaned from thousands of historic, literary, religious, and scientific texts, illuminating the world of Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib, and Cyrus. The Cyrus Cylinder, now on view at the Met, helps us understand the peoples and policies of the ancient Near East.»

The Israelites

At the end of the eleventh century b.c., the Israelite monarchy was first established under the military and political leadership of David. This small nation state was located at the crossroads of the larger political entities of Egypt and Assyria. External enemies and internal dissension were constant threats to the cohesion of the new state. Debate raged over taxes, religion, and the nature and acceptance of monarchy, and the state soon split apart into two warring kingdoms. The northern state, the Kingdom of Israel, had its political center at Samaria, and, to the south, the Kingdom of Judah's capital was Jerusalem. In the ninth century b.c. the much larger and more powerful Kingdom of Assyria began a period of expansion, and small states such as Israel and Judah were no match against the Assyrian armies. Eventually, Samaria fell and Israel became a part of the Assyrian provincial administration. By 721 b.c. Israel ceased to exist as an independent nation. Under the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V and his successor, Sargon II, many Israelites were forcibly exiled.

At the end of the seventh century b.c., the fall of the Assyrian empire at the hands of a coalition of Babylonians and Medes set the stage for the rise of the Neo-Babylonian kingdom. Judah—the only remaining sovereign state of the Israelite people—was now buffeted between the Babylonians and Egyptians, and its independence quickly eroded. When the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II defeated Egyptian forces at the battle of Carchemish in 605 b.c., the fate of Judah was sealed. Within seven years Jerusalem was besieged, the king Jehoiachin and his royal family were taken captive, and the treasures of the royal palace and temple were carried off. Nebuchadnezzar exiled ten thousand Israelites to Babylon; and the king's wives, officers, and the notables of the land were brought as exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon:

All the able men, to the number of seven thousand—all of them warriors, trained for battle—and a thousand craftsmen and smiths were brought to Babylon as exiles by the king of Babylon. And the king of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar), appointed Mattaniah, Jehoiachin's uncle, king in his place, changing his name to Zedekiah. (II Kings 24:14–17; cf. Jer. 52:28–30)

Official Babylonian court records confirm the biblical account stating that Nebuchadnezzar ". . . captured the city [Jerusalem and] seized [its] king. A king of his own choice he appointed in the city [and] taking the vast tribute he brought it into Babylon." (Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 102)

Judah was now ruled by a puppet king, Zedekiah (r. 597–586), who foolishly allied himself with Egypt. The prophet Ezekiel thundered that Nebuchadnezzar would appear in the guise of an eagle to:

". . . tear out its roots [i.e., the vine that is Zedekiah] and rip off its crown, so that its entire foliage withers. It shall wither, despite any strong arm or mighty army [that may come] to remove it from its roots. And suppose it is transplanted, will it thrive? When the east wind strikes it, it shall wither—wither upon the bed where it is growing." (Ezekiel 17:9–10)

But Zedekiah didn't listen to these warnings and instead rebelled against the king of Babylon. In response, on the tenth day of the tenth month of the ninth year of Zedekiah's reign (588 b.c.e.), Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem, beginning a siege that lasted seventeen months.

He [Nebuchadnezzar] besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day [of the fourth month] the famine had become acute in the city; there was no food left for the common people.

Then [the wall of] the city was breached. All the soldiers [left the city] by night through the gate between the double walls, which is near the king's garden—the Chaldeans were all around the city; and [the king] set out [to escape] for Arabah. But the Chaldean troops pursued the king, and they overtook him in the steppes of Jericho as his entire force left him and scattered. They captured the king and brought him before the king of Babylon at Riblah; and they put him on trial. They slaughtered Zedekiah's sons before his eyes; then Zedekiah's eyes were put out. He was chained in bronze fetters and he was brought to Babylon.

On the seventh day of the fifth month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards, an officer of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the House of the Lord, the king's palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he burned down the house of every notable person. The entire Chaldean force that was with the chief of the guard tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side. The remnant of the people that was left in the city, the defectors who had gone over to the king of Babylon—and the remnant of the population—were taken into exile by Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards. But some of the poorest in the land were left by the chief of the guards, to be vinedressers and field hands. (II Kings 25:1–12)

By 586 b.c. the Judean kingdom had vanished. An anonymous author wrote in the Book of Lamentations (Lamentations 4:9) that those who were slain by the sword were better off than those who slowly starved to death. The kingdom founded by David—forever rife with social tensions, political conflict, religious fervor, and poor leadership—would never rise again.

Cyrus and the Exiles

When Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 b.c. and deposed Nabonidus, the last of the Neo-Babylonian monarchs, the exiles dwelling in Babylonia were granted relief from oppression. Cyrus now assumed the title "king of the universe." His proclamation—preserved in the Cyrus Cylinder and on cuneiform tablets—granted peoples under his control the right to restore seized images of their deities to their own temples and to return to their homelands in Mesopotamia and western Iran. Biblical citations of possibly a different decree allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. (Ezra 1:2–4; 5:13–15; 6:3–5; II Chr. 36:23)

For the Judeans living in exile, the prospect of departing Babylonia to the land of their fathers offered opportunity for new beginnings and a measure of revenge against the Babylonians and their Edomite allies. One returning exile described a joyless life in Babylon as he dreamed of Jerusalem:

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion.

There on the poplars
We hung up our lyres,
For our captors asked us there for songs,
Our tormentors, for amusement,
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither,
Let my tongue stick to my palate
If I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
Even at my happiest hour.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
The day of Jerusalem's fall;
How they cried, "Strip her, strip her
To her very foundations!"

Fair Babylon, you predator,
A blessing on him who repays you in kind
What you have inflicted on us;
A blessing on him who seizes your babies
And dashes them against the rocks! (Psalm 137:1–9)

(See Jews Weeping by the Waters of Babylon by Carl Wildt. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of William Gray from the collection of Francis Calley Gray, G4073.)

Little else is known from the Bible about the fate of the Judeans who remained in Babylon. Although some revisionists have cast doubt on the historicity of the exilic narrative, archaeological evidence confirms the presence and activities of some of the Judean exiles living in southern Mesopotamia. The biblical texts of Ezra and Nehemiah also specify that although some exiles returned to Judah following Cyrus' decree, most were reluctant after a half century of living in Mesopotamia to give up their professions and material comforts in order to return to the hardships of life in a devastated countryside. The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the exilic community urging them to:

. . . Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper." (Jeremiah 29:5–7)

Jeremiah's letter appears to assume that his addressees possessed the resources to purchase land and partake in a comfortable lifestyle, a depiction of the exiles' economic welfare that is now partly confirmed by the archaeological record.

Archaeological Evidence

In 1893 a group of University of Pennsylvania archaeologists unearthed more than seven hundred cuneiform tablets amid the ruins of ancient Nippur. Dating between about 454 and 403 b.c. (approximately 150 years after the beginning of the exile), the documents describe the business activities of the well-to-do Murashu family of financiers. An analysis of the archive by the Israeli scholar Ran Zadok revealed around seventy Judean-type names of individuals who were engaged in various types of business activities. A few dealt with monetary affairs as business agents, rent collectors, and debtors, while most worked in agriculture as either small land owners or tenants who rented their fields. Others held low-level jobs as fishermen, bird keepers, or stock herders. Business documents from other sites in Babylonia describe some Judeans as holding public office—even serving as royal merchants; others are recorded as traveling abroad on behalf of private business entrepreneurs, and still others as slave owners who treated their slaves in accordance with Babylonian, rather than biblical, law. The fact that some exiles prospered and amassed considerable wealth supports the assertion recorded in Ezra 1:4–6; 2:65–69; Neh. 7:67–71 that returning exiles possessed slaves and contributed "silver, gold, (precious) goods, and livestock" toward the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple.

Cuneiform tablet impressed with two stamp seals: promissory note for dates. Achaemenid, ca. 423 B.C. (?). Mesopotamia, Nippur. Clay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Edith Aggiman, 1982 (1983.135.3). This Murashu tablet, reproduced below in facsimile drawings, documents a promissory note for dates owed by a debtor to one of Murashu's sons. The debtor was required to pledge his land-fief as security for payment. The tablet was authorized by impressing stamp seals belonging to two judges on the upper and lower edges of the document. Tablet drawings by Ira Spar and Jo Ann Wood.

The biblical record also indicates that many exiles suffered as slaves while living in captivity: "Those who survived the sword he (Nebuchadnezzar) exiled to Babylon, and they became his and his sons' servants . . ." (II Chr. 36:20; cf. Jer. 2:14) In this case Babylonian recordkeeping is of little assistance; neither economic records nor official state propaganda deal with the plight of the disenfranchised. Rather, cuneiform records seem to support Jeremiah's statement that urged those in captivity to develop new lives for themselves and their families. Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel (8:1) implies that he comfortably dwelt in a Judean community in Babylonia that possessed its own leadership.

Ezekiel's texts accord with a new understanding of the Judean diaspora that is based on the discovery of about two hundred mostly unpublished archival cuneiform tablets from Babylonian villages located to the east and southeast of Nippur, at the fringes of lands controlled by the Murashu family. The archive dates from the thirty-third year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (572/1 b.c.), or fifteen years after the destruction of Jerusalem, to the thirteenth year of the reign of Persian king Xerxes I (473/2 b.c.e.). The major sites in this archive are Nashar, or Bit-Nashar—probably named after its principle land owner—and Al-Yahudu (Judah-ville). At least one of the cuneiform tablets was written in Babylon, presumably when the individuals cited in the text traveled there to deal with an administrative or juridical matter.

A preliminary study of the archive indicates that Judean deportees were resettled in the Babylonian countryside as part of a policy that transplanted whole groups according to their ethnic origins. The exiles were designated as shushanus, a term indicating that, as landowners of income-producing property, they were of a juridical class of state dependents bound to their lands and subject to state service, but exempted from being sold into chattel slavery. Ancient sources stress the fertility of the Babylonian lands that lay beside the rivers and canals, and the potential tax benefits from farming new territories. The crown authorities provided land to the refugees to be cultivated and irrigated. In return, the exiles—in the same manner of other ethnic groups or native Babylonians—paid taxes to a representative of the royal administration and performed military and/or work duties for certain periods of the year. No Judeans or others in the archive appear to have been slaves driven by overbearing taskmasters. Indeed, some traveled to distant towns to attend to either business matters or to resolve judicial disputes.

The Judeans operated their businesses, owned property, held low-level official and administrative positions, and acted as agents—all in accordance with Babylonian law. Some families purchased their own slaves (see above, Ezra 1:4–6; 2:65–69) and had the right to free assembly, the right to sue, to witness contracts, to issue promissory notes, to lease property, to collect debts, to buy and sell livestock and grain, to travel without restrictions, and to amass wealth and material possessions. The study of personal names indicates that Judeans were readily willing to give their children traditional Babylonian names (see Daniel 1:7; Ezra 2:2). Intermarriage, however, between native Babylonian men and foreign women was rare. In sum, the exiled Judeans maintained their own communities and identities as they became integrated into Babylonian society.

When Cyrus, "the king of the universe," issued his famous proclamation inscribed on the Cyrus Cylinder after capturing Babylon in 539 b.c.e., he described a policy that allowed for the return of foreign statues to their native shrines together with a policy allowing deported peoples to return to their own native homelands. Here, Cyrus implicitly confirmed the biblical description of deportees as those who were settled in their own communities. His decree acknowledged the Babylonian practice of identifying foreign groups according to their ethnic identities. "Freedom" for Cyrus meant that foreign population groups, who dwelt on Babylonian lands, were no longer subject to the restrictions of dependent status, and were free, if they wished, to return to their homelands. Repatriation for the Judeans meant that exiles could return to Jerusalem to begin the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of their land.

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About the Author

Ira Spar is a research Assyriologist in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art.

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