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Laurie Pearce





Judean Life in Babylonia



APA e-journal

Laurie Pearce





Judean Life in Babylonia






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Judean Life in Babylonia

Upon the conquest of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar deported many Judeans to Babylonia. What was their life like there? Were they assimilated, or did they stand out? What language(s) did they speak and what religious practices did they maintain? What was their social and economic standing? Babylonian records allow us glimpses into the lives of some of the deportees.


Judean Life in Babylonia

Cuneiform and Aramaic Scribes Wall Painting from Til Barsip (744–727 BCE).  Credit: H. Emeriaud Kosmossociety

The Temple destroyed, Judeans deported to Babylonia began life anew. The book of Lamentations focuses on the tragedy of the destruction to the people of Judah and their exile,[1]but other biblical texts allude to activities reflecting stability and continuity of life and community in a foreign land: e.g., Jeremiah’s exhortation to Judah’s exiles in Babylonia:

ירמיה כט:ה בְּנוּ בָתִּים וְשֵׁבוּ וְנִטְעוּ גַנּוֹת וְאִכְלוּ אֶת פִּרְיָן. כט:ו קְחוּ נָשִׁים וְהוֹלִידוּ בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת וּקְחוּ לִבְנֵיכֶם נָשִׁים וְאֶת בְּנוֹתֵיכֶם תְּנוּ לַאֲנָשִׁים וְתֵלַדְנָה בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת וּרְבוּ שָׁם וְאַל תִּמְעָטוּ. כט:זוְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַעֲדָהּ אֶל יְ-הוָה כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שָׁלוֹם.
Jer 29:5 Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. 29:6 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. 29:7 And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to YHWH in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.

Such passages are concerned with community, but what was this like for the individual Judeans living in Babylonia?

Onomastic Evidence for Judean Deportees

Archaeology has uncovered archives and dossiers of cuneiform clay tablets documenting social and economic life in Babylonia in this period (namely, late 8th-early 5th century B.C.E). Using onomastic evidence (the content and structure of personal names) we are able to identify Judeans in these documents, and even trace individual and family careers. These texts not only provide a lens through which to glimpse specific details of the lives of a limited number of deportees and their descendants,[2] but also provide context for understanding Judean interactions with their Babylonian overlords and neighbors.

What Languages Did the Judeans Speak in Babylonia?

Subsequent to Nebuchadnezzar’s predations, Judeans who remained in the small villages of Judah probably continued to speak the local Hebrew dialects.[3] However, as Aramaic served as the language of imperial administration, many Judeans would have learnt Aramaic.[4] Certainly, those who were deported to Babylonia would have learned to speak Aramaic, but did they continue to speak Hebrew as well?[5]

Unfortunately, the task of discovering which language(s) the Judeans themselves spoke and wrote in Babylonia is complicated by the fact that neither papyrus and parchment records produced by sepīru (Babylonian scribes trained in alphabetic writing [such as Hebrew and Aramaic] and engaged in official administrative documentation),[6] nor documents internal to the Judean community, have survived from this period.

Only clay tablets—much more durable than papyrus or parchment—have survived until modern times. Unfortunately, this is of little help in answering the Hebrew question since the cuneiform script is ill-suited to record West Semitic languages.[7] (In any event, minorities, including Judeans and members of other deportee populations, are not attested as cuneiform scribes.)

Thus, the use of West Semitic languages and scripts in Babylonia must be assessed on the basis of evidence from loan words,[8] as well as short notices written in alphabetic script ink on or incised into the clay tablets.[9] Among the latter, one promissory note for barley is of particular interest as a possible witness to the history of Hebrew in Babylonia.[10]

Shelamyah ben Nedavyah Owes Barley

Copy by Laurie Pearce, published in Pearce and Wunsch 2014, no. 10.

The promissory note reads:

[x] kor of barley are owed to Gummulu son of Bi-hamê by Šalam-Yāma son of Nadab-Yāma. In Simānu, he will deliver the barley in its principal amount in the town of Adabilu. Dalā-Yāma son of Ili-šū guarantees delivery of the barley.
Witnesses: Šikin-Yāma son of Ili-šū; Balāṭu son of Nabû-nāṣir; and the scribe, Nabû-nāṣir son of Nabû-zēr-iqīša.
Written in Judahtown,[11] the 23rd day of Ṭebētu, the 6th year of Nabonidus, king of Babylon.

On the left edge of this tablet,[12] five incised letters Š-L-M-Y-H spell the Hebrew name שלמיה, Šelamyah, rendered Šalam-Yāma (=Yawa=Yahweh)[13] in the Akkadian text. Some of these letters present features distinctive to paleo-Hebrew script.

This mid-sixth century transaction (549 B.C.E.) belongs to a watershed period in the history of the Hebrew language when, even in Judah, the use of Aramaic script replaced the ancient Hebrew script, and yet the name on the side of this tablet is written in paleo-Hebrew script.[14]

The tablet’s date suggests that: (1) Šalam-Yāma was born near the start of the exile, either in Judah or shortly after his family’s deportation, in Babylonia; and (2) that his father, Nadab-Yāma (נדביה), or someone in his circle, was literate and could have taught Šalam-Yāma to write in the script that would have been in use during his youth.

There is no reason to believe that any alphabetic scribe (sepīru) would have had occasion or reason to learn the Hebrew script, so the scribe must have been Judean, since members and descendants of the exilic generation could have persisted in their use of that script as a means of promoting their identity, in much the same way as the Bar Kochba government used paleo-Hebrew script on its coins, which may have been to link itself to ancient Israel’s glory days.[15]

Urban Scribal Training

The idiosyncratic evidence of Shelamya’s training in Paleo-Hebrew writing comes from a text written in the countryside, where administrative records were produced by local or itinerant scribes working for the imperial administration. Judeans in the countryside would have had little opportunity for exposure to Babylonian scribal training. The situation was different, however, in the urban settings to which some Judean elites were relocated.

Urban Babylonian scribal schools could have served as a—perhaps the—primary locus for contact between Mesopotamian and Judean scribes and the transmission of cultural literacy.[16] Daniel 1:3-4 depicts such an encounter, as it narrates how Daniel and his friends were prepared to serve in Nebuchadnezzar’s court:

דניאל א:ג וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לְאַשְׁפְּנַז רַב סָרִיסָיו לְהָבִיא מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִזֶּרַע הַמְּלוּכָה וּמִן הַפַּרְתְּמִים. א:ד יְלָדִים אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהֶם כָּל (מאום) [מוּם] וְטוֹבֵי מַרְאֶה וּמַשְׂכִּילִים בְּכָל חָכְמָה וְיֹדְעֵי דַעַת וּמְבִינֵי מַדָּע וַאֲשֶׁר כֹּחַ בָּהֶם לַעֲמֹד בְּהֵיכַל הַמֶּלֶךְוּלֲלַמְּדָם סֵפֶר וּלְשׁוֹן כַּשְׂדִּים.
Dan 1:3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief officer, to bring some Israelites of royal descent and of the nobility—1:4 youths without blemish, handsome, proficient in all wisdom, knowledgeable and intelligent, and capable of serving in the royal palace—and teach them the writings[17] and the language of the Chaldeans.

Cuneiform sources from the start of the Exile also record the presence of Judean royals in court precincts.[18] Although written Hebrew could have remained in use within the cultural circle of the Judahite expat community, the court locus provided opportunities for direct contact between Hebrew and Akkadian scribes in more secular contexts.[19] Judean scribes living in the religious and political centers of Babylonia had the necessary exposure to incorporate not only the Babylonian month names into the Jewish calendar, but also the literary style of Babylonian Chronicles in their composition of biblical historical narratives, such as Chronicles [20] (דברי הימים).

Did Judeans Practice Jewish Ritual/Cult in Babylonia?

As the ample documentation of cultic life in Babylonian administrative and ritual texts are the artifacts of activity conducted in the sphere of the urban elite, unsurprisingly, they include no explicit statement of Judean cultic practice. Even so, written expression of Judean religious texts or practice may have been produced within the Judean community, as suggested by the continuation of a Jewish community beyond the period of the return. Fortunately, onomastic evidence can again be of help since personal names traverse boundaries between home, family, community, and the outside world, offering clues to Judean cultic practice. However, these names are not universally considered to be indicators of exclusive worship of Yahweh by the Judeans,[21] and caution is necessary in their interpretation as evidence for religious activities.

The name Šabbātaya, “the one of (i.e., born on) the Sabbath,” references a distinctive Judean observance, although its exclusivity to that community is not securely established.[22]Similarly, the name Haggai marks an individual (or his parents) as a devotee of festival observance (Hebrew agmeans a pilgrimage festival).

The names Šabbātaya and Haggai suggest that persons named for the special days on which they were born belonged to families that observed the Sabbath and holidays. However, not all Judeans, whether in Judah or Babylonia, observed relevant religious laws and injunctions. Contemporaneous biblical texts indicate that some Judeans, both before and after exile, ignored various Sabbath injunctions. For example, the author of the book of Jeremiah admonishes people to keep the Shabbat and not to carry burdens on the holy day:

ירמיה יז:כא כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה הִשָּׁמְרוּ בְּנַפְשׁוֹתֵיכֶם וְאַל תִּשְׂאוּ מַשָּׂא בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וַהֲבֵאתֶם בְּשַׁעֲרֵי יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם.יז:כב וְלֹא תוֹצִיאוּ מַשָּׂא מִבָּתֵּיכֶם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וְכָל מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶת אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם. יז:כג וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ וְלֹא הִטּוּ אֶת אָזְנָם וַיַּקְשׁוּ אֶת עָרְפָּם לְבִלְתִּי שומע [שְׁמוֹעַ] וּלְבִלְתִּי קַחַת מוּסָר.
Jer 17:21 Thus said YHWH: Guard yourselves for your own sake against carrying burdens on the sabbath day, and bringing them through the gates of Jerusalem. 17:22 Nor shall you carry out burdens from your houses on the sabbath day, or do any work, but you shall hallow the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers. 17:23 But they would not listen or turn their ear; they stiffened their necks and would not pay heed or accept discipline.

Later, Nehemiah rebukes Judeans for bringing goods into Jerusalem on Shabbat:

נחמיה יג:טו בַּיָּמִים הָהֵמָּה רָאִיתִי בִיהוּדָה דֹּרְכִים גִּתּוֹת בַּשַּׁבָּת וּמְבִיאִים הָעֲרֵמוֹת וְעֹמְסִים עַל הַחֲמֹרִים וְאַף יַיִן עֲנָבִים וּתְאֵנִים וְכָל מַשָּׂא וּמְבִיאִים יְרוּשָׁלַ‍ִם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת וָאָעִיד בְּיוֹם מִכְרָם צָיִד. יג:טז וְהַצֹּרִים יָשְׁבוּ בָהּ מְבִיאִים דָּאג וְכָל מֶכֶר וּמֹכְרִים בַּשַּׁבָּת לִבְנֵי יְהוּדָה וּבִירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם. יג:יז וָאָרִיבָה אֵת חֹרֵי יְהוּדָה וָאֹמְרָה לָהֶם מָה הַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹשִׂים וּמְחַלְּלִים אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת.
Neh 13:15 At that time I saw men in Judah treading winepresses on the sabbath, and others bringing heaps of grain and loading them onto asses, also wine, grapes, figs, and all sorts of goods, and bringing them into Jerusalem on the sabbath. I admonished them there and then for selling provisions. 13:16 Tyrians who lived there brought fish and all sorts of wares and sold them on the sabbath to the Judahites in Jerusalem. 13:17 I censured the nobles of Judah, saying to them, ‘What evil thing is this that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day!’

The dates of some cuneiform tablets reveal that members of the Judean community in Babylonia also disregarded Sabbath regulations. (Standard conversion tools and tables support computation of the day of the week in the Babylonian calendar on which transactions, dated to the day, month, and regnal year, occurred.[23]) However, any conclusion about the extent of Shabbat observance throughout the Judean community in Babylonia should be drawn with great caution in light of the small number of relevant texts.

Yahwistic Names

Diagnostic Yahwistic names have long been considered to reflect attachment to tradition, or to be markers of theological speculation.[24] Yet Yahwistic names appear in contexts that also reflect Judean integration into the Babylonian administrative organization. The Babylonian onomasticon (pool of names) of the first millennium B.C.E. includes “officials names” (Beamtennamen) that contain the Akkadian word šarru (“king,” cognate with Hebrew śar, שר), identifying individuals who served in the imperial administration.

Such names, e.g., Nabû-šar-uṣur, “O Nabû, preserve the king!” or Nergal-šar-uṣur, “Oh Nergal, preserve the king!”[25] were adopted by individuals desiring to join the administrative ranks or given to them at birth by parents hoping to pave the way for a child to do so. A small number of such official names pair Babylonian orthographies of the divine name Yahweh with standard Babylonian predicates, thus identifying Judeans who served the administration in official capacities.

One example is particularly instructive, as the variation between Babylonian and Yahwistic theophoric elements in two orthographies for the same person’s name Yāḫû-šar-uṣur (“O Yahweh, preserve the king!”) and Bēl-šar-uṣur (“O Lord, preserve the king!”), demonstrates that Babylonian scribes understood that Yahweh was the supreme deity among the Judeans. This is why they substituted the element bēl, “lord,” in this personal name for Yāḫû, as a respectful epithet, just as they referred to their own chief god Marduk as Bēl.[26]

Although instances of individuals bearing the name Yāḫû-šar-uṣur, attest to Judean entry into the administrative sector of the Babylonian and Achaemenid organization, the attestations of fewer than five individuals so named makes it extremely difficult to asses the extent of acculturation at this level.

The Social/Economic Standing of the Judeans in Babylonia

Social and economic integration of Judeans amenable to adopting Babylonian name patterns and to act in ways that were contrary to religious commands can be tracked in the cuneiform records of their participation in commercial and entrepreneurial activity.

Royal Merchants

In Sippar, located on the Euphrates River north of Babylon, fewer than ten Judeans with Yahwistic names appear in texts documenting commercial transactions from the second half of the sixth century B.C.E. and from the years 494-493. The earlier group records activities of members of the Ariḫ family, most of whom bear distinctly Babylonian names.

Of the two individuals designated tamkarē šarri, “royal merchant,”[27] one bears the distinctly Yahwistic name Aḫi-Yāma, i.e., (אחיה(ו, “Yahweh is my brother.” He and other Babylonian royal merchants were entrepreneurs who received, in addition to financial backing of the crown, letters of passage that ensured their safety and authority while on business trips, similar to those Nehemiah (2:7-9) requested in connection with his travel to Judah.

Aḫi-Yāma and his brothers participated in trading activities comparable to those of their Babylonian counterparts, including trade in gold, rentals of houses, and commerce in agricultural produce. Their participation in such activities demonstrates the full integration of Judeans into the Babylonian economy.

Royal Courtiers

Judeans served as royal courtiers (as did Nehemiah, a cup-bearer to the king [Neh 1:11]):

נחמיה א:יא …וַאֲנִי הָיִיתִי מַשְׁקֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ.
Neh 1:11 …I was the king’s cupbearer at the time.

Cuneiform texts identify Judean courtiers (ša rēš šarri, “the one [who serves] at the head of the king”) as recipients of rations along with the Judean king and his family.[28] Their positions would have granted them more direct interactions with the court than the royal merchants enjoyed.

Yāḫû-šar-uṣur Witnesses a Loan

One cuneiform text written in Susa (biblical Shushan) records a substantial loan of silver between members of two prominent Babylonian families: The text reads:

[1 mina of] cut-up [sil]ver, with 1/8 shekel (of alloy) in a half-shekel … [belonging to x]-iddina son of Nergal-ušallim, descendant of Ea-eppeš-ilī, is owed by Širku son of Iddinaya … descendant of Egibi. In the end of the month Simānu (=Sivan), in Babylon, he will pay him (back) the principal capital thereof, in silver, to (the amount of) 1 mina, with 1/8 shekel (of alloy) in a half-shekel. From the month Du’ūzu (in) three months’ (time from now), interest will accrue to it (by the amount of) one shekel per mina.

The witness list follows immediately, and includes the name of a Judean imperial administrator, Yāhû-šar-uṣur son of Šamaš-iddin (note his father’s Babylonian name, which suggests the family was already acculturating in the older generation) in the company of a number of elites whose social standing is confirmed by the ancestral family name each bears, e.g. Saggilaya (“the one of the Esagil” [the main temple of Marduk in Babylon]), and Rab-bānê, the chief overseers (of the court).

Through study of other archival documents in which these elite Babylonian witnesses appear, it is determined that they belonged to a contingent of individuals that traveled to Susa to gain an audience with the king as a means of developing entrepreneurial activities.

As this is the only known attestation of Yāḫû-šar-uṣur[29] son of Šamaš-iddin,[30] the Judean witness, it is impossible to ascertain whether he, too, traveled from Babylonia with the entrepreneurs or lived year-round within Susa. What is certain is that he was one Judean whose association with the cultural circles of the Babylonian elite can be confirmed.[31] It remains for the future to do in-depth study of the significant of different linguistic backgrounds of the names that span different generations for an understanding of the forces in the processes of acculturation.

Judean Marriages

Surviving details related to Judean family life derive from two texts in the corpus of Neo-Babylonian marriage documents. Part of marriage in this period was a contractual obligation involving transfer of goods and property between families. Babylonian families recorded marriages in cuneiform on clay tablets, and the names of bride and groom, family members and witnesses help identify their cultural backgrounds.

The texts in question demonstrate interactions between Judeans and Babylonians in matters of family life and law. One example of these interactions occurs in the marriage document composed in āl-Yāḫūdu in the early reign of Cyrus and witnessed by a number of Judeans. It conforms, in the main, to the pattern and details of published Neo-Babylonian/Achaemenid marriage documents.[32] Formulaic expressions related to the implementation of the marriage, remarriage, and sanctions against the adulterous wife include, respectively:

ana aššūti nadānu, “to give in marriage (literally: wife-ship)”

aššata šanīta ahāzu/rašû, “to marry (literally: take/acquire) a second wife”

ina patar parzilli tamatta, “she will die by the iron dagger”[33]

Some expressions in the Neo-Babylonian marriage texts documenting practices expressed in Jewish marriage documents find parallels in contracts from Elephantine at roughly the same time:[34]

ul aššati atti / l’ thwh ly ‘ntt, “She is not /will not be my wife”[35]

ašar ṣebāt mahri tallak / thk lh’n zy ṣbyt, “She goes wherever she wishes”

Thus, even as Judeans integrated into their new environment, they retained some of their own cultural practices.

Judeans with Babylonian Names Getting Married

Another marriage text demonstrates the social and economic advancement marriage into Babylonian families could offer some Judeans. Its groom and bride bear Babylonian names; the bride’s name, Kaššāia, is the same as that of one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters, a choice motivated, perhaps, be a desire to promote the family’s social standing. But the witness list, replete with many Judean names, suggests that a Judean was one of the marriage partners.

With the reconstruction of her family tree, the bride’s identity as a Judean, a niece of the royal merchant Aḫi-Yāma mentioned above, is confirmed. Her groom, Guzanu, belonged to an elite, albeit not the most prominent, family, the Babylonian Arurru (“Miller”) clan. The small size of the bride’s dowry, consisting only of one shekel’s worth of jewelry, a bed, a table and five chairs, and a goblet and a plate, might suggest that her family was not particularly wealthy, but the social capital of her family’s status as royal merchants made her a desirable bride indeed.[36] The details of this marriage make clear that Judeans could be integrated into family and social structures of Babylonian society.

Inferences from Documents

We do not have texts that chronicle the experience of Judeans in Babylonia after the exile, nor has archaeology uncovered any documents written in Hebrew from this period. This lack of documentation limits our ability to draw a comprehensive picture of the personal lives of Judeans living in Babylonia and of the community as a whole.

Even so, information preserved in cuneiform sources offers details that illuminate many aspects of their experience and lets us glimpse snippets from the lives of individual Judeans in Babylonia, their names, their business interactions with officials and merchants, and even their weddings. As the evidence from the cuneiform sources demonstrates, Lamentations’ grim depiction of the Judeans’ desolation in Babylonia must be tempered against Jeremiah’s picture of their experiences, normal and prosperous in many areas of life.


July 19, 2018


Last Updated

April 14, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Laurie Pearce is a Lecturer in Akkadian in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, UC, Berkeley. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale’s department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures. Among Pearce’s articles are “Looking for Judeans in Babylonia’s Core and Periphery”and“Cuneiform Sources for Judeans in Babylonia in the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods: An Overview” and she is the author (with Cornelia Wunsch) of Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer.