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The History Leading Up to the Destruction of Judah

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Dan’el Kahn

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The History Leading Up to the Destruction of Judah

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The History Leading Up to the Destruction of Judah

Situated in a land bridge between the Babylonians and Egyptians, the two great powers of the day, Kings Jehoiakim and Zedekiah of Judah kept switching allegiance depending on which seemed the more powerful. Judah first favored Egypt, then Babylon, and then returned to Egypt. The Bible and the Babylonian Chronicles help us reconstruct the events that led to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.

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The History Leading Up to the Destruction of Judah

The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army, circle of Juan de la Corte, ca. 1630-1660. Wikimedia

The Battle of Carchemish

Following the death of the powerful king Ashurbanipal in 630 B.C.E., the Assyrian Empire began to crumble after a century in power. First Babylonia established its independence under King Nabopolassar (626–605 B.C.E.), and soon thereafter, together with King Cyaxares of Media, attacked the Assyrian kingdom, reducing city after city to ruin. The Assyrians were assisted by Pharaoh Psammetichus I (664–610 B.C.E.) of Egypt, their former vassal, but to no avail.[1]

In 605 B.C.E., the Egyptian army, led by Pharaoh Necho II (610–595 B.C.E.), the son of Psammetichus I, travelled north to Carchemish on the Euphrates to fight off the Babylonian army, led by the crown prince Nebuchadnezzar II, son of Nabopolassar, who lay dying back in Babylon.

In what was to be Assyria’s last stand, Nebuchadnezzar won a resounding victory against the Egyptian army,[2] after which he moved to consolidate his power over the region once ruled by the Assyrian empire, but which was now under Egyptian control.

How Egypt Took the Southern Levant

As the Assyrian Empire floundered during the slow conquest by Media and Babylonia mentioned above, the Levantine states found themselves free of the Assyrian yoke for the first time in more than a century. Pharaoh Psammetichus I, followed by his son Necho II, took the opportunity to reinstate Egypt’s position as the dominant power over the Levant.

In 609 B.C.E., Egypt flexed its muscle against Judah, killing King Josiah at Megiddo, deposing his heir Jehoahaz, and appointing a different son as a vassal king, who ostensibly swore to be loyal:

מלכים ב כג:לד וַיַּמְלֵךְ פַּרְעֹה נְכֹה אֶת אֶלְיָקִים בֶּן יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ תַּחַת יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ אָבִיו וַיַּסֵּב אֶת שְׁמוֹ יְהוֹיָקִים וְאֶת יְהוֹאָחָז לָקָח וַיָּבֹא מִצְרַיִם וַיָּמָת שָׁם. לד:לה וְהַכֶּסֶף וְהַזָּהָב נָתַן יְהוֹיָקִים לְפַרְעֹה אַךְ הֶעֱרִיךְ אֶת הָאָרֶץ לָתֵת אֶת הַכֶּסֶף עַל פִּי פַרְעֹה אִישׁ כְּעֶרְכּוֹ נָגַשׂ אֶת הַכֶּסֶף וְאֶת הַזָּהָב אֶת עַם הָאָרֶץ לָתֵת לְפַרְעֹה נְכֹה.
2 Kgs 23:34 Then Pharaoh Necho appointed Eliakim son of Josiah king in place of his father Josiah, changing his name to Jehoiakim. He took Jehoahaz and brought him to Egypt, where he died. 23:35 Jehoiakim gave Pharaoh the silver and the gold, and he made an assessment on the land to pay the money demanded by Pharaoh. He exacted from the people of the land the silver and gold to be paid Pharaoh Necho, according to each man’s assessment.

Necho’s power in the Levant, however, was short-lived.

Nebuchadnezzar Takes the Southern Levant and Destroys Philistia

The Babylonian Chronicle entry for the campaign of 605 B.C.E. goes on to describe how, after Egypt’s defeat at the battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar moved south to establish his dominion over the southern Levant, what the Babylonians called the land of Ḫatti (i.e., the territory west of the Euphrates, the Levant).[3]

Ashkelon

The next year (604 B.C.E.), Nebuchadnezzar returned to the region, and launched a campaign against the Philistine city of Ashkelon, which he destroyed in a conflagration:

The first year (of the reign) of Nebuchadnezzar, in the month of Sivan, he mustered his troops and marched on Ḫatti. Until the month of Kislev he traveled through Hatti victoriously. All the kings of Ḫatti came into his presence, and he received their massive tribute. He marched on Ashkelon; he took it in the month of Kislev, seized its king, pillaged and [plu]ndered it. He reduced the city to a heap of rubble. In the month of Shebat, he set forth and [went back] to Bab[ylon].[4]

The archaeological evidence for this destruction is clear,[5] and Nebuchadnezzar’s ruthlessness in this battle scared Philistia’s neighbors. In Jerusalem, only a two-day march for the Babylonian army from Ashkelon, the Judahites declared a fast on that year on that very month[6] (ca. November 604 B.C.E):

ירמיה לו:ט וַיְהִי בַשָּׁנָה הַחֲמִשִׁית לִיהוֹיָקִים בֶּן יֹאשִׁיָּהוּ מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַתְּשִׁעִי קָרְאוּ צוֹם לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה כָּל הָעָם בִּירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם וְכָל הָעָם הַבָּאִים מֵעָרֵי יְהוּדָה בִּירוּשָׁלָ‍ִם.
Jer 36:9 In the ninth month of the fifth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, all the people in Jerusalem and all the people coming from Judah proclaimed a fast before YHWH in Jerusalem.

Gaza

A lament in Jeremiah 47 mentions Ashkelon and Gaza together:

ירמיה מז:ה בָּאָה קָרְחָה אֶל עַזָּה נִדְמְתָה אַשְׁקְלוֹן שְׁאֵרִית עִמְקָם עַד מָתַי תִּתְגּוֹדָדִי.
Jer 47:5 Baldness has come upon Gaza, Ashkelon is destroyed. O remnant of their valley, how long will you gash yourself?

Ritual shaving and cutting was a mourning practice in biblical times,[7] and thus Jeremiah is painting a picture of two cities in mourning. Thus, we learn from here that Gaza was conquered around the same time as Ashkelon. In addition, Israel Ephʿal of the Hebrew University notes that the Babylonian Bit Muraššu documents mention exiles from Ashkelon and Gaza from this period, implying the conquest of these two cities around this time,[8] either in the 604 B.C.E. campaign, or perhaps in his campaign of the following year, in 603 B.C.E.[9]

Aphek and Ekron: King Adon’s Letter to Pharaoh Necho

Sy Gitin of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research suggests the 604 B.C.E. campaign as when Nebuchadnezzar took the Philistine cities of Aphek and Ekron (Tel Miqne).[10] While these conquests are not mentioned in any extant passage in the Babylonian Chronicles, a letter from King Adon of Ekron to the Egyptian Pharaoh (probably Necho II), begging him to save him from the Babylonians, sheds light on this set of events.

The letter was written in Aramaic on papyrus and was discovered in 1942 in the Egyptian city of Saqqara.[11] The left side of the letter is missing, so we only have sentence fragments, but the gist is clear, and much of the language is formulaic and therefore possible to reconstruct. It begins with a polite praise of Pharaoh:

1 אל מרא מלכן פרעה עבדך אדן מלך [עקרן שלם מראי מרא מלכן פרעה אלהי] 2 שמיא וארקא ובעלשמין אלה[א רבא ישאלו שגיא בכן עדן ויהארכו יומי] 3 פרעה כיומי שמין אמין.
1 To the Lord of Kings Pharaoh, your servant Adon, King of [Ekron]. [May the gods of] 2 heaven and earth, and Beelshemayin, [the great] god [seek after the welfare of my lord, Lord of Kings, Pharaoh, abundantly at all times and may they lengthen the days of] 3 Pharaoh like the days of (the) heavens and (the) waters.

The letter then moves on to the problem and request:

זי [שלחת על מרא מלכן הו להודעתה זי חילא] 4 זי מלך בבל אלו מטא[ו] אפק ו... 5 ...אחזו ... 6 כי מרא מלכן פרעה ידע כי עבד[ך...] 7 למשלח חיל להצלתנ[י] אל [י]שבקנ[י כי לא שקר עבדך בעדי מרא מלכן] 8 וטבתה עבדך נצר.
That [I have written to Lord of Kings is to inform him that the force] 4 of the King of Babylon has come (and) reached Aphek and… 5 they have seized… 6 For the Lord of Kings Pharaoh knows that your servant […] 7 to send a force to rescue me. Let him not abandon [me, for your servant did not violate the treaty o the Lord of Kings] 8 and your servant preserved his good relations.

The destruction of Ekron from this period is well attested archaeologically,[12] so either the letter came too late, or Pharaoh was unwilling or unable to save them. Adon’s reliance on Egypt was chimerical.

Judah understood the lesson of what happened to Philistia and (apparently) submitted to Babylonian vassalage. The Babylonian Empire thus found itself on the border with Egypt, the buffer-zone between the two great empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt, Philistia and Judah, having disappeared.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Failed Attempt to Conquer Egypt in 601/ 600 B.C.E.

The chronicle entry for the third year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign is mostly unreadable, but in the fourth, he invaded Egypt. Given Nebuchadnezzar’s success in defeating Egypt and Assyria in the battle of Carchemish, and his conquest of the Philistine city-states, the Judahites may have expected Babylonia to be victorious.

Egypt, under the powerful 25th (Kushite) dynasty, had been conquered by the Assyrians Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal only decades earlier. Babylon was the current great Mesopotamian power, and it looked as if 26th dynasty Egypt would not fare any better than its predecessor.[13] But, reading between the lines of the Babylonian Chronicle’s entry—the Chronicle does not explicitly admit defeat—we can see that Nebuchadnezzar lost the battle in Egypt and had to retreat:

In the month Kislev he (Nebuchadnezzar) took his army’s lead and marched to Egypt. (When) the king of Egypt heard (the news) he m[ustered] his army. They fought one another in the battlefield and both sides suffered severe losses (lit. they inflicted a major defeat upon one another). The king of Akkad and his army turned and [went back] to Babylon.[14]

Non-Babylonian sources indicate that the Egyptians even counterattacked and retook Gaza from the Babylonians. In the introduction to Jeremiah’s lament over Ashkelon and Gaza quoted above, the Masoretic Text (MT) preserves a tradition in its introductory verse that records this reconquest:

ירמיה מז:א אֲשֶׁר הָיָה דְבַר יְ־הוָה אֶל יִרְמְיָהוּ הַנָּבִיא אֶל פְּלִשְׁתִּים בְּטֶרֶם יַכֶּה פַרְעֹה אֶת עַזָּה.
Jer 47:1 The word of YHWH that came to the prophet Jeremiah concerning the Philistines, before Pharaoh conquered Gaza.[15]

The Greek historian Herodotus also mentions this Egyptian counterattack in his Histories (2.159):

…[W]ith his (Necho’s) land army, he met and defeated the Syrians (=Babylonians) at Magdolus (Migdol on the border of Egypt), taking the great Syrian (=Philistine) city of Cadytis (Gaza) after the battle.

Egypt’s defeat of the Babylonians in this campaign changed the political landscape in the Levant. As noted above, upon the destruction of Ashkelon and other Philistine cities in 604 B.C.E., Judah felt it had no choice but to become a vassal of Nebuchadnezzar. But now, three years later, with Pharaoh’s Necho’s triumph in 601 B.C.E., Jehoiakim switched sides back to Egypt:

מלכים ב כד:א בְּיָמָיו עָלָה נְבֻכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל וַיְהִי לוֹ יְהוֹיָקִים עֶבֶד שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים וַיָּשָׁב וַיִּמְרָד בּוֹ.
2 Kgs 24:1 In his days, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his vassal for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him.

While this likely seemed like a prudent decision at the time, it would end badly.

Nebuchadnezzar’s 598/597 Campaign: Jehoikim’s Rebellion

In 598/597 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar’s 7th regnal year, he returned, retaking the parts of the Levant that he had lost to Necho a few years earlier. As before, Nebuchadnezzar dealt harshly with Philistia, taking Gaza and Ashdod. We learn of this from a prism found in Babylon—known as the Istanbul Prism since this is where it is now displayed—which refers to building projects Nebuchadnezzar engaged in during his 7th regnal year (ln. 4.25). Among the royal supporters of his projects, it mentions (ln. 7.23):

The king of Ty[re]; the king of Gaz[a]; the king of Sido[n]; the king of Arwa[d]; the king of Ashd[od]; the king of Mir[...]; (and) the king of [...].[16]

Thus, when Nebuchadnezzar appeared at the gates of Jerusalem, he was already the dominant power in the Levant again.

Judah Surrenders

When Nebuchadnezzar returned, Jehoiakim likely hoped till his last that Pharaoh Necho would save Judah, but it was not to be:

מלכים ב כה:ו וַיִּשְׁכַּב יְהוֹיָקִים עִם אֲבֹתָיו וַיִּמְלֹךְ יְהוֹיָכִין בְּנוֹ תַּחְתָּיו. כה:ז וְלֹא הֹסִיף עוֹד מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לָצֵאת מֵאַרְצוֹ כִּי לָקַח מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל מִנַּחַל מִצְרַיִם עַד נְהַר פְּרָת כֹּל אֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה לְמֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם.
2 Kgs 25:6 Jehoiakim slept with his fathers, and his son Jehoiachin succeeded him as king. 25:7 The king of Egypt did not venture out of his country again, for the king of Babylon had seized all the land that had belonged to the king of Egypt, from the Wadi of Egypt to the River Euphrates.

Jehoiakim’s death left his 18-year-old son and heir, Jehoiachin, to pay the price for the rebellion, and he surrendered without a fight to Nebuchadnezzar on the 2nd of Adar, 597 B.C.E., shortly after ascending the throne:

מלכים ב כה:י בָּעֵת הַהִיא (עלה) [עָלוּ] עַבְדֵי נְבֻכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם וַתָּבֹא הָעִיר בַּמָּצוֹר. כה:יא וַיָּבֹא נְבוּכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל עַל הָעִיר וַעֲבָדָיו צָרִים עָלֶיהָ. כה:יב וַיֵּצֵא יְהוֹיָכִין מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה עַל מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל הוּא וְאִמּוֹ וַעֲבָדָיו וְשָׂרָיו וְסָרִיסָיו וַיִּקַּח אֹתוֹ מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל בִּשְׁנַת שְׁמֹנֶה לְמָלְכוֹ.
2 Kgs 25:10 At that time, the troops of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched against Jerusalem, and the city came under siege. 25:11 King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against the city while his troops were besieging it. 25:12 Thereupon King Jehoiachin of Judah, along with his mother, and his courtiers, commanders, and officers, surrendered to the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon took him captive in the eighth year of his reign.[17]

Perhaps the destruction of Ekron, and the failure of Egypt to help its vassals, made Judah’s defeat seem inevitable to the young king, facilitating his decision to capitulate. Along with King Jehoiachin himself, Nebuchadnezzar took much gold from the temple and the king’s treasury, along with many of the upper-crust Judahites, back with him to Babylon.

Before leaving, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Jehoiachin’s uncle—Jehoiakim’s brother—as his vassal king:

מלכים ב כה:יז וַיַּמְלֵךְ מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל אֶת מַתַּנְיָה דֹדוֹ תַּחְתָּיו וַיַּסֵּב אֶת שְׁמוֹ צִדְקִיָּהוּ.
2 Kgs 25:17 And the king of Babylon appointed Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place, changing his name to Zedekiah.

All this is recorded tersely in the Babylonian Chronicles:

The seventh year, in the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched on Ḫatti, and set up his quarters facing the city of Judah. In the month of Adar, the second day, he took the city and captured the king. He installed there a king of his choice. He colle[cted] its massive tribute and went back to Babylon.[18]

Zedekiah spent his first few years on the throne as a loyal vassal, but then he too rebelled.

Zedekiah’s Reign and Rebellion

The extant records in the Babylonian Chronicle end with Nebuchadnezzar’s 10th and 11th regnal years, 595–594 B.C.E. These years were difficult for Nebuchadnezzar, who had to contend with the rebellion in Babylonia.[19]

Taking advantage of Nebuchadnezzar’s troubles with Elam, Zedekiah, in his fourth regnal year (593 B.C.E.), hosted a summit in Jerusalem about throwing off the Babylonian yoke. He invited other local kingdoms—Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon. Jeremiah (27:1–11) warns him against this move. When Nebuchadnezzar heard about this gathering, he summoned a Judahite emissary to explain (Jer 51:59–64). Zedekiah complied, calming tensions for the time being.[20]

Psammetichus II and the Conquest of Kush

In 595 B.C.E., Pharaoh Necho II died, and his son Psammetichus II (595–589 B.C.E.) took the throne. While Nebuchadnezzar was distracted by the rebellion in Babylonia, Psammetichus II spent the first few years of his reign without worrying about a head-on confrontation with Babylonia.

Psammetichus II took this opportunity first to subdue his southern neighbor, the powerful kingdom of Kush (Nubia), who had ruled over Egypt for a century.[21] In his third regnal year, 593 B.C.E., he conquered Kush entirely, setting up a victory stela (the Stela of Shellal) marking the end of the successful campaign.

As knowledge of this campaign made its way to the Levant—and Nebuchadnezzar put down the Babylonian rebellion—Egypt would have appeared to be the greatest power in the region.[22] Thus, when in 592/591 B.C.E., Psammetichus marched north through the Levant, going all the way up to Kharru (Canaan), Zedekiah threw in his lot with Egypt.[23]

Pharaoh Apries and Nebuchadnezzar: 587 B.C.E.

Psammetichus II fell ill shortly after his Levantine campaign, and two years later he died. In 589 B.C.E., his son Apries (biblical Hophra) took the throne. In 588 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar appeared again in the Levant for the first time in a decade.

According to Jeremiah, Pharaoh Apries did send an army, which gave Judah some momentary relief from the siege:

ירמיה לז:ה וְחֵיל פַּרְעֹה יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ הַכַּשְׂדִּים הַצָּרִים עַל יְרוּשָׁלַ‍ִם אֶת שִׁמְעָם וַיֵּעָלוּ מֵעַל יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם.
Jer 37:5 The army of Pharaoh had set out from Egypt; and when the Chaldeans who were besieging Jerusalem heard the report, they raised the siege of Jerusalem.

However, as Jeremiah warns Zedekiah, the Egyptian force was not going to save Jerusalem, and the Babylonians would eventually destroy the city:

ירמיה לז:ז ...הִנֵּה חֵיל פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּצֵא לָכֶם לְעֶזְרָה שָׁב לְאַרְצוֹ מִצְרָיִם. לז:ח וְשָׁבוּ הַכַּשְׂדִּים וְנִלְחֲמוּ עַל הָעִיר הַזֹּאת וּלְכָדֻהָ וּשְׂרָפֻהָ בָאֵשׁ.
Jer 37:7 …Pharaoh's army, which set out to help you, is going to return to its own land, to Egypt. 37:8 And the Chaldeans shall return and fight against this city; they shall take it and burn it with fire.
לז:ט כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה אַל תַּשִּׁאוּ נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר הָלֹךְ יֵלְכוּ מֵעָלֵינוּ הַכַּשְׂדִּים כִּי לֹא יֵלֵכוּ. לז:י כִּי אִם הִכִּיתֶם כָּל חֵיל כַּשְׂדִּים הַנִּלְחָמִים אִתְּכֶם וְנִשְׁאֲרוּ בָם אֲנָשִׁים מְדֻקָּרִים אִישׁ בְּאָהֳלוֹ יָקוּמוּ וְשָׂרְפוּ אֶת הָעִיר הַזֹּאת בָּאֵשׁ.
37:9 Thus says YHWH: Do not deceive yourselves, saying, “The Chaldeans will surely go away from us,” for they will not go away. 37:10 Even if you defeated the whole army of Chaldeans who are fighting against you, and there remained of them only pierced men in their tents, they would rise up and burn this city with fire.

Clearly, Apries’ intervention on behalf of Judah was unsuccessful, and Jerusalem soon again found itself under siege. On the 9th day of the fourth month (Tammuz) of 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians broke the walls of the city (2 Kgs 25:3–4; Jer 52:6–7) and captured the king, and on the seventh day (2 Kgs 25:8) or on the tenth day (Jer 52:12) of the fifth month (Av), the city—including the Temple—was destroyed.[24]

Caught in Between Two Empires

While Babylon and Egypt would continue to battle each other over the coming decades, with neither side ever winning a decisive victory, Judah paid the ultimate price early on. While in hindsight, we know that Babylon would maintain control of the Levant for most of this period, the kings of Judah, the unfortunate brothers Jehoiakim and Zedekiah could not have known this.

Situated between these two great powers, the kings of Judah tried to maintain Judah’s position through timely switching of allegiance, depending on which country seemed to be the most powerful at any given time. Whether they did a poor job, or whether navigating between Nebuchadnezzar and the Pharaohs was impossible, Judah found itself unable to avoid being crushed in the vice.

Published

August 4, 2022

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Last Updated

November 26, 2022

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Prof. Dan’el Kahn is Professor of Bible and Ancient Near East in the University of Haifa's Department of Biblical Studies. He holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology and the History of Israel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he focused on Egypt's 25th dynasty. He is the co-editor of Treasures on Camels' Humps (Magnes 2008); Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature (Brill, 2009); The Ancient Near East in the 12th-10th Centuries BCE (Ugarit Verlag, 2012), and the author of Sennacherib's Campaign Against Judah: A Source Analysis of Isaiah 36–37 (Cambridge, 2020).

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