A Tale of Three Countries: The Fall of Israel, Judah and Babylonia in the 1st Millennium BC

1642again, Going Postal
A theoretical map of the region around 830 BC

A passing remark on GP prompted a number of kind posters to request that I write up a talk I gave last weekend on the falls of the Kingdoms of Israel, Judah and Babylonia in the late 8th to mid 6th centuries BC. 

Why did I see this as a connected storyline and feel impelled to prepare a talk on it?  Well, firstly because the fall of a nation to another is always of interest, especially if it effectively marks the ending of that people’s sovereignty, even cultural survival, for good.  What are the root causes of such a fall – were they primarily external or internal? And secondly, the grand narrative of these events is supplied primarily by two of the historical books of the Old Testament – Kings and Chronicles – but is enriched and evidenced by surviving records, archaeology, and even later Greek writers such as Xenophon and Herodotus. They tell a remarkably consistent account despite being drawn from very different national traditions. * Together these writers view the three falls as having moral and metaphysical lessons to teach their readers.  Now we moderns can scoff at these world views as we sit in our comfortable world of materialistic explanations, until we look at the news and at the world outside, at our civilisation today which is showing signs of great stress and even the rumblings of tremors that could bring our walls down…

The case of Israel

So, we start in the 8th century BC.  The cradle of civilisation – the Near East – is dominated by a ruthless military superpower – the Second Assyrian Empire which has risen out of the collapse of the advanced Late Bronze civilisations of the day, the Hittites, Mitanni, Mycenaeans etc. and the narrow escape of Egypt at the hands of the mysterious Sea Peoples.  Babylon maintains a precarious independence, and Egypt is a secondary power largely confined to the Nile Valley.  Solomon’s Kingdom of Israel has split into two warring rivals, Israel based on Samaria and Judah with its capital at Jerusalem. 

Assyria and Egypt contend for influence over both Hebrew states until sometime in the 730’s BC ** the Assyrian King Tilgathpilneser (King Pul in the Bible – another story in itself) decided to drive the Egyptians out once-and-for-all by making Israel a puppet state.  To this end he overwhelmed Israel and annexed its territories east of the River Jordan (the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh) and deported much of their population to be settled on his eastern border in Iran.  But Israel was a restive tributary state, and Egypt was still stirring things up, so the next Assyrian King Shalamaneser V decided on a Final Solution.  Around 722 BC he conquered the rest of Israel, captured Samaria the capital, and effectively wiped out the leadership and deported most of the population to join their already exiled brethren on the eastern frontier.

The Assyrians could have taught the Romans a thing or two when it came to ruthlessness.  Shalamaneser resettled Israel with colonists from the other parts of his empire so that the poorer Hebrews he did not deport were overwhelmed by foreigners and became a minority in their own land. 

You might think the Assyrians were satisfied with the job they had done on Israel, but they weren’t.  After over-throwing Shalamaneser, his successor Sargon came back for the surviving Hebrews in about 720 BC and deported another 27,920 to the east (the number is taken from his own archival records).  Some Israelites had taken refuge in neighbouring countries like Judah and started to filter back in small numbers but, in reality, that was the end of Hebrew Israel.

What happened to what are still incorrectly called the Ten Lost tribes?  They disappear from history (giving rise to all sorts of incredible myths) and the last we hear of them is from the writer of 2 Kings who says they were still living in Iran in his day, probably in the mid 6th century BC.  Whether any returned later with the Babylonian exiles we don’t know – they may have lost their cultural identity by then.

The case of Judah

The southern Hebraic kingdom of Judah (drawn from the tribes of Judah, some of Levi and Simeon, and also Benjamin) survived the fate of Israel at the hands of Assyria and it seems there was a pro-Assyrian party among the Judaean elite, represented by monotheistic prophets such as Jeremiah (we’ll come to the significance of this later) and so the kingdom was clearly tributary to Assyria.  But everything changed about 609 BC when, following a failed attempt by the Assyrians to conquer Egypt, a coalition of Babylonia, Egypt and the rising power of the Medes in Iran came together to defeat Assyria and to capture its capital Ninevah. 

The superpower was no more, its empire carved up by the victors with Judah falling to Egyptian influence, northern Mesopotamia and the mountains of Armenia to the Medes, and the rest to Babylon.  Babylonia emerged as the apparent superpower of its day under its great king Nebuchadezzar, who then drove the Egyptians from Judah and made it tributary to him under its puppet king Jehoiakim.  But Egypt kept stirring up trouble in Judah and Jehoiakim launched a revolt in 602 BC which was put down ferociously by the Babylonians.  He was killed and many inhabitants exiled to Babylon to work on Nebuchadnezzar’s restoration of the city to imperial greatness.   A new puppet king – Zedekiah – was installed, but he soon rose in revolt at the behest of the Egyptians.  This time Nebuchadnezzar went all Assyrian: he besieged Jerusalem for 30 months, taking it in 597 BC, sacked it, destroyed the Temple of Solomon, took everything of value back to Babylon including perhaps 20,000 of the country’s estimated 75,000 inhabitants, including the entire elite. Only the peasants were left to slave for their conquerors.

And so one might expect the Judaeans to fade from history like their Israelite cousins, their culture replaced by alien cultures, and ultimately their language and memories disappearing.  But two things happened, one political and military, and another, more unexpectedly, cultural, they claimed metaphysical, which meant that they did not follow the path of the ‘Ten Tribes’ and so many other conquered peoples into extinction.

The Case of Babylon

The apparent supremacy of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar was a short-lived mirage.  Babylon’s great days were a millennium or more in the past and it was something of an accident of fate and the statesmanship of one man, the king himself, that Babylon has a last moment as a superpower.  The Babylonians were rich, learned, advanced, but were not a warrior people like the Assyrians or the rising power of the Medes to their East.  Once he died, political instability and kingly mediocrities followed.  Meanwhile the Medes and their cousins the Persians of southern Iran coalesced into a single state under Cyrus the Great, who proceeded to conquer Asia Minor from the Lydians under King Croesus (he of the legendary wealth and the first great world coinage) and much of central Asia and Afghanistan.  Finally, he turned west again in 539/8 BC and launched a surprise night attack on Babylon while it was celebrating a great festival, broke through the river gate, and took it in one night with only sporadic fighting.

Separate accounts of the capture are relayed by the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament, and the Greeks Herodotus and Xenophon, and confirmed by Babylonian records.  All accounts are surprisingly consistent, albeit Daniel adds the fantastic story of Balshazzar’s Feast at which he was present.  Now until recently this story was dismissed by historians as a fable because there was no record of a last king of Babylon called Balshazzar outside Daniel – until a clay tablet from Babylon turned up recording the last king being Balshazzar…

Having incorporated the Babylonian Empire into his own Cyrus did an extraordinary thing: he freed the Judaean exiles in Babylon and helped them to return home, even giving them assistance to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  Why?  Why bother with a small subject slave people in his moment of glory?

The most convincing explanation is that Cyrus was almost certainly a Zoroastrian, a major monotheistic faith with many similar ideas to Judaism. Zoroastrianism at some point in the sixth century became the national faith of the Persians although little is known of its founder Zoroaster or even when he lived.  Cyrus perhaps had sympathy for them as fellow monotheists and perhaps, more practically, liked the idea of a grateful subject people on the western border of his new realm.

Making Sense of the Grand Narrative

Why even try to see these three episodes as part of a bigger story?  Well the Jews certainly thought they were as one can see from the Biblical account.   The monotheism of the Hebrews was surprisingly insecure as all the books of the Old Testament reveal, thus a succession of prophets, even kings, trying to restore a people to Jehovah worship from the polytheistic religions into which they constantly strayed. 

It’s clear that the northern kingdom of Israel, under its kings, largely abandoned Judaism to embrace gods such as Baal/Moloch and Ashteroth, and started to practice human and child sacrifice on a wide scale despite the prohibition going back to the days of Abraham.  Baal etc worship was the dominant faith of the ancient Near East and kings of a small kingdom trying to be accepted as equals by its neighbours could easily be tempted to conform to the ‘international community’ of their day.  We can see these pressures on our own statesmen today with the EU, Islam etc.  The drive to compromise one’s own culture, country, tradition, can be powerful for the ambitious.  Later Jews certainly interpreted the utter destruction of Israel and the disappearance of its people as punishment for their idolatry.  We might see it as the consequence of them giving up their foundational beliefs and culture – they were no longer rooted enough to survive as a people through adversity.

The experience of the southern kingdom was similar, but not identical.  Here again the lapses into paganism were strong and frequent, with many kings leading the way, but somehow, perhaps because Solomon’s Temple and capital remained in the kingdom, and because some of the greater kings kept restoring Judaism to supremacy, when the axe fell and the kingdom was destroyed and the people enslaved, their culture survived.  Indeed, in exile they seem to have fallen back on it. Polytheism disappears and much of the Old Testament takes final shape.  That held them together until circumstances changed and they were restored to their country, and once more with a 1,800 year gap this second time.

Finally, the Jews came to see their fall as punishment for leaving their faith, and something which could have been avoided through repentance.  A good example of this is the story of Jonah.  Most people today only remember the story of Jonah in the context of the whale, but the real point of it was that he was sent as an emissary from Israel in the early 8th century to tell the Assyrians to repent of their bloody ways or face destruction.  Amazingly, considering what the Assyrians later did to Israel, he is successful and for a time they repent and are spared destruction, and the Assyrians are praised for this in the Book of Jonah.  Oddly, the prophets of Israel seem to have regarded the Assyrians as the agents of divine wrath against their own people’s failings, almost with approval which may imply a pro-Assyrian group within Israel itself.

The Greeks saw it differently: they weren’t interested in the Jews, but in the rules of the cycle of history, something different entirely.  Herodotus is quite explicit about this in a very peculiar passage at the end of his Histories which tell the history of the growth of the Persian Empire to world striding colossus, its attacks on the free Greeks, and final defeat at Plataea and Mykale in 479 BC. 

In the very last paragraph, after the final expulsion of Persia from Europe has been described, Herodotus goes back to Cyrus in his moment of triumph sixty years earlier and tells of a debate at Cyrus’ court about whether the Persians should leave their barren and hot homeland in southern Iran and move en mass to the rich and productive lands of Mesopotamia for an easier life.  Cyrus vetoes the idea saying, “Soft lands breed soft men,” and that soft men lose their freedom to harder ones.

So, in some ways the Greek and Jewish understandings of these events are not that far apart.  They saw freedom and cultural survival as the highest goals of a nation, that their culture, their faith, everything that made them different, had to be defended.  And going soft, focusing on wealth and ease, forgetting their beliefs, values and culture, would lead to the loss of their freedom and survival as a people at the hands of those who remained tough and hungry.

Have we forgotten these lessons learned so long ago by the Hebrews and Greeks?

Notes
* When doing my undergraduate Classics degree, the course I enjoyed most was Historiography – the invention and development of the writing of History by the Greeks (a case can be made for the Hebrews a century earlier of course) – and especially the embedded world views of the writers which influenced their selection of what to record as significant and their explanations of events, even the patterns of meaning they saw in events.  It was real eye opening stuff for me, especially the study of the two first historians Herodotus and Thucydides, and I can honestly say it caused me to look at the world and the way it is recorded quite differently.  I’ll write another article perhaps on this subject one day.
** Despite what most text books teach, the dates of historical events before the mid 7th century are much less secure than claimed by most scholars.  In fact, arguments still rage and the accepted chronology is under challenge like never before.  Even the established chronology is unsure whether the first invasion of Israel by Assyria happened in 740 BC or as late as 733 BC.

© 1642again