In 587 BCE the temple in Jerusalem
was destroyed by Babylonian forces.This
was a culminating and catastrophic event in a series of incursions of Babylonia
into Judah from
roughly 598 to 581 BCE.King
Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah
three times (roughly 598, 587, 581; though some report 597, 586, and 580), each
time deporting kings and leaders of Judah
into Babylonia and leaving the poorest and least
powerful behind.This series of
invasions and deportations is called both the “exile of Judah”
and the “Babylonian captivity.”It is
one of the central preoccupations of the Old Testament, leading the writers of
the OT to ask “What does it mean for the faith of Israel
that this community, which takes itself to be the beloved partner of Yahweh, is
so vulnerable to the vagaries of international politics and so helpless in the
face of brutalizing power?”
The question that occupies the OT is, of course, a
theological question.But critical to
understanding the theological question is an understanding of a geopolitical
question: How did Babylonia come to invade and deport Judah?
Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylon,
is battling the Egyptian King Neco (the one whom Josiah was fighting when he
died in battle) for control of Carchemish
(at the Euphrates river, far north of Jerusalem).The Egyptians are fighting on behalf of the
Assyrians and exacting severe tribute from Judah.When Nebuchadnezzar’s father dies, he
returns to Babylon to secure his
throne and then finishes the war in Carchemish.He pursues the Egyptians south to Hamath
and Ashkelon (just south of Jerusalem),
ravaging the countryside as he goes.Now King Jehoiakim (the son of Josiah) must pay tribute to Babylon
instead of Egypt.In 601 Neco and Nebuchadnezzar meet in
battle again in Gaza, but the
battle was a draw.Nebuchadnezzar goes
back to Babylon and Jehoiakim
withholds his tribute.
Nebuchadnezzar stays home.
(2 Kings 24:2)
Nebuchadnezzar enlists local
Chaldean, Aramean (or possibly Edomite), Moabite, and Ammonite troops to
(for tribute?) while he fights the Arabians.
(2 Kings 24:8-11)
Jehoiakim dies and his young son
Jehoiachin takes the throne.The
Babylonian army invades Judah
and besieges Jerusalem.Soon afterwards Nebuchadnezzar himself
arrives in Jerusalem.
(2 Kings 24:12-17)
Nebuchadnezzar orders Jehoiachin
and his entourage to be taken to Babylon.Zedekiah, another son of Josiah, is
appointed king.The practice of
deporting kings and leaders was common in this time.The Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans
all deported the leaders of lands that they conquered.Usually those deported included the King
and the royal family, leading military men, military personnel, and
craftsmen.Only the poorest were left
to tend the crops.It is unclear how
many were deported: Jeremiah says 4600 were taken during all three
deportations; 2 Kings says 10,000 were deported in 597 alone.
Chaldeans again are sent to harass
Nebuchadnezzar is preoccupied in Babylon
crushing a rebellion.
594 – 593
sends ambassadors from Edom,
Ammon to Jerusalem to confer with
Zedekiah.Nebuchadnezzar has Zedekiah
brought to Babylon, where
Zedekiah manages to convince Nebuchadnezzar of his loyalty.Zedekiah is sent back to Jerusalem,
where he remains faithful for some time.The Chaldeans serve as Nebuchadnezzar’s patrols in the Negeb (to guard
against Egyptian incursions) and tribute collectors.
Hophra of Egypt (the successor of
Psammeticus, who was successor of Neco) persuades Zedekiah to rebel against Babylon
(by not paying tribute?).
(2 Kings 25:1-2)
The Chaldeans (Babylon’s
enforcers) siege Jerusalem.Egypt
but is soon repelled.
(2 Kings 25:3-5)
(2 Kings 25:8-12)
(2 Kings 25:22-26)
defenses collapse.Zedekiah tries to
escape to the desert, but is caught, arrested, and sent to Babylon.
The second deportation and
destruction of the temple.
Gedaliah is appointed governor of Judah.Judeans who had scattered when the
Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem
gather to him.He urges obedience to
Nebuchadnezzar and is assassinated.Other Judeans, fearing reprisal from the Babylonians, flee to Egypt.
582 - 581
There is little Biblical account
of the third deportation, except in Jeremiah 52:23-30.There are records of exiles living in
villages along the Chebar river (see Psalm 137
was a tiny kingdom set in the middle of very powerful nations to the south (Egypt)
and to the north (in sequence, Assyria, Babylon,
(modern Syria, Iraq,
and Iran)).Despite the bible’s grand claims for the
Davidic line, for most of its existence, Judah
was a client state that lived under the influence of one major power or
did not have the resources to exert an independent political or military
force.The northern nations dominate the
fate of Judah
before it), but Egypt
always tries to reassert its power over Judah
and the northern nations.
Assyria (745-609 BCE)
The Assyrian empire (its capital city was Ninevah, the city
God told Jonah to prophecy to) rose to power under Tiglath-Pileser III in 745
BCE.In 722 Assyria
(the northern kingdom) and sent many of the Israelites into exile.Assyria was
experienced by Israel
as a brutal force.
By 663 BCE Assyria had expanded its
military control into Egypt.It had completely dominated the Middle
East.It was a costly
expansion, however, marked by recurring revolts and internal tension among its
ruling class.From 652-648 BCE,
Ashurbanipal (then king of Assyria) was engaged in civil
war with his brother, the regent of Babylonia.Ashurbanipal won, but the effort exhausted
his political and military power.When
Ashurbanipal died (627 BCE) many of his subjects, including Babylonia,
Judah (under King
Josiah), and Chaldea, began to reassert their
independence.Between 614 and 609 BCE,
the Chaldeans, with help from Josiah of Judah, destroyed the Assyrian state.
It was in this period of Assyrian weakness that Judah,
under King Josiah (639-609), was able to reassert its independence and
undertake Josiah’s reforms.
Babylonia (605-540 BCE)
By 605 Assyrian power had completely vanished and Babylonia
began to rise in power, first under Nabopolassar and then under his son,
Nebuchadnezzar.In a war with Egypt
for control of the northern region at Carchemesh (see timeline above), Babylonia
and came to full power in the Middle East.To secure its southern flank exposed toward Egypt,
Nebuchadnezzar subjected Judah,
which at times revolted, sometimes with help from Egypt.It is this period of time to which the above
In 562, Nebuchadnezzar died and less than two decades later,
Babylonia ceased to be a political or military power,
largely because of exhaustion and weak leadership.By 540 BCE, Babylonia
was dislodged from a position of power.
In 550 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated his Medan
overlord and began to expand his rule.He pushed east toward Babylonia and conquered
it.Cyrus reversed the Babylonian policy
of deportation and permitted the captives to return to Judah
in hopes that his generosity would make Judah
more cooperative subjects.Cyrus’s plan
worked, for Judah
as a benign power.Cyrus authorized the
rebuilding of the temple.
Biblical texts concerning the exile of Judah
read the events of the 6th century BCE from a completely different
interpretive angle than the geopolitical one.The biblical texts understand the collapse and exile of Judah
as a decisive intercession of Yahweh into the history of the people of Yahweh
through the agency of foreign powers.Yahweh is the central character and decisive agent in the public process
of history.This claim pertains not only
to Israel, who
knows the name of Yahweh, but even to other worldly powers who may not know
The texts of 2 Kings 23-25 put this claim to work in
passages such as:
·24:2-4: The Lord sent troops to destroy the
towns of Judah
as the prophets had warned.
·24:13: The Lord had warned that someday the
treasures would be taken from the royal palace and from the temple.
·24:20: The people of Judah
and Jerusalem had made the Lord so
angry that he finally turned his back on them.That’s why these horrible things were happening.
Everything that happens can be understood in terms of Deuteronomistic
theology, which we’ve seen before:
Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,
loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means
life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord
swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.(Deut. 30:19-20)
is faithful and obedient, it will live long in the land that God promised Israel’s
is disobedient, it will be punished.
According to the theology of Deuteronomy, Israel’s
history reads as follows:
God redeems Israel
from slavery in Egypt,
demonstrating God’s freedom, sovereignty, and power. (Exodus)
Through 40 years in the wilderness,
God shapes Israel
into a people to be governed by God’s laws.If they are obedient to God, it will be
well with them; if they are disobedient it will not be well. (Exodus
In the Promised Land, the people are
unable to remain obedient to God.God sets up judges to help them remain obedient. (Judges)
Eventually the people demand a
king.Though God objects, God gives
them what they wish. (1 Samuel 8)
Kings become powerful and wealthy and
begin to tolerate worship of other gods, place their trust in political
alliances rather than in God, and exploit the poor of the land. (2 Samuel
through 2 Kings)
God sends prophets to warn of coming
judgment and to call the kings back into right relationship with God.
(books of history and prophets)
Unwilling to heed this call, the
kingdom first divides (922 bce; 1
Kings 12 through 2 Kings 13) and then falls to foreign powers: Israel
to the Neo-Assyrians in 721 bce
to the Babylonians in 587 bce (2
Kings 14-25 and Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel and Isaiah 40-55).
God is faithful and Israel
is eventually restored (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah).
God is the decisive agent in this chain of events;
Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus only the characters that mediate God’s agency.Note also the hopeful tone with which 2 Kings
ends.This is not the end, for here is a
glimpse of liberty.Surely God will (and
does) act just as decisively to liberate Judah.
Psalm 137 is a lament psalm, the only psalm that can be
dated with certainty.It can be divided
into three parts:
vv. 1-4: Express the exiles’ grief.
vv. 5-6: The literary and conceptual heart of the poem; the
importance of remembering.
vv.7-9: Express the exiles’ rage and desire for revenge.
Memory is the theme that runs throughout the psalm.Remembering Zion
implies faithfulness to God’s place and to God’s purpose in the world.
“our captors . . .our tormentors”
A reference not only to the exile
itself, but to the taunting, sarcastic nature of the request for songs, as if
to say, “Where is your God now?”
“my right hand”
Which plucks the strings of the
“who repays you”
Grief, quite naturally, turns to
anger and revenge, not only toward Babylonia, but also
who participated in the ravaging of the countryside.
“dashes them against the rocks”
A shocking turn of sentiment; but
how frequently did we hear similar sentiments after 9/11?
This is one of those units about which I think it is
important just to get the story straight.Perhaps this can be the focus of the 2 Kings portion of the unit.Here are some concepts we might think about:
·It is sometimes hard for us to see God at work
in crises, but God is with us all the same.
·If we are heading in the wrong direction, it
sometimes takes a terrible crisis to turn us around.
For the psalm, here are lots of possible concepts:
·Grief and anger are natural reactions to extreme
·Remembering is one way to be faithful: we are
faithful to God when we remember God and God is faithful to us when God
·Remembering past crises helps us to avoid future
·Expressing grief and anger with in prayer helps
us defuse our feelings so that we do not act them out.
·Even when our prayers express feelings that are
unpleasant or scary, God hears us and loves us.
·Remembering and expressing our feelings about a
crisis are steps toward forgiveness.
·It is often children who suffer most from war.
·If we are honest, we have to admit that we have
all wanted to take revenge at one time or another.
Possible lesson plans
2 Kings: crime scene investigation
Psalm 137: this is a wonderful opportunity to teach about
prayer, or to do a mission project around the theme of refugees.What is it like to be far from home?How does it feel to know that you may never
see your home again?How do you learn to
sing the old songs in a new land?
Possible memory verses
Matthew 11:28: If you are tired from carrying heavy burdens,
come to me and I will give you rest.
2 Corinthians 12:9: My kindness is all you need.My power is strongest when you are weak.
Joshua 1:9: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened
or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.(NRSV)
Psalm 46:1 God is our mighty fortress, always ready to help
in times of trouble.
Isaiah 41:10: Don’t be afraid.I am with you.Don’t tremble with fear.I am your God.I will make you strong as I protect you with
2 Corinthians 1:4: God comforts us when we are in trouble,
so that we can share that same comfort with others in trouble.
Achtemeier, Paul J., ed.Harper’s Bible Dictionary (New
York: HarperCollins, 1985).Herein cited
Aharoni, Yohanan and Michael Avi-Yonah.The
MacMillan Bible Atlas (New York: Macmillan, 1993).Herein cited as MBA.
Birch, Bruce C., et al. A
Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press,
1990).Herein cited as TIOT.
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr.Psalms.New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV
(Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1999).Herein cited as Psalms.