The Forgotten Biblical Exile That Laid the Foundation for Jewish Life in the Diaspora

Unlike the Babylonian Exile, the Jehoiachin Exile of 11 years earlier was largely ignored by Jewish history ■ The exiles established a social, economic, religious and literary infrastructure for Jewish life outside Israel

Jehoiachin by Michelangelo

“In the 70th year in the month of Kislev the king of Akkadia mustered his soldiers and marched into the land of the Hittites and laid siege to the city of Judea. In the month of Adar on the second day he occupied the city and captured the king. He installed a king after his own heart, imposed a harsh tax and sent [it] to Babylon.”

This Akkadian chronicle of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II from the year 598 B.C.E. is a major piece of extra-Scriptural evidence of the first Judean exile – the Jehoiachin exile. In 2 Kings 24:8-17, we learn that Jehoiachin was the king who was taken captive and sent into exile along with “all the commanders and all the warriors — ten thousand exiles — as well as all the craftsmen and smiths… and the king’s mother and the king’s wives and officers and the notables of the land were brought as exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon.”

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Eleven years later, the same Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, killed King Zedekiah – the one “after his own heart” – and exiled a large part of the population of Judea and Jerusalem, in what is known as “the Babylonian Exile,” which put an end to more than 400 years of rule by the House of David in Jerusalem.

Unlike the Babylonian Exile, which is deeply etched in the national consciousness, the Jehoiachin Exile earned little literary mention in Scripture and was not commemorated at all. And it turns out that this national ignoring of that exile also infected the world of scholarly Bible criticism: Until recently, those 11 years of exile were not studied in any comprehensive and systematic way.

A new study has revealed, however, that the Jehoiachin exiles established a social, economic, religious and literary infrastructure for Jewish life outside the homeland, upon which was built the Jewish national existence in the Diaspora over the generations. They proved that even far from the homeland, without a Temple and without a royal establishment, it was possible not only to survive without losing their uniqueness but also to lay foundations for the existence and nurturance of a creative ethno-cultural entity that would not be cut off from its roots, and would be able to grow and be culturally productive, even on foreign soil.

Jehoiakim burns Jeremiah's scroll (illustration from a Bible card published in 1904 by the Providence Lithograph Company)

This infrastructure became a shock absorber for the exiles of the destruction of Jerusalem. It is with good reason that in Jeremiah 24:2 the Jehoiachin exiles are compared to “very good figs” as opposed to those who remained behind and were not sent into exile along with them – the “very bad figs.”

Who were these Jewish settlers?

Newly deciphered epigraphs in Akkadian cuneiform on clay tablets that have been published in recent years (the most comprehensive collection is by Laurie Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch, 2014) underline the need for scholarly attention to the Jehoiachin Exile. Some of the documents were displayed in an exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum and published in Hebrew translation in 2015 in the book “Al Naharot Bavel” (By the Rivers of Babylon: Cuneiform Documents from the Beginning of the Babylonian Diaspora,” by Wayne Horowitz, Yehoshua Greenberg and Peter Zilberg, in conjunction with Pearce and Wunsch).

These tablets suggest that in the area of Nippur, on the banks of the Euphrates, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of the capital Babylon, there were agricultural settlements with Hebrew names like Beit Nesher, Ir Yehuda, Beit Avi-Ram and Beit Toviyahu. The people of these settlements also had Hebrew names, such as Neria, Jehoezer, Ovadiah, Nadaviah and Shemaiah.

Most of the texts are from the Persian period but there are also some from the time of Nebuchadnezzar II, 26 to 28 years after the exile of King Jehoiachin. The texts reflect the everyday life of the settlers, who engaged in agriculture, grew dates, traded, took and gave loans and made marriage contracts. Some of them, it emerges, were of high economic status, some engaged in commerce even with the capital Babylon, some brewed beer and more.

Who were these Jewish settlers? It would appear that they aren’t those who went into exile upon the destruction of the First Temple, but rather were the Jehoiachin exiles, who by 589 had been living there for 11 years and had adapted economically and socially. Among those mentioned in the texts from later years there were also apparently some who did arrive after the Temple’s destruction, whom the earlier exiles took in as brothers, easing the crisis of refugeehood and exile they had to endure.

According to the Bible, the Jehoiachin exiles settled in two areas. The members of the elite among them settled in Babylon, the capital, where King Jehoiachin himself was imprisoned under quite good conditions (documents from Nebuchadnezzar’s palace indicate that there were food allowances for the family and even caregivers for the king of Judea’s children). Information about this community can be found in the Book of Jeremiah. The second concentration of exiles was in the Nippur area, in proximity to the Jewish locales mentioned above. According to the Book of Ezekiel 3:15, the prophet lived with this group: “And I came to the exile community that dwelt in Tel Avib by the Chebar Canal, and I remained where they dwelt. And for seven days I sat there stunned among them. “

King Jehoiachin. Was taken captive and sent into exile.

The Jerusalem elite brought to the capital was for the most part anti-Babylonian, and according to the Book of Jeremiah, its leaders, together with some of their counterparts who remained in Jerusalem, preached revolt against Babylon, promising that it was God’s will that within two years the exiles would return to their own country. These illusions encouraged the exiles to see their exile as a temporary and transient phenomenon, rather than as a national catastrophe.

Jeremiah himself, however, back in Jerusalem, preached acceptance of the Babylonian yoke and challenged rival prophet “Hananiah the son of Azzur, who was from Gibeon” (28:2), who supported rebellion. Not only did Jeremiah try to convince King Zedekiah and his ministers not to revolt, he also sent letters to the exile community in Babylon, warning then that salvation was not near and calling upon them to adapt to life in exile. All this occurred in the thick of a polemic with prophets in Babylon itself, who like Hananiah in Jerusalem preached revolt against Nebuchadnezzar.

Survival strategy

Thus the survival strategy of the exiles in Babylon, the capital, was dialectical: hope for swift salvation, on the one hand, along with adaptation to life in exile, should salvation not come so quickly. From the very fact of the exchange of letters between Babylon and Jerusalem, along with critical analysis of the Book of Jeremiah, it emerges that there was a literate class among the exiles in the capital, which engaged not only in writing letters but also in redaction of sacred texts, and in writing their own texts, which they then inserted into the former. There is evidence of this in the books of Deuteronomy, the Early Prophets, Jeremiah, Micha and Psalms – and I will relate to some examples below.

Thus literacy, which in Jerusalem was an exclusive possession of the elites of the Temple and the royal court, underwent a process of democratization among the Jehoiachin exiles: learning to read and write was an option available to all the exiles, with the possibility of studying in home schools for the training of scribes, like the ones that existed in Mesopotamian culture.

Our source of information about the Tel Avib exiles is the Book of Ezekiel, whose work as a prophet began, “On the fifth day of the month — it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin” (Ezekiel 1:2). Apparently it was only after five years of unsettled existence that these exiles arrived at what would be their permanent dwellings. The Tel Avib community’s survival strategy was different form that of the one in the capital. It didn’t boast an elite there that supported a revolt and nurtured illusions of return, there was no tension between two opposing views of how to adapt to exile, and subversion was rejected in favor of acclimatization to the diaspora.

However, on the matter of fostering literacy, there was no difference between the two communities. Ezekiel held writing in especially high esteem as a means of preaching and teaching. It is with good reason that he is the only one among the Prophets for whom the primary image of his calling to deliver the word of God was not verbal (as was the case with Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah) but rather written: ”...a hand was put forth unto me; and, lo, a roll of a book was therein” (Ezekiel 2:9) – and he was commanded to eat it. The writing of his book is clear evidence of literacy and there is no doubt that he had disciples who copied his prophecies and even added text to the Five Books of Moses (for example Leviticus 26:33-65) and other texts (about which, more below), which reflected the exiles’ situation and eased their survival.

One of the most severe problems facing the Jehoiachin exiles was their distance from the Temple in Jerusalem. Worship through sacrifice was almost the only way of communicating with the gods in all religions during the First Temple period. What could the exiles do without an accessible temple? Here too each of the two communities developed a survival strategy of its own.

An engraving with a royal inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II. Anton Nyström, 1901.

The sins of Jerusalem

In Babylon the city, the hope for a swift return to Judea eased the difficulty of the distance from the Temple, since they believed the separation to be temporary. Later these exiles developed a unique theology regarding the Temple and its distance from them, the expression of which is the major part of Solomon’s prayer at the Temple’s dedication (1 Kings 8), which the exiles compiled and inserted into the Book of Kings.

According to this theology, the Temple is not God’s home, and therefore he does not require sacrifices (a symbol of God’s food). The Temple is a house for the name of God, and its role is to be a house of prayer, although the worshipper is not even required to come to the Temple! If the people is carried “off to an enemy land, near or far... pray to You in the direction of their land which You gave to their fathers, of the city which You have chosen, and of the House which I have built to Your name… give heed in Your heavenly abode to their prayer and supplication, uphold their cause” (1 Kings 46-49).

That is, the importance of the Temple is that it is a conduit for the transmission of believers’ prayers, wherever they may be, and remove from it need not be a problem for exiles. This theology can be understood only in the context of the Jehoiachin exile, and not in any other context of the history of the Jewish people.

The Tel Avib community dealt with the absence of a temple in an entirely different way. Basically, they saw no need to regret the distancing from the Temple, which for a long time hadn’t been the house of God! Ezekiel saw Jerusalem as a sinful city and its Temple as a source of syncretistic idolatry: “… all detestable forms of creeping things and beasts and all the fetishes of the House of Israel were depicted over the entire wall.… the women bewailing Tammuz …about twenty-five men, their backs to the Temple of the Lord and their faces to the east; they were bowing low to the sun in the east.” (Ezekiel 8:10 – 16).

René-Antoine Houasse's 1676 painting Nebuchadnezzar giving royal order to your subjects the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Hence, says Ezekiel, the Honor of the Lord of Israel has departed the Temple in Jerusalem and moved to the Chebar Canal (Chapter 10), where He revealed himself to Ezekiel (Chapter 1). The sins of Jerusalem and the Temple must lead to total destruction and additional exile, and only after that salvation will come.

This perception improved the self-image of the Tel Avib exiles. They are better than the residents of Jerusalem, and in contrast to them, they themselves are closer to God and his place of honor. This outlook also immunized the Tel Avib exiles against the shock of the destruction to come, because it was anticipated, and was planned by God, and was a sign of the salvation that would follow. Instead of a temple and sacrifices, Ezekiel nurtured an ethos based on two elements: First of all, individual morality and mutual responsibility, and secondly, strict observance of a relatively small number of commandments that distinguished the exiles from their surroundings – avoidance of idolatry and observance of the rules of women’s purity and the Sabbath. This ethos greeted the exiles of the destruction and for them too it was something of a response to Jewish life in the wake of a destroyed Temple.

Sheep in a fold

I mentioned Solomon’s prayer as an example of a pseudepigraphic text that was written by Jehoiachin exiles in the city of Babylon and integrated into the Book of Kings. Its authors were writers and editors from the Deuteronomistic school that dominated Jerusalem beginning in 621 B.C.E., the year the Book of Deuteronomy was published (2 Kings 22,23). This was how the scribes of that school put things they themselves had written into the mouths of exemplary figures from the past. This also applies to the Book of Deuteronomy, which is attributed to Moses, as well as to various speeches by such personages as Joshua (for example in 24:10–27), the angel of God (Judges 2:1–3), Samuel (1 Samuel 8:11-20) – and many more.

Among other things, the scribes of the community in the Babylonian capital added to the version of the Book of Deuteronomy they had in their possession passages interpolated for the purpose of updating Moses’ speech: Moses foretells the exile that will come and the redemption that will follow it (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:25–31; 28:63-68 and more). Ezekiel and his disciples in the Tel Avib community did much the same. One example of such a text in the Torah is Leviticus 26:33-45, on the subject of exile and destruction, followed by salvation, as in Ezekiel’s thinking and in his style.

Exiles in the community of the capital, Babylon, also wrote prophecies they interpolated into the books of earlier prophets. The later authors were those who preached rebellion, whom Jeremiah considered to be false prophets. An example is the prophecy in Micha 2:12-13. It promises an ingathering of the exiles when they, who are compared to sheep in a fold, break through the gate, with the king at their head: “I will assemble Jacob, all of you; I will bring together the remnant of Israel;… One who makes a breach Goes before them; They enlarge it to a gate And leave by it. Their king marches before them...” There’s only one possible historical context for this militant prophecy: the community of the Jehoiachin exiles in Babylon, among whom there were some who were preaching rebellion, and who had a king in their midst, the imprisoned Jehoiachin, who is said to have emerged at their head.

The Jehoiachin exiles laid the foundations of national and religious life in the exile. Thanks to them the refugees from Jerusalem could be absorbed into their place of exile without having to relinquish their heritage, without giving up the hope of returning to their land, even as they aimed for a life of economic prosperity and social acclimatization into their environment. In this way continuity between the two developed, with a continuum of religious and national creativity in a literate society. Were it not for this, it is doubtful that the Babylonian exiles, who experienced the trauma of the prolonged siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the city and its Temple, and exile would have been able to rehabilitate themselves upon arriving at their place of exile.

Infrastructure for a life of national creativity

In 538 B.C.E., King Cyrus of Persia issued that proclamation that ends the Hebrew Bible, in which a call is made to the nation of Judah in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its Temple: “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building Him a House in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all His people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up” (Chronicles II 36:23 and Ezra 1:2-3).

Had the Jehoiachin exiles not established the infrastructure for a life of national creativity, no nation of Judea would have remained in existence in the days of Cyrus, and the king of Persia would have had no reason to issue his proclamation. In its wake, the Second Temple period began, and it lasted for more than 500 years. During this period, just as in the brief duration of the Jehoiachin exile, the Jewish people lived and was creative in two centers: Jerusalem and its Temple, and the community of exiles in Babylon, far from the Temple.

The Midrash, with amazing intuition, writes: “He (the Lord our God) did right by us... when he brought forward the early exile of Jechoniah [Jehoiachin] to Babylon… and made an academy for the Law [Torah], for had this not been so the Law would have been forgotten in Zedekiah’s exile” (Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Tazria, Siman Tet).

The research shows how very true these words are.

Yair Hoffman is professor emeritus of Bible studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book is “The Good Figs: The Jehoiachin Exile and its Heritage,” was published this year (in Hebrew) by Tel Aviv University Press.