Monday, July 20, 2009

Whatever happened to the Jews exiled to Babylon?

Documents found towards the end of Saddam Hussein's rule have cast new light on what happened to the Jews taken into exile by the Babylonians - an exile which lasted 2,500 years. Abraham Rabinovitch, writing in the Jerusalem Post, explains (with thanks: Lily):

King Jehoiachin was only 18 years old and had occupied the throne of Judah barely three months when he was led off into Babylonian captivity in 598 BCE together with his wives, his mother, his servants, his eunuchs and thousands of "the chief men of the land."

But what happened to them when they reached Babylon? And what happened there to the tens of thousands of others who joined them in exile when the First Temple was destroyed a decade later? The Bible tells us of the return to Judah half a century later but virtually nothing of what the expellees experienced in Babylon itself. It tells us even less about the fate of the northern tribes of Israel - the "10 lost tribes" - which had been marched out of history by the Assyrians a century earlier.

However, scholars have been able to gain a measure of access to these missing years from cuneiform documents unearthed in Iraq in the last century, including a trove illicitly dug up in the final years of Saddam Hussein's regime and only now nearing publication. The documents are innocuous - business records, land deeds, tax accounts - but together are able to shed light, feeble but suggestive, on this central period in Jewish history

"We have been able to make history out of dry documents," says Prof. Israel Eph'al of the Hebrew University, an epigrapher and historian of the ancient Near East.

Early last century, archeologists digging in Babylon, the capital of Babylonia, uncovered cuneiform tablets in a vaulted chamber beneath the ruins of an ancient structure believed by some to have been the base of the fabled "Hanging Gardens" of Babylon. These tablets, deciphered in the 1930s by German Assyriologist Ernst Weidner, detailed the storage of oil and other commodities and their distribution. Four of the badly damaged tablets concerned the supply of oil to "Jehoiachin, king of Judah" and his five sons. The date is five years after he was taken captive. The fact that he was being provisioned by the Babylonian authorities and that he retained his royal title suggests that he was being treated with deference even though he had been taken captive because his father, Jehoiakim, had rebelled against Babylon. Favorable treatment is also suggested by the fact that at 23 he already has five sons, indicating that the young royal was not deprived of the wives who had accompanied him.

The major source regarding the exiles in Babylonia to date is a cuneiform archive found in the 1890s by a University of Pennsylvania expedition at the site of ancient Nippur. The area, 180 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, has seen heavy fighting since the Allied incursion in 2003. The archive consisted of extensive business records maintained by the Bit Murashu family over three generations. The business details are mundane, but the people and communities mentioned in the more than 700 documents depict a rural region in which 30 percent of the population has non-Babylonian names, according to a study by Prof. Ron Zadok of Tel Aviv University.

"The Babylonians resettled many nations on their territory," says Eph'al, "not just the Jews."(...)

A promising new cache of documents attesting to the Jewish presence in Babylon has come to light only in the past decade after the cuneiform tablets, apparently illicitly excavated in the wake of the first Gulf War, reached private collectors in the West who made them accessible to scholars. Among the settlements inscribed on these documents is al-Iahudu, the City of Judah, a name used in antiquity as a designation for Jerusalem.

Some 120 individuals bearing Jewish names have been identified among the 600 persons mentioned in the documents. Two-thirds of the Jewish names are from al-Iahudu and the rest from nearby. The contents of only three of the approximately 100 documents have been published so far, but the rest are expected to be published within a year or so. The site of al-Iahudu has been tentatively identified by an American scholar as ancient Borsippa (today's Birs Nimrud) on the Euphrates, about 110 kilometers southwest of Baghdad.

The most dramatic evidence of the communal cohesion maintained by the Jewish exiles in Babylon is the way those who returned to Zion organized themselves. (It is not clear what percentage of the exiles chose to return to Judah after Babylon fell to the Persians and what percentage chose to remain.) Those whose families had been associated with the Jerusalem temple before the exile now identified themselves once more as priests, singers, gatekeepers and temple servants in anticipation of the rebuilding of the temple, as described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Others organized themselves by town of origin.

"These are the people who came up from among the captive exiles in Babylon, and that returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own city" (Ezra 2:1).

The Jews are the only ethnic group among the many in Babylonian exile known to have returned to their homeland, except for one other group from Neirab in northern Syria. The Jews who remained behind in Babylonia were without exception the only group to preserve their identity and way of life down through the ages until their dispersal in the current generation. Babylonian Jewry would not only survive and prosper for 2,500 years but would for centuries serve as the spiritual center of world Judaism, the place where the Babylonian Talmud was forged. The Jewish community in Babylon would be strongly reinforced a few centuries after the exile, notes Eph'al, when many residents of Judah fled eastward during the Roman period to escape severe drought and famine.

The difference between the Babylonian exile and the Assyrian exile is stark. Both nations exiled populations to punish them or to forestall the possibility of revolt. But the Assyrians, described by Eph'al as creators of "the world's first empire," also needed manpower to service their rapidly expanding realm. Their aim was to harness the exiles to this task as efficiently as possible and this meant exploiting them as individuals rather than as communities. "The Assyrian kings were determined to assimilate the deported populations," says Eph'al. "They enforced mingling of the populations and their 'Assyrianization.'"

Unlike the Babylonians, the Assyrians depleted conquered areas entirely of their original population and replaced them with deportees from elsewhere, as was done in Samaria after the Israelites were uprooted.

Read article in full

3 comments:

victor said...

Thanks for referring us to this article. I read it in full and it's really interesting.

Jakeangel2 said...

Have any more of the cunieform tablets been translated since this article was written?

If they have is there anywhere I can go to read them like here?

Thanks for the information; I haven't found information on Jewish life in Babylon anywhere else.

Jim Rawdon, Lee's Summit Missouri

bataween said...

Hello Jakeangel2
Suggest you contact Irving Finkel, the curator for the Babylonian collection at the British Museum
http://www.britishmuseum.org/the_museum/departments/staff/middle_east/irving_finkel.aspx