Imagine this. Imagine that your country was suddenly overtaken by its sworn enemy. Not just its sworn enemy, but a country you once had an alliance with. As long as your land paid its dues, the large country would leave you alone.
That was until you had a leader who didn’t play by all the rules. Your once-ally turns into your enemy, and they invade your land. They “steal” all the good people. They force them to emigrate to the enemy territory and leave your country desolate. They do this in three waves.
If you can imagine this, then you have an idea of what happened during the Babylonian captivity. The southern kingdom of Israel, known as Judah, had turned from the Lord and committed themselves to evil practices. So the Lord allowed the Babylonians to take them into exile for 70 years.
What Was the Babylonian Captivity?
As described above, the Babylonian captivity was a roughly 70-year period that the Israelites spent in subjugation to the Babylonian Empire.
Yes, foreign countries had subjugated Israel to slavery and bondage against their will in the past. We see this play out with Egypt (Exodus 6), several nations in the book of Judges, and the northern kingdom that fell to the land of Assyria a few centuries prior (2 Kings 14). But the Babylonian captivity that took place in the early 600 BC, and the final wave that happened in 586 BC, affected Israel in far more catastrophic ways. For instance, during that final wave, King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the temple in Jerusalem. He plundered it of its goods (2 Chronicles 36) and destroyed the temple, along with the city walls.
The Israelites left behind in Israel were left to pick up the pieces. And when the exiles returned, several remnant Israelites married foreigners and were cast out of Israelite society.
Those Israelites taken into captivity faced many trials. Babylonians forced the young men to undergo a three-year school in which they attempted to assimilate them into Babylonian culture. They made many of those men eunuchs. You may have heard about some of these men. Men like Daniel, Mishael, Azariah, and Hananiah (otherwise known by their Babylonian names Belteshazzar, Meshach, Abednego, Shadrach, and Daniel). It’s important to talk about these name changes: they all point to Babylonian gods. The Babylonians essentially told the Israelites, “We own you. We own your God. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Daniel and his friends withstood several trials of faith (Daniel 3, Daniel 6) but still dwelt in a culture unlike their own. God blessed Daniel and the three others during their time in Babylon. Still, the Babylonian captivity was not without distresses and pleas. I think of many of the prophets affected by this—who had to give the people of God several unsavory predictions about the Babylonian captivity to come, and what the years after would look like.
Several of these prophets included Jeremiah, Obadiah, Joel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Nahum, and Zephaniah. Although many of these prophets didn’t experience the events themselves, they foresaw what was to come. We can imagine it filled them with great fear and despair. No wonder God had to reassure Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29:11 about his plans for Israel’s future.
The Israelites underwent exile for 70 years under several Babylonian kings and subsequent Persian rulers (Daniel 5). The Persians relented and allowed the Israelites to return to their former land and rebuild their temple and walls. Not every Israelite who went into exile returned, however.
Now that we have an overview of what happened during the Babylonian captivity.
Why Were the Israelites Exiled to Babylon?
We can imagine that during the siege of Israel, several Israelites died. Innocent women and children likely fell under the mercy of the Babylonian soldiers. So why would God allow for something this terrible to happen?
Often, in Israel’s history, when they turned from the Lord, the Lord allowed them to face the consequences of their actions. When they fell under the mercy of foreign rulers, they cried out to God. God rescued them. We see this pattern time and time again, especially in the book of Judges.
As far as the Babylonian captivity goes, we can identify at least three reasons why the Israelites endured 70 years of captivity.
Reason 1: Idolatry and Rebellion
When God says to have no other gods before him, he means it. And he means it for our own good.
If we notice a pattern of sin in our lives, if we continue to turn back to our sin, sometimes God allows us to face the consequences. In spiritual terms, he hands us over to our captors.
The same thing happened to Israel. They loved Baal, Asherah poles, and foreign gods. They worshipped them as much as they worshipped Yahweh, and in many instances, more so. Therefore, God gave them over to their evil desires (Romans 1).
Reason 2: Trusting in Foreign Powers
The Israelites, when they stopped paying tribute to Babylon, trusted in the mighty power of Egypt to rescue them. Ironic, considering Egypt enslaved them several centuries before.
Egypt falls at the mercy of Babylon, and then Israel, too, succumbs.
The Israelites failed to trust in God, and this resulted in their captivity in Babylon.
Reason 3: Injustices
Not only did the kingdom of Judah sin against God, but they sinned against their neighbors. Violating the top two commands Jesus mentions: Love God, Love Others.
“… you have become guilty because of the blood you have shed and have become defiled by the idols you have made.” (Ezekiel 22:4)
God doesn’t take injustice lightly. The Israelites had been cruel to the orphan, the widow, the foreigner, the poor, and the destitute. Therefore, God would make the Israelites into the orphans, the widows, foreigners, the poor, and the destitute.
Although the Babylonian captivity may seem like a severe punishment, we have to keep in mind that God’s grace abounded for hundreds of years during Israel’s sin. He gave them plenty of opportunities to turn from their sins and turn to him. And during the reigns of several good kings, such as Hezekiah and Josiah, this did happen. But Israel, for the most part, gave into the desires of the flesh. And eventually, the consequences of their sins caught up to them.
How Did the Babylonian Captivity Affect Judaism?
Seventy years can do a lot to a nation. Although we can’t cover all the effects of the Babylonian captivity, we’ll mention a few.
Israel Marrying Foreigners
Remember the Samaritan woman that Jesus met at the well? The Samaritans were a group of people whose ancesters were Israelites who intermingled with Assyrians. The same thing happened with Israelites and other foreign nations during the Babylonian exilic period. And let’s say the pure-blood Israelites were not the biggest fans of this. In fact, they tried to force many of these couples to divorce (Ezra 9); this intermarrying still had consuences centuries later, contributing to the anti-Gentile sentiments the Israelites had, come the time of Jesus. Hence Paul and several other New Testament writers stressed unity in the church, despite cultural or ethnic backgrounds.
Israel’s Restoration Not Going to Plan
Although Ezra, Nehemiah, and several others returned to Israel to rebuild the temple, it’s not how the elders remember it. The temple isn’t as grand, and they cry in agony ( and likely nostalgia).
Israel is never quite the same Israel after the Babylonian captivity. In the time of Jesus, there were strong sentiments to restore Israel to its former glory days. Hence crowds called for Jesus’ crucifixion: if Jesus wasn’t going to topple their current foreign enemy (Rome) and make Israel like its (pre-Babylonian captivity) golden age, they wanted nothing to do with him.
Israel Forgetting the Torah
The Torah isn’t read in public until the Israelites return from exile (Nehemiah 8).
By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, many Israelites regularly read the law and prophets. Still, many aren’t familiar with the Word of God—they don’t see the signs of Jesus’ arrival, predicted several times in the Old Testament.
What Can We Learn from the Babylonian Captivity Today?
Overall, the exile is a reflection of what our sin can do to us. It can trap us and hold us captive. Thankfully, the Israelites returned. We, too, can return to God from the consequences of our sins.
Photo Credit: Francesco Hayez 1867 painting, via Wikimedia Commons.
Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.
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