By the Rivers of Babylon: Life in Ancient Babylon’s Thriving Jewish Community
In the 6th-century BC, the armies of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. They tore down the city walls, burned the temples, and ran down every person who tried to escape. The few survivors were dragged out of their homeland and forced to live in Babylon as vassals to the men who butchered their children.
And yet, when the Jews in exile won their freedom, most of them didn’t leave. They stayed in Babylon – and kept a thriving community that lasted for more than 2,000 years.
It’s one of the stranger moments in human history. These people were brutalized by an invading army. They were taught to hate so viciously that, for hundreds of years, the word “Babylon”, to the Jews, was synonymous with evil. But most chose to stay right there with their captors, living side-by-side with the men who had made their lives miserable.
Why didn’t they leave? It’s a question that’s plagued historians and theologians alike; but some recently uncovered documents shed a little light on how Babylon created a Jewish community that still lives on today.
- The Posterity of Neo-Babylonia: The Dramatic Reign of Nebuchadnezzar II
- The Magnificent Ishtar Gate of Babylon
- Ancient Babylonian use of the Pythagorean Theorem and its Three Dimensions
The Al-Yahudu tablets are a collection of about 200 clay tablets from the sixth and fifth centuries BC documenting the exiled Judean community in Babylonia. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
More Than A Bible Story
We aren’t just talking about a story here. Without question, this really happened. The Babylonians left records of their war with Judah, too, and their version backs up pretty well everything the Israelites said.
Even the Babylonian side of the story doesn’t paint them in a better light. This was a war from a different era. The only excuse the Babylonians gave for destroying a whole nation was, in their own words, that there was “much plunder” and “heavy tribute” to be won from massacring an entire nation of people.
Their conquests were brutal. Nebuchadnezzar II , the Babylonian King, completely devastated the cities he conquered. He boasted, after defeating Egypt, that “not a single man escaped” his onslaught, and the archaeological evidence shows he wasn’t exaggerating. Based on the ruins he left behind, he left the countries he conquered completely barren. The survivors were dragged into his country, and the scorched earth that had once been their home was left empty and desolate.
The Israelites didn’t have any reason to forgive their attackers. They hadn’t provoked them; they had just been plundered and massacred for profit. And yet still, they learned to live with them.
René-Antoine Houasse 's 1676 painting Nebuchadnezzar Ordering to your subjects the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. ( Public Domain )
Al-Yahudu: Babylon’s “Judahtown”
Thousands of Jews were pulled out of their homes and forced to live in Babylon. They were littered all throughout the country, pushed into dozens of different communities across the kingdom. Of all of them, though, the one we understand best in a town called Al-Yahudu – or, as it would be roughly translated: “ Judahtown”.
Judahtown would have been much like a modern Chinatown, or perhaps like a Jewish neighborhood in 19 th century New York. Babylonians lived there, and they were usually in charge, but the place was filled with Jewish expats.
The Jews, though, weren’t slaves. Other than the restriction that they couldn’t leave Babylon, they shared most of the same rights as their rulers. They could own property, they could build up wealth, and, if they did well enough, they could even be made royal officials.
They were allowed to keep their culture, as well. They had a flourishing community that communicated in both Hebrew and the Babylonian’s Akkadian. They kept their religion alive; many gave their children names that started with the letters “Ya” as a reference to “Yahweh”, and the Babylonians did nothing to discourage them.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around, but the Babylonians had a different sense of morality than ours. They might have been conquerors and they might have been killers, but when the battle was over, they weren’t cruel. They almost treated their new captives like honored guests.
The Three Jews Brought before Nebuchadnezzar by Philip Galle, Holland 1565. ( Public Domain )
If anything, the Jews were treated better than most. Most of the nations that Babylon conquered were so badly crushed that they left no signs of life for years. The only people who seemed to continue to live in their homelands and trade with their neighbors were the Jews in the northern Judah state of Benjamin. For whatever reason, they alone seem to be have been allowed to stay in their homeland after the Babylonian invasion.
King Jehoiachin, the king of Judah, was given a seat of honor in Babylon and provided with monthly stipend of grain and oil. Cuneiform tablets found in Babylon show that Nebuchadnezzar made sure he was given oil and barley directly from the royal storehouses, and even provided for Jehoiachin’s family and his men.
- The Babylonian Marriage Market: An Auction of Women in the Ancient World
- The Babylonian map of the world sheds light on ancient perspectives
- Ancient Babylonian Tablet Provides Compelling Evidence that the Tower of Babel DID Exist
Detail of a terracotta cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II, recording the building and reconstruction works at Babylon. 604–562 BC. From Babylon, Iraq, housed in the British Museum. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Some of Jews living as expats got rich. Archaeologists have found tablets listing land contracts, purchases, and other dry little administrative details that hint at some incredible stories. Within a few years of being conquered, some of the Jews living in Babylon had already earned enough to buy massive tracts of lands or to be counted among the elite.
Some rose so high that they were counted among the most powerful people in Babylon. There are records of Jews in Babylon who worked as royal merchants, courtiers, and even officials in direct service to the king.
The 80,000 Who Stayed
That doesn’t mean that every Jew in Babylon was living in paradise. Most were poor; typically, they were farmers who struggled to feed their families through heavy taxes from the state. In Babylon, though, they had opportunity. They had a way of rising up to the top, even if most didn’t make it.
Perhaps that’s why they stayed. About sixty years after the Babylonian exile began, the Jews were freed. The Persian Empire defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to the home country. About 40,000 people took the offer and went home – but another 80,000 stayed behind in Babylon.
So many people decided to stay that the Jews living in Babylon became one of the largest diasporic communities on the planet. Within sixty years, they’d learned to live with their conquerors comfortably enough that didn’t want to leave, even though the Persians were willing to give them a small fortune to take home.
And that community lived on for thousands of years . Even in 1950, when the state of Israel was founded, there were still Jews living in the Middle-East, descended from Babylonian communities like Al-Yahudu.
Perhaps, after sixty years in captivity, it was just too hard to go back. After sixty years by the rivers of Babylon, they forgot Jerusalem. Most of them assimilated so thoroughly into their new lives that they couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else.
Top image: The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army (1630-1660) ( Wikimedia Commons )
By Mark Oliver
“ABC 5 (Jerusalem Chronicle)”. Livius.org. July 26, 2017. Available at: http://www.livius.org/sources/content/mesopotamian-chronicles-content/abc-5-jerusalem-chronicle/
“Archaeology in Israel: 2,500-Year-Old Jewish Babylonian Tablets Found in Iraq”. Jewish Virtual Library . February 2015. Available at: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/2-500-year-old-jewish-babylonian-tablets
Baker, Luke. “Ancient Tablets Reveal Life of Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon”. Reuters. February 3, 2015. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-archaeology-babylon/ancient-tablets-reveal-life-of-jews-in-nebuchadnezzars-babylon-idUSKBN0L71EK20150203
“How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” Bible History Daily . Biblical Archaeology Society. April 15, 2017. Available at: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/how-bad-was-the-babylonian-exile/
Price, J. Randall, and H. Wayne House. Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology. H. Wayne House, 2017.
Stern, Ephraim. “The Babylonian Gap.” Center for Online Judaic Studies. Nov. 2000. Available at: http://cojs.org/the_babylonian_gap-_ephraim_stern-_bar_26-06-_nov-dec_2000/
Waerzeggars, Caroline. “Review Article: Laurie E. Pearce and Cornelia Wunsch, Documents of
Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer”. Strata: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society. 2015. Available at: http://cuneiform.library.cornell.edu/sites/default/files/Waerzeggars-Strata%202015-v33.pdf
Well written. Super interesting period of history.
2 things: the biblical account actually indicates that the Jews were rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar and against the word of God given to Jeremiah. If they would have behaved, the king of Babylon would have left them in better shape.
The second is that Cyrus of Persia had been given a personal letter from God though a prophet written over a hundred years earlier, before the captivity of Jerusalem, to free the Jews and allow them to return.
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