For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. (Habakkuk 1:6-7)
The Assyrians were of SEMITIC origin and originally lived in northern Mesopotamia. The great period of Assyrian conquest was between 883 and 824 BCE. Under two great Assyrian Lings, ASHURAZIRPAL II (ca. 883-859 BCE) and SHALMENESER III (858-824 BCE) the Assyrians conquered Syria, Palestine, Armenia, and BABYLON along with all of southern Mesopotamia.
In order to prevent the rebellion of people whom they had CONQUERED, the Assyrians began a series of mass deportations; people were required to move from one area of the empire to another. Throughout Mesopotamia, this created a huge cultural MELTING POT; peoples of diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds who otherwise would NEVER have interacted now had extensive and intimate contact. The consequence was significant cultural DIFFUSION of ideas, heritage, and MYTH.
SARGON II, the Assyrian monarch who reigned from 721-705 BCE, was the first king to relocate the HEBREWS by force after the conquest of ISRAEL, which was the NORTHERN Hebrew KINGDOM. This event marks the beginning of the Jewish DIASPORA (, which means the forced DISPERSION of Jews from their Palestinian homeland at various times throughout history.
In this first (Assyrian) , about 10,000 Hebrews were forcibly relocated. By the time NEBUCHADNEZZAR II conquered JUDAH, the southern Hebrew Kingdom, in 587 BCE, all traces of them have vanished into Assyrian society (hence the “Lost Tribes of Israel”), so they appeared to not have preserved their religion and cultural heritage, but instead were ASSIMILATED into the Assyrian population.
The capital of the Assyrian Empire was NINEVAH. The Assyrians had destroyed Babylon because it was constantly threatening to rebel. However, consistent with their religious views, they later rebuilt Babylon because they felt that they had offended the Babylonian God, MARDUK. They built a special temple to him and returned his IDOL to it.
After ASHURBANIPAL (668-626 BCE) the Assyrian empire began to fall. Under NABOPOLASSAR, The Babylonians allied with another Semitic people, the MEDES, captured Nineveh and destroyed it. And so ended Assyrian dominance in Mesopotamia.
Don’t be fooled—although their main industry was WAR the Assyrians were a remarkably sophisticated people. The Assyrian army was, to that point, the largest yet in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and the science of waging war spawned many scientific and technological advances.
The Assyrians were the first to divide the CIRCLE into 360 degrees and to invent LATITUDE and LONGITUDE for navigational purposes (see armillary). They also created great advances in MEDICAL SCIENCE which heavily influenced GREECE. The Assyrians were also among the earliest peoples to make precise astronomical observations.
NEBUCHADNEZZAR II (ca. 605-562 BCE), the son of Nabopolassar, next ruled Babylon, which was now no longer under Assyrian control. His ascendancy to the throne marks the rise of the “NEW BABYLONIANS” who are also known as the CHALDEANS. The Chaldeans were a Semitic people; their rule was so successful that the terms “Chaldean” and “Babylonian” became synonymous. Etymologically, “Chaldea” may derive from the Hebrew word KASDIMM, meaning the land in Southern Babylonia (corresponding to modern Southern Iraq).
Nebuchadnezzar was a powerful emperor who prevented Babylon from invasion and conquered new territories, namely the land of the PHONECIANS and, in 586 BCE, the state of JUDAH (597 BCE) in Palestine (remember that the ASSYRIANS) had already conquered the northern state of ISRAEL).
This series of events marked the beginning of the great Babylonian EXILE in Hebrew history. Nebuchadnezzar relocated two successive Judaic Kings (Jehoiachim & Zedekiah) to Babylon, along with around 10,000 of Judah’s upper-class and skilled CRAFTSPEOPLE. Since Judah was located strategically between the BABYLONIAN and EGYPTIAN empires who were constantly at war with each other, whoever could control Israel had a tremendous advantage in their endless sequence of wars.
Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt Babylon and spared no expense when doing so. And so, Babylon was transformed into one of the great centers of CULTURE and COMMERCE in the world. However, there were many cities which were still loyal to the ASSYRIANS, and this posed a constant challenge to Babylonian HEGEMONY.
The battle was also fought on a cultural/religious front. In 555 BCE, Babylon passed to a king (Nabonidus) who was loyal to the Assyrians. Among other affronts, he DESECRATED the Babylonian religion by demeaning MARDUK (Babylon’s principal God) below SIN, who was the Assyrian moon-god. This angered the Babylonians, resulting in them welcoming CYRUS, King of Persia, as their conqueror (more on this later!!!!)
The PERSIANS under CYRUS overthrew the CHALDEANS in 538 BCE; this date also marks the end of the Hebrew BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY. Although traditionally dated as beginning in 586 BCE (the year that JUDAH itself ceased to be an independent kingdom, and so the Hebrews no longer had a state or nation); remember that the actual deportations began immediately after the Chaldeans captured JERUSALEM in 597 BCE.
Although we know very little about the Jews who remained in Palestine during the Babylonian EXILE, the Hebrew literature produced during this time suggests great despair, famine and hardship for those remaining. Nebuchadnezzar had REDISTRIBUTED land among the poor after deporting the PRIESTS, ARTISANS, professional people, and SCHOLARS, so some of the remaining Jews in Palestine actually fared better than BEFORE the Exile. However, all indications are that it was a very difficult time for the vast majority of Palestine’s remaining Jews.
As opposed to the ASSYRIAN Exile, the Jews of the Babylonian Exile formed their own community in BABYLON and retained their culture, RELIGION, and traditions. However, many concluded that they had disobeyed YAWHEH by ignoring the MOSAIC laws; what greater proof did they require of Yawheh’s anger than the Exile itself? And so, the focus also shifted to the re-establishment of the DAVIDIC kingdom and how, when that happened, Mosaic law and Yahweh worship would be strictly followed (e.g., see Ezekial and Isaiah). It is likely that the TORAH (also called the PENTETEUCH), which would become the cornerstone text of Hebrew faith, was completed during Babylonian the exile or shortly thereafter.
Originally a consonantal language (i.e., no vowels) Hebrew was the language in which the Torah was written. Consisting of GENESIS, EXODUS, LEVITICUS, NUMBERS, AND DEUTERONOMY, the Torah consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the TANAHK. Some of the precepts in the Hebrew Law resemble the Code of Hammurabi which can itself be traced back to Sumerian Law. For example, the principle of “EXACT REVENGE” (Lex Talionis) was the basis of Sumerian Law and comes down to us in through the LATER Code of Hammurabi; in Hebrew Law we see this in Exodus 21: 23-25 And if any mischief follow, then shall you give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, and stripe for stripe.
And so, when Cyrus allowed the Jews to return back to Palestine, they were no longer simply a kingdom. They were a NATION devoted to YAWHEH, their deliverer and GOD. For Cyrus, this gave him an important ally in the strategically placed land of Israel as he himself as the Persian King made plans to invade EGYPT.
Independent Scholarship Challenge: Transliterate and demonstrate accurate pronunciation of the first 5 book titles from the SEPTUAGINT, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. Do you recognize any English words that are derived from the Greek presented here? Why are these books important, especially in the context of the lecture just presented?
Also, read the entire first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. How does his description of Jesus’ genealogy highlight the importance of the Babylonian captivity in Hebrew history?