{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Judah During the Exilic Period

With the destruction of Jerusalem, Judah ceased to exist as a sovereign state. Zedekiah died shortly after being taken to Babylon. Jehoiachin, although looked upon as the legitimate king, had no reasonable hope of returning to his land.

The Babylonians established a military government for Judah with headquarters at Mizpah, about eight miles north of Jerusalem. A Judaean, Gedaliah, was named governor. Gedaliah was the son of Shaphan who had protected Jeremiah from the wrath of Jehoiakim and his nobles (Jeremiah 26:24). He would have been considered pro-Babylonian and thus suitable for an appointment which must be sympathetic to Babylonian rule. After Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian military officers asked Gedaliah to look after the safety of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 39:11-14).

Gedaliah formed a center around which the Judaeans who had not been taken into exile might gather. Those who had fled to Edom, Moab, and Ammon trickled back. Gedaliah counseled loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar: "Dwell in the land, and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you" (Jeremiah 40:9). Evidently a degree of prosperity ensued for "they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance" (Jeremiah 40:12).

In the ruins of Mizpah (Tell en-Nasbeh) a seal was found bearing the identifying inscription "To Jaazaniah, servant of the king." Jaazaniah was one of the officials associated with Gedaliah (II Kings 25:23; Jeremiah 40:8). A seal impression found among the ruins of Lachish bears the inscription, "To Gedaliah who is over the house."

George Ernest Wright suggests that Gedaliah had served as one of the last prime ministers of Judah. He notes that the seal found at Lachish must antedate the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar's armies. The words "who is over the house" suggest the office of prime minister. Not only was Gedaliah's father a high official in his own right (Jeremiah 26:24), but his grandfather, Shaphan, had served Josiah as scribe, or Secretary of State (II Kings 22:3, 8-12).1

The wise rule of Gedaliah at Mizpah came to a violent end. Ishmael, a man whose royal blood encouraged him to seek the throne for himself (Jeremiah 41:1; II Kings 25:25), had fled to Ammon during the siege of Jerusalem. He found a ready ally in Baalis, the king of Ammon. Learning that Gedaliah was governor of the remnant of the Judaeans at Mizpah, Ishmael went there with a band of ten men and treacherously killed Gedaliah. Gedaliah had been warned about the plot, but he refused to believe the evil report concerning Ishmael (Jeremiah 40:16).

In addition to Gedaliah, Ishmael killed eighty men who had come to worship at the shrine at Mizpah (Jeremiah 41:4-7), and took captive the others who had settled there, intending to bring them to Ammon (Jeremiah 41:10). At Gibeon, Ishmael was challenged by the forces of the loyal Judaean, Johanan the son of Kareah. Although Ishmael escaped and presumably reached Ammon, his captives were freed and then, contrary to the counsel of Jeremiah, fled southward to Egypt.

The history of Judah between the destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) and the return of the first group of exiles following the decree of Cyrus (536 B.C.) is largely a blank. The province of Judah, which Gedaliah had ruled, was abolished, and its territory incorporated into the neighboring province of Samaria. Some of the older Biblical scholars held that there was no drastic break in the continuity of life in Judah following Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem. It was assumed that natives returned to their homes and life continued without serious interruption. According to these scholars, the exile involved only a few nobles, and the accounts in Kings, Ezekiel, and Ezra-Nehemiah are grossly exaggerated.

Archaeology, however, has shown a decisive break in Palestinian life during the years following 587 B.C. No town in Judah was continually occipied throughout the Exilic Period. While there was a complete break in the history of Judah, this was not true of the area north or south of the Judaean border. Bethel and the Samaritan cities were not destroyed and the towns of the Negeb were left undisturbed. Discussing the excavation of towns and fortresses in Judah, Albright says,

The results are uniform and conclusive: many towns were destroyed at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. and never again occupied; others were destroyed at that time and partly occupied at some later date; still others were destroyed and reoccupied after a long period of abandonment, marked by a sharp change of stratum and by intervening indications of use for non-urban purposes. There is not a single known case where a town of Judah proper was continuously occupied through the exilic period. Just to point the contrast, Bethel, which lay just outside the northern boundary of Judah in pre-exilic times, was not destroyed at that time, but was continuously occupied down into the latter part of the sixth century.2

Among the towns of Judaea which were destroyed and never rebuilt were Beth-shemesh and Tell Beit Mirsim (Kirjath-sepher). Excavators found that there were some periods when sites were not in use as they studied layers which date earlier than the sixth century B.C. It was only during the period of the Babylonian conquest of Judah that large numbers of sites permanently ceased to be occupied.

Unlike the Assyrians, who repopulated the Northern Kingdom after its fall in 722 B.C. (II Kings 17:24), the Babylonians did not make it a policy to repopulate areas from which captives had been taken. Instead the land was gradually occupied by neighboring tribes - Edomites and Arabians pressing in from the south and Ammonites and other tribes from the east of the Jordan crossing the river to occupy such territory as they could claim. Before the return of the exiles from Babylonia, Judah was dominated by alien peoples with those descendants of the former Jewish population that had not been deported. The area occupied by the Jews who returned following the decrree of Cyrus was not much more than Jerusalem and its suburbs.

The Jews who were left in Palestine during the Period of the Exile had much in common with their Samaritan neighbors to the north. Both groups worshiped the same God, Yahweh, and both accepted the Mosaic Law as Holy Writ. The syncretism which marked the earliest Samaritans (II Kings 17:33) seems to have disappeared in later Samaritan thinking. Their distinctive faith was in the sanctity of Mount Gerizim as the Temple site (John 4:20). This, however, was not implemented until the Sanctuary was built on Mount Gerizim in Post-Exilic times.

Judging by the problems faced by reformers of a later day the Jews and Samaritans of Palestine must have gotten along quite well together. Intermarriage became quite common, for it was a serious problem in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (c. Ezra 10:18-44; Nehemiah 13:23-28). Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, gave his daughter in marriage to a grandson of the High Priest Eliashib, much to the dismay of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:28). It was the Jews who returned from exile who insisted on strict separation from the Samaritans and other non-Jewish peoples of Palestine.

For fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, Judah was left to its own devices. While exiles in Babylon dreamed of returning to their Palestinian homes, the inhabitants of Judah - Jews, and non-Jews - had adjusted to a new mode of life. It is understandable that Samaritans should resent the return of exiles from Babylon and that some Jews would desire to keep ties of friendship with them.

The Lachish Letters < | Judah During the Exilic Period | > The Crises of Exile

{Old Testament History}
{Bibliography}

1    Biblical Archaeology, p. 178.

2    The Archaeology of Palestine, pp. 141-142.