The fall of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, in 612 B.C.E. and Nebuchadnezzar's victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco at Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. established the Neo-Babylonian Empire that would hold sway over the ancient Near East until Cyrus and the Persians came to power in 539 B.C.E. When Judah revolted in 597 B.C.E., Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and deported the leading citizens to Babylon, including the priestly prophet Ezekiel, who ministered to the exiles. The prophet Jeremiah had urged Zedekiah, the last Davidic king to rule in Judah, to surrender to Babylon since Babylon was merely the rod of Yahweh's judgment against Israel (Jeremiah 25:1-14). Zedekiah refused and revolted in 587 B.C.E., hoping for aid from Egypt that never materialized. The king was blinded immediately following the execution of his sons, and led off to Babylon in chains as Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and burned the temple.
The history of Israel revolves around the double foci of exodus and exile. At the exodus, Israel began the process toward becoming a nation. The exile, however, signaled the loss of Israel's status as an independent nation, and even after the exile Israel was merely a political backwater in the Persian province of Yehud. One would expect this to be a bleak period in the life of God's people: Jerusalem destroyed, the temple burned, the end of the Davidic dynasty, and the fruit and flower of the population deported. Yet, this was the most productive period of Israel's history; it fostered the birth of Judaism. The people came to recognize that God had not been defeated; indeed, God was the author of these events and could be worshiped apart from native land, temple, priest, or monarch. This was a crucial insight for Diaspora Judaism, those living in Babylon, Egypt, or elsewhere, deprived of their former institutions. Without a king, Israel remembered that Yahweh had always been their true king. A burned temple hundreds of miles away meant there were no sacrifices, but the Sabbath could become a time to worship and contemplate God's word in the synagogue. In fact, most of the Old Testament was written, compiled, or edited during the exile. Furthermore, circumcision came to be seen as a way to identify a people as easily as national boundaries.
The situation in Babylon is not well documented. Since most of the deportees refused to return to Jerusalem in 538 B.C.E., it seems safe to assume they enjoyed a measure of autonomy.
AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament