Like the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the Southern Kingdom of Judah, too, had come to an end. Both had been caught in similar predicaments- how to negotiate the treacherous diplomatic waters of a small power caught between two international superpowers on either side of it. Both small kingdoms had succeeded for a while at picking which power to side with and recognizing when it was best to simply subjugate itself to one or other of the neighboring empires. But neither Israel nor Judah could keep up the political balancing act forever and each, in turn, suffered defeat and devastation from the superpower to the north. The Davidic royal line had come to an end and, perhaps more traumatic, the Jerusalem Temple, the center of worship, was in ruins. What would eventually emerge from the Babylonian destruction would be a new political entity and a religion that had acquired, by the bitter waters of exile, a universalist, monotheistic outlook.
The Babylonian exile was not a demographic disaster for ancient Judah. 2 Kings 25-12 says that “some of the poorest of the land” were left behind to work the land; scholars today estimate that “some” actually represented 90% of the population and that only the elite were exiled.
While in Babylonia, the exiled people of Judah maintained their hope that the Davidic dynasty would be restored and that the Temple service would be restored. Their treatment in Babylonia was relatively benign—they seem to have been settled in abandoned cities and allowed to build houses for themselves and to cultivate land—and in fact prospered there. The Book of Ezra mentions contributions of gold and silver when the Temple was later rebuilt in Jerusalem and even refers to people who returned from exile owning slaves.
The head of the community in Babylonia was the Davidic monarch Jehoiachin. In 561 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar’s successor Amel-Marduk, released Jehoiachin from prison and even assigned him provisions from the royal storehouses.
The only manifestations of religion among the Jews in Babylonia that we know of were public prayer and communal fasts to commemorate the various stages of Jerusalem’s fall. The prayers, however, did not take place in buildings but rather outdoors, often near water. Hence the poignant words of Psalm 137- “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
Though the Jews in Babylonia were able to maintain their ethnic and religious identity, there are indications that a process of assimilation had begun. A sixth-century B.C.E. seal reads, “Belonging to Yehoyishma, daughter of Sawas-sar-usur.” The “Yeho” in daughter’s name, in good Judean tradition, contains a part of the name Yahweh, while the father’s name is Babylonian and means “Shamash [the Babylonian sun-god], protect the king!” Even such leaders of the Jewish community as Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, later governors of Judah, had Babylonian names.
The exile in Babylonia ended even more swiftly than it began. In 539 B.C.E. Cyrus the Great, ruler of Persia defeated the Babylonians. In an unusual example of wise and humane rule in the ancient world, Cyrus allowed exiled peoples to return home and rebuild their temples; in return they were expected to maintain order within lands and to be loyal to the Persian Empire, now the dominant power in the Near East. An inscribed clay cylinder, known as the Cyrus Cylinder, asserts that Cyrus was chosen by the God Marduk first to overthrow the ruler of Persia and then go on to defeat the Babylonians; it also records his policy of letting peoples return home to worship their own gods. The opening verses of the Book of Ezra also attest to that decree.
The return to Zion took place in stages. The first, soon after 539 B.C.E., occurred when Sheshbazzar, son of Jehoiachin, led a small group back to Jerusalem, taking with him the Temple vessels and then laying foundations for a rebuilt Temple. A much large group—numbering more than 42,000–left soon after Darius began his reign in 522 B.C.E.; they were led by Zerubbabel and a high priest named Joshua. The two leaders rebuilt the altar proceeded to rebuild the Temple itself.
The third stage involved Ezra, who came in about 458 B.C.E., and Nehemiah, who arrived in about 445 B.C.E. The chronology is uncertain, and until recently many scholars had believed that Nehemiah had preceded Ezra. In any case, Nehemiah twice served as governor of the province the Persians call Yehud. (Archaeologists have recovered numerous examples of jar handles and coins stamped with the name Yehud.) During his tenure as governor, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls and city gates of Jerusalem; the city quadrupled in size and the population doubled to an estimated 17,000.
Ezra is primarily a religious figure. He is credited with bringing the “law of Moses” to Jerusalem; under his leadership, Jewish religious law became the foundation for civil society. Just what the “law of Moses” was is a mystery, though. Some scholars had thought it referred to the Five Books of Moses, while others believed it was one of the law codes embedded in those books. However, none of the laws found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah matches verses in the Five Books of Moses, so some scholars now suggest that his law code may have been a digest of Jewish law meant to be kept as part of the records of the Persian empire.