biblical-armageddon-shown-from-the-southeastJudah picks a side … and loses

Rarely do Biblical texts and extra-Biblical materials supplement one another so well as those that describe the last two decades before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, which marked the end of the Judahite state in 586 B.C.E. As a result, we can reconstruct a kind of microanalytical study of this period. We can trace the historical process in time units much more minute than is generally feasible for the Israelite period—in terms of a specific year, month and, sometimes, day. Moreover, we can do this in the context of international politics and grand strategy.

In 721 B.C.E., the Assyrians brought an end to the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting some of its citizens, who thereby became the so-called lost tribes. But a century later, the world would witness the dramatic decline of the mighty Assyrian Empire at the hands of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which soon became a decisive military and political factor in Mesopotamia. At the same time, Egypt, which had previously abandoned political influence in Asia, was renewing its interest and intervening as the occasion arose.1

The struggle between these two world powers alternated from open military conflict to “cold war.” The small state of Judah, located at the particularly sensitive crossroads linking Asia and Africa, was caught in the middle. Depending on both internal and external decisions, its very existence was at stake.

In a word, Judah was poignantly caught up in a bipolar power struggle. The exclusive control of international politics was concentrated in two powers, solely responsible for preserving peace or making war.2

Though the ancients clearly lacked such a modern concept as bipolarity, they were nevertheless empirically aware of this power-system category. Thus, for example, the prophet Jeremiah expresses the idea metaphorically- “And now what do you gain by going to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what do you gain by going to Assyria, to drink the waters of the Euphrates?” (Jeremiah 2-18). Bipolarization of power had clearly entered Biblical consciousness.

A multipolar system accommodates small or secondary states insofar as it maintains a fragile balance of power, thus deterring violation of the states within the region. A bipolar system presents greater potential dangers. If the two powers adopt policies of peaceful coexistence, the result is tranquillity for secondary states. Once the equilibrium is disturbed, however, by one of the partners’ seeking hegemony, the secondary powers, lacking economic and military potential, are in grave danger if they make the wrong diplomatic or military moves. Such was the fate of Judah.

During the last two decades of Judah’s existence, the rapid pace of change in international politics demanded exceedingly skillful maneuvering on the part of her rulers in order to cope with the kaleidoscopic situation. Within these 20 years, a series of critical turning points in Judah’s foreign policy can be discerned, marking drastic shifts in loyalty from one major camp to the other. In short, Judah’s political orientation alternated radically. The little kingdom eventually succumbed not only to the international intrigues, but to her own risky policies as well.

Our story begins in 609 B.C.E., several years before Judah became directly involved in the Egyptian-Babylonian conflict. Newly enthroned, Pharaoh Necho II of the 26th Dynasty was rushing north in support of his former rival, the Assyrians, in their deteriorating struggle against the newly rising Babylonians. Necho’s army had to march through Judah if it was to engage the Babylonians. Judah’s King Josiah (640–609 B.C.E.) decided to block this—to attack the mighty Egyptian army after it passed through his land. According to 2 Chronicles 35-21, Necho sent a message to Josiah saying he only wanted to pass through the land, that he did not intend to attack Judah. But this did not stop Josiah. In the summer of 609 B.C.E., on the plain of Megiddo, Josiah’s troops attacked the Egyptian forces—and were decisively defeated. Whether Josiah was killed in the battle or only seriously wounded and later died in Jerusalem depends on whether we credit the account in 2 Kings 23-29 or 2 Chronicles 35-23–24. In any event, he died as a result of this ill-considered attack on the Egyptian forces.

What motivated Josiah? Possibly, the budding bipolar system influenced Josiah’s decision to try to halt Pharaoh Necho. Other factors were also doubtless at work. Necho was as yet inexperienced; the Egyptian army was far from its base; the Judahites had the advantage of a surprise attack; above all, a fact generally overlooked is that only half a year before, the Egyptians had sustained a setback in the Euphrates region at the hands of the up-and-coming Babylonians. At any rate, Josiah’s attack is a rare example of bold military initiative taken by a relatively small state against the biggest power of the day.

Josiah’s daring military initiative at Megiddo was rooted in ideology, as expressed by Josiah’s guiding light, Deuteronomy, which encourages Israel to make war against its enemies, even if they are superior and better equipped (Deuteronomy 20-1–4). He no doubt also received the support and encouragement of the prophetic circles. We may even have an inscription reflecting this support. It is a rather famous ostracon (an inscribed potsherd) from Arad that was the subject of a BAR article nearly 20 years ago, “Letter from a Hebrew King?” (BAR 06-01). Designated Arad Inscription 88, it was found on the surface of the Negev site by an archaeology student collecting potsherds. Unfortunately, the left half of the ostracon is missing (remember that Hebrew is read from right to left), so we have only the beginning of its three lines. The ostracon was published by the excavator of the Arad citadel, Yohanan Aharoni of Tel Aviv University, who, based on the stratigraphy, dated the ostracon to the late seventh century B.C.E. His reconstruction was challenged by his rival, Yigael Yadin of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I believe both of their reconstructions are at best dubious. Here is the unreconstructed text-

kb yjklm yna

w [dz Åma

l µydxm ûlm

I reign [literally, reigned] in [or over] …

Take strength [literally, arm] and …

King of Egypt to …

Who is the “I” in line 1? According to Aharoni, it was the Judahite king Jehoahaz (609 B.C.E.), who succeeded Josiah. Aharoni completed the line to read- “I reigned in all Israel [or all the land of Israel] … ” Aharoni interpreted the message as an announcement of Jehoahaz’s enthronement, with instructions to the commander at Arad to prepare to engage the king of Egypt on his return through their territory from his northern campaign.

According to Yadin, the “I” in line 1 refers to the Assyrian monarch Ashur-ubalit, who was then ruling in Carchemish, where he set up his capital after having been routed by the Babylonians first from Nineveh and then from Haran. Thus, Yadin would complete the line, “I reign in Carchemish.” In the rest of the text, the Assyrian ruler is requesting Josiah’s permission for Necho to pass through Judah without interference so that the Egyptian force can come to the aid of the Assyrians, who are resisting the Babylonians.

My own reconstruction is, I believe, more persuasive than either of these. I think the “I” in line 1 refers to God. I would complete the line like this- “I reign over all the nations [or, over all the mountains of Judah].” In short, this is no king of flesh and blood, as both Aharoni and Yadin assumed, but God himself speaking.

Although the verb is inscribed in the past tense, it is to be understood here in the present, as is frequently found in the Biblical tense system.3

This restoration is supported by several Biblical texts, for example, Psalm 47-9- “God reigns over the nations.” Or 1 Chronicles 16-31- “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns!’”

The second line reads, “Take strength [literally, arm],” then breaks off. This type of exhortation involving the arm is repeated time and again, especially in the political prophecy of Ezekiel 30-22–26-

Therefore thus says the Lord God- Behold, I am against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and will break his arms, both the strong arm and the one that is broken; and I will make the sword fall from his hand. I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and disperse them throughout the lands. And I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon, and put my sword in his hand; but I will break the arms of Pharaoh, and he will groan before him like a man mortally wounded. I will strengthen the arms of the king of Babylon, but the arms of Pharaoh shall fall; and they shall know that I am the Lord.

It seems to me that the Arad inscription is a prophetic proclamation of the name of the Lord, dispatched to the cities of Judah for the purpose of recruiting military aid in the campaign against Egypt.

Both the style of the text and the script itself support the notion that this is a prophetic-political text in which God speaks through his prophets, apparently encouraging Josiah to go to war against Egypt. Not only the formal-sounding words but the way they are inscribed suggests this- Note, in the illustration below, the harmonious spacing and outline of the Hebrew letters, obviously written by a mature, professional scribe and characteristic perhaps of his prophetic origin. None of the other ostraca found at Arad can compare with this one in elegance and beauty of script.

Despite Judah’s defeat at Megiddo, Josiah’s anti-Egyptian policy persisted, as evidenced by the enthronement of Jehoahaz, Josiah’s younger son (contrary to the principle of primogeniture), apparently because of the support he received from the mass of anti-Egyptian Judahites. Necho promptly deposed Jehoahaz, however, and installed in his stead his older brother Jehoiakim (609–598 B.C.E.), a loyal scion of the pro-Egyptian faction of the Davidic dynasty, who served as an Egyptian vassal. Necho’s appointment of Jehoiakim as king served their mutual interests- Jehoiakim’s claims as legitimate heir to the throne were realized at the same time that he became the Egyptian ruler’s vassal and loyal ally.

Egypt now controlled the entire region west of the Euphrates, or in Biblical phraseology, “from the Brook of Egypt unto the river Euphrates, all that pertained to the king of Egypt” (2 Kings 24-7). But its hegemony was to be short-lived.

Four years later, in the summer of 605 B.C.E., Egypt was utterly defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar, the rising star of Babylon, in the Battle of Carchemish on the Euphrates, near the present Turkish-Syrian border. This renowned battle was a superb demonstration of sheer Babylonian military superiority. It determined the outcome of the power struggle between Babylonia and Egypt for years to come.

Unfortunately, the Judahite leadership failed to grasp this shift in the balance of power and continued to cling to the dubious image of a strong Egypt that would rush to the aid of its allies in time of need.

That other states in Palestine sought Egyptian aid against Babylonia is recorded in an Aramaic letter from Saqqara (Memphis in Egypt). In this letter, a ruler, most likely from Ekron in Philistia,4 approaches Pharaoh for urgent military assistance against the impending Babylonian onslaught, reminding his suzerain of his treaty obligation.

That such help was not forthcoming is clear from the recent excavation of Tel Miqne (Biblical Ekron), where a total destruction level was discovered from the end of the seventh century B.C.E. (Stratum IB).a Thus, in antiquity, probably more so than in modern times, for a small state that miscalculated the balance of power, the consequences could be fatal. In this light, we can appreciate all the more the deep foresight and realistic historical perspective of the prophetic circles in Judah, which had a genuine understanding of the international scene at the time. The great prophets of the day, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, unlike the false prophets, were entirely free of the “establishment” line of thought and were thus able to grasp the situation in more realistic terms.5 Theirs was a sober and unbiased appreciation of the long-range welfare of the nation as opposed to the concerns of the establishment and its supporters—the false prophets, such as Hannaniah—so focused on short-term interests (see Jeremiah 28).

In Ezekiel’s words, Egypt resembled “a staff of reed to the house of Israel … When they leaned upon you, you broke” (Ezekiel 29-6–7). In her threats against Babylonia, Egypt was but a paper tiger- “Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will be of no avail in battle” (Ezekiel 17-17). Distressed by Egypt’s enticement of Judah, Ezekiel likened Judah to a harlot whose lover, Egypt, could only tempt but could not sustain (Ezekiel 16-26, 23-8, 21, 27).

Jeremiah, on the other hand, who regarded Nebuchadnezzar as “God’s chosen rod” (of chastisement), realized that the opportune moment had passed- Now only voluntary submission to Babylonia could save Judah; it was a choice between “the way of life and the way of death” (Jeremiah 21-8–9).

Thus, these prophets played an active role in the acute issue of foreign political orientation. And political orientation and ideology was the main bone of contention between the true and false prophets.

The Babylonian subjugation of Judah was not long in coming, although Judah seems to have held out for another two years after Egyptian defeat at the Battle of Carchemish. Judah surrendered only in the winter of 603 B.C.E. (or, according to several scholars, in 604 B.C.E.),6 even though Nebuchadnezzar had already reached as far as Ashkelon and utterly destroyed it a year earlier (i.e., in 604 B.C.E.). Of this destruction, we now have archaeological proof from excavations at the site.b

Even though Judah had submitted to Babylonia in 603 B.C.E., it nevertheless lost no opportunity to throw off the yoke when it saw the chance. That chance came in the winter of 601/600 B.C.E. when Babylonia attacked Egypt proper, a major historical event revealed only relatively recently through publication of the Babylonian Chronicle.7 This official historical record conceals neither the Babylonian shortcomings during this campaign, which led to heavy losses on both sides, nor the subsequent empty-handed Babylonian retreat. This Babylonian defeat apparently encouraged the Judahite leadership to rebel and defect to the Egyptian camp.

For the next two years, the Babylonians were unable to retaliate against Judah as they concentrated on recouping their strength and re-equipping their chariot force.

But in the winter of 598/7 B.C.E., the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar struck at Judah, in a show of strength that no doubt served as a warning to Egypt and her other allies as well. The first Babylonian siege of Jerusalem is well documented not only in the Bible (2 Kings 24-10ff.) but also in the Babylonian Chronicle, which even specifies the precise day of Jerusalem’s surrender—2 Adar, or March 16, 597 B.C.E.8

Judah’s wise decision to surrender saved Jerusalem from physical destruction and saved Judah from the status of a conquered country within the Babylonian Empire. Nevertheless, its human resources were seriously depleted—10,000 of its inhabitants were exiled to Babylonia, including the elite of the nation, the “good figs” in Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 24), and the higher military echelons (2 Kings 24-14–16).9

Nebuchadnezzar’s policy of deportation and heavy tribute ultimately proved shortsighted. The very foundations of the Judahite kingdom were undermined. Social and economic chaos, as well as psychic and spiritual distress, prevailed, as can be discerned in the prophet’s words. This was the mise-en-scène for the appearance of irresponsible elements in Judahite leadership. Such has been the fate, time and again, of vanquished states burdened with such harsh conditions of surrender.

Whether or not that explains the next development is questionable. In any event, in 594/3 B.C.E. the new puppet king and last monarch of Judah, Zedekiah (597–586 B.C.E.), hosted in Jerusalem a mini-summit of petty states—Edom, Moab and Ammon, in Transjordan, and the cities of the Phoenician coast (Jeremiah 27-3). Judah was apparently attempting to set up a league against Babylonia encompassing the area of modern Jordan, Israel and the coastal plain of Lebanon.

As so often occurs in military history, this alliance of several small and rather weak states was of little avail against the big power. It posed no real threat to Nebuchadnezzar. Here again it would seem that Egypt subverted Judah against Babylonia, though we have no clear evidence. We do know, however, that in 592 B.C.E. Pharaoh Psammetich II (Necho’s successor) marched into Palestine and Phoenicia as a peaceful show of force, undoubtedly arousing anti-Babylonian sentiments.

When Nebuchadnezzar finally reacted in the winter of 589/8 B.C.E., Judah found herself in a highly vulnerable position. Its northern region, the territory of Benjamin (as well as the vicinity of Bethlehem), most likely surrendered to the enemy and thus escaped destruction.10 Both diplomatically and militarily, Judah was left in the lurch and had to face the might of Babylonia alone—“all her friends have dealt treacherously with her” (Lamentations 1-2). Moreover, the nation was internally divided between the hawks, determined on total war, and the doves, advocating appeasement and surrender. In these circumstances, Jerusalem’s resistance for as long as a year and a half was quite remarkable, more so if we adopt the more likely Tishri chronology, according to which the siege lasted for two and a half years.11

The conquest of Jerusalem was a serious challenge for Nebuchadnezzar. Initially, his army was deployed to quell a rebellious city. In the end, it was obliged to change from siege warfare to open field battle (and back again), a difficult task indeed!12 He employed his finest military commanders and the most advanced siegecraft of the day- dikes and ramps, upon which were stationed weapons such as battering rams. It was, however, that veteran of siege warfare, famine, that ultimately turned the tide.

With the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and the total destruction of the palace and the holy Temple, the Davidic dynasty came to an end, and Judah was divested of its polity for generations to come.

Her downfall provides a case study of the dilemma of a small or secondary state in a bipolar system. Unable to remain detached, the small or weak state must side with one or the other of the major actors. In time of conflict, the precarious status of neutrality for a small state, particularly when it is located in the center of the system, is practically impossible, as Machiavelli recognized long ago. Deciding which antagonist to side with is a crucial factor for the small state. Here Egypt was able to offer Judah only camp followers at most, a short-range advantage at best. In Judah’s hour of peril, Egypt proved powerless. Instead of turning to Babylonia, Judah toyed with false hopes created by the misleading image of Egypt, and hazardously gambled on her protection. Judah lost the gamble.

a. See Seymour Gittin, “Ekron of the Philistines—Part II- Olive Oil Suppliers to the World,” BAR 16-02.

b. See Lawrence E. Stager, “The Fury of Babylon- Askelon and the Archaeology of Destruction,” BAR 22-01.

1. See A. Spalinger, “Egypt and Babylonia- A Survey c. 620 B.C.–550 B.C.,” Studien zur Altägyptische Kultur 5 (1977), pp. 221–255.

2. See M.A. Kaplan, Chap. 27, esp. p. 296ff., and R.N. Rosencrance, Chap. 30, p. 325ff., in J. N. Rosenau, International Politics and Foreign Policy, 2nd ed. (New York- Free Press, 1969).

3. F.R. Blake, A Resurvey of Hebrew Tenses (Rome- Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1951), p. 16f.

4. The place-name of the sender has recently been detected on the reverse of the papyrus. Written in Demotic script, it may be read as Ekron; see Bezalel Porten, “The Identity of King Adon,” Biblical Archaeologist 44 (1981), pp. 36–52.

5. On the attitude of the “true” prophets and the prophetic books, see C.R. Seitz, “Theology in Conflict- Reactions to the Exile in the Book of Jeremiah,” Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (BZAW) 176 (1989); C. Hardmeier, “Prophetie im Streit vor dem Untergang Judas,” BZAW 187 (1990).

6. Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings, Anchor Bible 11, (Garden City, NY- Doubleday, 1988), p. 308.

7. Babylonian Chronicle (of Nebuchadnezzar in His Fourth Year), in D.J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldean Kings (London- British Museum, 1956), pp. 70–71, lines 5–7. On the campaign in his previous year (602 B.C.E.), see W. Tyborowski in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 86 (1996), pp. 211–216.

8. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldean Kings, pp. 72–73, lines 11–13.

9. Apparently there took place a two-stage deportation, a minor one during the Babylonian siege (Jeremiah 52-28) and a more prominent one a few months later, in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighth year (2 Kings 24-12). See Abraham Malamat, “The Last Years of the Kingdom of Judah,” in Malamat, ed., The Age of the Monarchies- Political History, World History of the Jewish People IV, 1 (Jerusalem- Masada Press, 1979), p. 211; for an analogous situation to the exile under Jehoiachin in the final siege under Zedekiah, see p. 219.

10. For the various arguments, textual as well as archaeological, see Malamat, “The Last Wars of the Kingdom of Judah,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies (1950), pp. 226–227; and Israel in Biblical Times (in Hebrew) (Jerusalem- Bialik Institute, 1983), pp. 285–287.

11. My reckoning of dates in this article is based on an autumnal calendar beginning on 1 Tishri; the spring calendar accepted by a majority of scholars was in general use in Babylonia but not, in my view, in Judah. My position is explained in “The Last Kings of Judah and the Fall of Jerusalem,” Israel Exploration Journal 18 (1968), pp. 137–156, and in “A Chronological Note,” in Israel in Biblical Times (in Hebrew), pp. 243–247. According to the chronological system that I use, Jerusalem survived until 586 B.C.E. rather than the generally accepted date of 587 B.C.E. Thus, according to my chronology, the siege of Jerusalem lasted two and a half years rather than one and a half years.

12. 12Cf. I. Eph‘al in History, Historiography and Interpretation, ed. H. Tadmor and Moshe Weinfeld (Jerusalem- Magnes Press, 1983), p. 97f.