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EXILE. This usually refers to the period of time during which the southern kingdom (Judah) was forcibly detained in Babylon. It began with a series of deportations during the reigns of the Judean kings, Jehoiakim (609-598 b.c.), Jehoiachin (598), and Zedekiah (598-587). After the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (587) the kingdom of Judah ceased to exist as a political entity. Although there were settlements in Egypt, the exiles in Babylon were the ones who maintained the historic faith and provided the nucleus that returned to Judea after the decree of Cyrus (536). The northern kingdom (Israel) was earlier exiled to Assyria (722). It was the policy of the Assyrian conquerors to move the populations of captured cities, with the result that Israelites were scattered in various parts of the empire and other captives were brought to the region around Samaria (2Kgs.17.24). Subsequent history knows these people as the Samaritans. Although people from the northern kingdom doubtless returned with the Judean exiles, no organized return took place from the Assyrian captivity.

I. Causes. Both theological and political causes are mentioned in the biblical accounts of the Exile. The prophets noted the tendency of both Israel and Judah to forsake the Lord and adopt the customs of their heathen neighbors. These included the licentious worship associated with the Baal fertility cult and the Molech worship that required the offering of human beings in sacrifice to a heathen deity. Politically the Exile was the result of an anti-Babylonian policy adopted by the later kings of Judah. Egypt, the rival of Babylon, urged the Judean kings to refuse to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar. Although Jeremiah denounced this pro-Egyptian policy it was adopted with disastrous results. Egypt proved to be a “broken reed,” and the kingdom of Judah was rendered impotent before the Babylonian armies. After a siege of eighteen months Nebuchadnezzar entered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and took captive the inhabitants of the city.

II. Social and Economic Conditions. The Exile worked great hardships on a people who were forcibly removed from their homeland and settled in new territory. The psalmist pictures the exiles weeping in Babylon, unable to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land (Ps.137.4). Among other hardships, they had to endure the failure of false prophecies of an exile that would only last two years (Jer.28.11). On the other hand, actual conditions of life in the Exile were not necessarily harsh. Jeremiah, knowing that a protracted period would be spent in Babylon, urged the exiles to settle down, build homes, marry, and pray for the peace of their new land. He predicted a seventy-year captivity (Jer.29.4-Jer.29.14). From Ezekiel, himself present among the exiles (Ezek.1.1-Ezek.1.3), we gather that the exiles were organized in their own communities under their own elders (Ezek.8.1). Ezekiel’s own community was situated at Tel Abib (Ezek.3.15), an otherwise unknown location on the river, or canal, Kebar.

III. Religious Conditions. The prophets Ezekiel and Daniel ministered in Babylon during the Exile. Jeremiah, who had urged Zedekiah to make peace with Nebuchadnezzar, was permitted to remain in Judah after the destruction of Jerusalem. The murder of Gedaliah, who had been appointed by Nebuchadnezzar as governor of Judah, precipitated a move on the part of the remaining Judeans to migrate to Egypt. Although tradition suggests that he subsequently went to Babylon, Jeremiah’s actual prophetic ministry ends among those who had fled this way to Egypt.

Ezekiel was taken to Babylon at the time of the deportation of Jehoiachin. He prophesied to the exiles at Tel Abib, warning them of the impending destruction of Jerusalem. Subsequent to the fall of the city, Ezekiel held forth the hope of a return from exile and the reestablishment of the people of God in Palestine.

Daniel was one of the youths selected to be taken to Babylon at the time of the first deportation (under Jehoiakim). God-given abilities and a spirit of faithfulness enabled Daniel to rise to a position of influence in the Babylonian court—a position that he maintained through varying political regimes to the time of Cyrus the Persian, conqueror of Babylon. Like Ezekiel, Daniel spoke of the Exile as temporary in duration. He also depicted a succession of world powers, culminating in the reign of the Messiah as the goal of history.

Within preexilic Judaism, the center of worship was the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were offered daily and where annual festive occasions were observed. With the destruction of the temple a new spiritual orientation took place. Jews came together for the purpose of prayer and the study of Scripture in gatherings that later were called synagogues. The emergence of the synagogue made possible the continuation of Jewish religious life during the period of absence from the temple. The synagogue persisted after the building of the second temple (516 b.c.) and is still an important factor in Jewish life.

The sacred books of the Jews assumed great importance during the period of the Exile. The law, which had been lost prior to Josiah’s reign (2Kgs.22.8), became the subject of careful study. By the time of the return from Babylon, the institution of the scribe was established. Scribes not only made copies of the law, but they also served as interpreters. Ezra is regarded as the first scribe (Neh.8.1ff.). The Sabbath, a part of the Mosaic Law, assumed a new meaning to the displaced Jews of the Exile. It served as a weekly reminder of the fact that they had a definite covenant relationship to God, and became a marker to distinguish the Jew from his Babylonian neighbor. When Nehemiah led a group back to Palestine he insisted that the Sabbath be scrupulously observed (Neh.13.15-Neh.13.22).

IV. Political Conditions. The Exile began during the reign of the Neo-Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar and ended with the decree of the Persian king, Cyrus. Nebuchadnezzar defeated an Egyptian army that had joined forces with the Assyrians, who were retreating before the Babylonians, at Carchemish on the upper Euphrates (605 b.c.). The campaign against Egypt was deferred when Nebuchadnezzar, on receiving news of the death of his father, Nabopolassar, returned home to insure his succession to the kingdom. Judah was among the states of western Asia that Nebuchadnezzar claimed as heir to the Assyrians whom he had defeated in battle. Babylonian armies occupied Judah during the reign of Jehoiakim (c. 603) and took captive a number of its leading citizens, leaving only “the poorest of the people” in the land. Jehoiakim was allowed to retain his throne until he rebelled (2Kgs.24.12-2Kgs.24.16). In 598 the Babylonian king called on the vassal states (including Moab, Syria, and Ammon) to support his power in Judah by force of arms (2Kgs.24.2). When Jehoiakim was killed in battle his eighteen-year-old son, Jehoiachin, succeeded him. After a reign of but three months, Jehoiachin was deported to Babylon with ten thousand Jews, including Ezekiel. Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, the third son of Josiah, was made a puppet king in Jerusalem (2Kgs.24.17-2Kgs.24.19). In spite of the warnings of Jeremiah, Zedekiah yielded to the pro-Egyptian party and refused to pay tribute to Babylon. Thereupon Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem and, after eighteen months, entered the city, destroyed its temple, and deported its citizens (587). Following the murder of Gedaliah, whom Nebuchadnezzar had appointed to handle Judean affairs after the destruction of Jerusalem, the final deportation took place in about 581 (2Kgs.25.22).

Nebuchadnezzar reigned for more than forty years, but he left no able successor. Jehoiachin was given a place of honor among the exiles in Babylon by Evil-Merodach (561-560 b.c.), son and successor of Nebuchadnezzar. Neriglissar (559-556) and Labashi-Marduk (556) had brief, nonsignificant reigns. Nabonidus (Nabu-Na'id), with his son Belshazzar, served as the last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (556-539). Nabonidus had an interest in archaeology and religion but was inefficient as a ruler. He repaired the ziggurat to the moon god Sin at Ur where one of his daughters served as priestess. Another daughter is said to have maintained a small museum of archaeological finds. His diversified interests caused Nabonidus to name Belshazzar, his eldest son, as prince regent. It was during the reign of Belshazzar that the Neo-Babylonian Empire came to an end. Cyrus had made rapid conquests after his succession to the throne of the small Persian principality of Anshan (559). Successively unifying the Persians, conquering the neighboring Medes and the distant Lydians of Asia Minor, Cyrus marched against Babylon, which he defeated in 539. The governor of Babylon, Gubaru, is doubtless to be identified with “Darius the Mede” mentioned in Dan.5.1-Dan.5.31 and Dan.6.1-Dan.6.28. Cyrus issued the decree that permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (Ezra.1.1-Ezra.1.4). This may be regarded as the end of the Exile, although many Jews chose to remain in Babylon.

V. Results. Although the Exile ended the political independence of Judea, it served to emphasize the fact that God was in no sense confined to Palestine. He accompanied his people to Babylon and providentially cared for them there (cf. Ezek.11.16). The experience of life far away from the land, city, and house where the Lord had chosen to dwell, brought to the fore the monotheism that had always been part of the faith of the people of the Lord. At the same time, the teaching of the prophets that the Exile was the Lord’s punishment on idolatry bore fruit. Their suffering, coupled with face-to-face contact with the realities of false religion, purged the people once and for all of idolatrous desire and, in time, gave rise to the fanatical and unthinking monotheism of the Jews of our Lord’s day. Although many exiles returned to their homeland following the decree of Cyrus, others remained in the Persian Empire, with the result that in due time Judaism became international in scope.

Bibliography: J. B. Taylor, Ezekiel (TOTC), 1969, pp. 29-35; R. K. Harrison, Old Testament Times, 1971, pp. 255-69; C. F. Pfeiffer, Old Testament History, 1973, pp. 398ff., 414ff.——CFP



The meaning of the term.

The terms “exile” and “captivity” are used interchangeably in the Bible. When the exile is imposed upon an individual, the choice of the place of banishment is usually left to the person exiled. However, when exile is the lot of groups of people, the place of banishment is imposed. The deportation of communities was usually practiced in the ancient world for political reasons, frequently to destroy the power of a nation considered an enemy or to colonize an area in which it was desirable, for various reasons, to create a cultural fusion. Sometimes several reasons for the imposition of exile upon a people operated at once. There are two instances of the Israelites being taken into exile referred to in the Bible. The first was the Assyrian Exile in the 8th cent. b.c.; the second the Babylonian Exile in the 6th cent. b.c.

The Assyrian Exile.

The first deportation of Israelites recorded in the OT (2 Kings 15:29) occurred in 734 b.c. under the Assyrian monarch Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 b.c.). He marched against Pekah of Israel and Rezin of Syria because they made war against his vassal, King Ahaz of Judah, and he punished Israel by carrying some of them into exile (2 Kings 16:7-9). The captives of this deportation to Assyria were of the tribes of Naphtali, Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh (1 Chron 5:26). The second deportation of the Assyrian Exile took place after the destruction of the northern kingdom and its capital Samaria in 722 b.c. after a three-year siege (2 Kings 17:1-6). It was Shalmaneser who began the siege, but his successor finally took the city. Assyrian inscrs. recording this event indicate that 27,290 people were taken captive and deported, some to the Assyrian province of Gozan in Mesopotamia and others to Media. At the same time, colonists from other Assyrian provinces were settled in Samaria and the neighboring areas to take the place of the Israelites deported. The intermarriage of these provincials and the Israelites who remained in the land resulted in the hybrid Samaritans of later Biblical history.

The exiles were transplanted mostly to depopulated areas in the provinces of Halah, Gozan, and Media, as well as in Nineveh, and apparently were permitted to live fairly normal lives. The only record of them is contained in the book of Tobit, which indicates that some of the captives were loyal to Yahweh. Others were submerged or amalgamated into the Assyrian population. The problem of the so-called Ten Lost Tribes has been greatly exaggerated. The Assyrian figure of 27,290 captives shows that only a fraction of the Israelite population was deported and that the tribes were not “lost” in the sense implied in the phrase the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. The destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel was according to Hosea and Amos, due to the moral and spiritual degeneration of the country and not to the might of Assyrian military power, as great as that was.

The Babylonian Exile.

The people of the southern kingdom were subjected to various deportations by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, who adopted the Assyrian policy toward conquered peoples. The first incident of this kind took place in 608 b.c. when, after the battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar advanced to Jerusalem. He spared King Jehoiakim who had rebelled against him, but carried off several of the princes of Judah, among whom were Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan 1:1-7).

Jeremiah mentions three deportations (Jer 52:28-30). The first of these took place in 597 b.c. after another conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:1-16). The Babylonian monarch had come to Jerusalem to punish King Jehoiakim for renouncing allegiance to Babylonia, but before the siege of the city ended, the king’s son Jehoiachin had succeeded to the throne of his father. Nebuchadnezzar ordered the exile of Jehoiachin and his mother along with the most distinguished men of the country, together with the treasures of the Temple and the royal palace. Among the captives was the prophet Ezekiel, who dates the chronology of his book according to the date of this captivity. Evidence of this phase of the Exile have been found by German archeologists in the form of cuneiform tablets that list among the people receiving rations of grain, “Yakin (Jehoiachin), king of Judah,” and five sons of Jehoiachin, together with other Hebrews.

The second deportation recorded by Jeremiah took place eleven years after the first. In 586 b.c. Zedekiah, who was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar to succeed Jehoiachin, took an oath of fealty to the Babylonian monarch (Ezek 17:13). He soon began to give evidence of disloyalty to Nebuchadnezzar who again took action against the Hebrews. The Babylonian monarch set up headquarters at Riblah on the Orontes from which he directed the campaign against Jerusalem. The siege of the city lasted from 10 January 587 b.c. to 9 July 586 b.c. when the Babylonians were able to breach the city wall built in the days of Hezekiah (2 Chron 32:5). The flight from the city by Zedekiah and his entourage was intercepted, and he was brought to Nebuchadnezzar at Riblah. He was forced to witness the execution of his sons, after which his eyes were put out, and he was taken in chains to Babylon. Approximately eighty distinguished leaders of the Jerusalem community, among them the high priest Seraiah, were taken to Riblah and executed upon the orders of Nebuchadnezzar. On 1 August 586 b.c., Nebuzaradan, the captain of Nebuchadnezzar’s bodyguard, commanded that the Temple be destroyed and its treasures further confiscated. The royal palace and the city were set on fire, and the survivors (except the poorest of the land) were taken into captivity (2 Kings 24:20-25:21; Jer 39:1-10).

Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah, “who is over [Zedekiah’s] house,” to be governor of Judea. He exercised his office in Mizpah until he was treacherously assassinated by Ishmael, who had been a fugitive in Ammon and who objected to Gedaliah’s apparent cooperation with the Babylonians. This new rebellion by the Israelites led to the third deportation recorded by Jeremiah, and took place in 581 b.c. Some of the remaining Hebrews of strong anti-Babylonian feeling fled to Egypt, forcing Jeremiah, who had been given special consideration by Nebuchadnezzar, to accompany them (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jer 40-44).

The statements in regard to the number of captives taken to Babylonia are confusing. Jeremiah gives the total carried away in his three deportations at 4,600 (Jer 52:28-30). How this figure was arrived at is not clear, but it could be a reference to only men of a specific class. The number of those exiled in 597 b.c. is said in this passage to be 3,023 instead of the 8,000 as in 2 Kings 24:15, 16. In this second reference, it is stated that in 597 b.c., 8,000 men including “men of valor, seven thousand, and the craftsmen and smiths, one thousand, all of them strong and fit for war,” were exiled. William F. Albright suggests that the difference in these figures, “may be partly due to the fact that the latter was only a conjectural estimate, but may also be partly due to the heavy mortality of the starving and diseased captives during the long desert trek to Babylonia.” George Adam Smith concludes on the basis of his consideration of all the figures involved that the captives did not exceed a total of 70,000 men, women, and children.

The captives were settled in southern Mesopotamia. Ezekiel mentions Tel-abib, “by the river Chebar” (Ezek 3:15), which was near Nippur, SE of Babylon. Other settlements are mentioned in Ezra 2:59 and Nehemiah 7:61, as well as Baruch 1:4 (cf. Ezek 1:3; Ezra 8:15, 17). Western Sem. proper names have been found in inscrs. from Nippur, confirming that some of the exiles were settled there.

Various reasons have been given for the location of the Exile in Babylonia. One opinion is that Israel, having originated in Babylonia, was sent back home by God as a husband sends his unsatisfactory wife back home. One opinion in the Haggadah is that Babylonia being a low-lying country becomes a symbol of the nether world from which Israel was rescued according to Hosea 13:14, “Shall I ransom them from the power of the nether world?” (Tr. of the Jewish Publication Society of America.) KJV has “I will ransom them from the power of the grave,” whereas the RSV has, “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?’ Some believe that the northern and southern kingdoms were exiled to different places so that the two groups of captives might each derive some comfort from the other’s misery.

Socially, the Israelites were apparently permitted complete freedom. They married, established families as they pleased, and kept in touch with Jerusalem (Jer 29:6). They met in assemblies and these occasionally were religious gatherings. It was prob. on such occasions that those faithful to Yahweh found the opportunity for worship and fellowship, and the renewal of faith that served to keep alive the vision of restoration to their homeland. It was at these gatherings that Ezekiel emphasized the promises of the return and revived their confidence in the law and the Prophets (Ps 137). The high festivals of the Israelites could not be observed in captivity, but there were observances of solemn prayer, fasting, and penance (Zech 7:3-5). Observances not dependent upon the high festivals related to the Temple were practiced. These included the observance of the Sabbath, the practice of circumcision, and praying with the face turned toward Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:48-50). It is in this context that Ezekiel’s emphasis upon personal responsibility and individual morality and spirituality appears (Ezek 18:20-32; 36:26, 27).

This loyal core of Israelites surrounding Ezekiel formed the nucleus of those that returned to their homeland and provided the enthusiasm and leadership for the restoration. A harbinger of freedom to come for the Israelites was the release of King Jehoiachin from imprisonment. According to 2 Kings 25:27-30, he was freed by Evil-merodach, king of Babylonia in 560 b.c. Jeremiah had prophesied that the captivity would last seventy years (Jer 25:12; 29:10; cf. 2 Chron 36:21). One way, among others, that this period may be calculated is from the time of the destruction of the Temple in 586 b.c. to the time of its reconstruction and dedication in 516 b.c.

In 538 b.c., the Persian king Cyrus destroyed the Babylonian Empire and in the same year issued a decree permitting the Jews to return to their native land (Ezra 1:1-4; 6:3-5). These accounts of the edict of Cyrus have been confirmed by archeology. The response of the exiles to the possibility of return was not widespread. Some were prosperous and comfortable in exile, whereas conditions in the homeland were unsettled, the journey long, dangerous, and expensive. The first group to return, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, governor of Judea, and son of Jehoiachin’s oldest son Shealtiel, laid the foundations of the new Temple. The second group of returnees, under the leadership of Ezra, scribe and reformer, set out for Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, 457 b.c. He gathered the people at the Ahava River, a group of about 1,800 men, or 5,500 to 6,000 men and women besides 38 Levites and 220 servants of the Temple from Casiphia (Ezra 8). Then in 444 b.c. came Nehemiah, cupbearer to Artaxerxes and later governor of Judea, to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem (Neh 1-13). Ezra and Nehemiah, invested with royal power, were able in spite of great difficulties to establish the postexilic Jewish community. It was in this period that an “Israelite” came to be called a “Jew,” a contraction of “Judah.” From the list given in Nehemiah 7:5-73, it appears that the whole Jewish community numbered 42,360 men, or 125,000 people.

The skepticism with which the Biblical accounts concerning the Exile were regarded by some scholars has been dispelled by archeological reconstruction of the Near E. The position of C. C. Torrey, S. A. Cook, G. Holscher, W. A. Irwin et al. that there never occurred a Babylonian Exile and consequently no return to Judah, not only denied the validity of the Biblical historical narratives but also the prophetic Messianism that was based in large measure upon these events. Such Biblical books as Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah were, according to this view, largely a fabrication of later writers. All this has changed. Archeological discoveries, such as the Lachish Ostraca and explorations in the areas concerned, have revealed evidence for the destruction of the cities of Judah by the Babylonians at the time required by Biblical chronology. The newly discovered royal archives of Nebuchadnezzar supplement the evidence from Judah in giving support to the credibility of the Biblical history.

The effects of the Exile.

The cause of the Exile was apostasy from God and His covenant. The Israelites had consistently rejected the message of the prophets and persistently continued in their sin and idolatry. The prophets constantly warned the Israelites against trusting in their own wisdom and power. The Exile was interpreted by the prophets as divine judgment that would eventuate in restoration and a revelation of God’s eternal love for Israel (Isa 54:9, 10; Jer 31:3-6). It is the primary historical incident upon which Biblical Messianism is based. Among the results of the Exile for Israel was a more profound comprehension of the law of Moses and the Prophets as important for the Jews as a people. There came also a clearer grasp of the universality and sovereignty of God; that Yahweh is one and there is no god beside Him. This faith remained so unshakable that it withstood the influence and fascination of Gr. culture in spite of Hellenism’s effects upon some other areas of Judaism and the rest of the Mediterranean world.


G. A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (1937), 463-485; G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology (1960), 108-127; J. Gray, Archaeology and the OT World (1962), 180-198; W. F. Albright, The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra (1963), 81-89.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

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