Jeremiah and the Babylonian Conquest

Another set of readings from the Old Testament last year were taken from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was deeply involved in the politics of his time, and vainly tried to persuade King Zedekiah against siding with the Ancient Egyptians against the Babylonians. Like Amos, he also preached against growing injustice in Israel and its people’s failure to maintain the Covenant Law despite their deep knowledge of it.

Political Background

Jeremiah was preaching during a period of turmoil, when the Assyrian Empire was collapsing and the Babylonian and Egyptian Empires vied for domination of the Levant and the Middle East.

In 627 BC Judah was a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire. After the death of the emperor Ashurbanipal around that year, the Assyrian empire collapsed into civil war. Its capital city, Nineveh, was sacked in 612 BC. The last Assyrian emperor lasted two years longer at Harran. The Egyptian Pharoah, Necho, marched into Canaan and Mesopotamia to support the Assyrians. He was attacked by Josiah, the king of Judah, at Megiddo. Necho overcame the attack, and deposed and killed Josia. The people of Judah then chose as their king Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz. Necho deposed him, and replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim.

Necho in turn was defeated by the crown prince of Babylon, Nebuchadrezzar, at the battle of Carchemish and the Egyptians were forced to retreat. Judah now became a Babylonian vassal. In 604 BC the Babylonians conquered Syrian and Palestine, subduing Ashkelon. Three years later in 601 BC they launched an unsuccessful attack on Egypt. Jehoiakim had submitted to the Babylonians in 605-4 BC, but turned to Egypt for aid against them. The Babylonians finally subdued Syria in 598 and attacked Judah. Jerusalem fell the next year in 597. Jehoiachin died before he could be captured. His son, Jehoiachin, was taken into exile by the Babylonians with some of his people. Zedekiah was placed on the throne of Judah, although Jehoiachin was regarded as the king in exile.

Necho’s successor, the pharoah Psammetichus, attempted to persuade Syria and Palestine to enter into alliance with the Egyptians. This led to the formation of a pro-Egyptian party at the Judean court, which included the prophet Hananiah. They were denounced by Jeremiah as false prophets. Nebuchadrezzar summoned Zedekiah to Babylon to report on the situation. Zedekiah appears to have pledged his loyalty to the Babylonian king. The power of the pro-Egyptian party in Judah became dominant with the accession of the Pharoah Hophra in 589 BC. Zedekiah finally rebelled against Nebuchadrezzar. The Babylonians invaded and besieged Jerusalem in 587. The siege was lifted for a few months when the Egyptian army appeared. Jeremiah was unable to persuade Zedekiah to submit to the Babylonians. The siege was renewed, and Judah conquered. Zedekiah was blinded and taken to Babylon, along with thousands of his people.

Life of Jeremiah

Jeremiah’s life is better known than any other propher. He was born near the end of the reign of Manasseh in Anathoth. He was still very young when he began his prophetic career five years before the discovery of the law book in the Temple and the revival under Josiah. He came from a line of priests, possibly from a family attending the shrine of the Ark at Shiloh. He looked forward to the day when Judah and Israel would be reunited and would worship together at Zion.

He attacked the contemporary religious cult, which had not returned to Israel’s ancient faith. There was a deep knowledge of the Law, but reluctance to hear God’s Word. The priests were offering peace to those who had committed serious crimes against the covenant relationship with the Lord. Josiah’s reforms had proved superficial, and the demands of the Covenant had been lost behind external religious observances. Jeremiah thus prophesied that Israel would suffer divine judgement. Israel’s defeat in 609 was an illustration of Deuteronomy’s theology. God was going to send a ‘northern people’ – the Babylonians – to destroy Israel. As a result Jeremiah was hated, verbally abused and there was more than one attempt to assassinate him. Jeremiah himself suffered attacks of angry recriminations, depression and even suicidal feelings. He wished to leave his ministry, but always found strength to carry on.

He continued to preach the destruction of Israel after 597. In 594 he denounced the hope that Jehoiachin would return. He wore an ox yoke to show that God had made the Babylonians a yoke for the nations, to whom everyone had to submit. At Judah’s final rebellion against the Babylonians he declared that God was fighting against His people and advised the Judean soldiers to desert. As a result, he was thrown in a dungeon. He was released by the Babylonians, who thought he was on their side. They offered him the choice between staying in Israel and going to Babylon. He chose to stay behind, but was forcibly taken to Egypt by a group of Jews fleeing Egypt after the assassination of Gedaliah.

Archaeology

A large number of towns were destroyed and did not recover, including Beth-Shemesh and Tell Beit Mirsim. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple sacked. Excavations in the city from 1961-7 to revealed the ruins of houses dating from the seventh century on the city’s eastern slopes. Amongst debris around an Iron Age defence tower was found a small number of arrowheads of Babylonian type, which testify to the intensity of fighting when the city fell.

Excavation of Lachish found a layer – level three – where the town had been totally destroyed. During this phase of the city an enormous shaft 70 feet deep had been cut into the rock, but never completed. It may have been part of the water supply. The extent of the destruction is shown in the amount of debris covering this level of the city. At the town gates there was eight feet of debris between the floor of this level and the next, succeeding phase of the town. The palace-citadel had been razed. There was a mass of burned, calcined bricks above its foundations.

The excavation also revealed a row of shop near the palace, which still contained everyday items such as storage jars, for corn, a weaver’s workshop. Outside the city was a mass grave, into which 2,000 bodies had been thrown through a hole in the roof. Some of the bones had been partly burnt, which suggested that the bodies had been pulled away from burning buildings. The grave had possibly been built during cleaning up operations after the town was taken by the Babylonians. Some of the skulls had battle injuries, but a group of three skulls had been trepanned. This may have been battle field surgery on head wounds, but unfortunately the patients had all died. Lachish was rebuilt with a few houses and new gate on top of the eight feet of debris, before being once more destroyed by fire.

One of the most exciting finds at Lachish was the discovery of the Lachish letters. These were found in a guardroom, and show certain points of contact with the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah states that before Jerusalem fell, there were only two towns still standing against the Babylonians. These were Lachish and Azekah. Some of the letters were written by a military officer, Hashayahu (Hosea) to his commanding officer in in Lachish, Yaush. Hoshayahu in letter four states that he was watching for the fire signals from Lachish, but they were no longer visible from Azekah. This suggests that Azekah had fallen, and dates the letter to the period just after Jeremiah reported that Azekah and Lachish were still standing.

Of nine names mentioned in the letters, five are typical of those of Jeremiah’s time. These are Gemaryahu, Yaazanyahu, Yirmeyahu, and Neriyahu. The people with these names in the letters are not the same as those with the same or similar names in the book of Jeremiah, however. The names Tobyahu and Mitbtahyahu also appear in Aramaic papyrii in the Elephantine delta, an area of Egypt in which many Jews had settled.

Jeremiah’s secretary, who wrote down his prophecies, was Baruch, son of Neriah. Amongs the bullae that have been recovered from Jerusalem is one inscribed ‘Belonging to Beruchiah the son of Neriah’. Beruchiah is a longer version of Beruch, so this seal is almost certainly that of Jeremiah’s scribe.

In 1935 archaeologists discovered another seal inscribed ‘(belonging) to Gedaliah, who is over the household’. ‘Who is over the household’ is a well-known Old Testament term for a chief steward or major domo. The Gedaliah mentioned in the seal has been identified as Gedaliah, son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, whom Nebuchadrezzar appointed governor of Judea after the conquest of Jerusalem.

The fall of Jerusalem and the capture of Jehoiakim is recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle. The German archaeologist, R. Koldewey, working in Babylon from 1899-1917, also found the records from the rab-samin, the ‘oil purveyor’ of the Babylonian court, stating the amount of oil given as rations to the exiled king Jehoiachin.

Jeremiah was thus a major figure in the events leading up to the Babylonian invasion. Isloated at court, he could not, however, persuade Judah’s king not to provoke the Babylonians into conquering their nation by allying with the ancient Egyptians. An opponent of the corruption and disregard for Law in the Judah of his time, he could only warn them of their coming conquest by the Babylonians, and the exile of Judah’s rulers and leading citizens. There are not only archaeological finds, which are probably connected with the prophet and other major figures in Judah, but the horror of the Babylonian invasion is also shown in the remains of the destroyed cities and massacred people. Nevertheless, God was to lead His people out of their captivity in Babylon, and ancient Israel would revive and the Temple be restored.

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