Posts Tagged ‘Judah’

Jeremiah and the Babylonian Conquest

May 2, 2013

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.

The Life and Career of the Prophet Amos

May 2, 2013

Another set of Old Testament readings a little while ago were from the Book of Amos. This was written sometime during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam, c. 760 -750 BC.

Israelite Military Revival and Conquests at the Time of Amos

This was a time when Assyria had crushed Syria as a threat to Israel, but had not attempted to conquer the Palestinian states. This only began with Tiglath-Pileser in 745 BC. King Jehoash (802-786) had reconquered all the cities lost by his father, and recovered lost Israelite territory west and possibly east of the Jordan from the Aramaeans. His successor, Jeroboam II, completely defeated Damascus, and further recovered Israelite territories in Syria. He placed the frontier near Hamath where it had been during Solomon’s reign. He also conquered Aramaean territory in the Transjordan, establishing the frontier with Ammon and Moab by the Brook of Arabah near the Dead Sea. King Uzziah of Judah repaired Jerusalem’s defences, reorganised and outfitted the army and introduced new siege devices. He also imposed his control on the Edomite and north-western Arabian tribes. He rebuilt the port of Ezion-Geber (Elath). A seal belonging to his son and co-regent, Jotham, has been found there. He also took Gath, Jabneh and Ashdod from the Philistines and established a series of forts in the Negeb. Archaeological investigation has revealed that Arad, Hurvat Uza and Tell Beer-Sheba were fortified during this period. Arad had been a small village in the 10th century. During the 9th and 8th centuries it became a royal fortress and a military and administrative centre protecting the road from the Judean hills to the Arabah and Moab. Judah established another fortress at Hurvat Uza, which guarded the road to the Dead Sea and Transjordan. The defences were also built around the settlement of Tell Beer-Sheba. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Tell el-Kheleifah was also possibly a Judean fortress, which in the 7th century passed in Edomite possession. A seal belonging to Jeroboam’s servant, Shema’, was found in 1904. This was engraved with the image of a roaring lion and the inscription lshm’ ‘bdyrhm ‘Belonging to Shema”. The seals of two of King Uzziah’s servants, Abiyau – Abiah, and Shebniyau – Shebnaiah, have also been found. These were both inscribed ‘servant of Uzziyau – Uzziah’.

Material Prosperity at Time of Amos

It was a period of great prosperity. The 8th century was the period when the population of Israel and Judah reached its greatest density. The trade routes through Israel and Judah revived. Apart from the fortresses, the Negeb was extensively settled and developed agriculturally. Some industries, such as weaving and dyeing at Debir, also flourished.

Life and Teaching of Prophet Amos

Amos himself was the first of the great reforming prophets. He was a herdsman and a grower of figs in Tekoa. His prophetic career may only have lasted a few months. He attacked Israel’s enemies for seizing and enslaving Israelites and Judeans. He also condemned the increasing decadence and injustice in Israelite society. Rich merchants were making loans to the poor, who used the money to buy seed. When they were unable to repay the loan, their children were seized and forced in slavery. The merchants also seized part of the peasants’ land, when they were unable to repay the debt. The result was that a class of previously independent independent peasants became tenant farmers. Amos not only condemned this, but also denounced the way the merchants were using false weights and measure to defraud their customers, and bribery and corruption in the courts. He also attacked the dishonest merchants for the way they made lavish sacrifices at Bethel and Gilgal, despite their corruption and exploitation of the poor. Amos declared that the privilege of being God’s people also carried with it the consequence of more certain and severe judgement. There was no distinction between crime and sins against God. Wrongs to fellow humans were also an infringement of the Lord’s Law. He believed that a false, hypocritical observance of religion led to social decadence. God did not want large and expensive sacrifices, but justice and good deeds. Amos contrasted Israel’s poor moral state with that of the Covenant Law. Israel’s privileged status as God’s chosen people did not carry with it a guarantee of protection. Indeed, Israel’s moral decline was so great that even the Egyptians and the Philistines at Gath were morally superior. No sanctuary would be found at the horned altars used at the time, for their horns would fall off.

Luxury, Pagan Revival and Growing Gap between Rich and Poor

There was a revival in the worship of Baal at this time. Examination of the names recorded on ostraca in Samaria show almost as many people with names that included Baal as those, whose names included Yahweh. It appears to have been an age when the gap between rich and poor was increasing. Excavation at Tell el Far’ah has uncovered both a rich and a poor quarter. The rich quarter consisted of a group of large houses. These were composed of a courtyard surrounded by buildings on three sides. A long, straight wall divided these from a group of smaller houses huddled together. The types of houses in Hazor also show evidence of a rigid social hierarchy. The larger and more elaborate houses were located close to the city, while the smaller, poorer homes were more to the south. In his attack on the luxury of the upper classes, Amos mentions ‘houses of ivory’. A building excavated in the acropolis at Samaria contained a hoard of carved ivory. These were probably inlaid in furniture, as described by Amos when he referred to ‘those who recline on ivory beds’.

A large stone altar, similar to that described by Amos, was also discovered at Beersheba by Yohanan Aharoni in 1973. This had been demolished and its sandstones blocks used for the construction of a store room wall. When the stones were removed and placed together, they formed a horned altar five feet high. One of the levels excavated at Hazor –stratum VI – had been destroyed by an earthquake, which was probably the same as that described by Amos and Zechariah.

The period of Amos’ ministry was therefore a time of Israelite military strength and regional power. This led to growing material prosperity for the wealthy, who, although generously giving to the temples and shrines, nevertheless exploited the poor. Some sections of Israelite society were even turning to Baal and paganism. All this was against Israel’s covenant with the Almight, and it was Amos’ mission to call Israel and Judah to return to the Lord and warn them of Israel’s destruction for its sins.

History, Archaeology and the Book of Kings in the Bible

May 2, 2013

One of the readings a year or so ago was 2 Kings 18. 13 to the end of the chapter. This chapter documents the attacks on Judah and the threat of assault on Jerusalem itself by the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, as he moved against King Hezekiah. A number of archaeological remains and artifacts have been found dating from Hezekiah’s reign, and Sennarcherib himself also recorded his campaigns against Israel.

Archaeology

The tunnel dug by King Hezekiah to supply Jerusalem with water through the hill of Ophel has been found. At the centre of the tunnel is an inscription stating that it was simultaneously dug from the east and west until the two tunnels met in the middle. The style of script dates it Hezekiah’s reign.

Several bullae – lead seals – have also been found for Hezekiah. One is inscribed ‘Belonging to Hezekiah (son of) Ahaz, king of Judah’.

A section of wall was excavated in east Jerusalem after the 1967 war. This was also dated to the late 8th century BC – the date of Hezekiah’s reign. Underneath the wall were houses which had been destroyed by Hezekiah in order for the wall to be built. This corroborates the statement in Isaiah that Hezekiah tore down houses to strengthen the wall.

Sennacherib’s assault on the city of Lachish is recorded on a bas relief at Nineveh, now in the British Museum. The siege ramp built by the Assyrians has also been found, and is the only one that has yet been discovered.

500 jars have been found throughout Israel at this time bearing the stamp ‘lmlk’ – for the king, including a number in Lachish. These were part of a nationwide food supply system set up by Hezekiah to maintain the town during the Assyrian siege. One of these jars is even stamped with the name ‘Hezekiah’.

Archaeologists have also discovered that a number of other towns were destroyed at the same time by the Assyrians. These are Timnah, Ramat Rahel and possibly Gezer. The Israeli archaeologist Y. Aharoni also believed that Beer-Sheba and Tell Bit were also destroyed. A letter written on a potsherd at Arad written to a fortress commander called Malkiyahu also talks about conflict with Edom.

Sennacherib gives his own account of his campaign against Hezekiah, where he ‘shut him up in Jerusalem like a caged bird’ along with his other campaigns in a hexagonal prism.

According to one estimate of the value of the tribute levied by the Assyrians, it would have been worth £730,000 in 1986. Another estimate places its value at £2,350,000.

Assyrian Terms for Officials

The chapter also includes a number of Assyrian terms used to describe the officials Sennacherib sent with his army to Jerusalem.

Tartan – Akkadian for ‘second-in-command’, referring to commander-in-chief of the army.

Rabsaris – a high military official.

Rabshakeh – possibly a high civil official.

The Biblical account of this episode of the history of ancient Israel is therefore supported by archaeology and the independent historical testimony of the Assyrians themselves.