History Crash Course #22: The End of Israel
The Kingdom of Judah lasts another of 134 years before it falls.
The southern kingdom of Israel ― called Judah ― lasts almost 134 years longer than the northern kingdom. This is largely because it is nowhere near as unstable or corrupted by idolatry.
In the north there was a king every dozen years on the average, but in the south the average reign lasts about twice that long.
Unlike the kings of the northern kingdom, some of the kings of the southern kingdom are actually very righteous. And the one king that stands out above the rest is Hezekiah (who, incidentally, is married to the daughter of prophet Isaiah). He is the 14th king after King David, and he rules from 590 to 561 BCE. The Bible says about him:
And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, like all that his father David had done. And he trusted in the God of Israel. There was none like him among all the kings of Judah who were after him, nor were there before him. (2 Kings 18:3-5)
Now that’s pretty high praise.
It is during Hezekiah’s reign that the northern kingdom is destroyed by the Assyrians and the ten tribes exiled. So Hezekiah fortifies Jerusalem in expectation of the Assyrian invasion of Israel. And some of his handiwork we can see today.
Fortification of Jerusalem
By the time of Hezekiah’s time, the city of Jerusalem is no longer confined to the original “city of David.” A considerable amount of the population now lives in a new neighborhood on the western side of the Temple Mount. But this part of the city is defenseless, so Hezekiah encloses it with a wall, which has been excavated by archeologists and can be seen today ― it’s called the Broad Wall.
Another thing that Hezekiah does is enlarge the water supply system to the city (which, as we saw in Part 18 depends on the Gihon Spring outside the city walls). To do so Hezekiah organizes two teams of diggers to dig a tunnel from Gihon to a reservoir within the city. One team starts on one end, one on the other, and they meet somewhere in between. Considering the limited technology of the day, the tunnel they dig is an amazing piece of work ― 533 meters long.
Today you can go to the Arab village of Silwan, just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, and walk through this tunnel (the water now is only up to your knees), and you can see the tool marks of the ancient diggers. You can also see where the two sets of marks meet. There used to be an ancient plaque there, but unfortunately it was removed by the Ottomans when they conquered Israel and it’s now in a museum in Istanbul, Turkey.
The city is fortified just in the nick of time before the Assyrians, led by Sennacherib, come to lay siege to the city. This is in the year 547 BCE.
We mentioned earlier (in Part 21) that many of the treasures of the Middle East now sit in the British Museum. One of those items is a six-sided clay prism describing Sennacherib’s military campaign. One inscription on the tablet reads: “Hezekiah, King of Judah, I locked in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.” Noticeably absent is the description of Jerusalem falling, because it didn’t fall.
The Bible tells us what happened.
The mighty Assyrian army besieges the city and things look pretty grim, but Isaiah the prophet assures the people that the city will not fall. True to Isaiah’s prediction, a plague hits the Assyrian camp and their army is decimated overnight.
Sennacherib packs up and runs back home to Assyria where he’s murdered not soon after by his children.
One can understand Sennacherib, the blood-thirsty emperor of Assyria, having bad children. But unfortunately, the saintly king Hezekiah did not fare much better in the off-spring department.
The son of Hezekiah, Manasseh, takes the throne after his father dies. He is as bad as his father was good. Of him the Bible says:
He did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord … He erected altars to Baal … He passed his son through fire, practiced astrology and read omens, and performed necromancy and conjured spirits. He was profuse in doing what was evil in the eyes of the Lord, to anger Him.” (2 Kings 21:2-6)
Manasseh is so bad that he even has the prophet Isaiah ― his own grandfather ― put to death. The ultimate downfall of Jerusalem is largely blamed on the evil behavior of Manasseh.
Because Manasseh, King of Judah has committed these abominations…and he caused even Judah to sin with his idols…I will wipe out Jerusalem as one would wipes a plate thoroughly, and then turn it upside down. (2 Kings 21: 11-14)
So it’s not surprising that the kingdom goes into a spiritual decline during his reign.
The next king ― Amon ― is as bad as Manasseh. But then comes Josiah, who truly loves God and brings about a round of impressive religious reforms. Unfortunately when he dies, these reforms die with him and the spiritual decline continues.
(There is a tradition that Josiah anticipated this and knew that the southern kingdom would soon be invaded and fall as had the northern, so he decided to hide the Ark of the Covenant so that it won’t fall into enemy hands. In future installments, we will discuss where it might be today. See: Talmud-Yoma 52b for a description of Josiah hiding the Ark
In the meanwhile, the Assyrian empire ― which had been such a great threat to Israel ― had been overrun by a new world power called Babylon. And it is the Babylonians who now invade.
The Babylonians Are Coming
The Babylonians march on Judah as part of their campaign to stake claim to the former Assyrian empire. The year is 434 BCE (or 11 years before the destruction of the Temple).
The Babylonian aim is to impose their rule and make what remains of Israel a vassal state. In this they largely succeed, they pillage Jerusalem taking into captivity 10,000 of the best and brightest Jews. They also remove the king, Yehoiyachin, and take him to Babylon.
At the time the exile of the 10,000 best and brightest seemed like a terrible disaster. It turns out not to be so. In fact it turns out to be a blessing in disguise as we shall see later on.
The Babylonians appoint their own puppet king from among the Jews ― Zedekiah. This turns out to be a big mistake. Zedekiah is a weak ruler but one who foolishly ambitious, and eventually he decides to rebel against his Babylonian overlords. No sooner that he does that than the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar orders a siege of Jerusalem.
Make no mistake about it. This is not happening because Jews rebelled against Babylon. This is happening because Israel rebelled against God. When the Jews have a good relationship with God ― as in the days of King Hezekiah ― they are invincible. Sometimes they don’t even need to fight, as when God sends a plague to vanquish their enemies. But if they betray God, no matter how mighty the Israelite army, it will not withstand the enemy.
But as always, God gives the Jews plenty of time to mend their ways as the Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah is calling on all to repent but his message ― which he relentlessly repeats for forty years ― goes unheeded. Instead, he is beaten and thrown into prison!
Years earlier Jeremiah had written the Book of Lamentations, which predicted in great detail the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, but the King at that time (Yehoiakim) had prevented the scroll from being read to the people attention. Jeremiah 36
Today we read the Book of Lamentations every year on the 9th of Av, the horrible day when these predications came true.
This is the Jewish date that continues to live in infamy. The 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av) is the catastrophic day in Jewish history when the spies sent by Moses to look over the land of Israel came back advising the Israelites not to enter, and God doomed that generation to 40 years of wandering in the desert; when the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans; when the Jews of Spain were given an ultimatum by the Inquisition ― leave, convert or die; when World War I, the prelude to the Holocaust, began; and when many other calamities were visited upon the Jewish people.
The Siege of Jerusalem
The siege lasts two years. There is clear archeological evidence for this event, which you can see for yourself in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Near Hezekiah’s Broad Wall, you can visit the Israelite Tower Museum. It’s about 60 feet under ground and you can see there the remains of a three-door gate in the northern defensive wall of the city. (Archeologists call it the “E Gate.”) At this site, archeologists digging in the early 1970s found clear evidence of the Babylonian siege.
Among the things they found there were Israelite and Babylonian arrowheads. How did they know? The arrowheads have names on them, because in ancient times, arrowheads were very valuable. They also found a layer of charred earth attesting to the burning of the city as is related in the Book of Kings (see 2 Kings 25:9). Other fascinating evidence was also found in area “G” of David’s City including a clay seal inscribed with the name of Gemariah son of Shaphan, a scribe mentioned in the book of Jeremiah (see: Jeremiah 36:10)
After two years of siege the Jews can’t hold out anymore. They have been starved into submission.
The tongue of the suckling infant cleaves to its palate for thirst; young children beg for bread, no one extends it to them. Those who once feasted extravagantly lie destitute in the streets; those who were brought up in scarlet clothing wallow in garbage … Their appearance has become blacker than soot, they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones, it became dry as wood … Hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food when the daughter of my people was shattered … (Lamentations 4:4-5, 8-10)
On the 9th of Tevet, Babylonians breach the walls of the city. They pour in and carry out a mass slaughter. A month later the Temple Mount falls into their hands
During the mayhem, Zedekiah tries to flee to the Dead Sea through a secret tunnel that leads out of Jerusalem. But he gets caught and it’s very interesting how.
According to a Midrash quoted by Rashi, Nebuzardan, Nebuchadnezzar’s captain, is out hunting while his men are pillaging the city. He sees a deer and he begins following it. The deer just happens to run above the tunnel. (This, of course, is God’s way of assuring that Zedekiah is not going to escape punishment.) When Zedekiah comes out of the tunnel, there is the deer standing there, and there’s Nebuzardan right behind the deer. This is how he gets caught.
Zedekiah meets a horrible fate along with the rest of the Israelites, as the Bible relates:
And they … put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of bronze, and carried him to Babylon. And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which is the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord [the Temple], and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man’s house burned he with fire. (2 Kings 7-9)
With the destruction of the Temple ― on the 9th of Av of the year 422 BCE ― the special connection that the Jewish people had with God is severed. As with the fall of Israel in the North, the superficial cause for the destruction of Jerusalem was the revolt against Babylon, but the Torah makes it clear that the real cause was the immoral behavior of the Jews. see: Talmud Yoma 9b
Here is when it all comes crashing down. Besides the horrific physical destruction, there is also the great spiritual ego-deflation of the Jewish people.
Where previously the Babylonians had been satisfied in making Israel into a vassal state, this time their punishment is much worse. They decide to carry on the Assyrian policy of exile and remove the Jews from the Promised Land.