The kingdom of Judah’s first close associations with the Neo-Babylonian Empire took place around 610-609 B.C.  At the end of the seventh century as the Assyrian Empire was crumbling, the fast-rising Neo-Babylonian Empire and the declining Kingdom of Egypt were to be the main competitors for hegemony in the Levant including the smaller states such as Syria, the Phoenician city states, Philistia, Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Judah. 


The king of Judah at that time was Josiah (reigned 641-609 B.C.).  Best known for his religious reforms, he sided with Babylon during the final struggles to destroy Assyria.  Perhaps he may have been influenced by the prophet Jeremiah who quickly saw that Babylon was to be the up and coming power in the Near East (Ancient Warfare Vol. VIII, issue 1).  Or perhaps he was influenced by the historical memory of Assyria’s destruction of the neighboring kingdom of Israel at the end of the 8th century B.C. and Assyria’s subsequent siege of Jerusalem and ravaging of the Judean countryside.

Prior to the rise of Babylon, Judah had been a vassal to Egypt and it is possible that Josiah, as part of his religious reforms, saw a foreign policy shift away from Egypt as tantamount to the legendary Hebrew exodus from Egypt under Moses.


A crumbling Assyrian empire had left Egypt, which itself had once been under the Assyrian yoke, and the smaller countries of the Levant, independent.  When Egypt at first looked south, to secure Nubia, Judah enjoyed a short period of independence under Josiah.  Egypt, though once a mortal enemy of Assyria, now saw the remnants of that once mighty Empire as a buffer state against the surging (and to them more fearful) Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians (who had also threatened Egypt in the 7th century).   


However, as the Egyptian army under Pharaoh Necho marched up the Via Maris, or coastal road, Josiah (in alliance with the Babylonians) met him at Megiddo in 610, or spring of 609 B.C., hoping to prevent the Egyptians from linking up with the Assyrians.  During the battle, Josiah was wounded and died a few months later in Jerusalem.   Prior to that battle, it appears that Necho tried to persuade Josiah to stand aside and let him pass.

“'What is this between us, oh king of Judah?  I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war: for God commanded me to make haste; forebear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that he destroy thee not.'  Nevertheless Josiah would not turn his face from him . . . and came to fight in the valley of Megiddo.  And the archers shot at king Josiah, and the king said to his servants, “Have me away, for I am wounded.”  (II Chron. 35:21-23)

Josiah’s men then rushed him back to Jerusalem where he died in 609 B.C.  The people named one of his younger sons, Yehoahaz (also called Shallum), as king bypassing the older son El Yaqim, who should have had the right of succession.


In the meantime, the last Assyrian capital of Harran had fallen to the Babylonian and Mede forces.  The Egyptian army was eventually able to join up with what was left of the Assyrian army, and may have raided Babylonian held areas along the middle Euphrates, but was too late to save the Assyrians from collapse.  The presence of the Egyptian army along the Euphrates, if even only for a short period of time, deeply disturbed the Babylonians and was to affect their relationship with Egypt, and all the states between Egypt and Babylon, for the next several decades.


Pharaoh Necho used the opportunity of the presence of his army in the region to consolidate Egyptian control of the Levant countries.  In this context he removed Shallum/Yehoahaz from the throne and replaced him with the more pro-Egyptian older brother El Yaqim.  Necho gave El Yaqim the throne name of Yahu Yaqim (Jehoiakim) and had him swear his oath of allegiance to Egypt and the pharaoh.  This occurred in the year 609 B.C.  Yahu Yaqim paid tribute to Egypt not from the royal or temple treasuries, but from a special tax that he levied on the people.  This gave the prophets like Jeremiah and Uriah fuel for the denunciations of the direction the kingdom was going.  These moves by Egypt also made it (temporarily) supreme “from the Brook of Egypt to the River Euphrates” (2 Kings 23:34-24:7).


Needless to say, the Babylonians did not take kindly to the idea of having Egyptian vassal states on its doorstep, so in 606 B.C., after consolidating their gains against the Assyrians, the Babylonian army, led by Crown Prince Nebuchadnezzar, campaigned in the west.  The Babylonians defeated the Egyptian forces in a pair of key battles, at Carchemesh, and Hamath in Syria.  The remnants of the Egyptian army were decimated as they tried to flee to their homeland.  There is archaeological evidence that Judean troops formed part of the Egyptian contingents during these battles.


Babylonian King Nabopolassar died in 605 B.C. and Nebuchadnezzar had to rush back to Babylon to claim the crown before any rivals could rise up.  Nebuchadnezzar, now king of Babylon, resumed his campaigning in the Levant during the years 604-603 B.C.  Of note from a military history standpoint was that in contrast to prior custom Nebuchadnezzar campaigned throughout the winter of 604-603 B.C.  The winter being the rainy season in the Near East, armies usually campaigned only during the late Spring, Summer, and early fall.  Nebuchadnezzar let neither rain, snow, or cold weather deter him battling through torrential rains despite the hazards posed to horses and chariots.  The Babylonian chronicle claims that during this campaign he destroyed the Philistine city of Ashkelon, a close Egyptian ally, and turned it into “heaps of ruins.”  The Leon Levy Archaeological excavations at Ashkelon (1985-2000) have confirmed this Babylonian era total destruction of Ashkelon.


It was during this time also that Nebuchadnezzar forced Yahu Yaqim and Judah to sever their allegiance to Egypt, and swear allegiance to him and Babylon.  Yahu Yaqim did pay tribute to Babylon for three years, probably 604, 603, and 602, but in 601, he withheld tribute, apparently reversing his allegiance once again in favor of Egypt.  In so doing he ignored not only the warnings of Jeremiah and other prophets, but also the graphic example of Ashkelon which demonstrated what happened to those who repeatedly chose Egypt over Babylon. 


Part of the seduction for the Judean temple and palace establishments to turn to Egypt was an erroneous perception of Babylonian weakness (Babylon may have been involved with matters on its eastern border at this time) coupled with the promise of increased international trade via a canal Egypt was constructing to connect the Nile with the Red Sea opening routes to East Africa, Southern Arabia, and India.  It was this perfidy that drove the prophet Jeremiah up the wall and caused him to intensify his diatribes against Yahu Yaqim (Ancient warfare vol. VIII, issue 1).  


Nebuchadnezzar immediately recognized Egypt as the source of this problem, and the Babylonian chronicle says this:

Year four (601 B.C.):  The king of Akkad (Babylon) sent out his army and marched into Hatti land (Syria/Palestine).  They marched unopposed through Hatti land.  In the month of Kislimu (December) he took the lead of his army and marched toward Egypt.  The king of Egypt heard of it and sent out his army; they clashed in an open battle and inflicted heavy losses on each other.  The king of Akkad and his army turned back and returned to Babylon.    


From this it appears that Nebuchadnezzar had tried to conquer Egypt, but failed and so had to retreat.  He may have lost most of his chariots in this engagement because the Babylonian chronicle goes on to indicate that he spent most of the year 600 B.C. in Babylonia refurbishing his chariot corps and recruiting and training new recruits.  Then, in the sixth year of his rule, 599 B.C., he tested his new forces against the Arabs of the deserts, and then the following year, 598 B.C., the Babylonian chronicle says this:

Year seven, month Kislimu:  The king of Akkad moved his army into Hatti land, laid siege to the city of Judah and the king took the city on the second day of the month Addaru (May 597).  He appointed in it a new king of his liking, took heavy booty from it and brought it into Babylon.


The sketchy Babylonian chronicles provide no details of the siege, but some of the gaps can be filled in by the Biblical books of Kings, Chronicles, and Jeremiah.  It appears that during the initial Babylonian siege of Jerusalem the Egyptians may have attempted to send some help because the Babylonians broke off the siege to administer a severe lesson to the Egyptians.

And the king of Egypt came not again any more out of his land, for the king of Babylon had taken from the river of Egypt unto the river Euphrates all that pertained to the king of Egypt (2 Kings 24:7).

The Pro Egyptian elements may have initially taken heart when it appeared that the Egyptians were coming to their rescue forcing the Babylonians to temporarily lift the siege.  But as soon as Nebuchadnezzar had disposed of the Egyptian army he tightened the noose around Jerusalem. 


It was during this final stage of the siege that King Yahu Yaqim died and his body apparently tossed over the wall (Ancient Warfare Vol. VIII, Issue 1).  He was followed on the throne by his son Yahu Yakin (also known as Jehoiachin and Jeconiah).  The book of Chronicles places his age at eight years old, whereas Kings has him at eighteen years of age.  Whatever his age was it mattered not because he ruled for only three months quickly surrendering to the Babylonian forces in order to avoid a complete destruction of the city as warned by Jeremiah.  


There is some controversy over the precise fate of Judean king Yahu Yaqim.  While Jeremiah has him dying in office and his dead body cast out over the wall to be exposed to the elements, second Chronicles 36:6 says that Nebuchadnezzar bound him in fetters to take him to Babylon, but that is probably a confusion with his son and successor Yahu Yakin who was in fact taken to Babylon.  Josephus has Yahu Yaqim killed by Nebuchadnezzar after the city fell.  Most likely, since all sources have Yahu Yakin as king during the last three months of the siege, and the sovereign who surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, Yahu Yaqim did die in office prior to the ultimate surrender of the city. 


Second Kings 24:10-17 tells of the surrender and its results.  According to this account Nebuchadnezzar took away ten thousand captives, including most of the surviving royal family, military officers, craftsmen, smiths and “all men of might.”  He also took most of the gold and other treasures from the temple in confirmation of the above-mentioned Babylonian account.  However, it should be noted, at this time the Babylonians left the city and the buildings of the temple and the palace intact.  This defeat of the Judeans was essentially just a “wrist slap.”  The total destruction like that meted out to Ashkelon was yet to come.


The “king of his liking” that Nebuchadnezzar placed on the Judean throne was another son of former pro-Babylonian king and religious reformer Josiah.  His name was Mattaniah ben Josiah and he was the uncle of his predecessor Yahu Yakin.  Second Chronicles, Ezekiel, and Josephus all agree that Mattaniah was forced to not only sign a treaty with Babylon but to swear an oath of fidelity to Nebuchadnezzar in the name of the Hebrew God Yahweh “that he would surely keep the country for him and attempt no uprising nor show friendliness to the Egyptians.”  In the process of installing Mattaniah on the throne, Nebuchadnezzar had him also change his name to Zadaq Yahweh (Yahweh speaks the truth) which subsequent writers have shortened to Zedeqiah.


Whether or not Zedeqiah had any intentions of remaining loyal to Babylon is open to debate, but what is certain is that there were still serious divisions within Judean society.  Far too many people could not fully accept Zedeqiah as their lawful ruler since he had been appointed by a foreign ruler—while their “rightful” king, Yahu Yakin, was still alive.  Consequently these people longed for a Babylonian collapse and a return of their “real” king.  Smarting under this subtle, implied rejection of his rule, Zedeqiah soon fell under the sway of the anti-Babylonian faction in Jerusalem. 


After Nebuchadnezzar had returned to Babylon to attend to other matters, Jerusalem  hosted a six-nation regional conference composed of representatives from Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre, and Sidon, in addition to Judah.  The absence of a Philistine representative indicates that Nebuchadnezzar had sufficiently subdued that region possibly placing an occupation army there due to its proximity to Egypt, Babylon’s main enemy.  The purpose of the six-nation conclave was to plan for a joint rebellion to take place two years later. 


The prophet Jeremiah picketed this conference by showing up wearing shackles and a yoke around his neck to demonstrate that all of Judah would be placed under the Babylonian yoke if they violated the treaty and rebelled.  The anti-Babylonian prophet Hananiah then spoke out promising that “the yoke of Babylon would be broken from the neck of all the nations in two years and King Yahu Yakin and the rest of the exiles would be returned.  


To symbolize his own prophecy, Hananiah broke the yoke from around Jeremiah’s neck.  Jeremiah then prophesized Hananiah’s death . . . and someone probably from the pro-Babylonian party saw to it that the prophecy was fulfilled since “in that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died” (Jer. 28:15-17).  This illustrates the severity of the divisions within Judean society.  Whatever was discussed during the above-mentioned conference, there is no evidence that any of the six nations rebelled at the scheduled time—even while Nebuchadnezzar was busy fending off the Elamites in the east during 596-594 B.C.


During Zedeqiah’s fourth year (594-593) he (or a royal emissary representing him) journeyed to Babylon undoubtedly to offer Nebuchadnezzar assurances of Judah’s loyalty.  In the meantime events in Egypt were taking place that were to tip the scales in favor of the anti-Babylonian factions in Judah.  Psammetichus II had succeeded Necho II as pharaoh.  The new pharaoh flexed his muscles by leading a very successful campaign against Nubia.  Herodotus reports that the Egyptian army returned home victorious (Herodotus 2.161).  Pumped full of his perceived power, Psammetichus II went on a “victory tour” of some of the buffer states in the Levant.  Egyptian accounts record this visit:

In the fourth regnal year of Pharaoh Psametk Neferibre they sent to the great temples of Upper and Lower Egypt, saying, “Pharaoh (Life, Prosperity, Health) is going to the Land of Canaan.  Let the priests come with the bouquets of the gods of Egypt to take them to the land of Canaan  . . .” (Rylands IX papyrus).


Some scholars believe that Psammetichus likely visited Jerusalem during this tour and conferred with Zedeqiah resulting in a treaty.  Ezekiel 8:17 “. . . and lo, they put the branch to their nose” has been interpreted as proof of this treaty and refers to the Judean leadership paying homage to the garlands of the Egyptian gods.  It is believed that during  this meeting, or shortly after, Zedeqiah negotiated with Egypt for them to supply him with forces.  But the prophet Ezekiel (who at that time was part of the exile in Babylonia) advised against it:

"But he rebelled against him (the king of Babylon) in sending his ambassadors into Egypt that they might give him horses and much people . . . as I live, saith the Lord God, surely in the place where the king dwelleth that made him king, whose oath he despised, and whose covenant he brake, even him in the midst of Babylon, he shall die.  Neither shall Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company make for him in the war by casting up mounts, and building forts, to cut off many persons.  Seeing he (Zedeqiah)  despised the oath by breaking the covenant (with Babylon), when, lo, he had given his hand, and hath done all these things, he shall not escape.   And I will spread my net upon him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon (Ezekiel 17:15-20).


These negotiations with Egypt have also been confirmed by an inscribed potsherd discovered at Lachish which mentioned the visit to Egypt by a Judean general.  While there is no evidence of Judah coordinating with any other nation other than Egypt, Ammon and Tyre did rebel at the same time (late 590s/early 580s).  Tyre, in fact was placed under a thirteen-year siege. 


As the Babylonian army approached, King Zedekiah sent a delegation of nobles to Jeremiah “to inquire of Yahweh.”  This is usually interpreted to mean that Zedeqiah wanted Jeremiah to get Yahweh to intercede on behalf of the Judeans.  Jeremiah responded by saying that God would fight on the side of the Babylonians and recommended that the city surrender.  After the siege got under way, the Egyptians did send an army into the Levant.  Classical sources have the Egyptians fighting in Phoenicia and Cyprus at this time.  Whether or not they intended to help Judah is unclear, but their activities did force the Babylonians to once again temporarily lift their siege. 


At any rate, the Babylonian moves quickly scared off the Egyptians (there is no evidence of an actual battle between the two at this time), and Babylon resumed its siege of Jerusalem in earnest.   During this final stage of the war only three major cities remained in the rebellious Judean camp:  Jerusalem, Lachish, and Azekah, along with a number of smaller towns such as Ekron, Gezer, and Bayt Shemesh.  This stage of the siege began in January of 587 and lasted until summer of 586.  The smaller towns of Ekron, etc., mentioned above were probably the first to fall.  All show evidence of destruction and burning at this time.   And then there were only three.  One gets a graphic feel for the tense situation experienced by the inhabitants from a group of potsherds found in a burnt room in Lachish, called “the Lachish letters.”  “We cannot see the signals from Azekah.”  This indicates that Azekah had fallen, and the people of Lachish were alone surrounded by a sea of Babylonians.


While we have archaeological evidence of the destruction and burning of Jerusalem and the other Judean cities, we do not have any word of how the siege was conducted—except for a few cryptic passages in the Bible.   Second Kings 25:1 says:  “And it came to pass in the ninth year of his (Zedeqiah’s) reign, in the tenth month, that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his host, against Jerusalem, and pitched against it, and they built forts against it round about.” 


The word used in the original Hebrew for “fort” was “DIQ” which can mean either “defensive wall,” “bulwark,” or “rampart.”  From this, one can imagine the Babylonians surrounding the city with a wall composed of available dirt and rock to prevent resources from being able to enter and/or troops from escaping.     Jeremiah 32:24 adds “behold the mounts, they are come unto the city to take it, and the city is given into the hand of the Chaldeans that fight against it because of the sword, and of the famine, and of the pestilence . . .”  Jeremiah 33:4 says “for thus saith the Lord, the god of Israel, concerning the houses of the kings of Judah, which are thrown down by the mounts, and by the sword.”  The Hebrew word which is rendered as “mounts” is SLLWT, from a root of SLL (original meaning = to cast up) which has also been rendered as “breastworks” from the Assyrian sellu), although some scholars see SLLWT as a corruption of SLMWT which means ladders.  


At Masada we have archaeological evidence of how the Romans conducted sieges.  First they built immense earthen "breastworts," "ramparts," or "walls," around the target city or fort to prevent escape and to prevent supplies from getting into the city.  Then they constructed an earthen ramp to connect their "ramparts" with the city wall they wanted to conquer.  They could then use the ramp to wheel their siege equipment (siege towers and battering rams) up to the wall in order break it down and funnel soldiers into the city for hand-to-hand fighting.  Julius Caesar used the same techniques during his conquest of Gaul in the 1st century B.C.

It is highly likely that the Babylonians, who were rather advanced in engineering and mathematics, used the same techniques in their sieges of enemy cities.  This is what I see in the Biblical "mounts" and "ramparts."

Then, undoubtedly, siege towers, battering rams, and ladders all would have been used to breach the walls during the final stages of the siege.


As for the composition of the Babylonian army, Jeremiah 25:9 says:  “Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the Lord, and Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land . . .”  This indicates that the Babylonians were making ample use of auxiliaries from allied and vassal nations.  It should also be noted that Nebuchadnezzar himself did not actually take part in the siege.  Both Babylonian and Biblical sources have him at this time encamped at Riblah, Syria.  Riblah was located on the Orontes River near the modern town of Homs, and guarded the crossroads of the military highway connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt on the one hand and Syria and Judah on the other.  Babylonian sources also tell us that the Babylonian army was conducting its siege of Tyre at the same time so Nebuchadnezzar likely wanted to be situated where he could keep tabs on both sieges while his generals conducted the actual operations.  


The city walls of Jerusalem were breached in mid-July of 586.  Somehow in all the chaos of the plunder and burning of houses, Zedeqiah and his military escort were able to escape in the midst of the night.  The Babylonians subsequently caught them near Jericho and took them before Nebuchadnezzar in Riblah where Zedeqiah’s sons were slain before his eyes, then he was blinded, bound in fetters, and taken to Babylon.   At this time the palace and temple in Jerusalem were totally destroyed, and the remainder of the temple treasures were taken to Babylon. 


Nebuchadnezzar then appointed Gedaliah, from the pro-Babylonian enclave of Mizpah, to be his vassal king of what was left of Judah.  Mizpah also became the administrative capitol.  It would appear here that the Babylonians were following the Assyrian example of allowing vassal states to have their own “king” and at least a modicum of independence.  However, some Biblical and later Jewish accounts call Gedaliah only a “governor,” refusing to apply the term “king” to someone not of the Davidic line sitting on the throne.  Unfortunately there were those left in Judah who felt strongly enough about this issue to rectify it with violence.


An army officer named Yishma' El who had avoided the earlier deportations and had managed to place himself as “one of the chief officers of the king (Gedaliah)” (Jer. 41:1) also claimed to be a member of the “Davidic” family.  Yishma' El, while initially pretending to be loyal to Gedaliah, conspired with Baalis, the Ammonite king, to foment another rebellion.  Yishma' El and a contingent of troops sympathetic to his cause assassinated Gedaliah, his entire entourage, and the Babylonian military contingent at Mizpah (II Kings, 25:25-26). 


As his rampage of killing pro-Babylonian elements continued, another army officer, Johanan organized an opposition.  The Judean population as a whole, tired of war, was in no mood to support the ambitions of a Davidic Messiah wannabe.  Without the support of the Judean population that he had counted on, Yishma' El's revolt quickly fizzled out and he and a remnant of his followers fled to Ammon (modern Jordan) where they were given refuge. 


Johanan and many of his followers, military and civilian, feared that Yishma' El's revolt would bring a Babylonian retaliation so terrible that the entire population would be wiped out regardless of which side they had supported.  Thus they decided to flee to Egypt for sanctuary.  Jeremiah warned against that move, saying that the Babylonians were soon to march against Egypt and there would be no refuge there.  But not only that, any Jews there risked being killed during that Babylonian attack or taken prisoner because of their treachery against Babylon.  Johanan and his followers not only refused to listen, but kidnapped Jeremiah and took him along with them for his own good, they thought.

"And so it happened; for in the fifth year after the sacking of Jerusalem, which was the twenty-third year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar marched against coele-Syria and, after occupying it, made war both on the Moabites and the Ammonites.  Then, after making these nations subject to him, he invaded Egypt in order to subdue it, and, having killed the king who was then reigning and appointed another, he again took captive the Jews who were in the country and carried them to Babylon (Josephus, Ant. 10:180-82).

These events occurred in 582-581 B.C.  There is no record that Jeremiah was among those killed or taken to Babylon at this time.  He disappears entirely from history.                  



J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton 1969).

J.B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, vol. II: A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton 2010).

Kitchen, K.A., On The Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans Publishing 2003).

Miller, J. Maxwell & John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd Edition (Westminister John Knox Press 2006).



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