The End of Ancient Judaism: The Captivity

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The End of Ancient Judaism: The Captivity

The twelve tribes of ancient Judaism were united into a single kingdom under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon. The destruction of this kingdom a

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The twelve tribes of ancient Judaism were united into a single kingdom under the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon. The destruction of this kingdom and the forced exile of its population is known as the Captivity. It is often perceived as a single event, beginning when Jerusalem was destroyed 587 BC and ending in 539 BC, when Cyrus declared that the Jews could return to Jerusalem. Oh, that history could be that simple! The Captivity really began with the first Assyrian incursions around 870—850 BC, progressed through the destruction of the ten Northern Tribes in 722 BC, then continued until the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, and concluded when Ezra and Nehemiah finally rebuilt Jerusalem around 440 BC. The Captivity then was an historical process that lasted 400 plus years. The Captivity totally changed Judaism.  

 In the late 10 th century BC, King Solomon ruled the twelve tribes of Israel . The king had a harem of a thousand women (1 Kings 11:3). One or two women are costly, but a thousand? High maintenance costs meant high taxes on the people of Israel. When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam wanted to continue his father’s high-spending ways and refused to lower the taxes. Ten of the tribes located north of Jerusalem revolted and formed the Kingdom of Israel, leaving Rehoboam as king of Judah with just two tribes (1 Kings 11:29-18:45).  The Northern area became known as Samaria. Both kingdoms continued with their polytheism, including the worship of gods named Baal and Yahweh.

Solomon prays at the temple in Jerusalem. (James Tissot / Public domain )

Around 50 years later, a prophet of great legend and lore appeared among the Ten Tribes of Israel.   Elijah was a desert wander who only wore animal skins and a belt. Elijah arranged a smackdown on Mt. Carmel to see which of the two gods, Baal or Yahweh, had the power to end a draught (1 Kings 18:20-40). Yahweh won, and this incident is considered the first milestone towards putting “the Israelite religion on the path to modern monotheism.” However, in describing the stories of Elijah, the Jewish Encyclopedia says, “it cannot be denied that the miraculous incidents of the prophet’s career may have been magnified as they passed on from generation to generation.”

Elijah’s miraculous career continued, as he returned to make appearances to Jesus and the apostles (Matt. 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36)  as well as an appearance in the Qur’an (37:123-126)  and popped up again in the 19 th century with an appearance to Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church. One of Elijah’s stories even carries forward to our times. It is from Elijah that the name Jezebel obtained its connotation of a wicked, shameless woman. The Jezebel brand of women’s lingerie can now be purchased in stores everywhere.  

A figure of the Prophet Elijah at St Teresa of Ávila, Spain. (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A figure of the Prophet Elijah at St Teresa of Ávila, Spain. (Lawrence OP / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Elijah lived at the time of the first Assyrian incursions into Israel during the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II and his son Shalmaneser III. The Assyrians became the dominant force in the Fertile Crescent, because they were the “very first iron armies: iron swords, iron spear blades, iron helmets and even iron scales sewn as armor onto their tunics.” The bronze weaponry of their enemies “offered no real contest” to the iron weapons of the Assyrians. As they expanded east, the land of Palestine was in their path.

Between 870 and 850 BC, as described on the Kurkh Stele, the Assyrians defeated King Ahab of Israel and required an annual tribute from the ten northern tribes. A century later, around 745 BC, Israel was still paying the tribute of gold, silver, and other items to Assyrians, now under Tiglath-pileser III. That tribute wasn’t enough, and around 740 BC, Tiglath began to forcibly move the elite, the artisans, merchants, and craftsmen of the ten northern tribes to Assyria (1 Chron. 5:26; 2 Kings 15:29). This policy of removal and captivity, continued for another two decades.

Then, in 722 BC, the biblical accounts in 2 Kings 17:5-6, and the records of Sargon II, tell us that the Assyrian army destroyed the remainder of the ten northern tribes of Israel. The archeological record in places like Hazor and Megiddo confirm this destruction. The ten northern tribes of Israel were never heard of again. They did, however, live on in Jewish legend, “but in reality, they were simply assimilated into the surrounding Aramaean population, losing their faith and their language…as the Israelite artisans and peasants intermarried with the new settlers.”

History then serves up a curve ball. The ten northern tribes of the Kingdom of Israel had been swept into the dustbin of history. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin of the Kingdom of Judea living in and around Jerusalem, were unscathed as remnants of the northern tribes migrated to safety in Judea.  Yet history carried forward the name of Israel as if it had been the survivor of the Assyrian invasion. And ever after, history will refer to the people and place as Israel. Sometimes it pays to be the loser.

About a decade after the destruction of the northern tribes, Hezekiah, the King of Judea, began a religious transformation. He started by destroying the temples of worship outside of Jerusalem. He attempted to regain some political control in Israel, and in the Philistine cities (2 Kings 18:4) and he aligned Judea with Egypt to avoid paying further Assyrian taxes. Not paying your taxes is seldom a good idea! King Sennacherib and his Assyrian army of tax collectors arrived in 701 BC and destroyed the cities of Judea and laid siege to Jerusalem. It survived because of a water supply tunnel that King Hezekiah had built. That tunnel, along with inscriptions from the siege, can still be seen in Jerusalem today.

Hezekiah, King of Judah. (Hippolyte Flandrin / Public domain)

Hezekiah, King of Judah. (Hippolyte Flandrin / Public domain )

The Bible reports that an angel came and slayed the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35). Centuries later, the Greek historian Herodotus explained that typhus, spread by mice, had infected the Assyrian army. The Bible reports that Hezekiah did in fact pay a heavy ransom (2 Kings 18-14) while The Annals of Sennacherib (The Taylor Prism) reports that Hezekiah made a deal with the Assyrians to pay their back taxes as a ransom and to send some 200,000 people to Assyria as slaves. Either way, the city of Jerusalem had survived the power of mighty Assyria. 

Depiction of the angel coming to slay King Sennacherib and his army, as he prays before his pagan idol. (Public domain)

Depiction of the angel coming to slay King Sennacherib and his army, as he prays before his pagan idol. ( Public domain )

While King Hezekiah was successful in fending off the Assyrians, he was unsuccessful in his religious reforms. After the typhus-laden mice had sent the gold- and silver-laden Assyrian army scurrying home, Manasseh became the king, and the Israelites went back to their practice of worshipping their many gods with their old ways of sacrifice.

For he built up again the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he reared up altars for Baal, and made a grove, as did Ahab king of Israel; and worshipped all the host of heaven and served them. (2 Kings 21:3)

The Bible tells us that Abraham’s God was angry at Manasseh for doing this. But then the all-powerful creator of the universe did absolutely nothing about it. Manasseh reigned for 55 years as Jerusalem became a large, thriving city and the people of Israel continued to worship their many gods (2 Kings 21; 2 Chron. 33).

After Manasseh, his son Amon became King of Israel and continued the popular polytheistic pagan policies of his father. Around 636 BC, Amon was assassinated, and eight-year-old Josiah became the King of Israel.

When Josiah was 26, he embarked on a program to repair the temple in Jerusalem. During the work, High Priest Hilkiah and his scribe Shaphan made an astounding discovery! Hidden in a closet, or behind a cabinet, or somewhere stuck between the rafters, they found a 600-year-old book of the law of the Lord given by Moses (2 Chron. 34:14, also in 2 Kings 22:8).

It is here that question marks hang over the writing of the Old Testament. When the remnants of the northern tribes of Israel migrated to safety in Judea, they brought with them their gods, history, stories, oral myths, and writings. The emigrants from the northern tribes brought stories of El, the High God of Canaanite tribes, while the tribes in the south had stories of the god Yahweh. These were fused together over the following centuries to form a single set of narratives that became the Old Testament. Scholars today sort out the stories from the histories of Israel and Judea using a sophisticated versions of the Jane Austen and Danielle Steele method explained earlier.

After receiving the document from Hilkiah, Josiah gathered:

All the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. (2 Kings 23:2)

“Religious truth sounded very different when presented in this way. Everything was clear, cut-and-dried, very different from the more elusive ‘knowledge’ imparted by oral transmission.”

King Josiah commanded that the newly discovered laws be obeyed: And the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers (2 Kings 23:4) . He then ordered an extravagant feast: a Passover. It was the first Passover observed by Judaism in 275 years (2 Chron. 35; 2 Kings 23:22).

Just as his great grandfather Hezekiah, Josiah tried to reform the religion of the people of Israel. Josiah wanted the people to worship one of their gods, Yahweh, exclusively. While the inhabitants of Jerusalem went along with Josiah’s reforms, the Israelites of the countryside continued to believe in their many gods (2 Chron. 34:32). And so Josiah ruthlessly imposed his reforms on the Israelites of the countryside, “destroying once and for all the suspect cultic practices of the old high places and provincial temples…all images were destroyed, the high places closed down, pagan heterodox and heretical priests were massacred.” In other words, their policy was “Believe as I do, or die!”  Under the threat of the sword, Israel was forced to convert to the worship of Yahweh alone.

Depiction of the god Yahweh trying to convince the dead that he is god. (Watson Heston / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Depiction of the god Yahweh trying to convince the dead that he is god. (Watson Heston / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Josiah also removed the symbol of God’s wife, the Asherah pole, from the temple and prohibited the worship and rituals honoring her, the wife or consort of Yahweh (2 Kings 23:6-7).

“Josiah’s theology – worship of Yahweh and Yahweh alone – would not only survive and prevail but prevail in grander intensified form. Judaism first, then Christianity and then Islam, would come to believe that the god Josiah proclaimed, Abraham’s God, was not just the only god worth worshipping, but the only God in existence.”

While Elijah may have pointed the way, Josiah turned Israel off the road of henotheism and put it on the road to monotheism.

Israel was also literally on the road between the Assyrians and the Egyptians. It was on that road at Megiddo, where Josiah was killed in a battle with the Egyptians (2 Kings 22:29; 2 Chron. 35:20–25). Josiah had forced monotheism on the people of Israel, but after his death, they returned to the worship of their many familiar gods (2 Kings 23:32). The road of Josiah’s monotheism was a short dead end. After Josiah polytheistic paganism reigned again as the religion of the Israelites.

A few years later, in 605 BC, the Egyptians and the Assyrians fought at Carchemish. This battle earned three mentions in the Bible (Jeremiah 46:2; 2 Chron. 35:20; Isaiah 10:9) and whole books in the Egyptian and Assyrian texts. Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians defeated Egypt and went on to conquer all of Palestine. This time with no typhus-laden mice or angels to defend it, Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem on March 16th, 597 BC. He repeated what had been done a century prior in the Northern Kingdom, taking all the leaders of Israel—the elite, the artisans, and the rich—to Babylon as captives. Israel itself was made a province, and Josiah’s son, Zedekiah, was left to govern those who remained.

Zedekiah chaffed at being a vassal of Babylon, and like his grandfather, made an alliance with Pharaoh Hophra, of Egypt, and hoped for support from the Jews of the Nile. The Babylonians had had enough of Jewish revolt and returned with a vengeance. In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar leveled Jerusalem, tore down the temple, and destroyed the surrounding area of Judea. Zedekiah’s children were killed in front of him, and then his eyes were put out. All of the remaining leaders were taken to Babylon and only peasants were left behind. Some did escape and scattered to Egypt and throughout the Middle East. And the “Book”? That miracle find of Hilkiah? Who knows?

However, scholars believe that the “Book” may have been seven books in total: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. But the important part is that they were all compiled from other sources, and edited, perhaps by a single person— “the Deuteronomist” who then compiled and formed them into a continuous history of the Israelites.

Some scholars believe the Deuteronomist to be Jeremiah, while others believe it was a committee or series of people working over the course of the next century or more. Jeremiah does suggest that it might have been him. He says that God told him to Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today (Jer. 36:2-4). To commemorate the end of ancient Judaism, and the beginning of a new era for Israel, Jeremiah will be accorded the honorary title of being the “First Jew.”

Michelangelo’s depiction of Jeremiah. (Michelangelo / Public domain)

Michelangelo’s depiction of Jeremiah. (Michelangelo / Public domain )

As the Israelites crawled from under the rubble of Solomon’s Temple, ancient Judaism had come to an end. All that was left were memories of their ancient stories and myths, and perhaps scraps of writings of their gods and rituals. Those memes in future centuries would become the Hebrew Bible. The Israelites were still a pagan and polytheistic people, and in their writings there were “no notions of hell and heaven, no obvious judgement and punishment for sinners nor beatific reward for the virtuous.” As God’s chosen people trudged out of Canaan, they had no hope for a better life beyond death.

For Judaism to become the rootstock of Christianity and Islam, new beliefs were needed. Monotheism, humans with a soul that survives death, a resurrection of the body, and heavenly rewards or punishments in hell all needed to be developed, framed, and accepted. As the Israelites trundled into Babylon, those beliefs were not a part of Judaism.

This article is an extract from the book ‘ Abraham’s God: The Origin and History of the Beliefs of Jews, Christians, and Muslim s’ by John W Dickerson. Visit his website at:

Top image: Depiction of the Captivity of Judah.   Source: The Providence Lithograph Company /  Public domain

By John W Dickerson