The Last Kings of Yehuda and Babylonian Sources

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Biblical Sources

The political events relating to the reigns of the last kings of Yehuda, from Yoshiyahu to Tzidkiyahu, are recounted in Melakhim II 23-25, and in Divrei HaYaMim II 35-36. Many prophecies in Yirmeyahu, Yechezkel and Trei Asar relate to them as well.  Some of the key events are summarized below:

  • Yoshiyahu – Tanakh (Melakhim II 23 / Divrei HaYamim II 35.) shares almost nothing about Yoshiyahu's foreign affairs, mentioning only that when Paroh Nekhoh of Egypt headed towards Assyria, Yoshiyahu fought against him at Megiddo, where Yoshiyahu was killed by the Egyptians.1 The verses are obscure, making it unclear whether Egypt was approaching Assyria as foe or ally. Yoshiyahu's motives in attempting to stop Nekhoh are similarly left unstated.
  • Yehoachaz – Yehoachaz, Yoshiyahu's second son, was picked by "עַם הָאָרֶץ" to rule after his father's death.  He reigned for a mere three months before he was ousted by Egypt, who replaced him with Yoshiyahu's eldest son, Yehoyakim (Melakhim II 23).  Though not explicit, the fact that Yehoyakim was passed over by the nation, yet chosen by Egypt, suggests that he had pro-Egyptian politics, which were not shared by "עַם הָאָרֶץ". Tanakh, however, does not explain why Egypt waited three months before placing this loyal vassal on the throne.
  • YehoyakimMelakhim II 24:1 shares that in the middle of Yehoyakim's reign, the geo-political picture changed and Yehoyakim became a vassal of Nevuchadnezzer of Bavel rather than Egypt. After three years he rebelled, and was eventually taken prisoner by Bavel (Divrei HaYamim II 36:6).2  Tanakh does not share what prompted the rebellion.
  • Yehoyachin – Yehoyachin, Yehoyakim's son, reigned for only three months before Bavel besieged Yerushalayim. Yehoyachin surrendered and was exiled together with the city's officers and artisans (Melakhim II 24). Though Tanakh does not elaborate regarding Yehoyachin's captivity, it shares that he was freed from prison when Evil Merodakh, Nevuchadnzzer's son, took the throne, thirty seven years later.
  • Tzidkiyahu – Tzidkiyahu was the last king of Yehuda, appointed by Bavel.  At some point, he, too, rebelled and in the ninth year of his reign, Bavel besieged Yerushalayim.  In the eleventh year, the city was destroyed, the Mikdash was burned, and the people were exiled.

Babylonian Sources

I. The Babylonian Chronicles – The Babylonian Chronicles are a series of tablets which record major political events in Babylonian history.3 Unlike royal inscriptions or annals which tend to be boastful, and include only a specific king's accomplishments, these texts are matter-of-fact in tone, and record both victories and defeats.  As such, they provide important background information for the end of the Monarchic period:

  • "The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle" – This chronicle speaks of the events of 616-608 BCE, during the reign of Nabopolassar.  Most of it focuses on Bavel's attempts to fatally destroy Assyria:
    • The Fall of Nineveh (612 BCE) – The most significant event of the period is the fall of Nineveh to Bavel in 612 BCE.  This marked the beginning of the end of the Assyrian empire.
    • Egyptian-Assyrian alliance (609 BCE) – As the war between Assyria and Bavel continued, Egypt attempted to aid Assyria, hoping to prevent the Babylonian empire from succeeding in its conquests and changing the balance of power in the region.  The chronicles relate that in 609, the same year that Yoshiyahu died, Egypt allied with Assyria in a (failed) attempt to retake Charan4 from Bavel.
  • The "Jerusalem Chronicle" – This chronicle covers the years 605-595 BCE, the last year of Nabopolassar's rule through the 11th year of Nevuchadnezzer. Several events are significant for Biblical studies:
    • Battle of Karkemish – In 605 BCE allied forces from Egypt and Assyria fought against Bavel in Karkemish where the two were decisively defeated.  After the battle Assyria ceased to exist as an independent empire and Egypt's power was significantly reduced.
    • Second battle against Egypt – In 601, a second battle involving Egypt took place.  This time, Bavel attacked Egypt proper, and the battle ended without a clear victor, with both sides suffering heavy losses and the Babylonian king retreating to his land.5
    • Siege of Jerusalem – In 598/7 BCE, the 7th year of Nevuchadnezzer's reign, he besieged Jerusalem and captured their king, replacing him with a loyal vassal.  The Chronicles do not mention either king by name, but must refer to Yehoyachin and Tzidkiyahu.
  • Unfortunately, the Chronicles that speak of the years of the final siege on Jerusalem and its fall are not extant, so we have no Babylonian data regarding the final destruction.

II. Babylonian Ration Lists – A second set of extra-Biblical documents relating to the period were found in what is assumed to be the royal storehouses of Nebuchadnezzer.6  Hundreds of administrative texts detail the distribution of rations to Babylonian captives and workers. Four of these mention the monthly rations of "Yehoyachin, king of Yehuda". One of the four, pictured here, is dated to the 13th year of Nevuchadnezzer (the sixth year of Yehoyachin's exile.)  The documents also mention the rations given to Yehoyachin's five sons.

Relationship to Tanakh

The Baylonian history provided by the Chronicles helps elucidate several episodes in  Tanakh:

  • Battle of Megiddo - Though the language of Melakhim, "בְּיָמָיו עָלָה פַרְעֹה נְכֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם עַל מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר" seems to imply that Paroh had gone to attack Assyria, from the Chronicles, it  becomes obvious that his intent was instead to aid them against Bavel.  It is possible that Yoshiyahu attempted to block Egypt's path and prevent him from fighting on Assyria's side, because he recognized that Bavel was to be the ultimate victor in the power play in the region.7  He preferred to side with them, perhaps hoping to be viewed favorably when Bavel assumed rule.   In addition, Yoshiyahu knew that if the Assyrian-Egyptian alliance was successful, Egypt would take control over Syria-Paelstine, including Yehuda.
  • Delayed appointment of Yehoyakim – Apparently, after defeating Yoshiyahu, Paroh Nekhoh needed to rush to the aid of Assyria and did not have the time to focus on re-organizing Yehuda's administration. This allowed the anti-Egyptian faction in Israel to anoint Yehoachaz.  However, on Paroh's return from the battle against Bavel, just 3 months later,8 he deposed the king and anointed Yehoyakim in his place.
  • "בְּיָמָיו עָלָה נְבֻכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל" – The verses do not date when it was that Yehoyakim became a vassal to Bavel, but it was likely that it happened in the aftermath of Egypt's defeat in the Battle of Karkemish (605). With Egypt's defeat, it  lost hegemony in the area and Bavel became the undisputed leader of the region. As Tanakh attests: "וְלֹא הֹסִיף עוֹד מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לָצֵאת מֵאַרְצוֹ כִּי לָקַח מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל מִנַּחַל מִצְרַיִם עַד נְהַר פְּרָת כֹּל אֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה לְמֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם".
  • Yirmeyahu's prophecy against Egypt – Yirmeyahu 46 constitutes a prophecy of destruction against Egypt, explicitly mentioning the Battle of Karkemish: "לְמִצְרַיִם עַל חֵיל פַּרְעֹה נְכוֹ מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר הָיָה עַל נְהַר פְּרָת בְּכַרְכְּמִשׁ אֲשֶׁר הִכָּה נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל".  It is likely that Yirmeyahu's words are aimed at Yehuda, warning them not to think of rebelling against Bavel with the expectation that Egypt might be a reliable ally, for it no longer had the power to aid them.9
  • Yehoyakim's rebellion – Sefer Melakhim does not explain what led Yehoyakim to rebel when he did.  Tanakh shares that the revolt took place after three years of submission.  Thus, if Yeohyakim had begun to pay tribute after the battle of Karkemish in 604/603, the rebellion would have taken place in 601, the year in which Bavel suffered heavy losses at the hands of Egypt.  It is likely that this was  what encouraged Yehoyakim to attempt to throw off Bavel's yoke.
  • Exile and status of Yehoyachin – While the Chronicles do not add much to our knowledge of the siege (though they do give it an exact date, the second of Adar), the Babylonian ration lists shed light on Yehoyachin's later status in exile.  In contrast to what one might have expected, conditions seem to have been fairly positive. His rations are listed together with those of his sons, perhaps implying that they were not separated in captivity, and might have even lived under house arrest rather than in prison.10  In addition, despite being a captive, and Tzidkiyahu reigning in Yehuda, Yehoyachin is still referred to in the documents as "King of Yehuda".11 This might have been intended as a threat to Tzidkiyahu, to keep him in line.12  In addition, the generally positive treatment might have stemmed from Yeyoyachin's young age and voluntary surrender.
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