The Babylonian Exile of the Jews – The Bible Versus the
The cuneiform tablet Strm Kambys 400 contains several astronomical observations that fit the year 523 B.C.E., and the tablet is dated to the 7th year of the Persian king Cambyses. If 523 was the 7th year of Cambyses, and his father Cyrus reigned 9 years, as the evidence seems to show, we can, on the basis of the tablet, fix the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus to 539 B.C.E. The other tablet, VAT 4956, lists many positions of the heavenly bodies which fit the year 568 B.C.E.,ftn1 and this tablet is connected with the 37th year of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Based on these two tablets the following absolute chronology can be made; Nebuchadnezzar started his reign in 605 B.C.E., and Babylon was conquered by the Medes and the Persians 66 years later, in the year 539 B.C.E. This is completely in harmony with the relative chronology of the New Babylonian kings which are found in several old lists of kings. The Bible, on the other hand, says unambiguously that Jerusalem and the land of Judah were a desolate waste without inhabitants for a full 70 years. This cannot be harmonized with the New Babylonian chronology outlined above, which only allows for around 50 years for the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, usually counted from 587 B.C.E. to 539 B.C.E.
There are two approaches that have been followed to solve the mentioned discrepancy. Many historians and scholars who view the Bible a document that is similar to other ancient documents, do not take the Bible seriously and simply reject its information. Persons who believe that God’s word is in the Bible or that the Bible is God’s word try to interpret the Bible in light of the traditional chronology, thus reading into the Biblical texts their own viewpoints. My task in this essay is to show what the Bible really says, thus clearing up some misunderstandings.
To view ambiguous passages in the light of unambiguous ones
There are six passages in the Bible where a 70-year period in connection with Babylon is mentioned, Jeremiah 25:11,12; 29:10, Daniel 9:2; 2 Chronicles 36:21, and Zechariah 1:12; 7:5. Two of these (Daniel 9:2 and 2 Chronicles 36:21) can hardly be understood in more than one way, and the other four must be seen in the light of these. The principle to understand ambiguous passages in the light of unambiguous ones is universally accepted. But it is rather strange that the reverse course is to a great extent followed in articles dealing with the Babylonian exile. An additional reason to start with Daniel and the Chronicler, is that they lived after the exile and had information about its true length. Thus their words have weight because they both knew the prophecies and their fulfillment.
Does the Bible speak about a literal period of 70 years?
The first one to mention the period of 70 years is the prophet Jeremiah (25:11, 12; 29:10). It has been argued
that these 70 years represent a round figure and not 70 literal years. Whereas this is a possible interpretation
of Jeremiah’s words, we should keep in mind that one interpretation that is possible can be shown to be untenable
if someone who have witnessed the prophecy’s fulfillment gives his witness. This is the case in connection with
Jeremiah’s 70 years. Daniel (9:1-3) read the words of Jeremiah, and he indicates that seventy literal years were
in focus. His words "the number of the years" and his prayer, which shows that he lived when the 70 years
were on the point of ending, indicate that the period was literally 70 years. If the period in his mind was not
literal, how could he seek God’s mercy with the prayer that God soon would end Jerusalem’s desolate condition (vv.
The Hebrew text of Daniel 9:2 and 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 shows unambiguously that Jerusalem should be a desolate waste for a full 70 years. This excludes any possibility that the 70 years began the first and second time Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was not desolate before the third time Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city. That the desolate condition was the starting point of the 70 years is shown by Zechariah (7:5) as well. The fast in the 5th month was because of the destruction of the temple and the fast of the 7th month was because Gedaliah was murdered.ftn2 These fasts were held during the 70 years, and this period could therefore not begin before the 7th month in Nebuchadnezzar’s 18th year when the land became desolate.
But when did the 70 years end? It has been argued on the basis of 2 Chronicles 36:20 that the period ended when Cyrus conquered Jerusalem in October 539. The words "until the kingdom of Persia came to power" (NIV) are supposed to show that conclusively. To draw definite conclusions on the basis of a single word (in this case the preposition ’ad = until) is dangerous linguistically speaking. Single words signal concepts in the minds of people speaking the same language, and these concepts are often rather broad. It is true that ’ad may have a temporal meaning and often signals "until," but it can also signal "during," "as long as," as it does in 2 Kings 9:22 NIV, where we read: ""How can there be peace," Jehu replied, "as long as (’ad) all the idolatry and witchcraft of your mother Jezebel abound?" This example shows that the preposition need not refer to a single point in the future, but it can imply durative action. Even when ’ad is used temporally and it is connected with a single point, this point need not be the end of the time period connected with ’ad. Please consider Genesis 26:33 NIV "He called it Shibah, and to (’ad) this day the name of the town has been Beersheba." Obviously the name was not changed at speech time, but the town continued to be called Beersheba. Thus the time period which includes ’ad continued after "this day." Two examples which particularly can throw light on 2 Chronicles 36:20 are Judges 6:31 "Whoever fights for him shall be put to death by (’ad) morning!" and 1 Kings 10:7 "But I did not believe these things until (’ad) I came and saw with my own eyes." In the first example the preposition points to the "morning," which is a rather broad word. The person would not necessarily be put to death when the first ray of the sun became visible, but some time during the period that could be called morning. In the second example the preposition does not refer to the point when the queen came, but it refers both to her coming and to all she saw during a rather long time after her coming.
Returning now to 2 Chronicles 36:20 we note the following renderings:
The text says word-for-word "until (’ad) reign (melokh) of the kingdom (malkut) of Persia (paras)." In view of the examples above, we need not conclude that the mentioned 70 years ended the same day or the same year Cyrus conquered Babylon. The preposition ’ad may have this force, but it can include a time period after the conquest as well, as in the case of the Queen of Sheba. The force of ’ad must therefore be construed on the basis of the context, and this is easy to do when we read the next verse.
In verse 21 we again find the preposition ’ad, and please note the following renderings of the clause where it occurs.
The NIV rendering takes the preposition in the sense "during," and the same seems to be true with the NLT. What verse 21 does tell, however, is that the land was desolate and kept its sabbaths during the period of 70 years. And this duration is expressed by the preposition ’ad. A careful analysis of the Hebrew text shows that it is extremely difficult to avoid this conclusion.
In 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 we learn that in his first year Cyrus (538 B.C.E.) made a proclamation urging the Jews to go back to Jerusalem to build the house of God. Cyrus conquered Babylon on the fourteenth day of the 7th month which is the Julian date 10 October 539. Cyrus accession year lasted until the twelfth month of that year, and his first regnal year would start in March/April 538. In the year when the Jews returned to Babylon we learn that in the 7th month they "were in their cities" (Ezra 3:1). Even if Cyrus had made his proclamation on the first day of his 1st year, it is quite impossible that the Jews "were in their cities" six months later (in the 7th month of 538). We must presume that some time had to pass after Cyrus’ proclamation when the Jews sold their properties and made their families ready for the journey, and after that they had to travel around five months to reach Judah. In order to settle in their cities some time had to elapse as well. So the earliest point when it could be said that the land was no longer a desolate waste, was the year 537 B.C.E.
It is interesting that the Chronicler (who was possibly Ezra) and Ezra (1:1-4) connects Cyrus’ proclamation with the words of Jeremiah regarding the 70 years. We may also note that it was after the fall of Babylon (in the first year of Darius the Mede) that Daniel discerned Jeremiah’s prophecy about the 70 years. We may further note that at that time God’s wrath was still upon Jerusalem and the sanctuary was still desolate (Daniel 9:15-17) when Daniel discerned Jeremiah’s words. Thus the 70 years of Jeremiah could not have ended in 539!
One passage which is used by some against this conclusion, is Jeremiah 25:12. Most translations render this verse in the same way as does NIV: "But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation." The argument is that the 70 years first had to end, and then the king of Babylon was punished. Because this happened in 539 B.C.E., the 70 years must have ended by then. The NIV rendering is fine, but the problem with translation from Hebrew to English is that the translators all the time must make choices, and nuances are often lost when one rendering is chosen. In the Hebrew text we find an infinitive of the verb male (to fill) with the preposition ke (when) prefixed to it. Literally we read "when to fill seventy years."
We should remember that Hebrew is a language which generally is more ambiguous than English, because the modern precision connected with hours, minutes and seconds and other expressions was not needed. The default interpretation of the passage (if the context did not suggest something else) would be that after the 70 years had ended, the king of Babylon would be punished. However, because the force of such an infinitive is quite fluid, linguistically speaking, a punishment just before or after the end of the 70 years is not excluded. The Hebrew consciousness of time in connection with such prophecies is also seen in the last clause of 25:12. A part of the punishment was that Babylon would be "made desolate forever" (NIV). Our modern consciousness of time would lead us to expect this desolation shortly after the 70 year period ended, but more than 600 years elapsed before Babylon became desolate. Thus we cannot conclude on the basis of this passage that Babylon’s king was punished after the end of the 70 years.
The Bible versus the traditional history
Ancient history cannot be proven because there are no living informants. This means that any chronological system is based on several assumptions that must be accepted, thus chronological views include a great measure of faith. Because of this, it is fine that any student of chronology assesses the assumptions of the chronological system to which s/he adheres and honestly distinguishes between what the different systems really say. This is important because it is impossible to harmonize the information found in the Bible with the accepted New Babylonian chronology that is found in lexica and text-books. One therefore has to choose, and one’s choice should be based on the best possible evidence.
The almost universal view that the third conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar occurred on 587 (or 586) B.C.E. leaves only 49 or 50 years for the exile. Thus this view flatly contradicts the Biblical information.
We should respect the right of all people to make their own choices, and this must apply to the choice of chronological system as well. But we should insist that a choice must be made, because the Bible and the traditional New Babylonian chronology are mutually exclusive. Therefore, we must either believe in what the Bible says or believe in the assumptions of the traditional chronology; we cannot ride two horses at the same time.
(October 6, 2003)
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