The Siege of Jerusalem & Fall of Judea

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Jewish history and cultural memory revolves around a few pivotal moments. One of the most important is the 587 BCE Siege of Jerusalem, a moment that changed Jewish history forever.

The Kingdom of Judah

In 1948, the nation of Israel was created as a homeland for the Jews, a population without a place to call their own. Right off the bat, this raises some questions. Why didn't the Jews have a home? And why would they want Israel? The answer to these questions takes us back literally thousands of years to an ancient kingdom named Judah. Judah, located in roughly what is now Israel, was home to a certain Semitic-speaking ethnic group. Any guesses which one? Judah…Jews…see how that works? The Jewish people's claim to Israel is based in this ancient heritage. To really understand this, however, we need to take an even closer look at history.

The Temple of Solomon

The concept of a Jewish state or kingdom really begins with an ancient ruler named Saul, who organized the Hebrew people together into the United Kingdom of Israel, located around Palestine. Saul was succeeded by David, the warrior-poet king who Christians claim as the ancestor of Jesus Christ, and David was followed by Solomon. After Solomon died, the United Kingdom of Israel was divided, with the southern half becoming the Kingdom of Judah.

Solomon is widely regarded as the greatest of the Hebrew kings, who was said to have built his capital, Jerusalem, into one of the great cities of the ancient world. At the center of this city was a mighty temple to the Hebrew God, called the Temple of Solomon. As this spot is a sacred site for Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, no archeological excavations are permitted. Historians estimate, however, that it may have been built sometime in the 9th century BCE. The Temple of Solomon was the center of Hebrew life and civilization, containing not only the wealth of the kingdom, but also its holiest relics which, according to Jewish tradition, included the Ark of the Covenant.

A scholarly reconstruction of what the Temple of Solomon may have looked like

Judah, Egypt, and Babylon

The Kingdom of Judah was powerful, but it was far from the only mighty kingdom of the area. After all, it was part of the region where the world's first cities were founded. Judah existed in a world of powerful kingdoms and empires, including those of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

By the 7th century BCE, Judah was caught in the middle of a power struggle between Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt. As a result, Judah was invaded and turned into a vassal state under Egyptian authority. This gave the Egyptians the power to essentially appoint Hebrew kings who would be loyal subjects. A few decades later, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptian armies and transferred many of the Egyptian territories into their own empire, including Judah. However, the Babylonians suffered a crushing defeat in battle around 601 BCE, giving Judah a chance to change their fates. They could have cut all ties from conquering kingdoms, but Judah was weaker than these other empires and needed protection. In addition, the Hebrew king (Jehoiakim) had a more positive relationship with the Egyptians, having been appointed by them, so he opted to stop paying tribute to Babylon and defected back to Egyptian control.

The Siege of Jerusalem

When news reached Babylon that Jehoiakim had placed Judah back under Egyptian control, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, was furious. He rounded up an army to march south and punish Judah. The Babylonian armies arrive in 597 BCE and lay siege to the city of Jerusalem. Jehoiakim was killed in the siege, and the city fell soon after. In Mesopotamian traditions, the skilled peoples of a conquered city were sent to Babylon, and as a result, roughly 10,000 Hebrews were deported from Jerusalem to Mesopotamia. Nebuchadnezzar appointed a new king in Judah, making it once again a vassal of his empire.

A few years later, this king too defected from Babylonian control. This time, Nebuchadnezzar had run out of patience. Deciding to make an example of Judah to discourage future rebellions in his empire, he laid siege to Jerusalem again in 587 BCE. This time, Nebuchadnezzar didn't stop at simply conquering the city. Jerusalem was all but destroyed. Most significantly, the Temple of Solomon was raided and burnt to the ground in a fire that lasted for days.

The Siege of Jerusalem left the city in ashes

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