The Babylonian Invasion In Archeology – Part 1: Jerusalem Falls

The Babylonian invasion of Judah is one of the most momentous events in the history of Israel. It resulted in the destruction of the capital Jerusalem, the exile of the population to a foreign land, the end of independent rule by kings from the house of David and most importantly, the destruction of the glorious temple built by King Solomon. There was a controversy at one time about whether the Bible exaggerated the event. Some today still might still dispute certain details, but the archaeological evidence is clear, there can be no doubt as to whether those events occurred.

The Bible accounts describe two invasions during the reign of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The first invasion did not result in the total destruction of Jerusalem or the exiling of all the inhabitants of Judah. During the oppressive reign of Judean King Jehoiakim, he was forced to become a vassal king under Nebuchadnezzar, that is, he was allowed to remain king, but only by recognizing the dominance of Babylon and paying her heavy tribute. After three years, Jehoiakim rebelled against his Babylonian masters (2 Kings 24:1). The rebellion was short-lived. Nebuchadnezzar came against the Judean capital of Jerusalem and laid siege to it. It appears that Jehoiakim died during the early part of the siege. His son, Jehoiachin, takes the throne but only reigns for three months before he surrenders Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar.

At this point, Jehoiachin, the royal family, some of the nobility along with select craftsman and trained warriors, are taken into exile in Babylon. The prophet Daniel and his three faithful companions who were all young at that time, are among the first exiles (Daniel 1:1-7). Treasures from the royal houses and God’s temple are stolen and brought to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar places Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah on the throne. Zedekiah was forced to take an oath in Jehovah’s name to be a loyal vassal of Babylon. To learn more, please see the article I wrote regarding archaeological support for the first Babylonian invasion and the exile of Jehoiachin in Babylon.

The second invasion by Nebuchadnezzar was much more destructive and its effects more far-reaching. In spite of his oath, about nine years after being placed on the throne of Judah, King Zedekiah ignores the direction of the prophet Jeremiah and rebels against Babylon. (2 Chronicles 36:13) For support, Zedekiah turns to Egypt. This proves to be a false hope. After being besieged for 18 months, Nebuchadnezzar’s forces break through the walls of Jerusalem and take the city. “He burned down the house of the true God, tore down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its fortified towers with fire, and destroyed everything of value. He carried off captive to Babylon those who escaped the sword, and they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia began to reign.” (2 Chronicles 36: 19, 20) A parallel account is even more specific:

He {Nebuchadnezzar} burned down the house of Jehovah, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he also burned down the house of every prominent man. And the walls surrounding Jerusalem were pulled down by the entire Chaldean {Babylonian} army that was with the chief of the guard.” (2 Kings 25: 9,10)

As for Zedekiah, he and some of his men manage to flee from Jerusalem but the Babylonians catch up with them near Jericho. Zedekiah’s young sons are killed in front of him along with all the princes of Judah. Zedekiah is immediately blinded so that the last thing he will ever see is the death of his children. He is put in copper fetters and led to Babylon where he later dies in prison, a sad and broken man. He is the last of the royal house of David to sit on the throne of Jerusalem. Although most of the population has been exiled to Babylon, some of the “poorest people of the land” are allowed to remain as agricultural laborers under a governor who is left in charge. (2 Kings 25:12) When the governor is assassinated, those remaining in the land, fearing Babylonian reprisals, flee to Egypt. (2 Kings 25: 26) The land is now desolate and empty and Jerusalem and the Temple are in ruins.

In the early 1980s, Professor Yigal Shiloh of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, excavated an area in the “City of David”, the oldest part of Jerusalem that includes what is known as the Burnt Room and the Bullae House. Under what is referred to as a “destruction layer” (a layer of ash and debris caused by wartime destruction, Professor Shiloh found pottery typical of the seventh century B.C., together with numerous arrowheads that showed there had been heavy fighting at this location. Some of the arrowheads were identified as Israelite in origin, but some where distinctively Babylonian.  Due to the fact that they were costly to produce, it was not uncommon for arrows that were not heavily damaged to be collected after the battle to be reused in the future by the victors. The ones that were recovered would have been hidden from the victors after the battle by collapsed walls and in burnt out homes.

The House of Ahiel

The “House of Ahiel” in the City of David

Nearby, other homes from the same period were uncovered including the remains of a home of someone of elevated status. This is called the “House of Ahiel”, so-named because the family name “Ahiel” was discovered written on pieces of clay pottery within. These homes too had a layer of ash from the burnt remains of wood furniture and ceiling beams.

The Ahiel home had a feature unusual for Israelite homes of that time. It had an indoor stone toilet placed over a waste pit. Archeologists were able to examine the contents of the pit to learn about the content of the meals the Ahiel family were having during the weeks leading up to the fall of Jerusalem. The story that the pit tells is one of starvation and subsistence. Jeremiah tells us that the people of Jerusalem during the siege were reduced to starvation.

Those slain with the sword are better off than those slain by famine, Those who waste away, who are pierced through for lack of food from the field. The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children. They have become their food of mourning during the breakdown of the daughter of my people.” (Lamentation 4: 9,10) 

Ahiel toilet

Toilet from the House of Ahiel

Research determined that at the end of the siege, the Ahiel household were eating wild plants and weeds to survive. Since it was impossible to leave the city to bring back fresh food, people were forced to eat whatever grew within the city to survive. Evidence of tapeworms were found, typically contracted from eating uncooked meat. It is likely that as the famine worsened, they slaughtered the animals they had with them within the city and ate them uncooked, as wood was needed for weapons and fortifications, far too valuable to use in a cooking fire.

In another part of the ancient city called the Ophel, further evidence of the Babylonian destruction is found. The Ophel was an elevated location between the “City of David” and the Temple Mount. This area was home to ancient royal structures.

Burnt Room

The “Burnt Room” in the royal structure

The remains of one such royal structure contained fragments of several large storage jars that may have contained oil or wine for the royal house. Eilat Mazar, a famed third generation archaeologist, described having her hands blackened by the ashes as she worked in that area. The building had been consumed in a blaze that she concluded was clearly attributable to the Babylonian destruction of the city. This is in harmony with the Bible’s account of the destruction, “He {Nebuchadnezzar} burned down the house of Jehovah, the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; he also burned down the house of every prominent man.” (2 Kings 25:9)

In 1999, the Jordanian authority that controls the Temple Mount, including the beautiful Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa mosque, excavated an area of the Temple Mount with backhoes and heavy equipment and dumped many tons of what was removed into the Kidron valley. The treatment of such an important archaeological site was beyond appalling. Since then a team of volunteers under professional supervision has been carefully sifting through what was removed to try to recover items of significance. Not surprisingly, Babylonian arrowheads have been found. This reveals fighting around the Temple itself.

Israelite Tower

The base of the Israelite tower

In the Jewish quarter of old Jerusalem, in what would have been the extreme western side of the city in those days, Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad conducted extensive excavations during the 1970’s. These excavations revealed an impressive Israelite fortification tower that would have stood over 8 metres high (26 ft). It was once a gate tower and it may have been part of the “Middle Gate” described at Jeremiah 39:3. This area also revealed heavy fighting from the Babylonian invasion. At the base of the tower was a heavy layer of ash and charred wood. This may have been from homes that once lined the outside wall or it may even have been from a siege tower that was set alight as it was pushed towards the wall. Under the ash was discovered four arrowheads. Three of them typical of the kind used by the soldiers of Jerusalem, but the fourth is distinctly Babylonian.

Clearly the fall of Jerusalem was a fearsome event. The suffering of her people must have been awful. In our next article we will look at the evidence of the Babylonian conquest outside of Jerusalem. For that we will need to return to Judah’s second city, Lachish.

Photo Credits:

“The Flight Of The Prisoners” by James Tissot. Painted circa 1896-1902 {PD}

House of Ahiel. Photo by Deror avi. {CC BY-SA 3.0} Wikimedia Commons

House of Ahiel toilet. Photo by Elef Millim. {CC BY-SA 3.0} Wikimedia Commons

The Burnt Room. Photo by Author

The Israelite Tower. Photo by Ranbar. {CC BY-SA 3.} Wikimedia Commons

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