Skip to comments.The Babylonian Gap Revisited
Posted on 04/28/2002 8:31:45 AM PDT by blam
The Babylonian Gap Revisited
Perhaps the greatest disaster to befall ancient Israel was the conquest, at the end of the sixth century B.C.E. and start of the fifth, by the Babylonian empire. The fall of Judah to this new regional superpower occurred in two stages: Major strongholds like the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Ekron fell to the armies of Nebuchadrezzar (Biblical Nebuchadnezzar) in 604 B.C.E. Jerusalem was besieged in 597 B.C.E. and capitulated to the Babylonians. Under the leadership of the puppet king Zedekiah, the Judahite capital survived another decade. But when Nebuchadrezzar learned that Zedekiah had conspired with other local powers to revolt, he laid siege to Jerusalem again, wearing the people out through starvation and finally breaking through the city walls in 586 B.C.E. The city was burned to the ground and the Temple destroyed. This brought an end to Judah as an independent kingdom, and Babylon expressed its dominion over the defeated Israelites by forcibly relocating them.
Archaeology vividly verifies much of what the Bible records about the Babylonian destruction of cities like Jerusalem and Ashkelon, but it is somewhat less clearat least to some scholarsjust how total the destruction was and how all-encompassing was the dispersion of the Israelites. Were all Israelite cities destroyed, or did some survive? How extensive was the forced migration?
*See Ephraim Stern, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, reviewed by Hershel Shanks, BAR, November/December 1993. (Order this issue)
In our November/December 2000 issue, Professor Ephraim Stern of Hebrew University published an important article, "The Babylonian Gap," arguing that the Babylonian destruction of Judah was massive and complete, and that there was no significant cultural or political presence in the region afterwards, until the end of the Babylonian exile under the Persians. Stern is one of Israel's most prominent archaeologists, the excavator of Tel Dor, editor of the four-volume New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land* and author of the recently-published volume in the Archaeology of the Land of the Bible series covering the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Periods (732-332 B.C.E.). Stern's BAR article focuses on the contrast between what he calls the "Babylonian Gap" and the period that followed the Assyrian conquest about a century earlier (late eighth century B.C.E.): "After their conquest, the Assyrians established several provinces in Palestine," he writes; there is enormous evidence of their presence and influence. The Babylonian destruction was a different story: "The only indications of a Babylonian presence in Palestine are the massive destruction levels the Babylonians left behind," Stern writes. "The Assyrians rebuilt almost every destroyed town ... The Babylonians, by contrast, did nothing to reverse the damage ... they systematically deported those inhabitants of the region whom they did not kill ... In archaeological parlance there is no clearly defined period called 'Babylonian.' The [Babylonian] destruction of Judah is followed by the Persian period."
Professor Joseph Blenkinsopp, a distinguished Biblical scholar recently retired from Notre Dame University, has now written a rebuttal to Stern, questioning the evidence for the totality of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the idea that the aftermath was really a "gap" in Judahite history and culture. Blenkinsopp is the author of A History of Prophecy in Israel, the recently published Anchor Bible Commentary on Isaiah 1-39, as well as commentaries on Ezekiel and Ezra-Nehemiah. The Babylonian destruction, he says, was not nearly as widespread as Stern claims. Some cities in Philistia and Judah (like Jerusalem and Lachish) were indeed destroyed by the Babylonians, but little else has been archaeologically proven; life went on much as before, he says, when the Assyrians had ruled the roost.
In his response, Stern explains why Blenkinsopp's reply leaves him thoroughly unconvinced.Ed.
There Was No Gap
Yes There Was
More than half a century ago, the dean of Biblical archaeologists, William Foxwell Albright, pronounced Ginal judgment on the archaeological record for the territory of Judah between the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon's king Nebuchadrezzar [Nebuchadezzar in the Bible] in 586 B.C.E. and the subsequent fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 B.C.E. "All, or virtually all, of the fortified towns in Judah had been razed to the ground," he wrote. "There is not a single known case where a town of Judah was continuously occupied through the exilic period [the Babylonian exile]."(1)
We can hardly avoid a sense of déjà vu on reading Ephraim Stern's version of the same thesis in the November/December 2000 BAR: The Babylonians devastated the country and much of the surrounding region, he argues. All Judahite cities were left in ruins. Following the destruction, there was no resettlement and no continuity of occupation. As a result, the territory of Judah was largely depopulated. Hence the title of his article: "The Babylonian Gap."
The issue is important enough to historians and Biblical scholars to warrant close scrutiny. After all, Judaism itself emerged in this period, after the liquidation of the Judahite state. Many Bible books of first importancemuch of Isaiah 40-66 and the final version of Deuteronomy, for exampleare dated by many scholars to this time. If Albright and Stern have it right, it is difficult to see how anything of consequence could have happened in this "gap."
This issue obviously has many ramifications. I will concentrate here on just one aspect: the claim of total or near-total destruction by the Babylonians of settlements in Judah and surrounding regions. Let us check Stern's conclusionsmost of them worded in a very apodictic and unqualified wayagainst the informed, up-to-date opinion of other archaeologists.(2)
We may begin, as Stern does, with the important site of Megiddo, which was an Assyrian province (Magiddu) from the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E. until the Babylonian conquest. Stern informs us that the city itself (stratum III), as well as two smaller towns a few miles to the north (Tel Qiri and Yoqneam) were destroyed early onat the end of the seventh century B.C.E.by the Babylonians.
Yet in his summary of the archaeological evidence for Megiddo, archaeologist David Ussishkin, a codirector of the current excavation of the site, lists no destruction of either of the Assyrian levels (III and II). Another prominent archaeologist, the late Yigal Shiloh, described what he took to be evidence for the destruction of stratum II not as a Babylonian destruction but as a destruction resulting from a well-known battle (recounted in 2 Chronicles 35-36) between the Egyptian pharaoh, Necho, and the Judahite king, Josiah, in 609 B.C.E. Likewise at Tel Qiri and Yoqneam, Amnon Ben-Tor, the excavator of these sites, found no evidence for a conflagration in this period.(3)
Stern next turns to the Phoenician coast, which includes his own site of Tel Dor. In this important area, he tells us, Nebuchadrezzar destroyed the city of Tyre after a lengthy siege.(4) But he gives no archaeological evidence in support of this claim. Our source for the 13-year-long siege of Tyre is the first-century C.E. historian Josephus(5), who says nothing about its capture.
Stern makes the same claim for the coastal site of Akko, citing its excavator Moshe Dothan in support of his view. But Stern appears to misquote Dothan, who dates the very limited evidence for burning to the late Assyrian period, not to the Babylonian period.(6) At Tell Keisan, inland and southeast of Akko, a French team found signs of burning which they also dated to the late Assyrian period.(7) Stern proposes to revise this date downward to attribute the destruction to the Babylonians but once again offers no supporting evidence.(8) He even calls into question the clear implication of his own finding at Dorthat the city fortifications remained undisturbed from the Assyrian to the Persian periodby positing a purely hypothetical reconstruction during the Persian period following the "gap" inaugurated by the Babylonian conquest.(9)
The situation of the Philistine cities is somewhat different, as several of them were indeed targeted by Nebuchadrezzar during his struggle with Egypt in the first years of his reign (605-600 B.C.E.). But even here Stern overstates his case in claiming that "all the excavations in this area provide clear indications of the total destruction in the seventh century B.C.E. of all the prosperous Philistine cities of Assyrian and Egyptian times."(10) The evidence of destruction for Ashkelon, Ekron (Tel Miqne), Timnah (Tel Batash) and Gezer is persuasive. But this is not the case with other sites. Stern tells us that Ashdod (stratum VI) was "destroyed by the Babylonian army," but others have attributed the destruction instead to either Pharaoh Psamtik I of Egypt or King Josiah of Judah.(11) Likewise, Stern provides no evidence for his assertion of a Babylonian destruction level at Ashdod Yam or Tell Jemmeh, far to the south. At nearby Tel Haror (Tell Abu Hureireh), identified by some as Gerar, the excavator Eliezer Oren dates the destruction level to the mid-seventh century, and suggests it probably resulted from an Egyptian attack; Stern, on the other hand, dates the destruction of the site's citadel (in area G2) to the late seventh or early sixth century, therefore bringing it into line with his theory of near-total Babylonian destruction.(12) Here again, the situation is less clear-cut than Stern would have us believe.
There is another problem with such sites as Tel Haror, Tel Jemmeh and Tell el-Hesi. They were well within the Egyptian and Edomite sphere of influence. This raises the question as to who did the destroying. The talisman produced to exclude all but Babylonians is a Scythian arrowhead, but we are still waiting for a precise inventory of finds, and wonder whether the Babylonians indeed had a monopoly on this dangerous piece of equipment.
For example, traces of burning on the floors of the sixth century B.C. citadel at Arad (stratum VI) in the eastern Negev would more likely have resulted from an Edomite than a Babylonian attack, especially because the ostraca (inscribed potsherds) discovered in situ mention a hostile Edomite presence in the region.
This would also be true of other alleged victims of Babylonian aggression in that area, including at Horvat Uza, Horvat Radum, Tel Malhata and Qitmit. And anyway, the stratigraphy of Arad is so disputed that no reliable conclusions are possible for this period.(13)
*See Jeffrey R. Zorn, "Mizpah: Newly Discovered Stratum Reveals Judah's Other Capital," BAR, September/October 1997 (Order this issue).
That the Benjaminite district north of Jerusalem was spared during the Babylonian punitive expedition is confirmed by the absence of evidence for destruction at any of the well-known Benjaminite sites (principally Tell en-Nasbeh [Mizpah],* el-Jib [Gibeon], Tell el-Ful [maybe Gibeah] and Beitin [Bethel]). This suggests that Benjaminite families may have belonged to the appeasement party during the last decade of Judah's independent existence.
Coming, finally, to Judah: Jerusalem is a clear and well-documented case. It was devastated by Nebuchadrezzar in 586 B.C.E., bringing an end to the 400-year existence of the kingdom of Judah. The destruction of the public buildings, defenses and Temple of that "rebellious city hurtful to kings and provinces" (Ezra 4:15) was a deliberate and ideological act, and its effects are clearly inscribed in the archaeological record of Jerusalem. The Babylonian destruction of Lachish, the second most important fortified city after Jerusalem, is also well documented. But the 30 or so other destroyed Judahite locations listed by Stern would need to be reviewed individually to establish whether they were destroyed at all and, if so, when and by whom. For example, the final destruction of Beth Shemesh stratum IIC in 586 B.C., claimed by Elihu Grant and George Ernest Wright and for a time widely accepted, was not confirmed when the site was re-excavated.(14) As for Tell Beit Mirsim, Stern agrees with Albright, who excavated the site from 1926 to 1932, that it suffered "a complete and final destruction in 586 B.C.E."(15)
However, recent stratigraphic studies have come up with poor attestation for the seventh and sixth centuries, and have called the date of its destruction into question. Several prominent scholars (Yohanan Aharoni, David Ussishkin and, most recently, Rafi Greenberg), have opined that the destruction level better corresponds to Sennacherib's Assyrian campaign in 701 B.C.E. than to Nebuchadrezzar's Babylonian campaign of 586.(16)
Yet Stern has dogmatically asserted elsewhere that "a review of the archaeological evidence from 6th century B.C.E. Judah clearly reflects the literary evidence for the complete destruction of all the settlements and fortified towns by Nebuchadnezzar II's armies in 586 B.C.E."(17)
The bottom line is that destruction of urban centers, although considerable, was not nearly as complete as the Albright-Stern thesis postulates. We are already witnessing a shrinkage of the data base for destruction that is reminiscent of early, now abandoned claims made for cities destroyed during the Israelite "conquest of Canaan"a case of déjà vu all over again.
Moreover, most people did not live in cities, and we should not underestimate the resilience of a population to restore some semblance of normality in a relatively short time, despite a destruction.
As the Babylonian army approached, many Judahites no doubt took refuge in one or the other of the inaccessible places that southern Judah and the Jordan Valley liberally provided, only to re-emerge once the dust had settled. Biblical texts indeed confirm that this is what happened (Jeremiah 40:7,ll-12; 2 Kings 25:23).
The "Babylonian gap" is largely a function of the way archaeologists periodize history. In fact, the material culture from the Assyrian period to the Babylonian period to the Persian period is more or less continuous. Stern actually says as muchthat "it [is] almost impossible to determine if a certain artifact with Babylonian parallels should be dated to the late Assyrian period, to the Babylonian period, or even to the early Persian period."(18) The Babylonians probably took over the Assyrian provincial system already in place, with adjustments here and there(19); they had neither the time nor the experience to create their own administrative system.
If we want to understand what life was like after the Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C.E., our understanding must be well grounded in an accurate picture of the archaeological remains. Unfortunately, Professor Stern's depiction is not.
(snip, go to the site for more)
Let me begin with several basic factsmore historical than archaeologicalon which Joseph Blenkinsopp and I can agree.
When the Babylonians arrived in the Land of Israel, there were no fewer than eight independent kingdoms there and in Transjordan: four kingdoms of the PhilistinesGaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron; the Kingdom of Judah; and three kingdoms in TransjordanAmmon, Moab and Edom. With the Babylonian penetration from 604-582 B.C.E., these all disappeared! There were no more independent kingdoms in the Land of Israel. What happened to them and who was responsible?
The four Philistine kingdoms all had similar relations with Babylon and all shared the same fate: They were destroyed to their foundations, and no amount of clever discourse will save Ashdod from the same fate as Ashkelon (as seen in Lawrence Stager's excavations) or Ekron (as revealed in Seymour Gitin's work there). In short, the Philistines were destroyed or exiled; they never returned to the Land of Israel. From that point on, there were no more Philistines!
The renewed settlement along the coast, after a hiatus, was done by another, primarily Phoenician, population. Thus, the total change in the population of the southern coast during the Persian period was a result of the Babylonian destruction.
As for the Kingdom of Judah, which is the central theme of our discussion: There is no dispute, either historical or archaeological, that its two main cities, Jerusalem and Lachish, were destroyed and that the kingdom ceased to exist. The only room for disagreement may be over the extent of destruction in the area between these two cities. I believe that the entire area between them was also destroyed by the Babylonians. After the Babylonian conquest, the Jews disappeared from most of Mt. Hebron and from approximately two-thirds of the area previously ruled by the kingdom of Judah. It was settled by another people, the Edomites, beginning in the Persian period (not, however, early in this period; all of the Persian period material found in this regionboth written and pertaining to the material culturedates from the fourth century B.C.E. on).
The Edomites settled the empty and virtually abandoned areas of southern Judah (including the city of Lachish itself). So this, too, represented a total change in population, just as in the Philistine coastal area.
Where did the Jews from this area go, asks Blenkinsopp, and when did this occurbefore the Babylonians destroyed Lachish II, or after? I have never claimed that the land was entirely emptied, and it is very likely that, here and there, rural settlements remained, as attested in surveys and excavations. But what political or other significance can a defeated population have when it has no significant urban centers, when its religious center has been burned down, when its primary trade routes no longer exist, and when it no longer has its own government?
Although I have not claimed that the land was entirely abandoned, distinctions must be made between fundamentally different population densities. When my family arrived in the Land of Israel in 1800, for example, there were 300,000 inhabitants on both sides of the Jordan. Today there are some 13-14 million people living there. Still, it cannot be said that the land was empty in 1800only that it was sparsely populated.
Thus far, we have sketched the general historical and archaeological background to the Babylonian catastrophe.
We now move to the detailed archaeological discussion presented by Blenkinsopp, and I must confess that here I find myself in a difficult position. Professor Blenkinsopp is simply not an archaeologist, and if we were to place vessels from the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. in front of him, I frankly doubt that he would be able to distinguish among them. That simply requires years of specialization.
Blenkinsopp utilizes archaeology at second or third hand, sometimes quoting scholars who died decades ago (Albright and Wright). What their opinions would be today, nobody knows. It is not possible to conduct a detailed and specific scholarly debate with someone who isn't intimately familiar with the finds themselves. Therefore, I will refrain from discussing the sites one by one and presenting the reader with the finds from each of them (as ought to be done). I will instead present a few illustrative examples.
The first concerns Albright's excavation at Tell Beit Mirsim, for which I am most frequently criticized. The correction proposed by Aharoni, Ussishkin and Greenberg involves the severity of the Assyrian destruction that brought the city to an end in 701 B.C.E., a matter previously ignored by Albright. I have no argument with these later corrections. Moreover, as more excavations are carried out, particularly in western Judah, this picture becomes increasingly clear and is best reflected today in the Lachish excavations (level III). But the question is not whether Tell Beit Mirsim was destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 B.C.E.it certainly wasbut whether it was rebuilt (even on a smaller scale) and finally destroyed by the Babylonians only in 586 B.C.E., a destruction from which it never rose again. Everyone familiar with the specific finds dated to the end of the Kingdom of Judah (and who is not merely quoting others) can detect, among the few finds Albright published, pottery that clearly attests to the renewal of the settlement, or part of it, after the Assyrian destruction.
Another example is Beth-Shemesh, to which Blenkinsopp gives considerable attention. Recent excavations conducted there by Tel Aviv University have uncovered a late-seventh-century B.C.E. settlement that was Judahite; its pottery is identical to that of Ein Gedi or the destruction layers of Jerusalem rather than to a settlement in the Shephelah, the area of low hills between the coastal plain and the hill country of Judah. The Beth-Shemesh settlement also had a complicated water system that was destroyed at the end of the Iron Age by the Babylonianseither in 604-601 B.C.E. when the Philistine coastal cities were destroyed, or possibly later in 586 B.C.E. when the Babylonians destroyed Judah, of which Beth-Shemesh was a part.
*See Jane Cahill, "Royal Rosettes: Fit for a King," BAR, September/October 1997 (Order this issue).
All of the other Judahite Shephelah towns around Lachish met the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. Even non-archaeologists may compare the map of the distribution of rosette seal impressions examined by Jane Cahill,* characteristic of end of the Judahite Kingdom before the Babylonian destruction, with the distribution of the l'melekh ("belonging to the king") seal impressions that are characteristic of the period before the Assyrian destruction at the end of the eighth century B.C.E. By itself, such a comparison clearly shows to what extent the Judahite kingdom succeeded in reconstructing the settlements that had been destroyed by the Assyrianseven without considering the contents of the well-known Lachish Letters, which further document this rebuilding. Nothing similar is found after the Babylonian destructionnot a single bit of evidence, not a document. Complete silence.
Let us now consider Megiddo. Megiddo (stratum III) is indeed a splendid city from the Assyrian period, in my opinion and everybody else's. (Level III is the only level at Megiddo whose date, to the best of my knowledge, has not been challenged.) Blenkinsopp quotes the view of Shiloh and Ussishkin that the level III city was not destroyed at all or, alternatively, that it was not the Babylonians who destroyed it but the Egyptians in 609 B.C.E. Unfortunately, neither Shiloh nor Ussishkin were able to excaýate strata II-I (essentially two phases of a single stratum) because the American excavations of 80 years ago left virtually no trace of them. (Only segments of the Assyrian stratum III were excavated by Ussishkin's colleague, Israel Finkelstein.) As far as I know, I am the only archaeologist who went to the trouble of checking and reconstructing all of the loci from strata I and II from the American excavation and checking all the finds. My view today, having accrued 40 years additional experience, is that strata II-I, during which Megiddo became a very small, unwalled city protected only by a citadel, are dated exclusively to the Persian period. I can only await the archaeologist who will prove otherwise.
What then happened to the flourishing Assyrian city of Megiddo that served as the capital of the Assyrian province? There are two major possibilities. One is that its inhabitants abandoned it of their own accord (for there appears to have been no destruction)but that seems unlikely. However, if we adopt the alternate explanationthat the stratum III city was destroyed by the Egyptians in 609 B.C.E. and not by the Babylonians in 605 B.C.E.it makes little difference. There is only a four-year difference and not even the most experienced archaeologist can distinguish between such close dates. The debate is thus historical rather than archaeological. Even if Megiddo III was destroyed by the Egyptians (and it is not clear to me why the Egyptians would destroy the capital city of their ally's province), the 609 B.C.E. battle of Megiddo between Egypt and Judah was part of a larger war waged by Assyria and Egypt against Babylonia. These events are related to the emergence of Babylonia as a power in the Levant, and so in either case the destruction was caused by the wars against the Babylonians.
These examples, I believe, are sufficient. To sum up, even though there were previous Assyrian destructions (or more local destructions by the Edomites), the archaeological recordto someone experienced in interpreting itclearly demonstrates that the final destruction of Judah and its neighbors by the Babylonians from 604 to 586 B.C.E. produced a settlement vacuum followed by a major exchange of population in the region.
I thought it was me. Traffic does seem a lot slower since the new format. I would love to see the numbers.
They are available to us (somewhere) but, I don't know how to get to them. I've seen others post them on occassion.
Following Formatgeddon [the new format], the new FRabylonian Governors have created many new Provinces where before there was one. Unless the citizen of FRabylonia deliberately goes into the other Provinces, his neighborhood will be smaller than it used to be. FReeland has been compartmentalized and fractalized. Who will lead us out of this captivity?
Let us sing our lamentation
By the Rivers of FRabylon
By the rivers of FRabylon
where we sat down
And there we were
When we remembered Zion.
For the wicked, they
Carried us away in captivity
And required of us a song
How can we sing our song
In a strange land.
So let the words of our mouth
And the meditations of our heart
Be acceptable within Thy sight
I and I.
Hold on a minute. I think there's a burning bush out in the yard. (BTW, did you know that there are bushes in that area that will spontaneously combust?)
No kidding. Sad to watch a once-interesting site rot.
(Interesting articles, BTW. I don't even bother to scan these forums anymore, so I appreciate the ping!)
|GGG managers are SunkenCiv, StayAt HomeMother & Ernest_at_the_Beach|
Note: this topic is dated Sunday, April 28, 2002.
IIRC, it was long accepted that those taken in captivity were mostly the ruling class. Not the entire population.