Judah in the Seventh and Early Sixth Centuries BCE: The End of Assyrian Domination and the Fall of Jerusalem 2 Kings 21–25, 2 Chronicles 33–36, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah

This chapter discusses the period that followed the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BCE. The Assyrians continued to expand their empire, finally gaining control over the entire Near East when the Egyptian capital was taken in 663. During this time, two important kings ruled over Judah. The first of these was Manasseh, who remained a loyal vassal to the Assyrians; the second was Josiah, who sought independence from Assyrian domination. Unlike Hezekiah’s ill-fated attempt at independence, Josiah’s move was not met with immediate reprisal since he was able to take advantage of a weakening Assyrian empire. The decline of the Assyrians was swift and complete. The Assyrians vanished as a power in the Near East by 609 when the Babylonians took control of the region.

Manasseh

Manasseh ruled longer than any other monarch of the Davidic dynasty. Despite his lengthy reign, the Deuteronomistic historians give few details about it. To these writers, Manasseh was the worst king of them all because he was a religious apostate. Furthermore, since he came between Hezekiah and Josiah, both of whom were considered pious by the Historians, Manasseh was doomed by contrast. However, the book of Chronicles adds more to this rather limited picture. Chronicles describes an episode in which Manasseh was imprisoned in Babylon by the king of Assyria. While in prison, Manasseh repented for his apostasy and was then restored to the throne. To the Chronicler, this event explained Manasseh’s long reign: Only by repentance and divine favor was it possible for Manasseh to have such a lengthy rule. It is difficult to know much about Manasseh’s policies since our sources are limited, but what is clear is that he was in power when Assyrian hegemony was at its peak.

Josiah

Josiah became king in 640 BCE when he was only eight years old. Josiah was a favorite of the Deuteronomistic Historians because of his religious reforms. In fact, much of the account of his reign in 2 Kings 22.1–23.30 is devoted to these religious innovations. What inspired this reform was the discovery of the “book of the law” in the Temple archives, a book identified by scholars as an early form of Deuteronomy. Josiah’s innovations restricted Yahweh’s worship to the Temple in Jerusalem, and he abolished the worship of all other gods in the city. Finally, his reforms culminated in a national celebration of the Passover.

            For the Deuteronomistic historians, Josiah’s reign was an unqualified success. Not only did he institute religious reforms that revived the strict observance of Moses’s teaching, but he was also one of the few monarchs who actually purged Israel of other gods and shrines. We are also told that Josiah had the support of the Temple priests for his reforms, although it may be possible that they instigated the reforms themselves as a way of centralizing their own power.

            Overall it is difficult to determine the import of Josiah’s reign since the biblical accounts are idealized and focused on religious reform and not historical events. Archaeology does provide some insight, however, since there is evidence that Israel began to increase both its influence in the region and its building activities in the mid-seventh century. Therefore, we may conclude that there is some substance to the Deuteronomistic historians’ lofty portrait of Josiah’s reign. While many of the details are exaggerated, Josiah did take advantage of the political climate, and he extended Israel’s borders beyond what they were under Assyrian rule.

The Last Kings of Judah

Three of the last four kings of Judah were sons of Josiah. His first successor and son Jehoahaz ruled for only three months before Neco, the Egyptian pharaoh, removed him from the throne. Jehoahaz’s brother, Jehoiakim, replaced him, and he proved himself to be a loyal vassal of Egypt. When Babylon came to power, Jehoiakim switched his loyalties but soon declared his independence from Babylon. Before Babylon was able to attack, Jehoiakim died, and he was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin. Jehoiachin reigned for only three months before Nebuchadrezzer invaded Judah and took the king and many other inhabitants of the land captive in 597 BCE. Zedekiah was the last king of the Davidic dynasty to rule Judah, and his rule began peacefully as he remained loyal to Babylon. Eventually, Zedekiah refused to pay tribute to Babylon, and the result was disastrous. Babylon attacked Jerusalem, burning it and its Temple. Zedekiah was taken into exile as a captive and all of his sons were executed, ending the prospect of the continuance of the Davidic line. More of Jerusalem’s population was deported to Babylon, joining those who were sent there earlier in 597.

Zephaniah and Nahum

Zephaniah is one of the Minor Prophets whose career coincided with the reign of Josiah. The book features a series of judgments against Jerusalem and all of Israel as well as foreign powers. The work concludes with a more positive message, stating that Zion will be restored. Zephaniah also employs several prophetic themes that were encountered earlier, including the condemnation of the worship of gods other than Yahweh and the practice of religious rituals foreign to standard Israelite practices. Perhaps the most important theme is a highly developed version of the day of the LORD, which we already have encountered in the book of Amos. In Zephaniah’s version, this day of divine wrath is not limited to Israel. Rather, the condemnation is for the entire world since Yahweh is the only god with any power.

            The book of Nahum is one of the shortest books of the Bible, and we have no information about the prophet himself. The text is devoted to an attack on the Assyrians and especially their capital city, Nineveh. The text mentions two important historical events, the capture of Thebes in 663 BCE and the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BCE, which suggests that the core of the text was composed at the end of the seventh century. The text praises Yahweh as the one who directs all events in history, including Assyria’s destruction. In sum, the text was meant to comfort the Israelites who had suffered under the hated Assyrians.

Habakkuk

Habakkuk probably dates to the early Babylonian period, evidenced by its reference to the “rise of the Chaldeans.” Since it does not describe the two invasions of Judah by the Babylonians or the deportation of the people, it is likely that the text belongs to the end of the seventh century. The book itself can be divided into two parts, “the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw” and the “prayer of the prophet Habakkuk.” The first part features a discussion between God and the prophet that alternates Habakkuk’s laments with God’s responses. The second portion of the text features God the warrior, who will eventually come to the aid of Israel and destroy its enemies.

Jeremiah

The book of Jeremiah is the second of the Major Prophets, and it is a highly complex text that shows a great deal of development and revision over its history. The text itself features many different genres, including poetic oracles, prose narratives, a section on consolation, and oracles against the nations. Although it is difficult to determine whether or not any of the Jeremiah text can be traced directly to the prophet, it is clear that the Deuteronomic school edited the volume. Jeremiah not only uses phrasing similar to that found in other Deuteronomic works, but it also replicates the Deuteronomistic historians’ account of Zedekiah’s reign and the capture of Babylon. Although Jeremiah does show connections with the Deuteronomic school, it also demonstrates a certain level of frustration or disappointment with the lack of success of the Deuteronomic reforms begun by Josiah. In short, Jeremiah now sees the observance of the law of Moses not as a matter of choice but a requirement for survival against the Babylonians.

            According to the text, Jeremiah had a long career that spanned from the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign to the fall of Jerusalem (627–586 BCE). The text also tells us that Jeremiah was from a small village called Anathoth just north of Jerusalem and that he was a priest. Like Isaiah, he was also apparently an important figure in the royal court who often disagreed with the king. While many early scholars have suggested that these and other details within the book of Jeremiah provide a biographical account of the prophet, a better approach is to assume that much of the text is a literary, not a historical, work. In other words, the editors of Jeremiah constructed “historical” narratives of the prophet’s life in an effort to demonstrate Jeremiah’s place within the line of divinely appointed messengers who were called to reveal God’s words. Along these lines, the accounts of his call by God, his confessions or lamentations, and his prophetic gestures should all be understood as parts of a literary biography and not necessarily a historical record.

            While the overall content of Jeremiah may appear inconsistent in places, it is possible that conflicts within the text represent an evolution in the prophet’s message. In short, Jeremiah’s words changed along with the fortunes of Judah. Thus, Jeremiah may have originally supported the reforms of Josiah or even been a part of them. When the reforms failed to work, Jeremiah changed his message. Jeremiah believed that Judah could not depend on the royal ideology for protection; instead, the people had to observe the Sinai covenant. Since the Israelites continued to murder, commit adultery, and worship Baal, the country was doomed. However, although Judah and Jerusalem would be ruined, Jeremiah also predicts the restoration of Israel, the return of the exiles, and a renewal of the covenant with Yahweh.

Implications for Our Study

The invasion of the Babylonians in 586 BCE resulted in catastrophic upheaval for Israel. With the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Davidic dynasty, two of the central elements of Israelite identity were lost. Furthermore, a large percentage of the population was once again separated from the Promised Land. In the chapters that follow, we will see how the people of Israel survived and adapted to these new realities.