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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.



              1. Geography (Extent; principal provinces; splendid capital).




              2. History:

              Beginning of the new Babylonian or Chaldean Empire (606 B.C.).


                            Rapid consolidation and wonderful prosperity under Nabuchodonosor.


                            Decline and fall (a comparatively easy prey to Cyrus).




              3. Civilization:

              Manners and customs.


                            Arts of peace and war.








              1. Number and Quality of the Captives.




              2. Social Condition in Babylonia:

              At first, cruel slavery inflicted.


                            Prompt organization as colonists.


                            Share in the commerce of the conquerors.


                            Final attachment to Babylonia as to a mother country.




              3. Religious Life:

              General reaction against idolatry.



              practise faithfully kept up.


                                          beliefs confirmed and developed.


                            Origin of synagogues as places for religious meetings.






§ 1. The Babylonian Empire

1. Geography. Babylonia is the name which the Greeks and the Romans gave to “the land of the Chaldeans” (Jerem. 24:5; Ezech. 12:13) into which the Jews were carried captive by Nabuchodonosor. The Babylonian empire proper comprised the region along the lower course of the Euphrates and the Tigris, from the point where they approach each other near the modern Baghdad, to their mouth in the Persian Gulf and from Elam on the east to Arabia on the west. As a worthy successor to the immense Assyrian empire, the new Babylonian or Chaldean empire controlled all the southern and western portions of the former Assyrian dominions, and included such important provinces as Susiana, Elam, Mesopotamia, Syria, Phenicia, Palestine, Idumæa, Northern Arabia and probably Lower Egypt.

The great cities found in this vast extent of territory were very numerous, and among them we may notice Borsippa, Sippara, Erech, Susa, Carcamis, Haran, Emath, Damascus, Jerusalem, Sidon, etc. Prominent among them all was Babylon, the capital of the empire, and commonly believed to have occupied the site of the ancient Babel (Gen. 11:4, 5, 9). It was situated in a flat, fertile plain on both sides of the Euphrates, some 200 miles above its junction with the Tigris. Its extent, strength and beauty are detailed by Herodotus (History, book i, chap. 178, sq.), according to whom Babylon was 200 square miles in extent, cut into squares by straight streets, and enclosed by a double line of walls. The Greek historian speaks also (1) of the houses as being mostly three and four stories high, (2) of the splendid temple of Bel, a tower 600 feet square, having eight stories, 480 feet high, with a winding ascent passing around it, and the chapel of a god at the top, (3) of an immense palace of the kings, the ruins of which are identified with the Kasr, an enormous pile of bricks, tiles and fragments of stone, (4) of the fine quays of Babylon. Berosus, a Babylonian priest and historian, who lived a little later than Herodotus, has also left an account of the famous hanging gardens of the great Babylon (cfr. JOSEPHUS, Antiq. of the Jews, book x, chap. xi, § 1).

It must be said, however, that whilst a few explorers of the ruins of that splendid city accept the enormous figure given for its extent by Herodotus, most, and apparently on very good grounds, reject it and think that Babylon was about eight miles in circuit.

2. History. The founder of the new Babylonian or Chaldean empire, the position and extent of which have been just described, was Nabopolassar (Nabu-pal-usur in Assyrian), a general of great ability, who was made first governor and next king of Babylonia when that country was still only a province of the Assyrian empire. Nabopolassar proving disloyal to his suzerain, the last Assyrian king, Asaraddon II, attacked and destroyed Ninive in union with Cyaxares, King of Media, and started a new empire with Babylon for its capital (606 B. C.).

The son and successor of Nabopolassar in 604 B. C., was Nabuchodonosor (Nabu-kudur-usur in the Assyrian inscriptions), to whom the new Babylonian empire owed chiefly its rapid consolidation and wonderful prosperity. During a long reign of forty-three years, this great warrior recovered Syria and Palestine, destroyed Jerusalem and carried away the Jews to Babylon, reduced Phenicia, ravaged and probably conquered Egypt. Then laden with spoils and glory, he utilized to its utmost limit the physical strength of his numerous captives—Jews, Phenicians, Syrians and Egyptians—to cover his whole territory with gigantic works, the remains of which excite admiration even to the present day. He fortified his capital with the greatest care, not only repairing the old wall around the city, but adding to it another less thick but almost as strong. He raised the walls of a huge palace in the incredibly short time of fifteen days, as we read in his large inscription and in the history of Berosus, and dug a canal the remains of which Rawlinson traced for a distance of from 400 to 500 miles. “He built or rebuilt almost all the cities of Upper Babylonia, Babylon itself, upon the bricks of which scarcely any other name is found, Sippara, Borsippa, Cutha, Teredon, Chilmad, etc.; he formed aqueducts and constructed the wonderful hanging gardens at Babylon; he raised the huge pyramidal temples at Borsippa and Akkerkuf, together with a vast number of other shrines,” etc. (RAWLINSON’S edition of Herodotus, History, vol. i. p. 413; cfr. also LENORMANT, Manual of the Ancient History of the East, vol. i. pp. 476–486).

The wealth, power and general prosperity of the Babylonian empire under Nabuchodonosor are nowhere better illustrated than in the opening chapters of the book of Daniel (cfr. especially, 2:37, 38; 3:1, sq.; 4:17–19). There we read also of his excessive pride, which made him consider himself as more than a mortal man (cfr. inscription quoted by LENORMANT, loc. cit.) and required divine honors from his subjects (Daniel 3; 4:27). After a long punishment in that strange form of madness which the Greeks called Lycanthropy, the Babylonian monarch was restored to health and to his former grandeur. Soon afterwards he died predicting, says Abydenus, the ruin of the Chaldean empire (EUSEBIUS, Præpar. Evang., book ix. chap. 41).

The prediction was soon to be fulfilled; the Babylonians owed their rapid success to their hordes of cavalry, rather than to their energy of character or to their knowledge of military tactics, and both were most desirable in view of conflicts with the Persians in a near future. Furthermore, the immediate successors of Nabuchodonosor, Evil-Merodach and Neriglissar, besides being men unworthy of the throne, were no match, from a military standpoint, for the young Cyrus who had already conquered Media. The only ruler worthy of Nabuchodonosor’s throne was the last King of Babylon, named Nabonahid, who reigned seventeen years. This prince was formerly, although wrongly, identified with King Baltassar, who is spoken of in the book of Daniel (chap. 5) as the son of Nabuchodonosor and apparently as the last King of Babylon, for, from the inscription which has a reference to Baltassar, it seems well established that he was really the son of Nabonahid and had been associated by him to the empire. After the defeat of Nabonahid by Cyrus, Babylon was taken during a royal banquet given by Baltassar, and its capture put an end to the Babylonian empire (cfr. Records of the Past, new series, vols, iii. p. 125, sq.; v. p. 160, sq.; WALLIS BUDGE, Babylonian Life and History, chap. vi; VIGOUROUX, Bible et Découvertes Modernes, vol. iv; DEANE, Daniel, chap. viii).

3. Civilization. The civilization of Babylon, in the midst of which the Jews lived during the Exile, resembled very closely that of Ninive, its former rival. In Babylonia as in Assyria, the upper classes wore a long sleeveless robe adorned with fringes and bound around the waist with a belt, a mantle over their shoulders, a tiara or fillet on their heads and sandals on their feet. The dress of the soldiers and lower classes was much more simple: it consisted in a linen tunic which did not quite reach the knees, and which was fastened round the waist by a girdle or sword-belt; sometimes even a simple kilt seems to have taken the place of this tunic, more frequently the kilt was worn under it. They all curled their hair and beard, used staves and a seal usually in the form of a cylinder.

The diet of the poorer class was simple, consisting almost exclusively of dates, which were perhaps pressed into cakes, as usual in the country at the present day. To this were probably added some vegetables, such as gourds, melons, etc., and in the marshy regions of the south, fish. The diet of the rich was more varied and pleasing to the taste. Wheaten bread, meats of various kinds, luscious fruits, fish, game appeared on their table, and wine imported from abroad was the usual drink. A festival banquet was magnificent and generally ended in drunkenness. Music, instrumental and vocal, entertained the guests, a rich odor of perfumes floated around, and there was great display of gold and silver plate. The splendid dresses of the guests, the exquisite carpets and hangings, the numerous attendants gave an air of grandeur to the scene (RAWLINSON, Ancient Monarchies, vol. iii, p. 19).

Marriages were made once a year at a public festival, when the maidens of age to marry were put up at public auction. Polygamy was permitted, but probably practised only by very wealthy men. The dress of the women consisted of a long tunic and mantle, and a fillet for confining the hair, and their seclusion seems scarcely to have been practised in Babylonia with as much strictness as in most Oriental countries.

All deeds and contracts stamped on tablets of clay were signed and sealed in presence of several witnesses, who attached their seals, or at least their nail marks, to the document. It was then enclosed in an outer coating of clay on which an abstract of the contents was given. These tablets, of varied shapes and colors, make us acquainted with all kinds of topics. Papyrus was, of course, one of the writing materials, but it had long been reserved for what we would call “éditions de luxe,” and the usual material was the clay, on which, whilst still wet, cuneiform or “wedge-shaped” characters were impressed by means of a metal stylus with a square head: then the clay was dried in the sun. In all the great cities of the empire there were regular libraries well supplied with books in papyrus and clay, and the decipherment of such writings and inscriptions as have been recently discovered in Assyria and Babylonia has proved a source of invaluable information. (Many of those old texts will be found correctly rendered into English in the six volumes of the Records of the Past, new series, published under the editorship of PROFESSOR SAYCE).

In architecture, painting and sculpture, the Babylonians were inferior to the Assyrians, but it was not so in commerce, both foreign and domestic. Great numbers engaged in the manufacture of textile fabrics, particularly carpets and muslins, and many more excelled as lapidaries. But it is chiefly in agriculture that the bulk of the people was engaged, with such success that on many points modern nations have, as it were, re-invented, but not improved on Babylonian methods. It seems also that in the days of Nabuchodonosor there was a firm of bankers whose special business it was to carry on the commerce of Babylon.

If we except the physical sciences, it can easily be proved that the various branches of human learning were cultivated with intelligence and success by the Babylonians. (For details, see WALLIS BUDGE, Babylonian Life and History, chap. viii.)

The Babylonians were armed with swords, bows and arrows, and staves; and in later days they used helmets and shields. Their battles, in which horses and chariots besides infantry were used, were little more than sudden surprises and skirmishes. In besieging cities, they employed scaling ladders, and men were set under cover to dig out the stones from the foundations, that the city walls might fall. On the taking of a city they ruthlessly destroyed everything, so that only a few kings took captives as working bondmen.

However monotheistic may have been the primitive religion of Babylonia, it is beyond doubt that in the time of the Exile they had long worshipped gods without number. From Ilu (El) the fountain-head of all divinity, a first triad of gods known as Anu, Ea and Bel (with three female counter-parts) was supposed to have emanated. These three gods represented time, intelligence and creation, and from them had originated a second triad, made up of Sin, Samas and Rimmon (with, of course, three corresponding female deities) and representing the moon, the sun and the evening star. Next in order of succession came the five planets: Adar, Merodach, Nergel, Istar and Nebo, whose names appear so often in Assyrian proper names.

To these great gods, and to a countless host of minor deities, the Babylonians addressed prayers, sung hymns and litanies, some specimens of which have come down to us. But what is far more important to notice, is the Chaldean account of the creation of the world, and a legend respecting the Tower of Babel and the Flood, which have been discovered and which are in close agreement with the inspired account in Genesis (cfr. SMITH, Chaldean Account of Genesis).

The splendid worship of Babylon was conducted by priests, through whom the worshippers made offerings, sometimes of the most costly kind, and sacrifices of oxen and goats. The priests were married and lived with their families, either within the sacred enclosures of the temples or in their immediate neighborhood. They were supported either by lands belonging to the temple to which they were attached, or by the offerings of the Babylonian worshippers.

Notions of legal cleanness and uncleanness akin to those prevalent among the Jews were found in the religious system of the Babylonians, and like the Jews also, the Chaldeans kept the seventh day. Let us mention finally their belief in demons, in a future life, and also the immoral character of some of their religious practices. (In connection with this idolatrous system of the Babylonians, chapter 6 of Baruch and chapter 14 of Daniel should be read.)

§ 2. The Jews in Exile

1. Number and Quality of the Captives. It is impossible in the present day to give even the approximate number of the Jewish captives whom Nabuchodonosor carried to Babylon in his various invasions. Even though we should suppose that the figures supplied in the Bible (in the books of Kings, of Jeremias, and Ezechiel) have not been tampered with, it would remain very probable that these official figures represent only the number of the men of rank whose influence was feared, if left in Judæa, and of those whose technical skill or physical strength made particularly desirable for the numerous and gigantic works of the King of Babylon (cfr. 4 Kings 24:14). But of course the members of the families of those exiles followed them into captivity, and only a very small remnant of Jews, and these of the poorest sort, remained in the land.

2. Social Organization in Babylonia. The bitter sense of bereavement experienced by the Jews thus torn away from their country can be more easily imagined than described. It is this feeling which is suggested by the Hebrew word “Guloth,” by which they designated the Captivity; it is also this feeling which we find so touchingly expressed in the well-known Psalm, Super flumina Babylonis. Nor is this to be wondered at, when we bear in mind the barbarous treatment which the bulk of them had most likely to undergo at the beginning of the Exile. They were the bondmen of Nabuchodonosor, and despite all their efforts to execute speedily and well the hard task daily exacted from them, they could say in all truth, “The plowers (the overseers) plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows” (Psalm 128:3, in Vulgate). To the sufferings inflicted by the lash were, no doubt, joined in many cases those of the dungeon, of hunger and of nakedness; hence we hear the captives complaining that they are “devoured” and “broken in pieces,” and repeating that wish inspired by revengeful hatred: “O daughter of Babylon, miserable; blessed shall he be who shall repay thee thy payment thou hast paid us. Blessed he that shall take and dash thy little ones against the rock!”

Soon, however, their condition became less unbearable, for, owing to the high influence of Daniel at court, his three Jewish companions, Sidrach, Misach and Abdenago were “appointed over the works of the province of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48, 49). Henceforth they enjoyed the rights which Babylonian civilization ever recognized in slaves of whatever origin: they had, for instance, a right to compensation for their labor, and the faculty of redeeming themselves from bondage. Nay, more, they seem to have been allowed to settle in colonies here and there over the land, and to organize themselves pretty much in the same way as in Judæa (Ezechiel 20:1).

This they actually did, when, giving up their foolish hope of an immediate restoration to the Holy Land, they complied with the wise counsel of Jeremias, that they should build houses, plant orchards, marry their sons and daughters, work and pray for the peace and prosperity of Babylon (Jeremias, 29:4–7). In point of fact, the history of Suzanna and the two elders narrated in the book of Daniel (chap. 13) gives us positive information about an extent of self-government which we would have hardly supposed granted to the Jews in their exile. It allows us also an insight into the material prosperity which many among them were doubtless able to secure to themselves by sharing in the industrial and commercial life of their conquerors. Indeed, it has been supposed, and with some probability, that the great banker of Babylon, Egibi, was of Jewish origin.

Thus the Jews gradually became attached to this foreign country, and in proportion as they enjoyed material prosperity, religious freedom, satisfaction of commercial instincts and genuine consideration from the heathens, in the same proportion, also, their enthusiasm for the desolate land of Palestine abated, especially in the minds of the new generation born in Babylonia. A striking proof of this is found in the fact that when permission to return to the Holy Land was granted to the exiles only a small number availed themselves of it, and the rest preferred to continue to live in a country in which they had a comfortable home. Henceforth, and for long centuries to come, Babylon was to be a great centre of Jewish population, a great seat of Jewish learning.

3. Religious Life. As might naturally be expected, idolatry, to which the Jews had long been accustomed in Palestine, flourished at first among them in Babylonia, the more so because, by the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, Jehovah had proved inferior in the eyes of many to the idols of the nations. Soon, however, it became a conviction with a large number that these great evils were, after all, nothing but the just punishment of their wicked deeds, and under the influence of the prophets, priests and Levites of Jehovah this better frame of mind spread daily. Again, the fulfilment of the predictions concerning the fall of Jerusalem and Ninive, the courage and patronage of Daniel, together with the miracles granted to him and the spectacle of many heathens embracing Hebrew worship, brought about a strong reaction against idolatry. In fact, Divine Providence intervened so repeatedly and powerfully during the seventy years of the Exile, both in favor of the worshippers of Jehovah and against their opponents, that this reaction proved a lasting one, and that the descendants of the exiles remained, as a body, invariably faithful to national monotheism.

Of course, in Babylon the Levitical worship could not be carried out in its fulness. The sacrificial rites of the Temple, for instance, were naturally stopped during the period of the Exile, but this made it all the more desirable that the rest of the religion of Jehovah, which could be observed outside Palestine, should be faithfully adhered to by the Jews. During that time they no doubt read with great reverence whatever sacred books were in their possession, eager to find in them prospects of a brighter condition for their religion and commonwealth. It is also during this same period that the practice of lifting up their hearts to God in prayer at the regular time of the morning and evening incense-offering spread among the exiles; to these sacred times for supplication they seem even to have added the hour of noon (Daniel 6:10).

Whilst the religious practices of the Jews were thus faithfully kept up in Babylon, and even improved upon, their religious beliefs were also confirmed and developed. The unity of God and inanity of idols became daily more evident truths to their minds; the power of prayer and of good works was also emphasized in various ways, whilst the great dogma of the resurrection of the dead was formulated with a distinctness which could hardly be surpassed (Ezech. 37; Dan. 12:1–3). At the same time, the Messianic belief was developed into the idea of a Divine Messenger, of a great King, who would found, not a transient and limited kingdom like unto the great empires of the world, but a universal and everlasting theocracy. Finally, Jewish theology respecting the holy angels was developed and completed; henceforth they were clearly conceived as constituting a hierarchy of spirits, who under God, have a great power over men and demons, and are busied about the interests of individuals and empires.

A last, but very important feature of the religious life of the Jews during their exile, is to be found in the institution of the Synagogues as places for religious meetings. We have, it is true, no definite statement in the inspired records to the effect that this is the period of Jewish history to which we must trace back the origin of those synagogues, which we find so multiplied in the time of Our Lord and His apostles, but the circumstances of time and place were such as would naturally lead the Jews to start such an institution; and they were no sooner restored to their own land, than something very much akin to the synagogal worship in its most developed form is observable in the Biblical records (cfr. Nehemias 8).

The Book of Tobias

Intimately connected with the period of the Exile, although not with the captives of Babylon, is the inspired book of Tobias, the text of which has reached us only in translations which present many important variations. Naturally enough, the historical character of this book had long remained unquestioned among Catholics, for all the details it contains are presented in the form of a narrative. A few Catholic scholars, however, especially because of alleged historical inaccuracies, and the peculiar character of the miracles it describes, have, of late, departed from this time-honored position. They prefer to look upon it as an inspired story based on facts and therefore, even from a historical standpoint, very useful to Biblical students. There is no doubt, that it supplies many interesting data concerning the material, moral and religious condition of those Jews of the northern kingdom who were spread through the Assyrian empire (cfr. PELT, vol. ii, p. 296–300).

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