In Biblical history a number of different captivities are mentioned. (Nu 21:29; 2Ch 29:9; Isa 46:2; Eze 30:17, 18; Da 11:33; Na 3:10; Re 13:10; see CAPTIVE.) However, “the captivity” generally refers to the great exiling of Jews from the Promised Land in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. by the Assyrian and Babylonian World Powers, and is also called “the Exile” and “the deportation.”—Ezr 3:8; 6:21; Mt 1:17; see EXILE.
Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets warned of this great calamity in statements like these: “Whoever is for the captivity, to the captivity!” “As for you, O Pashhur, and all the inhabitants of your house, you will go into captivity; and to Babylon you will come.” “There is this pronouncement against Jerusalem and all the house of Israel . . . ‘Into exile, into captivity they will go.’” (Jer 15:2; 20:6; Eze 12:10, 11) Later, concerning the return from Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah (7:6) relates: “These are the sons of the jurisdictional district who came up out of the captivity of the exiled people whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had taken into exile and who later returned to Jerusalem and to Judah.”—See also Ezr 2:1; 3:8; 8:35; Ne 1:2, 3; 8:17.
Assyria, it seems, was the first to introduce the policy of uprooting and removing the entire populations of captured towns from their homeland and repopulating the territory with captives from other parts of the empire. This deportation policy of Assyria was not enforced against only the Jews, for when Damascus, the capital of Syria, fell under the crushing military onslaught of this second world power, its people were banished to Kir, as foretold by the prophet Amos. (2Ki 16:8, 9; Am 1:5) The practice had a twofold effect: It discouraged the few remaining ones from subversive activity; and the surrounding nations that may have been friendly with those taken captive were less inclined to give aid and assistance to the new foreign element brought in from distant places.
In both the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel and the southern two-tribe kingdom of Judah, the root cause leading up to captivity was the same: abandonment of true worship of Jehovah in favor of the worship of false gods. (De 28:15, 62-68; 2Ki 17:7-18; 21:10-15) Jehovah, for his part, continually sent his prophets to warn them both but to no avail. (2Ki 17:13) None of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel’s kings ever made a complete purge of the false worship instituted by that nation’s first king, Jeroboam. Judah, her sister kingdom to the S, failed to heed both Jehovah’s direct warnings and the example of the captivity into which Israel had fallen. (Jer 3:6-10) The inhabitants of both kingdoms eventually were carried away into exile, each nation in more than one principal deportation.
Beginning of the Exile. During the reign of Israelite King Pekah at Samaria (c. 778-759 B.C.E.), Assyrian King Pul (Tiglath-pileser III) came against Israel, captured a large section in the N, and deported its inhabitants to eastern parts of his empire. (2Ki 15:29) This same monarch also captured territory E of the Jordan and from that area “he took into exile those of the Reubenites and of the Gadites and of the half tribe of Manasseh and brought them to Halah and Habor and Hara and the river Gozan to continue until this day.”—1Ch 5:26.
In 742 B.C.E. the Assyrian army under Shalmaneser V besieged Samaria. (2Ki 18:9, 10) When Samaria fell in 740 B.C.E., thus ending the ten-tribe kingdom, its inhabitants were taken into exile “in Halah and in Habor at the river Gozan and in the cities of the Medes.” This was because, as the Scriptures say, “they had not listened to the voice of Jehovah their God, but kept overstepping his covenant, even all that Moses the servant of Jehovah had commanded. They neither listened nor performed.”—2Ki 18:11, 12; 17:6; see SARGON.
Captives from other widely scattered places were then brought in and settled in the cities of Samaria. “Subsequently the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon and Cuthah and Avva and Hamath and Sepharvaim and had them dwell in the cities of Samaria instead of the sons of Israel; and they began to take possession of Samaria and to dwell in its cities.” (2Ki 17:24) This foreign element imported with them their pagan religion; “each different nation came to be a maker of its own god.” And because they showed no regard or respect for Jehovah, he “sent lions among them, and they came to be killers among them.” The king of Assyria then returned one of the Israelite priests, “and he came to be a teacher of them as to how they ought to fear Jehovah.” So, as the account then says, “It was of Jehovah that they became fearers, but it was of their own gods that they proved to be worshipers, according to the religion of the nations from among whom they had led them into exile.”—2Ki 17:25-33.
During the century and more that followed the overthrow of the northern kingdom, other notable exiles began. Before Sennacherib’s humiliating defeat at God’s hand in 732 B.C.E., he attacked various places in Judah. It is claimed by Sennacherib in his annals that he captured 200,150 from towns and fortresses in Judah’s territory, though, judging from the tone of the annals, the number is probably an exaggeration. (2Ki 18:13) His successor Esar-haddon and the Assyrian monarch that followed him, Asenappar (Ashurbanipal), both transported captives to foreign territories.—Ezr 4:2, 10.
In 628 B.C.E., Egypt’s Pharaoh Necho put Josiah’s son Jehoahaz of the southern kingdom in bonds and carried him captive to Egypt. (2Ch 36:1-5) But it was more than a decade later, in 617 B.C.E., that the first captives from Jerusalem were taken into exile at Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar came against the rebellious city and carried off the upper class of the population, including King Jehoiachin and his mother, and men such as Ezekiel, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, together with “the princes and all the valiant, mighty men—ten thousand he was taking into exile—and also every craftsman and builder of bulwarks. No one had been left behind except the lowly class of the people . . . Court officials and the foremost men of the land he led away as exiled people from Jerusalem to Babylon. As for all the valiant men, seven thousand, and the craftsmen and the builders of bulwarks, a thousand, all the mighty men carrying on war, the king of Babylon proceeded to bring them as exiled people to Babylon.” He also took much of the treasure from the temple. (2Ki 24:12-16; Es 2:6; Eze 1:1-3; Da 1:2, 6) Jehoiachin’s uncle Zedekiah was left behind as a vassal king. A few others of note, including the prophet Jeremiah, also remained in Jerusalem. In view of the large number of captives recorded at 2 Kings 24:14, the figure 3,023 given at Jeremiah 52:28 apparently refers to those of a certain rank, or to those who were family heads—their wives and children, numbering thousands, not being included in the figure.
The final capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar was completed in 607 B.C.E., after an 18-month siege. (2Ki 25:1-4) This time the city was emptied of most of its inhabitants. Some of the lowly ones of the land were allowed to remain “as vinedressers and as compulsory laborers” under the governorship of Gedaliah at Mizpah. (Jer 52:16; 40:7-10; 2Ki 25:22) Those taken captive to Babylon included “some of the lowly ones of the people and the rest of the people that were left remaining in the city and the deserters . . . and the rest of the master workmen.” The expression “that were left remaining in the city” apparently indicates that great numbers had died from famine, disease, or fire, or else they were slaughtered in the war. (Jer 52:15; 2Ki 25:11) Zedekiah’s sons, the princes of Judah, court officials, certain priests, and many other prominent citizens were put to death at the order of the king of Babylon. (2Ki 25:7, 18-21; Jer 52:10, 24-27) All of this could account for the rather low number of those actually listed as exiles that were led off, the number given being only 832, probably heads of households, their wives and children not being counted.—Jer 52:29.
Some two months later, after the assassination of Gedaliah, the rest of the Jews left behind in Judah fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah and Baruch along with them. (2Ki 25:8-12, 25, 26; Jer 43:5-7) Some of the Jews also may have fled to other nations round about. Probably from among these nations were the 745 captives, as household heads, exiled five years later when Nebuchadnezzar, as Jehovah’s symbolic club, dashed to pieces the nations bordering Judah. (Jer 51:20; 52:30) Josephus says that five years after the fall of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar overran Ammon and Moab and then went on down and took vengeance on Egypt.—Jewish Antiquities, X, 181, 182 (ix, 7).
The situation with Jerusalem was different from that of other conquered cities such as Samaria, which was reinhabited with imported captives from other parts of the Assyrian Empire. In contrast to the usual policy of the Babylonians toward the cities they conquered, Jerusalem and its vicinity were emptied and left desolate, just as Jehovah had predetermined. Bible critics may question that Judah’s once-prosperous land was suddenly made “a desolate waste, without an inhabitant,” but there is admittedly no historical evidence, no records from this period, to prove otherwise. (Jer 9:11; 32:43) Archaeologist G. Ernest Wright declares: “The violence visited upon Judah is clear . . . from archaeological surveys which show that city after city ceased to be inhabited at this time, many never to be reoccupied.” (Biblical Archaeology, 1962, p. 182) William F. Albright agrees: “There is not a single known case where a town of Judah proper was continuously occupied through the exilic period.”—The Archaeology of Palestine, 1971, p. 142.
Condition of the Exiles. The captivity was regarded in general as a period of oppression and bondage. Jehovah said that, instead of showing mercy to Israel, “upon the old man you [Babylon] made your yoke very heavy.” (Isa 47:5, 6) No doubt certain payments (tax, tribute, toll), based on what they were able to produce or earn, were exacted of them the same as was levied on other captives. Also, the very fact that the great temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem had been stripped and destroyed, its priesthood either killed or taken into exile, and its worshipers carried away into captivity and made subjects to a foreign power, certainly constituted a state of oppression.
However, being exiled to a foreign land was not as bad as being sold into cruel perpetual slavery or being executed in the sadistic manner typical of Assyrian and Babylonian conquests. (Isa 14:4-6; Jer 50:17) The exiled Jews, it seems, enjoyed a certain measure of freedom to move around, and they exercised some degree of internal administration of their affairs. (Ezr 8:1, 16, 17; Eze 1:1; 14:1; 20:1) “To all the exiled people, whom I have caused to go into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon,” Jehovah said: “Build houses and inhabit them, and plant gardens and eat their fruitage. Take wives and become father to sons and to daughters; and take wives for your own sons and give your own daughters to husbands, that they may give birth to sons and to daughters; and become many there, and do not become few. Also, seek the peace of the city to which I have caused you to go into exile, and pray in its behalf to Jehovah, for in its peace there will prove to be peace for you yourselves.” (Jer 29:4-7) Some of them developed skills in various trades that proved useful after the exile ended. (Ne 3:8, 31, 32) Engaging in commercial enterprises and general merchandising became their specialties. Many Jewish names were found among business records. As a result of such commercial intercourse and social contact with non-Jews, the Hebrew language began to reflect Aramaic influence.
The period of captivity, amounting to 80 years for some, naturally affected community worship of the true God Jehovah. With no temple, no altar, and no organized priesthood, the offering of daily sacrifices was not possible. However, the practice of circumcision, abstention from unclean foods, Sabbath observance, and constancy in prayer were things the faithful could do in spite of the scorn and ridicule of others. Captive Daniel’s “serving with constancy” his God was well known by King Darius and others. Even when an interdict was legalized that prohibited under the penalty of death the making of a petition to anyone except the king, “three times in a day [Daniel] was kneeling on his knees and praying and offering praise before his God, as he had been regularly doing prior to this.” (Da 6:4-23) Such faithfulness in their limited worship helped to prevent these exiles from losing their national identity. They could also profit from the contrast they observed between the pure simplicity of Jehovah’s worship and the ostentatious idolatrous materialism of Babylon. No doubt they also benefited from the presence of Jehovah’s prophets, Ezekiel and Daniel.—Eze 8:1; Da 1:6; 10:1, 2.
As the local synagogue arrangement developed among the Jews, the need for copies of the Scriptures in the communities of Jewish exiles all over Media, Persia, and Babylonia intensified. Ezra was known as “a skilled copyist in the law of Moses,” indicating that copies of Jehovah’s Law had been brought from Judah, reproductions of which were made. (Ezr 7:6) Without doubt these precious scrolls of past generations included the book of Psalms, with the probability that Psalm 137, and perhaps also Psalm 126, were composed during or shortly after the captivity. The six so-called Hallel Psalms (113 to 118) were sung at the great Passover feasts following the return of the remnant from Babylon.
Restoration and the Dispersion. Hope of release from the captivity was not to be found in Babylon’s policy of no return. Egypt, to whom Israel had once looked for assistance, was in no position militarily or otherwise to help, and the other nations were likewise helpless, if not outright hostile toward the Jews. Only in Jehovah’s prophetic promises was there any basis for hope. Moses and Solomon, centuries before, had spoken of restoration that would follow captivity. (De 30:1-5; 1Ki 8:46-53) Other prophets also gave reassurance of a deliverance from exile. (Jer 30:10; 46:27; Eze 39:25-27; Am 9:13-15; Zep 2:7; 3:20) Isaiah, in the last 18 chapters (49-66) of his prophecy, developed this restoration theme to a sweeping climax. The false prophets, however, proved wrong in predicting an early release, and any who trusted in them were sadly disappointed.—Jer 28:1-17.
Faithful Jeremiah proved to be the one giving the correct length of the desolation of Jerusalem and Judah as 70 years, after which time restoration would come. (Jer 25:11, 12; 29:10-14; 30:3, 18) Concerning this, Daniel, in the first year of Darius the Mede, “discerned by the books the number of the years concerning which the word of Jehovah had occurred to Jeremiah the prophet, for fulfilling the devastations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.”—Da 9:1, 2.
How many exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylon in 537 B.C.E.?
Early in 537 B.C.E., Persian King Cyrus II issued a decree permitting the captives to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. (2Ch 36:20, 21; Ezr 1:1-4) Preparations were soon under way. With the direction of Governor Zerubbabel and High Priest Jeshua, “the sons of the Exile” (Ezr 4:1), numbering 42,360 men in addition to 7,537 slaves and singers, made the trip of about four months. A footnote in the sixth edition of Isaac Leeser’s translation of the Bible suggests that the entire number amounted to about 200,000, including women and children. By the seventh month, in the fall, they were settled in their cities. (Ezr 1:5–3:1) Providentially, the royal line of David leading to Christ had been preserved through Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) and Zerubbabel. Also, the lineage of the Levitical high priest continued unbroken through Jehozadak and, in turn, his son Jeshua.—Mt 1:11-16; 1Ch 6:15; Ezr 3:2, 8.
Later, more captives returned to Palestine. In 468 B.C.E., Ezra was accompanied by more than 1,750, which figure apparently includes only adult males. (Ezr 7:1–8:32) A few years later Nehemiah made at least two trips from Babylon to Jerusalem, but how many Jews returned with him is not disclosed.—Ne 2:5, 6, 11; 13:6, 7.
The captivity put an end to the separation of Judah and Israel. The conquerors made no distinction according to tribal origins when deporting the exiles. “The sons of Israel and the sons of Judah are being oppressed together,” Jehovah observed. (Jer 50:33) When the first contingent returned in 537 B.C.E., representatives of all the tribes of Israel were among them. Later, at the completion of the temple rebuilding, a sacrifice of 12 male goats was made, “according to the number of the tribes of Israel.” (Ezr 6:16, 17) Such reunification after the captivity was indicated in prophecy. For example, Jehovah promised to “bring Israel back.” (Jer 50:19) Furthermore, Jehovah said: “I will bring back the captives of Judah and the captives of Israel, and I will build them just as at the start.” (Jer 33:7) Ezekiel’s illustration of the two sticks that were made one (37:15-28) indicated that the two kingdoms would again become one nation. Isaiah foretold that Jesus Christ would become a stumbling stone “to both the houses of Israel,” hardly meaning that Jesus, or the 12 whom he sent out during his third tour of Galilee, would have to visit settlements in far-off Media in order to preach to descendants of Israelites from the northern kingdom. (Isa 8:14; Mt 10:5, 6; 1Pe 2:8) The prophetess Anna, in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth, was of the tribe of Asher, which tribe was once numbered with the northern kingdom.—Lu 2:36.
Not all the Jews returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel, only “a mere remnant.” (Isa 10:21, 22) Among those returning, there were very few who had seen the original temple. Old age prevented many from risking the hardships of the trip. Others who from a physical point of view could have made the trip chose to remain behind. Many, no doubt, had gained a little material success over the years and were satisfied to remain where they were. If the rebuilding of Jehovah’s temple did not occupy the first place in their lives, they would not be inclined to make the hazardous trip, with an uncertain future awaiting them. And, of course, those who had proved apostate had no incentive to go back.
This means that as a people, part of the Jews remained scattered and came to be known as the Di·a·spo·raʹ, or “Dispersion.” In the fifth century B.C.E. communities of Jews were found throughout the 127 jurisdictional districts of the Persian Empire. (Es 1:1; 3:8) Even certain descendants of the exiles still found positions high in government office: for example, Mordecai and Esther under the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), and Nehemiah as royal cupbearer to Artaxerxes Longimanus. (Es 9:29-31; 10:2, 3; Ne 1:11) Ezra, when compiling Chronicles, wrote that many of those dispersed in various eastern cities “continue until this day” (c. 460 B.C.E.). (1Ch 5:26) With the rise of the Grecian Empire, Jews were brought by Alexander the Great to his new Egyptian city of Alexandria, where they learned to speak Greek. It was there that the translating of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek to produce the Septuagint was begun in the third century B.C.E. The Syro-Egyptian wars brought about the transferal of many Jews into Asia Minor and into Egypt respectively. Pompey, upon conquering Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., took Jews to Rome as slaves.
The great dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman Empire was a factor contributing to the rapid spread of Christianity. Jesus Christ limited his own preaching to the soil of Israel, but he commanded his followers to reach out and spread their ministry “to the most distant part of the earth.” (Ac 1:8) Jews from different parts of the Roman Empire were in Jerusalem attending the Pentecost festival in 33 C.E., and they heard the spirit-begotten Christians preaching about Jesus in the languages of Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, the district of Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Crete, Arabia, and Rome. Thousands, upon returning to their lands, took with them their newly found faith. (Ac 2:1-11) In most of the cities Paul visited he found synagogues where he could readily speak to Jews of the Dispersion. In Lystra, Paul met Timothy, whose mother was a Jewess. Aquila and Priscilla were newly arrived from Rome when Paul got to Corinth, about 50 C.E. (Ac 13:14; 14:1; 16:1; 17:1, 2; 18:1, 2, 7; 19:8) The great numbers of Jews in and around Babylon made it worth the effort for Peter to go there to carry on his ministry among “those who are circumcised.” (Ga 2:8; 1Pe 5:13) This community of Jews in the area around Babylon continued as the most important center of Judaism for quite some time after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.