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pic4 Bethlehem – a shepherd tends his flock


The captivity of both Israel and Judah are often dated to the capture of the capital cities, Samaria for Israel in 721 BC and Jerusalem for Judah in 586 BC. However, both events took place over a longer period of time.

The captivity of Israel began in 740 BC under the Assyrian king, Tiglath Pileser III who carried away the tribes from across the Jordan river (Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe Manasseh)1 and the inhabitants of Galilee and settled them in various places in the Assyrian Empire (see 1 Chronicles 5:26 and 1 Kings 15:29). The Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, then besieged the city of Samaria for three years and his successor, Sargon II, captured it in 721 BC and took away 27,000 captives (2 Kings 17:5). Later Assyrian kings, such as Esarhaddon, completed the task in the period 680-670 BC.

Likewise the captivity of Judah started well before the defining date. Sennacherib, who had now become king of Assyria, came up ten years after the fall of Samaria and threatened Judah during the reign of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s good kings. He captured some of the fortified cities of Judah and is said to have taken away 200,000 Judean captives. However, he was not able to take Jerusalem. In fact the Lord reversed the situation. His army was destroyed and he himself was murdered by his two sons. However, this deliverance was not enough to spare Judah and it was taken captive in three stages by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, starting in 605 BC, followed by 597 BC and finally 586 BC with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The exile of both Israel and Judah are spoken about many times. Isaiah and Hosea were prophets in the southern kingdom, but prophesied in relation to both Israel and Judah. The texts of both prophets are replete with the sins of Israel and how they had been unfaithful to their God and warning that God would punish them.

Hosea says:

They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. Hosea 11:5

And Isaiah says:

… before the boy [Isaiah’s son] knows how to cry ‘My father’ or ‘My mother’, the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria. Isaiah 8:4 [comment added]

We find this happens in the second book of Kings where the historical events are recorded:

In the sixth year of Hezekiah, which was the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken. The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria and put them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan [all in Northern Iraq], and in the cities of the Medes [Northern Iran], because they did not obey the voice of the Lord their God but transgressed his covenant, even all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened nor obeyed. 2 Kings 18:10-12 [comment added]

The burden of prophecy with respect of Judah was carried by Jeremiah, and a very heavy burden it was! The advent of Judah’s exile was delayed because good kings such as Hezekiah and Josiah were able to forestall it, but eventually the sins of other kings in particular those of Manasseh, precipitated their exile. Jeremiah was prophesying towards the end of Judah’s time as a nation, probably from 627 BC, and lived through the three phases of exile, himself being carried not to Babylon, but down to Egypt.

For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened. Jeremiah 25:3

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation…. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Jeremiah 25:8-11

This is confirmed:

Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. Jeremiah 27:6

This exile duly happened, with great savagery for those who like King Zedekiah (the last of the kings of Judah) resisted it. Those who were obedient to Jeremiah’s instructions to go quietly into exile were treated much more leniently. It occurred in three stages and is described in a number of passages in 2 Kings Chapters 24 and 25; 2 Chronicles Chapter 36 and in the book of Jeremiah itself.

Many times God pleaded through the prophets with the kings and the people to turn from their evil ways. Shortly before the first stage of exile (605 BC) Jeremiah was instructed to write a scroll of all God’s warnings to the people of Judah in the hope that they would change their attitude:

It may be that the house of Judah will hear of all the disaster that I intend to do to them, so that every one may turn from his evil way, and that I may forgive their iniquity and sin. Jeremiah 36:3

 When the scroll was read to King Jehoiakim, his response was to cut it up piece by piece and to throw the pieces in the fire. Earlier God had said through Jeremiah:

Mend your ways and your deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will relent of the disaster that he has pronounced against you. Jeremiah 26:13 [emphasis added] 

The incident of the scroll sealed the fate of Judah, and they were taken into captivity.

Secular Sources

Information about the exile and captivity of Israel and Judah is also found in non-biblical sources. These include stone reliefs or more usually clay tablets. Three Sennacherib clay prisms have been found, one of them the Taylor Prism being kept at the British Museum. This confirms the biblical account of the capture of Samaria and the deportation of 200,000 people by Sennacherib, king of the Assyrian Empire. It also confirms the siege of Jerusalem while Hezekiah was king.

Numerous tablets or tablet fragments have been found which confirm the importance of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. None relate to the capture of Judah, but one small tablet, again in the British Museum, talks of Nebuchadnezzar’s Chief Officer (Eunuch), mentioned in Jeremiah Chapter 39.

The Cyrus Clay Cylinder confirms the existence of this Medo-Persian king with some evidence that he encouraged the return of exiles in Persia to their homelands. It does not specifically mention the exiles from Judah. Cyrus is mentioned in several Old Testament books including Ezra and Daniel, and his existence is prophesied by Isaiah 150 years before his birth (Isaiah Chapter 45).


1. Half the tribe of Manasseh had settled on the east of the River Jordan, while the other half had crossed the Jordan with most of the tribes when Israel settled in the Promised Land.

Wikipedia, Taylor and Sennacharib Prisms
Wikipedia, Cyrus Cylinder
The Telegraph, Tiny Tablet provides proof of the Old Testament, 11 July 2007

(See also:  Wikipedia, List of artifacts significant to the Bible)