The fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the deportation of the people of Judah to their exile in Babylon did not come suddenly, without a warning. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others had been warning the people of Judah that unless they repented and turned to God, the curses of the covenant would be invoked upon the nation and the people would be removed from the land which they had received as their inheritance.
In his Temple Sermon (Jeremiah 7:1–15), Jeremiah proclaimed that the people of Judah had violated the demands of the covenant which the nation had made with Yahweh on Mount Sinai. Jeremiah proclaimed that the people were worshiping God in the temple, but their lives did not reflect obedience to the demands of God’s covenant. They were trusting in the trappings of religion instead of putting their trust in God. Jeremiah’s message was a warning that unless the people repented and returned to God, the curses of the covenant would be invoked against them.
The Sins of Judah
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel mentioned several violations of the covenant by the people of Judah. The sins of the people and their rejection of the demands of the covenant brought the punishment of Judah by the hands of the Babylonians.
In his Temple Sermon, Jeremiah declared to the people who came to worship in the temple how they were in open violation of the covenant. First, Jeremiah said that the people were putting their trust in the words of the false prophets rather than trusting in God. Jeremiah said, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’” (Jeremiah 7:4).
The people were violating the demands of the covenant by oppressing the most vulnerable members of society. Jeremiah said, “do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 7:6). The people were also violating the prohibitions expressed in the Ten Commandments. Jeremiah said, “you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known” (Jeremiah 7:9).
Jeremiah said that the people provoked God to anger by worshiping a goddess known as the Queen of Heaven. Jeremiah said, “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger” (Jeremiah 7:18). Jeremiah told the people that they provoke God “to their own hurt” (Jeremiah 7:19).
The most egregious sin of Judah, according to Jeremiah, was the sacrifice of children to Moloch in a place known as the Topheth. Jeremiah said that the people “go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire – which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind” (Jeremiah 7:31).
Jeremiah also said that the people “have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it” (Jeremiah 7:30). Ezekiel, in his vision of the temple in Jerusalem mentions several of these abominations being committed by the people. In a vision, God brought Ezekiel to Jerusalem, “to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, to the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy” (Ezekiel 8:3). This image was the image of Asherah, which some Israelites believed to be the consort of Yahweh. In his religious reforms, Josiah “brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the LORD” (2 Kings 23:6), but the image was brought back to the temple during the days of Jehoiakim.
When in the vision Ezekiel entered into the temple, Ezekiel saw, “portrayed on the wall all around, were all kinds of creeping things, and loathsome animals, and all the idols of the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 8:10). These drawings may reflect either Egyptian or Babylonian religious influence. These animals were believed to be the protectors of the gods.
At the entrance of the north gate of the temple, Ezekiel saw that “women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz” (Ezekiel 8:14). Tammuz was a fertility god. People believed that the winter represented the death of the god, thus, the women were lamenting the departure of Tammuz to the underworld.
When Ezekiel came to the entrance of the temple, “between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, prostrating themselves to the sun toward the east” (Ezekiel 8:16). Shemesh, the sun God, was worshiped by many people in Jerusalem. In his reforms, Josiah “removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the LORD . . . then he burned the chariots of the sun with fire” (2 Kings 23:11).
The sins of Judah and the violation of the demands of the covenant brought upon the people the curses of the covenant. When Yahweh established his covenant with Israel, Yahweh warned the people about the consequences of disobedience. God told the people, “if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15).
Yahweh explained to the people the consequences of disobedience, “Because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything” (Deuteronomy 28:47–48).
The Fall of Jerusalem
The exile of Judah began when Nebuchadnezzar and his army arrived in Jerusalem in 598 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar’s army came up to Jerusalem and besieged the city. During the siege Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, died. Jeremiah 22:18–19 and 36:30 suggest that Jehoiakim was probably assassinated. Jehoiachin (his name appears as Jeconiah in 1 Chronicles 3:16 and Coniah in Jeremiah 22:24), the son of Jehoiakim, was installed as king of Judah at the age of 18 (2 Kings 24:8).
According to the Biblical text, Nebuchadnezzar himself came to Jerusalem while his servants were besieging the city (2 Kings 24:11). According to the Babylonian Chronicle, Nebuchadnezzar entered Jerusalem on March 16, 597 BCE. Jehoiachin, along with his mother and members of the royal family, his officers, advisors, and other government leaders surrendered to the king of Babylon.
At that time, the first deportation of Judah took place. According to 2 Kings 24:12–16, 10,000 people were taken into exile, including the royal family, their servants, and the palace officials. In addition, another 8,000 professional people were also taken to Babylon. However, according to Jeremiah 52:58, only 3023 people were taken captives in the 7th year of Nebuchadnezzar (597 BCE).
The second deportation of Judah took place in 587 BCE during the reign of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. Zedekiah was a weak ruler who was unable to stand up against the anti-Babylonian forces in Judah and who was afraid of popular opinion. Probably incited by the prophets who were taken to Babylon and by the nobles who formed part of the anti-Babylonian forces in Judah, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon.
In 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and Jerusalem was blockaded: “In the ninth year of his [Zedekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem and laid siege to it. And they built siegeworks all around it. So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah” (2 Kings 25:1-2).
In 587 BCE Jerusalem was captured and Zedekiah fled from the city, but he was captured, blinded, and deported to Babylon (2 Kings 25:5–7). After the deportation of Zedekiah, Nebuzaradan, an army official of the Babylonian king, burned down the Temple, the royal palace, all the great houses of Jerusalem, and all the important buildings in the city. He also took into exile the people who remained in the city.
The Siege of Jerusalem
The people of Israel were warned by God that disobedience to the covenant would be costly. The punishment of the people would be done by a brutal and violent nation, “The LORD will bring a nation from far away, from the end of the earth, to swoop down on you like an eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a grim-faced nation showing no respect to the old or favor to the young” (Deuteronomy 28:49–50).
This nation would besiege Jerusalem, an act that would bring great devastation and much pain to the people living in the city. God told the people that the invading army “shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout your land; it shall besiege you in all your towns throughout the land that the LORD your God has given you. In the desperate straits to which the enemy siege reduces you, you will eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your own sons and daughters whom the LORD your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 28:52–53).
The second Babylonian siege of Jerusalem lasted between 589 and 587 BCE. The length of the siege is debated by historians, who have proposed a length of either thirty months or eighteen months. Rodger Young, in his article, “When Did Jerusalem Fall?,” dates the siege of Jerusalem from the information provided in Ezekiel 24:1–2: “In the ninth year, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, write down the name of this day, this very day. The king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day” (Ezekiel 24:1–2). Young believes that the siege of Jerusalem lasted 18 months (Young 2004: 21–38).
Abraham Malamat, in his article, “The Last Kings of Judah and the Fall of Jerusalem: An Historical – Chronological Study,” dates the fall of Jerusalem according to the regnal years of the kings of Judah. Malamat dates the siege of Jerusalem from the exile of Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:8–12) to the statement that “the city was besieged until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah” (2 Kings 25:2). Using the regnal years of the kings of Judah as the basis for dating the duration of the siege, Malamat concludes that the siege of Jerusalem lasted 30 months (Malamat 1968: 137–156).
The Impact of Siege Warfare
Most people who read the Bible do not realize the destructive impact siege warfare causes on people living in a besieged city. In his article, “Warfare and Wanton Destruction: A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 20:19–20 in Relation to Ancient Siegecraft,” Jacob L. Wright describes the devastation that happens when a city is besieged (Wright 2008: 423–458). Whether the siege of Jerusalem lasted eighteen months or thirty months, the siege forced people to do things that they would never do in times of peace. During lengthy sieges, the people living in unwalled villages would seek refuge in the safety of a walled city and try to survive the impending siege.
An invading army would use a combination of ramps, siege engines, and battering rams to breach the defenses of a city. Archaeological remains give a vivid witness to the devastation caused by a long siege. In her article on the impact of siege warfare, Elizabeth Bloch-Smith describes in detail the results of the siege of Samaria by the Assyrian army.
Bloch-Smith writes, “Major settlements of the northern kingdom were largely destroyed and depopulated. . . . Death, displacement, and disruption affected everyone. . . . Mass graves excavated at Ashdod and Lachish containing the remains of besieged and conquered victims vividly illustrate the profound human toll of siege warfare. Most of the more than fifteen hundred individuals from Lachish, including large numbers of women and children, died with no obvious injuries and so likely succumbed to dehydration, starvation, or illness. These unfortunate individuals, along with those decapitated and fatally injured, display the horrors of long-term siege and capitulation” (Bloch-Smith 2018: 20).
Bloch-Smith describes the results of the long siege of Jerusalem. She writes, “Cesspool and latrine contents from the 586 destruction of Jerusalem evidence the increasingly restricted and unhealthy diet during the siege. . . . Unsanitary conditions due to restricted water supplies, human excrement employed as fertilizer, and undercooked meat perhaps due to insufficient fuel would have caused the attested human intestinal parasites—tapeworm and shipworm” (Bloch-Smith 2018: 20–21)
In his book, Ancient Siege Warfare, Paul Bentley Kern describes the treatment of women and children by the conquering armies (Kern 1999: 81–83). These horrific treatments of women are reflected in the biblical text. The prophet Zechariah says that in the siege of Jerusalem houses were looted, women were raped, people were put to death, and many people were deported into exile (Zechariah 14:2). Generally, captive men, women, and children were taken into exile naked.
Another act of brutality was the treatment of children and pregnant women. The prophet Elisha prophesied what Hazael would do to the women of Israel. He said, “I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women” (2 Kings 8:12).
Isaiah speaks of the brutalities of the Medes against the Babylonians: “The attacking armies will shoot down the young men with arrows. They will have no mercy on helpless babies and will show no compassion for children” (Isaiah 13:16–18).
Another tactic in siege warfare was to deprive the people of water. When Ahaz was making preparations for a war against the Arameans, Ahaz made sure that the city would have enough water during the siege (Isaiah 7:3). During the siege of Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah, the Assyrian emissary promised a prolonged siege that would force the population of Jerusalem to eat their own excrement and drink their own urine (2 Kings 18:27).
The Book of Lamentations and the Siege of Jerusalem
The siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple was the greatest catastrophes in Israel’s history. After months of being besieged by the Babylonians, the siege of the city brought unspeakable suffering to the people and vast devastation to the city and to the nation.
The Book of Lamentations describes the suffering of the people of Jerusalem as a result of the long siege of the city by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The book describes the humiliation, the suffering, and the despair of the people which led them to commit acts of maternal cannibalism. Lamentations speaks of starvation, rape of women, the plight of the people, and the killing of people in the city’s streets.
In His article, “Human Suffering in Lamentations,” Michael S. Moore details how the vulnerable women of Jerusalem endured rape, exploitation, affliction, and starvation during the siege and capture of the city (Moore 1946: 534–555). The Book of Lamentations describes in detail the suffering and the pain the people of Jerusalem had to endure because of the siege of Jerusalem. The book speaks of people starving for the lack of enough food, of children starving in the streets of Jerusalem, of women in Jerusalem and Judah being raped, of women so hungry that they eat their own children, of people being conscripted into forced labor, of houses being looted.
According to Lamentations Chapter 5, every person in Judah was affected by the siege. Lamentations 5 mentions orphans, mothers, fathers, women, virgins, princes, elders, young men, young boys, old men, and young men. No one escaped the pain and suffering caused by the long siege.
Moore describes the results of the siege of Jerusalem, “So many distinctively human activities have now been silenced. So many distinctively human institutions have been battered and bludgeoned. So many distinctively human freedoms have been violently and callously taken away” (Moore 1946: 552).
The aftermath of the siege of Jerusalem and the human carnage left behind in the brutality of the invading army is forcefully described in the Book of Lamentations.
The purpose of the writer of Lamentations was to provide a glimpse of the horrifying amount of human suffering which he had witnessed and which he himself had experienced when Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed.
With harsh words, the author of Lamentations pours out the immense pain lodged in the depths of his soul. In his desperation, he turns to God. He clearly expresses his pain and suffering. He refuses to repress these powerful emotions, but to trust in the goodness and mercies of God, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–23).
In giving voice to his suffering, the author of the Book of Lamentations offers what every sufferer must cling to – hope: “The LORD is my portion, therefore I will hope in him” (Lamentations 3:24).
Claude MariottiniEmeritus Professor of Old TestamentNorthern Baptist Seminary
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Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. “The Impact of Siege Warfare on Biblical Conceptualizations of YHWH.” Journal of Biblical Literature 137 (2018): 19–28
Kern, Paul Bentley. Ancient Siege Warfare. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Malamat, Abraham (1968). “The Last Kings of Judah and the Fall of Jerusalem: An Historical – Chronological Study.” Israel Exploration Journal 18 (1968): 137–156.
Moore, Michael S. “Human Suffering in Lamentations.” Revue Biblique 90 (1946): 534–555.
Wright , Jacob L. “Warfare and Wanton Destruction: A Reexamination of Deuteronomy20:19–20 in Relation to Ancient Siegecraft.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127 (2008): 423–458
Young, Rodger C. “When Did Jerusalem Fall?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (2004): 21–38.
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about The Fall of Jerusalem and the Book of Lamentations.