The Destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. caused the period in Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile. Ironically, as with the prophet's warnings in the book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar also gave the Jews fair warning of what could happen, if they crossed him, in the way he devastated Ashkelon, the capital of their enemies, the Philistines.
The Warning from Ashkelon
New archaeological findings in the ruins of Ashkelon, Philistia's main seaport, are providing evidence that Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of his enemies was utterly merciless. If Judah's kings had heeded the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah about imitating Ashkelon and embracing Egypt, Jerusalem's destruction might have been avoided. Instead, the Jews ignored both the religious rantings of Jeremiah and the unequivocal real-world implications of Ashkelon's fall.
In the late 7th century B. C., Philistia and Judah were battlegrounds for the power struggle between Egypt and a resurgent neo-Babylonia to take over the remnants of the late Assyrian Empire. In the mid-7th century B.C., Egypt made allies of both Philistia and Judah. In 605 B.C, Nebuchadnezzar led Babylonia's army to a decisive victory over Egyptian forces at the Battle of Carchemish on the Euphrates River in what is now western Syria. His conquest is noted in Jeremiah 46:2-6.
Nebuchadnezzar Fought Through the Winter
After Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar pursued an unusual battle strategy: he continued to wage war through the winter of 604 B.C., which is the rainy season in the Near East. By fighting through sometimes torrential rains despite the hazards posed to horses and chariots, Nebuchadnezzar proved to be an unorthodox, persistent general capable of unleashing terrifying devastation.
In a 2009 article titled "The Fury of Babylon" for the Biblical Archaeology Society's e-book, Israel: An Archaeological Journey, Lawrence E. Stager cites a fragmentary cuneiform record called the Babylonian Chronicle:
"[Nebuchadnezzar] marched to the city of Ashkelon and captured it in the month of Kislev [November/December]. He captured its king and plundered it and carried off [spoil from it ...]. He turned the city into a mound (Akkadian ana tili, literally a tell) and heaps of ruins ...;"
Evidence Sheds Light on Religion and Economy
Dr. Stager writes that the Levy Expedition uncovered hundreds of artifacts at Ashkelon that shed light on Philistine society. Among the items recovered were dozens of large, wide-mouth jars that could hold wine or olive oil. The climate of Philistia in the 7th century B.C. made it ideal to grow grapes for wine and olives for oil. Thus archaeologists now think it's reasonable to propose that these two products were the Philistines' principal industries.
Wine and olive oil were priceless commodities in the late 7th century because they were the basis of food, medicines, cosmetics, and other preparations. A trade agreement with Egypt for these products would have been financially advantageous to Philistia and Judah. Such alliances also would pose a threat to Babylon, because those with wealth could better arm themselves against Nebuchadnezzar.
In addition, the Levy researchers found signs that religion and commerce were closely intertwined in Ashkelon. On top of a pile of rubble in a main bazaar they found a rooftop altar where incense had been burned, usually a sign of seeking a god's favor for some human endeavor. The prophet Jeremiah also preached against this practice (Jeremiah 32:39), calling it one of the sure signs of the destruction of Jerusalem. Finding and dating the Ashkelon altar was the first time an artifact confirmed the existence of these altars mentioned in the Bible.
Sobering Signs of Mass Destruction
The archaeologists uncovered more evidence that Nebuchadnezzar was ruthless in conquering his enemies as he was in the destruction of Jerusalem. Historically when a city was besieged, the greatest damage could be found along its walls and fortified gates. In Ashkelon's ruins, however, the greatest destruction lies at the center of the city, spreading outward from areas of commerce, government and religion. Dr. Stager says this indicates that the invaders' strategy was to cut off the centers of power and then pillage and destroy the city. This was precisely the way the destruction of Jerusalem proceeded, evidenced by the devastation of the First Temple.
Dr. Stager acknowledges that archaeology can't precisely confirm Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Ashkelon in 604 B.C. However, it has proven clearly that the Philistine seaport was utterly destroyed around that time, and other sources confirm the Babylonian campaign of that same era.
Warnings Unheeded in Judah
The citizens of Judah may have rejoiced to learn of Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Ashkelon, since the Philistines had long been enemies of the Jews. Centuries earlier, David had mourned the death of his friend Jonathan and King Saul in 2 Samuel 1:20, "Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice...."
The Jews' rejoicing at the Philistines' misfortunes would have been short-lived. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem in 599 B.C., conquering the city two years later. Nebuchadnezzar captured King Jeconiah and other Jewish elites, and installed his own choice, Zedekiah, as king. When Zedekiah rebelled 11 years later in 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem was as merciless as his Philistine campaign.
- "Exile of the Jews - Babylonian Captvity, "http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/israeljudaea/a/BabylonianExile_2.htm
- "The Fury of Babylon" by Lawrence E. Stager, Israel: An Archaeological Journey (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2009).
- The Oxford Study Bible with the Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (1994 Oxford University Press).