Ancient Near Eastern sources can give valuable insights into the world the Old Testament was written in.
The biblical book of 2 Kings gives a theological explanation for the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 597 BC and the subsequent exile of its people. It is a rich account of sage prophets, ruthless kings, intriguing miracles and murderous plots. Our removal of not hundreds but thousands of years from the live action of the Old Testament can give it a mythical quality — somewhat adrift from the “real” history of the Iron Age of the ancient Near East. In fact, far from being untethered from the real events of the early sixth century, the account of 2 Kings forms part of a coherent narrative with non-biblical sources from this era in history.
The account describes how, in the ninth year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar II and the Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem for the first time since the new Babylonian empire had begun. The Judahite king Jehoiakim had been a Babylonian vassal for three years (2 Kings 24:1) but foolishly rebelled against Babylon, possibly because he hoped for support from Egypt. But Egypt did not come (2 Kings 24:7). After the death of Jehoiakim, his son, Jehoiachin, was left to deal with Nebuchadnezzar. Jehoiachin held the throne of Judah for only three months before he had to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar and was replaced by a puppet king, his uncle Zedekiah. A decade later, Zedekiah, too, would rebel and the Babylonian army would return to deal the final blow to the tiny kingdom of Judah.
The siege of Jerusalem in 597 is attested not only in the Bible, but in an important Babylonian source called a Babylonian chronicle. The chronicle which reports the siege is written in Akkadian (one of the traditional languages of ancient Mesopotamia, corresponding approximately to modern Iraq), in the cuneiform script, on a clay tablet that is now kept in the British Museum.
Scholars believe that the tablet was probably discovered in the private archives of priests associated with the temple of the god Nabu in ancient Borsippa, about a hundred kilometres south of Baghdad in southern Iraq. In contrast to royal inscriptions, chronicles are considered to be a relatively unbiased source as they include reports unfavorable to the Babylonian rulers, such as records of losses in battle.
The relevant portion of the chronicle reads:
The seventh year (of Nebuchadnezzar II): In the month Kislīmu, the king of Akkad mobilized his troops, went to Ḫatti, and pitched camp against the city of Judah (Jerusalem). On the second day of the month Addaru, he took the city, captured the king, and appointed a king of his choosing. He to[ok] its heavy tribute [a]nd brought (it) into Babylon.
The king of Akkad in this text is Nebuchadnezzar II, Akkad being a reference to northern Babylonia, where the city of Babylon was situated; Ḫatti was the Babylonian way of speaking of the Levant, the eastern Mediterranean coast.
From the immediate context of the Babylonian chronicle, we learn that, when Nebuchadnezzar ascended the throne of Babylon, he was consolidating an empire that he and his father, Nabopolassar, had relatively recently won from the Assyrians. Nebuchadnezzar’s first order of business was to fill the power vacuum created by the removal of the Assyrians, especially in the Levant, which the Egyptians were attempting to take for themselves. So, Nebuchadnezzar’s first eight campaigns as king of Babylon took him to the Levant, where he defeated the Egyptians and established his rule. It was during these initial campaigns that he put down the revolt led by Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin, took Jehoiachin as a prisoner, and set Zedekiah on the throne of Judah. Indeed, since we can pinpoint the years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign on the Julian calendar, we know that the conclusion of this first Babylonian siege of Jerusalem occurred in mid-March, 597 BC.
Christians rightly read 2 Kings as a story about faith, but it is important to remember that it is also a historical story and can be read and examined as such. Doing so allows us a richer understanding of the text by placing the narrative in its context in political and cultural history.