The Al-Yahudu Tablets
31st March 2023
What was life like for a Judean living in exile in Babylonia? George Heath-Whyte looks at the Al-Yahudu Tablets, short legal documents written on clay in the cuneiform script by Babylonian scribes, to see what they can tell us about life in exile.
The Exile of Judah marks the tragic climax of the Old Testament. In several waves, starting in 605 BC and continuing through the early decades of the sixth century, king Nebuchadnezzar II deported the people of Judah from their homeland, forcing them to pack their belongings and move to Babylonia.
This was a horrendous time for God’s people, yet through the prophets, they were encouraged that God was with them, that they would one day be able to return to Judah, and that they could still prosper in this foreign land. But what was life like for these exiles? Incredibly, over 150 documents from a group of settlements in Babylonia in which many of the Judeans were placed have come to light in recent years, opening a window for scholars to study this question.
Taken on their own, these documents are not very exciting – there are no letters, or diaries, or works of literature. Instead, they’re short, boilerplate legal documents, written on clay by Babylonian scribes in the cuneiform script, each small enough to fit in your pocket. Many of them are promissory notes, recording that one person is required to transfer goods to another person on a particular date, but there are also receipts, documents recording sales of livestock, slaves, and houses, rental contracts for houses, a marriage certificate, workers’ contracts, and various other things. Taken together, there’s a lot we can learn from them.
What do the tablets tell us?
A promissory note from Judahtown, written in 510 BC, with the names of people identifiable as Judeans in bold:
Qil-Yawa son of Shikin-Yawa owes 1,260 litres of dates to Iddina, son of Shinqa.
He will hand over the dates in Judahtown in the seventh month.
Witnesses: Mushezib-Nabu son of Mushezib-[…],
Bit-il-ab-utsur son of Bit-il-shar-utsur,
Bel-ushallim son of Shinqa,
The scribe Shamash-eresh, son of Marduk-mukin-apli.
Judahtown, fifth month, 29th day, 12th year of Darius, King of Babylon and the Lands.
My own translation of Text no. 22 from L.E. Pearce and C. Wunsch, Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer, CUSAS 28 (Maryland: CDL Press, 2014).
We know from these tablets that Nebuchadnezzar placed a large community of Judean exiles in a brand-new settlement in the Babylonian countryside named after their homeland – Judahtown, or Al-Yahudu in Babylonian, attesting to the scale of the Exile as presented in the Bible. Unfortunately, these documents weren’t discovered during controlled archaeological excavations, so we don’t know exactly where Judahtown was, but it seems most likely to have been somewhere in the region around the Babylonian city of Nippur, not far from the Chebar canal where the prophet Ezekiel was living.
Within this settlement and nearby ones, the Judeans were part of what scholars call the ‘Land-for-Service scheme.’ As part of this scheme, exiles were provided with tracts of state-owned land on which they could grow barley or plant date gardens. In return, the Judeans paid an annual tax and had to serve in the Babylonian army when called upon.
While a handful of these documents were written during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar II and his Babylonian successors, the majority of them are from the decades following the Persian invasion of Babylon in 539 BC, when groups started to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem. By this point, some Judeans in and around Judahtown were in dire straits, unable to pay their taxes and in vast amounts of debt, while others, perhaps having listened to the prophet Jeremiah, had become relatively wealthy. From the tablets, we know that Judeans in this region interacted and did business with a broad range of people, including other exiled groups and local Babylonians. A couple even secured jobs collecting taxes for the Babylonian administration.
The only reliable way to identify a Judean in these documents is through their name. If an individual, or someone in their family, had ‘Yahweh’ as part of their name – written ‘Yahu’ or ‘Yawa’ in these documents – then they were almost certainly Judean. We know from the Bible that many Judeans didn’t have names with ‘Yahweh’ in, so there are likely a significant number in these texts that we can’t identify. Remarkably though, the family trees that have been reconstructed from these documents show that almost none of these families gave their children names that paid homage to pagan deities. One individual, who, just like Daniel and his friends, had been given a Babylonian name because he worked for the state – Bel-shazzar, ‘Bel-protect-the-king’ – even changed his name to Yahu-shazzar, ‘Yahweh-protect-the-king’, removing the name of the Babylonian god Bel.
Some scholars have suggested that the Bible’s portrayal of the Exile is exaggerated and unreliable. However, while the nature of these sources limits what we can learn, what they do reveal is consistent with the biblical picture. The Exile was a large-scale operation, for example, and while the exiles were able to prosper, they were still forced to serve the Babylonian king.