Recently, some parishioners came up to me after Mass and asked if I would explain to them the period known as the Babylonian Captivity. They had heard the term mentioned at Mass, and in the past, but they admitted knowing very little about it. For the benefit of those who also would like to know about the Babylonian Captivity let me describe it here for you.
In the year 587 BC, the Babylonians sought to control the trade routes that passed through Israel, so they invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and rounded up every able-bodied person they could get their hands on and they forced the Jews on a 900-mile long walk to a large island in the middle of the Euphrates River, just south of the city of Babylon. This was in what is known today as Iraq. It is estimated that there were about 120,000 people rounded up and, sadly, less than a third of them survived the long walk. The Long Walk to Babylon was one of the worst afflictions put upon the Jewish people.
After more than a generation under these conditions, the vast majority there had never set foot in Jerusalem, never experienced the Temple; their dreams of their homeland were based on the stories told by their grandparents. For the captives of Babylon, their plight seemed hopeless.
So, God prompted someone to write in the name of Isaiah and give voice to the Lord’s promise that He would “raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel” [Isiah 49:6b]. And this would be accomplished by one only identified as “servant of the Lord.” When we hear this passage today, we interpret it as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah – the ultimate “servant of the Lord” who would free His people and bring them back to their homeland: heaven. But the captives heard it as a warning that hope alone would not suffice, rather they had to put their faith in God that He would, as promised, send someone to liberate them from captivity and return them to their homeland. The message was clear: without faith, hope has no foundation.
Well, God made good on His promise. How God fulfilled His promise to free the captives in Babylon and bring them back to their homeland is truly remarkable. For many centuries, it has been known that King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in the year 539 BC and that he released the Jews from captivity to return to Jerusalem. But the details of how this came about have been unknown until, in the 1870’s, a set of stone cuneiform (lettering) tablets was uncovered in the ruins of Babylon.
These tablets came to be known as the Nabonidus Chronicle. The stone tablets were taken to the British Museum in London and translated into English by Theophilus G. Pinches in 1877. The translation was later published in academic texts by Sidney Smith in 1924; and the first full narration of the events of the fall of Babylon, as described in the tablets, was first published by Raymond Dougherty, of Yale Univ. in 1929. So, our general understanding of just how God fulfilled His promise to the captives in Babylon is less than 100 years old.
In the year 556 BC, Nabonidus became king of the Babylonian Empire. It is estimated that, at that time, the population of captives had grown to about 125,000. Nabonidus was a very strange man, prone to delusions. And, he attempted to replace the main Babylonian god, Marduk, with his personal favorite, which was named, Sin. Following a dispute with the priests of Marduk in 552 BC, Nabonidus left Babylon on a campaign in Arabia, and he wound up staying there for ten years, leaving his son, Belshazzar, in charge of the Empire.
Nabonidus declared that the entire Empire was to observe his return with a month-long celebration of the Babylonian New Year of Akitu.
In 542 BC, God used Nabonidus’ fascination with divine revelations to prompt him to make an unannounced return from Arabia, but he delayed entering the city of Babylon for another two years. Upon entering the city, in 539 BC, Nabonidus declared that the entire Empire was to observe his return with a month-long celebration of the Babylonian New Year of Akitu. The festivities were to include everyone in Babylon’s army as well. This ignored the fact that the Persians were invading the Babylonian Empire from the north.
The conquest of Babylon ended without a skirmish… not a single one of the captives was placed in danger.
On the 7th day of the New Year’s celebration, the Persians overran the city of Opis and destroyed it. Nabonidus and his court ignored this; nothing was going to detract from the celebration of his return. On the 14th day of the celebration, the Persians took the city of Sippar, facing no resistance at all. Again, the Persian advance was ignored in Babylon. Finally, on the 16th day of the celebration, the Persian general, Gobryas, marched his troops through the unguarded gates of Babylon, right up to the palace and seized Nabonidus and his drunken associates, thus ending the conquest of Babylon without even a skirmish.
Shortly after, the Persian king, Cyrus, entered the city of Babylon. He fancied himself as a brilliant miliary strategist. Cyrus knew that he faced a threat from Egypt to the west; God prompted Cyrus to free all the Jewish captives and help them return to Jerusalem [2 Chronicles 36:22-23]. This would set up a buffer country between the expanded Persian Empire and their enemy, Egypt. Cyrus even provided resources for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem; the Temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonians years earlier.
Cyrus even restored to the Jews all the precious vessels the Babylonians had looted from their Temple.
When things seemed hopeless for the captives in Babylon, God used two opposing kings, one demented, the other ambitious, each pursuing what they thought were their own interests, to accomplish what He had promised. The captives were freed from their long captivity without a single one of the captives being placed in danger. Even when things seem to be beyond hope, God finds a way, often in the most unexpected manner, to deliver for those who have faith in Him.
So, when you’re feeling down, reread this little history of the Babylonian Captivity and the remarkable way God delivered on His promise to those captives and know that, if He can deliver in such unexpected ways as that, He can certainly handle what you may be facing. As Psalm 39 puts it: “Many are the afflictions of the faithful ones, but the Lord will deliver them from them all” [Psalm 39:18].
Have faith in God, friends, and your hope will be well-founded.
Raymond P, Dougherty, Nabonidus and Belshezzar: a study of the closing events of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1929), Edited and republished by K. C. Hanson in 2008.
Isiah 49:6b; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Psalm 39:18
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