By: Alick Isaacs


Each week we consider a juncture in the history of the city and examine the motives and the implications of the event. Last week we left off with the building of the Temple by King Solomon. This week we shall discuss the circumstances whic lead up to its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

2. The Divided Kingdom 
The decline of Jerusalem in the First Temple period begins with the death of King Solomon. Solomon was the only king to hold all the cards in his hand at the same time. He ruled from Jerusalem where the Temple stood over all the tribes of Israel, enjoying peaceful relations with the surrounding nations and the good opinion of the Lord. Solomon ruled over the tribes in the North but imposed upon them a heavy tax burden.

After his death the tribal leaders of the ten northern tribes approached the new king Rehaboam insisting that he ease the burden of taxation,

  • "Your father made our yoke heavy. Now lighten the harsh labour and the heavy yoke which your father laid on us and we will serve you." (Kings I 12,4)

Solomon's advisers urged Rehaboam to comply with these demands and avoid rebellion, but he disdained and pronounced his own sentence with the gloomy retort,


  • "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions."

The result was the rebellion of the ten tribes and the establishment of a separate kingdom with Nablus (Shechem) as its capital. Jerusalem remained the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah alone.

3. The Assyrians and the Ten Lost Tribes 
In 722 BCE Shalmanezer king of Assyria conquered the northern kingdom and, as was the practice in the Ancient world, took the vanquished population into exile. These Jews never survived their exile. They became the ten lost tribes of Israel who presumably assimilated and disappeared among the Assyrian people. This of course was precisely the objective of exile. By disposing of their independent national identity Shalmanezer rid himself of the threat of insurrection posed by the conquered nations in his empire. The Assyrian threat on Jerusalem was now imminent. The nature of ancient empires was to conquer and conquer, that's what they had armies for and that's what they did. The centrality of Jerusalem and the status of this glorious city made its conquest a very desirable objective.

4. Hezekiah Fortifies the City

By the end of the 7th century BCE the Assyrian threat on Jerusalem was mounting. King Hezekiah (727-698 BCE) now ruled in Jerusalem. Hezekiah was a king who was noted for continuing the traditions of David and Solomon. Isiah tells us that he too was beloved of the Lord in particular for his contribution to the upkeep of the Temple. During Hezekiah's reigh the Temple was rennoavted and purified. But the city of Jerusalem was vulnerable to the Assyrian attack. After the fall of the ten tribes in the north many exiles had fled south to the kingdom of Judah and taken refuge on the Western Hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem. This is the hill where the present day Jewish quarter stands.

In the time of Hezekiah it was beyond the walls of the city. Hezekiah fortified the city by building up the Western Hill enclosing and protecting the population within with a new, broad, fortified wall. The fortifications which Hezekiah built were not in themselves enough to withstand an Assyrian attack. The Achilles heel in the city's defences was the water system. Jerusalemites, in the time of Hezekiah drew water from a pool which collected the waters of the Gichon spring outside the walls of the city. An invader who had access to this water supply from outside need only contaminate the water or block off the flow in order to bring the whole city to its feet.

Hezekiah undertook one of the most remarkable enterprises in the history of the city and was successful in solving the water problem. Hezekiah blocked up the surface waters of the Gichon spring redirecting them underground through a 533 meter long tunnel which was cut through the rock of the hill. The walls of the city were expanded to the south to enclose the Siloam pool which continued to receive the waters of the Gichon spring via the secret underground passage. The engineering which this enterprise required was remarkably advanced. The tunnel pierced through the rock at a steady incline so that the water would flow easily through. The work was performed by two teams of men who began from opposite ends of the tunnel and were successful in meeting half way. An inscription celebrating their meeting gives us some indication of how this remarkable feat was achieved:-


  • "This is the story of the boring through. While the tunnelers lifted the pickaxe each toward his fellow and while three cubits remained yet to be bored through there was heard the voice of a man calling his fellow for there was a split in the rock on the right hand and on the left hand. 
    When the tunnel was driven through the tunnelers hewed the rock each man toward his fellow, pickaxe against pickaxe. And the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1200 cubits..."

This inscription, known as the Siloam inscription, is written in ancient Biblical Hebrew script. It was discovered in 1880 and is on display in the Topkapi national museum in Istanbul. It describes the presence of a fault line which archeologists have discovered in the tunnel - "the crack in the rock on the right hand and on the left". It also suggests that the last leg of the job was made easier because the two teams reached a stage where they could hear each other at work and were thus guided by the sound of the pickaxes chopping away at the rock. The tunnel played a decisive role in the refortification of the city. I imagine that Sancherib of Assyriah was quite perplexed when he arrived with an army in 701 BCE and besieged the city. How could these Jerusalemites survive a siege for a whole year without any apparent source of water?

The Bible tells us, "That night an angel of the Lord went out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp, and the following morning they were all dead corpses. So King Sancherib of Assyriah broke camp and retreated." (Kings II 19,35- 36)

Hezekiah is praised by the Rabbis of the midrash for three things and criticised by them for three. Not surprisingly he is praised for renovating the Temple, but he is criticised for diverting the waters of the Gichon. The Prophet Isiah assured Hezekiah that the Assyrian siege would fail, "I will protect and save the city for My sake and for the sake of My servant David," was the Lord's message to Hezekiah. His refortification of the city was perceived by the Rabbis as diminishing the Divine miracle." (N.B. There are a number of versions of this midrash, I am quoting from Yerushalmi Nedarim chapter 8, elsewhere the midrash contradicts this version see Avot De Rabbi Natan Chapter 2).

Why did Jerusalem survive the attack? Because of the tunnel or because of God? Perhaps there is no contradiction between the two. Hezekiah was a king who walked in the ways of the Lord. But, clearly, the refortifications were a critical component of the city's defences. The question is whether or not they were part of the Divine plan. The city was left as yet unconquered but it would not remain so for long.

5. The Destruction of the First Temple 
The Rabbis of the Talmud say that the Solomonic Temple was destroyed because of the sins of the people. The Jews of Jerusalem were idol worshippers, adulterers and murderers. The destruction of the city in 586 BCE symbolises the breakdown of the unique relationship between God and man which the Temple exemplified. It marks the end of the prophetic era also a symbol of the disconnection of the special bond between God, the land of Israel and the people of Israel. The reinstitution of this bond is the ultimate aspiration of Jewish messianism and has thus been put offthe end of days . With the destruction of the First Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was also lost forever.

The Babylonians dethe Assyrians in 600 BCE and then proceeded to conquer the nations and dominions under Assyrian rule. Jerusalem lay on the border of the unconquered territory between the two empires and was a natural target for Babylonian aggression. In 586 BCE the army of Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city, pounding its fortifications and bringing it to its feet on the ninth day of the month of Av. The city was pillaged, the Temple was destroyed and everything was burnt.

Archeological excavations in the city from the First Temple period have uncovered numerous signs of burning, charcoal and hardened clay all of which are living testimony to the extent of the destruction. Sadly, not one single piece of the magnificent Solomonic Temple remains. We have no archeological evidence on which to base a reconstruction of this magnificent structure. In fact only one artifact of any sort from the Temple has been found. This is a small clay pomegranate which would probably have ornated the staff of one of the priests in the Temple. It bears an inscription in Biblical Hebrew script which reads,"Holy to the priests in the house of the Lord" Unfortunately, this inscription is incomplete. The first two words which mention the priests are intact but the letters of the words 'the House of the Lord' are not all present and the reading is therefore ambiguous. Moreover since it was not found "in situ" but in a market stall the reliability of the discovery itself is doubtful. It is none the less a remarakable find which is on display today in the Israel museum in Jerusalem.

6. By The Rivers of Babylon 
After the Temple was destroyed, the Jews of Judah were sent into exile, as was the policy of the conquering army in antiquity. In Babylon they composed the words of psalms 126 and 137, both of which bemoan the exile and pray for speedy redemption.


  • "When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion We see it as in a dream Our mouths shall be filled with laughter."
  • "By the rivers of Babylon There we sat and wept as we remembered Zion."

Zion, is Jerusalem. Zion is mount Zion, the Biblical name for mount Moriah, the Temple mount. The Jews in exile remember Jerusalem and yearn to return. Yet, something deeper than this troubles them,


  • "There on the poplars we hung our lyres, for our captors asked us for songs, ...sing us one of the songs of Zion How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"

The Jews in Babylon have not only lost their gusto for music. They are raising a deep theological question which may seem to us, after thousands of years of exile, somewhat naive. "How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" Is it possible to communicate with God from anywhere other than Jerusalem? Is God's presence felt anywhere else? Can the service of God be maintained from Babylon? Is there such a thing as diaspora Jewry? The Jews in Babylon are perhaps afraid that their God has been destroyed along with His Temple. The association between God and Jerusalem was so strong that this separation was inconceivable.

Ironically, the continued survival of the Jews of Babylon, which was inspired by the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah, was still going strong in the 10th century. The Jews of Babylon soon settled down. They became so comfortable and prosperous that when the option of returning to Jerusalem presented itself, many if not most declined the offer.



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14 Jun 2015 / 27 Sivan 5775 0