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Mark Chavalas: New evidence for Jewish exiles found in clay tablets

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The Bible has much to say about the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II. The books of 2 Kings, Jeremiah and Lamentations depict the pitiful conditions of the exiled Judeans, many of whom were sent to Babylonia, never to be heard from again.

Until recently, Babylonian sources have been mute about the fate of the exiles in the decades just after their deportation in the early 6th century B.C., famously labeled the Babylonian Captivity.

A collection of about 200 legal and administrative texts written in Babylonian (or Akkadian) cuneiform, dispersed in various museum and private collections is concerned with these Jewish exiles during the period from Nebuchadnezzar II to Xerxes of Persia (about 572 to 484 B.C). These texts describe the lives of average Jews who lived in a rural setting in central Babylonia, building houses, farming and paying taxes to the monarchy.

One of the towns inhabited by these exiled Jewish businessmen was call Al-Yahudu, “Judah-town,” the city where many of the tablets originated. Though the location of this town is uncertain, it was probably within proximity to Babylon, the focal center of the kingdom. The name of the town indicates the primary ethnic makeup of the inhabitants, although they interacted with the Babylonian natives in many of their ventures.

The texts were written by professional Babylonian scribes on behalf of their Jewish lower middle-class clients, who engaged in the cultivation of grains and date palms, bought and sold cattle, rented houses, loaned silver, sold slaves, and engaged in marriage alliances. Though some even prospered economically, most were settled in state-owned land in return for military service for Babylon, By a cursory study of the personal names in the tablets, it appears that at least three generations of Jews lived in Al-Yahudu and surrounding towns.

Though the tablets tell us virtually nothing about the religious nature of the exiles, it is interesting to note that none of the dated texts were issued during Jewish sacred days.

A few examples from these texts will perhaps help in our understanding. One tablet describes a certain Mrs. Yapa-Yahu, wife of Rapa, who acted as guarantor for her husband’s delivery of more than 1,000 liters of good quality dates and 900 liters of barley.

In another, Mr. Nadab-Yama was accused by Mr. Ahiqam of taking a collection of dates that Ahiqam was supposed to take to the assessors. Nadab-Yama, however, swore a curse that he did not take the dates.

Mr. Shalammu had begun to cultivate a field that had been held by Mr. Zumba. It appears, however, that the dispute was settled out of court.

Mr. Eriba and Mr. Ahiqam agreed to share an ox in order to plow a field and share in the proceeds. Iarapa agreed to trade a five year old trained ox (with a split left ear) to Ahiqam for one earth-colored female donkey with the name, Tabalaia tattooed on its neck, and which had a red spot on the right side of its thigh. Evidently the ox was worth more, as Ahiqam had to chip in about twelve liters of barley.

A promissory note states that the slave woman, Nana-ultarah, was owed about 20 liters of dates by Mr. Kina, Mr. Sabataia, and Mr. Rahi-il. The text further states that if the note shows up in Nana-ulturah’s house, it will show that debt was paid.

Before these tablets were found and studied, the life of the Jewish exile was only vaguely known from later traditions. We now see these exiles as real people, engaging in normal activities, certainly not forgetting, however, where they came from, as the Psalmist so eloquently stated “By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

So, the Jewish exile mentioned in the Bible was no myth but a very real experience which has been given new a perspective by these precious ancient tablets. We are indebted to L. Pearce and C. Wunsch for publishing the first major installment of these texts, “Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia.”

Mark W. Chavalas is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

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