Perspectives

Perspective 1:

During my second campaign, bent on conquest, I marched rapidly against Babylon. I advanced swiftly, like a violent storm, and enveloped the city like a fog. I laid siege to it and took possession of it by means of mines and ladders. I delivered over to pillage its powerful […]. Great and small, I spared no one. I filled the squares of the city with their corpses. I led away to my country, still alive, Mušēzib-Marduk, the king of Babylon, with his entire family and his nobility. I distributed to my troops, who took possession of them, the riches of that city, the silver, the gold, the precious stones, the furniture and the property. My troops took away and smashed the gods who dwelt there, carrying off their wealth and their riches. After 418 years I took out of Babylon and returned to their sanctuaries Adad and Šala, the gods of Ekallāte, whom Marduk-nādin-aḫḫē, king of Babylon, had seized and carried off to Babylon in the time of Tukultī-Ninurta, king of Assyria. I destroyed, laid waste and burned the city and its houses, from the foundations to the tops of the walls. I tore from the ground and threw into the waters of the Araḫtu the interior and the exterior fortifications, the temples of the gods, the ziggurat of bricks and earth, as much as it contained. I dug canals in the middle of that city, flooded its terrain and caused even its foundations to disappear. I carried this out so that my destruction surpassed that left by the Flood. To make it impossible, in any future time, for the location of that city or the temples of its gods to be identifiable, I dissolved it in the waters and wiped it out, leaving the place like flooded ground.

Sennacherib of Assyria, on his destruction of Babylon after a fifteen month siege, having taking the city 1 Kislev 689. Adapted from Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles. Writings from the Ancient World 19. (SBL, 2004), p 23.

Perspective 2:

I will rise up against them, says the Lord of hosts, and will cut off from Babylon name and remnant, offspring and posterity, says the Lord. And I will make it a possession of the hedgehog, and pools of water, and I will sweep it with the broom of destruction, says the Lord of hosts.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground.”

Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter Babylon!
Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter Chaldea!
For you shall no more be called tender and delicate.
Take the millstones and grind meal, remove your veil,
strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers.
Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your shame shall be seen.
I will take vengeance, and I will spare no one.

Isaiah 14.22-23; 21.9; 47.1-3

Something that doesn’t get enough attention in discussion of the destruction of Babylon as depicted in the Hebrew Prophets, especially Isaiah, is the very real destrcution wrought by Sennacherib in 689 and after. The city was completely depopulated and destroyed as well as the Assyrians could manage, which, considering that nearly everything was built of unfired mudbrick and the Assyrians were quite well-motivated, was probably pretty effective.

A further aspect of this situation is that of exile. I do not mean those from the ersatz kingdom of Judah who were taken captive by the Chaldeans to Babylon in the sixth century, but those who were exiled by the Assyrians from the territories and former territories of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth and early seventh centuries.

The troubles of the last third of the eighth century between the small kindoms of the southern Levant are complicated, and we find these reflected in the Major and Minor Prophets. First, Damascus had a tempestuous relationship with Israel and even, to a lesser degree, Judah. Judah was more involved with Edom and Philistia. It may be that the Transjordanian territories were somehow allied with Damascus, if not annexed. This explains the close relationship between Pekah of Gilead/Samaria and Rezin of Damascus. Their agression against Judah led directly to the annexation of the dependencies of Damascus and Samaria’s territories along the coast at Dor, and all of Gilead and upper and lower Galilee by Tiglath-Pileser in 733, with exiles of numerous inhabitants. Samaria was left essentially a city-state, with a few villages. Damascus, completely isolated, with its fields and orchards destroyed, was taken by Tiglath-Pileser in 732, and Rezin was killed. Pekah in Samaria was generously assisted off the throne and into his tomb, being replaced by Hoshea, who was pro-Assyrian, at least for a year or so. In the meantime, Judah under Ahaz had lost territories to Philistia, headed by Gaza at this time. Likewise, Rezin had aided the Edomites in taking the port of Elath, cutting off Judah’s lucrative trade with Arabia by sea and by caravan. Judah apparently also lost some or all of the Negeb at this point to Edom, though not permanently (yet). Hoshea’s intrigues brought the wrath of Assyria down on Samaria, with its siege begun under Shalmaneser V, and then the city taken under Sargon II. The rump kingdom was annexed, and Samaria’s remaining population exiled. At this point, Judah recovered extraordinarily under Hezekiah, regaining the lands lost to Edom and Philistia, and even coming to dominate Philistia. Unfortunately, Hezekiah’s intrigues with the Chaldean Merodach-Baladan led to a revolt at the death of Sargon II. Judah then faced the full onslaught of the Assyrian army, itself becoming a rump state, and all Hezekiah’s gains lost. The Israelite and Judahite exiles were sent into various places, including Babylon, which at that time was under Assyrian rule. Sargon II himself was also King of Babylon: Isaiah 13.1-14.27 describes Sargon and his death in battle; his body was never recovered. We see in Isaiah various reflections of the traumatic effect that the exile of so many kinfolk had on the remaining, beleaguered Judahites after about 700, when most Judahites, if Sennacherib’s numbers can be trusted, were either dead or exiled. And would not a Prophet of God care about the exiled Israelites, too? It is tendentious to posit that every reference to Israel in Isaiah is merely a reference to Judah, to require every mention of Babylon to refer only to the later Judahite exile of the sixth century, to suggest that only Judahites deserve comfort, to require every mention of Chaldeans to be of the sixth century, and to posit that Israelites were of no concern to Judahite Prophets. All of these things are flatly untrue. It is understandable that some might think such things, for the inscriptions and tablets describing this earlier time of exiles and its complicated context were unknown to foundational mid- to late-nineteenth century theorizers on the Biblical texts, and we are often at the mercy such outdated views of history due to the inertia of scholarship. Such is abundantly clear.

With all the above, we can find the Prophet Isaiah’s oracles and Sennacherib’s text, in the context of what history is known, to be situated in a real world of complexity and drama. Israelites and Judahites ended up in Babylon, an Assyrian-ruled city, and were harshly treated by the Assyrians and Chaldeans. Southern, formerly Elamite cities that had been annexed by Assyria and settled with Israelites were taken back by Elam and the Assyrian settlers, including those Israelites, driven out. In Babylon itself, there was a revolution by the Chaldeans aided by the Elamites, and Sennacherib’s own son Ashur-nadin-shumi, whom he’d set as king over Babylonia, was overthrown and killed. Sennacherib’s fury against Babylon is more understandable in knowing this. Those Israelites there, in light of a coming storm, should certainly have fled. Likewise, the Elamites, after this initial assistance to the Chaldeans, betrayed their former loyalties to Babylon in not offering further assistance, undoubtedly hoping to avoid Assyrian vengeance. The surviving Chaldeans of Babylon get a ggod taste of exile and mistreatment themselves. And for a time, the whole world was stunned: Babylon was gone! Yet here the seed of revolution is planted, too, and watered by the hatred of Babylonians for the Assyrians, to grow and bear such evil fruit in the future.

Some helpful reading on the subject may be found in the following:
The Cambridge Ancient History Volume III Part 2: The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C.
The Carta Bible Atlas
The Sacred Bridge