Fall of Israel (Northern Kingdom)
The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians around 721 BC. This loss of the Promised Land and defeat at the hand of enemies is clearly explained as the result of disobedience to the covenant, turning away from God, and worshiping false gods and idols (2 Kgs 17:6-18). The Assyrian policy was to scatter the peoples they defeated. Thus, the leading citizens of Israel were relocated to other lands, while foreigners were relocated to live in the land of Israel.
Fall of Judah (Southern Kingdom)
The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to Babylon early in the 6th century BC. Unlike Assyria, Babylon took the leading citizens of Judah and placed them in exile back in the land of Babylon. Thus, the Babylonian conquest of Judah begins what is known as the “exilic period.”
The Babylonian conquest of Judah actually took place over a period of several years and involved at least three deportations of citizens from Judah to Babylon. The initial siege of Jerusalem and the first deportation are described in 2 Kgs 24:10-16. The poor (farmers, uneducated, etc.) were left in Judah, while the leading citizens (the educated, priests, rulers, administrators, scribes, military officials, artisans, etc.) were taken into exile to Babylon. This first deportation is dated around 598 BC.
The second deportation and the actual destruction of Jerusalem are described in 2 Kgs 25:8-12. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple were burned. More leading citizens were taken into exile to Babylon, while the poor were left behind. This second deportation is usually designated the “Fall of the Southern Kingdom” or the “Fall of Jerusalem,” because of the destruction
of the capital city (Jerusalem). This second deportation is dated around 587 BC.
A third deportation seems to have taken place around 582 BC.
Living Conditions during the Exilic Period, in Babylon
The Judean exiles in Babylon were not placed in prisons or dungeons. Instead, they were actually allowed to live under rather comfortable conditions. Scripture indicates Babylon began to treat the exiles with some sense of favor and tolerance (2 Kgs 25:27- 30). The exiles were allowed to settle in villages and rural areas near Babylon itself. They were free to establish their own neighborhoods and even engage in profitable business ventures. from back in Jerusalem, was able to write letters and maintain contact with the exiles.
Some of the exiles became so comfortable and prosperous they remained in Babylon, even after the period of exile ended, when Babylon fell to Persia.
It is in relation to this period of the exile of the Judeans from the Southern Kingdom that the term “Jews” begins to be applied to the remnant of Israel. The term is especially applied at first to the exilic remnant during the rebuilding of life centered around religious faith (focused on the Torah) in the postexilic period.
Living Conditions during the Exilic Period, Back in Palestine
The land of Judah lay in ruins from the devastation of war. Almost all the fortified towns in Judah were destroyed (razed to the ground). The population of the land was drained away by various factors. Some had been taken into exile, many were killed in battle, many died from the impact of war (i.e., from starvation or disease), and some fled as refugees (to Egypt and elsewhere). Babylon did not replace the population with others from outside nations (as was the Assyrian policy that repopulated Samaria, in the North, with a foreign element).
The few poor people who remained in Judah eked out a minimum subsistence living off the land, among the ruins. The Temple remained a holy spot for pilgrimages to offer sacrifice, even among its burned ruins.
The “Jewish Diaspora”
Israelite settlement outside of Palestine actually began with the fall of the Northern Kingdom. In 721 BC, Sargon II of Assyria deported many inhabitants of Samaria. They were resettled in Assyria; in Halah, on the Habur river in Gozan; and in the cities of the Medes (2 Kgs 17:6). These deportees have sometimes been referred to as the “ten lost tribes of Israel.”
As previously described, the exilic period, brought on by the conquest of the Southern Kingdom by Babylon, resulted in some dispersion as well. That is, some Jews remained in the comforts of Babylon even after the exile; and some fled from Palestine to Egypt during the war.
As a result of these dispersions, in the period following the exile, three major centers of Jewish settlement developed. There were major Jewish settlements in Palestine, Babylon, and Egypt.