You Can Go Home Again!

The prophet Jeremiah predicted that the Babylonian Exile of Judah would last "seventy years." He was off by 22 years!

In 539 BC, 48 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, the Babylonian empire was itself conquered by King Cyrus of Persia (from the ancient province of Persis; modern Fars, Iran). In accordance with his tolerant policy towards the many people who made up his empire, he issued the Edict of Restoration permitting individual groups of Jews* to return to the Jerusalem they never forgot. The book of Ezra describes the proclamation:

"In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfil the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing: This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: 'The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.'"

However, a mere handful chose to accept Cyrus' offer and return to Judah; most of the exiles preferred to remain in Mesopotamia where they had established businesses and farms. Those that did return to Jerusalem, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, found a wasteland.

*The word Jew originated during the Babylonian Exile and is derived from the Kingdom of Judah, which included the old tribal territories of Benjamin and Judah.

Despite the lack of resources, reconstruction of the Second Temple began in 536 BC, with the blessings of Darius I, who allotted funds from the royal treasury toward its construction and returned the sacred items, amazingly still intact, looted by Nebuchadnezzar.

The new sanctuary rose on foundations leveled a half-century earlier. However, 18 years later it had not progressed beyond the foundations. Morale remained low as economic tensions, perhaps related to land ownership and a succession of bad harvests, took their toll. The community was divided: returning Jews did not always get along with those who remained behind. They also came into conflict with the Samaritans, as the people of the former Northern Kingdom were called, after their capital, Samaria. In the eyes of the former exiles, they were not pure Jews, but half-breeds who seemed to be practicing a pagan-influenced religion. The Samaritans denied this, saying that they remained faithful to the Hebrew scriptures during the period of the Exile. When they offered to help rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, they were rejected:

"But Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, 'You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.'" (Ezra 4:3)

This hostility between the Samaritans and the returning exiles continued into New Testament times.

With morale at such a low ebb, the need for the Temple as a focal point for the community became urgent. Spurred on by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah construction resumed and the Temple was finally completed in 516 BC. Some of the people shouted for joy, but those who remembered the former Temple of Solomon wept at the comparison (Ezra 3:12). Moreover, the Most Holy Place of this temple was missing the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of Moses, which had disappeared forever.

About 458 BC (according to biblical chronology), another group of exiles, priests and Levites arrived under the leadership of Ezra "the scribe." Ezra fought against religious abuses and disseminated the tenets of the Law.

Twelve years later, Ezra was joined by Nehemiah, a Jew who was cup-bearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes, and who succeeded in securing an appointment as governor of Judah. Although his responsibilities were to civic and economic affairs, he shared Ezra's religious goals, In 444 BC, the Bible relates how, in the presence of Nehemiah, the people "assembled as one man" and told Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses (the Torah, meaning "teaching"):

"So on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law" (Nehemiah 8:2-3)

The Levites then went on to explain the text so that the people "could understand what was being read." (Nehemiah 8:8)

Under Nehemiah's inspired leadership the walls of the city were rebuilt, giving the community a sense of physical security. This important project was completed in just 52 days. Nehemiah then set out to rebuild the city itself and repopulate it, casting lots and bringing one of every ten people from the other cities of Judah to resettle in Jerusalem. For some two hundred years after the return of the exiles from Babylon, the city was once again the center of Jewish life...

Jerusalem after the Exile

In the period following the end of the Babylonian Exile, Jerusalem shrank back onto the summit of the eastern ridge and was confined to the area of the Temple Mount and the old City of David. The population of returnees was so small that the area to the higher hill to the west enclosed by Hezekiah's "Broad Wall" was not resettled. The total area of the city was a mere 30 acres, and the most reliable estimates suggest that 4,500 people lived there at this time.

Right, aerial view of the area south of the Temple Mount designated "City of David" where the exiles resettled after their return from Babylon.

One of the most important tasks facing Nehemiah was rebuilding the city walls destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. In his own words, Nehemiah described his secret inspection tour of the walls and gates shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem:

"I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. By night I went out through the Valley Gate towards the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then I moved on towards the Fountain Gate and the King's Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and re-entered through the Valley Gate." (Nehemiah 2:11-15)

Nehemiah did not make a complete circuit of the city walls, only of the southern section. He knew those on the north had been completely destroyed by the Babylonians. Throughout history Jerusalem has always been attacked from the north. it was the most vulnerable section because it is the only side of the city not protected by a steep valley.

A more detailed description of Nehemiah's route:

  1. He exited the city through the Valley Gate, on the west side of the city, overlooking the Tyropoeon Valley, i.e. the central valley between the Kidron Valley to the east and the Hinnom Valley to the west (hence the name "Valley Gate"). Excavations in 1927-28 uncovered the remains of a gate from the Persian period, identified as the Valley Gate.
  2. He then headed south to the Jackal Well (KJV "dragon well"), according to some scholars either a well situated at the junction of the Hinnom and Kidron valleys, or the Pool of Siloam, which, from the time of Hezekiah, was fed by the Gihon Spring, the city's only permanent water source.
  3. Next he came to the Dung Gate, perhaps a gate leading to the place in the Hinnom Valley where the rubbish and animal dung swept from the city streets was taken, hence the name. In ancient times animal droppings were valued as fertilizer for crops and fuel for heating and cooking. The Dung Gate was situated some 500 yards south of the Valley Gate. Modern Jerusalem, too, has a Dung Gate, but it bears no relationship to this earlier gate other than its name. Today's Dung Gate, is much farther north.
  4. From there he turned north for the Fountain Gate (possibly in the southeast corner of the city).
  5. He continued north "up the valley" (i.e., the Kidron Valley). The fact that "there was not enough room" (Nehemiah 2:14) for him to get through is an indication that the supporting terraces on the eastern flank of the hill (the so-called "Stepped-Stone Structure" originally built by the Jebusites and repaired by David, Solomon and Hezekiah) may have collapsed.
  6. Lastly, he retraced his route back to the Valley Gate.

To rebuild the walls, Nehemiah used old foundations and still-standing remains—all except on the eastern side of the City of David, where the old wall had collapsed onto the steep slope. Nor was there a need to make costly repairs to the terraces of the old "Stepped-Stone Structure." Instead, on the east side the returnees built a new city wall at the top of the ridge, even though it reduced the size of the city. A section of this wall has, in fact, been found, immediately north of the terraces of the "Stepped-Stone Structure" (right).

Go to Jerusalem history - part 8

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