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The City Destroyed

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Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BCE was precipitated by the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and by the subsequent struggle for power between Egypt and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, both of which sought control over the southern Levant, including Judah. For the four decades between 626 BCE and 586 BCE, Judah and its leaders in Jerusalem were caught between these two powers. Judah’s loyalties vacillated as the fortunes of the Egyptians and the Babylonians waxed and waned. It was perhaps inevitable, or at least unsurprising, that Judah eventually found itself on the wrong side of history: the Babylonians were ultimately triumphant, and Judah’s destruction came about because its kings twice betrayed their oaths of loyalty to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II.

The first time this happened, the Babylonians besieged the city and deported its king, Jehoiachin, along with a number of other members of the court, including the priest Ezekiel. This was in 597 BCE. The Babylonians then replaced Jehoiachin with one of his relatives, Zedekiah, in the hope that he would prove a more pliable and more loyal ruler. Unfortunately for the city he also broke his oath of allegiance. This prompted another siege, beginning in 588 BCE and culminating in the fall of the city in 586 BCE. This time, the Babylonians were ruthless in their punishment. They killed or deported many of the city’s inhabitants, destroyed much of the city, and burned the Temple.

Much of the biblical literature reflects the trauma of this experience, as the people of Judah and their descendants tried to understand what had happened to them, both practically and theologically. In this section you can discover the words of lament with which Jerusalem’s inhabitants mourned their city, ancient depictions of the fate of these and other conquered peoples, and information about the life of deportees in Babylonia, as well as later artistic imaginings of these events and musical reactions to them.

The astute observer will note that a number of the artistic renderings of the destruction of Jerusalem in this collection elide the destruction of the city in 586 BCE by the Babylonians with its destruction in 70 CE by the Romans, at the end of the Jewish Revolt against Roman control. The revolt was initially very successful (from a Jewish point of view) and the Romans had to send a number of legions to quell the rebellion, which they did with brutal efficiency. One of the last fortified cities to fall was Jerusalem, and the Roman troops looted and burnt the city. Much of this is narrated in the Jewish War by Flavius Josephus. These two destructions have often been merged in the artistic tradition, with the second destruction understood in the light of the first. 

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Rudolf Mauersberger's 'Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst'

Rudolf Mauersberger's motet 'Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst' was written on Good Friday and Holy Saturday in 1945 CE (see the composer's autograph manuscript here). The liturgy of Holy Week had gained a new meaning for Mauersberger in the aftermath of the firebombing and large scale destruction of Dresden, including the Kreuzkirche, where he was director of music. Among the many dead were eleven boys of Mauersberger's choir. Mauersberger's setting includes words from Lamentations 1:13: 'Er hat ein Feuer aus der Höhe in meine Gebeine gesandt und es lassen walten' ('From above he has sent fire into my bones, and let it rule'). The text differs from standard English translations—NRSV has 'From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones'—due to a different interpretion of the Hebrew, and is particularly striking here. This verse, originally written to describe God's destruction of Jerusalem, finds a poignant new home in a city destroyed by incendiary bombs. The setting is largely very quiet and expresses despair and sadness, but also hope for salvation. With the translation of the Bible into the spoken languages of Europe from the sixteenth century CE onwards, the biblical text became part of everyday experience. European Christians understood many of the texts to refer not only to the real city of Jerusalem and its environs, but also to their own homelands, as this setting illustrates. It may be troublesome to some to see a German composer use biblical texts to lament the destruction of his city during World War II, in which Germany destroyed so many cities and killed 6,000,000 Jews. Some have accused Mauersberger of not including a clear statement of German guilt in his selection of texts. The inclusion of the last few lines, however, requesting that God bring 'us' back to him, may be understood as a recognition that contemporary Germans were far from God (the Lutheran understanding of sinfulness). The setting also uses both the beginning and end of the text of Lamentations, indicating that the hearer is to understand the entire text as part of the work, including Lamentations 5:16b: 'Woe for us, for we have sinned!'.

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Michele Myers' 'By the Rivers of Babylon—Psalm 137'

California-based artist Michele Myers was inspired by Psalm 137:1–6 to create this striking picture. The vivid colours and unguarded expressions of the three figures in 'By The Rivers of Babylon—Psalm 137' bring to life the raw emotion of the psalm. The raised right hand of the central figure, so clearly outlined against the bold green of the trees, recalls the defiant cry of verse 5: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [its skill]!” Myers is by no means the first interpreter to be moved by the earlier parts of Psalm 137 rather than the latter. The end of the psalm calls for violent retribution, pronouncing “Happy is the one who seizes and smashes your children against the rock!” The threat has caused theological quandaries for Jewish and Christian readers alike. It is important to understand these words in their historical context. In the aftermath of exile, Psalm 137 was an honest response to the trauma of destruction and displacement, which had shaken the core of the exiles’ understanding of their relationship with their God, Yhwh.

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Gospel Book of Otto III

As in some of the other images in this section, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonians is conflated in the Gospel Book of Otto III (c. 998–1001 CE) with its later destruction in 70 CE by the Romans. The iconography of Jerusalem is quite unique to this manuscript. In this particular image, Christ is seen mourning for Jerusalem in the top half of the image, and this is paired with a depiction in the bottom half of the page of Mary of Bethezuba's cannibalism of her infant child as reported by Josephus. In Josephus’ account of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, he describes the extent of the ravages of war on the city. Influenced by the biblical books of Ezekiel and Lamentations and by their descriptions of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem centuries earlier, Josephus describes the plight of one particular Jewish woman, Mary of Bethezuba. Having lost her entire world to the Roman invaders and in a state of rage and desperate hunger, the woman decides to kill her son, roast him, and consume his flesh. By presenting Mary of Bethezuba’s infanticide beneath the figure of Christ, the artist implies that this horror of war was a fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the destruction of the city (Luke 19). The Christian fascination with Mary of Bethezuba as a means of representing the fall of Jerusalem was unlikely to have been produced because of any sympathy for her extreme action. Indeed, in the Christian West the holy calendar included a specific day to celebrate Titus’ sack of Jerusalem. It is much more likely, therefore, that the image was intended as a parody of the sacrifice of a child, an idea that is core to Christian theology and its focus on the sacrifice of Jesus the Son. The Jewish Mary of Bethezuba was, for medieval Christians, a sinful negative type of a mother in crisis, to be contrasted with the more positive and hopeful Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. This image in the Gospel Book of Otto III, then, offers a strongly Christianised reading of the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem.

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Lament for the destruction of Ur

Laments are well-known from the Bible, especially the book of Lamentations, but are also found throughout the ancient Near East. Biblical authors likely took inspiration from the forms used in these surrounding cultures. An early and famous example of such a poem is the Sumerian Lament over Ur (c. 2000 BCE), a city-state in the region of Sumer in modern-day Iraq. The lament is one of five such Sumerian poems, each of which mourns the loss of a different city. At 438 lines long, the Lament over Ur presents a detailed story of the city's destruction, starting with the goddess Ningal's pleas that the god Engil turn back the storm sent to ravage the city, then moving into graphic descriptions of Ur's eventual destruction. The tablet above, which has preserved this lament for four millennia, is housed at the Louvre in Paris. Although nearly 1500 years elapsed between the destruction of Ur and the fall of Jerusalem, the genre of the city lament remained popular, and has visible influence on biblical literature. The impact of the genre is perhaps most obviously felt in the Book of Lamentations, but traces can also be found in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Psalms. The bleak tones of these poems, in which Yhwh deserts the city and allows—or even causes—its destruction, have been a key feature of the literary responses in the wake of heavy loss.

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Wall Panel from Tiglath-Pileser III's South West Palace at Nimrud

This wall panel from the South West Palace of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (ruled 745–727 BCE) shows Assyrian soldiers carrying away four statues of gods, captured from a city the army has just conquered. Although the exact location of the city is unknown, it was perhaps in Syria. The relief depicts the practice of 'godnapping', in which a conquering army carried off statues of the defeated enemy's gods. Although the exact contents of the Jerusalem temple when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE are unknown—Ezekiel 8–11 claims that all manner of objects and practices were present—it is likely that the Babylonian army would have carted off whatever it found there.Deporting the statues of the defeated people's gods demonstrated the power of the Assyrian or Babylonian king's god, who had enabled his victory by defeating the gods of the conquered. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Babylonians posed a major theological crisis for the defeated people of Judah, because it implied that Yhwh was weaker than the Babylonian gods. Many texts from this period seek to understand how this could have happened. Rather than admit that Yhwh was weaker than the Babylonian gods, however, most of these texts (such as Ezekiel) argue that Yhwh has authority over all of human history, and that the disaster was punishment for their accumulated sins, including and especially the worship of other gods. The experience of defeat and deportation thus was an important contributor to the theological development of the idea that the Israelites should only worship one god and, ultimately, that their god was the god of all.

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Babylonian Chronicle for the year 605–594 BCE

This clay tablet, the Babylonian Chronicle for the years 605–594 BCE, records events from the twenty-first and final year of the Babylonian king Nabopolassar’s reign and the first twelve years of king Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. The text describes king Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Jerusalem, including his capture and exile of king Jehoiachin. The text reads: “In the seventh year, the month of Kislev, the king of Babylon mustered his army and marched to Ḫatti-land (=the Levant). He encamped against the city of Judah and on the second day of Adar he took the city and captured the king. He appointed a king of his own choice there, received its heavy tribute and sent (them) to Babylon.” Nebuchadnezzar invaded because king Jehoiachim (Jehoiachin’s father) had rebelled against him, refusing to send tribute (2 Kings 24:1). Jehoiachim, however, died shortly before or during the siege. He was replaced by his son Jehoiachin who, at the tender age of 18, found himself on the receiving end of Babylonian wrath. Nebuchadnezzar deported Jehoiachin and other members of the royal family and some of the elites of Jerusalem—warriors, priests, artisans, and officials—into exile in Babylon (2 Kings 24:14–16), and placed Zedekiah (Jehoiachin’s uncle) on the throne instead (which indicates that not all of the elite was exiled). The tablet does not say what “heavy tribute” Nebuchadnezzar received, but 2 Kings 24:13 reports that he took all the gold, vessels, and treasures of the Jerusalem temple. The Babylonian Chronicle constitutes an extra-biblical witness to events reported by the biblical text and, in this instance, this evidence corroborates the basic version of events in the Bible. This agreement means that three things may be considered very likely to be historical. First, Jerusalem was invaded but not destroyed in 597 BCE. Second, a king of Jerusalem (Jehoiachin) was deported to exile in Babylon (see also Weidner's ration list). Third, Nebuchadnezzar replaced Jehoiachin with a king of his own choosing—the Bible gives the name Zedekiah. From this point on, Jerusalem's and Judah’s fate were firmly intertwined with that of Babylon. In hindsight, the state and the city had little more than a decade to stand.

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Franks Casket

This Anglo-Saxon casket is covered with scenes from Jewish, Christian, German and Classical mythology and history and provides one of the earliest examples of a medieval depiction of the fall of Jerusalem—in this instance, its fall to the Romans in 70 CE. On the back of the casket, Titus’ attack on the city is carved out to dramatic effect. The whole panel is densely populated, with Roman soldiers on the left and fleeing Jewish inhabitants of the city under siege on the right. In the centre of the work is the Jerusalem Temple, with the Ark of the Covenant within it. The inscription on this part of the casket reads: ‘Here Titus and a Jew fight: here its inhabitants flee Jerusalem’. For an eighth century CE Christian artist, the fall of Jerusalem signified the end of the Jewish era and the beginning of a superior Christian Empire. This would have been particularly resonant in Anglo-Saxon England, which had only very recently been converted to Christianity.

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Tablet mentioning Nabû-šarussu-ūkin (Nebusarsekim), the Chief Eunuch of Nebuchadnezzar II

This clay tablet dates from 595 BCE and describes the presentation of a gift of gold from Nebuchadnezzar II’s chief eunuch, Nabû-šarussu-ūkin, to the temple of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. Measuring just 5.4 cm by 3.5 cm, the tablet was discovered in Sippar, close to Baghdad, in the 1870s CE, but its full significance for study of the Bible was not realised until 2007. The Neo-Babylonian administrative document, currently located at the British Museum, contains eleven lines of cuneiform text. From the perspective of biblical studies, its most interesting feature is that it may refer to a Babylonian royal official who is also named in Jeremiah 39.* If both texts refer to the same man, the cuneiform text may lend historical credence to other details contained in Jeremiah 39 concerning the siege of Jerusalem, fleshing out the picture of life under Babylonian rule. The full translation of the tablet reads: “(Regarding) 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Banitu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esangila. In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Alpaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni. Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.” *The name should be Hebraized as Nebusarsekim, but some English translations, follow another manuscript traditions which divided up the list of Babylonian officials' names differently, putting the 'Nebu' part of the name with the previous one and resulting in officials called Nergal-sharezer, Samgar-nebo and Sarsechim, instead of Nergal-Sharezer of Samgar and Nebo-Sarsekim.

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Sennacherib's South West Palace at Nineveh, portraying the siege of Lachish

These panels are part of a series of wall reliefs excavated from the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s (ruled 705–681 BCE) palace at Nineveh. The panels records the Assyrian siege and eventual capture of the city of Lachish. Lachish was one of the most important cities in Judah, perhaps second only to Jerusalem, and it played an important role in the administration and military strength of the kingdom. Sennacherib’s army's siege of Lachish is reported in 2 Kings 18–19 (cf. Isaiah 36–37). These panels depict the aftermath of the siege, with particular interest in the population of the city which is being deported to Assyria. Deportation of a defeated city's or country's leadership was a very common part of Assyrian—and to a lesser degree Babylonian—military policy, and was designed to reduce the chance of future rebellions. Elsewhere in the series Sennacherib's soldiers are shown plundering the city's cultic items.

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David Roberts' 'The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70'

David Roberts was a Scottish painter and printmaker who made his name with Orientalist paintings, sketches and lithographs based on his extensive tours of Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. In contrast to other artists featured in this collection, therefore, Roberts’ depiction of the New Jerusalem was informed by his visit to and study of the Jerusalem of his own time, in addition to the writings of Josephus (especially the Jewish War). The image here is a lithograph of one of Roberts' most famous paintings, the monumental The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 (lost in 1854, only to reappear in 1961, long after his death). In this impressive image, we are given a panoramic view of the destruction of Jerusalem from the perspective of the Mount of Olives to the east of the city. It closely resembles another of his lithographs of Jerusalem, made on his trip there in 1839. In this image, the north wall of the city is already on fire, reflecting the staged description of the attack on the city given by Josephus. The Temple complex is visible on the left, with the Antonia fortress in the top left hand corner. In the foreground a Roman garrison of archers attack the city across the Kidron valley, even though in military terms this is rather improbable. Next to the archers is a group of mostly female Jewish captives. Although more architecturally and geographically accurate than others, Roberts’ painting perhaps lacks some of the personal drama and immediacy of his predecessors, although one comes away better informed about the scope and scale of the city and Titus's attack upon it.

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Jean Fouquet’s 'The Siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar' from Antiquites Judaiques

This image of the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE is taken from illuminated images made by master illustrator Jean Fouquet to accompany a French translation of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Fouquet began around 1410 CE, originally intending the work for the Duc de Berry, and finished around 1476 CE, with the work ultimately destined for the Duc de Nemours. There was an upsurge in interest in manuscripts dedicated to Jewish history in fifteenth century Europe and this work is part of that trend. The siege and subsequent capture of Jerusalem and the Temple was a pivotal moment in Jewish history and Josephus, a first century CE Jewish historian, devotes a significant part of his Antiquities of the Jews to the episode. He reports that Nebuchadnezzar, having besieged the city, sent in General Nebuzaradan to pillage and burn the Temple, to kill and capture the priests, and to exile the Jewish people to Babylon. Fouquet’s lavish images follow Josephus’ text fairly faithfully. We see, for example, the Babylonian forces entering the temple and killing and capturing priests in the background of the image. The Temple has been set on fire, and flames and wisps of smoke are visible. The habit of depicting Jerusalem and the Temple in contemporary terms, which apparent also in Cranach and the Angers tapestry, is clear here as well. The Temple itself, for example, though faithfully depicted as gold and cubic in shape, resembles the Cathedral at Tours more than any historical or biblical descriptions. See also Fouquet's image of Herod's entry into Jerusalem.

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Francesco Hayez's 'Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem'

Francesco Hayez was a Venetian painter working in Italy in the nineteenth century. Hayez was known for his theatrical history paintings of biblical and classical themes, rendered in neo-classical style. This chaotic, dramatic, and rather violent image of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and his Roman army in 70 CE, as described by Josephus in his Jewish War, is typical of Hayez’s style. The focal point of the image is the fighting taking place on the giant stone altar in the middle of the Temple precinct. This stone altar, used for burning the offerings specified in Deuteronomy 27:6-7, was an actual feature of the Second Temple buildings. In this respect Hayez's work represents a move towards a more architecturally accurate rendering of the Temple. Nevertheless, the placement of the altar is inaccurate, as are the steps, as the stone altar was accessed by a ramp. The symbolism inherent in the Jewish victims being thrown to their deaths from the altar is typical of Hayez’s allegorical style. The sense of sacrilegious chaos is also echoed by the visible theft of the golden menorah, the holy seven-armed candlestick, in the foreground of the image, as well as by the flight of a group of angels in the top left hand corner of the painting.

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Jean Fouquet’s 'Capture of Jerusalem by Herod in 36 BC', from 'Antiquites Judaiques'

This image of the capture of Jerusalem by Herod in 36 BCE is taken from illuminated images made by master illustrator Jean Fouquet to accompany a French translation of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. Fouquet began around 1410 CE, originally intending the work for the Duc de Berry, and finished around 1476 CE, with the work ultimately destined for the Duc de Nemours. There was an upsurge in interest in manuscripts dedicated to Jewish history in fifteenth-century Europe and this work is part of that trend. Fouquet’s lavish images follow Josephus’ text fairly faithfully. In this image we see Herod’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem alongside the Romans and the Roman general Sossius. In the background the High Priest continues with cultic ritual in the Temple sanctuary while, in the centre of the image, Fouquet appears to have included a ritual Jewish bath (mikveh) in which, in a conflation of Josephus's narratives, another High Priest and enemy of Herod’s, Aristobulus, appears to have just been drowned. As with Fouquet’s image of the Siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the dress and architecture of this image—with the exception of the rebuilt Temple—owes more to late medieval Northern European style than to the historical Jerusalem. This tendency may also be seen in the Angers Apocalypse Tapestry.

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Nicholas Poussin's 'The Destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem by Titus'

Nicholas Poussin was a French painter who spent most of his working life in Italy. His work is characterized by an interest in religious and historical subjects, often expressed in large landscape form. This large oil painting of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Roman army under Titus is typical of Poussin's work, even though the background is a cityscape rather than a landscape. The work was undoubtedly inspired in part by Josephus’ Jewish War, which chronicled the build up to the Jewish Revolt against Rome, and ultimate defeat in 70 CE after initial successes. In a busy and powerful image, Poussin depicts the massacre of the Jewish army in the foreground, the sack of the Temple buildings to the left and the surrounding buildings on fire. Titus is a focal point, thanks to the brilliant white hue of his horse and his raised hand. Josephus, who became an apologist for the Romans, was at pains in the Jewish War to point out that Titus had tried to save the Temple and the city from being burnt and destroyed, but had not managed to hold back his soldiers. His raised hand signifies his vain attempt to save the Temple and its environs. The raised gaze of Titus and some of his soldiers, to a focal point out of the picture frame in the top left hand corner, has also drawn critical attention. What they are looking at is not clear, but their may be meant to point to the presence of the Divine. Whether God is present in support or condemnation is left ambiguous. Notably, some of the details in Poussin's rendering of the city and the temple have been drawn from Rome, not Jerusalem. Thus the Temple resembles the Pantheon in Rome, although some of the architectural details (such as the colonnades of the Stoa and the placement of the sanctuary on the right) are historically accurate. But Titus and his horse resemble one of the equine statues of Marcus Aurelius that used to stand on the Capitoline. As frequently the case in other artistic renderings of the Jerusalem's destruction—see, for example, the work by Jean Fouquet—this key historical moment is visualised using an array of sources and imagery, not all of which relate to the historical city.

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Gebhard Fugel's 'An den Wassern Babylons'

An der Wassern Babylons, by the German artist Gebhard Fugel, depicts the setting of Psalm 137: 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and could we sing Yhwh's song in a foreign land?' (vv. 1, 4). Exiles from Judah line the banks of a river, and multiple harps can be seen in the background. Psalm 137 moves between the collective and singular voice, from “we remembered Zion” (v. 1) and “our captors demanded of us words of a song” (v. 3) to “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you” (v. 6). Perhaps this is why Fugel chose to highlight one character in the centre of the picture: amid the mourning crowd, one figure lifts his eyes upwards, as the lighting on his hand and face set him apart. The majority of Fugel’s work concerned biblical and Christian themes, including his 136 so-called Schulwandbilder (school wall paintings). This work was painted around 1920.

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The Book of Hours, Use of Sarum ('The Neville of Hornby Hours')

This fourteenth century CE Book of Hours—a type of medieval devotional volume with texts, prayers and psalms, and usually beautifully illuminated—is a carefully constructed piece of devotional narrative offers a guide to Christian history. It begins with the creation of the universe and concludes with a decisive moment in Christian history, the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. On this leaf of the manuscript, the Roman army appears below the battlements of Jerusalem, firing arrows up into the ranks of the Jews above. Amidst the ranks of Jewish soldiers on the lower section of the wall are two women, devouring their own babies in an act of savage desperation. This depiction of infanticide may be derived from Josephus’ story of Mary of Bethezuba, as seen in the Gospel Book of Otto III. Unusually, however, this depiction shows not one but two women consuming their children. This suggests the author may (also) have been influenced by the description of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, as recounted in Lamentations: 'The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.' The horror of the city's destruction by the Babylonians and the suffering of its people were understood by Lamentations and other texts of the period, such as Ezekiel, as just punishment for their broken covenant with Yhwh. For the Christian readership of this fourteenth century book of hours, the cannibalism it represents was the Jews' punishment for killing Christ—a deeply problematic but common Christian accusation against the Jews. The text's caption thus declares that it depicts ‘How Titus and Vespasian the Emperor of Rome destroyed the Jews in the city of Jerusalem for the love of God. And how the women ate their sons and the sons their fathers and the fathers their sons’.The Sarum in the title refers to the Cathedral of Salisbury, which had its own slightly different liturgy and continues to do so to this day.

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Family Trees of Judeans in Babylonia

These are the family trees of two families of Judeans living in southern Babylonia during the latter half of the first millennium BCE, under Babylonian and under Persian rule. The relationships they depict are based on a collection of cuneiform tablets from southern Babylonia, often referred to as the Al Yahudu tablets. The exact origins of these tables are unknown, because they appeared on the antiquities market rather than being found in a controlled scholarly excavation. These family trees show that naming practices among the Judean deportees and their descendants varied, sometimes quite substantially. Some Judeans have distinctly Jewish names, while others bore Babylonian names, even within the same family. The willingness to adopt Babylonian names indicates that there was some accommodation and assimilation to the local Babylonian society within the deportee community. These documents, dated to the sixth to fifth centuries BCE, also show that some Judeans / Jews continued to live in Babylonia long after the end of the 'exile' as described in Ezra and Nehemiah. Why these people remained while others chose to return to Jerusalem and its environs are unclear, but recent research suggests that many of them became well-integrated with the general population in Babylonia, without having given up their cultural distinctiveness. The reason we know that these two families are of Judean / Jewish descent is that their names contain the name Yhwh. It was common in ancient Near Eastern cultures for names to contain the name of a deity. The biblical name Jonathan (or Yonatan), for example, means 'Yo-has-given' ('Yo' is a shortened form of Yhwh). In the Al Yahudu tablets, as in Akkadian more generally, Yhwh's name usually appears as 'Yama'. It seems unlikely that any other group of people in Mesopotamia would have revered the God of Israel and Judah.

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Lamentations 1:6-10 from Qumran

The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE changed everything. Few texts express the sense of loss and longing that resulted from this as poignantly as the Book of Lamentations. The five laments in the book give voice to an emotional response to the destruction of the city, blaming the sins of a personified Jerusalem for the horrors her citizens now face. The fragment shown is from 4QLam (also known as 4Q111), the largest of the Lamentations scrolls from the Qumran texts discovered in the Judean desert. The text in this extract is Lamentations 1:6–10 (albeit with some important differences between the readings given in this scroll and the traditional Hebrew text, the Masoretic text). Lamentations 1:6–10 speaks of Jerusalem’s sin and the punishments bestowed upon the city in colourful terms, with imagery whose shock value is exacerbated by the portrayal of Jerusalem as female: Jerusalem 'has become an impurity—all who honoured her make light of her, because they have seen her nakedness' (v. 8). Laying issues of gendered violence momentarily aside, this text points to some of the key questions raised in the aftermath of exile: what caused this, and what does this mean? For the author(s) of Lamentations, the answers are that Jerusalem’s own transgressions brought about its downfall, and the result is that the city and people have been abandoned by Yhwh. The lament tradition was a longstanding one and may be seen also in the Lament for the City of Ur.

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Psalm 137 from the St Alban's Psalter

Psalm 137’s famous opening line, 'By the river(s) of Babylon we sat down and wept...', leads its hearers into a poem of yearning for a lost homeland. The psalm probably originated in the time of the the Babylonian exile, where it is set. It describes the communal grief experienced on the banks of the river, where the exiles’ captors demand 'songs of Zion', that is, songs of the holy city Jerusalem (v. 3). The central part of the poem, in the singular voice, expresses the refusal to 'sing Yhwh’s song in a foreign land' (v. 4) and calls for bodily repercussions, should the speaker forget Jerusalem. The final (and least used!) part of Psalm 137 implores Yhwh to remember the events that have taken place, seeking punishment on the singers' persecutors, and describes the one who will repay those persecutors as ashrei (happy/blessed). Although the ending has proved theologically problematic for many, the poem remains one of the most famous and influential ‘artefacts’ from the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of many of its inhabitants to Babylonia. Indeed, the psalm has a rich reception history—in recent years it has been used at the inauguration of the American President Donald Trump, been taken as inspiration for Paulo Coehlo’s novel By The River Piedra We Sat Down and Wept, and been interpreted as the earliest written record of middle cerebral arterial infarction (Saxby Pridmore and Jamshid Ahmadi, 'Psalm 137 And Middle Cerebral Artery Infarction', ASEAN Journal of Psychiatry 16/2 [2015]: 271). It is perhaps no surprise that it continues to capture the imagination: the sense of yearning and fear of forgetting are palpable throughout. The manuscript pictured, featuring Psalm 137 in Latin, is from the twelfth century CE St Alban's Psalter, currently housed in the Dombibliothek in Hildesheim, Germany.

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Rembrandt's 'Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem'

Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem depicts the prophet mourning the loss of the city, which can just be made out on the left hand side. Portrayed in sharp detail against an otherwise soft background, Jeremiah leans to his left, propped up by a large book marked Bibel. The position of the prophet is somewhat reminiscent of Michelangelo’s portrayal of the same prophet in his earlier Sistine Chapel fresco (1508-1512 CE). Jeremiah 39–52 records the fall of Jerusalem and its immediate aftermath. Unlike Ezekiel, whose book speaks from the perspective of Babylonian exile, the book of Jeremiah speaks with the voice of those left behind in Judah; the prophet, it says, was granted permission to stay in Judah by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. When Jeremiah left Judah with others who had been left in Judah by the Babylonians, he went Egypt. Jeremiah was traditionally also considered the author of the book of Lamentations. This is attested even in the early translations of the Bible—the Septuagint, the translation into Greek, for example, includes a superscription that ends 'Jeremiah sat weeping, and lamented this lament over Jerusalem'. The perceived connection between Jeremiah and Lamentations is due in part to the two books' linguistic similarities, although this may simply be due to their shared subject matter and close chronological proximity. 2 Chronicles 35:25 records Jeremiah chanting a lament over the death of Josiah the king, which may have helped the two books to be connected in the subsequent tradition.

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Weidner Ration List (Jehoiachin’s Rations Tablet)

This is one of four clay tablets, all from the middle of the sixth century BCE and housed in the Vorderasiatische Museum, Berlin, which detail the rations given to 'Ya’u-kīnu, king of the land of Yāhudu,' his five sons, and other royal captives. Ya’u-kīnu is usually identified with Jehoiachin, the king of Judah taken into captivity in 597 BCE, when the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem the first time. Parts of Ezekiel and Jeremiah reflect an argument over whether this king-in-exile should still be considered the rightful king of Judah, or if his authority had been ceded to the Babylonian appointee, Zedekiah.2 Kings 25:27-30 (paralleled by Jeremiah 52:31-34) records Jehoiachin receiving relatively favourable rations from the Babylonian king, as well as the presence of other royal deportees in Babylon. This appears to be corroborated by the cuneiform rations tablets. Interestingly, these tablets use the title 'King' for Jehoiachin. We must exercise caution in using these tablets to understand daily life in the diaspora: conditions were different for people deported to different places in Babylonia—life in the city of Babylon would have been very different from life on a rural royal agricultural project—and royal captives were treated very differently from others in the diaspora communities. These tablets can help to round out our picture of diaspora life, but only one very small and early part of it. The Al Yahudu tablets from the Nippur region show a very different kind of diaspora life in southern Babylonia.


Thomas Tallis's 'Lamentatio Ieremiae'

The most famous of all settings of Lamentations is that composed by Thomas Tallis in the middle of the sixteenth century CE. By the time that Tallis composed this work, the text of the Lamentations was an established part of the liturgy of Holy Week. European Christianity thus used the texts of the Lamentations—which had been written either as a direct reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians, or in order to recall the horror of the destruction during the rededication of the newly rebuilt temple in the late sixth century BCE—to express despair at the liturgically re-lived crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Tallis used the Latin text of the Vulgate translation of the Bible. The Hebrew poetry of Lamentations used a stylistic device quite common in Semitic languages: it was written as an acrostic. Instead of spelling out a word or name with the first letter of each verse, Lamentations goes through the letters of the alphabet in their Hebrew order—aleph, bet, gimel, daleth, he, and so on. In order to preserve this feature, the Vulgate translation has the name of the Hebrew letters preceding each verse, and Tallis, like most other composers included that into his music. By Tallis' time, it had already become common to compose the names of the Hebrew letters in a different style to the rest of the setting, perhaps comparable to the way the first letter in an illuminated manuscript often differed from that of other letters on the same page.

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John Mundy's 'De Lamentatione Ieremiae'

Like other composers working with Lamentations, John Mundy used the names of Hebrew letters to structure his music. The Hebrew text of Lamentations begins each line of a verse with the same letter, beginning with the first letter of the alphabet: thus the the first verse starts with א (aleph), the second verse begins with ב (bet) and on through the alphabet. The tradition of attempting to convey this in musical works comes via the Latin Vulgate translation of Lamentations, in which each verse was preceded by the name of a Hebrew letter. In musical works these letters are often used to give room to the musical abilities of the composer—they function a little bit like the large letters in an illuminated manuscript. Where Mundy's Lamentations differs from those by his predecessors is that, apart from the title and the Hebrew letters, he does not use the text of the Lamentations. Instead his Latin text expresses anguish about the schisms in the Roman Catholic Church that arose during the Reformation. This creative use of both the form and the name of Lamentations, in order to evoke the anguish which the Lamentations so powerfully express, demonstrates the extent to which the upheavals of the Reformation were perceived by Mundy and others in the sixteenth century as a disaster—comparable to the destruction of Jerusalem—and, indeed, a disaster for the Church's conception of itself as a New Jerusalem.

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John Duggan's 'Lamentation I-III'

John Duggan's Lamentation is at the same time both quite unusual and quite traditional in its setting of this now-classic text. Unusually, he adds a soprano soloist and a solo trumpet to the more common choral sound. His choice of text, however, is quite traditional, using the traditional introduction, 'here begins the Lamentation of Jeremiah', which is not from the Hebrew text but inferred from the Greek Septuagint; he finishes with a quote from Hosea 14:1 ('Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto your God'). Like the piece by Cecilia McDowall, Duggan's composition showcases the best in modern British composition, combining tradition features with departures from tradition in order to bring the ancient text and expression of liturgy to a modern audience.