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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.

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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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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.