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.