The period that preceded the destruction of the first Jerusalem Temple was one of the most tumultuous in our nation’s history. It was a time of quick, decisive change, as the nation shifted from a period of morass and idol worship under the wicked Menasheh to an era of widespread repentance inspired by his grandson Yoshiyahu.
However, even the great prophet Yirmiyahu could not keep the people and their leaders on the proper path. Just a few years after Yoshiyahu’s untimely death, the embattled prophet would watch helplessly as the magnificent Temple burned at the hands of Nevuchadnezzar’s Babylonian forces.
Of the six rulers who reigned following Menasheh’s death, the greatest was his grandson Yoshiyahu, son of Amoz. Like his great-grandfather Chizkiyahu, Yoshiyahu made tremendous strides in uprooting pagan behavior in Judah, almost managing to undo Menasheh’s destructive inroads.
Toward the end of Yoshiyahu’s reign, the Babylonians emerged as the world’s new power. For centuries an ongoing struggle had raged in the Fertile Crescent between the Assyrians in the north and the Babylonians in the south. The latter finally gained the upper hand, with some assistance from the Medes, who sacked and looted the once powerful Assyrian city of Nineveh.
At the same time, there was a rising force to the south of Judah: the Twenty-sixth Egyptian Dynasty. Earlier, the Assyrians had formed an alliance with Egypt in the hope of strengthening their position against invading Babylonian and Mede armies. In the year 445 BCE, Pharaoh Necho II marched a large Egyptian force through Israel in an attempt to reach Assyria and assist his ally in battle. Yoshiyahu tried to stop him but was killed.
The Egyptians arrived at Carchemish in northwest Syria where the Assyrians joined them. The two armies then marched on the Babylonian city Harran. Nevuchadnezzar, son of king Nabopolassar, led the Babylonians and achieved a decisive victory. As the Egyptian army returned home, Necho marched his armies back through Judah, setting up a puppet king, Yehoyakim, who had displayed loyalty to Egypt. Necho then imposed a heavy tax on Judah, which the Jewish vassal king passed on to the people.
In 442 BCE Nevuchadnezzar, now the Babylonian king, campaigned throughout most of Philistia and Judah, destroying every city in his path. Despite the Babylonian triumph at Carchemish, Yehoyakim continued to remain in alliance with Egypt. That proved to be a costly error. Despite several pleas for help, the Egyptians never responded. Yehoyakim surrendered to Babylon in 441 BCE, sparing Jerusalem for the time being.
This submission would prove short lived. Two years later Nevuchadnezzar attacked Egypt proper. During this campaign both sides incurred heavy losses. Nevuchadnezzar retreated empty-handed. Encouraged by this turn of events, Yehoyakim rebelled, again joining with the Egyptians.
In response to Yehoyakim’s defiance, Nevudachdnezzar marched on Jerusalem in Yehoyakim’s fourth year.
[He took with him] some of the vessels of the house of God…[and] certain of the children of Israel, and of the royal seed, and of the nobles, youths in whom was no blemish, but fair to look on, and skilful in all wisdom, and skilful in knowledge, and discerning in thought, and such as had ability to stand in the king’s palace; and that he should teach them the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans. [Daniel 1:1-4]
These youths would later become some of the most prominent advisers to Babylonian kings and leaders of Babylonian Jewry. The best known include Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
Seven years later, the Babylonians returned to the area and again marched on Jerusalem. Yehoyakim died shortly thereafter. His eighteen-year-old son Yechanya was raised to the throne in his place. Three months later Yechanya wisely surrendered to Nevuchadnezzar, thus temporarily saving Judah from destruction. He was exiled together with members of the royal family, other heads of state, the Judean military, and many artisans.