Biblical texts from around the time of the Babylonian exile assert that Judeans were slaves in Babylonia. The book of Lamentations cries that “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude” (1:3) with a “yoke on [their] necks” (5:5), their “boys stagger[ing] under loads of wood” (5:13). Babylon thus became the biblical motif for a place of captivity, to be contrasted with the joyous freedom that accompanied the return under Cyrus.
The last century or so has yielded some extra-biblical documentary evidence for the exile. For example, the Judean king Jehoiachin is mentioned in cuneiform administrative texts from Babylonia as is the high official Nebo-sarsekim (Jer 39:3). Documents from Judean communities in Babylonia have also come to light. They are, however, in many ways quite at odds with the Bible. Recent research[i] has shown, for example, how Judean legal practices with regard to slavery are different to the written laws of the Hebrew Bible and also that many Judean families, contrary to the familiar jeremiads, prospered in exile.
Cuneiform legal texts show the wealth and status of some Judean families engaged in agriculture in the Babylonian countryside. Many of these families owned slaves and sometimes treated them contrary to biblical law. For example, Judean slaves owned by Judean masters were pledged as payment for debt interest (antichresis) and were fully transferable, suggesting their status as chattel. Such an arrangement is not envisioned by the Bible, which disavows both usury (Lev. 25: 36-37) and the owning of fellow Judeans (1 Kings 9:22). There is also no Sabbath-work exemption found in the documents for slaves (cf. Deut 5:14).
Judeans had full access to the Babylonian legal system and their contracts followed Babylonian rather than biblical law. Later rabbinical law seems also to have followed the Babylonian tradition and we are thus left wondering about the status of biblical law. Does it represent pre-exilic legal norms or was it written in response to what might have been seen as some of the deficiencies of Babylonian law? Might the biblical law on not owning kinsmen slaves have been a deliberate counter to what happened in Babylonia, where Judeans enslaved fellow Judeans? Or was the retrenchment under Ezra a result over disquiet with how easily Judah had abandoned its own tradition?
These documents also demonstrate that the Judean experience in exile was not necessarily one of chains and cruelty: Whilst their initial settlement was forced, “the Judeans were integrated into the Neo-Babylonian legal, political, and economic systems.”[ii] They were not chattel slaves and their property was more than just a peculium.[iii] It is worth remembering that the semantic range of “slave” was wide in the ancient Near East. The Judeans were more akin to debt slaves working to pay the debt of their rebellious nation to Babylon. Given their productivity (they were given land subject to tax and military corveé duties), the “debt” was eventually repaid or perhaps written-off and they were allowed to return to their home under the Persians. Some, however, would have found life in metropolitan Babylon more preferable to life under the mullahs (as they perceived it) in the Judean backwater and stayed in “exile.”
Such economically active Judeans represent, of course, affluent elites among their people. There would certainly have been Judean poor who were “weary . . . and given no rest” (Lam 5:5), but the point is that they were just as likely to have been placed under the yoke of a fellow Judean as a native Babylonian. I wonder whether we see in the biblical rhetoric the cry of the Jewish poor raised against, as much as anyone, a new Jewish-Babylonian elite so quick to abandon their own tradition. The return to Jerusalem and the concern for religious purity exhibited by Ezra et al. may have been a response to the assimilation which so benefited a resented elite in Babylon.
[i] Around 200 legal texts from Judean communities from towns such as Al-Yahudu (Judah-town) are currently being published. See F. Rachel Magdalene and Cornelia Wunsch, “Slavery Between Judah and Babylon: The Exilic Experience,” in Laura Culbertson (ed.), Slaves and Households in the Near East, Chicago: Oriental Institute, 2011, 113-134.
[ii] Ibid. 127.
[iii] Peculium is the Latin name given to the usufructal property given to slaves. It is not transferable and is ultimately owned by the master. Judeans own slaves whom they pledge, sell, and gift. They also bring them back to Yehud (Ezra 2:64-65). This is property, not peculium.