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When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem he appointed Zedekiah as his puppet-king and took King Jeconiah and his sons home with him.

For what reasons would the king of a large empire of antiquity, such as Nebuchadnezzar, keep the captive king and his sons alive? Was this common practice in that era?

Would it not make more sense strategically to execute them to prevent any legitimate successors from claiming the throne and seeking vengeance?

  • The chances of a captive prince to make it back from Babylon to Judea to foment trouble were practically nil. So he was not really running a risk in keeping them alive. As to positive reasons to do so - probably just vanity. – Felix Goldberg Jul 30 '14 at 8:54
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    I'm not sure how executing him would have prevented "legitimate successors" from stirring up trouble. Actually, one might argue keeping the rightful king alive prevents someone else from claiming kingship for himself legitimately. – Semaphore Jul 30 '14 at 10:33
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    I believe this was common for the period. The Empire had already demonstrated the ability to conquer and had little interest in governance. The local King had demonstrated ability to govern and demonstrated inability to resist the empire. Hostages ensure the puppet's cooperation. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 30 '14 at 12:01
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    @Semaphore Good point actually! – Juicy Jul 30 '14 at 20:07
  • Juicy - ask not why people don't commit the murders they don't commit, ask rather why they commit the murders they do commit. – MAGolding Apr 7 '17 at 15:47
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The direct motivation of Nebuchadnezzar in sparing King Jeconiah is not known. However, we can discern his motivation from subsequent events that suggest that keeping an heir of David alive, but under the thumb of the Babylonian king would make it easier to manage the large number of Jews in exile in Babylon.

In or about the year 597 BCE, Jeconiah, the young king of the defeated kingdom of Judah, joins the first wave of Jewish deportees to Babylonia. II Kings 25:12. There, he and his family were cared for by King Nebuchadnezzar. James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969) 308. In Babylon, Jeconiah became the first exilarch (aka the Raish Galusa) (my transliterations follow ashkenaz practice; you will also find this term spelled Raish Galuta) -- a position of power over the Jewish people in exile that was held only by direct descendants of King David. Among the exilarchs were Judah the Prince, who was the editor of the Mishna and one of the greatest Torah scholars in Jewish history. The position of exilarch with Davidic geneology continued into the 11th century. One of the last exilarchs was Rav Sherira Gaon (ca 900-1000 CE), the author of the history of the Oral Law in Judaism, the Igerres Rav Sherira Gaon, and one of the last leaders of the ancient yeshiva in Pumpedisa, Babylon (believed to have been a neighborhood in what is now Baghdad).

Through the position of exilarch, and by granting wealth and privilege to the exilarch, the Babylonians maintained effective control of their Jewish population in exile. Igerres Rav Sherira Gaon, Ch. 9 (Rav Sherira, at p. 113, states that the underwriting of the office continued until the 8th or 9th Century CE). An argument could be made that the existence of the institution also inhibited the efforts of Ezra, Nehemiah and Zechariah to repopulate Israel when Babylon agreed to make that possible 70 years after the 1st Temple's destruction.

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Would it not make more sense strategically to execute them to prevent any legitimate successors from claiming the throne and seeking vengeance ?

Perhaps... But it also makes psychological sense to brutally humiliate one's adversaries. Please note the various parallels between the following biblical passages:

Judges 1:6-7 Adonibezek fled; and they pursued after him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes. And Adonibezek said:

Threescore and ten kings, having their thumbs and their great toes cut off, gathered their meat under my table: as I have done, so God hath requited me.

And they brought him to Jerusalem, and there he died.

and

2 Kings 25:5-7 And the army of the Chaldees pursued after the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho: and all his army were scattered from him. So they took the king, and brought him up to the king of Babylon to Riblah; and they gave judgment upon him. And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him to Babylon.

and

Jeremiah 52:8-11 But the army of the Chaldeans pursued after the king, and overtook Zedekiah in the plains of Jericho; and all his army was scattered from him. Then they took the king, and carried him up unto the king of Babylon to Riblah in the land of Hamath; where he gave judgment upon him. And the king of Babylon slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes: he slew also all the princes of Judah in Riblah. Then he put out the eyes of Zedekiah; and the king of Babylon bound him in chains, and carried him to Babylon, and put him in prison till the day of his death.

and

2 Kings 25:27-30 And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, that Evilmerodach king of Babylon in the year that he began to reign did lift up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah out of prison; and he spake kindly to him, and set his throne above the throne of the kings that were with him in Babylon; and changed his prison garments: and he did eat bread continually before him all the days of his life. And his allowance was a continual allowance given him of the king, a daily rate for every day, all the days of his life.

and

Jeremiah 52:31-34 ¶And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the twelfth month, in the five and twentieth day of the month, that Evilmerodach king of Babylon in the first year of his reign lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah, and brought him forth out of prison, and spake kindly unto him, and set his throne above the throne of the kings that were with him in Babylon, and changed his prison garments: and he did continually eat bread before him all the days of his life. And for his diet, there was a continual diet given him of the king of Babylon, every day a portion until the day of his death, all the days of his life.

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