Benefits of Babylonian Exile

This exile, although very traumatic, nevertheless had a great benefit to the Jewish people. There were no more corrupt kings or nobility – in Babylon the Torah scholars had complete authority. Moreover, the Babylonians were not anti-Semites per se; while they only wanted to destroy Judah as an independent political power, they harbored no ill feelings toward the Jewish religion. As such, Jews were given their own cities, where earlier exiled Jews welcomed them warmly. The Talmud tells us that G‑d chose Babylon as the place of exile for several reasons: Aramaic, the language of Babylon, was very similar to Hebrew. Abraham was born in Babylon, so the Jews were not regarded as foreigners. And it was easy to make a living from the abundant date trees. All told, then, life was pleasant for the Jews once they reached Babylon.

The Jews in Babylon

Despite the relative ease of their exile, the Jews reacted in vastly different ways. Some of them, traumatized by the shock of heathens conquering Jerusalem, an occurrence they had previously deemed impossible, despaired of a future redemption, saying that G‑d had severed His relationship with the Jewish people. Others settled down comfortably and planned to assimilate. Accordingly, the prophet Ezekiel addressed both of these concerns. To the first group, he shared his prophetic visions of the Heavenly Chariot and the Third Eternal Temple, telling them that G‑d did not forsake them. He also revived the dry bones in the Valley of Dura, symbolizing the rejuvenation of the Jewish people. To the second group, he burst out with fiery denunciations, saying that G‑d will never allow the Jewish people to assimilate. Nevertheless, many Jews did assimilate. Some Jews even rose to prominence at Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Daniel was appointed governor over the realm, while Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah also attained high positions in the government.

The Fiery Furnace

King Nebuchadnezzar set up a giant statue and ordered each captive nation to send representatives. When his band struck up a tune, everyone was supposed to bow to the statue; those that refused would be tossed into a fiery furnace. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, the Jewish delegates, consulted the prophet Ezekiel as to the proper course of action. Since the statue was not erected for idolatrous purposes, but only to honor the king, it would seem that Jewish law permitted bowing to it. However, the three Jews decided that they would demonstrate that only G‑d possesses unlimited power. Their plan was to refuse to prostrate before the statue, thereby defying Nebuchadnezzar publicly. Ezekiel, however, knowing that the punishment for such actions was death, instructed the three not to be present at the ceremony; if they went, he said, they should not expect G‑d to save them miraculously. Nevertheless, the three appeared, and when they proudly stood tall as everyone else bowed down, they were cast into the furnace. A spectacular miracle occurred, witnessed by the vast multitudes: the three walked out of the furnace without even being singed! After witnessing this great Kiddush HaShem, the nations of the world gained a new respect for G‑d and the Jewish people.

Evil Merodach

After a reign of 45 years, Nebuchadnezzar died and was succeeded by his son Evil Merodach. This king treated the Jews favorably and released the former Judaic king Jehoiachin from prison. Subsequently, Jeconiah bore children in Babylon, thereby preserving the Davidic line and uplifting the spirits of the exiled Jewish people, who realized that this venerable house had not been destroyed by the exile. Hundreds of years later, there were still individuals who could trace their ancestry to this royal family.

Jeremiah’s 70-Year Prophecy

Jeremiah foretold that the Jewish people would be redeemed from their Babylonian exile after 70 years. “For thus said G‑d: ‘When 70 years are completed for Babylon, I shall remember return you to this place’” (Jeremiah 29:10). However, Jeremiah did not clarify how those 70 years were to be calculated. The gentile kings who dominated the Jews awaited the fulfillment of this prophecy with great trepidation. Although these kings were all idolaters, they realized that Jeremiah was a prophet of the supreme G‑d and that his words would indubitably come true. At the time, there were three possibilities as to when the 70 years began, but only one interpretation was correct. Two monarchs calculated the starting point erroneously and brought disaster upon themselves.

The Handwriting on the Wall

Evil Merodach ruled 23 years, then his son Belshazzar assumed the throne in the year 3386. In 3389, the third year of his reign, he realized that 70 years had elapsed since Nebuchadnezzar’s domination of the Jewish people in 3319. Assuming that the 70-year period was up, and that the Jewish people would never leave exile, Belshazzar decided to celebrate. At his lavish feast, he demonstrated his contempt for G‑d by drinking from the holy vessels that his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Bais Hamikdash. Suddenly, a hand appeared and wrote a mysterious inscription on the wall: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. These words were written in a strange script and in an acrostic form; thus they were seemingly indecipherable. Nevertheless, Daniel interpreted the words as follows: Mene, Mene: G‑d has counted the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom, and they are numbered. Tekel: G‑d has weighed Belshazzar on the scales of justice and has found him guilty. Upharsin: His kingdom will be broken up and given to Persia and Media. On that very night, Belshazzar was killed, and the Babylonian Empire came to an end.

Darius I

In 3389, Darius the Mede became monarch of the Persian-Median Empire, the new world power. He was very favorably inclined toward the Jewish people and appointed Daniel chief minister of the realm. Jealous of Daniel’s high position, Darius’ other officials plotted to rid themselves of the king’s favorite minister. As such, they convinced Darius to enact a law saying that any person who prays to anyone other than the king will be thrown into a den of lions. As a committed Jew, Daniel openly prayed three times a day facing Jerusalem. Reluctantly, the king threw Daniel into the lions’ den. G‑d performed a miracle, and although the lions had been especially starved beforehand, they did not touch Daniel. Since it was the first night of Pesach, G‑d transported the Prophet Habbakuk to the lions’ den, and he and Daniel conducted the seder in full view of the lions. When Daniel emerged unscathed from the den, a greatly relieved Darius threw the plotting ministers and their families into the den instead, such being the system of justice in those times. Even before the ministers and their families hit the ground, the lions tore them to pieces. After ruling but one year, Darius died in 3390.


Darius’ successor is known in world history as Cyrus the Great, and Jewish history likewise considers him to be an extraordinary person, albeit for different reasons. Cyrus permitted the Jews to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Bais Hamikdash; indeed, his famous proclamation to that effect is the very last verse of the Bible: “Thus said Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘Hashem, G‑d of Heaven, has given to me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has commanded me to build Him a Temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of His entire people — may G‑d be with him, and let him go up’” (II Chronicles 36:23).

This remarkable personality missed an opportunity to play a unique role in Jewish and world history. Had Cyrus personally involved himself in bringing the Jews back to Eretz Israeland building the Bais Hamikdash, he would have ushered in the Messianic Era. Two hundred years before Cyrus was born, Isaiah predicted the king’s reign, mentioning him by name. Bible critics, uncomfortable with such an accurate prophecy, try to say that there were three prophets named Isaiah, and that the third one lived during the time of Cyrus. However, the language and style of the book of Isaiah strongly indicate that there was only one author. Cyrus ruled for three years, 3390-3393.

King Ahaseurus

The king of the Purim story was a rabid anti-Semite. Upon the instigation of the Samaritans, bitter enemies of the Jews residing in the land of Israel, he halted the construction of the Temple. Ahasuerus, too, miscalculated the end of the 70 years, figuring them from 3327, the date that Nebuchadnezzar exiled the 1,000 Jewish sages. In the year 3395, the third year of his reign, believing that the 70 years had passed without Jewish redemption, Ahasuerus made his famous feast. (Although only 68 years elapsed from 3327, Ahasuerus reckoned partial years of previous kings as full years. That was not an error, as the Talmud reckons the reign of monarchs in a similar way. His mistake was the starting point for the 70 years.) Disaster then struck when, drinking from the holy vessels of the Bais Hamikdash, he ordered the execution of his queen Vashti. The ensuing story of Purim is well known, and the following chart gives the dates for the major events of the book of Esther. Note that the Purim story unfolds over a 14-year span, from 3393-3406:

Year of Ahasuerus Major Events of Megillas Esther Day of Month (If Applicable)
1 The Megillah begins
3 Ahasuerus makes his parties
7 Esther becomes queen
12 Haman makes decree to kill the Jews 13 Nisan
12 Jews fast for 3 days 13,14,15 Nisan (another opinion: 14,15,16 Nisan)
12 Esther goes to Ahasuerus and invites him to her first party 15 Nisan
12 Ahasuerus cannot sleep, Haman builds gallows Night of 16 Nisan
12 Mordecai rides on horse, Esther’s second party, Haman is hanged Day of 16 Nisan
13 Jews all over the realm, including the capital Shushan, kill their enemies 13 Adar
13 Jews in Shushan kill their enemies 14 Adar
13 Jews outside Shushan rest and celebrate 14 Adar
13 Jews in Shushan rest and celebrate 15 Adar
14 Mordecai and Esther establish Purim as an official holiday.

Lessons of the Purim Story

The entire story was a hidden miracle — no seas split, no fire rained from heaven. Such an event becomes the prototype for Jewish survival in the present exile. Indeed, in this form Purim presents Jewish history as a jigsaw puzzle – no one sees how each piece fits in until the end. In the present exile, then, people only see the surface of things, not the deeper underlying significance, just as in the Megillah. (In the late 1800s, the French archeologist Marcel Dieulefoy unearthed the ruins of the Persian palace at Susa after it had been buried for more than 2,000 years. He declared that only someone who was familiar with its layout must have written the descriptions of the palace in the book of Esther. Dieulefoy’s statement gave the lie to the Bible critics who claimed that the Purim story was fabricated.)