The Kingdom of Judah by Debra Scoggins Ballentine

The fate of the kingdom of Judah is a central topic of the Hebrew Bible. According to the biblical stories, Judean kings ruled from the time of David, about 1000 B.C.E., until 586 B.C.E., when the Neo-Babylonians destroyed Judah, its capital Jerusalem, and the temple and forcefully resettled most Judeans in Babylon. Though the kingdom of Judah was gone, Judean scribes and priests preserved and developed the most prominent biblical literary and religious traditions during and after the Babylonian exile. When the Persian king Cyrus conquered the Neo-Babylonians in 539 B.C.E., he secured the periphery of his empire by allowing his new subjects to return home. Although some Judeans stayed in Mesopotamia, those who returned rebuilt Jerusalem, the temple, and Judean society.

What was the status of the kingdom of Judah in the ancient world?

The kingdom of Judah has had an enormous legacy, despite its small size and relative unimportance on the ancient Near Eastern political stage. It was Judean scribes who produced most of the contents of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible that we know today is the expression of select Judean theologies rooted in a particular time and place but whose impact is now global.

Around 1150 B.C.E., the major civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia collapsed, leaving a power vacuum in Canaan. The kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel in the north emerged in this power vacuum, along with Ammon, Moab, Edom, Aram-Damascus, and Philistine and Phoenician city-states, between the 10th and eighth centuries B.C.E. When Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia recovered, the territory of Judah and its neighbors became a political buffer zone, subject to these empires. This geopolitical context thoroughly shaped biblical stories.

The kingdom of Judah became a vassal to the Neo-Assyrian and, later, Neo-Babylonian kings, meaning that Judean kings had to pay tribute and remain loyal to them. In Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian documents, Judah is not exceptional. In 728 B.C.E., the Neo-Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III mentions Judah among other subjugated kingdoms that have paid him treasures, goods, and livestock (Summary Inscription 7; see 2Kgs 16). In 701 B.C.E., the Neo-Assyrian king Sennacherib sacked Judean towns, besieged Jerusalem, and took vast riches from the Judean king Hezekiah (Rassam Cylinder; see 2Kgs 18:13-19:37, Isa 36-37, 2Chr 32:1-23). Although we have no surviving Babylonian accounts of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Judah, biblical accounts, including heart-wrenching lamentations over Jerusalem, suggest that he easily quashed Judah’s rebellion (2Kgs 24-25, Ps 79). Despite the biblical depiction of Solomon receiving tribute from neighboring kings and ruling over a kingdom that stretched from the Euphrates in Mesopotamia to the border of Egypt (1Kgs 4:21) the reality was far from that ideal: it was neighboring kings who dominated and subjugated Judah.

How did the status of the kingdom of Judah determine biblical theology?

Many read the Hebrew Bible as a universal, timeless book. However, its authors were primarily concerned with the fate of Judah, especially Jerusalem and the Davidic kings who ruled from there. Judean scribes included statements about the fate of the kingdom of Judah in stories about the 12 tribes attaining the land as well as the establishment of Israel and Judah (for example, Lev 26:39-45; Deut 4:25-31; Josh 23:16; 1Kgs 9:7). They link the kingdom’s stability to Yahweh’s covenants with David and the Israelites: David’s descendants would always rule, Jerusalem would always stand, and the Israelites would possess the promised land. Judean authors reinforced these ideas when they responded to the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E.

Historically, the Neo-Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom for political reasons: Israel withheld tribute whereas Judah did not (2Kgs 17:4-6, 2Kgs 18:9-13). Judean scribes explained Israel’s demise and their own survival by developing theological explanations that affirmed the legitimacy of Judah (2Kgs 17:7-18). They portray Israel’s kings and people negatively, justifying Israel’s fall and framing the political disaster as a lesson for Judean kings and people.

Judean authors faced a crisis of their own in 586 B.C.E., when the Neo-Babylonians decimated Judah. They apologize for this catastrophe by blaming the Judean people, kings, priests, and prophets, accusing them of breaking their covenant with Yahweh. Jer 21:3-6 portrays Yahweh fighting along with the Neo-Babylonian armies, and Ezek 9 describes Yahweh sending divine beings to destroy Jerusalem and kill Judeans! This shocking imagery serves to maintain the idea that Yahweh is in control not only of the Judeans but also of the Neo-Babylonians, whom he has empowered to remove Judah from the promised land. Further responses to Judah’s destruction include a renewed covenant (Jer 31:31, Ezek 36:27, Isa 59:21).

In postexilic, Persian-controlled Judah, Nehemiah (Neh 9:6-37) provides hope by retelling the foundational narrative of Israel and Judah, beginning with creation, through the patriarchs, exodus, and the kingdoms up to the present, postexilic moment. He describes Judeans making a new covenant with Yahweh (Neh 8-10). Granted, this reconstituted Judah did not have a Davidic king, but through the reenvisioning of the foundational narrative and compilation of most of the contents of the Hebrew Bible, these Judean writers, marked by the experience of destruction and exile, sealed the legacy of the kingdom of Judah.

Debra Scoggins Ballentine, "Kingdom of Judah", n.p. [cited 20 Mar 2018]. Online:


Debra Scoggins Ballentine

Debra Scoggins Ballentine
Assistant Professor, Rutgers University

Debra Scoggins Ballentine is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Rutgers University, where she teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. She is particularly interested in how ancient Near Eastern, including biblical, authors use traditional stories about their gods to promote new political, social, and religious ideas. Her book, The Conflict Myth and the Biblical Tradition, is currently under contract with Oxford University Press.

The Hebrew Bible’s central focus is the fate of the kingdom of Judah, which was relatively small and subject to powerful ancient Near Eastern empires.

Did you know…?

  • According to the Hebrew Bible, David was the first king of Judah, and Judean kings ruled from about 1000 B.C.E. until 586 B.C.E., when the Neo-Babylonians destroyed Judah, its capital Jerusalem, and the temple and forced most Judeans to relocate to Babylon.
  • The ninth-century B.C.E. Tel Dan Stela appears to mention a certain king of the “house of David.” This Aramean inscription does not use the term Judah, but the designation “house of David” could be our earliest reference to the kingdom.
  • The name Judah (Yĕhudah in Hebrew) refers to the patriarch Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob; the tribe associated with his descendants and their territory; the kingdom centered on that tribal territory; and the community that returned from Babylonian exile.
  • In Greek literature, including the New Testament, the Hebrew word Yĕhudah is written Ioudas or Iouda (Judas or Judah), the territory is called Ioudaia (Judea), its people are Ioudaios (Judean), and their customs are Ioudaismos. Though the term Judaism is derived from this latter Greek word, Ioudaismos included all Judean social and cultural norms, not just Judean religion.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

The region of Asia Minor, including modern Turkey, location of the Hittite Empire and Hittite-Luwian languages.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.

A form of ancient government in which a single city was self-governing and often extended its political sphere to the surrounding countryside. Ancient Mesopotamian and Greek city-states are particularly well-known.

An empire in lower Mesopotamia that dominated the ancient Near East in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. At the height of their power, they controlled all of the ancient Near East, including Egypt. They were defeated by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 B.C.E.

A subordinate, often a king who is subject to a more powerful king or emperor.

2Kgs 16

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2Kgs 18:13-19:37

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Isa 36-37

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2Chr 32:1-23

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2Kgs 24-25

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Ps 79

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1Kgs 4:21

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People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Lev 26:39-45

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Deut 4:25-31

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Josh 23:16

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1Kgs 9:7

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2Kgs 17:4-6

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2Kgs 18:9-13

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2Kgs 17:7-18

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Jer 21:3-6

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Ezek 9

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Jer 31:31

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Ezek 36:27

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Isa 59:21

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Neh 9:6-37

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Neh 8-10

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The period between 586 and 539 B.C.E., when the leaders and elite of Judea were exiled to Babylon. The exile ended when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return home.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

The southern kingdom of Judah.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

An upright stone slab usually inscribed or carved for commemorative purposes.

Literally "mound," a small hill-shaped site containing numerous occupational layers of a town or city built on top of one another over millennia.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

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