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Archaeology in Israel: 2,500 Year Old Jewish Babylonian Tablets Found in Iraq

(February 2015)

A new exhibit featuring more than 100 cuneiform tablets that detail the lives of Babylonian Jews during Nebuchadnezzar's rule debuted in February 2015 at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.  The tablets date back to approximately 600 B.C.E., when Jews were forced to relocate from Jerusalem to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Archaeological experts have stated that the discovery of these tablets is the most significant discovery in biblical archaeology since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and have described the discovery as “hitting the jackpot.” 

The tablets were acquired by David Sofer, a wealthy Israeli collector living in London, and archaeologists were first able to examine them in 2013.  The origins of the stones are a mystery, and it is believed that they were dug up in the 1970's in Southern Iraq and surfaced on the international antiquities market soon afterwards. 

King Nebuchadnezzar came from Babylon to Jerusalem on many occasions, seeking to expand his kingdom.  He would force, or encourage Jews to leave Israel and come with him to live in Babylon. Until the tablets were translated, very little was known about the lives of Jews who had been deported from Israel to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar during the Babylonian Exile.  Filip Vukosavovic, an expert in ancient Biblical history and the curator of the collection of tablets at the Bible Lands Museum, said that “[the tablets] fill in a critical gap in understanding of what was going on in the life of Judeans in Babylonia more than 2,500 years ago.” 

The tablets describe life in a Jewish settlement between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers named Al-Yahudu.  Important information and specific details such as trade transactions, home sales, addresses, inheritances, and other various agreements are etched on these stone tablets, and each tablet is also inscribed with the transaction date corresponding with whichever monarch was in power at the time.  This allowed experts to date the tablets to between 572 and 477 B.C.E., with the earliest tablet being written approximately 15 years after Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the First Temple

On some tablets, Hebrew lettering can be seen alongside Akkadian writings.  The Judeans living in Babylon were active in local business life and were not treated poorly by the Babylonian government, as revealed by the inscriptions on the tablets.  Nebuchadnezzar did not mistreat the Jews that he had forced to relocate to his city.  According to Vukosavovic, Jews “were free to go about their lives, they weren't slaves.”  Although Jews were allowed by the Babylonians to return to Israel in 539 B.C.E., 80,000 Jews chose to stay, forming one of the largest ancient exile communities in the world. 

Two books about the collection have been published: “Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer” by Prof. Laurie Pearce (who had a major hand in translating the tablets into English), and “By the Rivers of Babylon,” by Horowitz, Yehoshua Greenberg and Peter Zilberg, published by the Bible Lands Museum. 

Sources: Haaretz (January 29, 2015)
Reuters (February 3, 2015)