The story of the Jews in Babylon is one of the most glorious in history. Their accomplishments are even more remarkable when we study the terror that was Babylonian society and its tyrannical leader, Nebuchadnezzar.
Little paints a clearer picture of the experience of Jews who arrived as exiles on Babylonian soil after the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple than Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, we also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres on the willows in its midst. For there, those who carried us away captive required of us a song; and those who tormented us required of us mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing God’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalms 137:1-6)
One of the jobs of the Levites was to sing songs in the Temple. Travelers arriving in Jerusalem could hear their haunting and inspiring voices from miles away as they approached the Holy City. Their renown was far and wide – so much so that when they arrived as exiles in Babylon, the Babylonians ask them to, “Sing for us the songs of Zion.”
“How can we sing the songs of God on foreign soil?”
The chapter in Psalms does not tell us the fate of the Jews who gave that answer. One traditional source says that Nebuchadnezzar killed 80,000 Jews. His response to their refusal was a massacre.
Although Jews would eventually make a home and thrive in Babylon, it is important not to have any romantic notions or false impressions regarding what the exile was like. Babylon was no picnic.
Approximately a century before the destruction of the Temple, Babylon began to gain strength as an empire. The Babylonians had perennially played second fiddle to the Assyrians, whose empire ran nearly four centuries. When their turn came they showed their former masters no mercy, and razed their capital city of Nineveh to the ground.
The most ruthless and powerful king of Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar, the man responsible for destroying the Temple. He was king for half a century and lived to be almost 100, according to Jewish tradition. More than anyone else, he made Babylon into a mighty empire.
General history books offer a perspective how Nebuchadnezzar became great. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 96a) provides the “inside story.”
The previous king of Babylon was a person named Merodoch-Baladan (Isaiah 39:1). He had an alliance with King Hezekiah of Judea. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” has long been the rule in the Middle East. Babylon was interested in supporting Judea in order to weaken Assyria.
When the mighty Assyrian army besieged Jerusalem on the night of Passover, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers died in a plague, as we discussed. Shortly thereafter, King Hezekiah came down with a terminal illness, but recovered from it miraculously. In response, Merodoch-Baladan sent him a letter expressing how happy the Babylonians were that he had his health restored.
He opened his letter: “Peace unto the great king Hezekiah. Peace unto the great city of Jerusalem. Peace unto to the great God of Israel.” He put God third.
Nebuchadnezzar was a young scribe in the king’s court at the time and was not present when the letter was written. However, he arrived just as a messenger was leaving to deliver it and asked one of his fellow scribes how it was worded. When they told him, he said, “How can you do that? How can you mention God last? God should be mentioned first.”
Nebuchadnezzar then took four steps to bring back the messenger. Commentators to the Talmud say that for every step that he took he was given a generation to continue after him as emperor of the empire.
The Talmud continues and says that the angel Gabriel came and stopped him from taking another step, because if he would have continued the Babylonian empire would have continued indefinitely. A foothold for evil of more than four generations would have been lethal to the world and a major threat to the survival of the Jewish people.
The deeper lesson is that Nebuchadnezzar merited becoming emperor because he had more respect for God than anyone else. How remarkable! He was one of the worst tyrants in the history of the world, yet was rewarded for the greater degree of understanding about God that he possessed. The two are not mutually exclusive. Free will is truly free. Nevertheless, God sees everything and rewards even the small amount of good that evil people do.
Small of Height, Tall of Stature
The Talmud says that Nebuchadnezzar was a dwarf. As a dwarf, others underestimated him. When he took power he showed them that he may have been small of standing, but not small of stature.
As part of his psychological makeup to compensate for his image, he had immense courage. For instance, he trained a lion in the palace and rode upon it bareback. He played with poisonous snakes. Once in a while he’d let a boa constrictor eat one of the courtiers in the palace that he did not feel so pleasantly disposed toward that day.
These illustrate the picture of what type of madman we are talking about.
No Fatal Attraction
Babylon had a long tradition of paganism. However, unlike Assyria, for instance, the Babylonians were completely intolerant of other religions. They insisted that everyone convert to their religion.
Besides idol worship, homosexuality was also rampant in Babylon, the Talmud says. It was not only accepted, but eventually become the norm. Nebuchadnezzar himself was bi-sexual. That was the culture.
Babylonian culture was also infamous for its great cruelty. It resembled Sodom in many respects. It was a hard and harsh society. No one helped anyone else. Violence was acceptable.
Therefore, it is little wonder that the Jews who were exiled to Babylon were not attracted to that society. The assimilatory process throughout Jewish history was always more dependent upon the Gentile society than upon the Jews. In a friendly, welcoming non-Jewish society Jews were invariably ready to assimilate. When the Gentile society was foreign or not friendly – whether for political, religious or social reasons – then Jewish identity was much more easily preserved. Jewish immigration throughout the centuries can easily be traced to the kind of a country they lived in.
The nature of Babylonian society was inherently foreign to the arriving Jewish exiles. As a result, they naturally congregated together and made their own “ghetto,” replete with their own synagogues, academies and communal institutions. They were not interested in becoming part of Babylonian culture. And they remained uninterested for a long time – they would stay in Babylon over 1,500 years and never assimilate!
That was the silver lining behind the fearsome, dark cloud of Babylonian culture: Jews did not assimilate for the very reasons that made Babylon so fearsome.
Indescribable in the Immensity of its Terror
Nebuchadnezzar’s policy for conquered nations was directly opposite of the Assyrian one. Whereas the Assyrian policy was to transpose populations, Nebuchadnezzar’s was to control the population via terror.
He appointed new governors, who were loyal to him. That was the system the Romans would use much later in history, as well as the Nazis and others. The population did not have to be moved. It only had to be cowed and beaten into submission. The way to do so was through acts of terror, often random in their infliction but purposeful in the sense that it got across the message that they lived at the whim and will of their conquerors. They should harbor no illusions of revolution or improving their lot. That was Nebuchadnezzar’s policy.
This is also illustrated by events such as when he threw three Jewish youths into a fire who refused to bow to his statue or when he allowed Daniel to be thrown into the lion’s den (Daniel, Chapter 6). Those were not uncommon events. To the contrary, they were daily events in the court of Nebuchadnezzar.
He was evil incarnate and his reign of terror lasted a good half century.
The memory of his terror lasted so long that the rabbis of the Talmud (Berachos) composed a blessing to be said upon seeing the ruins of his palace, which still existed in their day: “Blessed is God who destroyed the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.”
There is verse in the prophet Habakkuk (1:7) referring to the evil that would come upon the Jewish people: “It is indescribable in the immensity of its terror….” One traditional source comments that the verse was a reference to Nebuchadnezzar.
Nebuchadnezzar was a rude shock to the Jewish people. Because of that it reinforces the greatness of what was accomplished by the Jews in Babylon, how they were able to build Jewish life in a society inimical to their lifestyle and values. In spite of Babylonian intolerance, violence and terror the Jewish people not only survived by the rivers of Babylon but thrived beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations.
 The Midrash (Yalkut quoted by Rashi to Jeremiah 12:5) says he took three steps. Some commentators explain that this is one of the reasons why Jewish law requires a person to take three steps backwards after finishing the thrice-daily “Standing Prayer” (the Amidah or Shemoneh Esrai): to counteract the steps that Nebuchadnezzar took.
 However, for a categorically evil person like Nebuchadnezzar the reward will be paid in “inferior” wages, i.e. the pleasures and assets of the material world. This, in effect, eats up any reward he might have otherwise deserved entailing true recompense: the pleasures of the World to Come.