In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Bible, Exile, and Migration

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Texts
  • Methodological Issues
  • Archaeology of Empire in the Levant
  • Archaeology of Empire: Comparative Evidence
  • Judah Under Foreign Rule
  • The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires
  • The Responses of Subject Peoples
  • The Response of the Israelite Law Collections and Storytellers
  • Response in Other Israelite Literature
  • The Theological Consequences of Forced Migration

Biblical Studies The Bible, Exile, and Migration
Mark W. Hamilton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0327


The 8th to 6th centuries BCE in southwestern Asia and the eastern Mediterranean were a period of imperial expansion and, as a result, the forced movements of peoples. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires used forced migration as an instrument of rule, forcibly moving several million people over a period of a century and a half. The earlier empire used these forcibly removed populations to settle new agricultural land as part of a centralized economy focused on the benefits of the Assyrian homeland. The Babylonian realm was too short-lived and fragile to develop its own policies distinct from the Assyrians. Most significantly, these events influenced the formation of many parts of the Bible. The reflections on those events profoundly shaped the theological work of Israelite thinkers and through them Judaism and Christianity ever afterward. It would be hard to overstate the impacts of these events on human history. Since the mid-first millennium BCE, concern for the refugee and migrant has figured in the ethical reflections of these traditions. Migration also became a rich source of metaphors for human existence writ large, as well as for the work of God. Understanding the events and their consequences is not easy, however. The text evidence comes from Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and, more limitedly, business documents, as well as from literary texts from the colonized populations in Israel and (again in royal inscriptions) further north in Syria and southern Anatolia. All of these documents exhibit their creators’ varying perspectives and aims. And the accident of survival or disappearance complicates study of them. Moreover, archaeological evidence for these empires and their impacts on local population is often hard to pin down. At the same time, scholars have made much progress in understanding the history of this period and its aftermath. Methodologically sophisticated studies have appeared, and the subfield is changing rapidly.

General Overviews

The history of forced migration in the ancient Near East has drawn scholarly attention for many years because of the prominence of the experience in the Hebrew Bible and perhaps the salience of similar experiences in the history of the era since World War I. For ancient events, issues of both evidence and method of study come into play, and most syntheses have come under fire over time. Some of the issues concern definitions of terms such as “exile” and “forced migration,” since the former may imply a politically motivated targeting of discrete individuals who form a coherent community in a new land (as with the emigres who fled the Russian Revolution), but who expect to return home. The word “forced” also covers a range of state actions and degrees of coercion and voluntarism. Earlier biblical scholarship, such as Ackroyd 1972, usually focused almost exclusively upon the biblical texts without regard either to other lines of evidence or to comparable phenomena in other times or places. Barstad 1996 and some of others such as Grabbe 1998 have argued that the level of depopulation of Yehud wrought by the Babylonians was overestimated. More recent scholarship, such as Albertz 2012, have shown that the ancient textual picture was essentially correct, as the evidence has shown that the region was, in fact, badly affected by the invasions of the Mesopotamian empires. Another important issue has been the impact of the invading empires on Israelite religion. McKay 1973 and Cogan 1974 showed that the Assyrians did not deliberately modify the religions of their subject populations, but that the higher status of the dominant culture did have effects on the ideas and practices of their subjects. Hanson 1987 tried to show how internal and external forces reshaped Israelite religion under the Persian Empire. Other important issues include the parallels between local religions in the Persian period in various parts of the empire, as Fried 2004 has shown, and continuities between reactions to the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. The essays in Barmash and Hamilton 2021 have laid out those continuities in detail.

  • Ackroyd, Peter R. Exile and Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972.

    An important early synthesis of the history and theology centered on the forced migrations of the 6th century BCE and later. The theological changes made in response to the traumas of that period included reflection on the ideas of “exile” and “restoration.” In part, the theology of this period came to understand the rebuilding of Jerusalem and environs as a sign of God’s renewal of the entire world, and the community involved as the vanguard of a new humanity.

  • Albertz, Rainer. “More and Less Than a Myth: Reality and Significance of Exile for the Political, Social, and Religious History of Judah.” In By the Irrigation Canals of Babylon: Approaches to the Study of the Exile. Edited by John J. Ahn and Jill Middlemas, 21–33. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 526. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.

    Judah underwent major changes under Babylonian rule. That is, the biblical view of a major change in this period are correct. The losses included the collapse of cultic practices in the temple, the disappearance of territorial integrity, the revival of kinship as the primary social organizing principle, and the loss of national identity, and greater contacts with foreigners. The “exile” was a major break from Judah’s earlier history, not an ideological creation of a small group of returnees.

  • Barmash, Pamela, and Mark W. Hamilton, eds. In the Shadow of Empire: Israel and Judah in the Long Sixth Century BCE. Archaeology and Biblical Studies 30. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2021.

    The 6th century BCE was a pivotal period in Israel’s history and the development of the Bible. The nine essays in this volume explore the extent and limits of knowledge about this period both on the ground (archaeologically) and in the texts. By examining the known history of the era from the vantage point of both the imperial center and the conquered periphery, it becomes possible to understand both the forced migration and the intellectual response to it better.

  • Barstad, Hans M. The Myth of the Empty Land: A Study in the History and Archaeology of Judah during the “Exilic” Period. Symbolae Osloenses Supplement 28. Oslo, Norway: Scandinavian University Press, 1996.

    Contrary to the standard view that Judah and the southern Levant were depopulated during the 6th century BCE by the Babylonian Empire, Barstad argues that archaeological evidence available in the early 1990s points to a small reduction of the population. Many later works have argued against Barstad’s case, pointing to continuing excavations showing significant demographic change in some areas. However, his work does continue to stimulate thinking because it argues for careful attention to method, language, and the archaeological data.

  • Cogan, Mordechai. Imperialism and Religion: Assyria, Judah, and Israel in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries B.C.E. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 19. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974.

    Drawing heavily on Neo-Assyrian royal inscriptions, Cogan argues that the empire’s political practice sometimes involved the removal of statues of deities from their place of origin, but not the suppression of local religious practices. Therefore, the cultic reforms of ancient Judah were not acts of rebellion against the imperial overlord. The Deuteronomists respond to internal theological ideas when they blame the mass removals of people from Judah on the idolatry of Manasseh.

  • Fried, Lisbeth S. The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire. Biblical and Judaic Studies 10. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004.

    DOI: 10.5325/j.ctv1bxh3t4

    Examines the relationships between the temple and palace bureaucracies in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Yehud during the Persian Empire. The evidence points to significant Persian interference in local affairs, even at the level of local religion. The local high priests often deferred to the Persian governors. This view refutes the common one that the Persian government merely authorized local religious practices, and it shows biblical texts resisting Persian rule rather than quietly accepting it.

  • Gerstenberger, Erhard S. Israel in the Persian Period: The Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE. Translated by S. S. Schatzmann. Biblical Encyclopedia 8. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.

    A large-scale survey of the literary and theological work of emerging Judaism during the Persian Empire. The known history rests on texts surviving from several parts of the empire, and in several languages. This period saw the creation of many new texts and revisions of older ones in service of emerging theological ideas. Most of the Hebrew Bible took shape during this period. These ideas include the centrality of the priesthood and temple, monotheism, and an ethic of shared humanity.

  • Grabbe, Lester L., ed. Leading Captivity Captive: “The Exile” as History and Ideology. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 278. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

    A discussion among several scholars about the reality of the “exile” of ancient Judeans and Israelites. The group agreed that something happened during the 6th century BCE and that the idea of “exile” was not a neutral label but a highly loaded theological and ideological one. Some authors argue that most Judeans did not experience deportation, and therefore the texts show a chosen trauma, an ideological construct. Others argue, however, that the archaeological evidence does not support that view.

  • Hanson, Paul. “Israelite Religion in the Early Postexilic Period.” In Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of F. M. Cross. Edited by Patrick D. Miller, Paul D. Hanson, and S. Dean McBride, 485–508. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987.

    The destruction of Jerusalem and Judah in the early 6th century BCE transformed several strands of Israelite traditional religious thinking: one that sought divine deliverance for Zion (some psalms, Isa. 29), one that saw primarily judgment (Jeremiah), a Zadokite priestly tradition that emphasized the presence of God’s “glory,” and a more cosmopolitan one related to other ancient Near Eastern wisdom traditions. The era of forced migrations altered each of them and brought them into renewed dialogue with each other.

  • McKay, John W. Religion in Judah under the Assyrians, 732-609 B.C. London: SCM, 1973.

    McKay demonstrated against earlier scholarship that the Assyrians did not impose their religious practices on Judah. Those practices did spread because of the prestige of the empire, however. The Assyrian invasions also caused the religion of Judah to adapt. The actions of Manasseh or Hezekiah must be understood in terms of indigenous responses to “paganism.” McKay’s book stimulated further research that confirmed his conclusion that the Assyrianizing of the empire was a complex process not resting solely on force.

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