The 70 years of captivity (Jeremiah 25)

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Illustration: Jewish captives with baggage on their way into exile

The prophetic expression describing the time of Judah’s captivity as “seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:11-12, 29:10) has prompted speculation throughout the history of interpretation.

The numeric system of the ancient Near East were predominantly hexagesimal (based upon ascending groups of six), and the maximum number that could be easily calculated was 60. The number 70 may have been used to symbolically represent a numeric value of staggering proportion or perhaps the number of years representing a generation (Psalm 90:10, Isaiah 23:15). The number 70 may have been used in the same way in Jeremiah 25, as in Isaiah’s announcement that Tyre would be desolate for 70 years (Isaiah 23:15, 17), ans a similar usage may be reflected in the Black Stone of Esarhaddon, in which Marduk decreed displeasure against Babylon for 70 years.

The original context of the prophetic word was the fourth year of Jehoiakim of Judah and the first of Nebuchadnezzar (605 B.C.). “Until this very day” (Jeremiah 25:3) Jeremiah anticipated a period of devastation and judgement during which Judah would serve Babylon. Upon the completion of this interval, the prophet expected that divine judgement would be visited upon Babylon (25:12-13) and Judah and that Jerusalem would be restored (29:10-14).

King Jehoiakim began to serve the Babylonians by politically consigning Judah as a vassal state in 604 B.C. (2 Kings 24:1). Almost 70 years later Babylon was captured by the Persians, bringing about the end of Babylonian sovereignty over Judah and initiating the process of exilic return under Cyrus the Great (539/538 B.C.).

The interpretation of Jeremiah’s 70 years of captivity as the approximate period between 604-539/538 B.C. is more explicitly stated later in Biblical texts. According to 2 Chronicles 36:20-21, divine judgement was executed against the Judahites by the Babylonian king in that “they became servants to him and his sons until the kingdom of Persia came to power… until the seventy years were completed“. Both the Chronicler (2 Chronicles 36:22) and Ezra (Ezra 1:1) interpreted the edict of Cyrus, which autherized the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4, 6:1-12), as the fulfilment of the prophetic word of Jeremiah.

A different calculation of the “seventy years of captivity” appears to underlie Zechariah 1:12 and 7:5. There it denotes the interval between the physical destruction of the temple (586 B.C.) and its rededication (515 B.C.).


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