Exile and genocide in the ancient Near East (Ezekiel 21)

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Illustration: Inscription from Medinet Habu where they count hands cut off from the enemy

Although nations n the ancient Near East were almost continuously at war – and many of these wars had no long-term effects – sometimes a nation or city did suffer a calamitous defeat. Such a conquest could lead to the near eradication of the defeated people. The scenario often began with the destruction of a conquered city, including the razing of its walls. This was followed by a looting of the palace or local seat of government affairs. The religious artefacts of the defeated city were typically carried off and its temple demolished. The deportation of the survivors into exile then began. In some cases only royalty, government officials and well-educated members of society were initially deported. If the conquered territory remained rebellious, however, additional mass deportations of the general populous were undertaken. Sometimes the conquering power would resettle the area with outsiders in order to ensure that the cultural heritage of the conquered territory was effectively eliminated.

Historical annals demonstrate that Assyrian kings attempted to deal with unruly populations through massive deportations. When a rebellious city was defeated, its nobility, skilled workers and soldiers were resettled closer to the Assyrian heartland, where they could more easily be controlled. The remaining population was less likely to have the military and economic means to revolt again. The practice of deportation became increasingly popular among later kings. Sargon II (the king most likely responsible for the deportation of the Israelites in 721 B.C.) counted over 239,000 deportees, while Sennacherib (who unsuccessfully besieged Jerusalem in 701 B.C.) listed over 469,000 exiles during his reign.’Exiles were often treated with extreme cruelty. Assyrian reliefs depict long lines of captives being led away bound and naked. Sometimes, however, captives fared well and were able to rise to positions of authority (e.g. Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther). Personal names in Assyrian inscriptions indicate that some Israelites did rise to leadership positions within the Assyrian administration.

At times deliberate genocide – the attempt to completely destroy a nation or ethnic group – was carried out. Information concerning genocide in the ancient world is somewhat limited, but the Bible testifies to two basic forms: paranoid infanticide, or mass murder of infants due to suspicious fear (e.g. Exodus 1), and ethnic targeting, the singling out of a race of people for annihilation (e.g. Esther 3).


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