The Jews reckoned their national captivities as four: the Babylonian, Medean, Greeian, and Roman.
The present article will refer only to the first, when there was a forcible deportation of the inhabitants of Jerusalem by Nebuzaradan, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar, and their detention at Babylon until the reign of Cyrus, which alone is connected with the history of Freemasonry, and is commemorated in the Royal Arch Degree.
Between that portion of the ritual of the Royal Arch which refers to the destruction of the first Temple, and that subsequent part which symbolizes the building of the second, there is an interregnum or halt, if we may be allowed the term, in the ceremonial of the degree, which must be considered as a long interval in history, the filling up of which, like the interval between the acts of a play, must be left to the imagination of the spectator. This interval represents the time passed in the captivity of the Jews at Babylon. That captivity lasted for seventy years-from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar until that of Cyrus-although but fifty-two of these years are commemorated in the Royal Arch Degree. This event took place in the year 585 B.C. It was not, however, the beginning of the '"seventy years' captivity," which had been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah, which commenced eighteen years before.
The captives were conducted to Babylon. What was the exact number removed we have no means of ascertaining.
'We are led to believe, from certain passages of scripture, that the deportation was not complete. Calmet says that Nebuchadnezzar carried away only the principal inhabitants, the warriors and artisians of every kind, and that he left the husbandmen, the laborers, and in general, the poorer classes, that constituted the great body of the people. Among the prisoners of distinction, Josephus mentions the high priest, Seraiah, and Zephaniah, the priest that was next to him, with the three rulers that guarded the Temple, the eunuch who was over the armed men, seven friends of Zedekiah, his scribe, and sixty other rulers. Zedekiah, the king, had attempted to escape previous to the termination of the siege, but being pursued, was captured and carried to Riblah, the headquarters of Nebuchadnezzar, where, having first been compelled to behold the slaughter of his children, his eyes were then put out, and he was conducted in chains to Babylon. A Masonic tradition informs us that the captive Jews were bound by their conquerors with triangular chains, and that this was done by the Chaldeans as an additional insult, because the Jewish Freemasons were known to esteem the triangle as an emblem of the sacred name of God, and must have considered its appropriation to the form of their fetters as a desecration of the Tetragammaton.
Notwithstanding the ignominious mode of their conveyance from Jerusalem and the vindictiveness displayed by their conqueror in the destruction of their city and Temple, they do not appear, on their arrival at Babylon, to have been subjected to any of the extreme rigors of slavery. They were distributed into various parts of the empire, some remaining in the city, while others were sent into the provinces.
The latter probably devoted themselves to agricultural pursuits, while the former were engaged in commerce or in the labors of architecture. Smith says that the captives were treated not as slaves but as colonists. They were permitted to retain their personal property, and even to purchase lands and erect houses. Their civil and religious government was not utterly destroyed, for they kept up a regular succession of kings and high priests, one of each of whom returned with them, as will be seen hereafter, on their restoration. Some of the principal captives were advanced to offices of dignity and power in the royal palace, and were permitted to share in the councils of state.
Their prophets, Daniel and Ezekiel, with their associates, preserved among their countrymen the pure doctrines of their religion. Although they had neither place nor time of national gathering, nor temple, and therefore offered no sacrifice, yet they observed the Mosaic laws with respect to the rite of circumcision. They preserved their tables of genealogy and the true succession to the throne of David.
The rightful heir was called the Head of the Captivity. So says the Talmud, but Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, affirms that the assertion is unsupported by proof. The Masonic legends conform to the Talmudic statement. However that may be, Jehoiachin, who was the first king of Judea carried captive to Babylon, was succeeded by his son Shealtiel, and he by his son Zerubbabel, who was the Head of the Captivity, or nominal prince of Judea at the close of the captivity, The due succession of the highpriesthood was also preserved, for Jehosadek, who was the high priest carried by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon, where he died during the captivity, was succeeded by his eldest son, Joshua.
The Jewish captivity terminated in the first year of the reign of Cyrus, 536 B.c. Cyrus, from his conversations with Daniel and the other Jewish captives of learning and piety, as well as from his perusal of their sacred books, more especially the prophecies of Isaiah, had become imbued with a knowledge of true religion, and hence had even publicly announced to his subjects his belief in the God "which the nation of the Israelites worshipped." He was consequently impressed with an earnest desire to fulfil the prophetic declarations of which he was the subject, and to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. Cyrus therefore issued a decree by which the Jews were permitted to return to their country. According to Milman, 42,360, besides servants, availed themselves of this permission, and returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, their prince, and Joshua, their high priest, and thus ended the first or Babylonian captivity, the only one which has any connection with the legends of Freemasonry as commemorated in the Royal Arch Degree.
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