Captivity in the general usage means to take captive, or confined to imprisonment, but as related to the Hebrews it has come to mean expatriation. In the Biblical sense the terms captive and captivity were practically synonymous with exile, except the exile was mandatory; the people were in a dependent or oppressed condition. In ancient history, such violent removal of entire populations was not uncommon, and much more humane than selling the captives into slavery. There were reasons for expatriation of populations: the desire of rapidly populating new cities, to increase pride or policy, or to destroy hostile organizations. Most such expatriation not only broke national existence, but, even more seriously, caused bitterness from being separated from the sanctity of special places and the attachment of the local deity. Removal was thought to severe people from the care and protection of their god, thus implying a defeat of that deity. Tiglath-pileser (745-727 BC) inaugurated the practice of transporting entire conquered populations to distant parts of his empire (1 Kings 15:29). This policy was followed by many of his royal successors including Sargon, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon, and by the Babylonian rulers notably Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC).
The Israelites called the period in which were held in bondage captivity. They number the periods of national captivity as four: Babylonian, Persian, Grecian, and Roman. Descriptions of captivity vary, but many must have experienced humiliation and bitterness, those remaining faithful to Jehovah were subjected to scorn, they were forced to pay for their existence in heavy services and tributes, and those of high-priestly, noble, or royal origin were treated with utmost indignity. However, they were never treated as slaves, except during the Roman captivity, and could when able rise from a colonialist to the highest eminence of state or become an officeholder near a king. The exiles increased in number and wealth. As a group they observed the Mosaic Law (See Torah). Their genealogy charts were kept, and at no time did they not know the rightful heir to the throne of David. They had neither place nor time of national gathering, no temple; and they offered no sacrifice. They, however, observed the rite of circumcision, as well as their food laws; their priests accompanied them, and possibly the practice of erecting synagogues in every city was begun by the Hebrews during the Babylonian captivity.
There is no exact information on the duration of the periods of captivity because, according to the best explanation, there were two computing methods used by the sacred, or ancient, writers. The first, civil, was calculated from the first invasion of Nebuchadnezzar to the decree of Cyrus, 606-538 BC; and the second, ecclesiastical, from the burning of the temple to its reconstruction, 587(6)-517 BC. Various details and dates during the captivity are Biblically recorded. A remaining question is what happened to the ten lost tribes. Various answers are given: some returned to mix with other Jews; others mingled with Sumerians; many remained in Assyria and were recognized as an integral part of the dispersion, by some they are seen as adopting the ways of the Assyrians, thus beings labeled idolaters.
Many claim the cause and effect of the Babylonian captivity was the result that was justified to befall a covenant people who assimilated with heathen nations. By accepting other gods they broke their covenant with Jehovah and placed themselves beyond his protection, which was a breach of divinely prescribed conduct; within the Ten CommandmentsGod forbade this. Even though God’s people found themselves in strange lands, probably not by choice, God commanded them to stay faithful to him, if they adopted the gods of the strange lands, this broke their covenant with Jehovah and deserved punishment; this directly ties to Thou shall have no other gods before me. Thou shall not make unto thee any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous, God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
The one way of escaping this punishment was repentance. “Repentance, and a return to the ancient, the everlasting, and the true God, from the delirium, the charms, and the seductions of the world, had indeed been for centuries the cry of the best prophets, ever growing in intensity.” (Ewald, History of Israel, v. 22, sq.) The clearest proof of repentance is found in the establishment of the four fast days that are celebrated in four different months. Thus those Jews returning from captivity were remarkably free from the old sin of idolatry, and a great spiritual renovation, in accordance with the divine promise (Ezekiel 36:24-26) was wrought in them.
The Roman captivity of the Jews was the most severe and perhaps best deserves the term captivity. After the killing of many thousands, the remaining Jewish captivities were forced into real bondage. Josephus states that one million one hundred thousand men fell in the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, and ninety-seven thousand were captured in the entire war. Those under seventeen were sold into private bondage; of the rest some were sent to the Egyptian mines, others were sent to the provinces to be destroyed in theaters by swords and wild beasts. Further destruction fell upon the nation, which had again assembled in Judea, under the reign of Hadrian, plus the two wars, it is probable that the entire Jewish population was effectively expatriated from the Holy Land. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 181-183