In three successive sieges, the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem and carried away its best and brightest citizens into captivity in Babylon.
Events leading up to the Babylonian Captivity
After Israel divided into two kingdoms—the Kingdom of Israel to the north with its capital at Samaria, and the Kingdom of Judah to the south with its capital at Jerusalem—Assyria attacked the northern kingdom. Samaria finally fell in 722 B.C. The inhabitants of Israel were either slaughtered or carried away to Assyria (see Twelve Tribes). The Kingdom of Judah barely escaped the same fate. King Hezekiah was a righteous king who had taken down the objects of idol worship in the southern kingdom and had urged its citizens to repent and turn to the Lord. The Lord spared Jerusalem by miraculous means:
- It came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they (the survivors) arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses (2 Kings 19:35-37).
As Assyria then dwindled in power, the empires of Babylon and Egypt ascended. Meanwhile, Hezekiah had died and his son Manasseh and then Amon reigned over Judah, two of the wickedest kings ever to rule in the Holy Land.
- Manasseh led the people in worshipping "the host of heaven" (stars, moon, and sun), sacrificing children, engaging in Satanic spiritualism, and murdering innocent citizens who refused to participate in such perversions. By God's own judgment Manasseh was characterized as worse than all the peoples who had been removed from the land so the Israelites could inherit it. 
Though King Josiah tried to institute religious reform and get the people to repent, the citizens of Judah were too wicked to convert. Josiah was killed at Megiddo (Armageddon) trying to prevent the Egyptians from joining with Babylonian armies against Assyria. Assyria was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar in 609 B.C.
Prophets had been warning the citizens of Judah for decades that wickedness would lead to unspeakable horrors of destruction (ie–Isaiah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk). The events surrounding the Babylonian Captivity are a testimony of God's intense interest in His children. He sent many prophets to Jerusalem, including Jeremiah, who had access to the king's court as well as to the people. Lehi, whose story begins the Book of Mormon, was one of those prophets.
The Book of Mormon says,
- There came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed (1 Nephi 1:4).
The prophets testified to the Judaites in earnest, detailing to them what their sins were. Their sins included marking the interior walls of the temple with symbols of pagan deities. The priests at Jerusalem faced the rising sun when they prayed, worshipping the "host of heaven." Usury was common, and the rich trampled upon the poor. Idol worship, with its attendant debauched practices, such as sacrificing of children and temple prostitution, was common. Family life lost its sacred nature. People married outside the faith, and adultery was prevalent. Along with these sins, dishonesty in commerce and violence were rife. And the people killed the prophets.
Babylon takes control
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon followed the same policies of Assyria in conquering, using not only warfare, but also forced deportations of conquered peoples. Babylon laid siege on Jerusalem in three major invasions, in 605, 597, and 586 B.C. At the same time, the Lord began to punish the people. A drought caused crop failure and starvation, and it caused wild animals to leave the wild and prey upon the people.
Babylon's invasions became increasingly violent, as Nebuchadnezzar lost patience with Judah's rebellious kings. The first invasion was mostly a deportation of the most talented Judaites to Babylon. The Lord, through His prophets, told the Judaites exactly how long they would sojourn in Babylon—70 years. He told them to marry there and raise up families to the Lord, preparing to return when the captivity ended. The Lord continued to warn the people through the prophets, but they refused to repent. The Lord even spelled out the tragedies that would befall them, but to no avail. The final siege was especially horrible, with rapine and murder, and even cannibalism among the starving Jews. The temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was devastated, and only the poorest and least intelligent of the people were left behind to tend what was left.
The Lord's Hand
Again, the Lord did what He could. He led Lehi's family out to safety in the wilderness and then led them to the Americas, where they could establish a righteous branch of Israel. He also enabled Mulek, son of King Zedekiah, to escape with his party. They were also led to the Americas and were discovered by the descendants of Lehi. The Lord established prophets in Babylon, too, not only to preach to the Judaites (Ezekiel), but to the kings of the Babylonian court (Daniel). He placed prophets in the Persian court, when Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians. The Persian kings then enabled the Judaites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The Lord then provided prophets and great leaders to lead and guide those who returned (Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah).
In some ways the Jews flourished during the captivity. Without the temple as the center of worship, synagogues were built. Jewish scholars, or sages, began to teach the people the complexities of the law in the synagogues. Babylon became the center of Jewish scholarship, and it remained the center for hundreds of years. The "diaspora," or dispersion of the Jews, spread out, as centers were established in Alexandria, Egypt, and elsewhere. These centers became extremely important. Because many Jews in these centers lost their ability to speak Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek became important, and scriptures and other writings appeared in those tongues. When it came time to return, many Jews remained in Babylon, and their descendants migrated to Europe and Asia.
- Learn more at MormonBible.org
- Jerusalem: The Eternal City, Galbraith et al., Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1996, p. 101.