After destroying Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sent a large portion of the Judean population into exile in Mesopotamia. The Bible provides little detail about what life was like in this original Diaspora, but ancient cuneiform tablets provide a wealth of information, analyzed in full in a recent book titled Judeans in Babylonia. Tero Alstola writes in his review:
The majority of Judeans and other deportees were settled in the Babylonian countryside and given a plot of royal land to cultivate. In exchange, they had to pay taxes and perform work and military service. These people often lived in villages which were named after their geographic origin, the village of Yahudu—or “Judah”—being a prime example of this phenomenon. Some deportees found ways to benefit from the structures of local agriculture, and socioeconomic differences emerged over time. A number of Judeans were also settled in cities where they often worked as skilled professionals such as craftsmen, merchants, or officials. The state administration was open for people of foreign origin, partially because of the widespread use of Aramaic as a spoken and written language.
Deportees were not enslaved, and they could own property, engage in business activities, and travel at least locally. The practice of settling deportees in village communities according to their place of origin helped migrants to preserve their traditional culture in the countryside. Judean farmers had little interaction with the native population whereas the deportees living in cities met Babylonians on a regular basis. As a result, Judean farmers were less integrated into Babylonian society than their fellow deportees living in cities.
Why, then, does Psalm 137 say that the exiles “sat down and wept” and hung their harps upon the willows? Perhaps not because they suffered, but because they remembered Zion. Indeed, relatively benign conditions might have motivated them to feel it necessary to take oaths that they would not to forget Jerusalem.