Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition
The predators were waiting. East and north of the Persian Gulf, two nations were coming to power: the Medes and the Persians.
Uniting under the direction of Cyrus, the Median-Persian alliance turned toward Babylon. Cyrus was to have a profound effect on the history of the house of Israel and the world.
One historian noted the significance of this man:. Anshan was then under the overlordship of Media. When Cyrus revolted against his overlord Astyages, the Median army went over to him in a body, surrendering Astyages as prisoner. Cyrus apparently was the voluntary choice of the Medes as their king. Thus within ten years Cyrus made himself master of the Median empire comprising modern Persia, northern Assyria, Armenia, and Asia Minor as far west as the river Halys. After conquering northern Mesopotamia he attacked and defeated the fabulously rich Croesus, king of Lydia, whose kingdom extended from the river Halys [in Turkey] to the Aegean Sea [in Greece].
Thus Cyrus became master of all western Asia. With the triumph of Cyrus, a new race, the Indo-European, came into world dominion and the political destiny of the world was thenceforth in the hands of that race. This, therefore, marks a new and very important watershed in Biblical history. He inaugurated a new policy in the treatment of conquered peoples. Instead of tyrannizing over them and holding them in subjection by brute force, he treated his subjects with consideration and won them as his friends.
He was particularly considerate of the religions of conquered peoples. The effect of this policy was to weld his subjects to him in a loyalty which made his reign an era of peace. Mould, Essentials of Bible History, pp. This revolution in policy was to have a profound effect on the history of the world and particularly on Jewish history, for when Cyrus marched into Babylon, the Jews were still in exile there.
What motivated Cyrus to make such a liberal proclamation? While Cyrus may have been influenced by the religion of his gods see Ezra , including the emerging Zoroastrianism, to have respect for the God of Judah, it appears that Cyrus was motivated by the Spirit of the Lord to send the Jews back to their homeland.
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Josephus wrote:. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the Divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfil what was so written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon, and said to them, that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant, and that he would write to the rulers and governors that were in the neighbourhood of their country of Judea, that they should contribute to them gold and silver for the building of the temple, and besides that, beasts for their sacrifices.
The prophecy of Isaiah alluded to by Josephus and implied in Ezra is found in Isaiah — I will take as an ensample Cyrus. He began with that temperance and virtue which would sustain any Christian country or any Christian king. It has been true in the past, it is true today, it will be true in the future. A half century in Babylonia had led the majority to sink their roots deeply in the land of their enforced adoption. Most of them had become bound to the new land by ties of marriage and friendship and by strong business connections.
(J-2) Cyrus Was Raised Up by the Lord to Free the Jews
Moreover there had grown up in Babylonia a generation which knew not Palestine and for such Jews Judea, no longer an attractive place to live in, had no appeal. The pull of a powerful sentimental attachment was needed to induce any of them to return to Palestine and few felt this. Accordingly, the greatest difficulty was encountered in arousing enough enthusiasm to make up a party for the first returning group.
The first return somewhat resembled a religious crusade. It consisted of forty to fifty thousand people. Small groups of exiles continued to come for the next century from Babylonia, but the majority of Jews did not return, and for centuries there was a greater number of Jews in Babylon than in the Holy Land. A person known in the book of Ezra as Sheshbazzar see Ezra , 11 ; , 16 was designated as the governor of this Holy Land colony. Scholars dispute whether Sheshbazzar was the same person as Zerubbabel.
When the Jews returned to Israel, they found the land inhabited by Samaritans, a people whose name came from the city of Samaria, which had been the capital of the Northern Kingdom. The Assyrians brought other peoples to inhabit the land, and they intermarried with the remaining Israelites. They adopted some forms of the worship of Jehovah, but they mixed them with pagan ideas. The Jews in the Southern Kingdom viewed these Samaritans as being not only impure Israelites but pagans as well.
The Jews returning from Babylonia were eager to reinstitute the official worship of Jehovah in Jerusalem. Their first act was to repair the altar of burnt offering and to renew the regular morning and evening sacrifices. They then observed the feast of Tabernacles and other feasts in routine succession. Under the direction of Zerubbabel, the Jews repaired the altar and began to rebuild the temple. The Samaritans asked to join in the project, saying that they had been offering sacrifice to Jehovah since the days of the Assyrian conquest see Ezra —2.
The Jews flatly refused their help, and the Samaritans in anger openly opposed the project see Ezra —5. The resumption of the temple construction was inspired by two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah see Ezra , whose brief writings are preserved in the Old Testament. The local governor and the leaders of Samaria attempted to obstruct the project. The Jews appealed to Darius, eventually proving that they were doing only what Cyrus had granted them permission to do.
So they were allowed to continue their project see Ezra 5—6. The second temple did not compare in splendor to the temple of Solomon, for the people were very poor at the time they built it. There is no mention of Zerubbabel after the temple was completed. After his time, the leadership of the community was held by the priests. This theocratic government was permitted by the Persians and for a time by Alexander the Great. Douglas, ed. In any event, there is a span of about three generations between the first return and the return of Ezra and Nehemiah. During this period, Persian culture reached its greatest height, as evidenced by the impressive ruins standing at Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire.
The luxury of the Persian court is described in the book of Esther. Little is known about Jewish life during this period. In view of the reforms initiated later by Ezra and Nehemiah, a strict adherence to the laws of Moses was evidently not observed. The priests intermarried with their non-Israelite neighbors, and the city of Jerusalem was allowed to further deteriorate. Ezra seems to have held some kind of important court office, and he was accredited as a special envoy to reorganize the temple services at Jerusalem.
Nehemiah was a royal cupbearer in the Persian court see Nehemiah Since assassination was an ever-present danger for kings anciently, and poison was often employed, the cupbearer held a highly trusted position in the court. See Samuel Fallows, ed. The restoration of Jerusalem, which had lain in ruins for a century and a half, was begun. Ezra, a righteous, dedicated priest, joined Nehemiah in the work, and together they succeeded in restoring a Jewish community in Jerusalem once again. Psalm 48 is a song celebrating the restoration of Jerusalem.
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Encyclopedia Judaica: Apologetics
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