Three Persian Kings that Played Important Roles
in the Creation of Judaism
Cyrus the Great
The three Persian Kings above (L-R) are Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great and Artaxerxes I. They played important roles in laying the foundation of what became known Judaism – and the beginning of biblical heritages. This is the third stop we make on the Exploring Our Biblical Heritages Map.
The Tribes of Israel entered into the Promised Land at the end of the exodus from Egypt after a forty year journey in which they were led by Moses. But it was Joshua that brought them into their new homeland around 1250 BCE. In 930 BCE the Tribes of Israel divided into the Northern Kingdom (called Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (called Judah). In 721 BCE, the Assyrian army captured the Israelite capital at Samaria and carried away the citizens of the northern Kingdom of Israel into captivity. The virtual destruction of Israel left the southern kingdom, Judah, to fend for itself among warring Near-Eastern kingdoms.
In 587 BCE the Babylon armies destroyed the Davidic monarchy, its Temple, the royal palace, and the mansions of the wealthy in the city of Jerusalem, according to the account in 2 Kings 25:8-11. The Babylonian armies had already deported most of the officers of the monarchy, its military forces, and the artisans who served its needs after the first conquest of Jerusalem ten years earlier; now they took away many of the remaining Jerusalemites, including the priests of the Temple and the scribes. Their experience became the basis on which Israel was understood to have been taken into exile, which underlies the traditional periodization of Israel’s history into the formative stages of the exile and the postexilic age.
In 539 BCE, Cyrus the Great invaded Babylonia and turned it into a province of the Persian Empire. He also took immediate action to change the status and lives of exiles.
I returned to (these) cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their (former) inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations. (Edict of Cyrus; ANET; 316)
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth Yahweh the God of the Heaven has given me. And he has appointed me to build him a House in Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all his people? His God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the House of Yahweh the God of Israel. He is the God which is in Jerusalem. And all who remain in any of the places where he dwells, let the men of that place assist him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the House of God which is in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:2-4)
With Cyrus the Great in power, the previously deported Judean elite were restored to prominence and power in Jerusalem and the Second Temple was built. It is important to understand that other exiles were returned to their lands too and their new temples built for them too. However for the Jewish people, it was under Cyrus the Great that the first blocks of the foundation of Judaism were laid.
● The land they returned to was a province of the Persian Empire called Judea, not Judah. This was no longer the land of the Tribes of Israel.
● The new king was a Persian, not a descendant of Solomon, but like Solomon he built a temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem.
The Second Temple will play a major role in the development of future biblical heritages.
(SOURCE:Scribes, Visionaries and the Politics of Second Temple Judea by Richard A. Horsley © 2007; Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY; pp. 15-16.)
Darius the Great
The second king in the graphic above is Darius I, also known as Darius the Great. It was as an administrator that Darius made his greatest contribution to Persian history. He completed the organization of the empire into satrapies, initiated by Cyrus the Great, and fixed the annual tribute due from each province.
Darius followed the example of Cyrus in respecting native religious institutions of its provinces. In Egypt he assumed an Egyptian title and gave active support to the local cult. He built a temple to the god Amon in the Kharga oasis, endowed the temple at Edfu, and carried out restoration work in other sanctuaries. He empowered the Egyptians to reestablish the medical school of the temple of Sais, and he ordered his provincial governor to codify the Egyptian laws in consultation with the native priests. In the Egyptian traditions he was considered as one of the great lawgivers and benefactors of the country.
After the death of Cyrus there was confusion over the role Persia would play in the rebuilding process. But in 519 BCE he authorized the Jews to resume the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem, in accordance with the earlier decree of Cyrus.
In the first year of King Cyrus, King Cyrus issued a decree concerning the House of God in Jerusalem . . . Let the expenses be given from the King’s House. Also let the gold and silver articles of the House of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple which is in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, let them be restored and go to the temple which is in Jerusalem, each to its place; and placed in the House of God.” . . . And by me a decree is made as to what you shall do with the elders of these Jews, for the building of the House of God . . . I, Darius, have made a decree. Let it be done exactly. (Ezra 6:3-12)
Based on an understanding of the way he rebuilt the temples of Egypt, and their cults, we believe he followed the same approach in Judea.
1. Gave active support to the local cult.
2. Continued the building of the Second Temple.
3. Endowed the Temple with funds from his treasury and other sources.
4. Empowered Judean priests to establish an educational system (beginning of synagogues).
5. Ordered his provincial governor to codify the Judean laws in consultation with the Judean priests.
Darius I died in October 487 before the project above had been completed. It would be continued by his successors, but Darius made two very important contributions related to the Judaism that would emerge.
1. His impact on the rebuilding of the Second Temple.
2. The project he launched to codify Judean laws would play an important role in the creation of the first scroll of the Torah.
The Judean priests were also scribes and exiles. They had been trained in their scribal craft in Babylon. They had access to scrolls and oral traditions of their people, as well as the huge libraries in the temples of the Persians. In a major twist of the normal way histories are recorded, Darius I allowed the losers to write their histories! Today, because of archaeological discoveries, we are able to read Persian, Egyptian and Judean versions of the same events.
But, for Explorers of Biblical Heritages, the creation of the first Torah Scroll marks the beginning of biblical heritages.
Artaxerxes I was probably born in the reign of his grandfather Darius I. His father was King Xerxes I and in 465 BCE Xerxes was murdered by Artabanus, the commander of the royal bodyguard and the most powerful official in the Persian court. Artaxerxes I had to face a revolt in Egypt in that lasted from 460 to 454. In 458 he commissioned Ezra, a priest and scribe, to take charge of the affairs of Judea as his official representative (Ezra 7:12-26).
“Artaxerxes King of Kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God Heaven is finished. And now from me a decree was made that all those of the people of Israel and their priests and Levites in my realm, who volunteer to go up to Jerusalem, may go with you. And whereas you are being sent by the king and his seven advisors to inquire as to Judah and Jerusalem, with the Law of your God which is in your hand . . . Whatever is commanded by the God of Heaven, let it diligently be done for the House of the God of Heaven . . . And you, Ezra, by the wisdom of your God that is in your hand, you appoint judges and magistrates who may judge all the people who are Beyond the River, all who know the laws of your God; and teach those who do not know them. Whoever will not do the law of your God, and the law of the king, let judgment diligently be executed on him, either for death, or banishment, or for confiscation of goods, or imprisonment.”
The rebuilding of the Jewish community in Jerusalem began under Cyrus the Great and Jews who had been held as captives in Babylon were allowed to return to Jerusalem and began rebuilding their Temple. Consequently, a number of Jews returned to Jerusalem in 538 and the foundation of this "Second Temple" was laid in 536 (Ezra 3:8). After a period of strife, the Temple was finally completed in 516 in the reign of Darius the Great (Ezra 6:15).
When Ezra arrived in 458, over fifty years after the completion of the Temple, the fledgling Jewish community in Judea was disintegrating. They were physically threatened by foreigners, intermarrying, desecrating the Shabbat and assimilating other cultures. Ezra took command and introduced the people of Judea to the Torah and the laws of the Persians (Nehemiah 8:1-8).
“Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Torah of Moses, which Yahweh had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the scroll of the Torah. And Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed Yahweh, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped Yahweh with their faces to the ground. . . and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Torah; and the people stood in their place. So they read clearly from the scroll, in the Torah of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.”
Within a five year span Ezra and Nehemiah together turned the situation around. It must be remembered that Ezra was not only a Jewish priest and scribe – he was an authorized agent of the King of the Persian Empire, which was massive and powerful. It stretched from India in the east to the Sahara Desert (modern day Libya) in the west. In the north it reached to the Black Sea and the Greek Islands. It encompassed four continents: Asia Minor, the Middle East, parts of Africa and Southern Europe.
Artaxerxes I died of natural causes in 424 BCE, believing he had ensured a peaceful succession by naming Xerxes II his legitimate heir. But, Xerxes II reigned for only a little over a month before he was assassinated by Sogdianus who had the support of a segment of the nobles. Sogdianus ruled for six months before he was assassinated by his half-brother Nochus who took the throne name Darius II.
But under Artaxerxes I the scroll of the Torah was taken to Jerusalem and under Ezra the people of Judea learned the instructions and laws of Yahweh – and the operation of the Temple was governed by the Torah. And the tradition of reading the Torah to the public was established and would become a tradition in the synagogues. The period of the Israelites had come to an end and Second Temple Judaism began to emerge.
I hope you found this informative and thank you for reading it.