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536 BC-333 BC - Persian Rule

The Persian emperor Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to their homeland "to rebuild the house of the Lord." From 536 to 332 BC, Palestine was a province of the Medo-Persian Empire. During that time, the Hebrews' second commonwealth was established, and the principle elements of Judaism were developed. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, they felt that they were not a Mosaic people, but had, in order to become one, first, to learn what Mosaic law was, and, next, to reorganize their social, moral, and religious life in accordance with its prescripts. The problem thus set before them demanded a union between school and government, and that union forms the very characteristic of rabbinism.

Between the fifth and tenth of August, in the year 538 BC, the city of Babylon was taken by Cyrus, King of Persia, who commanded both the Persian and Median armies. The last of the kings of Babylonia, Belshazar or Nabo Nadius, was slain, and the Babylonian Empire was annexed to Media and Persia. These three countries were united in 536 BC under Cyrus, after the death of Darius the Mede, and were called the Medo-Persian Empire. It included all Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and afterwards also Egypt, all the land from the Caucasian Mountains and the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and the Indus River.

Most prominent among the eloquent and inspired Hebrew patriots was the prophet, whose speeches were added to the Book of Isaiah (from chapter XL to the end), perhaps because his name also was Isaiah. When the armies of Persia and Media, led by Cyrus, overthrew the Babylonian power in Asia Minor and Syria, as older prophets had predicted, this second Isaiah, foreseeing the downfall of that empire, recognized in Cyrus the Messiah to redeem Israel. He called upon his people to return to the land of their fathers, and to re-establish the Kingdom of God, in which all the great hopes of Israel should be realized.

In the combat of the Medo-Persians against Babylonia, the sympathies of the Hebrews must naturally have been with the former. They had nothing to expect of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who were their enemies and captors, polytheists and idolators, devotees of Zabaism. The MedoPersians avenged those wrongs, were no idolators, and approached nearest the Monotheism of Israel by the reforms of Zoroaster under Darius and Cyrus. Darius reciprocated these sympathies. He appointed Daniel one of his three ministers in the new empire (6), and a Hebrew priest to superintend the tower at Ecbatana, which Daniel had previously built for the king.

Scholars have proposed different theories to explain Persian approval for the construction of the city walls of Jerusalem in the middle of the fifth century BC. One explanation stresses the Persian initiative for the construction of the walls (as well as the arrival of Nehemia to Judah) which presume that Judah was of central strategic importance in the Persian Empire’s military activity in the region. In the wake of this, a distinction has been suggested for two phases in the archaeology of the Persian period in Judah: that before the middle of the fifth century BC and the phase after the fortification of Jerusalem and the establishment of the “Persian fortresses” throughout the mountain region.

Most of these reconstructions are based on the creation of an artificial connection between the Greek sources and the descriptions in Ezra and Nehemia. These reconstructions caused, through a classic circular contention, the dating of many of the citadels in the Land of Israel in general, and in the mountain region in particular, to the middle of the fifth century BC. Understanding the marginal strategic status of Judah in the Persian Empire and the Persian military activity along the Mediterranean coast and in the direction of Egypt allows a more measured examination of the reasons for the developments that occurred in Judah during the fifth century BC.

In 538 or 536 BC, many Jews returned from Babylon under Zerubbabel. The most religious portions of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levy only - "All in whom the Lord had roused his spirit, to go up and to build the house of God, which is in Jerusalem" - followed Zerubabel and Joshua to the land of Judah. The bulk of the people remained in the lands of their captivity. The majority of Jews preferred to remain in the Diaspora, especially in Babylon, which would become a great center of Jewish culture for 1,500 years. Between 538 and 520 BC the Persians permitted some Judaeans (i.e. Jews), under Ezra and Nehemiah, to return to Judah and revive their nation.

Among the Samaritans a tradition was current, that about the same time 300,000 Hebrews, under Sanbelat, emigrated to the North of Palestine, and the remaining foreigners in Samaria were sent back to their original homes in Persia. Although the Samaritan Joshua (chapter xiv.) is no reliable authority, yet it is almost certain that a large number of Hebrews, at an early date, emigrated to Samaria and Galilee, for the latter was, in after times, one of the most populous provinces, and the Hebrew origin of its inhabitants was never doubted. Still, those Hebrews of the northern provinces, as far as the Scriptural records go, had no connection with the Zerubabel or Ezra colony, which assumed the name of Judah, in exclusion of the other tribes of Israel. Therefore, when Josephus (Antiq. x.v.2) maintains, "There are but two tribes in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now," he simply recorded a popular myth current in his days. The myth about the ten lost tribes is also mentioned in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin x. 3), which is partly contradicted in the Talmud {Mequillah 14 b. and Erechin 33).

The colonists took possession of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean coast (the latter being held by Philistines and Phoenicians), to about twenty miles north and south of Jerusalem. North of them were the Samaritans; south from Hebron to the Dead Sea were the Edomites; east and southeast the Ammonites and Moabites, with some Hebrews among them.

In the second month of the second year (535 BC) the building of the temple was commenced. With music and song they begun to erect the walls upon the old foundation. The shouts of joy were mighty. Still the old men, who had seen the temple of Solomon, wept. In the year 521 BC, Darius Hystaspis mounted the Medo-Persian throne, and he introduced beneficial reforms in the empire. The Hebrews, encouraged by two prophets, Zachariah and Haggi, re-assumed work on the temple and its walls, although they had no special permission from the government.

The third day of Adar (March), in the sixth year of Darius (515 BC), according to Ezra vi. 15, closing the seventy years of the Babylonian captivity; on the twentythird day of that month and the ninth year of Darius, according to Josephus, the temple and its inner cloisters were completed. A solemn dedication followed. The Hebrews again had a religious center, to which, for the subsequent six centuries, the looks and hearts of all Israel were directed; where the sublime doctrines of pure Monotheism and its humane ethics were uninterruptedly proclaimed.

Xerxes, the enemy of all Heathen temples, having ascended the Medo-Persian throne (485 B. c), confirmed to the Hebrews of Palestine all the privileges granted them by his father, Darius. When he invaded Greece, it is narrated by his cotemporary, Cherilus (30), a body of Hebrew warriors was in his army. Nothing concerning the Hebrews being on record from 515 to 458 BC, it is evident that no events transpired during that time to produce any change or disturbance in the new Hebrew state.

In the present state of the Ezra-Nehemiah text, there are several dislocations of large sections so that the chronological or logical sequence is disrupted. Although Ezra appears before Nehemiah in this work, it seems possible that Nehemiah's activity preceded his. According to a number of scholars, Nehemiah came to Jerusalem about 445 BCE and Ezra in 398 BCE after the death of Nehemiah.

In making Ezra overlap Nehemiah, the Chronicler intended to place Ezra also in the same reign. By most accounts, in 458 BCE Ezra came to Jerusalem, and in 445 BCE Nehemiah came to Jerusalem. It is possible, however, that Ezra might have returned after Nehemiah in c.398 B.C. during the reign of Artaxerxes II. The text is not clear which Artaxerxes is meant. King Artaxerxes appointed Ezra Chief-Justice of the Hebrews west of the Euphrates, with powers to appoint judges and bailiffs, to teach and to enforce the laws, and to punish transgressors with imprisonment, fines, expatriation or death; also to head the colony of all Hebrews who wished to return to Palestine; and to be the special messenger of the king to bring to the temple at Jerusalem his gifts in gold and silver, and also the gifts of other donors.

Following the restoration, the Jewish community, under the leadership of the priest-scribe, Ezra, bound itself to the observance of the written Law. If the Law was to be kept it must be known and understood; there must be teachers and interpreters. But the Law was written in ancient Hebrew, a tongue almost unknown to the masses, most of whom spoke Aramaic or Greek. As the result of these conditions, those able to read the Scriptures in the original Hebrew and to interpret them to the people came to form a distinct teaching class.

The early biblical materials were compiled during this period of threat, invasion, destruction, exile and return, by an author-editor known as the "Deuteronomist." This writer - or more probably a team of writers - made use of numerous earlier documents, including the Book of Deuteronomy. During this period Ezra, the great codifier of the laws, compiled the Torah from the vast literature of history, politics, and religion that the Jews had accumulated. The written record depicting the relationship between God and the Jewish people contained in the Torah became the focal point of Judaism.

Ezra restored the Law and its history to the Hebrews by the fixation of its texts and the protection of these national treasures against interpolation; the establishment of a representative body and courts of justice; the promulgation of the Law by free teachers and the Commoners. But all this was not fully carried into practice before Nehemiah came to Jerusalem.

The age of prophecy was closing. Ezra could not carry out great reforms alone, because he had against him the aristocracy of two dynasties, of David, the King, and Zadok, the high priest of the lormer commonwealth. To overcome them it took the energy of Nehemiah. Public affairs in the Hebrew colony were unsatisfactory. A young Israelite, Nehemiah, son of Chakaliah, who was the king's cupbearer, in Susa, having been informed of this deplorable state of affairs, resolved to succor his people. In twelve years, from the 20th to the 32d, of Artaxerxes Longimanus, Nehemiah organized the Hebrew State in Palestine. in all its departments ; in the temple and its service, with its priesthood, the fortification and defense of Jerusalem and the country, the permanence of its legislative and judiciary departments, the regulation of taxes and public duties.

The Chronicler's overarching concern is the theocratic character of the community of [the] returned remnant. God's direct activity, the pattern of retribution, scriptural authority, and centrality of the temple are all components in the providential rule of God over his people. The Chronicler longs for and seeks to contribute to a recovery of the glorious days of David and Solomon--not by the reestablishment of the mediatoral rule of God through the monarchy but by a return to obedient worship. To a people stripped of kings (monarchy) and forced to obey Persian law and to submit to Persian government (times of the Gentiles), he writes about the glory days with an implication of hope.

Some have suggested that the population of Jerusalem was between 1,250 and 1,500 during the period of the fifth and fourth centuries BC. To some, any great amount of scribal activity seems inconsistent with the portrait of the impoverished Persian province of Yehud that archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars now generally agreed on. The diversity of biblical literature and the numerous redactional and editorial stages that traditional scholarship has posed are difficult to set within this Yehud. Thus William M. Schniedewind concludes that while "This does not preclude that some biblical literature was composed and edited during the Persian period, yet the social setting of the Persian period makes a great eruption of Hebrew literature quite implausible. A more suitable setting for the composition of biblical literature from the evidence of archaeology and social history would be the late Judahite monarchy in the city of Jerusalem."

The events which transpired during the reign of the third Artaxerxes, as he called himself, although he was called Darius Ochus (son of Artaxerxes II), are narrated in the Book of Esther and in Josephus. That the Ahasveros of the Bible was one of the Medo-Persian kings, and not the father of Darius, the Mede (Daniel ix. 1), or Cambyses (Ezra iv. 6), one whose name was Artaxerxes, is evident from the concurrence of the Septuagint, the apocryphal Esther and Josephus; all of them call him Artaxerxes. In the Syriac version, Peshito, he is plainly called Achshirash, son of Achshirash, which is Artaxerxes, the son of Artaxerxes, which could refer to Darius Ochus only. It is evident that the Esther and Mordecai story can not be connected with any one of the kings of Medo-Persia preceding Artaxerxes III., and that his character, as described by Diodorus Siculus and Quintius Curtius, corresponds exactly to the Ahasveros of the Bible. The man who killed eighty of his brothers and filled the land with human gore, looks more like the Ahasveros of Scriptures with his bloody edicts than does any of his predecessors. Besides, he was an enemy of the Hebrews, who, it appears, gave support to the Phoenicians who revolted against Persia.

After this king had disposed of his wife, Vashti, he married Esther, "the star," who was also called HadasSah, "the myrtle." She was a niece of Mordecai, of the tribe of Benjamin, which the king knew not. The king's favor was bestowed entirely upon a haughty and revengeful Amalakite, whose name was Haman. Haman persuaded the king, by false representations and heavy bribes, to issue a decree against all the Hebrews in the empire, outlawing them and their property, and giving permission to slay all of them on the thirteenth day of Adar. The Hebrews were given ample means of self-defense, and on that fatal thirteenth day of Adar, when they were attacked by avaricious and blood-thirsty enemies, they successfully defended themselves and did terrible execution. In memory of that event, the fourteenth day of Adar was made a half holiday, called Purim, on account of the lots cast by Haman,



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