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What if Cyrus Had Not Freed the Jews?
Over twenty-five centuries ago, Cyrus II, founder and ruler of the Persian Empire, freed the Jews who had been transported forcibly to Babylon and facilitated the reconstruction of their Temple in Jerusalem. Without the intervention of Cyrus, the Jewish People and Judaism as we know it (if that is not redundant) would not exist today. In short, no Cyrus, no Jews. So who was Cyrus, and why aren’t we celebrating his actions?
Cyrus was born into the royal family of the small state of Anshan, located in what is now southwest Iran. Not long after becoming king of Anshan around 559 BCE, Cyrus first conquered nearby Media (550 BCE) and then turned west to capture Lydia (546 BCE) in what is now western Turkey. Next, he shocked the world by toppling the previously dominant empire of Babylonia (539 BCE). Whether his victory after a multi-year siege of the capital Babylon was more the result of brilliant tactics, Babylonian palace treason or some other factor can be debated, but it is crystal clear that Cyrus emerged from Babylon triumphant. And with this victory, Cyrus became ruler of, among other lands, the territory bordering and east of the Mediterranean Sea to and surrounding the Jordan River.
During his approximate thirty year reign (559-530 BCE), the Persian Empire extended from the Indus river on the east to Thrace at the northeast border of Greece. Enlarged by his son-in-law and successor, Cambyses II (r. ~530-522 BCE), and subsequent emperors, the Persian Empire at one point stretched farther than any previous empire, and encompassed vast swaths of Asia, plus sections of Africa and Europe. Some estimate that at its height, over two of every five persons on Earth were under its protection and control. This empire lasted for over two hundred years, until 332 BCE when Alexander III of Macedon conquered Persia. For his triumphs and his traits, Cyrus II is known as Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus was no ordinary military victor. Within a year of his success in Babylon, Cyrus issued a proclamation which was inscribed using Akkadian cuneiform script on a clay cylinder approximately 9 inches long and 4 inches in diameter. The issuance of a proclamation was not, in and of itself, unusual. There was, apparently, a tradition of new rulers in Mesopotamia (today, Iraq) announcing their conquests and plans at the outset of their ascendance. So it was not surprising when Cyrus, after his conquest, claimed to be not only king of Babylon, Sumer and Akkad, but king “of the four corners of the world.”
What sets apart the contents of the Cyrus Cylinder is Cyrus’s declaration that the peoples previously conquered by Babylon were free to return to their homelands and his encouragement that they rebuild their destroyed temples. Said Cyrus, “I sent back to their places to . . . the sanctuaries across the river Tigris – whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, . . . .” Among the people allowed to return and rebuild were the Judahites, whose kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and whose royal family and cultural elite, among others, were deported to Babylon in a set of forced population transfers primarily around 597 and 587 BCE.
To understand the impact of Cyrus’s declaration for the Jewish People, one has to remember what preceded their defeat and exile. The people who claimed to be descendants of the patriarch Jacob and heirs to the tradition of Moses were for over two hundred years (beginning around 930 BCE) living in two kingdoms in the Middle East. The northern of these, the kingdom of Israel, extended from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea eastward across the Jordan River. The southern kingdom of Judah was entirely landlocked, in the hill country west of the Dead Sea. In 720 BCE, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians and the Israelites were deported or dispersed. Essentially, ten tribes were lost to history. The territory of the former kingdom was then repopulated with foreigners under the domination of Assyria.
Some from the northern kingdom sought refuge in the smaller and poorer kingdom to the south. Judah and its capital Jerusalem grew rapidly and in strength, but Judah’s geographic location put it squarely in the sights of the Egyptians to the southwest and the Assyrians to the northeast, as if the smaller groups that surrounded it, such as the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites and Amorites, were not contentious enough.
In the summer of 609 BCE, as Egypt swept north, perhaps to join the Assyrians against the Babylonians, the reform leader of Judah, King Josiah, was killed in a skirmish at Megiddo. The Egyptians also deposed and imprisoned Josiah’s son and heir, Jehoahaz, and replaced him with another son, Jehoiakim. (See 2 Kings 23:33-37.) The Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Assyrians in the battle at Carchemish (Northern Syria, today) around 605 BCE, and turned their attention to the south. Judah became a vassal state of Babylonia. (See 2 Kings 24:1.)
After a few years, Johoiakim rebelled against Babylonia, but as the fighting ensued, Jehoiakim died and his son, Jehoiachin, became king. (See 2 Kings 24:6-8.) In and around 597 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzer conquered Jerusalem, carried away King Jehoiachin and absconded with treasures from the royal palace and the Judahite Temple. (See 2 Kings 24:12-25:8.)The Hebrew Bible reports the numbers inconsistently, but perhaps up to 10,000 Judahites, mostly commanders and warriors, but also notables and skilled workers, were also forcibly taken to Babylon. (See 2 Kings 24:14-16.) Among these notables was a priest called Ezekiel. (See Ezek. 1:1-2.)
Josiah’s youngest son, Zedekiah, now ruled what remained. After he sought to align with Egypt and rebel against Babylonia, King Nebuchadnezzar responded savagely, attacking again around 589 BCE. After two years of war, the Babylonians breached the walls that were supposed to protect the city. They captured Zedekiah, forced him to watch his sons die and then blinded and carted him off to Babylon. (See 2 Kings 25:1-7.) Then they tore down the city’s walls, and burned down the Temple, the king’s palace and other main buildings and residences in Jerusalem. (See 2 Kings 25:7-17.) A second deportation followed. As the Bible says, “Thus Judah was exiled from its land.” (See 2 Kings 25:21; see also, 2 Chron. 36:1-21.)
The next governor, Gedaliah, was appointed by the Babylonians and attempted to govern from the Mizpah, just north of Jerusalem. He was assassinated, and the Bible reports that “all the people, young and old” were afraid of the Babylonians and fled to Egypt. (See 2 Kings 25:26.) In the immediate future, Judah was to be governed, ironically, from Samaria, the former capital of the late northern kingdom of Israel.
By the conclusion of the Babylonian effort, the national life of Judah was shredded. Everything from the political, tribal, royal and intellectual leadership to the real estate itself was affected. The physical devastation was total, the deportation and decimation of the population almost complete. The capital and its economy were in ruins. Archeological evidence confirms much of the biblical story. (See Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (Cambridge U. Press 2004), at 144.)
The despair of those in exile was palpable. The god of the Judahites had promised this particular land to them, and it was now no longer in their control. Further, the same god had promised that the people would be led by a king who was descended from the house of David, but the last king of Judah was a blinded prisoner in Babylon and his sons had been murdered. True, these were conditional promises, premised on the people’s fidelity to their god and their god’s commandments, laws, ordinances and regulations, but clearly something was fundamentally wrong. Either the Judahites had failed their god or their god had failed the Judahites. So when the psalmist cried out “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion,” his anguish is entirely understandable. (See Psalm 137:1.)
Almost sixty years passed between the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE and Cyrus’s defeat of the seemingly impregnable Babylonians. Early on, the prophet Jeremiah urged accommodation: “. . . seek the peace of the city wither I have caused you to be carried away captives.” (Jer. 29:7) No doubt some of captured Judahites followed that advice and acclimated quite well to the opportunities presented in the capital of the world’s dominant power, with its towers and gardens and vibrant society and economy. And close to sixty years was surely more than enough time for two new generations to be born who had no direct recollection or knowledge of the old homeland.
Still, poets and prophets, among others, attempted to keep alive a national consciousness and the hope of return. A psalmist asked how the people could sing a song of the Lord on alien soil, adding “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.” (See Psalm 137:4-5.) And Ezekiel envisioned Judah metaphorically as a collection of dry bones, into which God would breathe new life and fashion a people reunited and cleansed, with a new heart and a new spirit. (See Ezek. 36:24-27; 37:1-14.)
Consequently, when Cyrus took action which allowed the Judahites to go home, he was described in the most glowing terms by Judahite nationalists. Deutero-Isaiah mentioned Cyrus by name (Choresh, in Hebrew), called him God’s “Moshiach,” the “anointed one,” a term usually reserved for a descendant of King David, and described the God of Israel speaking to Cyrus and referring to him endearingly as “my shepherd.” (See Isa. 44:28; 45:1-5.)
The Hebrew Bible contains a number of writings concerning what happened after Cyrus’s proclamation in 538 BCE. These entries are found primarily in the biblical books of the priest Ezra, the court official Nehemiah, the prophets Haggai and Zachariah and the records of Second Chronicles. While not internally consistent, they portray a plausible, if embellished, version of what might have transpired.
According to the Book of Ezra, Cyrus understood that the Judahite Lord God of Heaven directed him to build a house for the Deity in Jerusalem, in Judah and he issued a decree. Said Cyrus, “Any one of you of all His people –may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of the Lord God of Israel, the God that is in Jerusalem; and all who stay behind , wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, besides the freewill-offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2-4; see also 2 Chron. 36:22-23.)
Ezra then states that Cyrus designated Sheshbazzar, a “prince of Judah,” to go to Jerusalem to build the Temple, and that Cyrus returned the Temple vessels which Nebuchadnezzer had taken, including gold and silver bowls and basins. (See Ezra 1:7-11.) Ezra also reports that 42,360 individuals responded to the invitation to return to Jerusalem, and that their neighbors supported them. (See Ezra 2:64, 1:6.)
According to Ezra, those who returned set up an altar in Jerusalem, and the following year laid the foundation for a new temple. (See Ezra 3:2-8.) Neighbors opposed the construction, however, and successfully secured an injunction against it. (See Ezra 4:4-24.) The returnees subsequently resumed construction anyway and then appealed to Cambyses’ successor, King Darius (r. ~ 522-486), who found a memorandum of Cyrus concerning the construction and ordered the governors of the province to assist in the construction. (See Ezra 5:1-6:12.) The Second Temple was completed in the Spring of the sixth year of Darius’s reign, either 516 or 515 BCE. (See Ezra 6:13-15.)
Decades later, the Persian Empire had a new monarch, King Artaxerxes I (r. ~ 465-424 BCE). Artaxerxes appointed the priest Ezra “to regulate Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God, which is in your care.” (See Ezra 7:14.) He also appointed another Judahite, Nehemiah, as his cup bearer, a position of trust and status. (See Nehemiah 1:11.) Subsequently, when Nehemiah sought permission from Artaxerxes to travel to Jerusalem, the King not only granted the request, but supported the mission with the appointment of Nehemiah as governor. (See Neh. 2:4-9.) Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in 445 BCE, and focused on rebuilding the walls of the ancient city. (See Neh. 1:1, 2:17, 19, 4:1-6.) Again some neighbors sought to undermine the project, but to no avail. (See Neh. 3:33-38, 6:1-19.) According to Nehemiah’s memoirs, Ezra brought the written Torah to Jerusalem and read it to the people, with the Levites translating and explaining. (See Neh. 8:1-8.) Ezra and Nehemiah both called for ethnic separateness and both banned intermarriage. (See Ezra 9:1-2, 10:10-11; Neh. 13:1-3, 23-27.)
There are reasons for skepticism about the accuracy of Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s memoirs. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah was an eye witness to Cyrus’s pronouncements, and there are inconsistencies in the texts. Nevertheless, this much seems clear: in or around 538 BCE Cyrus issued a proclamation which was inscribed on a clay cylinder and which allowed the Judahites to return to Judah and Jerusalem and live their lives consistent with their customs and beliefs. Some took advantage of the offer, ultimately rebuilt a second Temple and reinstated an active Jewish presence centered in and around the Temple. Temple-centric Judaism lasted until 70 CE when Roman legions led by Titus crushed a Jewish rebellion and destroyed Jerusalem and the renovated sanctuary.
Cyrus’s proclamation of 538 BCE was both unprecedented and historically unique. Certainly the Assyrians who destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, dispersed the indigenous population and repopulated the conquered land with allies were not as benevolent. Nor was King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, whose scorched earth and deportation policy for Judah sought capitulation, rather than conciliation. The list can be extended for emperors grand and petty subsequent to Cyrus, from Alexander through Constantine to present times.
Cyrus was special, and but for his extraordinary approach, there would have been:
- no proclamation of return,
- no encouragement extended to facilitate a return to the native land,
- no repatriation of perhaps tens of thousands of individuals,
- no leadership appointed to guide the rebuilding of the Temple,
- no return of artifacts taken from the Temple,
- no rebuilding of the Temple,
- no chance for Nehemiah or someone like him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem to protect the people and the Temple,
- no security for Judah against its neighbors and enemies, and, critically,
- no people to whom or place to which Ezra, or anyone like him, could bring written documents containing the lore of and law for the Judahites or begin to refashion a community separate from their neighbors and reunite them with their land and their god.
Each of these factors was vital to the survival and success of the Jewish People. Conversely, without all of them the folkways of Judah would have become a distant memory, just as the customs of the northern kingdom became for its dispersed tribes and as they were becoming for the many Judahites who chose to remain in Babylon or who moved elsewhere.
For instance, had Cyrus merely stated that exiled peoples could return home, but did not encourage them to do so, how many fewer would have made the journey? If they made the journey, but were not provided safe passage along the way and security on arrival, how many would have survived? If treasures of the first Temple were not returned, would the second Temple have achieved any legitimacy? Even if some people returned and began to rebuild the Temple, but had no authorized leadership, would they have been successful in creating a new community? If they created a community, but there was no writing to remind them of their past and set forth national values, would there have been a firm enough foundation upon which to build a future?
Thanks to Cyrus, enough Judahites not only returned, they proceeded to conserve some core ancient precepts, reform others and reconstruct their shattered civilization. The father and daughter Oz have summarized the result this way: “The Babylonian returnees indeed reinvented Israel: a new temple, a new calendar, new laws against intermarriage, an enhanced particularism, a recently canonized bookshelf, and a new lineage of text-based scholarship.” (Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, jews and words (Yale 2013), at 164.) Moreover, as archeologist Israel Finkelstein and historian Neil Asher Silberman have observed: “This is also the moment in our story when we must change our terminology: the kingdom of Judah becomes Yehud – the Aramaic name of the province in the Persian empire – and the people of Judah, the Judahites, will henceforth be known as Yehudim, or Jews.” (Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Free Press 2001), at 297.)
Yet if it is true that but for Cyrus there would be no Judaism and no Jews today, why is not more attention paid to him? The man was extolled in the Hebrew Bible by the well regarded prophet Deutero-Isaiah and the esteemed priest Ezra, and more recently by Israeli founder and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on the 2500 anniversary of the Cyrus Cylinder, but Cyrus is hardly remembered, much less honored , today in the Jewish community.
Part of the answer may be that the ancient sages did not want to attribute such momentous consequences to a mere mortal, preferring to see the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple as evidence of God’s intervention and grace. But then, how do you justify the inclusion of the Purim story in the canon and the celebration of that holiday? Jews of all stripes seem to love the fictional story set in Shushan in modern day Iran and the holiday that celebrates it, even though God is never mentioned. And who can resist? You get to wear costumes, eat some triangular cookies, drink a lot of wine and cheer as the pretty Jewish girl and her uncle save the Jews who were threatened with extinction. But, again, why is a true story of Jewish emancipation, set in a similar geographic locale, given no recognition? Sure, Cyrus was an emperor, not a paragon of modern democratic values, but the failure to designate a time to honor Cyrus is a serious omission in the Jewish calendar.
The Cyrus Cylinder corroborates the core premise of the writings of Ezra, Nehemiah and others regarding the return from exile. In keeping with Mesopotamian tradition, the cylinder was used as a foundation deposit, and placed under the walls of Marduk’s temple in Babylon, there to remain until ruins were excavated in 1879 CE by archeologists and the cylinder was taken to the British Museum in London. Watch here for a TED lecture by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, discussing “2600 years of history in one object.” This year the Cyrus Cylinder has been on tour in the United States. The tour concludes in the next few months in San Francisco and Los Angeles. What a wonderful opportunity to see such an important piece of history, and give thanks to Cyrus the Great.