The Persian Period and Return from Exile (538-323 BC)

Dennis Bratcher

The Decline of Babylon

The Babylonian Empire occupies a prominent place in the pages of Scripture. Because such decisive events for Israel’s history swirled around Babylon’s rise to power, it became the focal point of poetry, curses, theological reflection, and general perspectives on the world and the future. Even nearly 600 years later, it could become a paradigmatic symbol of evil in the New Testament apocalyptic tradition. However, in the scheme of world events, Babylon was a bright flash in the flow of history, appearing quickly with a brilliance unrivaled in the ancient world, and just as quickly disappearing.

After the death of Nebuchadnezzar in 562, the end came quickly for Babylon. Weakened by internal divisions and threatened by ambitious neighbors its leaders could not hold the empire together. After a rapid succession of rulers marked by assassinations and intrigue, Nabonidus came to power in Babylon in 556. While in some ways a capable leader, Nabonidus precipitated divisions in the country that would become fatal. He was a religious rogue, worshipping the moon god Sin rather than Marduk, the chief deity of Babylon. As in the case of most religious innovations throughout history, his attempts to establish Sin as the chief deity of Babylon to replace Marduk aroused the opposition of many.

Because of hostility to his practices, an uprising eventually forced Nabonidus to leave Babylon. He left Prince Bel-shar-usur (Belshazzar; cf. Dan 5) in charge of most of the affairs of state, and established a headquarters at Teima in the Arabian Desert. From there he built a series of fortresses and governed a large portion of the caravan routes throughout Arabia. Although he eventually returned to Babylon, the nation remained divided and would never recover from the divisions precipitated by his rule.

Cyrus and the Rise of Persia

Just as Babylon was weakened by internal dissension, a new threat emerged on the scene of world history. Cyrus the Persian had managed to unify warring tribes and by 550 had conquered the Median Empire. With the Medes and Persians now united, Cyrus launched an ambitious campaign to expand his holdings to the west. In spite of a Babylonian alliance with Egypt, Cyrus drove around the northern edges of Babylonian territory and pushed through Asia Minor to the Aegean Sea, shifting those areas from Babylonian to Persian control. Cyrus then returned to campaign to the east and south, and within a few years left Babylon surrounded and helpless.

The end of Babylon came in no great battle, almost without a murmur. The Babylonians were so disaffected by the policies of Nabonidus that they had little will to fight. A Babylonian general, Gobryas, defected to the Persians, and began insurgency against Babylon. In a desperate attempt to rally support, Nabonidus attempted to reinstate the worship of Marduk, and brought the gods of the outlying provinces to Babylon to inspire the people. But the effort backfired, because it did nothing but further anger and demoralize the people from whom the gods had been taken. After an early engagement in which the Babylonians were soundly defeated, in 539 Gobryas took the city of Babylon without a fight. Cyrus was now in control of all of the former Babylonian Empire and unchallenged master of that part of the world. Within a year, he would control all of the Middle East except Egypt.

Persian Rule and Return from Exile

Persian rule was charitable, especially compared with the policies of Assyria or even of Babylon. In Babylon, the people were tired of internal conflict and the hated policies of Nabonidus, so Cyrus was welcomed as a liberator. He reciprocated by treating the people generously. Since the country had been taken without any large scale fighting, the nation was spared most of the ravages of war and Cyrus sought no reprisals from the people or cities. He encouraged the restoration of the worship of Marduk, and even participated in the rituals himself. He returned the gods to their places, forbade his troops from persecuting the people, and reversed some of the more odious practices of Nabonidus. This policy of toleration and acceptance of diverse cultures and beliefs would characterize Cyrus’ reign. It was this policy of toleration that likely gave the exilic prophets hope that God might work through these events to restore them to the land (e.g., Isa 41:1-3, 25, 44:28-45:4).

Following his policy of allowing a great deal of freedom among conquered peoples, in 538 Cyrus issued the edict that allowed the Israelites to return home. He not only allowed those who wanted to return to do so, he ordered the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the vessels that had been looted from the Temple returned, and even committed funds from his treasury to aid the project (Ezra 1:2-11, 6:3-5).

According to one set of traditions, the first return of Israelites to Palestine was led by Sheshbazzar, a Prince of Judah (Ezra 1:8, 11 5:14, 16), perhaps a son of Johaiochin who had been taken captive to Babylon (cf. 1 Chron 3:18). He was given some authority over the territory and proceeded to lay the foundations for the rebuilding of the Temple. Another set of traditions in Ezra 3:6-11 gives Zerubbabel credit for beginning laying the foundations, and never mentions Sheshbazzar. Most scholars conclude that those parts of the Ezra traditions, which are usually associated with the same traditions as the books of Chronicles, simply telescope the work of Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel.

We hear nothing more of Sheshbazzar, so it is uncertain what became of his efforts or how many actually returned to Israel at that time. In spite of the grand visions of exilic Isaiah (chs. 40-55), there was no mass exodus back to the land, and no new Davidic kingdom emerged. Life had been good for the Israelites in Babylon, and few wanted to return to face the hardships of trying to rebuild the ruined land.

There were enormous problems facing those who returned. Those who had remained in Judah had taken over the land and now considered it theirs (Ezek 33:24-29). They were resentful of those who returned and wanted to reclaim ancestral land. Besides, many of those who remained, especially those in Samaria, saw themselves as the only true heirs of the promises (Ezra 4:1-5). Surrounding tribes saw the return as a new threat to their own local control of the area. Throughout the next century, the returned Israelites would be harassed by marauding bands of local tribesmen who saw no benefit in having a walled city rebuilt in their territory (Neh 4:1-7:5).

There were also the religious problems of what some saw as failed promises. While they had been allowed to return home as the prophets had promised, it was difficult to see how the promises of great blessings could emerge (e.g., Isa 59:9-11; cf. Mal 3:14). There were economic crises as drought and harsh weather produced poor crops (Hag 1:9-11, 2:15-17).

We are not sure of much of the chronology of this period, since the accounts in Ezra and Nehemiah are not in chronological order and are intermixed between the two books. We do know that sometime in this period after 538 Zerubbabel emerged as a leader of the returned exiles in Babylon, in fact, may have led a larger group back to the land. He had some official sanction of the Persian court, although we are not sure exactly what role he played. He took charge of rebuilding the Temple, perhaps even joining the efforts begun by Sheshbazzar. He was accompanied by the high priest Joshua who emerged as the spiritual leader of the reforming community (Hag 1:1, cf. Zech 3:-4).

But in the face of the hardships the community faced, work on rebuilding came to a virtual stop as the people concentrated on surviving. The promised support from the Persian court never materialized, and the returned exiles were virtually forgotten (Ezra 5:3 ff). The returnees who had been driven by such lofty hopes now faced an uncertain future in which there was real danger that the community would not survive, at least not as a faith community.

Into this situation around 520 came two powerful prophetic voices, Haggai and Zechariah. With changes in the Persian empire playing out in the background, in different ways both prophets encouraged the people and got the rebuilding projects back on track. The problems were not all overcome, but the Temple was completed and dedicated in 515. At least a Temple of sorts was completed. With no skilled workers, they basically restacked the old stones into a makeshift building that was nothing in comparison with the splendor of Solomon’s temple . In fact, some of those who could remember Solomon’s Temple wept when they saw the new structure, likely because it was a mere shadow of past glory (Ezra 3:12-13). But at least there was a center of religious life once more.

Part of the encouragement by the prophets was the renewal of the hopes for a restored nation with a Davidic King. Haggai, and Zechariah in more subtle ways, openly proclaimed Zerubbabel as the awaited Davidic king, the "signet ring" on God’s hand (Hag 2:23). That may have been a fatal mistake. About this time Zerubbabel simply disappeared from history. We do not know what happened to him, but some scholars have speculated that at the talk of making him a new king the Persians removed him. They were generous, but it is understandable that they would not tolerate a new rival Kingdom in Judah. In any case, the emerging nation plunged into 75 years of stagnation.

The Leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah

We hear very little of events in Judah until the appointment of Nehemiah as governor. Again, chronology of this era is anything but certain, and we do not even know the relationship between Nehemiah and Ezra. We only know that sometime around 450-444 BC, Ezra and Nehemiah brought some unity to the struggling community.

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