Cyrus the Great

EZRA 1 Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great,559-530 B.c.) was a renowned conqueror and statesman who founded the Persian Empire. Our knowledge of him comes from Herodotus's History, as well as from other Greek historians, Persian texts and Babylonian records. Cyrus inherited the rule of a small territory called Pars in southern Iran, north of the Persian Gulf. Between 553 and 540 B.C. he subdued Media in central Iran, the kingdom of Lydia in western Anatolia (modern Turkey) and territories to the east, until he reigned from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. Isaiah prophesied of Cyrus's deliverance of the Jews from captivity, calling him the Lord's "anointed" (Isa 45:1).

Isaiah's predictions, as well as those of Jeremiah (Jer 25:12; 29:10), were fulfilled in 539 B.C. when Cyrus captured Babylon.2 According to the Babylonian Chronicle, Cyrus's army entered Babylon without a battle on October 12,539 B.C. Cyrus himself entered the city 17 days later, on October 29. With the addition of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, he now controlled the entirety of Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Levant (Syria-Palestine).

Cyrus was a beneficent king who allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands and restore their places of worship; this applied as well to the Jews residing in Babylon. Cyrus was not devoted to the God of Israel—in the Cyrus Cylinder he showed great reverence for Marduk of Babylon—but his policy of toleration for the religions of local populations worked to the Jews' advantage.

Languages of the Old Testament World

EZRA 2 The ancient Near East encompassed a large number of different languages, the most significant of which were Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Aramaic and Hebrew.Understanding these languages has considerably aided our knowledge of Israel's social, economic, political and linguistic environment.

  • Sumerian: History's first written language (c. 3100 B.c.), Sumerian used pictures (called pictographs) to represent words or ideas. Thousands of pictographs were needed to write in Sumerian, but these eventually came to be written abstractly as cuneiform, wedge-shaped characters in-cised into clay with a pointed, reed stylus. Although Sumerian was unrelated to the ancient Semitic languages of the Near East (such as Hebrew), many Semitic languages adopted the use of cuneiform writing.

  • Egyptian: As history's second written language (also c. 3100 B.c.), Egyptian produced a unique pictographic script called hieroglyphics, which is found in pyramid inscriptions. Though not Semitic, Egyptian was related to Semitic languages and shared some features with them. ÷ Akkadian: A Semitic language, Akkadian falls into the same language group as Hebrew. Used from at least the seventeenth century B.C. to the first century A.o., it was a northeastern, Mesopotamian Semitic language that borrowed some Sumerian vocabulary. Akkadian was spoken in both Babylonia and Assyria,, and thousands of Akkadian tablets preserve records of the economic, religious, royal and legal life of these societies. The Babylonian dialect became the international language of communication during the Late Bronze Age., Knowledge of the Akkadian language often helps to clarify the meaning of an obscure word in Biblical Hebrew.

  • Ugaritic: This language has significantly improved our understanding of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. It too was a northwestern Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and similar to the language of the Canaanites (by comparison, Akkadian was a northeastern Semitic language and somewhat more distant from Hebrew). Ugaritic employed an alphabetic cuneiform (i.e., used cuneiform signs to represent individual letters) and is preserved in approximately 1,300 administrative, economic and religious documents from the fourteenth to the thirteenth centuries B.C.

  • Aramak:This language spans at least the last 3,000 years of the Old Testament period. Like Hebrew and Ugaritic, it was a north-western Semitic language. Aramaic utilized a 22-letter alphabet borrowed from the Phoenician, language. It became the international language of communication for the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians during the first millennium B.C. The Persian Empire's "standardized" Aramaic has been dubbed Imperial Aramaic—the dialect of the governmental communiqué in Ezra 4.The books of Ezra and Daniel were partially written in Aramaic, and traces of Aramaic are scattered throughout the Old Testament.

  • Hebrew: Hebrew uses the same alphabet as Aramaic. Attested outside the Bible from the tenth century B.C., it was the language of the Israelites and of most of the Old Testament. Although the present Old Testament is primarily rendered in a standard Biblical Hebrew, traces of ancient Hebrew dialects are apparent in the text (e.g.,Jdg 12:6).During the intertestamental period Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews, (Jesus spoke Aramaic; e.g., Mt 27:46). A modern version of Hebrew is spoken by Israelis today, but it has a number of substantial differences from the classical form.

A Curse on Resettling a City From the Hittite Empire

EZRA 4 A Hittite document demonstrates the lasting results insurrection against one's sovereign might have brought about in the ancient Near East. In the wake of the death of the Hittite king Pithana, numerous cities revolted as Anitta, Pithana's heir, attempted to consolidate his control. King Anitta, however, proved to be a powerful ruler who was able to defeat the rebellious cities during his first regnal year (first partial year of his reign). He completely decimated the insubordinate towns and annihilated their inhabitants, proclaiming a curse upon any future king who might attempt to resettle the ruins. The remains would stand as a reminder of what had befallen those who had defied the Hittite king.

A similar concern existed in the later Persian Empire. When the returning Jewish exiles began to rebuild the Jerusalem temple, their enemies drafted a libelous letter to King Artaxerxes,2 reminding him of the previous rebellions of Jerusalem and suggesting that if the city were rebuilt it would exist as a seedbed of resistance to Persian rule. Their tactics were successful; the Israelites were forced to desist from work on the temple until the reign of Darius.

In the ancient world kings were ever on the lookout for signs of rebellion. Reports that a city was about to revolt could prove disastrous for that city. The false accusation against the Jews was more than a nuisance: It could have provoked a holocaust.

Darius I

EZRA 5 The Jews who had returned from the Babylonian captivity began rebuilding the temple in 536 B.C. Construction was halted, however, because of opposition from local adversaries of Judah., Sixteen years later, on September 21, 520 B.C., work resumed with the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezr 4:24; 5:1-2; Hag 1:4-15). The Jews were again challenged, this time by Tattenai, governor of the Persian province of Trans-Euphrates (Ezr 5:3-5). He is described as a local governor under the satrap of Babylon and Trans-Euphrates. Tattenai expressed concern about the rebuilding to the Persian king Darius I. However, after locating a copy of a decree made by Cyrus, Darius ordered Tattenai to fully support the reconstruction and even to provide government funding (6:1— 12).,The temple was completed on March 12, 515 B.c.

Darius I ("the Great") ruled the Persian Empire from 521 to 486 B.C. He was an accomplished military commander, monumental builder and shrewd administrator, who is known both from classical sources and from records contemporary to his rule.The most famous document from Darius's reign is the Behistun Inscription, emblazoned high on a cliff face in western Iran.This declaration describes Darius's rise to power in three languages and has provided the key for deciphering the Akkadian language of Mesopotamia. The palace of Darius I has been excavated at the royal center of Persepolis in southern Iran;, his tomb, carved into a rock face, is located 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the city.

The Cyrus Cylinder

EZRA 6 When work on the temple resumed in 520 B.C., the Persian governor Tat-tena i requested a search for the decree Cyrus had issued in 538 B.C. authorizing the Jews to rebuild their temple (Ezr 5:6 -- 6:1).1 A memorandum related to the decree was discovered in the royal archive at Ecbatana, one of the three imperial capitals.This memo,the treasury record of a grant made by Cyrus for rebuilding the temple, is quoted in 6:3-5 in Aramaic, the official language of the Persian Empire.2 Cyrus's decree, recorded in full in 1:2-4, along with an abridged version in 2 Chronicles 36:23, both in Hebrew, was a proclamation to the Jewish people, allowing them to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Such generosity on the part of Cyrus stands in sharp contrast to usual practice in antiquity. Even so, it is clear from archaeological discoveries that this was indeed the official policy of Cyrus.

The Cyrus Cylinder, an inscription on a clay barrel discovered in Babylon in 1879,4 documents Cyrus's policy of religious tolerance and liberation. Like most inscriptions from ancient kings, the Cyrus Cylinder is boastful (Cyrus declared himself to be the great king of Babylon, Sumer, Akkad and of the four corners of the earth) and pagan (he proclaimed himself to be beloved of the gods Bel, Nebo and Marduk). On the other hand, Cyrus was determined to be a benevolent, rather than a heavy-handed, ruler: He pointed out that after his conquest of Babylon he did not allow his troops to terrorize the city.5 Cyrus's record fully substantiates this generous and tolerant stance. He returned stolen images to their sanctuaries and, in his own words, "gathered all their inhabitants and returned (to them) their dwellings."

Artaxerxes I, King of Persia

EZRA 7 Artaxerxes I (also called "Longi-manus"), son of Xerxes I and Amestris and grandson of Darius I, ruled the Persian Empire from 464 to 424 B.c., His domain included most of the civilized world, extending from Egypt to the western edge of India. According to Diodorus Siculus in Library, 11.69, Artaxerxes came to power after Arta-banus, a courtier, had assassinated Xerxes. Artaxerxes then killed his older brother, Darius, and defeated his other brother, Hystaspes, satrap of Bactria. Artaxerxes is then said to have slain Artabanus in hand-to-hand combat.

Like most Persian rulers Artaxerxes had to struggle to maintain the empire.The most significant war during his reign involved an Egyptian rebellion against Persian authority that was complicated by Athenian support for the Egyptians.The war lasted from 460 to 454 B.C., but Persian armies under the command of Megabyzus, satrap of Syria, ultimately prevailed.

Artaxerxes played a prominent role in the postexilic Jewish community,2 but the chronology of events is somewhat difficult to unravel. Sometime prior to 445 B.C. Jews in Jerusalem began rebuilding the city's defenses, but adversaries informed the king and the work was halted (Ezr 4:7-23). Yet in 458 B.c. Artaxerxes I allowed Ezra, in exile in Babylon, to return to Judah as spiritual leader of the Jewish people (ch. 7). Meanwhile, Nehemiah served as cupbearer to Artaxerxes I in Susa,3 the administrative capital of the empire (Ne 1:1,11). In 445 B.C. Artaxerxes commissioned Nehemiah as governor of Judah, a position he held for 12 years (Ne 2:1 — 6; 5:14). The king gave Nehemiah permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, a feat the Jewish people accomplished in only 52 days (Ne 6:15). Fragmentary remains of Nehemiah's wall have been discovered on the eastern edge of the City of David, south of the temple mount. Archaeological findings indicate that Ezra and Nehemiah established Judah as an economically viable province. Prior to their arrival Judah had been in a poor and ruinous state as a continuing result of the Babylonian conquest of 586 B.C.

Artaxerxes I was buried in an elaborate tomb cut into the face of a cliff 3 miles (4.8 km) north of Persepolis, the religious capital of the Persian Empire

The Scribe

EZRA 8 Scribes occupied an important position as a professional class in the society of the ancient world.' The scribal arts of reading, writing and interpreting written documents assured them a vital role in the affairs of person, state and sanctuary. Writing was typically performed as dictation (Jer 36:32), using a stylus reed pen sharpened frequently with a"scribe's knife" (Jer 36:23). Scribal training was acquired in schools and was at times viewed as a family trade (1Ch 2:55). Several important personages in the Bible were scribes: Shaphan, who read the Book of the Law to King Josiah (2Ki 22:10); Baruch, who recorded the words of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 36:4);4 Ezra, who copied and read the decrees of Persian kings and the Law of Moses (Ezr 7:6-11); and the evangelist Matthew, who applied his scribal training toward the composition of the first canonical Gospel (Mt 8:19; 13:52).

The Bible presents scribes accurately as royal recorders who preserved the will of kings (1Ch 24:6; Est 3:12). They occupied important posts within the military (2Ki 25:19; Jer 52:25) and are often depicted with the high priest as close advisors of kings (2Ki 12:10; 18:18, 37; Mt 2:4). Many scribes were themselves priests and were entrusted with the preservation, interpretation and exposition of Scripture (Ne 8:9; Mt 17:10; 23:2). It is, therefore, understandable that scribes became widely regarded as men of great wisdom and learning. David's uncle Jonathan is said to have been "a counselor, a man of insight and a scribe" (1Ch 27:32).

These various ideals became focused in the person of Ezra. He was an important figure in traditional Judaism who represented the ideal model for the rabbinic sage as a faithful man of learning, scholarship, counsel and service. Due to their importance and responsibility as preservers of tradition, scribes were also subjected to the scrutiny of prophetic critique.Jeremiah indicted the "lying pen of the scribes"who had forsaken the law of the Lord (Jer 8:8), and Jesus himself pronounced an extensive list of negative judgments against the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23).