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The Return to Persian Yehud

The Aftermath of the Exile (587 BCE)

  • Judah was a Babylonian province governed by Gedaliah; the Davidic king Jehoiachin was released from prison in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27-30).
  • The final edition of the Deuteronomistic History, select prophets, and psalms of lament address why Yahweh permitted the exile.
  • Exilic hopes: new exodus (Isaiah 40:1-5), new heart for covenant obedience in a restored nation (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-30; 37:1-13), and new temple (Ezekiel 40-47). The servant’s vicarious suffering (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12).
  • Jews in the dispersion met in local assemblies or “synagogues.”

Cyrus “the Great”

  • Cyrus II of Persia (550-530 BCE) conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and established the Achaemenid empire. The imperial propaganda of the Cyrus Cylinder has Cyrus as a liberator chosen by the Babylonian god Marduk.
  • Permitted subject peoples to practice native cultic practices.
  • The edict of Cyrus (Ezra 1:2-4; 6:3-5) enabled the exiles to return to their land and rebuild the temple, returning the sacred vessels stolen by Nebuchadnezzar. Many Jews remained in the diaspora (e.g. Esther).
  • Cyrus as Yahweh’s anointed (Isaiah 44:28-45:1).

The Persian Province of Yehud

  • Sheshbazzar (“prince of Judah”) led a first wave of returnees, but the rebuilding of the temple was stalled due to economic conditions and opposition (538 BCE).
  • The Davidic governor Zerubbabel and high priest Joshua led a second wave in the reign of Darius I (522-486) and they completed the temple dedication (515 BCE).
  • Nehemiah returns in the twentieth year of the Persian ruler Artaxerxes I in 445 BCE to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and restore civil leadership to the Levites (Nehemiah 2:1; cf. the Elephantine papyri).
  • Ezra returns in the 7th year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:1-8), but it is unclear if this is Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE) or II (404-358 BCE). Ezra enforced the Torah (final edition of Pentateuch) and prohibits intermarriage with foreigners to construct strong social boundaries for a minority ethnic group.
  • Ezra-Nehemiah was originally one book structured by Cyrus’ decree (Ezra 1:1-4), the temple construction (Ezra 1:5-Nehemiah 7:72), and the communal re-dedication to God (Nehemiah 7:73-13:31).

Alternative Voices

  • Ruth: a Moabitess becomes the ancestor of king David.
  • Jonah: a prophet is unable to resist the call to invite the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to repentance.
  • Trito-Isaiah: eunuchs and foreigners are welcome (ch. 56).
  • Esther: at the encouragement of her uncle Mordecai, Esther intervenes before the Persian ruler Ahasuerus (=Xerxes I from 486-465 BCE?) to deliver the Jews from the wrath of the prime minister Haman. The story is the basis for the Jewish holiday Purim and a subsequent Greek edition makes the diaspora characters more pious.
  • Chronicles: re-write the history in Samuel-Kings from a more hopeful theological perspective for the returning exiles.


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