Persia and Judea: Geography and International Relations

When the children of Israel met the Persians face-to-face, Israel was already a defeated people. For decades, the Judahites lived far from home, and although they owned businesses, bought/sold/traded, and even helped in the administration of the Babylonian empire, they saw hardship in the form of religious intolerance (e.g., Daniel’s prayer and Daniel’s three friends) and the inability to return. Perhaps the greatest blow to the Jews of that time was the destruction of the famed Temple of Yahweh, their God. The Israelites had been spiraling down toward divine punishment since the beginning of their nationhood, and with the collection and writing of the historical accounts of the kings of Israel, they learned where they had gone wrong and how to correct it. In 539BC, everything would change again.

Early Persian Empire

The fall of the Babylonian Empire in 539BC at the hands of the Persians is well attested, but what is not well attested is the history of the Persians before 600BC (Kuhrt 2005: 768). The name Parsuash first appears in 844BC in inscriptions from the reign of Shalmaneser III (Yamauchi 1996: 65), though not much is said of the Persians until the time of Cyrus I. More prominent, though, were the Medes. Mentioned in Genesis 10 as decedents of Japheth, the Medes were closely related to the Persians in both language and ethnicity. They would later (612BC) join in a combined attack with Nabopolassar of Babylon upon Nineveh, dismantling the Assyrian Empire (Kirk 1992:1119). With this Babylonian alliance, the Medes extended their kingdom as far west as eastern Anatolia. It is this Median Kingdom that Cyrus the Great absorbed when he successfully rebelled against the Medes, conquering the Median capital of Ecbatana. Although the details of these events are plagued with mythology, in the end, the Medes and the Persians appear to have been equally honored being known as “the Medes and the Persians,” “the Persians and the Medes,” or as late as the 4th c. simply as “the Medes” (Yamauchi 1996: 57).

Primary Political Players

Though the Achaemenian Empire began with Cyrus II (aka, the Great), the points of political value began much earlier. The lineage begins with its namesake, Achaemenes. According to the Behistun Inscription, Achaemenes was in fact a real person who sired Teispes, though this is still debated:

King Darius says: My father is Hystaspes; the father of Hystaspes was Arsames; the father of Arsames was Ariaramnes; the father of Ariaramnes was Teispes; the father of Teispes was Achaemenes. (Tolman 1908:7)

This Teispes then sired two branches of the dynasty of the Achaemenians, one through his son Ariaramnes and the other through his descendent Cyrus I (Finegan 2019: 23), though even this is debated (Yamauchi 1996:70). It is in the Cyrus Cylinder that we find the lineage of this second branch:

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, ki[ng of the ci]ty of Anshan, descendent of Teispes, the great king, king of the city of Anshan (Finkel 2013:6)

Of concern for this paper is the lineage concerning Cyrus I, that is, until later under the discussion of Darius I.

Concerning Anshan, we know nothing before Cyrus II’s attack on the Medes (Briant 2002:18). We know that Cyrus I sent his son, as a hostage, to Nineveh with tribute, thus creating an alliance of obedience to Assyria (Dandmaev and Lukonin 2004:54), though Assyrian dominance began to crumble, and Cyrus I later acknowledged the sovereignty of the Median state (Yamauchi 2004: 109) under Cyaxares, who broadened his kingdom with the help of the growing Babylonians. Cambyses I continued this dependence on the Medes (Dandmaev and Lukonin 2004: 60) through the reigns of Cyaxares and Astyages.

Cambyses I is thought to be the younger son of Cyrus I, who sent his elder son, Arukku, as a hostage to Nineveh some time before (see above; Dandmaev 2012), and since we never hear of Arukku again, it can be hypothesized that the elder son died in Nineveh (Yamauchi 1996: 71). According to Herodotus, Cambyses I married the daughter of Astyages of Media (Yamauchi 2004: 110), though as with much of Herodotus, this is debated. If a political marriage did take place, much could be said of the positive treatment of the Medes under later Persian rule, as well as the Median absorption into the Persian Empire under Cyrus II, supposed grandson of the king of Media.

It was under Cyrus II (the Great) that the Persian Empire was born. Although born under Median dependency, Cyrus’ revolt against the Medes and subsequent conquests gave birth to the largest empire of the known world at that time (Yamauchi 2004: 110). The first of these conquests, of course, was the said rebellion against the Medes. In 550BC, Cyrus defeated Astyges of Media who had attacked the Persians, who no doubt had become a worry to the Median power in the north (Kurht 2005: 769). While Herodotus seems to show that there was a purposeful intent on the part of Cyrus to conquer Media, Nabonidus points to Astyges as the attacker, though possibly an attempt to put down a rebellion (Briant 2002: 31). Adding to the point of a reactive rather than a proactive attack, according to Nabonidus, some Medes (according to Herodotus these included a commanding general, troops, and some Median nobles) rebelled against Astyges by defecting to the Persians (Briant 2002: 31; Yamauchi 2004: 110; Grayson 2000: 106).

The battle against the Medes was not an easy one. In fact, Cyrus met several defeats and even several defections at the hands of the Medes (Briant 2002: 32). In all, the war lasted three years (Dandmaev and Lukonin 2004: 90), but with a Persian victory on the battlefield in the plain of Pasargadae, where the seat of the Persian Empire would later be built (Yamauchi 2004: 110), Cyrus marched to Ecbatana. With the victory of the Persians, Astyges was taken captive and the seemingly inexhaustible treasury of the Medes fell to Cyrus (Briant 2002: 33). Astyges was treated very well (Finegan 2019: 25), and the classical sources say that Astyges remained in his own court for the remainder of his life, possibly as a governor (Finkel 2013: 109).

Cyrus went on to conquer Parthia and Hyrcanaia, both formerly under Median control (Dandmaev and Lukonin 2004:90). At this point, Cyrus now had an extensive army, including siege weapons and troops supplied by the former Persian tribes, Media, chieftains of Central Asia formerly subservient to the Medes, and even new recruits as Cyrus marched across his newly conquered lands (Briant 2002: 35).

In the 540s, Lydia attacked the territories of the new Persian Empire, perhaps testing the new king who had just subjugated the brother-in-law of the Lydian king (Shahbazi 2012). Cyrus, with his large army, went out to meet Croesus of Lydia. Croesus was over confident, having received word from the Oracle of Delphi that if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire (Briant 2002: 35). He had also brokered treaties with Sparta, Babylon, and Memphis, all great powers of the day. Pharaoh Amasis sent aid, but neither Nabonidus, still in Arabia chasing after the wrong gods (Young 1988: 39), nor his son, Belshazzar, reinforced Lydia (Briant 2002: 35). As for the Greeks, factions broke out among those who sided with the Medes and those who sided with Lydia, Croesus’ own recruiter in the Peloponnesus having already defected to the Persians (Briant 2002: 36). The battle that took place proved a victory for neither party, leaving Croesus to retreat to his capital under the assumption that Cyrus would not pursue so close to winter (Yamacuhi 2004: 110). Croesus dismissed his army to their winter camp with plans to gather a more formidable army from his allies after winter. No doubt, Cyrus understood what this would mean for his fledgling empire, and so with a keen situational awareness, decidedly yet imprudently, he risked the winter and surprised the Lydian army as their were demobilizing (Briant 2002: 35). Upon Cyrus entering the Lydian capital, Croesus surrendered and was later given a Median city whereby he could continue his life of luxury (Briant 2002: 36). Between 545-539, Cyrus went on to conquer Drangiana, Margiana, Chorasmia, Sogdiana, Bactria, Aria, Gedrosia, the Saka tribes, Sattagydia, Arachosia and Gandhara, thus expanding his kingdom to remote parts of the known world (Dandmaev and Lukonin 2004:90). It was only after this that Cyrus turned his attention to Babylon.

Impacted Geographical Regions

Although little is known concerning Anshan before Cyrus I, the site is well known today. Anshan was then considered second only to the city of Susa (Yamauchi 1996: 68), and it is now identified with Tall-e Malyan in modern day Iran (Potts 2010: 4). The site, identified with the early kings of Persia (see Grayson 1992: 106), is located inside the Zagros Mountain range, 36 km northwest of Shiraz (Hansman 2012). The earliest attestation of Anshan is in the Sumerian King List, where Awan is associated with Manishtusu, son of the second successor to Sargon, subjugated of a local rebel (Hansman 2012; Barton 1929 : 129). Later, Naram-Sin made a treaty with the King of Awan (Hansman 2012). Of course, fame came under the Achaemenid Empire.

Ecbatana is also important in a discussion of early Persian society. As noted above, Ecbatana was the capital of the Median empire, eventually conquered by Cyrus II during his rebellion against said empire. Ecbatana is also in the Zagros, at the eastern slope of the Alvand range (Brown 2012). The city was on the east-west route through the Zagros mountains. Of note is that there are seven cities called Ecbatana, four of which are in Persia, so it is possible that the name is one suggesting simply a capital city (Brown 2012). The site is archaeologically related to that of Hamadan (Curtis and Stewart 2010: 104), containing Median and Achaemenid structures (Brown 2012).

Of importance concerning the topic at hand is that of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, specifically for its importance in establishing the Median empire. Commonly associated with the biblical prophet Jonah and king Hezekiah, Nineveh is located on the outskirts of modern day Mosul of Operation Iraqi Freedom infamy, the United State’s war in modern day Iraq. On the subject at hand, Nineveh was besieged and conquered by the joint operations of the Medes and Babylonians, giving way for the rise of both the Median and Babylonian empires, the latter of which is the more famous. Nineveh has primary importance in the biblical literature concerning the Assyrian period, including the mentions above as well as the defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel. The site itself is on the east banks of the Tigris river near the Kurdish foothills (Grayson 1992: 1118).

Following the diachronic order rather than an order of importance, Sardis, capital of Lydia comes next. Lydia is well attested in what would come to be known as Asia Minor, and the city is much later mentioned in the New Testament text concerning the baptism of a merchant woman (Acts 16:14-15). Though Cyrus took Sardis, that did not settle the problem of neighborly rebellion. Cyrus continued to take city by city until all were under his foot (Briant 2002: 36).

The remaining locations are insignificant to the purpose at hand, except to say that Cyrus II continued his march across the land in order to bring all under his control.

Modes and Methods of Communication

Primary sources for this period are few, but among these are the Pasargadae Inscriptions (Stronach 1997), Nabonidus Chronicle, Cyrus Cylinder, Bahistun Inscriptions, and more.

As noted above, the Behistun Inscriptions of Darius and the Cyrus Cylinder both give the lineage of the two respective kings, showing an apparent two-branch kingdom from Teispes to Cyrus II. The Behistun Inscription is actually a multilingual (Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian) cliff relief by Darius the Great. Just as the Rosetta Stone was imperative to the understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs, so the Behistun relief was imperative to deciphering the cuneiform script (Schmitt 2012). The site itself overlooks the plains of Kermanshah, not too far from the highway that leads from Babylon to Ecbatana (Briant 2002: 124).

The cylinder of Cyrus is perhaps the better known of the two, as it’s text carries religious significance to the Jewish people (Finkel 2013: 25). The cylinder itself was discovered in a foundation trench at the site of the Temple of Marduk in Babylon (Dandamayev, Cyrus Cylinder 2012). Of interest is that the literary analysis of the cylinder shows striking similarities to edicts by the Assyrian Ashurbanipal (Yamauchi 1996: 76). While more will be presented in the second section of this article, key to the early Persian Empire is, as noted above, the genealogy of Cyrus.

Beyond a simple presentation of lineage, the Nabonidus Chronicle chronicles the conquest of Media by Cyrus the Great in the sixth year of the named king. Though in broken context, the same chronicle tells of Cyrus’ campaign in the ninth year of Nabonidus, likely referring to Cyrus’ march on Lydia (Dandamayev, Babylon Chron 2012). This same work also tells of the joint Median-Babylonian campaign against Nineveh, as mentioned above. After a Median failure in taking Nineveh, Nabopolassar and Cyaxares met in the newly conquered Assur and formed an alliance resulting in the overthrow of the Assyrians at Nineveh (Dandamayev, Babylon Chron 2012).

There are also a good number of Akkadian economic texts contemporary to Cyrus the Great, including a an inscribed brick at Uruk noting Cyrus as a rebuilder (Yamauchi 1996: 76), but that comes with a further look into Cyrus at the time of and in relation to the release of the Hebrews from exile in the next section. Thus, the Israelites meet the Persians, and as noted above, when the Israelites met the Persians face-to-face, they were already a defeated people.

In Relation to the Hebrews

Daniel 5 details the origins of the phrase “the handwriting on the wall” that is used today as an expression of evidence of an impending doom or failure. This original doom would be the fall of the Babylonian Empire. Here, Belshazzar, son of Nabonidus, is holding a feast for one thousand of his courtiers, and while intoxicated, Belshazzar calls for the Jerusalem temple implements to be brought to the table so that he, his wives, and the nobles could drink from them, and doing so brought many compliments as to their craftsmanship. It is at this moment in the story that the famed hand appeared, lit by a candle stand and therefore in full view of the people, and wrote a cryptic message in the plaster of the wall. Daniel notes that at this sight, Belshazzar became pale and visibly shaken, and then immediately and loudly calls for those who may be able to decipher the message, though no one could. Upon entering the banquet hall, the Queen Mother tells of one Daniel whom Nebuchadnezzar named chief of the magicians who will be able to interpret the writing. In typical Hebrew prophetic fashion, Daniel very bluntly points to the shortcomings of Belshazzar and the great loss that he was about to suffer at the hands of the Persians.

Primary Political Players

Of concern to the biblical scholar is that Daniel portrays Darius the Mede as the conqueror of Babylon, rather than Cyrus the Great. While some scholars write this off as inaccurate and therefore lacking veracity (e.g., Frye 2012), others (e.g., Anderson and Young 2016) have attempted to revive interpretations from 19th c. German Protestant scholars (see Keil and Delitzsch 2001: 617-21) concerning the differences between Herodotus and Xenophon, the latter of which wrote concerning a peaceful translation from Median to Persia superiority rather than a rebellion under Cyrus II as per Herodotus. According to Xenophon, Cyaxares II was son of Astyages and uncle to Cyrus (Keil and Delitzsch 2001: 617-19). Extrapolating data from Xonophon, Herodotus, Berossus, and Harpocration, it is possible to assume that Darius the Mede is the same as Cyaxares II, and therefore some argue that the later Darius of Persia, who stole the throne, took the throne name of Darius the Mede to add legitimacy to his claim (Anderson and Young 2016: 322-23).

Of course, it is Cyrus II (the Great) who has primary placement in relation to the exiled Hebrews, for it was Cyrus who declared a return to Jerusalem. Ezra 1 records the edict:

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the Lord’s message spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord motivated King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his kingdom and also to put it in writing. It read: “This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: “‘The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the Lord God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.’” (1-3, NET)

Concerning extra-biblical correspondents, the Cyrus Cylinder records this text:

At his exalted command, all kings who sit on thrones, from every quarter, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, those who inhabit [remote distric]ts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru who live in tents, all of them, brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna, and kissed my feet. From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Guti—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, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus—to the fury of the lord of the gods—had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. (Finkel 2013: 6-7).

Not only did Cyrus allow the Hebrews to return home, but he also declared that he will fund the rebuilding of the temple of their God. As seen in the Cyrus Cylinder, this was not without precedent.

Cyrus II stood out among past leaders primarily because of his stance on governorships and satrapies. Whereas the Assyrians and Babylonians removed conquered peoples to places far from their homes so as to deter uprisings, Cyrus allowed those he conquered to continue in their freedom. In fact, both Croesus and Astyges were allowed to continue their lives of luxury even after being defeated, Astyges in his own court (Finkel 2013: 109) and Croesus as governor of a Median city (Briant 2002: 36). An offer was made to the Ionians to defect to his side (defections had already occurred from both the Medes and the Lydians, Briant 2002: 31,36), but the Ionians refused (Gorman 2001: 124). Indeed, the text of the cylinder describes Cyrus’ own obedience to the Babylonian gods, the people of which he had just conquered. In all, Cyrus would come to be known as a champion of tolerance.

Let the reader note that the above edict meant that the Judahites, who had spent more than half of a century away from their homeland and from the temple of their God (which was destroyed by the Babylonians), were now free to return to their lands with the blessings of the king. Also note that except for those who are much older, the Hebrews returning have never seen their famed homeland.

Before his death, Cyrus II noted Cambyses II, who was installed as the king of Babylon after his father conquered the city (Young 1988: 40), of great importance. Cyrus’ cylinder, in discussing blessings from Marduk, names Cambyses as a fellow worshipper of Marduk, and therefore asks for blessings upon his son as well (Young 1988: 48). Following his father’s death, Cambyses II is called King of Lands (Young 1988: 48), having ascended to his father’s throne. Four years later, Cambyses turned his attention to Egypt, and he kept his focus there until right before his death.

There is some mystery surrounding the next king, one Bardiya. According to the earliest sources, Bardiya was an imposter, a Magian. Per Herodotus, Cambyses II had murdered Bardiya before he left for Egypt (Finegan 2019: 31). Darius also mentions this in his Behistun inscription (Yamauchi 1996: 138), though with reason. Whether Bardiya was or was not the actual brother of Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, his very short reign came to an end when seven coconspirators (of whom Darius was one) murdered the new King. Afterward, according to Herodotus, many of the magi were killed (Yamauchi 1996: 142).

Darius’ rise to power then followed his confirmation by horse, again, according to Herodotus. Here Darius fooled the other six by cheating in a contest (Shahbazi 2012). As evidence for his continuing of the Achaemenid dynasty, Darius I, in his Behistun inscription, describes his own lineage through his father Hystaspes to Achaemenes himself (see above for more detailed information), perhaps he felt this needed because of the nature of his usurpation.

Concerning administration, it was Darius I who made the Persian Empire into a well oiled machine. Early on, Darius divided the empire into twenty provinces called satrapies assigning each a satrap, and each of these could be divided into subsatrapies with their own governors (Shahbazi 2012). Most of these satraps were Persian courtiers, and Darius used them to gather taxes from region after Darius sent trusted men to carefully calculate those tax rates, ensuring fairness (Shahbazi 2012).

Concerning Jewish persons of importance, the reader must think back to the time of Cyrus and the first wave of migrations back to the heartland under Sheshbazzar. Sheshbazzar was appointed governor of the small province, and began the work on the foundation of the temple, but later Zerubbabel, under Darius, would take that role, serving as the political leader. Jeshua the High Priest served as the religious leader (Longman 2005: 487; Beyer 1992: 1085). Progress was made initially, as under the joint leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua the foundations of the temple were completed and the altar restored (Gruber 2012). Unfortunately, this would not continue smoothly as those already in the land, since the time Eserhaddon, frustrated the efforts (Longman 2005: 488). Of note is the controversy over Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, each being said to have laid the foundations of the temple (Gruber 2012). Several possibilities have been put forward, including that they are one and the same, but this is not likely (Rose 2005: 1017). Instead, it could be that one started and the other finished.

Almost two decades had passed with no additional work on the temple (Gruber 2012), but the prophets Haggai and Zechariah urged the people to move ahead. Early in Darius’ kingship, issues came up. Interested in the work, Tattenai, governor of Syria took note of the work, and he demanded to know who authorized the work. Upon receiving word, Tattenai sent word to Darius to confirm the story. After research, Darius confirmed the story, and he added that the Persian treasury will pay for the efforts, warning that the Jews were not to be hindered (Beyer 1992: 1085). In 516BC, the Temple was completed and dedicated. Unfortunately for the Jews, the possible messiah implications were short lived as Zerubbabel disappears from the text (Longman 2005: 488.

During the reign of Xerses (Ahasuerus in the biblical text), the story of Esther takes place. The story has very clear historically accurate customs and knowledge of the Achaemenid Empire (Shaked 2012). The feast declared at the end of the Book is still celebrated by Jews today.

Ezra was a scribe and priest under instructions from Artaxerxes to go to Jerusalem, with financial subsidies, in order to inspect the region to ensure that they are following the laws of their God. Of note is an extra-biblical account, the Egyptian Demotic Chronicle, of Udjahorresnet being sent by Darius I to Egypt to do similar work (Reeves 2012). Of interest is the fact that at the time of Ezra’s departure, a rebellion had begun in Egypt, and Artaxerses sent a large army to quell the rebellion. This revolt possibly gave a Persian purpose to Ezra’s orders, that is, to ensure loyalty of the Egyptian neighbors to the Persian king (Yamauchi 1996: 254).

While in the land, Ezra began to preach the importance of the Law, religious ceremony, and the purity of the people, often at the expense of the Samaritans (Yahwists who remained in the land and interbred with non-Jews). The fact of mixed marriages confirmed to Ezra that the people were not in conformity to Jewish law, and he voiced the people’s confession in prayer to Yahweh, followed by the weeping of the people. Within a year, a purified community was present in Jerusalem (Klein 1992: 739).

With the assassination of multiple kings in different kingdoms leading up to this point in time, the position of cup-bearer was an extremely impressive title held by the next Hebrew hero of mention, Nehemiah, also under Artaxerses. Xenophon describes the cup-bearer as a wine taster, tasting the wine of the king in case of poison (Yamauchi 1996: 259). As such, Nehemiah would have been a very close companion to the king. According to Nehemiah, after hearing of the dilapidated state of the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah was noticeably disturbed, to which Artaxerses both asked the reason why and then sent Nehemiah to correct the issue (Russel 2012).

About seventy years after the dedication of the temple, Nehemiah became governor of the province. Unfortunately, he was met by opposition from Sandballat the Samaritan, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab, names of which are confirmed by extra-biblical sources (Yamauchi 2004: 119). Opposition from these came because of the question of authority. Satraps in the area are known to had been in opposition to each other, so the new governor of Yehud would also meet the same (Yamauchi 1996: 266).

It had now been almost a century and a half since the walls of Jerusalem had stood (Yamauchi 1996: 270), and the rebuilding of these were of primary importance to Nehemiah and probably to the Persian king as well, needing the city to be fortified against rebels to the Persian Empire. Even with opposition, the walls were built in fifty-two days (Sivan 2012). Following this effort, Jerusalem came under Temple rule, including the keeping of the Sabbath and the Law.

In the end, the Persian influence upon the Jews was a positive one, from returning to their homeland to the rebuilding of the Temple and the wall, Yehud grew and prospered. Indeed, Egyptian Jews looked to Jerusalem for advice, and numismatic evidence points to a kind of autonomy, under Persia rule but Temple law (Sivan 2012).

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2004 Persians. Peoples of the Old Testament World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Young, T. C.

1988 The Early History of the Medes and the Persians and the Achaemenid Empire to the Death of Cambyses. The Cambridge Ancient History 4:1-52.

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