{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Return From Exile

Nabonidus had not proved popular, and the expediency of appointing Belshazzar as co-regent had not helped matters. The Neo-Babylonian Empire might have struggled along for decades, or even centuries, were it not for the fact that an energetic young ruler from the Persian province of Anshan had dreams of conquest. Cyrus had incorporated Media into his own Persian domains and marched northward into Asia Minor. The Lydian Empire, ruled by the famously rich Croesus, was subdued, and it was obvious that Cyrus would soon turn back toward Babylon in his quest for even wider territorial expansion.

The Babylonian governor of Elam (Gutium) had deserted to Cyrus. The loss to Nadonidus was great. Elam was a large and influential province, and its governor, Gobryas, was an able general. Gobryas was soon leading sorties against Babylonia.

The religious innovations of Nadonidus had alienated him from many of his own people. Concern for foreign shrines, coupled with the neglect of the religious demands of his office, caused many of his own people to wish to be rid of him. He seems to have reinstituted the New Year Festival in April, 539 B.C., but it was too late by that time to reverse the trend which led to the downfall of his dynasty.1

By the summer of 539 B.C. the Persian armies were ready to attack Babylon. Nabonidus, sensing the situation, brought the gods of the outlying regions into his capital, trusting that they would aid him in his time of need! This only antagonized those whose gods were taken away and brought further resentment to the priests of Babylon.

The decisive battle was fought at Opis, on the Tigris River. The Babylonian forces were crushed and rendered incapable - psychologically as well as militarily - for further resistance. Babylon itself fell in October, 539. Belshazzar was killed and Nabonidus, who had fled, was subsequently imprisoned.

The impregnable walls of Babylon were of no help to Nabonidus, for his capital city surrendered without a fight. Gobryas, the governor of Gutium, is probably to be identified with the Biblical "Darius the Mede" who led the Persian tropps into Babylon (Daniel 5:30).

When Cyrus personally entered Babylon he was welcomed by the populace. He proclaimed peace to everyone in the city. The temples functioned as usual and care was taken to make the transition to Persian rule as painless as possible. Gobryas was made satrap of the new province of Babirush (i.e., Babylon) and many of the former officials of government were kept at their posts. A citizen of Babyon would have been unaware of the fact that a new era of history had begun.

One aspect of the new policy of Cyrus had important bearings on subsequent Biblical history. Nabonidus had antagonized the Babylonian priesthood by bringing into the city the gods of other regions. Cyrus made it a point to return these captive gods, with due reverence, to their former shrines. This directly affected the Jews for, although there were no images of their God in Babylon, vessels from His Temple in Jerusalem had been taken by Nebuchadnezzar.

During the first year of his reign in Babylon, Cyrus issued a decree authorizing the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and the restoration of the gold and silver vessels which were in Babylon. The expense of the project was to be met from the royal treasury (Ezra 6:3-5). To accomplish this it was necessary to permit such Jews as wished to do so, to return to their ancestral homeland and rebuild the city of Jerusalem. There was no thought that Jews would be required tpo leave Babylon, or other parts of the Persian Empire. As a matter of fact only a small remnant had any desire to return. It was that remnant, however, which made possible subsequent Palestinian Jewish history.

The return of the sacred vessels and the leadership of the band of Jews who chose to return to Jerusalem was entrusted to a Jewish noble, or "prince of Judah" named Shesh-bazzar. The name appears as Sanabassar in I Esdras and Josephus and probably was the Babylonian name Sin-ab-usur. It is possible that Shenazzar (I Chronicles 3:18), a son of Jehoiachin, is the same person as Shesh-bazzar, the "prince of Judah" (Ezra 1:8).

The relationship between Shesh-bazzar and Zerubbabel is enigmatic. Many scholars suggest that they are different names for the same individual. In Ezra 5:14, however, Shesh-bazzar is mentioned as though he were dead ("one whose name was Shesh-bazzar") although Zerubbabel was clearly alive at the time. It may be that Shesh-bazzar died soon after the return to Jerusalem and Zerubbabel became his successor. Zerubbabel, a name meaning "seed of Babylon," i.e., "begotten in Babylon," was the son of Shealtiel (Ezra 3:2), hence the grandson of Jehoiachin (I Chronicles 3:17). If Shesh-bazzar was a son of Jehoiachin, then he was uncle to Zerubbabel.

The first group of Jews to trek back to their homeland numbered close to 50,000. There were 42,360 free citizens, 7,337 slaves, and 200 Temple singers (Ezra 2:64-65). It was doubtless an enthusiastic group that journeyed back to Jerusalem a half century after its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar's army. These pilgrims would eagerly anticipate the fulfillment of prophesies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and see, in the return to Judah, a new beginning for their people.

The first responsibility of the returnees was the erection of a sanctuary and the renewal of the Levitical worship which had been held in abeyance since the destruction of the first Temple. An altar was first erected, and daily burnt offerings were made under the direction of Jeshua (or Joshua), the High Priest. Jeshua was the grandson of Seraiah who had served as the last High Priest before the destruction of the Temple in 587 B.C.

However enthusiastic the first group of pilgrims returning to Zion may have been, there is no question that they soon foudn reason for discouragement. The country was desolate, and squatters from among the Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, and Samaritans had profited by the adsence of the Jews by occupying the Judaean countryside. The Samaritans, in particular, were openly hostile.

Shortly after the commencement of corporate life around the rebuilt altar, the Jews had an important decision to make. A group of Samaritans approached Zerubbabel with the suggestion, "Let us build with you; for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Syria who brought us here" (Ezra 4:2). The leaders of Israel were unwilling to form such a co-operative venture. Samaritan worship was syncretistic in the eyes of the Jews. The Samaritan had merely added the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, to the gods they had brough with them when they entered the land (II Kings 17:29-34). The Jewish leaders declined the Samaritan offer for assistance, noting that Cyrus had given to them the responsibility for rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 4:3). The Exile had been a bitter experience, and pious Jews were persuaded that the idolatry of their fathers had brought it about. They were determined that the post-exilic nation would be uncorrupted by heathen practices.

As might be expected, the Samaritans were hostile following this rebuff. They used every means at their command to frustrate the Jews in their efforts to rebuild the Temple, and were successful in delaying the completion of the work until the reign of Darius (Ezra 4:5).

Shortly after Cyrus conquered Babylon he installed his son, Cambyses, as governor of Babirush (Babylonia), thus preparing him for the day when he would succeed his father to the throne of the empire. Cyrus was killed during a military campaign in 528 B.C. and Cambyses took the throne. Under Cambyses, Egypt was incorporated into the Persian Empire and Egyptian autonomy came to an end. The Jews would look with favor on such a move for the Persians had treated them well. Cyrus may have seen the wisdom of having a freindly state on the border of Egypt at the time he issued his decree permitting Jews to return to their homeland. The Nabataean Arabs supplied the troops of Cambyses with water in the desert regions which separate Judah from Egypt.

In 522 B.C. Cambyses died. He was on his way home from Egypt when he received word that a usurper had seized the throne and was recognized as king by the eastern provinces of the empire. It is thought that Cambyses took his own life, but the circumstances are obscure. An officer of Cambyses, himself of royal blood, claimed the throne as Cambyses' successor, marched against Gaumata, the usurper, and executed him. A period of rebellion ensued, and all parts of the empire were affected. For two years Darius had to quell opposition in Babylon, Asia Minor, Egypt, and his eastern provinces - Media, Elam, Parsa, and Iran.

Where was Judah at this time? Its Temple had not been completed, but it is certain that the international upheavals spurred the people on to renewed activity. Could the Messianic Age, long hoped for, be at hand? Judah was but a part of the friendly Persian Empire, but she did have hopes of a day when a Davidic king would rule from a rebuilt Jerusalem.

Such hopes were particularly stressed by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Through their exhortations the leaders determined to take up the task of building the Temple which had been neglected because the people felt the time inopportune (Haggai 1:2; Ezra 5:1-2). The prophets pleaded for a purified Israel, separate from all heathen associations (cf. Haggai 2:10-14). To a purified nation, the "Branch" of David's line would appear (Zechariah 3:8).

To what extent could such hopes be considered treason in the Persian court? The Samaritans would surely twist them to imply a plot on the part of the Jews to start an insurrection. Tattenai, the satrap of Abar-nahara, the satrapy which included Palestine and Syria, felt called upon to investigate the building operations of the Jews (Ezra 5:3-5). The Jews told him of the decree of Cyrus, and Tattenai sent to the Persian court to check their claims. In the state archives at Ecbatana, Darius found the decree of Cyrus, whereupon he ordered Tattenai to expedite the work of the Jews and meet the cost of their work from the royal treasury (Ezra 6:6-12).

The work went forward until March, 515 B.C., when the second Temple was dedicated amid scenes of great rejoicing (Ezra 6:13-18). The new Temple was small in comparison with that built by Solomon. Israel was no longer a prosperous, sovereign state with kings who received tribute from distant lands. Instead it was a part of the Persian Empire, paying tribute to gentile kings. Nevertheless the second Temple was to become a rallying point for Post-Exilic Israel.

Zerubbabel quietly, if not mysteriously, passes from the scene. Some thing the Persians feared his political goals and removed him as a potential rebel. We do know that the Persians chose to rule the Jews through their High Priests - Jeshua and his successors. Perhaps they heard of the Messianic hopes of the Jews and felt that it would be safer to work through the priests than through secular princes who traced their lineage to David.

Ezekiel and the Exiles < | Return From Exile | > Ezra the Scribe

{Old Testament History}

1Cf. the Nabonidus Chronicle, iii, reverse. Translated by A. Leo Oppenheim in Ancient Near Eastern Texts (J. Prichard, ed.), p. 306.