Thursday, October 15, 2009

4) Cyrus vis-a-vis the Jews in Babylon

Whether the above words of Prophet Isaiah were prophetically written before the event, or afterwards with hindsight, is still disputed amongst scholars6. The fact remains that the mightiest empire in the Near & Mid East, Babylon, ceased to exist. Its surrender marked the beginning of a new era, led by Medo-Persia, the second of the four world empires, visualized by Prophet Daniel. Incidentally, it fell upon the latter to negotiate this transition which turned out to be a watershed in history. The initial talks he had with Gobryas, the commander of the Persian army; and then, after Sukkoth of that year, the decisive conversation with Cyrus himself.

We may assume that Daniel who certainly had attached Babylonian notables to the negotiating team, brought then to Cyrus' attention also the peculiarity and the fate of the Jewish captives in Babel. Yet, like Gobryas, it must have been breathtaking also for him to see surrendering Babylon being represented by one of her captives, Daniel, who was catapulted "by the circumstances" into the position of acting governor. Cyrus, by nature and education a devoted man, must have seen God's hand in these circumstances. In addition, Daniel's personality must have made its impression on him, too. On the other hand, also Daniel and the Elders of the Jewish community must have been overwhelmed both by Cyrus' personality and by the way things had worked out so far.

In this context, it seems appropriate to reflect somewhat on the situation.

In his message to the people of Babylonia, Cyrus had introduced himself with the words: "I am Cyrus, the King of Kings, the King of Babylon, the King of Sumer and Akkad...". He, originally the King of Anshan, had by taking over Media and other Persian countries united their kingdoms in his person. Now the crown of Babel had also fallen unto him, and he had become the bearer of two crowns, namely the crowns of Media/Persia, and of Babylon. This is reflected also in our Scriptures which refer to him as "King of Persia" as well as of "King of Babylon"7.

Along with Babylon, her Jewish captives including descendants of their royal family, were now in his hands, too. Should he adopt also the title "King of Judah"? The stories he had heard about King David and King Solomon, and about the falls of the Kingdoms of Israel and of Judah, had been tales so far. Even Gobryas' brief and military precise report about Babylon's surrender offered by a Jew named Daniel had not changed this picture dramatically. True, it was startling, but in war all kind of odd situations can arise. But now, in the first personal encounter with Daniel and other Jewish Elders, those stories became enlivened, and the fate of the Jewish captives gained another perspective. From the highest glory under David and Solomon the people had fallen into the deepest abyss. They had collapsed morally and militarily under the constant pressure of mighty and cruel enemies, most of them now subdued by him, Cyrus. And now, he found himself vis-a-vis Daniel.

These Jews, although held captive already for several decades, displayed a character and an attitude towards life quite different from that of other peoples.

Also the Temple vessels recovered so far and shown to him could not be compared to those of other sanctuaries. One of the hallmarks was that there were no figurines amongst them. What is more, didn't the events following the misuse of Temple vessels at Belshazzar's banquet speak volumes? As incredible as the story thereabout may sound to remote listeners, he himself was now discussing terms with Daniel, the hero of that story, a man, not a phantom. A man who represented not only his own people but now even that people which had defeated his people, and taken it into captivity. No doubt, an almighty, invisible force was directing events.

Then, among the recovered Temple vessels, there were also quite a number of metal sheets which looked very ordinary, not at all like something characteristic of a sanctuary. On his enquiry, he was told that these sheets which had once covered the altar, were made from the censers of Korah and his company: they were meant to be a sign unto the Children of Israel8 to remind them of the dire consequences of rebelling against God's ordinances and of discarding the Promised Land. That sounded a bit odd, but the deeper he thought of it the more it struck him.

There were also other thoughts. The Jewish prophets professed One God and Creator of all, and likewise did Zarathustra. He was acquainted with the latter one's instructions but what about the similar tenets of One God held by the Jews? Could it be that this One Source of All Life has messengers in different peoples and at different times? Why not? If they be true messengers, they could not contradict one the other. Their moral principles must harmonize, and the ritual practices should be supportive of them even if they differ. Why should, then, Israel's special call, stressed by their prophets, contradict or undo Zarathustra's general teaching; or vice versa? Indeed, if he would allow the Jews to return into their country, as he had allowed other dispersed peoples to return, than that should be not only an act of compassion and human justice: beyond that, it should further the cause of their prophets for the sake of the benefit of mankind altogether in the blessing of the Divine. Consequently, a mere return of the Jewish captives to their home country would not do. They should be allowed, even be encouraged and supported actively, to rebuild the Temple as an indispensable part of their service ordained from on High. Wouldn't such an active support be beneficial for the newly established, not yet consolidated Medo-Persian Empire, and on top, be the climax of being Achaemenian indeed?

This work would have to be protected, too. Hostile elements both inside and outside the empire did not cease to exist with Babel's surrender. Although most of the peoples had welcomed him as a true liberator, there were still all kind of antagonistic forces unwilling to cope with the rule of the Persians and with the new order - the Achaemenian principles - he tried to establish. There were certainly forces coveting the throne, and there were also those who opposed8a Zarathustra's teaching, and even more so the Jews and what they stand for. Everything had to be done carefully, with wisdom. Granting the Jews too many rights at this stage, as e.g. restoring the whole country of Israel, or letting them install a scion from the line of David as king, would certainly trigger revolts right away. That would be in no one's interest.

There was also Egypt, still a force to be reckoned with. Throughout history, the ruling powers coveted that part of the world where Israel has her country. Located at the hub of the three Continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe; and at the seem between desert and urbanized land, its economic and strategic importance is of the highest rank, and controlling it is considered imperative by the ruling powers. And who knows, isn't there a special blessing upon that land, as evidenced by the Davidic monarchy which had lasted for four hundred years?

Since that area is now controlled not by Assur nor by Babylon but by Persia, a conflict with mighty Egypt might be in the offing. If Judea would be made an independent kingdom, small as it is, it might be too tempting for Egypt to wrest it from Persia. But if it is made an integral part of the latter, they might think twice to attack it. Also, who knows, whether a Judean king might side with Egypt, similar to King Josia's wrong and fatal judgment of the situation?

On the other hand, not granting the Jews at that stage to install a king of theirs, could not mean that he would be entitled to take their crown upon himself. Cyrus, King of Kings, and now also King of Babel, must have realized that no other nation, people, or creed, could ever inherit or usurp Israel's special position among mankind, irrespective of merits and achievements. Even as a redeemer, Messiah, and world ruler, he felt subdued to the Divine ordinances. The question whether he should adapt the title "King of Judah" had found its answer - he stayed away from doing so.

Considerations like these might have come up in Cyrus' mind after his first encounter with Daniel, furnishing the background for the working session in which the details for the liberation of the Jewish captives would have to be hammered out.

Most likely also the Jewish Elders had prepared themselves for a meeting with Cyrus. Would he be willing to listen to them? True, he had liberated and resettled other displaced peoples, and had even allowed them to rebuild their respective sanctuaries so that they would not have the feeling of being defeated and humiliated. Would he be willing to recognize and declare Jerusalem and its Temple as ordained from the One Creator of All? And not put it on par with those pagan sanctuaries? Would he be willing not only to allow the exiles to return but even to call upon them to do so; and, on top, encourage their return into their devastated land by offering them a helping hand? Like a shepherd providing for the flock? Had not Prophet Isaiah, pointedly indeed, spoken about Cyrus as the Lord's shepherd who would do His Will? What about Jeremiah's verdict that the land shall have its Shabbath for 70 years of which not yet 50 years had past since the destruction of the Temple? Would the present Cyrus be the one who was meant to terminate these ordained years of exile, or would that be the task of another Cyrus who would succeed the present one? Could the question of the exiled ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom be brought before him? Was he the right address for that? Prophet Ezekiel, himself a captive in Babylon, foresaw that "the tree of Joseph... shall be put with the tree of Judah... and (they) shall be made one tree" (Ezek. 37:19). The splitting of that tree into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah was an internal affair, and Cyrus could hardly be expected to solve this problem. But perhaps he could facilitate the beginning of a solution by formulating the hoped for edict of liberation in a way which would allow the return of those Israelites who feel still attracted to Jerusalem and the Temple there? Granted his positive response, he would indeed be the Messiah figure spoken of by Prophet Isaiah. If so, would he then be ready to accept the anointment as Messiah also ritually by the hands of a prophet in Jerusalem in order to respond to the Law? Not, of course, in its ruins, and not by the hands of the exiles who probably all of them have been defiled and contaminated by all kind of impurities in Babel/Babylon. That means to say, first of all the altar would have to be rebuild, and the ashes of the red heifer hidden away before Nebukadnezzar's onslaught, would have to be recovered for the prescribed purification and for the beginning of the new life in the spirit of the Divine. Given the facts on the ground, such a scenario was hardly feasible, even if Cyrus would understand these requests, and concede to them.

Instead, perhaps Hazael’s anointment as King over Syria by Prophet Elisha on the Lord’s command could serve as an example (1.Kings 19:15)? Or would the anointment by the Lord God of heavens and earth suffice, without a prophet administering it - perhaps to some degree comparable to the case of King Saul?

Whatever the case might be, we have before us a striking change of picture in that melodrama of recent history: Nebukadnezzar who saw himself as the head of the nations, had in one sweeping campaign rooted Israel's arch enemies, the Philistines; slew Egypt; and destroyed Jerusalem. In this inadvertent acting of his as God's key player, Prophet Jeremiah pointed him out as "servant of the Lord"9 -- and now, within a few decades, Babylon, the glory of the kingdoms and the beauty of the Chaldeans, was sacked by the Medo-Persians, as predicted by Prophet Isaiah10. The victorious king of the latter was now also King of Babylon and, what is more, he restored the Jews in their country acting truly as Messiah and Shepherd of the Lord.

While no information whatsoever about a working session dealing with the questions involved came down to us, we can be sure that it took place; for it is evidenced by two historic facts: the famous edict of King Cyrus; and in line therewith the beginning of the re-construction of the House which became known as the Second Temple. We can find support for this conclusion in Ezra 1:1 where we read:

"In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia... the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus ... that he made a proclamation..." - namely the proclamation, or edict, about the freeing of the Jewish captives, and the building of the House of the Lord in Jerusalem. Most likely, the term "the Lord stirred up" means to say that the spirit of Cyrus who was called upon by the Lord from his early youth11, was now stirred up (העיר, lit. awakened, aroused) by the meeting with the Jewish Elders and prophet(s), as well as by the confrontation with the Temple vessels and what they conveyed.

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