Thursday, October 15, 2009

G) More reflections on Cyrus' personality and politics

After the conquest of Babel, no other offensive wars are recorded during Cyrus' reign. We may say that the conquest of Babel, complemented with the liberation of the Jewish captives and the support for the rebuilding of the Temple crowned his mission. Henceforth he dedicated himself to the consolidation of his huge empire, and to the education of his people and his successors (they were Cambysos, his son; and Darius the Great). Education was considered important like life itself1. Working for the good of the whole was conceived as the highest spiritual value. For this end, mainly for the young, special games were introduced which were geared to evoke in them, besides bravery, the virtues of justice, righteousness, benevolence, and sympathy with the oppressed – and with the looser in the game.

Besides the reports of ancient historians, an archaeological find dating back to Darius I, may document this attitude. In the wall relief of Persepolis, the capital of ancient Persia, the fine faces of the Persian soldiers and peoples contrast remarkably those of Assyrian and Babylonian reliefes. Even if they have been idealized, they show the difference of the Persian ideals from those of the Babylonians or Assyrians.

One of the many episodes illustrating Cyrus' character and attitude towards his subjects, reported by Xenophon, is worthwhile to be mentioned here. After the conquest of Babel, some of his officers proposed to move down into its fertile plains and valleys, and make a better living there. Cyrus answered, since it were them who fought the battles and gained the victory, it is perfectly alright that they decide about their future. However, he bade them consider that leaving the high plateau of Iran and moving down into the plains would mean to give up its commanding position, and would within a few generations bring upon their descendants the fate of Babel, namely to be conquered by those who would then live on the plateau. The officers realized their shortsightedness, and kept their dwelling places in Iran.

In 530 Cyrus fell in battle against the Massagetae (mentioned above), an extremely wild and brutal people who had invaded at the north-east of his empire. He had laid its foundation, spiritually and politically, and he defended it; but it was then Darius I, known as the Great, who led it to its climax.

Contemporary as well as later historians (Herodot, Xenophon2, Strabo, etc) praise him in every respect. Besides his unique birth and youth and the good influence of his uncle Hystaspes (Vishtaspa) upon him, they stress his skills as warrior and his exceeding competence as statesman besides his noble character which guided him to the liberation and repatriation of many peoples who were deported by the Assyrians, Babylonians, or other conquerers3.

Looking at the whole scenery of that age, we may say that Cyrus introduced a new kind of politics altogether. He recognized Man's dignity as a value in itself irrespective of ethnical or religious deportments; and made it a task of his empire to provide for it. The original idea of his ancestor Achaemenes, to reign as "Friend of Men", was now practiced not only in view of the own tribe; it became the core idea of his empire. Cyrus became truly the "king of the four quarters of the world", as a local priest had described him after the conquest of Babylonia.

However, we would be mistaken to see in Cyrus only an early representative of mere humanism or humanitarianism. Deeply devoted to his own religion, he observed the prescribed rituals, including the offerings of the sacrifices. What is more, he believed firmly in the Day of Judgment, the immortality of the soul, and life after death4. In any case, Cyrus contrasted sharply the cruelty and suppression which had characterized the period before him and, unfortunately, also many periods after him. In oriental fashion, some records about him may be exaggerated but the fact remains that he was welcomed and praised by the peoples and by historians. Even the Greeks, his enemies, had words of praises for him: They compared Darius the Great to a tradesman, and Cyrus to a father.

One of Cyrus' hallmarks, quite in line with his stance, was not to interfere with the religious affairs of his different subjects5. Although he was deeply devoted to his own religion, he stressed that he was called by their respective gods to care for righteousness and justice. Apparently this seemed to him more important than theological disputes.

Was he then a polytheist, seeing the God of Israel as one amongst many gods? Should the Lord God of Israel have taken advantage of a Gentile's polytheism to provide for the building of the Second Temple, and on top, call such a polytheist his shepherd and his Messiah?

As we saw already, Zarathustra's monotheistic teaching most likely influenced Cyrus. What is more, the Jewish sages acknowledge that a Gentile who puts the values of human life and humaneness on top of his priorities has in fact renounced idolatry, and by doing so is deemed equal to those who accept the entire Torah6. This principle was surely applied in regard of the Achaemenian kings. Quite in accordance therewith, the Prophets and sages of then were apparently not at all at unease to accept Cyrus' financial aid for building the Temple, as well as the free will offerings of the Persians suggested by him, by Artaxerxes, and by Darius. Obviously, they did not see in these kings and their subjects idolaters of whose hands it would have been forbidden to accept any contribution for the Temple and its building. Rather Prophet Maleachi, basing on Ps. 113:3, set the probity of their worship and incense burning as an example, and as acceptable to the Lord God of Israel who is the Omnipresent behind the different forms of appearance. These are his words7:

"...from the rise of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place there is incense burning unto my name, even pure sacrifices; for great is my name among the nations, says the Lord of Hosts".

In line therewith, the Jewish concept of the "Seven Laws of Noah" by which the nations ought to abide, admits that the nations develop their own religions provided they don't impugn the authority of the one Creator and his Law. Cyrus, along with Yethro the father-in-law of Moses, and Hiram King of Tyre, may have served as a model figure for developing the concept of these Seven Laws. However, Cyrus surpassed their friendly attitudes insofar as he, as the ruler of a world empire, gave out of his inner convictions a helping hand to the Jewish people when they were in their deepest abyss so far.

Prophet Isaiah, in view of him, puts this in the following words8:

"Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, They question me about my children, and concerning the work of my hands they command me? I made the earth, and created man upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens; and I commanded all their hosts. I have aroused him in righteousness, and all his ways will I make straight: he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price not for reward", saith the Lord of Hosts".

Obviously, Cyrus, inspired by the Divine spirit, acted in awe, fairness and wisdom. He must have recognized that the task of true government is to provide cover for, and secure the rights of, the week9; and that the task of true religion is to prevail over tohu va'bohu; to serve the Divine in truth and joy; and thereby to establish peace on earth. In this train of thought he must have been aware that he as a human being, even as a king, could not force monotheism upon others if they were not ready for it. The Lord God of Israel wants to make known his name not through the decree of a government but through his ways with his people10. Cyrus acted in this spirit already before he took Babel, i.e. before he met with Daniel and/or other Jewish sages there, but the latter may have confirmed him in this attitude of his.

In this context we should note that the Persian Empire founded by this scion of the Achaemenians, was the first world empire in human history which did not rule through fear and terror, nor by oppressing, deporting, or uprooting conquered peoples, but rather by trying to establish a commonwealth in the true meaning of that word. In this attitude it was, not surprisingly, friendly also with the Jewish people and its vocation, so far not emulated by any other empire, nation, or religion. After having set an example, however, it declined soon, and some of its later kings resorted to fierceness and the politics of iron fist.

Apparently the Persian Empire had, foremost through its Kings Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Darius, fulfilled its Divine mission in view of the restoration of the Second Temple. In his article "The servant of the Lord and Cyrus", Mr. Laato Anti11 observed:

> Cyrus raised by the Lord from the east

(Is. 41:2,25; 45:13f; cf also 46:12);

> Cyrus called by name by the Lord

(Is. 41:2,25; 45:3,4; 46:11; 48:15);

> The Lord subjugates nations under Cyrus' power

(Is. 41:2,25; 45:1-3);

> Cyrus will do the Lord's pleasure (by subduing Babylonia, releasing Israel, and providing for the Temple)

(Is. 44:28; 46:10; 48:14);

> Cyrus is called and supported by the Lord on behalf of Israel (Is. 44;24-26; 45:3-4; 45:9-10; 48:12);

> The vanity of idols (Is. 41:6,7,21-29; etc) is often stressed in connection with Cyrus' proclamation, apparently in order to emphasize that it is the Lord, not other gods, who governs the history of the world;

> likewise the creation theme in Is. 41:4; 44:24-28; 45:7,12; 48:13; emphasizes that it is the Creator of the world who is also its mighty governor.

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