Thursday, October 15, 2009

N) The Jewish community vis-a-vis Persia

1) A Jewish king during the period of the Second Temple?

We had already a brief look into that question when pondering about Cyrus' assumed reflections on the subject.

We may ask whether Daniel and/or the Jewish Elders brought the question of installing a king from the line of David at all before Cyrus and Cambysos when they negotiated the details of the release of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity? Did Cyrus reject out of hand such a possibility; or did he postpone it till matters would be more settled, that is, till the political and cultural situation of his empire would be conducive for doing so?

From the Scriptures we know only that he put Sheshbazzar, most likely a scion from the House of David, as the governor of the first returnees from the Babylonian exile1. It was apparently he who actually laid the foundations of the Temple2, but shortly after, perhaps due to the death of the aged Sheshbazzar, his office was given to Zerubabel, also a scion from the House of David3.

Whatever Cyrus' stance might have been in this matter, we ought certainly to look at this question also from the Jewish side. It is more than doubtful that the Prophets or Elders brought a request to install a Jewish king before the Persian kings. For, the right to decide in that matter cannot be put into the hands of a Gentile, not even into the hands of one who is called Shepherd and Messiah of the Lord. If a friendly Gentile king like Cyrus would be entitled to install a Jewish king, a hostile successor could easily claim that he is entitled to revoke, and cancel, this grant of right.

This the more so as the Medo-Persian Empire, notwithstanding the outspoken friendliness of some of its kings, was but one of the four world empires headed by Babel, as depicted in Daniel's vision mentioned above.

The issue of a Jewish king in Jerusalem was not merely hypothetical. We may assume that it was discussed in the Jewish community in connection with Zerubabel who, although being a scion from the House of David4, was given the position only of a governor5. What was the attitude of the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah, Maleachi, and of Ezra and Nehemiah, in that matter? Did they ponder this question? Did they come to the above conclusion; or did they yet bring the subject before the Persian court? The matter was in the air at least because of the enemies who accused the Jews of aspirations to put up a king of their own6.

The question of instituting a Jewish King was certainly quite delicate. As mentioned, the Persian kings adopted the title King of Kings. Interestingly enough, the Tanakh does not take it up in connection with Cyrus but speaks of him merely as of King Cyrus, Cyrus the King, Cyrus King of Persia, Cyrus King of Babel; and similar of his followers - except for Artaxerxes (more thereon see below in chapter "Some more reflections"). Perhaps the prophets and sages did not want to apply the title King of Kings to a human being. Somewhat later, however, they attributed it to the Lord God of Hosts as the Divine King over the earthly kings.

Most likely, the title King of Kings, was first employed by the Babylonians and then by the Persians. It may simply have described the accumulation of kingships. In the latter case, the kingship over Media, Persia, Babel, Egypt, etc, was in the hands of Cyrus and his successors. Here we have to take into account the possibility that the title King of Kings describes its bearer as ruler over other kings, although there is nothing definitely known that the Persian rulers left defeated kings on their respective thrones. Whatever the case, should a Jewish king be then a kinglet under the Persian King of Kings? And, should such a Jewish king be on an equal footing with other kings of the empire, presided over by the Persian King of Kings, or Emperor (perhaps comparable to King Herod and his successors under the Roman Emperors)?

In case the title King of Kings described the Persian ruler as the representative of the Divine on earth, it would have put a Jewish king under his sovereignty not only politically but spiritually as well. True, there is only one Divine Being, the Creator of all, and his prophets may ordain specific rites for his different subjects showing up as different nations, creeds, rites, etc. But the Jewish people with its very specific call cannot be subjugated to the rites given to other nations. The Gentile seer Balaam recognized this fundamental truth already much earlier by saying that Israel "shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations"7.

With all this in mind, we can somewhat easier understand the silence of the prophets of that period on the subject. It was simply not opportune to bring it to the fore. That the more so when we apprehend that neither the Persian Empire nor the Second Temple were meant to last. As mentioned, the latter would have to give way finally to the Third Temple after another long exile, and the Persian Empire was to be superceded by two other empires as outlined already in Daniel's prophecy about the four world empires8. If that be so, there was no need to insist on setting up a king already then. Indeed, the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah give us unmistakable hints to that end:

"Thus said the Lord of Hosts: once more, a little while [is it], and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, and the desire of all the nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, said the Lord of Hosts... great will be the glory of this House, the latter above the former [liter. the last more than the first], said the Lord of Hosts; and in this place will I give peace..."9.

"And there was the Lord's word a second time to Haggai in the four and twentieth day of the month [of Kislev], saying: Speak to Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, saying, I will shake the heavens and the earth; and I will overthrow the throne of the kingdoms, and I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the heathen; and I will overthrow the chariots and those that ride them; and the horses and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother. In that day, saith the Lord of Hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the Lord, and will make thee a signet; for I have chosen thee, said the Lord of Hosts"10.

In our context, we should consider the following:

* The shaking of all the nations, and their desire to come, points definitely to an event in the far future, and beyond the Persian Empire which did not comprise "all the nations" (e.g. Greece; the countries known now-a-days as Lybia and Ethiopia; Arabia; India; and many others, were outside its realm).

* The formulation "great will be the glory of this house, the last more than the first", speaks obviously of the three Temples of the House of the Lord, with the glory of the last (=Third Temple) being greater than the first (First Temple). Prophet Haggai did certainly not want to arouse vain hopes that the glory of the Second Temple would be greater than that of the First Temple, nor could he expect that "the desire of all the nations to come" would take shape during the period of the Second Temple. The latter was to be an intermediate, and preparatory, stage for the final one.

* The phrase "I will destroy the strength of the kingdoms" speaks of the latter in plural, that is, of all of them, not merely of the Persian kingdom.

* The phrase "and their riders shall come down, every one by the sword of his brother" alludes obviously to Prophet Ezekiel's similar prediction (Ezek. 38:21; also Ps. 37:14,15).

* Zerubbabel is described as the Lord's chosen, and signet, in this unfolding of events. Since these were not to occur in his days, it may well mean that the title and office of Messiah-King were reserved for a scion from his line in due time, meantime hidden away.

The whole concept is brought out clearly also by Prophet Zechariah:

"...This is the word of the Lord unto Zerubabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. Who are you, o great mountain? Before Zerubbabel [you are, or: shall become] a plain; and he shall bring forth the chief stone thereof - shoutings of Grace, Grace unto it"11.

"And they that are far off shall come and build in the temple of the Lord, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts hath sent me unto you. And this shall come to pass if you will diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God"12

In view of our subject, we should ponder the following:

* "Not by might, nor by power". When formulating this word which can surely be traced to passages in the Torah13, the Prophet may well have felt it confirmed --but not yet finally fulfilled!-- by the appearance of Cyrus who freed Israel from the Babylonian captivity without any need for Israel to take to might or power.

* "Who are you, o great mountain", in direct contrast to the preceding word "Not by might, nor by power", refers to opposing powers. Often we find in the Tanakh the word mount, or mountain, as a metaphor for teaching14. In our case, it refers to Babel, the "mother", "glory", "crown" and "golden head" of all subsequent kingdoms15 and their precepts, including that of the Medo-Persian Empire. While they were plain before Zerubabel from the start, at the end they shall visibly to all, become "plain before Zerubabel"16.

* "Grace, Grace" (Hebrew (חן חן appears in Apostle Paul's writings as a key word which would help to make "plain" in the end the destructive mountain of Babel17 , the latter being represented by the "tower with its head in heavens".

* "Before Zerubbabel (you are) a plain...". In comparison to the teaching of the Lord Creator of Heavens and Earth, i.e. the Torah from Mount Sinai, the teaching of Babel and its tower in all its different shades and versions is plain, flat. At the end, they will be recognized as such by all, "and all the mountains and all the hills shall be lowered... and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed18.

From this we may understand that the taking over of the throne by the Hasmoneans a few centuries later was not only an infringement on the dictum that the king would have to be a scion from the line of David (Zerubabel was of that line); it was also premature if seen from this angle. Inevitably, it led to a deep split within the Jewish community, with far-reaching consequences till our days.

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