Return and Restoration Under the Persians
For we are bondmen; yet our God has not forsaken us in our bondage, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem. (Ezra 9:9)
When Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid ruler of Persia, conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, the Persians succeeded the Babylonians as the major imperial power of the Near East. In contrast to their Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors, the Achaemenid Persians presented themselves to their subject states as a benevolent power concerned not just with garnering taxes but also with maintaining peace and order throughout the empire. The territories formerly administered by the Assyrians and Babylonians were reorganized into a system of satrapies and provinces; local governments were strengthened; roads and systems of communication were developed; and—most important for the Jews—displaced and exiled peoples were encouraged to return to their ancestral homelands and to reestablish local religious and political institutions in order to play supportive roles in this new concept of empire.
Cyrus’s Decree Permitting the Exiles’ Return
This is the political background of the decree of Cyrus preserved in 2 Chronicles 36:23 and Ezra 1:2–4:
Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The Lord, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people—may His God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the House of the Lord God of Israel—He is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods, and with beasts besides freewill offering(s) for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2–4)
Although the text of this decree is preserved only in the Bible, it is not dissimilar in spirit and style to an edict of Cyrus known as the Cyrus Cylinder. In this document, Cyrus credits his accomplishments to the Babylonian deity Marduk for the benefit of his Babylonian subjects, just as in the Bible he is said to have acknowledged the assistance of Yahweh; his policy of rebuilding ruined sanctuaries and resettling dispersed populations is also reflected in the Cyrus Cylinder:
To the cities of Ashur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the cities of Zamban, Metuma, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the holy cities beyond the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been in ruins over a long period, the gods whose abode is in the midst of them, I returned to their places and housed in lasting abodes. I gathered together all their inhabitants and restored to their dwellings.
The exiled Jewish community of Babylonia greeted Cyrus as a liberator and saw his work as fulfilling a divine purpose in national redemption:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the Lord, who made all things, who stretched out the heavens alone …” who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose”; saying of Jerusalem, “She shall be built,” and of the Temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.” (Isaiah 44:24, 28)
But the task of national reconstruction was not without difficulties. The returning exiles found that their hopes conflicted with the new territorial hegemonies that had come into being during their absence—most particularly Samaria, which aspired to exercise control over the Judahite territory.