The Post-exilic period of the Old Testament – The Persian period (Nehemiah 7)

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The post-exilic period, which covers over 500 years, can be conveniently divided into five periods: Persian, Greek, Hasmonean, Roman and Herodian.

In 539-538 B.C. Cyrus the Persian defeated the Babylonians and reversed the policy of depopulating areas and scattering people into foreign lands. Almost immediately thereafter he allowed the exiled Israelites to return to their homeland under the leadership of Sheshbazzar (cf. Ezra 1-2, 5:13-16, Nehemiah 7). The Cyrus Cylinder provides important extra-biblical confirmation.

Many Jews opted to remain in the lands to which they had been exiled, though maintaining their religious and ethnic identity. This phenomenon, known as the dispersion of the Jews, had become an irreversible social reality. However, the Old Testament exilic and post-exilic narratives, with the exception of the book of Esther, focus on the challenges and crises facing the returnees.

The first challenge was the rebuilding of the temple in the face of external opposition (Ezra 4:1-5, 24, 5:1-6:18) and internal neglect (Haggai 1:2-11). Its restoration was a prerequisite for the reinstatement of God’s presence and blessings, and a strong priesthood was necessary to reinstitute local worship according to prescribed norms (Haggai 2:11-19, Zechariah 3). Stirred into action by the prophets Haggai and Zecharaiah, and with Persian sponsorship, the Persian-appointed governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua successfully completed the project, dedicating the temple in 516/515 B.C. (cf. Ezra 6:15-16).

Another challenge was the threat of assimilation and idolatry (Ezra 9). With Persian endorsement Ezra returned to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. (Ezra 7:6-10). He confronted the people, led them in confession of their unfaithfulness to God (Ezra 10) and later fulfilled his commission to teach the Book of the Law of Moses to the people (Nehemiah 8-9).

A third significant challenge was the fortification of Jerusalem. In 445 B.C. Nehemiah, royal cupbearer to the Persian monarch, appealed to Artaxerxes I on Jerusalem’s behalf. Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah governor of Judea, funded his return to Jerusalem and provided building materials (2:1-9, 5:14). Despite considerable opposition, Nehemiah and the returnees succeeded in their mission (6:15).

The dedication of the wall was accompanied by extensive reading from the law and a call for covenant renewal. This period of revival was apparently short-lived, however. When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, perhaps in 433/432 B.C., he discovered that the priests and people alike had become negligent in their worship.

The Persian kings’ endosement and support of religious activity in “Yehud” (Judea) is consistent with their interest in temple communities in Babylonia, Syria, Asia Minor, Armenia, Phoenicia and elsewhere:

  • Temples served as regional power centres and helped maintain civil obedience and political loyalty. It is hardly coincidental that the Persians authorized the second temple’s completion shortly after their subjugation of Egypt in 526-525 B.C. They willingly commissioned Ezra and Nehemiah a few years after quelling Egypt’s revolt in 460 B.C. The Egyptian threat to the south highlighted Persia’s reliance upon a productive and loyal “Yehud”.
  • Priestly governmental systems were less threatening to Persian kings than were local monarchies. Judea was ruled by borth a high priest and a governor (cf. Haggai 1:1, 14, Zechariah 4), and the balance of power between the two fluctuated throughout the post-exilic period. Nehemiah played a crucial role as governor in the mid-fifth century B.C., yet i Judea overall this period saw an increasing role of the priesthood and a decreasing role of the Davidic royal family. By the end of the Persian period (ca. 330 B.C.) the priests had risen to a prominent position.
  • The Persians hoped to curry the favour and support of local deities and their priestly servants, who might intercede for the prosperity of the empire (cf. Ezra 6:9-10, 7:23).
  • Religious endorsement was essential to the legitimization of Persian rule in the eyes of various peoples. The Persians were so successful in this that in Babylonia their rule was not regarded as foreign domination.

Israel’s leaders and prophets recognized the constraints of their situation under Persian rule but welcomed Persian support to carry out God’s commands in their homeland. Nevertheless, they consistently testified that God was the source of all blessing and success (Ezra 1:1, 7:6, Nehemiah 2:8, 20) and continued to look forward to a day when the Davidic branch would take root and all peoples would flock to Mount Zion to seek the Lord of hosts (Zechariah 3:8-10, 8:20-23).


 

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