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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Homeland: People and Land

Yehud (Judah) was but one subprovince in the Persian fifth satrapy (Abar Nahara), which comprised Babylon (until 482), Syria-Palestine (including the coastal Phoenician city-states), and Cyprus. Unlike the Assyrians, the Babylonians had not brought deportees from elsewhere into Palestine. But Palestine was nevertheless the home of peoples who had been displaced and whose national identity had been threatened during the unrest of the sixth century: Philistines, Judahites, Samarians (both ethnic Israelites and settlers brought in by Assyria), Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Arabs, and, growing ever more influential, the Phoenicians, who dominated the entire Levantine coastal plain.

Over the two centuries of Persian rule the already mixed Phoenician culture absorbed increasingly greater doses of Cypriot and Aegean (Greek) elements as well. Impoverished inland areas such as the mountainous region of Judah, parts of Samaria, and perhaps Transjordan, whose economic life was based on grazing and agriculture, avoided heavy Phoenicianizing and consequent hellenization far longer than areas on the coastal plain or along trade routes, where industry and commerce flourished in the international common market of the Persian period. At the beginning and for much of the Persian period, Judah was poorer, less populous, and more isolated than the surrounding territories. Besides Jerusalem, other Judean sites, especially fortress cities, bear the marks of the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar's campaigns of destruction and conquest. Many urban sites, such as Hazor, Megiddo, Tell Jemmeh, Lachish, and Ashdod, although not abandoned now supported smaller unwalled settlements, often dominated by a large administrative building variously identified as a “fortress,” “residence,” or “open-court house.” Throughout the Persian period Jerusalem occupied only the eastern hill (the Ophel, originally captured by David) and the Temple Mount.

Most of the inhabitants mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah are clustered in northern Judah and Benjamin, areas which archaeological evidence shows suffered least at the hands of the Babylonian invaders (at sites such as Tell en-Nasbeh, Gibeon, Bethel, and Tell el-Ful) and where some degree of prosperity endured. Perhaps this area surrendered early to Babylon. Likewise, farther north in Samaria archaeological surveys indicate a continuity of settlement into the Persian period with no decline in population. In particular, small groups of farmhouses found in a number of regions in the Samarian countryside, even on marginal and rocky lands, attest to a flourishing, even growing, population in the province. Beyond Samaria, Galilee became heavily Phoenician, densely settled, and prosperous during the Persian period. And crowded along the coastal plain were numerous cities of a predominantly Phoenician nature, with the associated inland plains, especially the Shephelah, densely settled.

The nature of the Persian administration of Palestine, as well as the place within that system of Samaria and Judah, are still obscure. Because Persia took over the Babylonian empire at one stroke by conquering Babylon, it is supposed that in the early years of Persian control the Babylonian provincial and subprovincial framework remained in place. The Persian administrative center nearest to Jerusalem was at Mizpah (Tell en-Nasbeh; Neh. 3.7 ), formerly the seat of the Babylonian authorities (2 Kings 25 ). Actual Persian presence in Syria-Palestine is difficult to pinpoint in the archaeological record. The Persian authorities lived in widely scattered enclaves or military strong points linked by the remarkable Persian system of communication. The best known such enclave is the “Persian residency” at Lachish. Other such sites include Tel Poleg and Shiqmona on the coastal plain, Tell el-Hesi, whose fortification system is one of the largest known mud-brick structures of the Persian period in Palestine, Ramat Rahel (Beth-haccherem) south of Jerusalem, En-gedi near the Dead Sea, and (in the Jordan Valley) Tell es-Saidiyeh and Tell Mazar.

The political designation applied by Persia to Judah and translated as “province” or “subprovince,” as well as the title governor, applied, for example, to Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, have a range of meanings. Neither term proves the autonomous status of Judah as a territory of the Persian empire or the exact hierarchical level of the Judean governor. Nevertheless, the terms are official ones in Achaemenid imperial administrative contexts. Sheshbazzar is the first in a series of governors of Yehud known variously from the Bible and from Judean seals and sealings. The cumulative evidence suggests that Yehud was an autonomous administrative unit and not part of the province of Samaria. The Neo-Babylonians did not collapse previously distinctive political territories (such as Judah and Israel [Samaria]) into new provinces, nor did they subsume one territory under the power of the authorities governing another, so it is unlikely that the Persians inherited such an unusual type of province.

The Shephelah west of the Judean hill country may have been under the control of the coastal city of Dor. Samerina (Samaria) was administered from its capital in Samaria by a series of governors belonging to the Sanballat family. Archaeological remains at sites in the Jezreel plain and southern Galilee show an orientation toward coastal Phoenician culture, but their administrative center is uncertain; perhaps Megiddo remained as the provincial capital, as it had been under the Assyrians and Babylonians. Northern Galilee may have been administered separately, from Hazor.

The capital of Idumea, south of Judah, is unknown. Idumea was settled primarily by Edomites but also perhaps by some Judeans (Neh. 11 ), the Edomites having been forced out of their ancestral territory farther east by advancing Arab tribes. Beyond Idumea, Arabs, called “Kedarites” according to inscriptions from Tell el-Maskhuta in Egypt and from ancient Dedan (modern al-‘Ula) in the north Arabian Hijaz, controlled northwest Arabia, southern Transjordan (former Edom), the Negeb and Sinai, and the coast around Gaza. The same inscriptions mention Geshem (known also from Neh. 2.19; 6.6 ) and later his son as leading the Arab federation. Herodotus reports that these Arabs were allies, not tributaries, of the Persian king. Across the Jordan, from north to south lay the provinces of Hauran, Karnaim (Bashan), Gilead, Ammon, and perhaps Moab. Excavations in Jordan suggest that in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE the land continued to be occupied and in some cases to flourish. On the coast clustered the Phoenician city-states, and the quasi-autonomous city-states or provinces of Acco, Dor, and Ashdod.

The Bible's interest is restricted essentially to Jerusalem and the Judean hill country immediately around it, about 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles). Compared to its preexilic extent, postexilic Yehud was sadly diminished. Reconstructions of the boundaries of the Persian province of Yehud have been based on a correlation between lists in Ezra-Nehemiah (Ezra 2.21–35; Neh. 3.2–22; 7.25–38; 12.28–29 ), the distribution of Judean seals and coins, and the results of archaeological surveys. All of these sources are problematic. Some towns in the biblical lists, particularly those in the Shephelah (the fertile low hills west of the Judean hill country), may not have belonged to Yehud but were instead places to which the returnees had ancestral connections. Some of the seals and coins used to determine boundaries come from the Hellenistic era, and some of the sites that had been interpreted as boundary fortifications may have been built to secure trade and communication routes rather than borders. Yehud's northern boundary matches the preexilic tribal boundary line north of Mizpah and Bethel. The east was bounded by the Jordan River, thus including Jericho and En-gedi; and the southern edge followed a line from En-gedi to the Shephelah, running north of David's first capital, Hebron (now in Edomite territory). According to Nehemiah 3, the province of Yehud was divided into five districts: Mizpah, Jerusalem, Beth-haccherem, Beth-zur, and Keilah (and some scholars add Jericho to the list). Precise district borders are disputed.

Not surprisingly, there are fewer sites in Judah in the Persian I period (539/8–ca. 450) than in Persian II (ca. 450–332). By the later period, the prosperity of the thriving eastern Mediterranean economy had begun to trickle down to Judah. The Egyptian revolt of 460 transformed Judah into a more strategically significant Persian possession, and the missions of Ezra and Nehemiah (second half of the fifth century), which were probably related to Persia's Egyptian problems, marked the province's rise in the Persians' scale of importance. Exceedingly low population figures for Judah have been arrived at by recent demographic studies, based on the number of excavated and surveyed sites occupied in the Persian period. New modes of analysis have produced a tentative estimate of 32,250 for the population of Judah in the late preexilic years. In the Persian I period the population had dramatically fallen to 10,850, one-third Judah's former size. By Persian II the number increases to 17,000.

These figures help put the biblical picture in perspective. For instance, Jerusalem's population in Persian I has been calculated at a minuscule 475 to 500, which more than trebles to a still meager 1,750 in Persian II. There was no sizable population in Jerusalem or Judah until the second century BCE. Numbers like these recall the biblical descriptions of exilic and postexilic Judah as devastated (Jer. 52.15–16; Zech. 7.7, 14 ). They also explain the concerns expressed by Zechariah (8.4–8), Nehemiah (11.1–2), and Second Zechariah (Zech. 9–14 , composed well into the Persian period) with repopulating Jerusalem and the land by means of exilic return and by divinely ordained human fruitfulness (Zech. 10.7–10 ).

A casual reading of the Bible, particularly Ezra-Nehemiah, could leave the impression that the land to which the exiles returned was utterly abandoned and depopulated. On the contrary, archaeology, common sense, and even the Bible indicate that part of the Judean population, although markedly diminished, had continued to live in Judah after the Babylonian deportations and flights of refugees to Egypt. There are a few scattered biblical allusions to Judeans who were never exiled. Jeremiah 39.10 mentions that after the destruction of Jerusalem the Babylonians gave vineyards and fields to poor Judahites. Perhaps the Jewish families assigned in Nehemiah 11 to cities south of Beth-zur (and thus technically outside the borders of Judah) had remained there during the exile.

In Ezra-Nehemiah the “empty land” is a literary theme, reflecting the interest of Jewish circles preoccupied with asserting privileged ethnic boundaries—with defining “Israel” by a policy of exclusion, particularly of nonexiles whose existence Ezra-Nehemiah often ignores. For the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah, “Israel” was restricted to the returned exiles who had established themselves in Jerusalem and Judah in the first generations of the restoration, along with (presumably) those sympathetic Jews remaining in Babylonia and Persia who provided the returned exiles with moral and financial support. Ezra and Nehemiah themselves come from the Jewish communities in Babylonia and Persia, respectively. Accordingly, in Ezra “Israel” is equated with more frequently encountered terms, such as exiles, the exile, and the congregation of exiles. To this true Israel alone belonged the land of their forebears. Nevertheless, according to Ezra 6.21 and Nehemiah 10.28 , which allude to people who have separated themselves from the “pollutions of the people of the land,” some nonexilic native Judeans—in other words, Jews technically excluded from the Israel of Ezra-Nehemiah—did receive admittance into the exclusive “exilic Israel” community.

Another significant population of local Yahweh worshipers inhabited the Persian province of Samaria and possibly southern Galilee. The Bible suggests that after the Assyrian deportation (722) only foreign immigrants populated this area (2 Kings 17; Ezra 4 ). But the Assyrians did not deport the entire Israelite population, and 2 Chronicles 34.9 implies that some urban Israelites not of the ruling class, as well as rural Israelites, remained in the land. Just as the Judean “people of the land” are viewed with contempt by Ezra-Nehemiah as impure and unworthy, so the Samarian Yahwists, led by the Samarian governor Sanballat, are presented as spiteful enemies of the true Israel, not as another group of Jews with a variant understanding of religious matters and ethnic definitions.

Both Chronicles (see 2 Chron. 30.5–11, 18; 34 ) and Zechariah convey a more conciliatory and inclusive attitude toward the inhabitants of Samaria. The brief period of a reunited monarchy under Josiah in the late seventh century BCE may have reinforced social and religious connections between north and south. Jeremiah 41.4–5 is intriguing in this regard; after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, eighty worshipers bearing the marks of deep mourning came south from Shechem, Samaria, and Shiloh to make offerings at the site of the destroyed Temple.

Aramaic letters from Elephantine also attest to Samarian Yahwism. For example, they show that Nehemiah's Samarian nemesis, Governor Sanballat, gave his sons Yahwistic names. Moreover, when the Jews of Elephantine in the late fifth century needed help rebuilding their temple, they appealed for aid to Jerusalem and Samaria alike as if both cities had some claim to their religious allegiance. And while many of the names mentioned in the Samarian Wadi ed-Daliyeh papyri (fourth century BCE) are foreign (Edomite, Aramaic, Moabite, Phoenician, and Babylonian), the largest percentage of names with divine elements is Yahwistic, confirming the notion that, among the ruling elite at least, Yahwism persisted and even flourished in the Persian period. Moreover, the Zadokite priestly family of Jerusalem and leading Samarian families were allied by diplomatic marriages (Neh. 13.28 ; Josephus, Antiquities 11.8.2). Reassessments of sectarian Samaritanism have demonstrated that its feasts, its conservatism toward the Torah, and its version of the Pentateuch indicate more derivation than deviation from Judaism of the Second Temple period.

North of Samaria the ancient Israelite territory of Galilee included prosperous coastal cities that were subject, politically and culturally, to the Phoenician powers of Tyre and Sidon. But the cultural and ethnic affinities of inland Galilee's population during the Persian period remain enigmatic. Can a Jewish (Yahweh-worshiping) population in this formerly Israelite land be assumed during the Persian period? The usual answer to this question, if even asked, has been “no.” Archaeologically, the evidence suggests that Phoenician culture dominated inland regions. Moreover, Galilee is never mentioned in biblical sources describing the Persian period, and Galilee appears to have been predominantly Gentile in sources describing it in Hellenistic times. Nevertheless, a case can be made for the existence of a significant Jewish community in Galilee during the Persian period, based partly on the evidence of deep-rooted Galilean Jewish traditions in late Hellenistic times that cannot be explained if the population had been entirely ignorant of or antagonistic to Judaism.

In addition to nonexiled Judeans, the inhabitants of Samaria, and possibly Galileans, there may have been an additional group of local Yahwists. In Nehemiah's time, a prominent family with a Yahwistic name, the Tobiads, lived across the Jordan in Ammon (Neh. 2.19 ). They intermarried with members of the Jerusalem priestly family (Neh. 6.19 ) and participated in some way in the Jerusalem Temple (Neh. 13.4–9 ). Some scholars see a connection between Nehemiah's Tobiah and the large “family of Tobiah” (Ezra 2.60; Neh. 7.62; 1 Esd. 5.37 ), which returned with Zerubbabel from exile but could not prove an Israelite pedigree. Because a Tobiah is also mentioned in (Zechariah 6.9–15) as a returned exile who participated in the symbolic crowning of Joshua, the mention of an imperfect pedigree in Ezra and Nehemiah may be a tendentious attempt, made long after the reestablishment of the Temple, to cast aspersions on a losing group in a Temple power struggle. This family continued to be important; the archaeological record supports the evidence from Josephus (Antiquities 12.4.2) and the Zeno papyri for a powerful Jewish landowning family called the Tobiads in third-century BCE Ammon.

Thus, the Palestinian (as opposed to Diaspora) “Jewish” population throughout the Persian period consisted of local, nonexiled Jews of Judah; exiled Jews who had returned to Judah; Samarians; Galileans; and at least one family in Ammon across the Jordan. These local Jewish communities maintained contacts with Jews who remained in Babylonia, Persia, and Egypt.

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