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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 Empire and the Restored Community

Many questions surround the earliest Judean restoration. Is Judah's first governor, the fatherless Sheshbazzar (ca. 538) in Ezra 6.14 (a book that downplays the role of the house of David), the same as Shenazzar, a son of Judah's captive King Jehoiachin (1 Chron. 3.18 )? His title prince merely indicates high status, not royal blood. Perhaps he was not a Judean. Sheshbazzar is also the first of several important Judean officials who vanish mysteriously from the biblical record. Was his role in the restoration suppressed for theological reasons by the editors of Ezra-Nehemiah, or did he fail in his mission to complete the Temple? The suggestion that he took part in a thwarted Judean independence movement against the Persians is likewise only a guess.

Little is known of events in Judah or Samaria in the generation after the disappearance of Sheshbazzar. Temple building came to a halt, if it had ever begun. Haggai 1 suggests that any early movement toward Temple restoration quickly ran out of steam. Considered realistically, to exiles intent on building homes and organizing a subsistence system, the fields, the “well-roofed houses,” and the wage earning described so bitterly by Haggai could well have mattered more than the Temple.

One decade after Sheshbazzar's time, Cyrus's son Cambyses (530–522 BCE) realized his father's dream of conquering Egypt. In 526 the Persian army, its ranks augmented by Greek mercenaries, invaded Egypt via northern Sinai. A Kedarite king provided camel trains bearing water skins for the desert crossing. The Persian fleet, largely Phoenician ships, penetrated the Nile mouths, and together these land and sea forces defeated the pharaoh Psammetichus III, the last king of Dynasty 26. When Egypt submitted to him in 525, Cambyses also gained Cyprus for the Persian empire. Judah and Samaria as inland territories lacked the strategic value of coastal cities like Acco, the staging area for the invasion, and were unaffected by invasion activities.

Cambyses's policies in Egypt mirrored those of his father in Babylon. Just as Cyrus added “King of Babylon” to his titulary, his son was formally crowned the first pharaoh of Dynasty 27. Like Cyrus, Cambyses presented himself as the restorer of a land suffering sad misrule, in this case, from the late usurper Pharaoh Amasis and his heir Psammeticus III. And, like his father, Cambyses was careful to cultivate good relations with important priestly establishments, although he alienated other priests by diminishing their income. In sum, the first two Persian kings set a pattern for culturally informed flexibility in ruling diverse foreign subjects.

With the reign of Darius I (522–486 BCE), Persian and Jewish history takes a new turn. Darius was probably a usurper, and he spent his first year and a half quelling rebellions on multiple fronts. To consolidate his control and to further integrate the political and social order of conquered territories into his imperial system, Darius embarked on a series of administrative reforms. He organized the empire into twenty tributary satrapies, large territorial units that included provinces usually following the former boundaries of conquered lands.

Darius did not create the satrap system, but he did bring to it a new level of systematized administrative practices. In charge of each satrapy was the satrap (Median Khshathrapan, “Protector of the Realm”), a Persian aristocrat who was the king's personal representative. The satraps were responsible for justice and security and most especially for ensuring carefully specified tribute payments. Important satrapal centers such as Memphis in Egypt and Sardis in Lydia were fortified by permanent imperial garrisons, whereas in other centers only household troops were regularly billeted. Large numbers of native Persians also received land in the satrapies; if called on, they were required to lead local recruits in battle. Like the great king, the satrap had a chancery staffed with Aramaic-speaking scribes to maintain communication with the royal court and with local authorities subject to the satrap. The provinces within individual satrapies had no uniform mode of government: sometimes they were headed by a native dynast, sometimes by a local or a Persian appointee, sometimes by a city prince or priest.

Darius also introduced imperial coinage and a postal system, and he greatly expanded the network of royal roads connecting all parts of the Persian empire. Inns along the way provided travelers on imperial business with free board and lodging. In addition to facilitating communications among the satrapies, the well-maintained roads ensured the efficient movement of troop convoys wherever they were deployed.

Darius's ambitious building projects included a short-lived Suez Canal. Its purpose may have been to enhance Red Sea trading enterprises, or, as a royal project in the pharaonic tradition, to emphasize continuity with Egypt's past and to impress Darius's subjects. The archaeological record confirms that Darius improved or built new palaces in the old royal capitals of Babylon and Susa and in Cyrus's city, Pasargadae. But most notably, Darius planned and began the construction of Persepolis in the heart of the Persian homeland, a city whose magnificence served well the ideological program that informed its creation and whose impressive remains still stand today in southern Iran.

Darius sagely kept an eye on religious matters in his empire. In Egypt the satrap, on Darius's behalf, personally confirmed and dismissed appointees to the priestly post of temple superintendent. Darius sent his Egyptian physician Udjahorresnet back to Egypt to reconstitute the old Saite temple-colleges, which taught priestly learning, ritual procedure, and medicine. Another project personally initiated by Darius and entrusted to Aryandes, satrap of Egypt, was the codification of Egyptian “laws” (probably temple endowments, privileges, and immunities) and their translation into Aramaic and Egyptian Demotic.

In 520, Darius's second year and almost twenty years since the exile had ended, two Judean prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, began a spirited campaign to convince Judean leaders and the citizenry that the time was ripe to rebuild the Temple. Haggai's first oracle (Hag. 1.1–11 ) directly challenges Zerubbabel the governor and the high priest Joshua to remedy the deleterious consequences of letting God's Temple remain a rubble heap. Both Zerubbabel and Joshua (Jeshua) may have been born and raised in Babylonia; Zerubbabel was the grandson of Judah's captive Davidic king Jehoiachin (Hag. 1.1; Ezra 3.2; Neh. 12.1; 1 Chron. 3.19 ). Joshua is described as the son of J(eh)ozadak (Ezra 3.2 ), the last preexilic chief priest (not high priest) according to 1 Chronicles 6.15 . (However, 2 Kings 25.18–21 instead names Jehozadak's father, Seraiah, as chief priest and does not explicitly say that his family went into exile. Nevertheless, it is likely that surviving members of Seraiah's family were exiled.)

Under Zerubbabel and Joshua, presumably the governor saw to secular affairs and the high priest attended to matters of ritual, but whether they always shared equal power or one at first outranked the other is uncertain. One of Zechariah's visions (Zech. 6.9–15 ) alludes to friction between high priest and governor over jurisdictional questions. Perhaps in this period of imperial and provincial administrative restructuring, the heretofore rare title high priest (more common was chief priest) was assumed by Joshua in recognition of new, expanded powers. This diarchy may also reflect the restoration program described in Ezekiel. On the other hand, that prophet's allusions to a future leader from the priestly Zadokite family (Ezek. 43.18–27 ) that had dominated preexilic Temple ritual and to a pious Davidic prince (Ezek. 37.24–28 ) need not imply a formula for diarchy. Although the status of Judean governors may have fluctuated during the two centuries of Persian rule, for the most part it is accurate to call Judah's form of government in this period a theocracy, with the deity's representative the high priest assuming an increasingly dominant role, possibly even filling the post of governor on occasion.

Ezra 2–3 (see also Neh. 7) describes the return to Judah of Zerubbabel and Joshua with a huge company of Babylonian exiles. They immediately establish an altar in Jerusalem, resume sacrifices, and begin the rebuilding. Ezra's dates for this event are vague, and the historicity of the Ezra narrative is called into question by the virtual silence of both Haggai and Zechariah (but note Zech. 6.10 ) on the subject of exiles or the expectation of a large-scale return. Perhaps the Temple-building activities did not involve any significant group of recent arrivals, or perhaps returned exiles were only one of several Jewish parties originally involved in the Temple restoration.

From the ideological perspective of the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative, the only legitimate Israelites are the “exiles.” But it is clear from the same narrative and elsewhere in the Bible that as the Persian period progressed other Jewish groups challenged the “exiles.” Some of these Judeans were probably responsible for the so-called Solar Temple at Lachish, which has been dated to the time of Darius I. Similarities between Ezra's descriptions of exilic “return” and the story of the Exodus (compare Ezra 1.6 with Exod. 12.35–36 ) suggest that typological and ideological considerations may be obscuring historical data about the activities and motivations of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Still, just because a story conforms to a literary pattern is not reason for total skepticism; tablets found in Syria attest that early in Darius's reign at least one other exiled ethnic group returned from Babylonia to its ancestral home. Whenever it was that they arrived in Judah, returned exiles were an important Judean interest group by the time of Zerubbabel, in close communication with supportive like-minded exiles in the Diaspora. Ultimately the “exiles” or their ideological heirs gained the upper hand in Jewish political and religious affairs, and their version of the events of the restoration dominates the biblical record.

Attempts to understand the Temple restoration movement of 520 focus both on the rebellions of subject nations against Darius in his early years and on the implications for Judah of Darius's imperial reorganization. Did the upheavals in the Persian empire associated with Darius's rise to the throne suggest to the Judahites that the time had come for a political and spiritual renewal in Judah, even the restoration in some form of its preexilic identity? The close conjunction of Darius's accession with the dated activities of Haggai and Zechariah, who use messianic language associated with preexilic Davidic kings to extol David's descendant Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua (Hag. 2.20–23; Zech. 3.8; 6.11–14 ), has suggested a short-lived movement to overthrow Persian hegemony in Yehud. Like Sheshbazzar (and later, Ezra and Nehemiah), Zerubbabel and Joshua drop inexplicably from the biblical record, even before the Temple is completed in 516/5 (Ezra 6.15–16 ). Were they punished as rebels? Or recalled to Darius's court? Recent scholarship is turning away from the rebellion theory; perhaps Zerubbabel died a natural death around 516–515, or he may have succumbed to opponents in an internal Judean power struggle.

Precisely when Zerubbabel became the second attested governor of Yehud is unclear. If Zechariah is prophesying in expectation of Zerubbabel's arrival in Jerusalem he would have to be a Darius appointee, but in Ezra 5.2 Zerubbabel is already governor when Zechariah begins his ministry, perhaps appointed recently by Darius or even earlier by Cambyses. Viewed in the context of Darius's reforms, the presence of a governor of the Davidic line could reflect a new imperial attitude toward the region. Zerubbabel would not have been the only local dynast administering a minor satrapal province. Darius made a regular practice of deputizing native experts on provincial affairs, including religious matters, as in the case of the Egyptian Udjahorresnet.

According to Ezra 6.6–12 , in his second year (520) Darius gave orders that the work already begun on the Temple could proceed with the added incentive of financial support from district revenues ( 6.8 ). Thanks to imperial endorsement, perhaps some limited imperial funding, donations from wealthy exiles (Zech. 6.10–11 ), and the exhortations of Haggai, Zechariah, and additional unnamed prophets (Ezra 5.2; Zech. 7.3; 8.9 ), the Temple was completed in 516 or 515 (Ezra 6.15 ). Ezra 6.16 describes the dedication ceremony celebrated by the priests, Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles followed by observation of the Passover ( 6.17 ). The date of 516–515 for this joyous event (in Ezra 6.15 only) cannot be confirmed. By including this date notice, the Ezra narrative can claim that the seventy-year desolation Jeremiah had predicted (Jer. 25.11–12; 29.10 ) ended almost exactly on prophetic schedule.

Once again, animal sacrifices could be burnt by the priests on the altar each morning and afternoon. But in spite of the Temple's symbolic, religious, political, and economic centrality, the Bible contains no descriptions of its actual dimensions despite its duration for five centuries, the longest surviving Jerusalem Temple. Herod's Temple (begun in 20 BCE) was a wholly new structure, technically the “Third Temple,” and can provide no information about its immediate predecessor. The archaeological evidence for the destruction of Jerusalem is abundant, but the site of the Temple has not been excavated. In constructing their new Temple the rebuilders would have returned to the site of the original structure, thus conforming to traditional practice in which sacredness of place persists through time. They would have followed the plan of the old Temple, whose foundations and dimensions could probably be seen in the ruins. They also had the Pentateuchal tabernacle texts and the Deuteronomic Historian's descriptions of the First Temple.

There is no way to ascertain the nature of Sheshbazzar's earlier “foundation” or of the altar raised by Zerubbabel and Joshua as a prelude to their successful rebuilding. The stylization and allusiveness of the narratives concerning the Temple limit their historical and descriptive value. The narration about this period stresses the newness—hence the purity—of the new building, as well as its continuity with the

Table 8.1 Governors, Davidides, and High Priests of Yehud in the Persian Period (538–433 BCE)

538 Sheshbazzar (pḥh, Ezra 5.14 ; “prince,” Ezra 1.8 ) Sheshbazzar b. before 592 (uncle of) Jehozadak b. before 586 (father of)
520–510? Zerubbabel (pḥt yhwdh, Hag. 1.1, 14 ) Zerubbabel b. 558–556 (?) Joshua (Jeshua) b. ca. 570
510–490? Elnathan (pḥw', bulla and seal) Shelomith ('mh of Elnathan) b. ca. 540
Hananiah b. ca. 545 Joiakim b. ca. 545 (brother of)
490–470(?) Yehoezer (pḥw', jar impression) Eliashib I b. ca. 545
Shecaniah b. ca. 520 (father of) Johanan I b. ca. 520 (father of)
470– Ahzai (pḥw', jar impression) Hattush b. ca. 495 (father of) Eliashib II b. ca. 495 (father of)
445–433 Nehemiah (hpḥhh, Neh. 5.14; 12.26 ) Elioenai b. ca. 470 Joiada I b. ca. 470
First Temple. It underscores that the vessels of the First Temple were once again being put to use in the traditional sacrificial rituals. Rabbinic tradition, however, lamented that the First Temple possessed five things the Second lacked: “the sacred fire, the ark, the urim and thummim, and the Holy Spirit (prophecy)” (P. Taanit 2.1 [65a]).

The Jewish rebuilders of the Temple clearly subscribed to the ancient Near Eastern—and preexilic Jerusalem—worldview (see Ps. 68.34–35 ) that a nation's well-being depended on the maintenance of the central sacrificial cult (Hag. 2.9 ). This explains why Haggai and Zechariah were so anxious to energize the dispirited population that had allowed the Temple to remain in ruins (Hag. 1.2–6 ). Both these postexilic prophets use language reminiscent of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah in their message of God's imminent action in the lives of Judah's people. The return to the Temple of God's glory (Hag. 2.8–9; Zech. 8.3 ), of God's manifest presence (Ezek. 43.1–5 ), would reverse Yahweh's curse on the land, the prophets’ explanation for the poor harvests, blight, drought, poverty, and stagnant economy (Hag. 1.5, 10–11; 2.16–17; Zech. 8.10–12 ). The presence of God's glory would usher in a new era of prosperity (Hag. 2.9; Zech. 8.12–15 ). Zechariah's extravagant vision of the golden lamp-stand flanked by olive trees (Zech. 4.1–6, 10–14 ) calls to mind ubiquitous ancient Near Eastern tree-of-life symbolism (see Gen. 2.9; Prov. 3.17–18; 11.30 ). The visions of Zechariah 1.7–6.15 in particular may be viewed as an essay on early postexilic Temple symbolism. Echoing standard ancient Near Eastern as well as biblical literary and visual imagery, Zechariah refers to the Temple as the sacred mountain (Zech. 4.7; 8.3 ), which connects earthly and heavenly realms. As such it is the locus of God's covenantal law and justice (Zech. 3.7; 5.1–4 ).

Curiously, despite their shared purpose, the contemporary prophets Haggai and Zechariah do not make reference to each other, and their rhetorical styles differ. Unlike other prophetic books, the book of Haggai is written entirely in the third person, as a historical narrative rather than a first-person delivery of Yahweh's word. Nonetheless, both prophets address the corollary principle of preexilic Temple ideology, namely, the Zion/David theology. Most notably expressed in Psalms, this theology proclaimed that the king rather than the priesthood bore primary responsibility for protecting and promoting the national worship. Haggai more than Zechariah retains the older monarchical ideals, specifically in association with Zerubbabel. Repeating God's description of exiled King Jehoiachin (Jer. 22.24 ), Haggai (2.23) dubs Zerubbabel God's “signet ring,” a mark of honor and of the governor's function as God's divine representative. By contrast, the book of Zechariah makes more guarded references to Zerubbabel and kingship (Zech. 3.8; 4.6–10; 6.12–13 ), preferring to stress a joint messiahship of prince and priest. Zechariah wants to reassure the citizens of Judah that their quasi-national status, newly reembodied in the restored Temple ritual, did not depend on the old preexilic form of monarchy. Both Haggai and Zechariah, however, avoid mentioning an important part of the priestly mandate throughout the empire, namely, prayers and sacrifices for the well-being of the Persian king and his sons. Ezra-Nehemiah pragmatically accepts the necessity for the prayers without question (Ezra 6.10 ).

For Zechariah, who came from a priestly family (Zech. 1.1, 7; Ezra 5.1; 6.14; Neh. 12.4, 16 ), Davidic kingship lives most compellingly in Israel's memory and in eschatological expectation. Real power belonged in the hands of the Zadokite priesthood, whose exclusive claim to administer the Temple appears earlier in a programmatic text in Ezekiel 44 . This apparent expansion of priestly power is a postexilic phenomenon, and, in fact, convincing evidence for the anointing of a high priest is only found in postexilic literature. By the Hasmonean period (mid-second century BCE) the high priest was exercising the function of the king. The fading of kingship from actual Judean experience accompanies the gradual disappearance of prophets in the classical mode and the growing power of the high priest.

From a symbolic standpoint, where the new Temple differed most from the old was in having no royal palace immediately adjacent to it. This difference signaled the adjustments to Judean royal ideology alluded to in Zechariah 1–8 . However, a measure of continuity between old and new may be exemplified by the citadel that Nehemiah apparently built just north of the Temple precinct around 445 BCE (Neh. 2.8; 7.2 ). Probably garrisoned by troops of the Persian military establishment, this citadel adjacent to the Temple would have constituted the Persian-period equivalent of the preexilic royal compound. The citadel signified monarchical control of the land's institutions, though now the monarch was the Persian king. Similarly, the biblical books least resistant to the Persian presence in Jewish lives (Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, and Nehemiah) date events as a matter of course by the Persian king's regnal year.

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