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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.

From Zerubbabel to Ezra-Nehemiah

After the successful completion of the Jerusalem Temple around 516–515 BCE, the Bible is virtually silent about events in Judah during the seventy years between Zerubbabel and Nehemiah—that is, between the reigns of Darius I (522–486) and Artaxerxes I (465–424). Despite hints of internal religious dissent in Judah, the self-interested tolerance of the Persians who gave their blessing to the rebuilding of the Temple perhaps resulted also in some thirty years of relative political stability in Judah before a return to unsettled times. Lack of mention of Persian interference in Judah in itself is noteworthy, since the Persians are known to have intervened in religious disputes elsewhere that threatened local peace.

Political stability cannot guarantee economic or social well-being, however. The book of Malachi belongs to this period. The Temple is operating, and the prophet tries to assure doubting Judeans of Yahweh's continued love in spite of infestation, drought (Mal. 3.10–11 ), and general social ills and inequities (Mal. 3.5 ). If Third Isaiah (Isa. 56–66 ) can be assigned to this period, it confirms Malachi's portrayal of economic struggle and religious uncertainty.

According to the prophet in Malachi, who speaks from within the priestly establishment, Judah's misfortunes are Yahweh's punishment for breach of the covenant in both ritual and ethical terms. Priest and people alike offend God by improper practices in the Temple and by their cruel treatment of each other, particularly by casual divorce. A much discussed passage (Mal. 2.11–12 ) warns against marriage to “the daughter of a foreign god”; it is unclear whether the writer means intermarriage with foreigners, later a prime concern of Ezra and Nehemiah, or whether instead the offense is syncretistic religion. By repentance and reform, Yahweh's people must ready themselves so that the coming “day of the LORD” (Mal. 4.5–6 ) will be one of salvation.

While Judah's problems are only hinted at in Third Isaiah, and Malachi's listing of misfortunes is stereotypical, signs of a spiritual and moral malaise appear in the archaeological record of early fifth-century Judah. The decades following the construction of the Temple did not bring the abundance promised by Haggai and Zechariah. Persian I sites in Judah are distinctly smaller and poorer than coastal cities, towns in the adjacent Shephelah, and particularly the Phoenician centers to the north, whose thriving commercial activities expanded continuously in the eastern Mediterranean under Persian rule.

The question of the degree of provincial independence that Judah might have enjoyed before the governorship of Nehemiah in 445 remains unresolved in modern scholarship. The Bible portrays Nehemiah's governorship as unprecedented, and no governor is mentioned between Zerubbabel and Nehemiah. This has led some scholars to conclude that during this period Judah was subject to Samaria, and that when Nehemiah refers to “former governors” (Neh. 5.15 ) he means Samarian governors with authority over Judah, not former governors of Judah. By this theory, Nehemiah's arrival signals Judah's independence from Samaria; his commission from the Persian king is to set up the governing apparatus of a new Persian province. It is equally likely, however, that Judah was autonomous from at least the time of Zerubbabel and probably all the way back to Sheshbazzar. Had the Samarians controlled Judah before 445, they could have exercised their governing authority and put a stop to the wall-building in Ezra 4 instead of appealing for permission from faraway Persian administrators. It seems, thus, that the Persians dispatched Nehemiah to Judah not to supervise a newly autonomous province but to tighten the empire's grip on a province with newly perceived strategic importance.

A key to the argument for pre-Nehemian autonomy rests on two tiny objects recently purchased on the antiquities market: a stone seal and a clay seal impression (bulla). As part of a significant cache of early postexilic seals and sealings, these objects unfortunately lack archaeological context, but the cache is believed to come from the Jerusalem area. The clay seal impression refers (in Aramaic script of the Persian period) to “Elnathan the governor,” the stone seal to “Shelomith the maidservant of Elnathan the governor.” One difficulty lies in the word translated “governor.” Did Elnathan enjoy the same status as governor Nehemiah? The term might even refer to some other office. Also problematic is the dating of the scripts, which some assign to the early Persian period and others to later in the era.

If Shelomith can be identified with Shelomith the daughter of Zerubbabel in 1 Chronicles 3.19 , then the conjunction of the names Shelomith and Elnathan raises the probability that Elnathan followed Zerubbabel as governor of Yehud sometime after 515. Were Shelomith the wife or concubine (a possible interpretation of “maidservant”) of Elnathan, then a governor not of Davidic descent would have strengthened his position by marrying into the royal family, an astute move in a transitional period when the civil authority of the governor was giving way to the ascendant power of the priesthood.

In addition to the Shelomith and Elnathan seals, jar-handle sealings found at Ramat Rahel and Tell en-Nasbeh help close the Yehud “governor gap.” They supply the names of two Judean governors, Yehoezer and Ahzai, possibly bringing us down to the governorship of Nehemiah. Neither appears to have any connection with the family of David. For Shelomith to possess a seal in her own name shows that she held a high administrative position; the seal, along with her presence in a male-dominated genealogy, indicates that she must have been a memorable woman. With Shelomith we have reached the end of the Davidic dynasty's hold over Judah, but the list of Davidic descendants in 1 Chronicles 3.17–24 continues to the end of the fifth century, attesting to an ongoing regard for David's line in some Jewish circles. The cryptic references in Zechariah 12.7–10 to David's line may also come from the period following Elnathan and Shelomith.

Backwater Judah was not where Darius's interests lay. His sights were set north, across the Bosporus and west to the Greek mainland. In 499 BCE, rebellions aided by Athens in the Ionian Greek cities and Cyprus set in motion decades of Greco-Persian, east-west conflict, a fateful clash with deep ramifications for biblical—and world—history. Following the Greek naval disaster at Lade, Ionian Miletus was retaken in 494. The Persian destruction of the city and deportation of half its population became a byword among fifth-century Greeks in their struggle against Persia. Herodotus reports that Phrynichus had to pay a fine when his play The Capture of Miletus caused the audience to burst into tears. A rough guess of around 490 for the end of governor Elnathan's term coincides with the year of Darius's most humiliating defeat, inflicted on him by the Greeks at Marathon. Darius's death in 486 put an end to his plans for another go at the Greeks. Instead, his successor Xerxes I (486–465) was forced to quash first a minor Egyptian attempt at secession (486–483) and then a Babylonian uprising that began in 482 with the murder of the satrap Zopyrus. With Egypt and Babylon pacified, Xerxes attended to affairs in Anatolia and to avenging his father's disgraceful defeat by the Greeks. But after Xerxes repeated his father's mistakes in Greece at Salamis (480) and Mycale (479), he turned his attention to building programs at Persepolis. He died in a palace coup in 465 and was succeeded by Artaxerxes I.

Surveys of biblical history describe the decades leading up to Ezra and Nehemiah as turbulent, noting the uprisings against Xerxes by Egypt and Babylon, as well as the more serious Egyptian revolt of 460 early in the reign of Artaxerxes I. Judah, some scholars propose, took advantage of the Egyptian independence movements to do some rebelling of its own. Unrest in Palestine explains an essentially unresolved issue, namely, the Persians' reasons for sending Ezra (458 or 428) and Nehemiah (445) to Judah. Their missions, which mark a turning point in Jewish self-definition, must first be placed in the context of Persian imperial policies.

It would not be surprising if Judah had tried to revolt at some point during this period, given the tendency of lands on the fringes of empires to do so. Both the Bible and the archaeological record have been cited for evidence of political unrest, but both sources have been overinterpreted. There is the biblical story of Nehemiah's shock on hearing, seventy-five years after the completion of the Temple, that the walls of Jerusalem are broken, its gates burned (Neh. 1.3 ). And there is the variously dated episode(s) in Ezra 4.7–23 in which Jerusalem's attempts to repair its walls are reported by Persian officials as an act of rebellion and are halted by imperial edict. Perhaps Xerxes I visited Jerusalem on his way to Egypt in 485 to intervene personally. Or Ezra 4.7–23 could be set in the reign of Artaxerxes I, associating it with the Egyptian revolt of 460 or with Ezra himself, who was exceeding his imperial brief by attending to the walls. Unfortunately Ezra 4.7–23 continues to resist attempts at secure dating and has been assigned to the reigns of every Persian king from Cyrus to Artaxerxes I. The fallen walls of Nehemiah 1.3 could have been caused by an isolated event, such as a raid by an Arab tribe from the south. As the biblical text now stands, Nehemiah 1.3 is a literarily shaped story that falls in the center of a three-step thematic movement, commencing with the disheartening wall episode of Ezra 4.7–23 and reaching a triumphant climax with Nehemiah's completion of the walls (Neh. 6.15–16 ).

Archaeological evidence for a possible Judean revolt is equally ambiguous. Modern accounts of the Persian period mention widespread destruction and thus social unrest around 480 in areas of Benjamin and southern Samaria, most notably at Shechem, Bethel, Tell el-Ful, Tell en-Nasbeh (Mizpah), and Gibeon. Reexamination of the relevant strata at these sites shows that at Shechem abandonment, not destruction, was more likely, and that this occurred in the mid-fifth, not early fifth, century. Tell el-Ful was abandoned, not destroyed, about 500. The destruction of Bethel cannot be dated later than the sixth century, and Tell en-Nasbeh shows signs of continuous occupation well into the mid-fifth century. The picture of disturbances in Judah at the end of the first quarter of the fifth century can no longer be affirmed or denied. In the succeeding quarter century, however, Judah became entangled in the epic struggle between Greece and Persia.

The tempestuous first half of Artaxerxes I's forty-year reign included a protracted revolt in Egypt (460–454?), in which Persians and Greeks again clashed. The Athenians allied themselves with Egypt as a step toward their ultimate goal of supplanting the Persians as masters of the eastern Mediterranean; and it was not so much the Egyptians who worried the Persians as the Athenians, whose presence in Egypt represented a direct military threat to Persia's holdings in the Levant. If the city named “Doros” on Delian League tribute lists for 454 is the coastal city of Dor just south of the Carmel range, then the Greeks had gained a strategic foothold on Palestinian soil. The participation of the Greeks in the Egyptian revolt of 460 has been described as the most serious challenge to imperial control the Persians faced in the fifth century.

Megabyzus, satrap of Abar Nahara, led Artaxerxes I's forces to eventual victory in Egypt. With substantial help from Phoenician ships the Persian navy obliterated the fleet of the Delian League led by Athens in 454 at Prosopitis in Egypt. Three years later, the Greek admiral Cimon's naval expedition to oust Persia from Cyprus, while not well understood, is a good example of Athenian determination to take over Persia's western holdings. Athens may have been successful enough to achieve a stalemate, which was formally recognized by a treaty with Persia. The existence of the “Peace of Callias” (449) has been disputed since antiquity, but for several decades after 450 there are no recorded Greek efforts against Persian interests in the eastern Mediterranean or Persian attacks on the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Nevertheless, even after the signing of the putative Peace of Callias, tensions and plotting between Athens and Persia continued.

In the light of the Greek threat to Persia in the decade between 460 and 450, a secure hold on the Levant became more important to the Persians than ever before. The missions of Ezra and Nehemiah can be understood as part of the Achaemenids' altered practices in the administration and control of the region. We lack nonbiblical documentary sources directly relevant to this period, but the archaeological record indicates that as part of their strategy for guaranteeing Levantine loyalty the Persians proceeded to garrison imperial troops in a new series of fortresses scattered throughout the region. Distinctive square courtyard buildings dated to the mid-fifth century BCE have been discovered in the Negeb, on the southern coast, in the Judean hill country, in Samaria, and in the Jordan Valley. Their uniformity and contemporaneity suggest a standardized imperial blueprint for small Persian garrisons. Rather than being border fortresses or centers for tribute collection, their wide distribution and often remote locations along ancient roadways suggest that they were deployed to maintain and control the famous Persian road system, which bound the empire closely together and ensured rapid military deployment. The abandonment of many of these sites not long after their construction also suggests that the specific strategic problem prompting their establishment had come to an end. By the late fifth century, mainland Greece had exhausted itself in the Peloponnesian War (431–404) and had no energy for campaigns in the Levant.

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