Haggai is one of the shortest of the prophetic books. Still, these thirty-seven verses offer a significant vantage point from which to observe a nodal moment in Israelite history, the creation of the Second Temple community out of which Judaism emerged. The book's chronological markers ( 1:1; 2:1; 2:10 ) fix the literature to one year, 520 BCE, and to the issues of restoration for those in Persian-period Judah (also known as Yehud).
Many prophetic books begin with references to Israelite or Judahite kings during whose reign the prophet was active (e.g. Isa 1:1; Jer 1:3; Hos 1:1; Am 1:1 ). Haggai could not commence with such references since there was no longer a king in Israel. Still, the author/editor of this book decided to situate the literature with reference to a king's reign. The natural candidate was Darius, the Persian emperor, who reigned from 522 to 486 BCE.
The Persian empire was vast, reaching from the Mediterranean sea to territory far beyond the eastern borders of the classical Mesopotamian civilizations (Assyria and Babylonia). The empire was divided into larger and smaller administrative areas, called satrapies and districts. Whether the territory known as Judah was a province separate from a larger district, Samaria, during the time of Haggai is disputed. That dispute affects our understanding of the title ‘governor of/for Judah’, which is applied to Zerubbabel (Hag 1:1 et passim). The phrase could in theory refer to either a temporary assignment or a more permanent office.
Darius was not the first Persian king to affect the fate of those who venerated YHWH. Cyrus, whom the exilic Isaiah viewed as a messiah (Isa 45:1 ), had issued an edict that enabled the restoration of communities destroyed and displaced by the Babylonians (Kuhrt 1983 ). During his reign, some Yahwists had apparently returned from exile to Judah and attempted to rebuild the temple. But the efforts associated with their leader Sheshbazzar in c.538 BCE came to nought (Ezra 1:8; 5:14–16 ).
Things changed with Darius. Soon after he acceded to the throne there were rebellions throughout the empire. Though he was able to quell most of them readily, such activity represented a problem, namely, security at the empire's perimeter. All the dates in the book of Haggai refer to 520 BCE, a year during which Darius was making plans for a campaign against Egypt (Meyers and Meyers 1987; Berquist 1995 ). It was in the Persians' interest to have a secure and stable Judah. Having the local populace focused on the rebuilding of their temple, supported in part by the Persians, would have placated some of their dismay at imperial overlords. The Persians needed food for their armies, and it is probably no accident that Haggai refers more than once to food supplies. Hence, one should understand the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple as consistent with and supported by Persian imperial policy. As governor, Zerubbabel was, after all, a Persian official.