Biblical Nations - Persian Empire

Persian Empire

Key Scripture: Daniel 5:25-28

Figures: Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes

Last week we looked at the final empire to rule over the Jewish people prior to the start of the New Testament, and this week we will learn about the kingdom they conquered, the Persians.  While they factor into the Biblical account fairly late in the Old Testament, not being discussed until after the children of Israel had already been taken into captivity and removed from their homelands, they play a significant role in showing mercy to the dispersed Jews and allowing them to return to rebuilt and repopulate Jerusalem.  In fact, it can be argued that the Jewish people had fewer problems from the Persians' period of rule than they had from any other group during the Biblical narrative.  At its greatest extent, the Persian Empire was larger than any known kingdom on earth up to that point.

Historians refer to the Persian kingdom as the Achaemenid Empire and target their rise as beginning in approximately 1,000 BC.  The Assyrians to the north were aware of their presence, as evidenced by written records first of a group identified as the Elamites and then of a nomadic group of mixed descent known as the Parsa.  The first group had inhabited the region the longest, as shown by the Biblical account of Shem's son Elam in Genesis 10's table of nations.  The Assyrians had defeated the city of Elam, but the remnants were assimilated into the Parsa and eventually two distinct groups formed.  The Medes were considered by their neighbors to be more powerful, and the granddaughter of one Median ruler actually married Babylon's famed King Nebuchadnezzar.  In 612 BC, the Babylonians and Medes joined forces to conquer Nineveh, ending the Assyrian Empire's domination of the region as foretold in the book of Nahum.

The powerful union would not last, however, as there was still a second group living among the Medes.  In the region to the southeast known as Fars, the Persians had become strong and established their own rule.  This Persian leadership was firmly established by Cyrus II who was so influential and diplomatic that when he eventually attacked King Astyages the Mede, many of the Median troops deserted to his army.  Interestingly, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah had written about a ruler named Cyrus being used as God's own instrument to destroy Babylon some 150 years before these events took place.  While some claim this to be impossible and try to assert that part of Isaiah's prophecy was added centuries later, the historian Josephus gave credence to the Biblical account by telling of the king's amazement when he read a scroll containing information about himself.  As told in Daniel 5, however, it was not Cyrus the Persian but rather Darius the Mede that assumed control after the death of Nebuchadnezzar's son, Belshazzar.  Based on the writings of a Greek historian named Xenophon, it seems that Cyrus had married the daughter of a challenger to the throne of Astyages by the name of Cyaxares II (likely brothers, sons of the third Median king, Cyaxares).  By forming an alliance with his new father-in-law and helping him secure his throne, Cyrus effectively merged the two people groups and ensured that he would become the unrivaled ruler of a unified Medo-Persian kingdom.  This apparently happened within two years of Babylon's fall, which interestingly was the approximate time when Daniel also died.

In 539 BC the Cyrus Cylinder was written, recording the order mentioned in Ezra 1 that the king had given to allow Jews to return to their homeland and resume their worship of the Lord.  Although he provided financial support for the endeavor, enemies of the Jews regularly sought to prevent the rebuilding of Jerusalem's gates and Temple.  During the reigns of Cyrus and Darius the Great, they threatened the builders and bribed officials to hamper their efforts, and then during the reigns of Ahasuerus (likely Xerxes I) and Artaxerxes they wrote letters to accuse them of wrongdoing and rebellion.  Although the Temple was completed first during the reign of Darius I, some 20 years after the first wave of exiles returned to Jerusalem, the delays caused by opposition meant that the city's walls were not finished until the reign of Artaxerxes, nearly 100 years after Cyrus' initial decree.  During that time, Esther and Mordecai had risen to positions of power in the Persian court of Ahasuerus as his queen and chief advisor, respectively, while also preventing a plot to exterminate the Jewish people.  Although several Persian kings attempted to invade and control all of Greece, they were ultimately unsuccessful and instead turned their attention to preventing dwindling influence in Asia and Egypt.  A series of royal assassinations that coincided with the rise of Phillip of Macedon concluded with the reign of Darius III, who finally defeated the Egyptians only to be invaded by Alexander the Great.  The final king was murdered by a usurper, who was himself captured and executed by the Greeks.


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