MENU

Where the world comes to study the Bible

21. The Restoration From The Exile

Related Media

The political structure of Judah under the Persians.

The Assyrians had effectively destroyed independent entities in Syria-Palestine except for Tyre, Sidon and Judah. The native dynasts were replaced by Assyrian governors. Judah also lost her independence to Babylon. When Cyrus took over the Babylonian territory these provinces submitted to Persia and were incorporated into the structure of the empire.1

“For the government of this wide-extending territory, he [Cyrus] adopted in principle the organization first devised by the Assyrians, who replaced the states they had conquered by formal provinces. Each was ruled by a governor with a full staff of subordinates, and all kept in close touch with the central power through frequent exchange of orders and reports.”2 The word Satrap means “protector of the Kingdom.” The hereditary position of the Satrap created problems of loyalty which was handled by making the military directly responsible to the King.

The large region west of the Euphrates River was called “Cross-River Satrap” (Abar-Nahara). The Satrap seat was in Damascus. The satrapy was divided up into provinces (see map 2, p. 171). Judah was one of those provinces. Avi-Yonah argues for the separate Jewish province in spite of the interference of the Samaritans in the Book of Ezra. He says that the loose Persian rule lent itself to disputes among the provinces.3 Stern summarizes his discussion on the organization of the Palestinian states as follows: “In summary, Palestine in the Persian period was apparently organized into a number of provinces or ‘states’ (medinoth). Each unit was ruled by a dynasty of governors, generally of a local family: Samaritans in Samaria (according to the Wadi Daliyeh papyri) and Arabs in the south (according to the Tell el-Maskhuta inscriptions), and possibly also in Judah (as is suggested by stamp impressions, bullae, and coins of Jehezekiah). These governors had small courts, imitating those of the satraps, and they stood at the head of small administrative organizations…They were probably in charge of small military garrisons and were allowed to keep official stamps of the ‘state’ in their possession, one of the most frequent finds of that period at sites excavated in the province. The governors also seem to have been permitted to strike the small silver coins, which are now known as ‘Palestinian’ coins. Thus far the inscriptions of four of the provinces are clearly legible: Samaria, Judah, Ashdod, and Gaza. The provinces were subdivided into ‘parts’ (pelek; Neh. 3:9, 17).”4

Avi-Yonah lists six known governors of Judah during the two hundred years of Persian rule (there may even have been times when there was no governor): Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, Bigoai or Bagohi, Yehoezer, Ahio.5 Cross shows that there were a series of Sanballats who ruled as governor of Samaria.6

The first return.

There is some confusion about the relationship of Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel. Some will argue that Zerubbabel did not come as governor until 520 or so, and that the “Chronicler” has telescoped his life with Sheshbazzar’s.7 The reconstruction of the temple was begun by Jeshua and Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:1-14). Jeshua was the grandson of the last officiating high priest before the exile (cf. 2 Kings 25:18 and 1 Chron. 6:15). Jeshua himself soon assumed that office and was prominent in Zechariah 1‑8. Zerubbabel was a descendant of the Davidic family. 1 Chron. 3:19 lists him as a son of Pedaiah, a younger son of Jeconiah rather than Shealtiel. Shealtiel could have had a levirate adoption of this son, but the text does not explain what happened. The altar of burnt offering was erected and offerings began to be made.

Ezra 5:16 indicates that Sheshbazzar was the one who laid the original foundation whereas Ezra 3:8 indicates that it was Zerubbabel. Either the two are to be equated or Sheshbazzar was the real governor while Zerubbabel worked under him. Williamson argues that 3:7‑4:5 are a “recapitulation” of the events that actually only began under Darius. This, however, assumes chronological inaccuracies in Ch. 3 which is unacceptable.

Broad outline of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Return under Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel to build the temple (538 B.C.)--Ezra 1‑6.

Return of Ezra for spiritual reform (458 B.C.)--Ezra 7‑10.

Return of Nehemiah to rebuild the walls (445--433 B.C.)--Neh. 1‑7.

Revival of the people--Neh. 8‑12.

Nehemiah’s second return--Neh. 13.

Events under Cyrus, first king of Persia--539‑529 B.C.

Edict issued returning people and temple contents—538.

Temple foundation laid--536.

Events under Cambyses II, Cyrus’ son--529‑522 B.C.

Cambyses, Cyrus’ son, was installed for a short time in Babylon. After he became king he invaded Egypt. The circumstances surrounding his death and his successors are shrouded in mystery. He is said to have died when he learned that his brother had usurped the throne in his absence. His most notable success was the defeat of Egypt. No biblical events. Cambyses is referred to in the Elephantine papyri.

Gaumata (522-521 B.C.)

The person who took the throne in Cambyses’ absence was his brother Bardiya whom Darius calls Gaumata and Herodotus calls Smerdis. Scholars believe that Darius’ story about a man pretending to be Gaumata/Bardiya who had been killed already by Cambyses is a concoction to defend Darius’ rise to the throne.8

Events under Darius, the great, Persian general--522‑486 B.C.

Darius defeats Gaumata and struggles to put down rebellions (done by 518).

Zechariah begins his ministry in second year of Darius.

The temple was completed in 516.

Darius was defeated at Marathon by Greeks in 490.

Events under Xerxes (Ahasuerus)--486‑465 B.C.

Xerxes was defeated at Salamis in 480.

The events of Esther may have taken place after his return.

Events under Artaxerxes I--465‑424 B.C.

Ezra’s return to promote religious reform--458 B.C. Fensham says Egypt revolted in 460 and was suppressed in 456. Artaxerxes needed loyal people in Judah and may have sent Ezra for this purpose (Ezra 7:8).9

Nehemiah’s first return--445 (Neh. 5:14).

Fensham says the Persian general who defeated Egypt became angry at Artaxerxes and revolted against him. Later he declared loyalty and was restored, but again Artaxerxes would want loyal leaders in the west and so may have sent Nehemiah.

Ezra apparently came back a second time early in Nehemiah’s period (Neh. 8‑10; 12:36).

Nehemiah returns a second time--432 (Neh. 13:6).

Later Persian Kings--424-330 B.C.

Xerxes II (Promptly murdered by half-brother, Sogdianus)

Sogdianus (Murdered after a few months by half-brother, Ochus)

Ochus known as Darius II (423-404)

Arsaces known as Artaxerxes II (404-358)

Ochus known as Artaxerxes III (358-338)

Arses (338-336) murdered by Darius III

Darius III (336-330)

The last one hundred years of Persian rule were chaotic. The kings tended to weaknesses, were often dominated by their women, and were filled with cruelty. The Satraps often revolted and declared independence.

Temple Construction.

The work of the temple construction was interrupted by the opposition of the surrounding peoples. A letter in Aramaic (Ezra 4) was sent back to Cyrus asking that the work be stopped. They were successful.

A number of historical problems exist in the identification of this letter.

The older commentaries link Ahasuerus with Cambyses (this would then place the letter in 529 B.C). They also link Artaxerxes with Gaumata (as Darius called him) who struggled for the throne after the death of Cambyses in 522 B.C. Working from A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, and J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire, Cambyses ruled from 529 to 522 and left for Egypt in 526 never to return to Mesopotamia (he died near Mt. Carmel). If he is indeed Ahasuerus, he would also be the Persian king of Esther. This is not impossible, but Cook says that Cambyses was in Babylonia at Abanu near Uruk in 528. The setting for Esther is Susa in the Satrap of Elam. He could have returned to Susa for the events of Esther during the two years before he left for Egypt.

The Artaxerxes/Gaumata/Smerdis/Bardiya equation is more difficult since it is made nowhere else that I know of, and it would require the introduction of an otherwise unknown Artaxerxes. Furthermore, this was a time of great disturbance with Bardiya (Cambyses’ brother) taking over the throne. He only ruled about six months. It is more difficult to suppose that the leaders of Samaria would write to Bardiya/Gaumata while Cambyses was in their area or that the time would permit a letter and a response as in Ezra 4.

The letter does not speak of the temple (the situation in question), but it does speak of the walls—a situation apropos to Nehemiah’s time (the historical situation underlying the accusation in Ahasuerus’ [Xerxes’] time and the aborted attempt to build a wall in Artaxerxes’ time are otherwise unknown).

The temple was completed according to the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes (6:14). The order is important. It is not Cyrus, Ahasuerus, Artaxerxes, Darius as in Chapter 4, but Cyrus, Darius, Artaxerxes. Ezra, the writer of this book, is functioning under the decree of Artaxerxes (458 B.C.). That decree mentions the temple in 7:11, 15, 16, 23 and even says the temple is to be adorned in 7:27. Ezra, therefore, views Artaxerxes’ decree as having a vital function in relation to the temple.

Williamson10 citing others argues that 4:5 and 4:24 are literary markers (referring to Darius) that indicate the insertion of material in between.

I therefore would concur with Keil and now Fensham11 that this chapter contains a collage of letter writing used to illustrate the continuous opposition the Jews encountered.

The work of Ezra the Priest.

“To judge from the Ezra material, it appears fairly clear that the great religious leader was concerned primarily with the reorganization of the cult on the basis of the Pentateuchal legislation…it is becoming increasingly certain that Ezra did not function as governor. What he came to do was more significant in the long run—laying the foundations of Judaism that was to make an incalculable impact upon the world in the following centuries…It is perhaps not too much to say that what Nehemiah did for the body of Judaism, Ezra did for its soul.”12

The idea of a scribe is an old one, but the only early biblical reference to the word (sopher) is in the poetic section of Judges 5. Under the monarchy they served as court secretaries. Baruch was a scribe to Jeremiah. However, it is with Ezra that the New Testament type of scribe emerges. He is one who is trained in the law of Moses--to copy it and to interpret it. (KJV has “ready scribe”; NASB has “a scribe skilled.” The Hebrew phrase sopher maher means first a fast writer and then a skilled writer and then a competent interpreter). As Samuel was to the prophetic movement, so Ezra was to the scribal movement13 Ezra’s purpose was to study the law to practice it and to teach the statutes and ordinances to Israel (7:10). Williamson says, “The scribe, we should note, was not only a student of Scripture, but explicitly a practitioner and especially a teacher of its requirements. And these qualities we find exemplified in Ezra’s ministry.”14

Artaxerxes had sent a special decree with Ezra (7:11‑26). Fensham says that the “Jewishness” of the letter is to be explained by the fact that Ezra probably drafted the letter that went out in the name of the king15 He permitted people to go with Ezra, and permitted him to collect money for the undertaking. Ezra was to take utensils to be used in the temple back with him. Artaxerxes gave him an expense voucher and freed certain temple workers from taxes. He commissioned Ezra to appoint officers to enforce the Mosaic Law.16

Williamson17 says, “It has been widely accepted since Schaeder’s work that ‘the scribe of the law of the God of heaven’ was an official Persian title, so that some have gone so far as to translate ‘minister/secretary of state for Jewish affairs.’”

Ezra’s purpose in coming to Jerusalem was two‑fold: (1) He was to “inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God which is in your hand” (7:14). Williamson suggests that this facet of the commission took three directions. First it would investigate how closely the temple worship related to the Mosaic Law. Second, the concern with mixed marriages may have in part been concerned with who legitimately came under this law. Third, it may have involved checking up on the use of state aid for the temple worship. (2) The second purpose is more difficult to understand (7:25). He was to appoint “magistrates and judges.” This was no doubt designed to regulate the lives of those in the Abar-Nahara Satrap who considered themselves to be Jews.

The work of Nehemiah.

Much debate surrounds the chronological relationship between Ezra and Nehemiah. Some will argue that Ezra actually came to Jerusalem after Nehemiah in spite of the statements to the contrary in the books themselves. Some will rearrange the material between the two books.18

Hanani (shortened form for Hananiah) is referred to as Nehemiah’s brother. This reference should be understood in a literal sense because of 7:2. There is another Hananiah connected with the Elephantine community, but whether they are the same man is not clear. The breaking down of the walls is debated. Some believe a recent attempt to build the walls has been frustrated, but it seems more likely that the reference is to the destruction of 586 B.C. The walls continue to lie in ruins even though the temple has been built. The people are vulnerable to attacks from all those around them.

Sanballat the Horonite is known from the Elephantine Papyri as the governor of Samaria. The date of that papyrus is 408 B.C. There he was older, and his sons were representing him. The Nehemiah context is over thirty years earlier. The reference to him as a Horonite is not clear. It may refer to the town of lower Beth-Horon or it may refer to a deity.

A letter from a Jewish mercenary colony in Egypt:

“To our lord Bagoas, governor of Judah [one of six known governors, cf. Avi Yonah, The Holy Land, 14], your servants Yedoniah and his colleagues, the priests who are in the fortress of Elephantine…[they then tell how their temple to Yaho was torn down in some kind of a pogrom]. We have also sent a letter before now, when this evil was done to us, [to] our lord and to the high priest Johanan and his colleagues the priests in Jerusalem and to Ostanes the brother of Hanani and the nobles of the Jews. Never a letter have they sent to us…We have also set the whole matter forth in a letter in our name to Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat the governor of Samaria…On the 20th of Marheshwan, year 17 of King Darius [II, 408 B.C.]”19

A later letter indicates that Governor Bagohi encouraged the rebuilding.

Tobiah the Ammonite is an obscure figure. Quite a bit is known about the Tobiads of the third century. Josephus tells us that they played an important part in the events leading up to the Maccabean revolt. “The great man of the family was Joseph, the son of Tobiah, who was active under Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 B.C.).”20 A tomb inscription, Tobiah, is dated by Mazar in the sixth or fifth centuries. He concludes that, “This Tobiah [in Nehemiah] was not only a Jew (not half-Ammonite and half-Jew, or even pure Ammonite, as some scholars hold to this day), but one of the heads of the Jews and a relative of the high priest, exactly like Tobiah the father of Joseph a hundred and fifty years later. Nehemiah states expressly (vi, 18) that ‘there were many in Judah sworn unto him.’”21 The use of the phrase in Nehemiah “the Ammonite servant” is for Mazar to be equated with “servant of the king,” i.e., of the king of Persia, and thus concludes that Tobiah may have been the governor of Ammon.22 Williamson argues that he was probably an associate of Sanballat and may have had some temporary responsibility in Judah in the absence of a governor.23 “Ammonite” is certainly a pejorative term. Nehemiah recorded a past event in which Eliashib had become related by marriage to Tobiah. Eliashib had prepared a special room for him in the temple when he visited (Neh. 13:5). Fensham argues that this is not the same Eliashib as the high priest since this one is over the chamber.24

An additional adversary appears in 2:19 by the name of Geshem the Arab. This man is well‑known as a powerful Arabian operating within the Persian Empire with a fair amount of independence. There is no way of knowing why he is hostile to Nehemiah, who could have posed little threat to him, unless he simply does not want any strengthening of the Persian influence in a neighboring province.

The wall was finished in 52 days. This was a phenomenal achievement! It may be that the walls were not entirely destroyed by the Babylonians, or that the quality of his work was of the highest nature, but even so Nehemiah accomplished a gigantic task. As a result, the enemies were discouraged. Communication had been going on between the enemies and certain Jews in the city. As a matter of fact Jehohanan was the offspring of Tobiah who had married a Jewish girl. He seems to be excluded from the Jewish community by Nehemiah, so he was treated as foreigner.

Nehemiah speaks for the first time of the fact that he had been gone from Jerusalem for much of this time (Keil says several years) (13:6). When he returned to Jerusalem, he threw Tobiah’s stuff out and cleansed the room (13:7‑8).


1M. Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land: From the Persia to the Arab Conquests (536 B.C. to A.D. 640); a Historical Geography, p. 11.

2Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, p. 59.

3Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land, p. 13.

4Ephraim Stern (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, p 81. See Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land from the Persian Period to the Arab Conquest, for a map of the provinces.

5Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land, pp. 13-14.

6F. M. Cross, “Papyri from the Fourth Century B.C. from Dâliyeh,” New Directions in Biblical Archaeology. D.N. Freedman and J. Greenfield, eds., 41-62.

7See N. H. Snaith, The Jews from Cyrus to Herod, pp. 16-18, for his reconstruction of Sheshbazzar (no foundation of temple laid in spite of Chronicler’s statement), Zerubbabel, who was urged to revolt from Persia by Haggai and Zechariah, Nehemiah and finally Ezra. See Bright, History of Israel pp. 344-45, for a more biblical perspective.

8See Cook, The Persian Empire, 49ff.

9F. C. Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 100. See also B. Porten, Archives of Elephantine, p. 26.

10H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra and Nehemiah in Word Biblical Commentary, p. 59.

11Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, pp. 68ff.

12Myers, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. lxii.

13Ibid., pp. lvii-lxii.

14Williamson, Ezra-Nehemiah in Word, p. 93.

15Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 103. See also Myers, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 62.

16On Persian interest in local religions, see B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine, p. 23: “Darius’ effect on religious matters in his empire is also worth noting. In Asia Minor he ordered the satrap Gadates to respect certain rights and privileges of the sacred gardeners of Apollo. In Judah he ordered the pehah Tattenai to supply whatever material was necessary for the building of the Temple there to provide sacrifices to be offered in the name of the royal family (Ez. 5:17‑6:12). In Egypt he restored the House of Life of the goddess Neith at Sais, contributed to temples at Edfu and Abusir, and displayed his liberality toward other sanctuaries as well. It was probably he who constructed the temple to Amon‑Re in the oasis of Kargeh.”

17Williamson, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 100.

18E.g., Williamson, Ezra and Nehemiah. See Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, for a good discussion that is also somewhat conservative.

19ANET, p. 492.

20B. Mazar, “The Tobiads,” IEJ 7(1957):137-145; 229-238.

21Ibid., p. 144.

22Ibid.

23H.G.M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah in Word Biblical Commentary, pp. 182-183.

24F. C. Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 260.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History