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Cyrus Marches On Babylon

Cyrus had just finished establishing the defensive barrier that he required at the eastern borders of his empire. His hands were now free. He determined to march on Babylon.

For this greater soldier an expedition of this kind would have seemed like a mere military excursion. Nabonides, king of Babylon, was an odd figure whose principal concern was to make a collection of the statues of the principal deities of the valley of the Euphrates. This, it seemed to him, would amply suffice for the defense of his kingdom. Moreover, he had left almost all the government to his son, Belshazzar, a weak and incapable creature.

Although he was a long way from Babylon, Cyrus had made careful preparations in the country; paid agitators continually criticized the government, while proclaiming the imminent arrival of this ideal and humane king of Persia who would inaugurate a period of happiness.

In the region of Nippur the Judaeans were by no means the last to acclaim this news. They already saw themselves on the road to Yerusalem.

 In 540 B.C. Cyrus appeared in Babylonia. There is no information extant on the first part of this campaign.

Then, Gabaru, one of Cyrus' best generals, advanced down the lower valley of the Tigris, and at Opis cut the Chaldaean forces in pieces; the road to Babylon was open.

Nabonides advanced to Sippar, a stronghold a short distance to the north of the capital; a Persian army swamped it and put it shamefully to flight (17th day of the month of Tishri, 539).

In Babylon, Belshazzar acted on the assumption that the fortifications of the city were impregnable; he made a show of spending his time in feasting. Many years later one of these banquets was made the setting for the Book of Dani'el. Belshazzar saw on the wall opposite him the fingers of a human hand which began to write on the plaster of the palace wall the words Mene, Mene, Tekel and Parsin. Daniel explained the hidden meaning of these words to the king (Dani'el 5).6

Two days after capturing Sippar the invading army, still under Gabaru's command, laid siege to Babylon (16th day of the month Tishri, September-October 539). The capital fell after being besieged for a fortnight. Herodotus informs us that the Persians entered the city by surprise, after diverting the course of the Euphrates. There are many difficulties about this theory and modern scholars think rather that a fifth column in Cyrus' pay merely opened the gates of the city to the besiegers, In any case, the palaces, tabernacles and private houses were strictly respected; the population did not suffer any violence, In pursuance of his policy Cyrus was determined to appear as a liberator; he proclaimed safety and welfare for the whole of Babylon.

Cyrus, King Of Babylon; Inauguration Of A Humane And Tolerant Policy

In the time of the Assyrians and Babylonians the Mesopotamian States appeared as predatory nations; war had become a national industry, and a profitable one. It was a matter not only of seizing vast territories but also of systematically emptying the annexed countries of their wealth and populations for the benefit of the conqueror.

The behaviour of Cyrus, who belonged to the IndoEuropean race, was very different from these Semitic methods. This Aryan, a fire-worshipper, was a follower of the ancient Asiatic dualist religion, according to which Ormazd, the god of good, was in conflict with the god of evil, Ahriman. The faithful adherent of this religion was the liegeman of Ormazd and he had to struggle within himself against Ahriman, the dark personage who continually incited him to do sinful actions. There were no tabernacles and no images, but a lofty morality whose severe regulations can be discerned in the texts of the Avesta. 7

After the fall of Babylon, Cyrus determined to establish a stable state in which the different peoples of his empire would be able to organize their lives in peace.

The Judaeans made no secret of their disappointment at Cyrus's behaviour in not massacring the Babylonians and burning down the city, for the prophets had foretold the exemplary punishment of this hated city. The prophecies of the misfortunes of Babylon were not to be fulfilled until much later, actually in 485 when Xerxes meted out severe punishment for a rebellion of the Babylonians. Yisrael's hatred was no affair of Cyrus'. He was eager to preserve the whole of this fine city, the most beautiful in the world.

This action was in strict accordance with his political ideals. He endeavoured to bind his peoples to him by the benefits that he conferred on them.

6 Mene: 'YAHWEH has measured the Chaldaean kingdom. Tekel: 'He has weighed the monarch and his weight has been found wanting.' Parsin: 'Babylon will be divided and its territory given to Cyrus, king of the Persians'

7 In actual fact we only know primitive Iranian religion through the sacred books of a date later than the times of Cyrus; these were drawn up a century after the events studied here These texts appear to be the work of the celebrated reformer Zarathustra

Cyrus Gives All The Exiles In Babylon Their Freedom And Their Gods

One of Cyrus's first actions was to allow the numerous colonies of exiles settled in the valley of the Euphrates to return, if they so wanted, to their country of origin. He tried in this way to pacify these peoples; it was in the interests of the central government to get rid of those little pockets of resistance which, in the very nature of things, subsisted among the exiles. The joy of these displaced people, so providentially set free, may well be imagined. Soon, throughout the empire, a concert of praise could be heard in honour of the merciful king.

Very cunningly, Cyrus venerated the gods of the nations made vassals by his predecessors. In Babylon he solemnly proclaimed that Marduk, the god of the Chaldaean capital, had called him personally to occupy the throne of Nabonides. In addition Cyrus showed such deep respect to YAHWEH that the Judaeans actually imagined for a time that he was ready to acknowledge YAHWEH of Yisrael as the only true Sovereign Ruler; they even thought that he was going to work for the establishment of the reign of YAHWEH of Yerusalem over the territory of the empire.

The Chaldaeans not only deported the population of conquered countries; they also took away the idols of their tabernacles and set them up in Babylon. Cyrus ordered the return of the statues of these gods (which in their turn had become prisoners of war) and all the ritual objects confiscated by Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. It is difficult to know which to admire more: Cyrus' political shrewdness or his amazing liberalism.

Cyrus' decree concerning the Judaeans of Babylon

The exiles from Yerusalem, of course, were included in this measure. The Scripture gives two versions of the decree of Cyrus concerning the freeing of the exiles from Yerusalem. The first (Ezra 1 :1-14) could well be a version of the proclamation made in Hebrew to the exiles. The second version (headed Memorandum) was probably written down for the Persian archivists; it may be regarded as a summary of the original (Ezra 6:1-5).

The Book of Ezra tells how the document was discovered, At the time of King Darius of Persia a search was made in Babylonia in the muniment rooms where the archives were kept; at Ecbatana 8 a scroll containing the famous edict was found. It ran as follows:


In the first year of Cyrus the king,9 King Cyrus decreed:

Tabernacle of YAHWEH in Yerusalem

The Tabernacle will be rebuilt as a place at which sacrifices are to be offered and to which offerings are brought to be burnt. Its height is to be sixty cubits, its width sixty cubits. 10 There are to be three thicknesses of stone blocks and one of wood 11 The expense is to be met by the king's household.12 Furthermore, the vessels of gold and silver from the Tabernacle of YAHWEH13 which Nebuchadnezzar took from the tabernacle in Yerusalem and brought to Babylon are to be restored so that everything may be restored to the tabernacle and put back in the Tabernacle of YAHWEH.14 (Ezra 6:3-5)

It is a mistake to attempt to explain the edict of Cyrus, as does Josephus the Jewish historian, by supposing that the new king of Babylon was acquainted with the prophecies of Deutero-YeshaYahu. The measure formed part, as we have shown, of a general one which referred to all the exiled population.

8 Ecbatana in the mountains of Media; the scroll was found in the palace where the Persian kings spent the summer months. This would seem to indicate that Cyrus must have published his edict during the summer which followed the capture of Babylon (538)

9 First years of his reign as king of Babylon, that is, in 538.

10 These measurements do not agree with those of the first Tabernacle (see in this series, Solomon, page 78). Here the text is possibly corrupt (see Yerusalem Scripture note b to Ezr 63)

11 Wood the reference is to the paneling lining the three rooms of the Tabernacle.

12 That is, by the central government of Babylon. It is very probable that a part of the taxes raised in Yahudah, instead of being sent to Babylon were allotted to the building of the Tabernacle in Yerusalem

13 A list of them is extant: golden offering cups, 30; silver offering cups, 1,029; golden cups, 30; silver cups, 410; other vessels, 1,000.

14 There is no mention of the Ark of the Covenant, nor of the cherubim. We can guess the fate of the latter; they must have been broken up and stripped of the gold plate which covered them. It must be supposed that the Ark of the Covenant and the Tables of the Law which it contained during the last days of the siege of Yerusalem were hidden by the kohens, the guardians of the Tabernacle They must certainly have placed the Ark, with the Tables of the Law inside it in a very secret place. (This was the Ark made at the foot of Sinai to Mosheh' orders.) It was not discovered in the following centuries. According to a Jewish tradition the Ark was carried to Mount Nebo where all trace of it is lost. This legend inspired 2 Maccabees 1-9.

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