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Book 3. Ezra & The Law

"Returning" Exiles or Persian Colonists?

  Back to Table of Contents Page



Jews in Exile?


The composition of lamentations by the Israelites by the Rivers of Babylon, and so on, gives the impression that the Israelites were again enslaved in Babylon, just as they had been in Egypt in the Exodus myth. They lived in concentration camps “under the malign eys of their warders”, as G Garbini puts it. If the colonists had come from the Rivers of Babylon, namely from the upper reaches of the Euphrates, in the Land of the Rivers, as the biblical clues suggest, then they had lived there as free people, and the lamentations originally must have been for the loss of their native homeland there in Syria, a bountiful place.

Certainly, too, the Jews who had been deported to wherever they went, in the policy of the time of transporting the elite class of troublesome people, will have been made rulers of some other troublesome people, and ordered to keep them in control or suffer the consequences. In short, they were transported as rulers wherever they were, and had the support of the state so long as they kept order. Since only the skilled and educated upper classes were deported, it seems incredible that, just when kings were beginning to realise the advantages of having empires organised to maximise revenue, they would banish skilled people into unproductive activities in concentration camps.

The Jewish royalty unquestionably were treated extremely well, accepted and financed at the court of the Babylonian kings where they could be observed, and had little incentive anyway to want to return to their dessicated little country. Biblicists, hardly consistent, as ever, also point to the success of the supposed Jewish banks of Egibi and Murushu. Wealthy bankers could hardly run their businesses as slaves in concentration camps. Nor would people like these want to return to the hardships of scratching a living from parched limestone outcroppings. Jews were supposed to have been in exile, at a time when a generation was practically about 15 years, for a minimum of three generations even if we are to believe the biblical myth that they returned immediately they had the chance. They would have long ceased to have entertained any such thoughts.

Ezra could not have expounded the law until around 420 BC, about 160 years after the exile, two long lifetimes or about ten generations. No exiled Jew could have been still entertaining any yearning for their home after this time. They will have spent the time as insecure but privileged rulers of some Babylonian province, their insecurity being a guarantee of their loyalty and their privilege rewarding them with wealth. They must have been better off where they were than in their dusty homeland, and they must have known that any hopes of a return, even if they first entertained them, as they might have, were out of the question.

Biblicists like to claim that the success of the Jews in exile is proved by the success of the Egibi bank, said by many to have been Jewish from the names of some its staff being theophoric in some abbreviated form of Yehouah, or otheriwse supposedly looking Jewish. Thus the name of the bank, Egibi, is supposed to be the same as Jacob, and several of the names are said to have been in the lists of Ezra’s “Returners”. Even so, A Ungnad (1941), cited by Garbini (GG-HIAI), says most of the family names were Babylonian, not Jewish.

Even more curious is that the Egibi bank had flourished in Babylon even before Nebuchadrezzer had destroyed Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish ruling elite. The biblicist excuse then becomes that these are not Jews but remnants of the lost tribes of Israelites. What is overlooked is the simple fact that the Israelites were not the only people who ever worshipped Yehouah. Canaanites, Syrians and even Babylonians worshipped the same god. In Babylon he was Ea, matching Egibi rather better than Jacob.

In the time they were in exile, the Jews must have fully integrated with the people they were set over. So, who did “return”? Using the biblical clues, they came from the watered plains of Syria by the mountains leading to Uratu, by the cities of Urfa and Harran. The word “Egibi”, if it were a hybrid, looks to mean something like the House of the Highlanders (E-Gibea) whch again would imply the north of Mesopotamia where the plains of Syria meet the highlands of modern Turkey, only about 100 miles from Canaan, and not much further from places like Hamath known to had names theophoric in Yehouah in contemporary times. This too is the place whence came the Persian colonists to Yehud.

Doubtless the colonists were actually a mixed bunch, but all had to believe and propagate the ethnic myth they had been provided with by their Persian masters. The myth was that they had been sent into exile long ago as God’s punishment, but having served their time, at the instigation of God’s anointed one, Cyrus, the king of kings, acting upon the wishes of their own God called Yehouah, they were being returned, and had now to keep the restored religion of Yehouah free of pollution by idolatry. To help them, Yehouah had provided them with a law, and the redeemer, the shananshah, had sent his chief minister to read it out for them. He was called Ezra, or some say, Zorobabel.

The Extent of God’s Wrath

Cyrus was happy for co-operative people to restore their traditional beliefs, because the astonishingly rapid growth of the empire overtaxed its human resources. There were not enough experienced Persian administrators to administer such a huge territory. Persians were placed in senior positions throughout the empire but locals had to be trusted at lower levels, and in minor places. For an empire facing up to Egyptians, Greeks, Syrians and Indians, Palestine at first was simply an eroded hillside. The Persians made it important for defensive and treasury reasons.

The author of Ezra 1-6 wants to depict the return as a single huge event urged by Cyrus himself, though it was not. Nor was the building of the temple undertaken quickly but only a long time after Cyrus and even Darius the Great had died. Biblical commentaries will happily tell us that Josephus got confused among the Persian Dariuses, but the scholars are no more enlightened. P Ackroyd notes that the arrival of Zerubabel, Joshua and the large number of settlers has been placed by different biblical authorities in the time of Cyrus, Cambyses and Darius I. It shows that no one knows and they are all guessing—and they are all wrong! The compilers of the bible themselves had gotten confused. It is most likely that the date is the second year of Darius II, a hundred years later than Darius I.

It seems that the earliest colonists to come into the hill countries of Palestine under the Persians did not build a temple at all! Their excuse is given in the bible as that the time had not yet come. “The time has not yet come”, uses the word “et” for “time”, a word used elsewhere to mean a divinely appointed time. The inscriptions of Esarhaddon testify to the king’s use of a divine schedule for restoring the Babylonian temple to Marduk at Esagila destroyed by his father Sennacherib. Destruction was a sign of divine wrath, and the people had to be persuaded that the god was no longer angry. The Esarhaddon inscriptions state that the period of wrath was for seventy years but the god had reduced the sentence out of compassion to eleven years. The Assyrian king had really decided to reverse his father’s policy because a grateful population were easier to govern than a resentful one.

The change was presented easily because the sexagesimal numeric system was a system of counting in units, 10s, 60s and 360s, rather as we count in units, 10s, 100s, and so on. Seventy years was one sixty and one ten (11) and eleven was one ten and one unit (11), so the adjustment from seventy to eleven looked divinely rational to a Babylonian. It is worth noting in passing that the 490 years which also pops up in prophecy is (360 + 60) (11) added to (60 + 10) (11). The time, two times and half a time is 3 x 11 (3 x [360 + 60]). The 210 years which turns up in Josephus is 3 x 11 (3 x [60 + 10]). The years of David in Jerusalem is 3 x 11 (3 x [10 + 1]). When the magic number of years of punishment had been completed, then the “years were fulfilled and the appointed time had arrived”. Many examples of this usage are known in Mesopotamian tablets.

The sign of a God’s change of heart was often a change of king, the reason being that of Esarhaddon himself—a new king often persued a different policy. To do so, he presented the U-turn as a divine decision. The appointed time was fulfilled or the god repented of his wrath. The new king had been placed on the throne by the god to carry out his new commandments. The parallels with the bible do not need mentioning, and no Christian will! It was the approach used by Cyrus according to the bible and according to the cylinder seals in Babylonia. The new king signals the god’s new pleasure, and honours his duty to restore the shrine.

So, Cyrus was making use of a standard convention, known to all senior officials in all countries but not known by the gullible masses who believed in their god! He was not being kind hearted to distressed religions as biblicists have pretended since the bible was subject to Christian exegesis. It was a standard administrative and diplomatic policy, widely used. The kings knew that the ordinary people, alienated by the punishments or incompetence of earlier kings, would see them as saviours.

In the Jewish scriptures, we read such statements as:

When the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon.
Jer 25:11-12


Jeremiah mentions the magic number of years again elsewhere (Jer 29:10-14). Isaiah has Yehouah punishing Tyre for 70 years (Isa 23:15). The choice of seventy is the recognized lifetime of any human being, and so a punishmant of seventy years, in these ancient near eastern theologies, meant the generation of people now living could have had no responsibility for the crimes that had invited the god’s original wrath. In administrative terms, it meant that the new ruler could “restore” the religion into a form that better suited his policies, and no one would be any the wiser. The priests, do not forget, were officials of the state. This is precisely what the Persians did in Yehud. The Persians restored the worship of Yehouah in a form that was utterly different from the Canaanite worship of Yehouah as a Baal. Now he was a god of heaven who acted through the Persian king.

The equivalent in Babylon was that the fall of the city was presented as a divine act by Marduk. The city’s god had chosen Cyrus and charged him to restore Marduk’s religion, neglected by the neo-Babylonian rulers. There is no doubt at all that Cyrus recruited the assistance of the priesthood of Marduk beforehand with the promise that he would indeed restore their religion. Babylon offered little resistance to the Medes and Persians.

The seventy years are mentioned in 2 Chronicles 36:21, then Ezra begins immediately talking about the first year of Cyrus. Zechariah 1:12 speaks of the anger of Yehouah Sabaoth for seventy years, but put in the form of a question. While the seventy years seems a standard punishment period for serious crimes against a god, the supplicants in Zechariah, as in some of the psalms and elsewhere, seem exasperated that such an excessively long time had passed. The first six verses of Zechariah are an accusation that generations before the one living in the second year of Darius had been directed to return to the true god from their evil ways but had failed. This makes sense if the Darius spoken of is Darius II and the time is about 420 BC.

Earlier colonists had failed to win over the local population and had not set up the temple state, if that were indeed their task. Isaiah 40:2 says that Jerusalem had had double the punishment for all her crimes, an implication, perhaps, that around 140 years had passed, not merely seventy, suggesting that the period of redemption was in the fifth century, about the time that Nehemiah was said to have returned.

In the next ten verses, Zechariah says that God’s extended wrath was now ended. He uses the “How long?” formula and repeats the seventy year formula. The “How long?” formula is common in the Psalms and elsewhere in the scriptures, but is also found in Sumerian and Akkadian laments and supplications as M E Cohen (The Canonical Lamentations of Ancient Mesopotamia) has detailed.

The Persians use the prophet to put to the people their duty, now that the divine wrath had ended. Both the local Canaanites and the press-ganged colonists knew nothing at all about what had happened in Palestine 70 to 150 years before. They took their cues from the Persian propagandists—the prophets. This explains the “How long?” formula in Psalms, (eg Ps 70:10-11, 79:5, 80:4, 89:46) because the conventional period had long been exceeded.

How long, Yehouah, wilt thou be angry? For ever?
Psalms 79:5


The inquisitive “Forever?” implied that the period of punishment had been excessive. No one lived who could remember what the world was like before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the prophet was preparing them for a surprise—God’s anger was soon to end. Isaiah expresses the same delay:

Be not wrath very sore, Yehouah, neither remember iniquity for ever: behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people.
Isa 63:7-64:11


The prophet urges that God should not be angry “indefinitely” or think of the people’s sin “for ever”. Lamentations has the same mood:

Wherefore dost thou forget us for ever, and forsake us so long time? …But thou hast utterly rejected us, thou art very wrath against us.
Lam 5:20


It is preparatory propaganda of the sort that would be naturally disbelieved after such a long period and so would look like a miracle when it came true. Its purpose was really to remind the people, after such a long time, that they still had a god rather than that his period of anger was up. Gods were the monarchs of the ancient near east and Isaiah is not called the “Salvation of Yehouah” for nothing—His message is that the divine king, Yehouah, was returning.

Exiled Israel

After the colonization of Israel, the nation started to be called “Exiled Israel”, in the books now called the scriptures. Why should they have wanted to call themselves exiled when they had returned? If the Persian kings had allowed them to return to their former homeland after they had been abducted by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, they ought to have been willing to show some gratitude to their new rulers and called themselves “Restored Israel”, or some similar name.

What also of the Judahites and the Israelites who were not taken away to the rivers of Babylon? Why would they have been willing to be called “Exiled Israel” when they had struggled for over seventy years to maintain a desolate country. The local people doubtless began to feel like exiles in their own land when the “returners” arrived and took over with the agreement of the Persian officials.

The author of Chronicles (2 Chr 36:20-21) wants us to believe that every last person in the Palestinian Hills had been removed to Babylonia and to Medea, leaving the country empty of people except for a few passing Arabs. No one remained behind, so the whole population were “returners” and had been “exiled”. The Deuteronomic Historian gives the same idea with the last Israelites leaving after the murder of Gedaliah, and the narrative petering out with the fate of the exiled royalty in Babylonia. The author of Jeremiah leaves the narrative at this same point. It is not likely or feasible and other parts of the scriptures contradict it. P R Bedford writes:

The tendentious view of the Hebrew narratives of Ezra is that the land was devoid of Judaeans after 587 BC, thus whoever the repatriats found there could not have been legitimate Judaeans.


Even after 70 years in exile, people who could preserve such careful histories and were obsessively concerned with genealogies ought to have been willing and delighted to trace their relatives among those who had been left behind. Yet the “returners” treat those they found still in the land as foreigners, arguing that no one had been left behind. The people who returned were confident they had no relatives in Yehud because their ancestors were not from there. They had no relatives among the Am ha Eretz because they were different people deported in as colonists by the Persian government.

Yet the colonists themselves were exiles! They had been deported from some distant country to be the colonists of Yehud. Now, with the authority of the Persian government, they—the colonists—could assert that they were the only legitimate Jews! Those that had remained in Judaea when the skilled classes were taken off were not legitimate Jews even if they were legitimate Judaeans. So, both groups of people had cause to describe themselves as exiles in what was ordained as their own country! The locals would only have a chance of becoming Jews by accepting the rulership of the colonists and collaborating with them in every respect as agents of the Persian conquerors. That is what the Persians understood by a Jew wherever they lived in their empire and they were happy to allow them the privileges of a local ruling class subject only to the Persians themselves as long as they remained loyal. Mainly they did.

The return of Ezra 1-2 has been considered by the scholars to have been written to mimic the occupation of the land originally by Joshua, but the truth is Hegelian—the myth of the “Exodus” and Joshua was an allegory of the colonization of Yehud! It was not a return but an occupation of an alien land, just as the tribes under Joshua were considered to have done. The colonists were not expatriot Israelites but people from “eber niri”, “across the river”, Hebrews, the generic expression for anyone across the river in either direction, but which was predominantly applied to the lands to the west of the Euphrates, by the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians in the east. The natives were the Canaanites just as they were in the conquest stories. The new people were sent by the shah as “saviours”, to restore the old neglected ways of the Israelites. The word for saviour keeps appearing from then on in the stories invented to justify the colonisation—Hosea, Joshua, Isaiah, Elisha, and ultimately in Jesus!

The ordinary people will not have been intended to have any rational account of the colonization. It was presented to them as allegory set in the distant past to give the new country being forged a sense of antiquity. The Persian propagandists were remarkably successful! It is likely that the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah were for the eyes only of the topmost priests, and only emerged into the open through the destruction of texts in the Jewish civil war, and even then in a confused state, so they were reconstructed by the successful Maccabees and became part of the scriptures contrary to the intentions of the Persians. But this was after the victories of Alexander, in Greek times!

In Ezra and Nehemiah only the colonists are “returners” and are called Israel and even “All Israel”. The allegory of the exodus is mentioned showing it was familiar to the people by the time that Ezra was compiled about 200 years later. Jeremiah and Ezekiel both say the land is empty or has some inhabitants who do not matter because they are not of the House of Israel. Contradicting this, Ezekiel says there was indeed a body of people still living in the land who were descendants of Abraham (Ezek 33:24-29), but Yehouah would destroy them:

Say thou thus unto them, Thus saith Yehouah Elohim; As I live, surely they that are in the wastes shall fall by the sword, and him that is in the open field will I give to the beasts to be devoured, and they that be in the forts and in the caves shall die of the pestilence. For I will lay the land most desolate, and the pomp of her strength shall cease; and the mountains of Israel shall be desolate, that none shall pass through.
Ezek 33:27-28


They were, of course, wicked and so deserved it! Jeremiah has the same (Jer 24:1-10). For Jeremiah, the exiles are only those taken with Jehoiakim to Babylon.

Isaiah 40-55 gives the allegory of the “return” and the “exodus”. In the exodus allusions in Ezra and Isaiah, the audience are led to identify with those brought “out of Egypt”. Egypt is the enemy and the changes being brought about were meant to dispose the audience of the Persian prophets against Egypt. Isaiah 52:11-12 suggests that the “return” from “exile” is greater than the exodus from Egypt. These parallels identify Ezra with Moses and Egypt with Babylon.

Really, the exodus was psychological. It was a propaganda exodus in which the people of the Levant, long in the cultural shadow of Egypt and in many cases her actual colonies, were to be led away to an ostensible influence but practical dependence on the east—Persia. The divine law of the Jews, in the Pentateuchal saga, was given to a people who had no land, and the people already living in the land they were to occupy in the myth knew nothing about this law. The invaders are shown as having the law when they enter the “Promised Land”, and forced it upon those there on pain of death. The patriarchal narratives and the Pentateuch show Israel as outsiders in opposition to the inhabitants of the land they had moved to. We are reading an allegory of the “return” not any actual history.

The law given to the confused mass of former Egyptian slaves was that of a settled and civilized society, not anything that wandering slaves could devise. Doubtless gods and fairy-godmothers can produce out of their conjuring bag whatever they like, but reality demands that experience should lie behind historical events. An unsettled people could not have invented or even had need for the law of a settled and civilized people. If, then, the Israelites had the law before they had a land, it must have been given to them by some civilized country and not by God, and it must have been imposed, for otherwise no one would have taken any notice of it. In fact, psalms such as Psalms 126 and Psalms 137 are propaganda aimed at persuading the Canaanites (the Am ha Eretz and the Samarians) to put their interests with the colonists.

An Empty Land?

Yet Chronicles emphasises the emptiness of the land, which therefore needed no conquest, and scarcely mentions one, or even an exodus. For this author, Judaism began with those who “returned”, not those who mythically came out of Egypt conquering. If the land was empty, at the “return”, then all of the people must have been carried off, and none of them could have returned prematurely by finding their way back on their own initiative in the intervening decades.

Jeremiah 52:16 admits that poor people were left behind in the hill country when the leading families were banished. Nehemiah 9:6-37 reviews Israel’s past without mentioning an exile. Isaiah 6:11-13 speaks of a remnant left in the land with no context of an exile or a return. The word “Israel” is surprisingly uncommon in some biblical books, such as Haggai, and the biblical concept if it as the exiled people of God might have been largely a product of post-colonial mythologizing to legitimize colonial rule.

The myth that only “exiled Israel” was Israel excluded everyone except the colonists who were almost certainly not Israel! Local people, whether Judahites (Am ha Eretz) or Samarians were excluded, and indeed so were all of those who worshipped the Canaanite Yehouah instead of the version brought by the Persian colonists. We know this from the Elephantine letter.


That the Babylonians exiled most of the inhabitants of Judah is historically unlikely, contradicted by clear archaeological evidence, and undermined by several biblical texts.
Ehud Ben Zvi


Nothing in the archaeology suggests a disruption of occupation sufficient to produce the signs that a long period of desolation would entail. Jeremiah and Ezekiel contradict the hypothesis of a total abduction of the population because people are mentioned as still living in Judah. What is more, Jeremiah tells us that Neburazadan exiled another 745 Judahites even though the land was already “empty”. The explanation is that the biblical authors paid no regard to the peasantry. If the land was empty of nobility and craftsmen, then it was empty. Such an emptiness could produce another 745 people for exile if the authorities decided they might provoke trouble!

Similar contradictions occur in the tales about the total exile of the so-called ten northern tribes. The Assyrians abducted the entire population of Israel and brought in foreign colonists to replace them (2 Kg 17:24-33). Thus the people of Samaria could not have been of the same ethnos as the people in Judah. Supposedly, this is why the Samaritans and the Jews hate each other until this day. Yet, read on in 2 Kings and the northerners are treated as Israelites and Yehouah is their true god (2 Kg 17:34-41)!

The scriptures describe Samaria as vanquished by the Assyrians (Mic 1:6-7; Ezek 16:44-52; 23:31-34; 2 Kg 17:5-23; 21:10-14) and a similar fate is offered as a warning to Jerusalem, yet Samaria was not destroyed, and nor were all of its people banished. The destruction was of Samaria as an independent political entity and not in the sense of physical destruction and decimation of the people as biblicists always read it. Samaria became a regional capital of Assyria and Israelites remained in the province.

Cyrus the Great cylinder, one of many in which the Persian king tells the Babylonians that he is the choice of their god, Marduk as his regent on earth to restore him to his rightful glory. The bible has Yehouah saying the same about Cyrus to the Jews.


Babylon is described in similar exeggerrated terms. It is razed and its gods humbled (Isa 13:1-22; 461-2; Jer 50:1-51:64) yet Cyrus did nothing of the kind. He won Babylon with hardly a fight and with little damage and he praised its god, Marduk, saying he had succeeded because it was the god’s will, and to prove it he undertook to restore his temples and purify his priesthood. Too many copies of the Cyrus cylinder say this even for Christians to deny it. Yet Babylon was destroyed as Samaria was because it ceased to exist as a political entity in its own right, even though it became one of the capitals of the Persian empire. People of 2,500 years ago were more sophisticated than modern day theologians. They knew that when this was read out, it was political propaganda—warnings to the listeners not to trifle with the political might of god’s agent on earth.

The Babylonians deported the ruling class from among the people of the Palestinian hills leaving the country with a slightly depleted population, but without any or many knowledgeable and skilled people to run the economy. Economic hardship will have been likely to have taken the population further down in succeeding years. No evidence has emerged that the Babylonians deported anyone into Judah from elsewhere, and the country was scarcely an attraction to economic migrants, despite the biblical stories. Ehud Ben Zvi writes:

The only circumstances that could have led to an ethno-demographic change of significant proportions… are those associated with imperial policies of forced population movements.


The people of neo-Babylonian Judah were therefore the same people that had lived there before the Babylonian conquest. They were Canaanites who became inhabitants of a minor Babylonian province, then of a minor Achaemenid province, which however, was later to be promoted to a temple state of international importance.

Some biblical texts admit the poor remained in the land and took possession of it (2 Kg 25:12; Jer 39:10; 52:16, 28-30; Ezek 33:24-29) and only the elite were deported (2 Kg 24:14). Yet, even transportation of the elite was not total. Some of the Judahite nobility can have been relied upon to have supported the conqueror, and would not have been deported with the rest, but left behind as safe hands loyal to the conqueror, yet commanding a degree of support among the people, and rewarded with local power, like Gedaliah (2 Kg 25:22).

The supposition is that the descendants of exiled nobility returned to claim their erstwhile possessions, after at least three generations in a distant land. In those generations abroad, according to the interpretation of the biblicists, the exiled Jews had become wealthy bankers and merchants, influential at the center of a great commercial empire, yet had an ancestral urge to return to trimming vines and herding sheep on limestone crags. We have to suppose that, despite this astonishing success, the exiles were still interested in, and could still remember, what was theirs, and wanted to return from sophisticated living in a center of civilization to a bucolic life in rocky and dessicated hills.

It is not as though their return could have been simple, whether other people lived there or not. The ownership of confiscated land went to the Babylonian king, and income from renting it to the poor Judahites who remained behind went into his coffers via local administrators. With the Persian conquest of Babylonia, the land went to the Persian king, and evidently was parcelled out on his orders. If we accept the biblical implication that the Persian kings made a grant of their Judahite estates to the exiled nobility, we have to consider how they would make a legal claim. The exiled nobles must be presumed to have taken with them some form of legal entitlement, or lesser relatives and retainers in Judah must have kept the claims. The bible certainly implies that ideas of such repossession were held, but they were easier to write into a myth than to preserve in documentary form for seventy years at a time when documents were written on tablets of clay, and not in personal organizers.

Nor would the neo-Babylonian administration have looked favourably upon servants of banned nobles causing trouble any more than they would have looked favourably upon banned nobles themselves doing the same. Laying claim to confiscated land whether locally or from exile could only have been considered a nuisance, if not foolish and dangerous because it was a criticism of the king. The same is true of scribes, if any were left in such a derelict country. Local Babylonian administrators would hardly let them make written claims for confiscated land without retort. The examples which appear in the bible are simply part of the later claim to ownership and legitimacy made by the Persian colonists, who were de facto the new nobility whether the old nobility liked it or not.

While 2 Kings says 10,000 were taken captive, to judge from Jeremiah (Jer 52:28-30), the number was 4,600, of an estimated original population of 65,000. Approaching ten percent of the population is a large nobility, if that is what the 4,600 represents, but some of those carried of must have been craftsmen, and the scriptures admit that not all were nobles (2 Kg 24:14-16). After successfully grubbing in commercial ventures in a distant land, it is doubtlful whether they would seventy years later have considered themselves still nobles of a backward country. If they still had the stamp of nobility after that time, it remains doubtful that any wise monarch would let them return unsupervised and claim land in a part of his realm causing dissension and disruption in a country that had been pacified enough to have remained peaceful for three genrations.

The whole idea of people simply deciding to up-and-out of Babylonian slavery to journey to Palestine there to claim a patch of land that the king had been letting peacefully to another tenant for decades is absurd. The whole process can only be rationalized as being a government organized venture.

These expatriot nobles would have been returning to wrench from the descendants of people rewarded by previous kings for loyalty. Loyalty is what all kings wanted and only foolish kings would risk stirring up dissension unless they had utter control over what went on. The Persian kings were mainly not foolish. So, the return could only have happened officially, not as piecemeal expeditions like the wagon trains of the wild west, and the only official ventures of this kind made by ancient near eastern monarchs were mass deportations, not assisted passages for voluntary repatriation of displaced families. Ben Zvi writes:

It is impossible to assess whether the new settlers—all or most of them—were descendants of the Judahites exiled by Nebuchadnezzar or included different people…


Whether some were descendants of Judahites or not, they were “Israel” because those who were deported into Yehud were so defined. The Babylonian conquest in Nehemiah 9:21-30 is just a severe instance in a series of defeats and setbacks suffered by Israel. The exile is not mentioned among them. There was no exile!

The identification of the colonists as being Israel, and only them, plainly laid out their rights. They were not rights they could have simply taken at the expense of other people living on the land, as if there were no law, or as if the returners were bandits who could ignore it. They had to have had the approval of the government and the government must have conferred on to the settlers whatever rights they had. Any transfer of lands must have been done under the rule of law, and it would not have been feasible for many small groups of “returners” to have claimed land rights over a long period. That is why the claims of Ezra and Nehemiah that all of the “exiles” returned at once cannot be far wrong. The impression is that there were more than one such expedition under different kings but only one or two of them seemed to succeed—that is achieve tha objectives that the administration had set them as colonists. Military organization would have been needed for the peaceful transportation of such large numbers of people.

K G Hoglund reports that the archaeology of this period supports an increase in rural settlements in Persian Yehud compared with neo-Babylonian Judah. However, the archaeology does not suggest that the new settlers occupied ancestral lands, but that they opened up new uncultivated plots on the kings estates or re-opened land which had fallen into disuse. Perhaps, these settlers had been displaced by the returners who reclaimed old holdings, but the king had obviously provided for the displaced tenants elsewhere on his own property. Though this might seem equitable in some measure, it must have still cause discontent because then the displaced tenants must have been displaced on to more marginal land, while the colonists had the fertile plots.

Once the colonists had settled and started propagandizing, the apparently rigid refusal to accept anyone as Israel except the colonists would melt at the edges. The Persians knew that their colonists had to be in control, and that was the point of the restriction, but their intention was to forge an ultimate unity. It had, though, to be on colonial terms, whence the rigidity of the admission procedure. Everyone who wanted to join Israel had to accept the terms and conditions. Anthropologists have shown that ethnic boundaries can never be kept distinct. A formerly undesirable family becomes rich or influential, then everyone wants to know them. Modern Jews know this as well as anyone. It was true then. Samarians and Am ha Eretz were admitted into Israel once they were ready to accept the new cult. That it was a prestigious government project helped.

Ezra 6:22 and Nehemiah 10:29 clearly say that the local Canaanites would be accepted into the congregation of the returners provided that they accepted the new cult, and the provisions for it watched over by the colonists.

Genealogies to us are fixed—they represent history—but anthropologists have shown repeatedly that for most people they are flexible, varying according to present day circumstances, not what once was. “Invented tradition” is well studied but has made no impact on what clergy teach their congregations. E Hobsbawm and T Ranger edited The Invention of Tradition as long ago as 1983, so biblical scholars have had plenty of time to consider its implications for biblical veracity. Indeed, R R Wilson in Genealogy and History in the Biblical World concentrates on just this specific issue. Few have bothered because scholarhip is not the true aim of the devoutly religious. Written tradition is scarcely less malleable than oral. When necessary, genealogies were altered. Their purpose was not to permanently exclude fellow countrymen but to exclude strangers, so even strangers were admitted into the fellowship when they became seen as countrymen.

We have no lists of those who were excluded from Israel to compare with those who were admitted according to the genealogies. When a genealogy says that such a family returned with Ezra, who later was in a position to contradict? Acceptable local families were written into the genealogies probably from their creation, surely after. Scholars know this and can make good guesses about some of the families who never returned because they were associated quite plainly with local towns.

The Second Temple

In 1 Kings 6:2, the first temple is given as 60 cubits long, 20 wide and 30 high, about 90 x 30 x 45, in feet. Cyrus apparently declared that the temple would be 60 cubits wide and 60 cubits high, but he forgot to say how long it was. If its length was the same as the first temple then the building was a 90 foot cube—quite a striking structure, one might think, but not striking enough for anyone in the scriptures to remark upon. It looks suspicious.

The most complete description of the second temple, also suspiciously, occurs in the supposed edict of Cyrus (Ezra 6:3-4), inclining the critical reader to think that the edict has been recast at a later date to highlight the temple. Persians at the time of Cyrus had no temples, other than possibly a few for keeping the sacred fire, and most worship was outdoors on grassy plains or bare hill tops. There is a largely hidden struggle in the scriptures between people who worshipped in “high places” and those who wanted a sanctuary. Those who worshipped in high places were identified as worshippers of Baal, but underlying this rationalization (or slander) might have been a dispute between those in the hill country who wanted al fresco Persian style worship and those who preferred enclosed Canaanite style worship—in a temple. The latter won.

Even if there had been a Solomon’s temple, it is quite likely that the site was not merely ruined but cleared. If there had never been a Solomon’s temple, but instead a high place (bamah) then no ruins would have been present merely a parched and well trodden hilltop, with an altar. The word translated “waste” and “ruins” (Hag 1:4,9) strictly means “dry” or “desolate” or “desert”. By extension it is read as “ruins”. The punning reference to the temple site in Haggai 1:10-11, is to barrenness from dryness and drought. The mountain upon which the temple was built was called “Horeb”, meaning “a dry place” but translated as ruins from the expectation of the translators that a previous temple had stood there. By one of those curiosities that God has chosen to dot all over his sacred works, the Akkadian for “dry” is “shalmu”, a word cognate with Solomon! Moreover, the mention of “ceiled” houses (Hag 1:4) might mean that God’s original “house” had no ceiling because it was an al fresco temple.

Though there is supposed to be no temple in Haggai, priests and Levites are being supported by tithes, sacrifices being offered and prayers said. If there was no built temple, all of this must have been done outdoors in the Persian fashion, at an altar under the sky. The story that the initial returners at the time of Cyrus set up an altar, with no mention of a temple (Ezra 3:2-3), suggests that here was a Persian style of temple—simply an altar open to the elements. This Persian “high place” type of sanctuary seems to have lasted for a hundred years. The acceptance of a demand for an enclosed temple points to the second Babylonian Darius, not the Persian one, as king. The second Darius, much more influenced by Babylonian practice than Persian, is more likely to have agreed to a built temple.

It seems a local governor allowed the local people to raise an altar on the dry hilltop overlooking Jerusalem, apparently a traditional Canaanite High Place. Thereafter nothing further significant happened for a hundred years, although groups of colonists were sent in by the Persians. If raising a temple was a part of their brief, it was not an important part, because they did not do it. In the mid-fifth century, the local people possibly showed too much favour to the Egyptians in a revolt, or perhaps it was Megabyxos that they favoured.

The Persian kings therefore decided to set up a temple state run by more determined or more pressurized colonists deported into the country and charged with the duty of raising revenue from Abarnahara for the shahansha, and defending a line of fortresses set up against Egypt. To do this they had to use the local Canaanites as labour and therefore had to persuade them that it was in their own interest to give support—support in the donkey work, but no input in the designing and building. The colonists were elements of the ruling classes of some other conquered and troublesome people, and were able but precarious in their elite situation.

The only identifiable references to the “second” temple in the scriptures are those of Zechariah and Haggai. There are detailed accounts in the scriptures of the Mosaic holy dwelling place of God, the temple of Solomon and the visionary temple of Ezekiel, but there is no description of the second temple, other than scraps that can be found by diligent reading, and these, unsurprisingly, are not too revealing. No mention of Solomon in Haggai, nor in Zechariah nor in Ezra, except in the genealogies that were added later, even suggest this was a second temple, and the solitary mention in Nehemiah, other than in genealogies, looks interpolated. Christians commentators talk without a blush about the second temple, and never seem to wonder about the peculiarity of its uncommonness in the text.

Elsewhere in the prophets, Yehouah lives in his “Holy Mountain” (Obad 16; Zeph 3:11; Joel 3:17; Isa 65:11,75). Isaiah mentions the “courts of my sanctuary” (Isa 62:9). The vision of Isaiah 6 is typical of romanticized visions of God in his abode, but might be based on sight of the interior of a temple. Jeremiah mentions the “chambers” of the house of Yehouah (Jer 35:2), and Baruch reads the scroll to the people in a temple “chamber”. Not a lot of information to work on about the second temple.

The local Israelites were utterly sullen and unco-operative, indeed disruptive and distraught when the temple was opened. Zechariah 4:6-10 describes a foundation laying ritual closely similar to the Mesopotamian Kalu festival, but, in Haggai 2:3 and Ezra 3:12, there are plenty of people who are not happy at the building of the foundation, excused as the tears of joy of those who could still remember the temple before it was destroyed.

But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy.


Remember this is a minimum of 70 years after the temple was destroyed, even by the bible’s own sequence of things, so these weeping old men were indeed ancient. In fact, it was another 100 years after that and the people were not weeping out of joy. It was despair that the future was more oppression for the native people of Yehud.

The locals had shown some interest in the new project at first, since the god to be honoured was, on the face of it, one of their own gods, but they had not seemed inclined to build much for him themselves, until the new Persian endeavour began. If they had really been waiting for a sign that Yehouah’s wrath was over, then the defeat of the Babylonians and Cyrus’s apparently liberal edicts ought to have been sufficient. They did not jump at the opportunity until someone else—the colonists sent in by the administration—began to build. Then they took their cue.

It will have needed all the prophetic propaganda that the Persian colonists could muster. The building of the temple was an eschatological act, it was to be accompanied by the submission of the nations to the king Yehouah, meaning the other nations of Abarnahara—the Hebrew nations. Yehouah was the “king” of these nations as well as the Jews. If the Canaanites were waiting for Yehouah to first announce himself as king before they built any temple to Him, then the propaganda of Haggai and Zechariah was to disillusion them. The building of the temple had to precede any kingship of Yehouah!

The accounts of the building of the first temple and the ceremonies associated with them have to be seen in the reverse way of convention. Conventionally, the bible is a true chronology. It is not. The similarities of the descriptions of the building and dedication of the second temple are seen as deliberate literary reflexions of the ancient original events in the ancient history of the Israelites in the United Monarchy. If there never was a united monarchy, all of this history is false. In fact, the mythical histories of the Deuteronomic Historian and the Chronicler are retrojected elaborations of the dedication of the so-called “second” temple. The second temple is the first temple of Yehouah, and the so-called first temple is a mythologized excuse for the second temple.

And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of Yehouah, they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise Yehouah, after the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto Yehouah; because he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever toward Israel. And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised Yehouah, because the foundation of the house of Yehouah was laid.
Ezra 3:10-12
And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place: (for all the priests that were present were sanctified, and did not then wait by course: Also the Levites which were the singers, all of them of Asaph, of Heman, of Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets). It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking Yehouah; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised Yehouah, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of Yehouah; So that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of Yehouah had filled the house of God.
2 Chr 5:11-14


These descriptions purport to be of different events 500 years apart in time! The authors can only have known the regalia and ceremonial of the temple of the time when they lived—the “second” temple!


There is widespread agreement that the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt under Achaemenid auspices, and some would even say it was mandated by the Persians.
Ehud Ben Zvi


Among the “some” is J Blenkinsopp whose belief is that the Persians were responsible for the foundation of the temple. They were therefore responsible for founding Judaism. There should be no doubt about this. The project could not have been undertaken without Persian preparation and planning, even transporting in a large numbner of colonists to undertake and complete it. The bible makes no bones about it, although biblicists, enchanted by Moses or Jesus never get as far as reading Ezra and Nehemiah. Although the Achaemenids were known to have restored temples in other countries they had conquered, it had the political purpose of strengthening the local nobility, and ensured that local rulers were dependant, obedient and loyal to the shahanshah in return. Bill Gates gives free PCs to the schools. He does not give them a donation in cash to spend on Apple Macs! Altruistic acts are rarely as selfless as they look, and the Persian kings did not restore temples for charity’s sake. The god worshipped in the temple and his priests acknowledged the Persian king as his Khalif on earth—no less than the god himself acting through his appointed or his anointed human being.

Nehemiah the Fire Priest

According to 2 Maccabees 1:18, Nehemiah was a more influential man than even Nehemiah’s own book says he was. He rebuilt the temple, the altar and offered sacrifices, and even brought the fire, that the priests had secretly preserved from Solomon’s temple, back from its hiding place in the captivity! If this seems remarkable to you, it is. The worship of fire is a characteristic of Persian religion and when a sacred flame was brought back from Persia, supposedly preserved from an earlier Israelite flame, then there is good reason to smell a rat. Aryan herdsmen on the steppes preferred to keep their flames permanently lit because it was a tedious business lighting one afresh. The “thick water” that allowed the sacred flame to be ignited by a miracle (2 Macc 1:20-22) is obviously oil, of which there is no small amount around Babylon, and the story gave us words like naphthalene.

Nehemiah prays to God, calling him the “only and gracious king”. He thanks God for saving Israel from all trouble and for choosing the fathers and sanctifying them. The references are all to the acts of the Persian king in sending the colonists to Israel. All Jews and Christians will doubtless read “the fathers” as Abraham and his sons but they are obviously the colonists who were literally—like the men on the Mayflower—the founding fathers of Judaism.

The story in 2 Maccabees finshes with a common biblical trick, which is to attribute the holiness of something backward in time to the thing revered in Judaism. It is an aetiological explanation of a holy place in Persia where the sacred flame of the Jerusalem temple had been secretly kept. In fact, of course, the sacred flame of the Jerusalem altar was brought from a more original sacred flame kept burning somewhere in Persia. Thus was Jerusalem made the center of the world. The first temple for this flame, at least, was some temple in Persia.

It is the Achaemenid king who is the true founder of the temple not David. Ezra lists four of them (Ezra 6:14-15), Cyrus, Darius, Artaxerxes and Darius again, but scarcely a single commentator has deduced from this sequence that the second Darius cannot have been the first one, as they all assume. The sixth year of Darius II is meant. If David founded the temple, then David is a clumsy approximation for the name of the Persian king, Daryavahu.

The Samarians were the Canaanites of the northern hills. They had not been deported by the Babylonians and so could not have “returned”. They were not Israel even though Israel is the place where they lived. They had not been allowed any say in how the temple project was undertaken, but they could join Israel by accepting the colonists’ way of doing things. Many actually did and proof occurs in the Apocryphal books. Tobit is about an exiled Samarian of the tribe of Naphthali who attended Jerusalem for all its festivals and sent the appropriate tithes. Judith also describes a Samarian Jew. Coins, bullae and papyri show that in Persian times many Samarians worshipped Yehouah, and the Elephantine priests saw Samaria as just as important a place to seek help as Jerusalem. Curiously, the iconography of the bullae and coins, comprehensively described in the 90s, are Hellenized, even at such an early date, as they are too in Yehud, suggesting the possibility that there were Greeks among the colonists sent by the Persians into Abarnahara.

The Samaritan Pentateuch seemed not to differ from the Jewish one at this time, perhaps because they were little more than Deuteronomy. The scriptures of Samaritans and Jews seemed not to vary until the time of Hyrcanus who oppressed the Samaritans. They had chosen Gerizim as the site of their own temple, appraently being more orthodox than the Jerusalem Yehouists (Dt 11:29; 27:12; Josh 8:33).

These are fossils of the first colonists in Yehud who had not been directed to centralize worship in Jerusalem, and possibly did not even agree on whether El of Yehouah should have been designated as Ahuramazda. By the time Greek influence was pushing out the original Persian from the temple, it was the Samarians who had become defensive of the Persian traditions, aided apparently by the Essenes. Both rejected the Hellenized Sadducees.

By this stage the Samarians decided to reject the polemic against them in the scriptures and so rejected the Prophets and the Writings which were too propagandistic. Samarian coins bearing the name Jeroboam are found from the fourth century BC. It is a hint of when the fiction of the early Samarian king, Jeroboam, might have been written. It also suggests that some of this history might have begun as parady and been written up as serious history by someone without a sense of humour, or too far later on for them to understand the satirical allusions.

Ben Zvi points out that:

Even the most drastic reforms were presented as supported by tradition, and—because reforms break the actual continuity with the past—as a restoration of the “traditional” (often invented by the reformer’s propaganda).


So, breaking the continuity with the past to pursue imperial aims was presented to the people as a “restoration” of abandoned tradition.

In summary:
The Persian kings transported Babylonian immigrants into Yehud to set up the temple and community in Jerusalem.
The temple and community was based on Babylonian models showing it was not early in the lifetime of the Persian empire, but when it had transferred its capital to Babylon.
Other worshippers, even of Yehouah were not admitted unless they accepted the leadership of the temple community.
The temple community provided administrative, social, economic, and political leadership as well as religious leadership to the nations of the region it served—called “Beyond the River” (Abarnahara), subject to imperial commands.
The temple community collected revenue and acted as a treasury for the Persian exchequer.






The Foundation of Judaism (part I): The Work of Nehemiah and Ezra





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