Cyrus the Great of Persia is called “Meshiah” (that is, “Anointed One,” “Messiah”) in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 45:1 and Yahweh’s “Shepherd” in Isaiah 44:28. This sort of grandiose language may seem striking to some. It should, as it is striking. But the backstory provides the basic rationale for this lofty verbiage. Namely, several decades before Second Isaiah referred to Cyrus as “Meshiah“ and “Shepherd,” Judah had suffered mightily at the hands of the Babylonians. It all began in ca. 597 BCE. The gold and silver of the Jerusalem Temple and Royal Palace had been plundered, but both buildings still stood. King Nebuchadnezzar the Great of Babylon was marching victoriously back to Babylon, not only with these precious metals but also with several thousand Judean prisoners of war. Among them were King Jehoiachin and much of the Judean royal family (2 Kings 24). Things were bad, but they would get worse, as Nebuchadnezzar would return to Jerusalem some ten years later to avenge and to destroy. Nebuchadnezzar’s rationale was this: Zedekiah had become king of Judah after Jehoiachin was exiled but he had not been the loyal vassal for whom Nebuchadnezzar had hoped. Nebuchadnezzar was angry, he came to Jerusalem and besieged it for some eighteen to twenty months, beginning around 587 BCE (2 Kings 25).
Conditions inside Jerusalem soon became desperate. The book of Kings laconically states that during the terminal portion of the siege “the famine became so severe that there was no food for the people” (2 Kings 25:3). But the poet of Lamentations limns the picture more poignantly, “the hands of compassionate women had boiled their children, they became food for them” (Lam 4:10). Desperation reigned. Then things deteriorated further. The walls were breached and the Temple and Palace were burned to the ground, along with all the houses of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:9). And brutality of a different sort began as hand-to-hand combat concluded: “women in Zion were raped, virgins (raped) in the cities of Judah” and “princes were hung by their hands” (Lam 5:11, 12). Words could not adequately describe the horror.
Zedekiah had abandoned Jerusalem shortly before its fall. But he and his young sons were captured near Jericho, deserted by the armed Judean soldiers who had pledged to protect them. Nebuchadnezzar decreed that Zedekiah and his sons be brought forward. They were, and then Zedekiah’s young sons were brutally slaughtered before their loving father’s eyes. At that point, a Babylonian soldier gouged out the Judean king’s eyes, his last visual memory now a haunting one. Zedekiah was led away in chains to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). The year was 586 BCE. This was the nadir of nadirs. From the hill of Zion profound sorrow and anger flowed. Raw human emotion is reflected in the words of a Psalmist: “O daughter of Babylon, you destroyer. Happy are the ones who seize your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9). Nebuchadnezzar’s campaigns against Judah had brought bloodshed, starvation, and destruction. Judah remembered Nebuchadnezzar as a brutal conqueror, and this he was.
But history is made of reversals and the tables were soon turned. East of the Tigris River, Cyrus the Great had begun to reign in Persia (around 559 BCE), and he soon began to weld together a full-fledged empire, defeating the Kingdom of the Medes and the Kingdom of Lydia. King Nabonidus (r. 556-539 BCE) was on the throne of Babylon, as one of the successors of Nebuchadnezzar the Great. But he would be Babylon’s last king. He had already spent around a decade of his reign at Tayma, an oasis in the Arabian Desert. There is actually an allusion to this tradition in an Aramaic Dead Sea Scroll called “The Prayer of Nabonidus.” In any case, based on the Mesopotamian texts at our disposal, there seem to have been some rumblings against Nabonidus even during his decade at the oasis, especially within the Babylonian priesthood. After all, he was said to have been most devoted to the Moon God Sîn rather than Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Nabonidus was an apostate, or so it seemed to some. He returned from the oasis, disaster now looming across the Tigris River. Then Cyrus began to march, and the prize he wanted most was the kingdom of Nabonidus.
The ancient historical sources are not all in agreement about the battles that were fought between the Babylonians and the Persians. Cyrus himself boasts that he entered Babylon without a battle, hailed (he says) as a liberator even by the Babylonians themselves. But the full story was certainly bloodier, and the Babylonian supporters of Cyrus fewer (Herodotus suggests as much). Nevertheless, Cyrus gained his prize, Babylon was his in 539 BCE. The Persian Empire Period had begun. Babylon had fallen. The Judeans who had felt the brunt of Babylon’s war machine fifty years earlier probably shed few tears at this news.
But there is more. Cyrus not only brought the Babylonian Empire to its knees, he also decreed (according to the book of Ezra) that the exiled Judeans in his realm be permitted to return to Judah and to rebuild the Temple. According to the book of Ezra, he also allowed the exiles to take with them (some of) the sacred vessels which had been pillaged from the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. And the book of Ezra states that there was an edict of Cyrus that said: “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he commissioned me to build for him the Temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (Ezra 1 and 6). In due time, work on the Second Temple would begin, and it would be completed by around 516 BCE, during the reign of Darius the Great of Persia (r. 522-486 BCE). It is within this context that the words of Isaiah 44 and 45 are best understood. Cyrus of Persia had destroyed the (Babylonian) destroyers of Jerusalem, freed the Judean Exiles, and decreed that the Jerusalem Temple be rebuilt. I suspect that Second Isaiah was not alone in his jubilation about Cyrus.
Cyrus was certainly famous in antiquity (and in the modern period) for his benevolence, even among the Greeks, due in part to Xenophon’s lengthy work entitled “Cyropaidia” (literally, the ‘Education of Cyrus’). But during excavations in Babylon in 1879, the now famous “Cyrus Cylinder” was found, galvanizing further the reputation of Cyrus. Certain salient facts about this cuneiform text are worth mentioning at the outset: (a) In terms of size, it is quite small, about ten inches by four inches, and cylindrical in shape. (b) In terms of language, although Cyrus was a Persian, the Cyrus Cylinder is written in the Akkadian language (i.e., not in Persian, the native language of Cyrus). Of course, this makes sense, as the target audience for this inscription was Babylonian, not Persian. (c) In terms of the amount of textual content, the Cylinder is relatively short, just a few hundred words long, preserved in some forty to fifty lines of cuneiform text. (d) In terms of date, it arguably hails from the very first years of the reign of Cyrus. (e) In terms of archaeological context, it was found as a “foundation deposit” in an ancient Babylonian building.
The content of this text is priceless, and it is laced with some very savvy royal apologia. It is most impressive. Here is a synopsis of the content of the Cyrus Cylinder, using the translations of Irving Finkel of the British Museum. The text begins with a narrative in the third person (rather than the first person, that is, “he” not “I”) which condemns the Babylonian King Nabonidus (whom Cyrus had just vanquished, of course), along with statements impugning Nabonidus for not being a pious worshipper of Marduk. The Cyrus Cylinder says that because of Marduk’s anger for Nabonidus, He (Marduk) raised up Cyrus the Persian, “an upright king,” taking him “by the hand” and ordering him (Cyrus) to go to Babylon and remove Nabonidus from power. Moreover, Marduk was “like a friend and a companion” to Cyrus. Then, at line 20 of the Cyrus Cylinder, the grammatical first person begins to be used. “I am Cyrus, king of the world!” Cyrus himself then declares that he is the king “whom Divine Marduk and Divine Nabu love.” He also states that upon his arrival in Babylon, the Babylonian people welcomed him with joy as he entered. He affirms that they viewed him as a liberator. After he became nicely ensconced in Babylon, Cyrus states that many kings from various regions “brought me weighty tribute” and “kissed my feet.” In return, he decrees that the people from various regions that had come under his dominion (especially because he had just vanquished Babylon) should be allowed to return to their homelands and to rebuild their temples. In addition, he requests the following: “May all the Gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Marduk and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds.” Finally, he also affirms that he has “enabled all the lands to live in peace.” The Cyrus Cylinder is a stunning archaeological artifact.
We do not know much at all about the personal religion of Cyrus the Great, but it is most reasonable to contend that he worshipped some of the Persian Gods, perhaps especially the God Ahuramazda. This was, after all, the case for several of the Persian kings who succeeded Cyrus. Therefore, it is all the more interesting that that Cyrus declares in the Cyrus Cylinder (written for a Babylonian audience) that he vanquished Babylon because the Babylonian God Marduk told him to do so! Of course, kings in the ancient Near East normally declared that they had divine patronage, but normally of their own Gods. In this case, however, Cyrus declares that the Babylonian God Marduk transferred His support from the Babylonian King Nabonidus and gave it to the Persian King Cyrus. Moreover, it is important to remember in this connection that the book of Ezra states that Cyrus had said something similar to the Judeans, namely, “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given me (Cyrus) all the kingdoms of the earth, and he commissioned me to build for him the temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (see Ezra 1 and 6). That is, according to these texts, Cyrus told the Babylonians that the Babylonian God Marduk told him to do what he did, and Cyrus told the Judeans that the Judean God Yahweh told him to do what he did. And I think that it is entirely reasonable to suppose that Cyrus told the Persian people that the Persian God Ahurzmazda told him to do what he did. I should note in this connection that this sort of brilliant royal apologia is not confined to Cyrus. After all, during King Sennacherib of Assyria’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, the Assyrian Rab Shakeh uses (at least according to 2 Kings 18:25) the same sort of rhetoric, arguing that it was Yahweh the God of Judah who summoned him (Sennacherib) to attack Judah. And the Neo-Assyrian Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal used similar rhetoric as well.
Of course, much has been made, especially during the past few decades, of the religious and political tolerance and generous diplomacy of Cyrus the Great. In fact, the Cyrus Cylinder itself has been referred to at times as an “Icon of Freedom” and even as “The First Bill of Human Rights,” oft repeated slogans as it is now in the midst of museum travels in the United States. Some thirty years ago, however, Amelie Kuhrt argued quite cogently that these sorts of appellatives might just be too grandiose. And most scholars within the field have concurred with Kuhrt’s corrective (demonstated again very nicely by Jacob Wright’s fine article on the Huffington Post several months ago). After all, the text of the Cyrus Cylinder is rather brief and much of the language contained in it can be found in earlier ancient Near Eastern Royal Inscriptions. And there is no grand affirmation of human rights within the Cyrus Cylinder, per se. And although Cyrus allowed the various people-groups (e.g., those who had been captured and exiled by the Babylonians) to return to their homelands, these people would certainly remain under Persian hegemony, and fealty to Persia would be demanded (including tribute). In short, there were some strings attached, big strings.
But I should also wish to emphasize that, at least for me, I remain very impressed with the words and actions of Cyrus. After all, not all conquerors in the ancient Near East were so kind to the conquered as Cyrus arguably was. Nebuchadnezzar’s treatment of the Judeans is an obvious demonstration of that. And I must also affirm that the basic deference of Cyrus to the religious sensibilities of the conquered is most admirable. True, Cyrus was not the only suzerain to be tolerant of the religious practices of a vassal (for discussion, see especially Beaulieu). But I would counter that not all suzerains were so tolerant, thus, I consider this to be a benevolent act. Someone might retort that his actions were more “savvy diplomacy” than “religious tolerance.” Perhaps so, but I admire his actions still. And, of course, it is both striking and important that a Judean writer of the late 6th century understood the actions of Cyrus to be good and noble, so much so as to cause him to refer to Cyrus as Yahweh’s “Shepherd” and his “Meshiah.” I take this as pretty good evidence (because it is close to being contemporary with the actual decree of Cyrus) that Cyrus was viewed by many in antiquity as a benevolent monarch, with regard to both politics and religion.
Some final musings: Within the contemporary world, people often attempt to mine ancient texts for models, virtues to be embraced or vices to be shunned. This can certainly be a useful thing, but it can also be a precarious venture, as it is all too easy to read too much into these ancient texts. But in days such as ours, full of many political and religious tensions across much of the globe, I must admit that some of the words and deeds of Cyrus resonate with me. I think something can be learned from these words. They deserve to be studied as important diplomatic and religious statements, as potent words from some two and a half millennia ago that were moving, at least in part, in good directions. And as for me, I’m happy to see movement in the direction of more tolerance, regardless of the ancient or modern texts in which it can be found, and regardless of whether the form is fledgling or fully developed.