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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.



              1. The New Exodus:

              The decree of Cyrus (its motives).


                            The first departure under Zorobabel.


                            The route followed.




              2. The “Old Country”:

              State of Palestine on the arrival of the exiles.


                            Political organization.




                            Religious concerns:

              The sacrifices begun at once.




                                          The second temple:







                            The rebuilding of the city-walls forbidden by Assuerus (The Book of Esther).






              1. Nehemias:

              First visit to Jerusalem (445–433 B.C.):

              His mission.


                                          Solemn promulgation of the law.




                            Second visit to Jerusalem:

              His reforms.


                                          The Samaritan Temple on Mount Garizim.




              2. Esdras:

              The second departure under Esdras (398 B. C.).


                            His reforms in Jerusalem.




                            Other works ascribed to him:

              The Great Synagogue (canon of the Old Testament).


                                          Authorship of several books of Holy Writ.


                                          Local synagogues (scribes and traditions).






§ 1. Zorobabel and the Second Temple

1. The New Exodus. The Babylonian Captivity was brought to a close in B. C. 536, by the decree of Cyrus which has been preserved to us in Esdras 1:1–4 (cfr. also 2 Paralip. 36:22, 23). From the wording of this decree—which speaks of Jehovah as the God of heaven, as the bestower of kingdoms, as He who commanded Cyrus to build Him a temple in Jerusalem—it was formerly inferred that being a Persian, the conqueror of Babylon was a strict monotheist, and was thereby led to grant to the Jews, because they also were monotheists, the long desired permission to return to the Holy Land. But the cylinder inscription of Cyrus discovered in 1879 (cfr. Records of the Past, new series, vol. v) makes it plain that “he was no strict monotheist, and that political, and not religious, motives prompted him to set the Jews free. It was a part of his general policy to allow perfect freedom to all religions, and it was with the same indifference that he allowed the Jews to build their temple that he rebuilt the temples of the Babylonian gods” (DEANE, Daniel, p. 161). Cyrus was also aware that the Jews of Babylon looked upon him as the deliverer promised to their race by their sacred books, and he realized how great a help it would be for his new empire if this friendly people were established under its protection, between its territories and Egypt, the ancient rival for dominion over Western Asia. Hence, he not only issued a decree which secured full freedom to the Jews to return, but even added to this the grant of the sacred vessels of Jehovah’s temple, which Nabuchodonosor had carried into Babylon (Esdras 1:7, sq.).

Although a comparatively small number of Babylonian exiles availed themselves of the royal favor extended to them, yet the decree of Cyrus was considered as an event of national importance by the many, who feeling unable or disinclined to return, contributed largely of their wealth towards the well-being of their returning brethren and the prospective erection of a second temple to Jehovah. The “new Exodus” was carried out under the leadership of Zorobabel (whose Chaldean name of Sassabasar is also given in the sacred text), “the prince of Juda.” This courageous descendant of David and worthy ancestor of Our Lord, having received from the Persian officers the sacred vessels, the restoration of which had been enjoined by Cyrus, and having made everything ready for the departure of the exiles who had gathered around him, set out for the Holy Land (Esdras 1:4–2:67).

We are not told the route followed by his joyous caravan. Not unlikely “it was the great trade-road along the Tigris and past the ruins of Ninive; then across Mesopotamia to Haran, the home of their first father; from there to Carcamis, the ancient Hittite stronghold at the fords of the Euphrates, and from thence south by Aleppo, Emath and Damascus to Jerusalem” (A. B. DAVIDSON, The Exile and the Restoration, p. 76). It was a long and fatiguing journey of at least four months, for we know that the much less numerous caravan headed later on by Esdras took between three and four months to reach Jerusalem, but their courage was kept up by their ardent desire to contemplate the holy mountains of Juda.

2. The “Old Country.” At length they reached Palestine, the actual state of which was indeed far from cheering. It is true that the northern part of the Holy Land had been already resettled by numerous exiles who had gradually returned from the captivity of the ten tribes, but the central part of the territory was occupied by the descendants of the mixed races settled in it by the Assyrian kings after the destruction of Samaria. The condition of southern Palestine was still more lamentable. The Edomites had seized Hebron and all Juda, together with the eastern part of Benjamin, and of this most sacred territory they were bound to give up to the returning Jews but a small part, by the express command of the Persian monarch.

But however straitened on all sides by other races, the returned exiles considered as sacred the territory which had been surrendered to them and began at once to settle in it. Part of them occupied Jerusalem and its surrounding villages, whilst others repaired to the towns in Juda and Benjamin, from which they or their fathers had been torn away (cfr. Nehemias 11, 12:28, 29). They formed a small community, which, of course, did not require any complex political organization. Its civil head was Zorobabel, with the Persian titles of “Athersata” (Esdras 2:63), and “Pasha” (Aggeus 1:1), which were equivalent to that of “governor” of Juda, whilst Josue, the son of Josedech, filled the position of high priest. Under them, and apparently associated with them in the government of the colony, were ten selected men known as “the chief of the fathers” (Esdras 4:2; 8:1). These twelve men formed a council which represented the whole nation: hence their number of twelve plainly fixed after the number of the tribes of Israel. They attended to all the affairs, social, religious, etc., of the returned exiles; but yet recognized the supremacy of the Persian monarch, whose superior power over all Palestine was represented by an officer with the title of “Chancellor.” Under these councillors, and working harmoniously with them, there were also secondary officers, whose duties and powers cannot be defined strictly at the present day (cfr. Nehemias 10:29; Esdras 3:12).

It may be noticed in this connection that no attempt was made to re-establish the Jewish monarchy, although so prominent a descendant of David as Zorobabel was already at the head of the government. Perhaps this was owing to the fact that the Jews were not anxious to see restored a form of government which had contributed so much to make the nation unfaithful to Jehovah, and to bring about the ruin of the Jewish commonwealth. Besides, of course, the governor of the Jews had not received the title of King from the Persian monarch, and, under the circumstances, an attempt at restoring the monarchy would have been objected to by this suzerain of Palestine.

Another restoration, that of Divine worship, lay infinitely closer to the heart of the returned exiles than the restoration of the monarchy. Their return had been clearly prompted by a religious impulse, and this is why, soon after they had effected their settlement, the religious and civil authorities of the nation gathered the people to witness the setting up of an altar to the God of Israel and the renewed offering of the morning and evening sacrifices on the first day of the seventh month. The great Festival of the Tabernacles was also celebrated with due solemnity, and the various legal holidays were henceforth observed with strict faithfulness (Esdras 3:1–6). A step towards the restoration of the Temple had already been taken in the form of generous contributions towards the rebuilding of the House of Jehovah on its former site (Esdras 2:68–70). It was not however, before “the second month of the second year of their coming” that the first stone of the “second” temple—called also the Temple of Zorobabel—was laid, amidst the sound of the priestly trumpets, the sacred hymns of the Levites and the joyful acclamations of the people. Yet this glorious day for Israel was also marked by the loud sobs of “many of the priests and Levites, and the chief of the fathers and of the ancients of the people who had seen the former temple” and remembered its past glories (Esdras 3:6 b–13).

The work of reconstruction was not, however, to proceed without interruption. The mixed races which dwelt in Samaria made overtures to the supreme council of the Jews, that they also might be allowed to share in the great work of rebuilding the Temple of Jehovah; but they were refused, lest friendly relations should lead to intermarriages between the Jews and the Samaritans and to familiarity with their impure worship of the God of Israel (cfr. 4 Kings 17:24–41; Esdras 4:1–3). Whereupon the Samaritans resorted to every means to prevent the progress of the national temple of their neighbors. Not satisfied with interfering directly with the workmen of Juda, they exerted all their influence with the King of Persia, and in consequence, “the work of the House of Jehovah, in Jerusalem, was interrupted” until the reign of Darius I (Esdras 4:4, 5, 24). The rule of this prince (521–485 B. C), much milder than his immediate predecessors, Cambyses (529–522 B. C.) and Smerdis (522–521 B. C), was deemed by the heads of the Jewish colony a favorable opportunity to resume the great work so long suspended, and in compliance with the stirring exhortations of the prophets Aggeus and Zacharias the Jews actually resumed the building of the second temple. The report of the Pasha of Palestine to the court of Persia about this resumption of the work served only to prove that Cyrus had indeed allowed the rebuilding of the Temple of Jehovah, as was affirmed by the Jewish authorities, and to procure for them greater resources and full security to complete their sacred undertaking. The Temple thus finished (B. C. 515) was dedicated with the greatest solemnity: numerous victims were offered in thanksgiving, and “twelve he-goats as a sin-offering for all Israel, according to the number of the tribes of Israel.” For the service of this second House of Jehovah, the priests and Levites were distributed again into courses; and we read that soon afterwards the Passover was celebrated within its courts by all the Jews who had undergone the purifications required by the Mosaic law (Esdras 5–6).

“This second temple, though inferior in many respects to the first, having no ark, no mercy-seat, no visible revelation of the Divine glory, no Urim and Thummim, still was in breadth and height, in almost every dimension, one-third larger than that of Solomon. In three particulars the general arrangements differed from those of the ancient sanctuary: (1) there were no trees in the courts; (2) at the northwest corner was a fortress-tower, the residence of the Persian, afterward of the Roman, governor; (3) the court of the worshippers was divided into two compartments, of which the outer enclosure was known as the Court of the Gentiles or Heathens. This temple furnished a fixed place of worship for the nation, and ultimately became the theatre of far more glorious illustrations of the Divine attributes than the first temple ever witnessed” (STANLEY, Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church, lecture xliii, and SCHAFF, Bible Dictionary, art. Temple).

The Temple once finished, the Jewish leaders started on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, although apparently they had never received any permission from the Persian king to that effect; this afforded the Samaritans a natural opportunity for denouncing the Jews again to the court of Persia and they availed themselves of it. It does not seem, however, that their complaints were favorably received by the Persian king Xerxes I (485–465 B. C.), whom the Bible calls Assuerus. But they were most successful under Artaxerxes I (465–424), who strictly forbade the Jews to proceed with the rebuilding of the walls of the Holy City (Esdras 4:6–23).

It is most probably an episode of the reign of Xerxes I that we find described in the Book of Esther, the form of which is more complete in the Greek translation which has reached us than in the original text such as it is found in the Hebrew Bible. The contents of this sacred book are briefly as follows: The Jews who had remained scattered through the Persian empire were threatened with utter destruction by the hatred of Aman, the prime minister of King Assuerus. The time and manner of this butchery had already been fixed, when Esther a young Jewess, who had but recently become the favorite wife of Assuerus, acting upon the counsel of her uncle Mardochai, intervened successfully in behalf of her own nation. The Jews thus rescued from death instituted in memory of their deliverance the annual festival of Purim. The book of Esther has generally been considered as historical in the Church, and there is no doubt that the events it narrates fit in very well with all the data supplied by other sources of information concerning Persian history (cfr. TROCHON, Introduction à l’Ecriture Sainte, vol. ii. p. 331, sq.). The recent discoveries made by DIEULAFOY in the Acropolis of Susa, where King Assuerus held his court, have proved how accurate are the descriptions contained in the book of Esther (cfr. VIGOUROUX, Manuel Biblique, vol. ii. chap. viii; F. LENORMANT et ERNEST BABÉLON, Histoire Ancienne de l’Orient, vol. vi. ninth edit.; RAWLINSON, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 76, sq.).

§ 2. Nehemias and Esdras

1. Nehemias. For some time already, the rebuilding of the walls of the Holy City had been stopped by order of Artaxerxes I (surnamed Longimanus), when some Jews come from Palestine to Susa told Nehemias, a Jewish cup-bearer to the Persian king, the wretched condition of the Holy Land, of its inhabitants and in particular of Jerusalem “the ancient wall of which,” they said, “is broken down and the gates thereof are burnt with fire.” Whereupon Nehemias resolved that he would avail himself of the affection and confidence Artaxerxes had towards him to secure the permission of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. Nehemias succeeded in his design; he was appointed governor of Juda for twelve years, and obtained from the king, together with an escort to accompany him to Palestine, letters for “the governors of the country beyond the Euphrates” and for the “keeper of the king’s forest” in the Holy Land (445 B. C.).

After a rest of three days in Jerusalem, Nehemias inspected the state of the wall for himself, by night, accompanied only by a few, and revealing to no one his further designs. He next assembled the Jews, and making known to them the great work he had come to accomplish with them, he secured their coöperation. Many difficulties he had to overcome on the part of Sanaballat, the Horonite, and his friends; many traps laid for him in the country and in Jerusalem he had to escape; but excited by his confidence in Jehovah, and guided by his counsels, the Jews finished the walls, and hung up the gates, fifty-two days after the work had been resumed (Nehemias 1–6).

The next concern of Nehemias was that of repeopling “Jerusalem, the Holy City,” with Jews of the purest descent (for these only could be fully depended upon for its defence), and for this purpose he made a census of the whole Jewish population with the help of a former census of Zorobabel and other documents. He carefully excluded all foreign elements and ordered that every tenth man should dwell in the capital, whilst the rest were allowed to remain in the other cities (Nehemias 7, 11).

Nor did Nehemias forget what was supremely important for the reorganization of the Jewish State, namely, the public renewal of the covenant with Jehovah. On the first day of the seventh month (probably 444 B. C.) all the people assembled in the broad place beside the Water Gate, and the scribe Esdras, acting simply as the secretary of Nehemias himself (for the name of Esdras is not found among the signatories of the covenant), read to them out of the Book of the Law. The portion he read the next day gave instructions for keeping the Feast of Tabernacles, and this festival was accordingly celebrated on the fifteenth day with strict compliance with all the requirements of the law. The twenty-fourth was kept as a day of fasting and confession, the people solemnly acknowledging that national forgetfulness of the law of Jehovah had been the cause of all their national calamities. The new covenant was written down and signed by the princes, priests and Levites of Israel, headed by Nehemias, the “Athersatha” or governor of Juda. The special legal ordinances to which the Jews pledged themselves on this occasion were of particular importance at the time; they were, abstinence from marriage with the heathen, keeping holy the Sabbath, the contribution of the third of a sicle by each Israelite (the side or shekel was equivalent to about fifty-five cents of our money) for the maintenance of God’s temple and altar, the tithes, first-fruits and other dues to the priests and Levites (A. B. DAVIDSON, The Exile and the Restoration, p. 107, sq.).

We are not told how long after this promulgation of the law the solemn dedication of the city-wall took place. It is not improbable, however, that this solemn ceremony was carried out as one of the last acts of the first govenorship of Nehemias, after which he entrusted the care of the city to the high priest Eliasib, and returned to Persia (Nehemias 8, 9, 10, 12:26–13:6).

Somewhat later on—how long after the end of his first mission it is impossible to say—Nehemias came back to the Holy City with full powers from Artaxerxes I. There he found that grave abuses had crept in; he did not hesitate, therefore, to have recourse even to armed force to punish the violators of the law, those in particular who had intermarried with foreigners. He notably expelled from Jerusalem Joiada, the son of the Jewish high priest Eliasib, who had so far set the bad example to the people as to marry the daughter of a certain Sanaballat, who was apparently the governor of Samaria. This affront was so keenly resented by Sanaballat that soon afterwards he erected for his son-in-law a temple on Mount Garizim. Thus began the schismatic worship of the Samaritans, which continued to be maintained on that mountain up to the time of Our Lord (Nehemias 13:6–31; John 4:20; JOSEPHUS, Antiq. of the Jews, book xi. chap. viii).

2. Esdras. It was most probably in 398 B. C.—the year which corresponds with “the seventh year” of the Persian King Artaxerxes II (Mnemon)—that a second departure of the exiled Jews took place under the leadership of Esdras. This man of priestly descent, of whom we spoke already as secretary to Nehemias, had apparently succeeded him in the royal favor, and had just received from Artaxerxes, together with the most valuable gifts for the Temple of Jehovah, the greatest powers to secure the full compliance of all the Jews with the law of God. A few thousand Jews had gathered around him, “among whom were many of the priesthood, both of the higher and lower orders” (MACLEAR, p. 476). After a solemn fast by the river Ahava (whereby is possibly meant the modern Hit, a famous ford of the Euphrates) to obtain the blessing of Jehovah on their journey, they set out and arrived unmolested at Jerusalem. After a three days’ rest the gifts, with which the priests and Levites who had accompanied Esdras were laden, were deposited in the Temple treasury, and numerous victims were offered, “all for a holocaust to Jehovah” (Esdras, 7, 8).

Having exhibited his credentials, Esdras was told the full extent of an old abuse against the Mosaic law: “the people of Israel and the priests and Levites had mingled their seed with the people of the lands; and the hand of the princes and magistrates had been first in this transgression.” Whereupon, by public mourning and prayer, he impressed the people with the enormity of their sin, and after a short time obtained “of the chiefs of the priests and of the Levites, and all Israel,” a solemn oath “that they would do according to his word.” The extreme measure proposed by Sechenias, a Jewish zealot, that the foreign wives and children born from them should be dismissed, was accepted by the multitude in solemn assembly, at the bidding of Esdras. As, however, the rainy season had already set in, the putting away of the foreign wives was carried out only gradually, under the direction of Esdras and the magistrates whom he appointed to assist him in his investigations through the land of Juda and Benjamin (Esdras 9, 10).

This is all that the sacred text tells us of the mission of Esdras to the Jews of the Holy Land, for the book which bears his name and makes us acquainted with his mission ends abruptly with the list of the names of those Israelites whom he compelled to put away their wives. But as he is spoken of in this sacred book as “a scribe instructed in the words and commandments of Jehovah, and His ceremonies in Israel,” as the man “who had prepared his heart to teach in Israel the commandments and judgment” (Esdras 7:10, 11), it is not surprising to find that Jewish traditions have ascribed to him numerous other works. Among these may be mentioned here: (1) the institution of the Great Synagogue, made up, we are told, of 120 men, who, under the presidency of Esdras, completed the collection or canon of Holy Scripture, revised and rewrote the sacred books of the Old Testament in the Chaldee character; (2) the authorship of several of those books: Paralipomenon, Esdras, Nehemias, Ezechiel, Daniel, etc.; (3) the establishment of local synagogues in which men called “scribes” would, after the example of Esdras, interpret in the vernacular those portions of the sacred text which were publicly read in Hebrew, a language but imperfectly understood by the bulk of the worshippers; (4) the beginning of oral traditions claiming to give the correct meaning of the text of the Holy Scriptures, but which ultimately did away with its real spirit.

3. General Condition of Palestine under Persian Rule. From what we know of Jewish history during the Persian rule, it is plain that the mission of Zorobabel, Nehemias and Esdras was that of Restorers of the Jewish theocracy. Their main efforts were centred in reorganizing the commonwealth of the Jews on a religious basis, and in checking every tendency which might betray the nation into unfaithfulness to the God of Israel. Under their influence, Juda and Benjamin renewed several times their covenant with Jehovah, and the high priest of the Jews, that is, the natural representative of God, obtained a prominent part in the government. Especially during the intervals between Zorobabel and Nehemias, between the governorships of Nehemias, between Nehemias and Esdras, it is clear that under the satraps of Cœle-Syria, the action of the high priesthood had a very considerable influence upon religious and civil matters alike. Thus then, during the Persian rule the government of the high priests was gradually inaugurated in Israel and, of course, it continued with about the same powers during the short time which elapsed between the death of Esdras (the exact date and place of which are unknown) and the overthrow of the Persian domination in Syria (B. C. 332). During the same period the country seems to have enjoyed a steadily increasing prosperity.

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