In the perspective of
Bible and History
Condensed from a paper By Abba Eban
From 1917 onward, since the Balfour Declaration was made,
it has become customary to discern a mysterious likeness
between the political happenings of that year and the proclamation
of Cyrus, King of Persia, which heralded the Return to Zion
and the establishment of the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
In each of the two cases, divided one from the other by
2,455 years, the pronouncement of a foreign power gave impetus
to an intensified national stirring along the Jewish people.
In each case, the pronouncement was greeted with understandable,
if perhaps excessive enthusiasm. In each case, only a small
group girded up its loins to go up to the Land; the vast
majority stayed on with a clear conscience in the diapers,
content to express affinity to the Land in generous benefactions.
In each case, the opportune time was brief. The authors
of the pronouncements had second thoughts, new eventualities
new eventualities not be dismissed. In each case, the home-coming
Zionists encountered natural hardships and man-made tribulations.
It is surprising that the pronouncement of Cyrus should
have remained the possession of the Jewish people alone.
Apart from the allusions to him in the Books of Isaac, Daniel,
Ezra and Chronicles, the image of Cyrus stands out with
bold impressiveness in Babylonian inscriptions, and even
Fore distinctly in Greek literature. Yet, in not a single
one of Babylonian and Greek sources is there the faintest
mention of this one act of Cyrus that put his royal imprimatur
on the destiny of the Jews, an act which made him immortal,
for immortality is the first and foremost guerdon that Jews
bestow on men that deal kindly with them.
The rescript of Cyrus is given in full in the first chapter
"Now in the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, that
the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled,
the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia,
that he proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, and put it
also in writing saying: Thus saith Cyrus, King of Persia,
The Lord king of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of
the earth; and he has charged me to build him a house in
Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of
all his people, his God be with him, and let him go up to
Jerusalem, which is in Judas, and build the house of the
Lord of Israel, (he is the God), which is in Jerusalem.
And whosoever remained, in any place where he sojourneth,
let the men of his place help him with silver, and with
gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill
offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem. Then
rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin,
and the priests, and the levities, with all them whose spirit
God had raised, to go up to build the house of the Lord
which is in Jerusalem. And all they that were about them
strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold,
with goals, and with beasts, and with precious things, beside
all that was willingly offered."
In the space of eleven years, Cyrus rose from the satrapy
of an exiguous region - Anshan in the territory of Elam
- to be king of an empire stretching from the Indus River
to the Mediterranean, from the Caucasus to the Indian Ocean.
He instituted laws and traditions in that vast domain that
stood the test of time for two hundred years.
In expanse, his realm was larger than that of Alexander
But his singularity found its conspicuous expression in
his attitude towards his subject peoples, along them a hundred
and fifty thousand Jews in Babylonia. Here, we must be Careful
to observe that Cyrus did not favor regional autonomy. His
tolerance, wide as it was, was articulated only in the sphere
of religion. He was in no wise moved by any particular relationship
to Judaism or by any exceptional understanding of it. It
was simply that he took no steps to convert any of his conquered
folk to The Persian culture and eschewed anything resembling
the process of Hellenization which Alexander pursued. Nor
did he suppress any diversity of religions, as did many
before him and after him. His proclamation, concerns the
house of God in Jerusalem, nothing more. There is no indication
that he knew of the utter destruction of Jerusalem.
The prophets of Israel ascribed a further distinction to
Cyrus, that of a benevolent Gentile who recognised the quintessential
purity of Judaism and its sublimity of vision, in contrast
to other creeds. Verily, Cyrus speaks of the God of Israel
as the God of Heaven, that is to say, as a god who cannot
be identified with stick or stone, with any image graven
or molten. Still, he himself clung to his own god Marduk
to whom he pours out his soul in words preserved for posterity
on a Babylonian cylinder. The license granted to the Jews
to build their house was not a departure from his national
policy, nor did it attest any particular nexus. That love
of the Bible with which Balfour and Lloyd George were animated
had no part in the thinking of Cyrus.
An Opportunity - Not a Gift
The significance of this historic opportunity is, however,
underscored by the impetus toward self-realisation that
it imparted, rather than by the intentions of the king.
The epistle of Cyrus descended like a thunderclap upon Babylonian
Jewry, which was torn between the blandishments of assimilation
and the instinct of national survival. The Jews who were
banished to Babylonia after the destruction of the First
Temple found themselves immersed in a highly developed and
radiant culture. Stunned by the first shock of exile, they
sat, yea, they wept when they remembered Zion. They still
set Jerusalem above their chiefest joy. "How shall
we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" But, as
the days went by, they looked about them and beheld the
splendor of Babylonia, its towers and palaces, and its bustling
commerce; the inexorable laws of history were thrusting
them towards absolute national disintegration. Even so,
as many were steeped in the spirit of Cyrus - and since,
luckily, the twelve volumes of Toynbee showing how cultures
are born, flourish and die did not come their way! - The
Jews paradoxically on the foreign soil of Babylonian, evolved
form a faith and divine worship which saved them from extinction
and vouchsafed their descendants a spell of renewed life.
Prayers in the synagogue took the place of Temple sacrifice.
Religion discarded its external cultic forms and developed
a system of symbols for pious thought. Prophecy became dominant
as the priesthood withdrew. By detaching Judaism from a
dependence of time and place, the Jews of Babylonia transformed
it, made it mobile, and so minimised its vulnerability.
There was, of course, still the danger that the faith of
Israel might be sundered from its fount. But here, the charter
of Cyrus made it possible By detaching Judaism from a dependence
upon it possible to link the spiritual renaissance with
the land of its birth.
It is easy, therefore, to understand the exuberance of
the prophets who, in lauding the event, stretched their
esteem of the king to the point of adulation.
Naim Dangoor adds:
It is note worthy that the declaration of king Cyrus permitting
the Jews to return to Jerusalem was only 48 years after
the exile by Nebuchadnezzar of 586 BCE. Thus the first Galuth
lasted only about half a century.
It appears that at that time there were 150,000 Jews living
in Babylonia which is similar to the number of Jews living
in Iraq at the rebirth of Israel.
In 1971 Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Persian
Empire established by Cyrus the great to which all the heads
of state were invited to week long festivities. As Iran
could not invite the president of Israel because of Arab
objections, and as it was considered unacceptable that the
festivities should pass without a Jewish presence, the Iranian
ambassador in London on Teherans instructions, invited Naim
and Renee Dangoor to lead a large delegation of Babylonian
Jews to the festivities that were held at the Savoy in London,
to which the Prime Minister and members of the diplomatic
core were invited. The above photograph shows Renee and
Naim Dangoor, being received by Ambassador and lady Avshar
and their daughter.
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