Isaiah and His Kings: Cyrus the Great

Day Sixteen of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

The scholarly consensus is that the Book of Isaiah was written over a period of several centuries, beginning with the prophet and his immediate disciples in the late 8th century BCE, continuing through the ending of the Babylonian exile in the late 6th century, and finishing sometime after, when the exiles returned and rebuilt Jerusalem, the Temple, and Judea – sometime in the 5th century.

The main reason that virtually all scholars accept the idea that more than one person wrote it over several centuries is that it names Cyrus the Great in two passages. Cyrus was a Persian king who lived from something like 600 BCE to 530 BC.

cylinder_install_back

The Cyrus Cylinder, from after 539 BCE. Clay, currently in the British Museum, but originally in Babylon. As Wikipedia says, “The text on the Cylinder praises Cyrus, sets out his genealogy and portrays him as a king from a line of kings. The Babylonian king Nabonidus, who was defeated and deposed by Cyrus, is denounced as an impious oppressor of the people of Babylonia and his low-born origins are implicitly contrasted to Cyrus’ kingly heritage. The victorious Cyrus is portrayed as having been chosen by the chief Babylonian god Marduk to restore peace and order to the Babylonians.”

The Persians are an Indo-European language speaking people who we now know as the Iranians, and it is thought that their forebears came from the Indo-European homeland somewhere near modern day Ukraine into Iran sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE. The proto-Persians were a widely dispersed people, from what is now Hungary across the steppes of Russia to the Iranian plateau. One group of these Old Persian/Iranian peoples settled in what is called Media, in what is now north-west Iran,and are known as the Medes; they are known to have been a vassal kingdom under the Neo-Assyrian Empire by the 8th century BCE. Another group settled in south-west Iran in an area called Persis, and were known as the Persians. They, too, were subject to the Neo-Assyrians. The Medes and Babylon revolted against the Assyrians and between 616 BCE and 609 BCE they destroyed the Assyrian Empire and split down the middle.

The king of Persia, Cambyses I, married a granddaughter of Cyaxares, the king who established the Median Empire; this was a subsidiary part of the Median Empire. They had a son who was named 𐎤𐎢𐎽𐎢𐏁 Kūruš; Kourosh, and this has come down to us through Greek as Cyrus (which is how Herodatus knew him). It is not clear if Cyrus revolted against the Median Empire or if the Median King attacked him for some offense, but the reslt was a civil war that lasted for three years, at the end of which Cyrus reigned supreme over the whole of the Median Empire. The Lydian Empire in western Anatolia (today’s Asian Turkey) saw Cyrus as a threatening upstart, and so attacked what was now being called the Persian Empire. The king was the proverbially wealthy Croesus, and sent to the Greek oracle at Delphi to find out if he should form an alliance with Cyrus or attack him. Herodatus reports that he was told that if he attacked the Persians a great empire would fall, and so he did attack. Unfortunately for Croesus, the empire that fell was the Lydian one, not the Persian one, and after several battles and sieges Cyrus extended his empire to the shores of the Aegean Sea. The Lydians spoke their own language, Lydian, of which we have only a few remnants now – but Cyrus had pushed his rule up against the multitude of Greek city-states, which would occupy his successors for many years to come.

Cyrus then turned his attention to the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He fought one massive battle in a place called Opis, about 50 km north of modern Baghdad, and then more or less took over the rest of the cities in a peaceful, negotiated triumph.

The author of II Isaiah (40-55) saw Cyrus as the tool of God. We read in chapter 45:

1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
6 so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.      – Isaiah 45.1-7

and

13 I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness,
and I will make all his paths straight;
he shall build my city
and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,
says the Lord of hosts.           – Isaiah 45.13

The author knows that Cyrus worships other gods – “I arm you though you did not know me” – but this does not stop him from seeing Cyrus as a liberator of the Jews in Babylon. He is not named but is surely described in chapter 41:

2 Who has roused a victor from the east,
summoned him to his service?
He delivers up nations to him,
and tramples kings under foot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
like driven stubble with his bow.
3 He pursues them and passes on safely,
scarcely touching the path with his feet.
4 Who has performed and done this,
calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the Lord, am first,
and will be with the last.
5 The coastlands have seen and are afraid,
the ends of the earth tremble;
they have drawn near and come.       – Isaiah 41.2-5

Indeed, while the historical record shows that Babylon was not besieged or destroyed, but rather surrendered without the letting of blood, II Isaiah seems to have hoped that it would have had a terrible end:

14 Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
and break down all the bars,
and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation.   – Isaiah 43.14

But Cyrus is God’s anointed one – previously a term applied only to the kings of Israel and Judah, and properly only applied to the House of David.

This is a major shift. The king is no longer a man of the tribe of Judah, but a foreigner, which seems to be fine so long as the people can return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and worship in peace.

II Isaiah also talks about the servant of God, one who suffers. I will get to that before Advent is over.

The point for today, though, is to note the dramatic shift in theology, from a hope for an anointed one from the House of David to an acceptance that God has acted through unbelieving foreigners, and that is okay. The House of David was extinct, it seemed. A new approach was available.

 

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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