Achaemenid_coin_daric_420BC_frontAncient Israel From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington, D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

“And These from the Land of Syene”- The Jewish Diaspora in Egypt

The fate of the Jewish exiles in Babylonia would probably be of little concern to us if the restoration of the Jewish state in the late sixth-early fifth century had not been the work of Jewish leaders who came from Babylonia. These leaders led the initial return to Jerusalem, the subsequent rebuilding of the Temple under Zerubbabel and, finally, the cultic/national reforms and the reconstruction of the city under Ezra and Nehemiah. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the local Judahite population (which had not been exiled) is regarded with contempt; the only citizens who seem to matter (and the only Temple personnel allowed to function) are those with proper genealogical records brought from Babylonia. Nonetheless, there were Jews who never left the land, and there were Jewish Diaspora communities in places other than Babylonia—most notably in Egypt.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah mention no return of Egyptian Jews to Judah during this period. This may have been because there were none, or none worth mentioning, or none the Babylonian Jews wished to acknowledge. Nevertheless, we are reminded of the words of Jeremiah “concerning all the Jews that dwelt in the land of Egypt, at Migdol, at Tahpanhes, at Memphis, and in the land of Pathros …” (Jeremiah 44-1–14)-

I will punish those who dwell in the land of Egypt, as I have punished Jerusalem, with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, so that none of the remnant of Judah who have come to live in the land of Egypt shall escape or survive or return to the land of Judah, to which they desire to return to dwell there; for they shall not return, except some fugitives. (Jeremiah 44-13–14)

On the other hand, Deutero-Isaiah, a prophet active among the exiles in Babylonia, included the Jews of Egypt among those he envisioned as returning to Zion- “Lo, these shall come from afar, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene” (Isaiah 49-12).

“The land of Syene” was the southern frontier of Egypt at the first cataract of the Nile (modern Aswan), as in the formulaic expression “the land of Egypt … from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Ethiopia [or Nubia]” (Ezekiel 29-10). Syene was located at the southern border, and Migdol was on the northeastern frontier. The military encampments at both of these sites had settlements of foreign mercenaries and their families.

The existence of a Jewish community at Syene is known from the Elephantine papyri (the major fortress at Syene was on an island in the Nile later called Elephantine; Jewish troops stationed there referred to it as Yeb).

The existence of Jews in the Migdol area, on the northeastern border of Egypt, may also be alluded to in the Elephantine documents. Jeremiah, as we have seen, speaks ofJews at Migdol and at nearby Tahpanhes (later called Daphni, modern Tel Dafneh) and also at Noph (Memphis) and Pathros (Nubia). According to Jeremiah, Johanan ben Kareah led his group of refugees to the area of Migdol and Tahpanhes after Gedaliah’s assassination disrupted the political and social order (Jeremiah 43-8–13).

Archaeological Evidence for the Egyptian Diaspora

Excavations east of the Suez Canal under the direction of Eliezer Oren of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have revealed that, in the early sixth century B.C.E., this area was fertile and densely populated, and had a navigable water system, as well as irrigation and drainage canals. Migdol was not only an Egyptian military center but a commercial and industrial area. Imported pottery types testify to the existence of a large foreign element in the population, which is not surprising because the Egyptians had, since the reign of Psammetichus I (664–610 B.C.E.), come to rely on foreign mercenaries to garrison their border stations and to fill the ranks of their regular army. Nor is it surprising that Jeremiah’s catalogue of areas of Jewish residence follows a line ofdefense systems established by the Egyptians, from the northeast border (Migdol) to Nubia (Pathros). It was in these centers that Jewish soldiers and their families lived, and so it was to these centers that their compatriots would have come when settling in Egypt. 26 A good deal of information concerning life in the Jewish settlement at the border station of Syene/Yeb during the fifth century B.C.E. comes from the Elephantine papyri. The papyri—Aramaic archival documents, including copies of correspondence, memoranda, contracts and other legal materials—first came to light at the end of the 19th century and were published by numerous scholars over a 60-year period (1906–1966). They have recently been the subject of intensive investigation (with corrections of some mistakes made by earlier scholars) by Bezalel Porten of Hebrew University. 27

The documents date from 495 to 399 B.C.E. and are thus roughly contemporaneous with the reconstruction of the Jewish state under Ezra and Nehemiah; but the Jewish community at Elephantine had existed for at least a century before the earliest Elephantine documents. The most intriguing aspect of Jewish communal life at Elephantine was a temple dedicated to the Hebrew God Yahu (YHW, a variant form of YHWH). According to the papyri, the temple had been destroyed by the Egyptians at the instigation of the priests of the local cult of Kimura in the 14th year of Darius II (410 B.C.E.). Exactly when the Temple was built is unknown, but it was sometime prior to the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C.E. Jedaniah, the Jewish communal leader at Elephantine, wrote to Bagohi, the Persian governor of Judah, requesting assistance in rebuilding the Elephantine temple. Jedaniah also wrote to Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons and successors of Sanballat, governor of Samaria, with the same request. Other correspondence with Jerusalem included requests for information on the correct procedure for observing the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover) and on matters of cultic purity.

Although Jedaniah represented his Elephantine temple as a regular Jewish sanctuary, just like the Jerusalem Temple, scholars have tended to regard the cult of Yahu at Elephantine as a syncretistic mixture of Yahwism and Canaanite (especially northern Canaanite) cults of Bethel, Anat-Bethel, Eshem, Eshem-Bethel, Herem-Bethel and Anath-YHW. This is because the names of these deities are referred to in judicial oaths and salutations used by Jews in the Elephantine documents. Accordingly, a northern, Israelite origin of these colonists has been suggested. Porten, on the other hand, contends that “the evidence for a syncretistic communal cult of the Jewish deity dissipates upon close inspection” (although “individual Jewish contact with paganism remains”). According to Porten, the temple was established by priests from Jerusalem who had gone into self-imposed exile in Egypt during the reign of King Manasseh (c. 650 B.C.E.) to establish a purer Yahwistic temple there. 28

Whether or not the cult of Yahu at Elephantine was syncretistic, or the Jews of Elephantine were themselves syncretistic, one thing remains clear- Pagan religion was more influential in the life of the Jews of Upper Egypt than it was in the life of Jews in Babylonia. The tradition preserved in Jeremiah 44-15–30 records the worship of a goddess called “the Queen of Heaven” (compare Jeremiah 7-18) by the Jews of Johanan ben Kareah’s community in the Pathros-Migdol area of Egypt. Similar tendencies probably prevailed among the Jews in Upper Egypt. This may explain why Jeremiah judges the Jews of Egypt so harshly. This may also be why we read nothing of the Jews of Egypt playing any sort of role in the reconstruction of the Jewish nation during the Persian period.

Return and Restoration Under the Persians

For we are bondmen; yet our God has not forsaken us in our bondage, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.
(Ezra 9-9)

When Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid ruler of Persia, conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., the Persians succeeded the Babylonians as the major imperial power of the Near East. In contrast to their Assyrian and Babylonian predecessors, the Achaemenid Persians presented themselves to their subject states as a benevolent power concerned not just with garnering taxes but also with maintaining peace and order throughout the empire. The territories formerly administered by the Assyrians and Babylonians were reorganized into a system of satrapies and provinces; local governments were strengthened; roads and systems of communication were developed; and—most important for the Jews— displaced and exiled peoples were encouraged to return to their ancestral homelands and to reestablish local religious and political institutions in order to play supportive roles in this new concept of empire.

Cyrus’s Decree Permitting the Exiles’ Return

This is the political background of the decree of Cyrus preserved in 2 Chronicles 36-23
and Ezra 1-2–4-

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The Lord, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people—may His God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah and rebuild the House of the Lord God of Israel— He is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods, and with beasts besides freewill offering(s) for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1-2–4)

Although the text of this decree is preserved only in the Bible, it is not dissimilar in spirit and style to an edict of Cyrus known as the Cyrus Cylinder. In this document, Cyrus credits his accomplishments to the Babylonian deity Marduk for the benefit of his Babylonian subjects, just as in the Bible he is said to have acknowledged the assistance of Yahweh; his policy of rebuilding ruined sanctuaries and resettling dispersed populations is also reflected in the Cyrus Cylinder- 29

To the cities of Ashur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the cities of Zamban, Metuma, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, the holy cities beyond the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been in ruins over a long period, the gods whose abode is in the midst of them, I returned to their places and housed in lasting abodes. I gathered together all their inhabitants and restored to their dwellings.

The exiled Jewish community of Babylonia greeted Cyrus as a liberator and saw his work as fulfilling a divine purpose in national redemption- Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb- “I am the Lord, who made all things, who stretched out the heavens alone …” who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose”; saying of Jerusalem, “She shall be built,” and of the Temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.”
(Isaiah 44-24,28)

But the task of national reconstruction was not without difficulties. The returning exiles found that their hopes conflicted with the new territorial hegemonies that had come into being during their absence—most particularly Samaria, which aspired to exercise control over the Judahite territory. 30

Rebuilding the Temple

According to biblical sources, there were successive waves of Jewish repatriation under Persian rule. The first was led by Sheshbazzar, the son of King Jehoiachin, who had been taken into captivity in 597 B.C.E. (Sheshbazzar is called Shenazzar in 1 Chronicles 3-18).

This first return occurred not long after 539 B.C.E., when Cyrus conquered Babylon and subsequently issued a decree that provided for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple (Ezra 1-1–11). Sheshbazzar was entrusted with the Temple vessels (Ezra 1-7–8 ,5-14–15) and is reported to have laid the foundation for the rebuilt Temple (Ezra 5-16 ).The rebuilding of the Temple becomes a centerpiece of the Book of Haggai and First Zechariah (chapters 1–8 ), which presumes that this took place in the time of Zerubbabel (520 B.C.E.), the son of Shealtiel and grandson of Jehoiachin. 31

The nature of the actual work done at the time of the first return, however, remains a mystery. No figures are given for those who returned under Sheshbazzar; it was at best a modest and unpretentious beginning. A major wave of returning exiles was led by Zerubbabel, and by the high priest Joshua, son of Jehozadak, apparently during the early years of the administration of Darius (522– 486 B.C.E.; see Ezra 2-2, 3-2, 8, 4-2–3, 5-1–2; Nehemiah 7-7, 12 1, 47; Haggai 1-1, 2-2; Zechariah 3-1–4-14). A census of the returnees, who numbered 42,360 people, plus 7,337 servants and 200 singers, is given in Ezra 2-1–67 and Nehemiah 7-6–73.

Zerubbabel and Joshua apparently first established an altar on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and then began to construct the Temple in the second year of Darius’s reign (520 B.C.E.). The foundations of the Second Temple were laid on December 18, 520 B.C.E. to much fanfare and celebration. 32

The involvement of Zerubbabel as a key player in the actual refoundation ceremony no doubt caused intense messianic expectation; he was hailed by Haggai as “servant” and “signet” (Haggai 2-23 ) and by Zechariah as “my servant the Branch [or shoot]” (Zechariah 3-8 ). 33

The Temple was completed in the sixth year of Darius (516 B.C.E.), with the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah and the support of the Persian court, despite strong local resistance (Ezra 6-1– 15 ).

This repatriation and restoration should be understood against the background of Darius’s career. When Darius came to power in 522 B.C.E., he suppressed rebellions throughout his realm, including revolts in Babylon led by Nebuchadnezzar III (522 B.C.E.) and Nebuchadnezzar IV (521 B.C.E.). Darius also reorganized the satrapies and provinces and the command of the armies. He introduced imperial coinage, a road and postal system, and royal building projects. The return of the Jewish exiles and the appointment of Zerubbabel as governor over Judah was part of Darius’s reform of the empire’s political structure. 34

Though some of Zerubbabel’s supporters saw in these circumstances the opportunity for the restoration of monarchy under Davidic rule, the majority of Judahites clearly understood that the dual leadership of priest and governor was the only form of local rule that would be tolerated by the Persians. The dual messianic sentiments concerning Zerubbabel expressed by the prophet Zechariah (“and he will bear royal majesty, and shall sit upon his throne and rule. A priest will be on his throne, and there will be peaceful counsel between the two of them” [Zechariah 6-13 ]) unequivocally express the eschatological hopes of the community that were acceptable to the Persians. 35 It is commonly thought that Darius removed Zerubbabel from office because of the messianic claims that were supported by those who wanted to reinstate the office of kingship. But there is no evidence of this. The argument is based primarily on the low state of Jewish affairs at the next wave of immigration and on the silence of our sources concerning Zerubbabel after the Temple construction began. It is not clear whether he was still in office in 516 B.C.E., when the work was completed. But Zerubbabel was not the only person in the post-Exilic history of Ezra-Nehemiah who vanished from the scene without explanation. True, Zerubbabel was no ordinary figure; he was the last active claimant to the Davidic throne of whom we have knowledge from the Hebrew Scriptures. Naturally, we speculate on what may have happened to him. But the evidence for any clear conclusion is absent.

Equally intriguing, and subject to speculation, is the figure of Joshua, the high priest who led the return with Zerubbabel. He receives as much attention as Zerubbabel (perhaps even more) in Zechariah 3–6 . He and Zerubbabel are linked together as “the two anointed who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zechariah 4-14 ). Joshua’s authority was focused primarily on religious affairs; the coronation scene in Zechariah 3 underscores his significance at the center of the Temple. Whether or not his working relationship with Zerubbabel survived the rededication of the Temple, the pattern of leadership involving a high priest and governor survived for many years to come. 36

The Greco-Persian Wars

Several political factors emerged in the fifth century B.C.E. to disturb the relative security of the Levant during the reign of Darius I (522–486 B.C.E.). The first and foremost of these were the Greco-Persian wars, which began at the end of the sixth century and ended in 449 B.C.E. with the Peace of Callias between Persia and Athens. 40 Though Persia managed to retain most of its holdings in the Levant during this struggle, the turmoil created among the local population was intense. So uncertain was the outcome of these wars in the fifth century that Egypt and Babylonia both sought to reestablish a degree of independence. 41

The Babylonians succeeded in breaking away from the Persian satrapy of Beyond-the-River (which stretched from the Euphrates river in the east to the Mediterranean in the west and included Judah) in 481 B.C.E., and Egypt began its satrapal revolt in 464 B.C.E., sensing an opportune moment to reassert its power. 42

The Egyptian attempt at independence was unsuccessfully supported by the Greek military.

The end result of these activities was the reassertion in several ways of Persian military control over local areas. First, the Persians constructed numerous fortresses on both sides of the Jordan River to control the major trade routes that linked Mesopotamia and Egypt. The fortresses were maintained by imperial garrisons charged with preventing the local populace from joining the Greek forces. 43

Second, the existing road system was also strengthened to serve the political needs of the Persian government. Some of the most important reverberations of these momentous events are reflected in the oracles of Second Zechariah (Zechariah 9–14 ) envisioning the destruction of Israel’s enemies and the restoration of Zion. In the Greek tragedy The Persians, Aeschylus captures the poignant response of the Greeks to these events.

Archaeological Evidence

The prophetic responses collected in the books of Second Zechariah, and to some degree in Malachi, also reflect the unusual demographic conditions that predominated in Yehud at least until the mid-fifth century B.C.E., and perhaps until the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Recent excavations and archaeological surveys have revealed that Yehud was relatively impoverished and modestly settled in the early post-Exilic era (c. 520–450 B.C.E.). 44

This contrasts strongly with the contemporaneous urban settlements along the coastal plain and the Shephelah, which shared in the prosperity generated by the vibrant commercial activity of the day. Such cities as Dor, Jaffa and Shiqmona and the Philistine cities of Ashkelon and Gaza were clearly brought fully into the mainstream of east Mediterranean trade; their material culture reflects the finest imports of Greek origin, attested only a bit later in the interior. The expectations of the restoration community, therefore, were clearly not met in this first period of Persian dominance of the Levant. Hence, Second Zechariah’s concerns with the gathering of the dispersed (Zechariah 9-11– 17 , 10 ), the repopulation of greater Israel (Zechariah 9-1–10 ), and the full repopulation of Jerusalem (Zechariah 14 ) reflect the eschatological yearnings of Israel at a critical time in its history, the first half of the fifth century B.C.E.

These developments bring us down to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes (458 B.C.E.; see Ezra 7-7 ). Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in the 20th year of Artaxerxes’ reign (445 B.C.E.; Nehemiah 2-1 ) and was governor until Artaxerxes’ 32nd year (433 B.C.E.; Nehemiah 5-14 ). Nehemiah also served a second term as governor sometime before Artaxerxes’ death (424 B.C.E.). This follows the chronological sequence of Ezra and Nehemiah suggested by the current arrangement of the biblical materials.

From the late 19th century until fairly recently, the prevailing opinion had been that Nehemiah actually preceded Ezra (based on the understanding that the Artaxerxes of Ezra 7-7 was Artaxerxes II [404–358 B.C.E.]) and that the two were never contemporaries. An alternative opinion was that Ezra came to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes (465– 424 B.C.E.), but that he was preceded by Nehemiah, of whom he was later a contemporary (the date “the seventh year of Artaxerxes” of Ezra 7-7 being understood as a scribal corruption, probably of “thirty-seven”). More recently these views have been challenged and historical reconstructions proposed in which the traditional order of Ezra and Nehemiah has been restored. These historical reconstructions have resulted, in part, from recent archaeological data, including comparative information on the ruling house of Samaria (the Samaritan papyri of Wadi Dâliyeh). 45

The whole matter remains
problematic, however. 46

Archaeological Evidence from the Persian Period

Until fairly recently, the Persian period was characterized as the dark age of Israelite history. This is no longer true, partly because of the availability of newer materials, but especially because of the work of Ephraim Stern of Hebrew University and other archaeologists in Israel whose surveys and discoveries have opened new vistas for study of this era of profound change and development. 52

Stern has made a number of pertinent observations- During the Persian period, the land of Israel was divided into two culturally distinct regions. The separation was as definite as that between two countries. One region consisted of the hill country of Judah and Transjordan (and to a lesser extent Samaria); the other included Galilee and the Mediterranean coastal plain. Judah’s local culture was a continuation of its earlier culture (as noted by William F. Albright, who called the Persian period Iron Age III), although its culture also reflected Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian influence. Galilee and the Mediterranean coast, on the other hand, were influenced by Greek and Phoenician cultures. Strangely, the material culture of the Persian period reflects almost no influence of the ruling Persians—the exceptions being a few pottery types and some Persian-style jewelry manufactured by Phoenicians. The major influence of the Persians on Israelite culture seems to relate to government, military organization, economic life and taxation. The reorganization of the empire by Darius I—who installed local leaders and requested that local laws be collated and religious laws implemented—no doubt greatly influenced the pace and level of literary activities in the conquered territories during his reign. 53

The most direct influence can be seen in coins and seals. Changes in seals impressed on the handles of jars used in connection with the collection of taxes indicate administrative reforms—leading to increased local control—at the end of the fifth century. 54
Imperial Achaemenid motifs in seals and seal impressions gradually are replaced by designs in local Aramaic script. A similar change is noted in coins, where we find the gradual appearance of the province name in Aramaic. Sometimes we even find coins with the governor’s name in Aramaic.

The Borders of Judah

The extent of Judahite hegemony in the time of Nehemiah—that is, the borders of the province of Yehud—is reflected in several toponymical references in Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in the distribution of Yehud seal impressions and coins found in the area. Ezra (2-21–35) and Nehemiah (7-25–38, 3-2–2, 12-28–29 ) list names of places in the territory of Benjamin, the Jordan Valley from Jericho to Ein Gedi, the Judahite hills from Jerusalem to Beth Zur, and the districts of Lod and Adulam in the Shephelah. These areas, as Stern has noted, correspond approximately to the region where Yehud seals, seal impressions and coins have been found—from Tel en-Nasbeh in the north to Beth Zur in the south and from Jericho and Ein Gedi in the east to Gezer in the west. Evidence of the borders also comes from archaeological surveys conducted by Moshe Kochavi, Israel Finkelstein and Avi Ofer; these archaeologists have discovered lines of forts erected by the Jews during the Persian period as defenses against the province of Ashdod in the west and Edomite territories in the south. 55 The lines of demarcation of the province of Judah on the south established by these forts correspond to the borders indicated in the biblical lists cited above and to the distribution of Yehud seals and impressions.

A list in Nehemiah 11-23–35, however, gives much wider boundaries for Judah. This may not be a description of the actual borders of Judah, but rather a statement of the territory that Judah considered its own, an idealization based on older biblical boundaries. The actual borders probably were much smaller. 56

The size of the province of Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem, were limited not simply by the amount of power Nehemiah and his successors could arrogate but also by the available Jewish population. Excavations in Judah and Jerusalem have shown that the city grew significantly in the Persian period, as did the province of Judah. The population nearly doubled to about 17,000 and Jerusalem’s size increased approximately fourfold. 57 There is no doubt that the population of Judah decreased significantly in the Exilic period and that in the restoration period the population remained small. By the time of Nehemiah, however, there was significant and important growth and change in the demographics of Judah. The biblical tradition that the land was denuded of its people in the early sixth century B.C.E. is not simply an overstatement by the editors of 2 Kings and Jeremiah or a fiction imposed by the Chronicler to promote the idea of sabbatical rest for the land. The rebuilding of the Jewish population took several hundred years; it was not until the second century B.C.E. that there was a sizable Jewish population in Judah and Jerusalem.