Friday, November 4, 2016

The Missing Years of the Bible: From Babylon to the Greeks

In the Old Testament, one of the great calamities to befall the Jews was the fall of Israel and Judea to the Babylonians.  This occurred in 587 BC.  When the Babylonians conquered them, they hauled the wealthy, the political leaders, and the religious leaders off to Babylon beginning what was often referred to as the "Babylon Captivity."

While this was taking place, the second part of the book of Isaiah was written (Isaiah is comprised of three distinct and separate sections sometimes called 1st Isaiah (1-39), 2nd Isaiah (40-55), and 3rd Isaiah (56-66) which all take place at different times.  1st Isaiah was pre-exile, 2nd Isaiah was during the exile/captivity, and 3rd Isaiah focuses on the return from exile), as well as the prophet Obadiah.

During the conquest by the Babylonians, Solomon's Temple was destroyed and the Kingdom came to an end.  It was a trauma that shaped the theology of the Jews and is found in echoes throughout the Old Testament, not just in the books and passages that were written during the time, but in psalms that reflected on the loss, such as Psalm 137.

But the great empire that was Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 BC (and when we are counting in BC, we count backwards.  It can be a little confusing, but that's how it works).  Under the leadership of Cyrus of Persia (mentioned in the Old Testament several times; Isaiah 44:28, Ezra 1:4, and Daniel 6:28 for example).

Cyrus issued an edict that allowed the Jews held captive by the Babylonians to return home should they so desire.  Not all of them did, but those who did return returned in two waves in the 530's and the 520's.  This didn't mean that the Jews were allowed to return to self-rule.  They were still a part of the Persian empire, but Cyrus allowed them to rule locally while the government of the Persians was still in control and would have the final say.  Yet they were positively disposed towards the Jews and Nehemiah (of the book of the same name) was Persian.

During the Persian period, the Temple was rebuilt (eventually - it took a little motivation and time) and life returned to a semblance of normalcy.  This lasted for quite a while, but then came the Greeks.

Under the leadership of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire conquered the known world.  With this came Hellenization, which means 'Greek influence.'  Everything was Greek, especially the language which was the language of trade, commerce, and the general population (that will play a big part in a later aspect of this story).  After Alexander's death, his generals fought for control of the kingdom which ended up dividing the lands into smaller kingdoms.

Ultimately Judea would be conquered in 200 BC by the Macedonian kings of Syria (or the Seleucids) who were far less kind to Judea than the Persians or the Greeks.

So what this short survey details is that the end of the Old Testament tells us that the Persians were in control.  The New Testament has the Romans in power.  We haven't reached them yet, but we have entered the time between the testaments.

We will see how important the Seleucids were to the story of the Jews in the next section.  Come back and read some more!

- Pastor Charles

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