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First Return to JerusalemComments

First Return to Jerusalem

Upon seizing Babylonia and its subjects, the Persian king Cyrus issued the Edict of Cyrus which allowed Jews to return to their homeland.

Cyrus prepared a cylinder that described how the Babylonian deity should approve of his work improving the lives of Babylonians, repatriating displaced peoples and restoring temples and sanctuaries. In fact, Persian Jerusalem was depopulated and impoverished. Persia enacted heavy taxes (Nehemiah 5) and there were conflicts with the Samaritans (Nehemiah 4, 6).

Israelites were now free to Judah. However, beyond this enclave in the extreme south, the Levant was now entirely Samaritan. The Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt, but it was meager compared to its former glory (Ezra 3). There was a Samaritan Temple at Mount Gerizim.

May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me and may the recommend me (to him); to Marduk, my lord, they may say this: “Cyrus, the king who worships you, and Cambyses, his son,…”…all of them I settled in a peaceful place … ducks and doves … I endeavored to fortify/repair their dwelling places … Cyrus Cylinder, 6th century BC
Despite the Edict of Cyrus, the length of exile engendered questions that would never really go away.

Somebody born in exile may not have a real attachment to Jerusalem beyond old traditions. The exiled Jew lacked a sacred center, but had sacred time -- prayer, traditions, keeping kosher and the Sabbath, which were all holy experiences. Traditions had been established without Jerusalem. Was there even a point in returning to a small rural village like Jerusalem, as opposed to staying in cosmopolitan centers like Alexandria or Babylon?

Jewish diaspora communities appeared in Israel and Judah (amid the First Return and Second Return), but many also remained in Babylon and Elam (which had popped up as early as the 8th century BC), Northern Mesopotamia (ie, Guzana) and Egypt (mostly the Delta and additional migrations to Elephantine).

When they finally had the chance to return to Jerusalem, most of the exiles elected to stay in Babylon. They did not feel that their physical presence in Jerusalem was necessary, since they had learned to apprehend the values of Zion in a new way. The religion that we know as Judaism originated not in Judaea but in the diaspora and would be conveyed to the Holy Land in the future by such emessaries from Babylon as Nehemiah, Ezra and Hillel.Armstrong, p 90
The state of Israel no longer existed, but the Israelites eventually formed a Jewish community based around Jerusalem.When Cyrus allowed exiles to return to their native lands, some people did not return; they had established themselves in new places, sometimes for more than one generation. However, certain Jewish leaders began a movement to restore Jerusalem, renew the covenant with God and establish a new temple.

Foreign control persisted, and Jewish rulers were not political kings but rather leaders and prophets.

Leading figures of the First Return of Jews to the former land of Israel were the prophets Zechariah and Haggai; Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel (a member of the Davidic line); and the High Priest Joshua.

Strife arose from bad harvests, a weak economy and a degrading relations with non-exiles in the region.

The situation in Jerusalem was dire.

Those early pioneers who marched right back in 539 BC found little more than rubble, and were disputed by the people of the land who had been left behind -- who was really Jewish, the pious exiled returnees or those who had remained but intermarried?

Ezra and Nehemiah led ethnic separatist and building campaigns to end this issue and rejuvenate Jerusalem.

Life in Jerusalem was strifed by bad harvests and a weak economy. Enthusiasm for rebuilding the Temple waned when there was not enough to even eat.

But in August 520 the prophet Haggai scolded the Golah, the community of exiles: How could plenty, wealth and vivacity flourish without that essential aspect, the Temple, the link to God? The foundations of the Second Temple were finally laid in the autumn of 520, upon the site of Solomon's Temple, and the Temple was completed on 23 March 515. Though the Temple was rebuilt, the return did not live up to expectations nor memories. Persian Jerusalem was a disappointment, especially the Second Temple.

There was no great triumph of Jerusalem and Yahweh over the world. The Temple itself was a disappointment. It was unimpressive, there was no more Ark, and God seemed more intangible than ever. Anyways, Yahweh was nowadays drawn to a humbled and contrite spirit (Isaiah 66:2) rather than splendid temples.

Furthermore, identity issues emerged between the People of the Land (the Am Ha-Aretz) who had remained or settled in Judah, and the formerly exiled community, the Golah.

The prophet Jeremiah advocated for the exiles, claiming that they were the good figs taken away and now brought back, while the ones who had stayed were the bad figs. Yet this was counter-intuitive to the locals who had remained in Judah through the exile and now were presented with arriving hordes claiming to be the chosen ones; had not their piety and obedience allowed the Am Ha-Aretz to stay? Were not the exiles just heretics who had been expelled? Did somebody born in exile have any real claim to Israel?

However, it was the Golah who Cyrus granted the duty of rebuilding the Temple. Jerusalem governor Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua aggressively excluded the Am Ha-Aretz. Identity issues, disappointment with the Second Temple and Jerusalem's poverty were issues that erupted in the Second Return.

Fierce arguments were made to aggressively advocate returning to Jerusalem.

Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 2 Isaiah 40-66 were written in the Persian era and address this conundrum by vigorously mandating that all Jews return to Jerusalem and describing building. No extra-Biblical texts deal with Jerusalem during this period to present other sides of the argument.

The necessity of such a fierce argument suggests that after a generation or two, at least a plurality of Jews were not eager to go back to Jerusalem.

Second Temple constructed

The Temple was rebuilt c 520 - 515 BC. The Second Temple Era lasted 515 BC to 70 CE.

This period is attested in Haggai 1-2, Zechariah 6:9-15 and Ezra 3.

Ezra and Nehemiah focused on how the Persian king was instructed by God to reconstruct the Temple as part of an overarching divine plan.

However, from a political view it was normal for Persian kings to rebuild their Western frontier in the late 6th and early 5th centuries -- they wanted to build up their defenses against the Greeks. Some of the returnees were exuberant with the rebuilt temple, while others saw that the Jerusalem lacked its former glory (Ezra 3) and particularly the Temple was unlike its predecessor (Haggai 2).

This chasm between reality and expectation resulted in cognitive dissonance for some Jews. Before the Babylonian exile, the Davidic dynasty and the Temple were one -- it was a royal chapel, center of the nation, royal capital, symbol of nationalistic sentiment.

The Persians allowed a religious class to service the rebuilt Temple.

Indeed, the persians benefited greatly from taxation skimmed from the temple revenue that was sent back to the Persian empire. However, the Persian king was now the chief hegemon; there could be no sovereign monarch.

The Temple was vital to Jewish identity, yet some Jews questioned its legitimacy: it served more as an economic hub or bank for the wider Persian empire, and did not even look like the grand edifice prophesied by Ezekiel. There was no overwhelming Eden-like paradise in Jerusalem.