Cyrus got the gods on side

12 May 2015
Cyrus got the gods on side

In 539 BC Cyrus, Commander in Chief of the Medo-Persian army then besieging Babylon, diverted the waters of the Euphrates River and ordered his troops to wade down the river bed in the hope that the city gates fronting the river were open. They were, the soldiers poured into the great city, and "that very night Belshauar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain." (Daniel 5:30) 

Three years later Cyrus issued a decree authorizing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple at Jerusalem.
The decree read, "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And he has commanded me to build him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? May his God be with him. Now let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel."

This was the decree that was issued in favour of the Jews, but the Assyrians and Babylonians held people captured from all the nations they conquered, so Cyrus made a similar decree in their favour.

During the excavations in Babylon a clay cylinder was found in a ruined building where it had been used as a foundation deposit. It was written in the Akkadian language in the cuneiform script. The cylinder had been partly damaged but the vital portion that remained turned out to be a record of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, and his subse- quent decree permitting the return of the exiles to their homelands.

It contains the following:
"Without any battle, he (god Marduk) made him (Cyrus) enter his town Babylon sparing Babylon any calamity. He delivered into his (Cyrus') hands Nabonidus, the king who did not worship him (Marduk). All the inhabitants of Babylon as well as of the entire country of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors bowed to him (Cyrus) and kissed his feet, jubilant that he (had received) the kingship, and with shining faces they happily greeted him as a master through whose help they had come to life from death, had all been spared damage and disaster, and they worshipped his name.

"I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Aklzad, king of the four rims (of the earth), son of Cambyses great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, of a family which always exercised kingship whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts."

"When I entered Babylon as a friend and I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoic- ing, Marduk, the great lord, (induced) the magnanimous inhab- itants of Babyldn (to love me), and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize (any place) of the (countrv of Sumer) and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon."

"All the kings of the entire world from the Upper to the Lower Sea, those who are seated in throne rooms, (those who) live in other (types of buildings) all the kings of the West land living in tents, brought their heavy tributes and kissed my feet in Babylon. (As to the region) from . . . as far as Ashur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to (these) sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I gathered all their (former) inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus has brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their (former) chapels, the places which make them happy."

"May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Be1 and Nebo for a long life for me and may they recommend me (to him); to Marduk, my lord, they may say this : "Cyrus, the lung who worships you, and Cambyses, his son . . . all of them I settled in a peaceful place."

Some features of this inscription are worth noting: 

  1. Cyrus occupied Babylon without a battle as both Herodotus and the book of Daniel imply. 
  2. Cyrus boasts of being the king of the whole earth as the Ezra record states. 
  3. Cyrus restored the places of worship of the exiled peoples as recorded in the Ezra account. 
  4. Cyrus allowed the exiled people to return to their homelands.
  5. Cyrus returned to their former cities the images which Nabon- idus had brought into Babylon

It is this last point that Paul-Alain has specially researched. He claims that there is more than political significance in this restoration. First he analyses the concept of image worship

"Cult statues in ancient Meso- potamia were more than just simple representations of deities. They were fashioned and repaired in the temple workshop according to elaborate prescriptions which trans- formed their lifeless matter into the living incarnation of the deity." 

This is a concept which most Wester people have not comprehended/ May who read the Bible are incredulous that odolatry had such a hold upon their worshippers. How could itelligent and educated people be so blind as to bow down to lifeless images of wood or stone? But these images were more than just wood and stone to them.

In India today, where idolatry is practised on a larger scale than any modern country, millions, not just of the uneducated peasants, but highly educated and intelligent business men revere these images. When statues are set up for worship they consider that they are "infused" with the person of the deity they represent.

It seems incredible to some that the Israelites, who were so instructed in the belief in an invisible God who had wrought such wonders among them, should prostrate themselves before these lifeless images. King David wrote, "Our God is in heaven, he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths but they do not speak, eyes they have but they do not see, they have ears but they do not hear, noses they have but they do not smell."
(Psalm 115:3-6)

It all seemed very logical but it was all in vain. Again and again Israel became infatuated with the idols of the heathen around them. Cen- turies later, in the midst of this idolatry, Jeremiah tried to convince the people of the futility of their idol worship. 

"The customs of the people are futile," he exclaimed. "For one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They decorate it with silver and gold, they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright like a palm tree, and they cannot speak. They must be carried because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good."
(Jeremiah 10:3-5)

But to their worshippers these idols were more than just images of wood. They were the incarnations of the deities they represented, and Paul-Alain delves into the evidence for the respect in which they were held. He says, "One of the most powerful illustrations of the strength and conviction of image worship in ancient Mesopotamia is probably the treatment of cult statues in times of war." 

Conquerors carried off the idols of the cities they plundered, not just for the gold that embellished them, but to gain the support of these "living deities," and to deny to their enemies the benefit of the support the idols may have given them.

In like manner, cities under threat did their utmost to preserve their gods. It makes us wonder who were supposed to be protecting whom, but that is not the way they reasoned.

In a neat piece of detective work Paul-Alain analyses the records of the hire of boats in the months leading up to the conquest of Babylon. Some may wonder at the delight archaeologists experience at finding some ancient tablets enumerating dry business deals, receipts for produce, payments for merchandise sold to the temples, but occasionally these can provide some vital clues to the past, and that is what archaelogy is all about - not uneahing treasures, but reclaiming history.

In this case the author notes that some barges hired to transport goods to Babylon were loaded with barley or other food stuffs, then there were some more barges who cargo is not listen, then more barges with agricultural products.

The missing bills of lading, he triumphantly reasons, were the images which Nabonidus had ordered to be brought to the capital for safe keeping, primarily to deny Cyrus the support that these gods would give him should they fall into his hands.

Nabonidus' motives may have seemed worthy to him, but naturally these actions did not go down well with the residents of the outlying cities who felt that their only hope of deliverance from the approaching Medo-Persian armies lay in the protection of their gods. It is little wonder that Nabonidus and his profligate son Belshazzar were not popular with the people, and that little resistance was offered to theconquering Cyrus. The conquered people came and kissed his feet.

But, according to Paul-Alain, Cyrus did not consider that the acquisiton of these deities would benefit him. He considered that he was more likely to gain their favour if he returned them to the people who originally made and wor- shipped them.

All this is of much interest and probably is an accurate analysis of the thinking of those ancient people. But in the case of the decree for the return of Israel to their promised land there may have been another factor.

In the days of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, about 700 BC, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah predicted the activities of Cyrus. "Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus whose right hand I have held, to subdue nations before him and loose the armour of kings, to open before him the double doors, so that the gates will not be shut."
(Isaiah 45: 1)

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Cyrus was shown this scroll after he conquered Jerusalem and was suitably impressed by it. His troops had found the gates fronting the Euphrates River had been inadvertently left open allowing his troops to pour into the city.

He would have been equally impressed with the rest of Isaiah's record. "Who says of Cyrus, he is my shepherd and he shall perform all my pleasure, even saying to Jerusalem, You shall be built, and to the temple, your foundation shall be laid."
(Isaiah 44:28)

In the case of Israel there were no idols to be restored to their homeland, but perhaps Cyrus felt he could secure the favour of Israel's God by allowing the Jews to return, and assisting them financially to rebuild their temple.

Josephus wrote, "This was known to Cyrus by his reading the scroll which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies. For this prophet said that God had spoken thus to him in a secret vision, my will is that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their land and build my temple. This was foretold by Isaiah 140 years before the temple was demolished. Accord- ingly, when Cyrus read this and admired the divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfil1 what was so written." (Antiquities of the Jews, xI.I.l) 

Archaeologists not only want to know WHAT happened in the past but the HOWS and WHYS behind it all. 


June/July 1994