In 586 BCE, the Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar (Nabû-kudurri-uṣur, “the firstborn son of Nabu”) had had enough of the small client kingdom of Judah. His armies laid siege to their capital Jerusalem and when the city fell, he razed it to the ground. Over the previous two decades, he had systematically removed the higher classes of Judahite society – either killing them or taking them to the region of Babylon for re-education and resettlement. Among those carried off were the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel.
Another of the prophets, Jeremiah, was left behind along with the majority of the Judahite people. When insurgents supported by the kingdom of Ammon assassinated the Babylonian appointed governor, a Judahite named Johanan took over and fled Judah for Egypt – taking Jeremiah with him.
The Babylonian Empire
Nebuchadnezzar was the son of a great general Nabopolassar, who had ended Babylon’s dependence on the Assyrian empire and then arranged an allegiance with other subjugated peoples that sacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BCE. When his father died in 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar had continued the expansion of his kingdom, defeating the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BCE, which brought Syria and Judah under his control.
In 562 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar died and passed power to his son Amel-Marduk; but after only a few years, Amel-Marduk was killed by a usurper. Four years of chaos ensued until a relatively unknown official named Nabonidus. Preferring desert solitude to ruling, Nabonidus spent most of his career at a desert oasis, allowing his son Belshazzar to govern Babylon.
The Rise of the Persians
One of Nabopolassar’s allies in overthrowing the Assyrians was a loose confederation of mountain tribes living to the east, in modern day Iran. There, the Medes ruled over a mixed population that opposed the Assyrians. Once the Assyrians were defeated, their leader Cyaxares withdrew from his alliance with Babylon and formed his own kingdom.
Then, in 553 BCE, the Parsua (Persians), a member of the Median confederation, rebelled against Cyaxares’ successor Astyages. The leader of the rebellion was Astyages’ own grandson. As an infant, he had been left to die in the mountains. Raised by Persian shepherds, he returned as the leader of the Persian rebellion, overthrew his grandfather and set up a new empire. He is known to history as Cyrus the Great.
He is called the first Achaemenid ruler of Persia (after a supposed ancestor), and his successors ruled the region until the Macedonians under Alexandr the Great conquered their empire in the 330 BCE. Their empire stretched from Egypt to India and was the wealthiest kingdom of the earth at its height. In 539 BCE, Cyrus’ armies under the general Gobryas sacked Babylon and took over the territories.
Cyrus reorganized the kingdom into provinces called ksathra, which was Latinized into satrapi. Their rulers, called satrap, were client kings appointed by the king; and they were usually of the ethnic group they ruled. The Persian king adopted the titled “King of Kings” to denote this organizational structure.
They ruled independent of the central government and were allowed tremendous latitude in their affairs as long as they paid the necessary taxes and did not rebel against the king. Each satrap then had a counsel of Persian officials who assisted him, and doubtless reported back to the king of kings as necessary.
The central government consisted of four capital provinces: Pasargadae, Babylon, Susa and Ekbatana. Through the history of the empire, the main capital moved back and forth among them. A fifth capital, a ceremonial one called Parsa (Persepolis in Greek) was established as part of the identity of the kingdom, although it had no administrative significance. Of the capitals, Susa was considered the King of Kings’ residence.
The Persians and the Jews
One of the satrapies that Cyrus organized was Yehud Medinata which comprised the territory of the state of Judah. Over this satrapi, Cyrus appointed the heir of the House of David, Zerubbabel, as satrap in 539 BCE. It appears that Zerubbabel ruled until 520 BCE, through the reigns of several Persian kings. His rule was the context of the biblical books of Haggai and Zechariah as well as the beginning of the book of Ezra.
Later, under the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE), Nehemiah was appointed as satrap. He rebuilt Jerusalem, a project he is said to have undertaken for religious reasons although Artaxerxes may have seen it as an opportunity to fortify the border with Egypt, which was causing trouble. This would have coincided with Artaxerxes’ attempts to accomplish what Darius and Xerxes could not – the conquest of Greece. He failed like his successors, but shoring up the southern border would have been a high priority because Egypt.
There is little evidence outside of the Biblical books of Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther of Jewish presence in the Persian court. These books should be considered historically accurate in this depiction, however. The Persians valued a person’s contribution much more than their ethnicity, a fact evidenced by the presence of no less than five languages in their courts. There is no reason to doubt that Jews with the abilities demonstrated in these biblical books could have had a place in the Persian court.
The fear of Egyptian rebellion that existed throughout the Achaemenid period also gives credence to the Haman’s plot to have the Jews killed. In Ezra-Nehemiah, you pick up just how easy it was to report that someone was plotting against the king. People are constantly stopping the work of rebuilding Yehud Medinata by telling the king that the Jews are plotting against him.
In short, the biblical depiction of the Persians is pretty accurate. Whether it is Ezra-Nehemiah, which is most definitely intended to be historical or Esther, which seems to value dramatic depiction, the Persia of the Bible is the Persia of history. We can read these books with confidence that they depict the world as it was.