Though the Persian Emperor Cyrus II had permitted the Jews to return to the land of Judah, not all returned as neither was the journey back home going to be easy nor was the life after settling down, void of hardship.
Also, it was only after battling tough conditions with perseverance and diligence to settle in Babylon that many were enjoying financial progress. In all fairness, the liberal policies of Cyrus were responsible for it. He followed a policy of not suppressing the local religions, traditions-customs. Moreover, he accorded them complete autonomy on condition of maintaining loyalty to the Persian Empire. Cyrus created a judicial system in which even the Emperor could be questioned for his lapses. Many scholars say that the Persian Empire, though the largest of its times, was known to have had regard for human values. Its greatness had not been achieved at their cost.
It was due to these policies of Cyrus that the Jews could create their separate social system in Babylon and build their own places of worship among other things. With all this many Jews had preferred to stay back in Babylon.
To the Jews who had stayed back, Cyrus had even given complete freedom to follow their religion, Torah laws and traditions-customs. As a result, there were many who without betraying the Jewish religious principles remained committed to their God and thus maintained their separate Jewish identity. However, the fact that there could have been a few who might have converted to other religions or might have imbibed local traditions and customs or native religious practices like polytheism without forsaking the Jewish faith though, could nevertheless not be discounted.
For the most part, those who returned were the third or the fourth generation down the line of families who had left Jerusalem. Born in Babylon, it was only from their forefathers that they had heard the history of the Jews. Yet, the importance that Jerusalem held for the Jews was well-etched on their minds and hence returning to this land filled them with joy, unattributed though.
The process of migration, though more or less sparse, continued over the next many years. All the same, three major group migrations happened at some intervals of time.
One of these groups returned under the leadership of a Jewish leader ‘Zerubbabel’. Zerubbabel was from the lineage of David and was the grandson of Jehoiachin, the penultimate king of Judah. Cyrus appointed him as the Governor of Judah which was then referred to as the ‘Yehud Medinata’ Province. It was during the times of Zerubbabel that the work for the construction of the ‘Second Holy Temple’ began.
Two more large groups returned in the following century. The second group returned under the leadership of Ezra, a Jewish Priest and a far-sighted clairvoyant. On reaching Jerusalem, Ezra exhorted the Israelites returning from Babylon, to continue to whole-heartedly follow monotheism and the Torah at all costs and thus transformed them to firm and staunch followers of their faith. The third group followed after a few years under the leadership of Nehemiah. It was during the times of Nehemiah that a fortification was built around the city of Jerusalem but that happened at a much later date.
Even though Cyrus had allowed the Jews to rebuild the ‘Holy Temple’ that was ruined by the Babylonians, the work did not make much progress, not immediately at least. The construction of the ‘Second Holy Temple’ began in 538 BC after the first group of the Israelites reached the land of Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel with the permission from Cyrus. However, the construction did not move beyond a few milestones like laying of the foundation, building of an altar for offerings etc.
The main reason for the hindered progress was the opposition that the Jews and the construction of the Temple faced from the local tribes of the surrounding regions and the malicious nature of some diehard anti-Semitic officials of Cyrus. These officials even went to the extent of producing fake complaint letters in their persistent attempts at stopping the construction. As a result, the construction proceeded at a languid pace.
The work did gather momentum but only after sixteen years and by then much water had flown under the bridge. Emperor Cyrus died in the year 530 BC. After Cyrus’s death, his son, Cambyses II succeeded him to the throne in the year 522 BC but suddenly went missing during a campaign in Egypt. In the period when Cambyses was missing, a person called Bardiya sat on the throne by impersonating Cambyses’s brother. However, his lie was exposed, and Darius, the son of Cambyses II, took over the throne by killing Bardiya in a rebellion.
Darius put an end to the slander campaign against the Jews and against the construction of the Holy Temple; and focussed on expediting its construction which then achieved completion in the year 515 BC, a mere six years after Darius sat on the throne!
The following hundred and seventy-five years went well for the Israelites. The city of Jerusalem that housed the ‘Second Holy Temple’ and also the Jews who had returned to the Yehud Province prospered during these times. It may be said that the period did not see the cropping up of any serious problems to the exception of just the following one:
‘Haman’, a vizier of the Persian Emperor plotted to kill all the Jews in the kingdom in one single day. Haman belonged to the Amalekite tribe and was descendant of their king Agag who was killed by the Israelite King Saul during his campaign in Canaan. Hence, Haman, eager to take revenge on the Israelites, struck upon a chance that he decided to grab. He poisoned the king’s mind and the day to murder all the Jews in the kingdom was fixed. It was to be the 13th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Adar. However, Esther, one of the wives of the king was a Jew. She foiled the plot and Haman was sentenced to death. The festival of ‘Purim’ is thus celebrated on the 14th and the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Adar to commemorate the occasion when God protected the Jews.
Though the period did not see any incidents or events that directly affected the lives of the Israelites living in the land of Judah yet the incidents or events that were happening outside were going to have an effect on their lives in a few decades to come.(To be continued…)