To govern such a large and multiethnic empire, the Babylonians and later the Persians developed an impressive bureaucracy. Their system of archives collected data from all parts of their empire and preserved in an orderly fashion the many decrees needed to govern so many different peoples over large periods of time. We
see the Persian bureaucracy in action in Ezra 4 – 6. Since the Jews and their neighbors are no longer independent and have no kings, they must send their requests to one of the distant Persian capitals and patiently await a response. It
was supposed that the authorities would respond justly, but sometimes justice was distorted as it passed through so many administrative hands: “[They] bribed
counselors against them to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezra 4:5).
But Yahweh’s power overcomes any attempt to distort His justice, even in a bureaucracy: “Let the work on this house of God alone. Let the governor of the
Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on this site… The cost is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River… Also I make a decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house shall be made a dunghill” (Ezra 6:7-8, 9, 11). Bureaucracies can serve as instruments of Yahweh’s justice, and in this case they confirm the
reconstruction of the temple.
In this reading, some historical details appear that cause confusion among some readers. First, it seems like the Jews must wait a long time to receive final permission to rebuild the temple since Ezra 4:5-7 mentions the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes. Their reigns cover more than 100 years after Cyrus’s decree to rebuild the temple in 539 BC. Later, Ezra 6:14 mentions that the Jews finished the temple by the decree of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes; however, they finish construction in the sixth year of Darius’s reign, in 516 BC, 23 years after the decree, not 100 years later. Can it be that the Biblical author made a mistake in chronology and the list of Persian kings?
No, there is no confusion or error on the part of the Biblical author if we recognize that Ezra 4:6-23 is a parenthesis in the narrative about the construction of the temple. The accusations written to Ahasuerus in Ezra 4:6, to Artaxerxes in Ezra 4:7-16 and his response in Ezra 4:17-23 are not directly related to the
construction of the temple. They are examples of the general strategy of the enemies of the Jews to discredit them in the eyes of Persian authorities. Notice in particular that the letter to Artaxerxes discusses the construction of walls (Ezra 4:12), not the reconstruction of the temple. Although these complaints were written much later and about other concerns, the accusations of Ezra 4:6-23 are examples of the kinds of tactics by which the neighbors of the Jews also tried to stop the reconstruction of the temple. This parenthesis ends when the author starts Ezra 4:24 and returns to the narrative of temple construction: “Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.” (F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, New International Commentary on the Old Testament; 1982, Eerdmans, pgs. 69-70)
Second, the reference to the king of Assyria in Ezra 6:22 also can cause confusion. Assyria no longer existed as an empire after the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BC and of Haran in 610 BC, but the Passover in Ezra 6:22 was celebrated in 516 BC. Technically, no king of Assyria has existed for almost 100 years. How can the Bible say, “The LORD had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them” (Ezra 6:22)? The reason comes from the custom of new Middle Eastern emperors to join themselves to the list of previous emperors to give legitimacy to their new rule. Despite the change in kingdoms, a new emperor presented himself as another link in the chain of previous famous and admired rulers. Therefore, a king of Persia like Darius could present himself also as king of Assyria even though this empire ceased to exist, because he governed the same geographical locations and the same peoples as the Assyrian kings had. This association also makes his own government more prestigious (Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, pg. 96; refers to a list of Babylonian kings reproduced in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pg. 566, that begins with an Assyrian king, mentions the strictly Babylonian kings, includes the Persian kings Cyrus, Cambyses and Darius and ends with the Seleucid kings who took over after the death of Alexander the Great. The kings on the list come from four distinct empires, but they are presented as one unbroken chain with dominion over the same geographic location and the same people). Understood in this way, the phrase: “The LORD had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them” (Ezra 6:22) is not an historical error but a declaration of Yahweh’s faithfulness, the One who changed the heart of the same chain of authority that exiled His people from Israel in 722 BC and made it so that they now encouraged the Israelites to return from
exile and rebuild Jerusalem. This title allows us to see Yahweh’s mercy through the centuries. Even though He punishes, He is merciful and will never abandon His people.