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Exile, 597 - 538 B.C.
This period of deportation which began in 597 BC, when the Chaldeans deported the Jews after conquering Jerusalem, is traditionally dated as 586 BC in Jewish history and is called the Exile. It ends in 538 when the Persians overthrow the Chaldeans.
Only the most prominent citizens of Judah were deported: professionals, priests, craftsmen, and the wealthy. The "people of the land" were allowed to stay. So history refers to: the Jews in Babylon and the Jews who remain in Judah. Almost nothing, of the Jews in Judah after 586 BC, is known. Judah seems to have been wracked by famine, according to the biblical book, Lamentations, which was written in Jerusalem during the exile. The entire situation seemed to be one of infinite despair.
The salient feature of the exile, however, was that the Jews were settled in a single place, by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Chaldeans. While the Assyrian deportation of Israelites in 722 BC resulted in the complete disappearance of the Israelites, the deported Jews formed their own community in Babylon and retained their religion, practices, and philosophies. Some, it would seem, adopted the Chaldean religion (for they name their offspring after Chaldean gods), but for the most part, the community remained united in its common faith.
Persian Rule, 538 - 332 B.C.
"Then did We grant you the Return as against them.........." < Quran Bani Israel 17:6>
In 539 - 538 B.C. Cyrus the Persian (580-529 BC) conquered Mesopotamia, allowing the Jews to return home. This was no ordinary event, as Cyrus sent them home specifically to worship Yahwehwhat was once only a kingdom would become a nation of Yahweh.
Cyrus conquered Mesopotamia and the whole of the Middle East, and unlike any conqueror before him, Cyrus set out to conquer the entire world he and he did so for religious reasons. Barely a century before, the Persians were a rag-tag group of tribes living north of Mesopotamia. They were Indo-Europeanthey spoke a language from the Indo-European family, which includes Greek, German, and English. To the Mesopotamians, they were little better than animals and so went largely ignored. But in the middle of the seventh century BC, a supposed prophet, Zarathustra, appeared among them and preached a new religion. This religion would become Zoroastrianism (in Greek, Zarathustra is called "Zoroaster"). The Zoroastrians believed that the universe was dualistic, one was good and light and the other evil and dark and that at the end of time, a climactic battle would decide once and for all which of the two would dominate the universe.
Cyrus believed that the final battle was approaching,
and that Persia would bring about the triumph of good. To this end, he sought
to conquer all peoples and create the stage for the final triumph of good. At
his death, his empire was exponentially larger than any other empire that had
ever existed, the Persians, it seemed at the time, were on their way to world
domination. Although Zoroastrianism involved two godsone good and one
evilall other gods were ranged on one side or the other of this equation.
Cyrus believed Yahweh was one of the good gods, claiming that Yahweh had visited
him one night. In that vision, Yahweh commanded him to re-establish Yahweh worship
in Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. Cyrus ordered the temple to be rebuilt
and to this end, he ordered the Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. In fact,
Cyrus sent many people back to the native lands in order to worship the local
gods there, so the situation with the Jews was not unique. Not all of the Jews
went home; a large portion stayed in Babylon and some had converted to Babylonian
Before the Exile, Judah and Israel were merely kingdoms; now Judah was a theological state. The shining symbol of this new state dedicated to Yahweh was the temple of Solomon, which had been burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. Thus it was that the temple was rebuilt along with the walls of the city.
During the Exile, the Jews set about "purifying" their religion. They blamed the disaster of the Exile on their own impurity and believed it to be proof of Yahweh's displeasure, for betraying Him and allowing the Mosaic laws and cultic practices to become corrupt, attempting to return their laws and cultic practices to their Mosaic originals. This newfound concern with cultic purity and the Mosaic laws, combined with the re-establishment of Judah as a theological state, produced a different society. Hebrew society was almost solely concerned with religious matters in the Persian period; foreign religions were not tolerated as they had been before. Non-Jews were persecuted, and foreign religious expelled. During the Persian period and later, Judah was the state where Yahweh and only Yahweh was worshipped. Both the Persians and the Greeks respected this exclusivity, but the Romans would greatly offend the Jews when they introduced foreign gods.
For the next two hundred years, Persia dominated all of the Middle East and Egypt, and came within a hair's breadth of conquering Greece. During all this time Palestine was a tribute state of Persia. However, in the late fourth century BC, another was intent on conquering the world and set about doing it with ruthless efficiency. He was a Greek: Alexander of Macedon. When he conquered Persia in 332 BC, Palestine became a Greek state.
The Greeks, 332 - 63 BC
"..........We gave you increase in resources and sons, and made you the more numerous in man-power" < Quran Bani Israel 17:6>
After two centuries of serving as a vassal state to Persia, Judah suddenly found itself the vassal state of Macedonia, a Greek state. Alexander the Great had conquered Persia and had, in doing so, conquered most of the world, which was under Persian rule at the time; in a blink of an eye, it now fell to the Greeks.
This great Greek empire would last no longer than Alexander's brief life; after his death, altercations between his generals led to the division of his empire among three generals. One general, Antigonus and then later Ptolemy, inherited Egypt; another, Seleucus, inherited the Middle East and Mesopotamia. It was under the Seleucids that Hellenistic culture, an amalgam of Greek and early eastern cultures, grew dominant. After two centuries of peace under the Persians, the Hebrew state found itself once more caught in the middle of power struggles between two great empires: the Seleucid state with its capital in Syria to the north and the Ptolemaic state, with its capital in Egypt to the south. Once more, Judah would be conquered, first by one, and then another, as it shifted from being a Seleucid vassal state to a Ptolemaic vassal state. Between 319 and 302 BC, Jerusalem changed hands seven times.
The Greeks allowed the Jews a fair amount of autonomy; adopting Cyrus's policy, they allowed the Jews to run their own country, declared that the law of Judah was the Torah, and attempted to preserve Jewish religion. When the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, desecrated the Temple in 168 BC, he touched off a Jewish revolt under the Maccabees; the next 80 years saw a period of Jewish political independence in Jerusalem.
The Greeks brought with them a brand new concept: the "polis," or "city-state." Among the revolutionary ideas of the polis was the idea of naturalization. In the ancient world, it was not possible to become a citizen of a state if you weren't born in that state. The Greeks, however, would allow foreigners to become citizens in the polis; it became possible all throughout the Middle East for Hebrews and others to become citizens of states other than Judah. Thus the rights of citizenship (or near-citizenship, called polituemata), allowed Jews to remain outside of Judea and still thrive. In many foreign cities throughout the Hellenistic world, the Jews formed unified and solid communities; Jewish women enjoyed more rights and autonomy in these communities rather than at home.
The most important event of the Hellenistic period, though, is the translation of the Torah into Greek in Ptolemaic Egypt. After the Exile, the Torah became the authoritative code of the Jews, recognized first by Persia and later by the Greeks as the Hebrew "law." In 458 BC, Artaxerxes I of Persia made the Torah the "law of the Judean king."
So the Greeks set about translating a copy, called the Septuagint after the number of translators it required ("septuaginta" is Greek for "seventy"). The Septuagint is a watershed in history, as this translation would make the Hebrew religion into a world religion. It would otherwise have faded from memory like the infinity of Semitic religions that have been lost to us. This Greek version made the Hebrew scriptures available to the Mediterranean world and to early Christians who were otherwise fain to regard Christianity as a religion unrelated to Judaism. Even with a Greek translation, the Hebrew Scriptures came within a hair's breadth of being tossed out of the Christian canon. From this Greek translation, the Hebrew view of God, of history, of law, and of the human condition, in all its magnificence would spread around the world. The dispersion, or Diaspora, of the Jews would involve ideas as well as people.
Eventually in the second century BC, the Jews revolted and established an independent state (141-63BC). This lasted until Pompey the Great conquered Palestine for Rome and made it a province of the Roman Empire ruled by Jewish kings.
(Source:© Richard Hooker, World Civilisations; The Jerusalem Mosaic, http://www.arab.net/palestine/history/pe_israelstate.html)