Ezra 4’s Cyrus, Ahasuerus, Artaxerxes, and Darius
Damien F. Mackey
Here continues the task of revising ancient Persian history, with an anticipated severe reduction in the number of kings that one will find listed in the text books.
Part One: A Revised Overview
Ezra 4:4-6 is thought to give the overall range of Persian history to be covered in this chapter, from Cyrus down to Darius:
Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
before the sacred writer(s) proceed to fill in the details - especially regarding the forced interruption of work towards the building of the Temple (vv. 6-23).
The narrative then returns to, and concludes with, king Darius in v. 24: “Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia”.
The framework that we are given in Ezra 4, bookended by Cyrus and Darius, is as follows:
Cyrus (v. 5)
Ahasuerus (v. 6)
Artaxerxes (vv. 7-23)
Darius (vv. 5, 24)
Whilst there is not much dispute amongst commentators about the identifications of Cyrus and Darius, they can differ about who were “Ahasuerus” and “Artaxerxes”.
Generally they, following the standard list of Persian kings,
List of the Kings of Persia from 550 BC to 330 BC
Period of Reign (Approx)
Cyrus II "the Great"
will regard Cambyses as both “Ahasuerus” and “Artaxerxes”.
Less commonly some commentators prefer, for the identification of “Artaxerxes”, the usurper, Gaumata, sometimes equating him with the obscure Bardiya.
The Matthew Henry Commentary, for instance, favours a double identification for Cambyses:
[Cyrus] then either died or gave up that part of his government, in which his successor was Ahasuerus (v. 6), called also Artaxerxes (v. 7), supposed to be the same that in heathen authors is called Cambyses, who had never taken such cognizance of the despised Jews as to concern himself for them, nor had he that knowledge of the God of Israel which his predecessor had. To him these Samaritans applied by letter for an order to stop the building of the temple; and they did it in the beginning of his reign, being resolved to lose no time when they thought they had a king for their purpose. ….
[End of quote]
Whilst Herb Storck (History and Prophecy: A Study in the Post-Exilic Period, House of Nabu, 1989, p. 64), accepting that “Ahasuerus” is Cambyses, thinks that “Artaxerxes” must be Gaumata/Bardiya:
The section of Ezra iv. 6-23 involves the whole reign of Cambyses and Bardiya. The subject … structure, prosopography … syntax and vocabulary … of the section naturally supports this interpretation. As the text can thus sustain this interpretation it remains only to show reasonable grounds that the sequence Cyrus, Ahasuerus (Cambyses), Artaxerxes (Bardiya) and Darius can be justified from what is known of them historically. It will now be argued that Ahasuerus can be Cambyses and that Artaxerxes may be Bardiya/Gaumata. As this thesis is almost never argued in current scholarship, it will require a careful and rather lengthy discourse. ….
[End of quote]
What I take from the Matthew Henry Commentary is that only one king is being referred to under the two names of “Ahasuerus” and “Artaxerxes”.
But I think that he is not Cambyses.
Whilst I expect to have more to say later about this idiosyncratic king and his place in history, I have already opened proceedings towards an entirely new assessment of Cambyses by drawing some parallels between him and Daniel’s King Nebuchadnezzar about whom one may read in my:
“Nebuchednezzar” of the Book of Daniel
Re my different view of Cambyses, I refer to this series of articles:
Common factors here may include ‘divine’ madness; confounding the priests by messing with the Babylonian rites; and the conquest of Egypt and Ethiopia.
As was the case with King Nabonidus (= Nebuchednezzar II), so did Cambyses apparently fail properly to observe established protocol with the Babylonian rites.
Of Nebuchednezzar II’s conquest of Egypt, well-attested in the Bible, it is extremely difficult to find substantial account in the historical records. Not so with the conquest of Egypt and Ethiopia by Cambyses.
And even, right out of left field:
Cambyses and Julius Caesar
The Book of Esther presents us with a Great King who is variously called “Ahasuerus” and “Artaxerxes”. And this is good enough for me. I have identified him as both “Darius the Mede” and Cyrus:
Is the Book of Esther a Real History? Part Three: “King Ahasuerus”
I concluded this article with:
According to my radical truncating of the number of Chaldean kings of this era, Nebuchednezzar II’s son, Evil-Merodach (or Awel-Marduk), was the last of the rulers of this dynasty - and he was the same person as Belshazzar:
Hence it is likely that the Medo-Persian king who succeeded Belshazzar, “Darius the Mede” – who I believe to have been Cyrus himself (see e.g.):
Darius the Mede "Received the Kingdom"
was the Great King “Ahasuerus” (“Artaxerxes”), whose wife Queen Esther was.
[End of quote]
Darius the Great
More recently, in my article:
"Three Kings" and the "Fourth" of Daniel 11:2
I have identified:
Darius the Mede = Cyrus the Great = Darius the Great
thereby most radically shortening Medo-Persian history.
This would mean that only the one Medo-Persian kings is actually being referred to in Ezra 4.
Now, the description of Ezra’s king Ahasuerus/Artaxerxes fits tolerably well with what we learn about the Great King of the same names in the drama of Esther, supplemented with parts of the Book of Daniel.
Apart from Mordecai’s dream, in the second year of Ahasuerus, we do not engage the reign of the Great King until his third year of reign (Esther 1:3), when he was in high celebratory mode.
Likely earlier than this incident was that of Ezra 4:6: “And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem”.
However, that King Ahasuerus had severe trouble early in his reign is apparent from a comparison of Daniel 6 (in which he is called “Darius the Mede”) and, more emphatically, Bel and the Dragon (in which he is called “Cyrus of Persia”):
Daniel 6:24: “At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children”.
Bel and the Dragon (1:28-30): “When they of Babylon heard that, they took great indignation, and conspired against the king, saying, The king is become a Jew, and he hath destroyed Bel, he hath slain the dragon, and put the priests to death. So they came to the king, and said, Deliver us Daniel, or else we will destroy thee and thine house. Now when the king saw that they pressed him sore, being constrained, he delivered Daniel unto them …”.
This conspiracy against the king could well pertain to the conspiracy that Mordecai uncovered (Esther 2:21-23): “Once, while Mordecai was sitting at the king’s gate, Bigsan and Seresh, two officers of the king's night guards, became angry at the king, and they conspired to poison the king. Mordecai found out about it, so he told Queen Esther, and Esther told it to the king, citing Mordecai as her source. They investigated the matter, and it was verified, and they were both hanged on gallows. It was then recorded in the royal book of chronicles”.
When we move on to Ezra 4’s account of “Artaxerxes”, we encounter a name, “Bishlam”, or other variations, that is not unlike that of the conspirator, “Bigsan”, or other variations (e.g. “Bigthan”).
D. Clines (Esther Scroll: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=PBediPzesQ0) has put forward “the supposition that Haman was himself implicated in the conspiracy of [Bigthan and Teresh] which Mordecai uncovered, as is suggested by both the Greek versions …”.
In the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam and Mithredath and Tabeel and the rest of their associates wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia. The letter was written in Aramaic and translated. Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king as follows: Rehum the commander, Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their associates, the judges, the governors, the officials, the Persians, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnappar deported and settled in the cities of Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River. (This is a copy of the letter that they sent.) “To Artaxerxes the king: Your servants, the men of the province Beyond the River, send greeting. And now be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. Now be it known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired. Now because we eat the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king's dishonor, therefore we send and inform the king, in order that search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers. You will find in the book of the records and learn that this city is a rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from of old. That was why this city was laid waste. We make known to the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls finished, you will then have no possession in the province Beyond the River.”
Similarly, Haman informs Ahasuerus/Artaxerxes of this allegedly rebellious and lawless people (Esther 3:8-9): "There is a nation scattered and separated among the nations throughout your empire. Their laws are different than everyone else's, they do not obey the king's laws, and it does not pay for the king to tolerate their existence. If it pleases the king, let a law be written that they be destroyed, and I will pay to the executors ten thousand silver Kikar-coins for the king's treasury”.
And Queen Esther, in her prayer, would note that (vv. 19-20) “… our enemies are no longer satisfied just to see us in slavery. They have made a solemn promise to their idols not only to destroy the people who praise you, but to do away with your Law and to remove forever the glory of your house and altar”.
That is just what the enemies of the Jews were intending in the Ezran drama.
And, just as Ahasuerus/Artaxerxes will respond to this accusation (Esther 3:9-10): “The king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, persecutor of the Jews. The king said to Haman, ‘Keep the money, and do whatever you want with that nation’," so, too, did he, in Ezra, harken to Rehum and his crew (4:17-23):
The king sent an answer: ‘To Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe and the rest of their associates who live in Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River, greeting. And now the letter that you sent to us has been plainly read before me. And I made a decree, and search has been made, and it has been found that this city from of old has risen against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made in it. And mighty kings have been over Jerusalem, who ruled over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid. Therefore make a decree that these men be made to cease, and that this city be not rebuilt, until a decree is made by me. And take care not to be slack in this matter. Why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?”
Then, when the copy of King Artaxerxes' letter was read before Rehum and Shimshai the scribe and their associates, they went in haste to the Jews at Jerusalem and by force and power made them cease.
Haman’s feigned concern that “… it does not pay for the king to tolerate” the Jews, may echo the rebels’ feigned solidarity: “Why should damage grow to the hurt of the king?”
Part Two: Darius the Great
Though the foundation of the Temple of Yahweh was laid in the second year of Cyrus, this incident has been wrongly re-dated by commentators to a presumed king “Darius”, thought to have been of several reigns later than Cyrus.
Ezra 3:8-10 makes it abundantly clear that “the foundation of the Temple of the Lord” was laid already in the second year of the return from captivity:
In the second month of the second year after their arrival at the house of God in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak and the rest of the people (the priests and the Levites and all who had returned from the captivity to Jerusalem) began the work. They appointed Levites twenty years old and older to supervise the building of the house of the Lord. Joshua and his sons and brothers and Kadmiel and his sons (descendants of Hodaviah) and the sons of Henadad and their sons and brothers—all Levites—joined together in supervising those working on the house of God.
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel.
Yet the prophet Haggai’s reference to this important event, now about half a year later, in the ninth month of the second year of Darius (Haggai 2:18; cf. v. 10): “From this day on, from this twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, give careful thought to the day when the foundation of the Lord’s temple was laid”, is generally estimated by commentators (who distinguish Cyrus from Darius) to have occurred two reigns later:
Cyrus II "the Great"
That is, almost two decades later (Cyrus 538 – Darius 521 = 17).
With my identification of the aged Jeremiah, post-exilic, with both Haggai and Zechariah
operating in “the second year of Darius” (cf. Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 1:1), I am perfectly happy not to have to extend Jeremiah’s age by a further 17 years.
Nor do I think that the evidence demands it.