By Shelley Neese

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The Persian officials diligently sought documentation to validate the Israelites’ assertion that they possessed authorization from the late King Cyrus to reconstruct their temple. Ezra’s narrative suggests that the Israelites harbored no resentment towards Tattenai’s inquiry; they recognized it as part of his duties as a provincial leader. Moreover, they expressed confidence that the officials would ultimately resolve the issue in their favor. The exilic community held the decree of Cyrus in high regard, cherishing it as a crucial part of their historical memory. Despite initially coming up empty-handed in their search for the decree in Babylon, the officials persisted and eventually unearthed the scroll in the archives of distant Ecbatana. This city, once the capital of the Median empire and a mountainous summer retreat for Persian kings, unexpectedly housed the sought-after document. The narrator, keeping to his inclusion of primary historical documents, provided the full text:

In the first year of his reign, King Cyrus issued a decree: Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices are offered and burnt offerings are brought; its height shall be sixty cubits and its width sixty cubits, with three courses of hewn stones and one course of timber; let the cost be paid from the royal treasury. Moreover, let the gold and silver vessels of the house of God that Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon be restored and brought back to the temple in Jerusalem, each to its place; you shall put them in the house of God. (6:2-5)

One or two decrees?

A close reader of Ezra may observe a significant difference between the Cyrus decree presented in Chapter 6 and its earlier mention in Chapter 1 (1:2-5; 6:2-5). While the first decree primarily addresses the return of exiles to Judah, the second decree focuses solely on outlining the specifications for the Jerusalem temple project. It’s worth noting that the first decree is in Hebrew, while the second decree is in Aramaic, a distinction not apparent in English translations.

In fact, the narrator of Ezra preserves two extensive sections of the text in Aramaic (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), a feature shared only with the book of Daniel in the Bible. Aramaic, having become a widely spoken language since the days of the Assyrian empire, served as a lingua franca across regions. By presenting letters and primary sources in their original language, the narrator demonstrates meticulous attention to historical accuracy. Moreover, the audience, having been familiar with Aramaic during their exile, would have been able to comprehend the narrative in both languages.

In the past, biblical scholars suggested that the narrator of Ezra presented two versions of the same decree. However, modern research, informed by a comparative analysis of records in the Persian archives, suggests that there were indeed two distinct decrees, each serving a different purpose.

The initial proclamation, recorded in Hebrew, served as an announcement for the Hebrew-speaking exiles (1:2-5). Conversely, the scroll discovered in Ecbatana functioned as an official internal memorandum for the administrative needs of the empire (6:2-5). Bookending the six-chapter narrative of the first wave of returnees, attaching Cyrus’s proclamation to the beginning and end of the section served as literary devices.

The edict of Cyrus, as conveyed to Tattenai, systematically addressed each of his inquiries regarding the Israelites’ authorization to build, the financing of the project, and the designated size of the monumental structure. The memorandum specified that the temple’s dimensions should be “sixty cubits” in both height and width. However, it’s crucial to consider potential scribal errors, especially concerning numerical details. Solomon’s Temple measured 90 feet by 30 feet by 45 feet, making it unlikely for the Second Temple to deviate significantly in height. A height of 90 feet seems improbable, given the blueprint of the first temple.

The memorandum also stipulated the return of the temple treasures to Jerusalem. Notably, the absence of any mention of an idol in the narrative aligns with Jerusalem’s status as an idol-less temple. Regarding financing, the memorandum clarified that the royal treasury would fund the project.

Decree of Darius

Upon locating the original memorandum, Darius acted swiftly and decisively. He issued a decree that surpassed even Cyrus’s favor towards the Jews and their temple project. Darius commanded all Persian administrators, including Tattenai, to withdraw from Judah and refrain from interfering with the construction of the house of God (6:6-7). With this, he effectively closed the investigation and put an end to all disruptions. For the Israelites, the assurance of no further imperial interference must have been a relief, as Darius’s endorsement quelled local disturbances.

Furthermore, Darius pledged complete financial support for the temple project. While Cyrus had promised to finance the reconstruction, Darius went a step further by guaranteeing that the royal treasury would cover the expenses of the daily sacrifices—animals, wheat, salt, wine, and oil (6:9). This represented a considerable enhancement to the original commitment. However, Darius clarified that the funds would be sourced from tax deductions within the province. He stated, “the expenses are to be fully paid to these men without delay from the royal revenue, which is from the tribute of the province Beyond the River” (6:8). “Beyond the River” denoted all Persian territories west of the Euphrates River, encompassing what we now refer to as Mesopotamia.

Darius employed language resonant with the Bible, affirming the people of Judah’s freedom to “offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven” (6:10), echoing the same terminology used by Yahweh when instructing Moses on burnt offerings and food offerings (Lev. 1:9,13,17). By referring to Jerusalem as the place where God “has established his name” (6:12), Darius evoked a term with roots tracing back to Deuteronomy (Deut. 12:5, 11). His culturally sensitive language indicated a familiarity with how the Jews spoke of their God and Jerusalem.

Additionally, Darius made a special request for prayers for the “life of the king and his children” (6:10). This echoes the request found on the Cyrus Cylinder, which asked that when peoples of the empire offered sacrifices to their local gods, they also pray for the long life of the king. Now, it was Darius’s turn to seek intercession on his behalf. Despite the polytheistic nature of Persian leadership and their general tolerance of local religions, Darius’s favorable disposition towards the Jewish temple appears remarkable. Historians suggest there may be additional motivations underlying his enthusiasm.

History suggests that Darius likely led a campaign through Judah in 519 BCE to quell a rebellion in Egypt. It’s plausible that Darius, seeking to secure stability in the region, may have strategically aimed to curry favor with Egypt’s neighbors, including those in Jerusalem and its environs. This could have been a calculated political move to strengthen his influence and maintain control over the area.

The narrator of Ezra, however, doesn’t delve into the intricacies of Persian politics. Instead, the narrative remains focused on the divine intervention in the lives of the Israelites. What matters most to the narrator is the belief that God orchestrated events, such as turning the heart of the king of Assyria towards them (6:22). This perspective underscores the religious significance of the narrative, emphasizing the supremacy of divine will over human affairs.

In the ancient Near East, royal decrees often attached threats to their official orders. Darius’s decree warned, “if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it” (6:11). Since Assyrian times, impalement was a popular form of punishment for wrongdoers. Apparently, the Persians kept up the Assyrian tradition. The people of the land may have opposed the returnees rebuilding, but they took seriously the level of imperial protection given to the temple project. With Darius acting as the personal benefactor of the Jerusalem temple, the local opposition had no chance of throwing up additional roadblocks. Darius promised that if they did, his henchmen would turn their own houses into dunghills (6:11).

Second Temple rebuild

Tattenai and his associates followed Darius’s orders, giving the Israelite builders a green light to finish the temple (6:13). In fact, the exiles did not lose any time during the period of investigation because Tattenai wisely and generously allowed the building to continue while the palace searched for the edict of Cyrus.

In less than five years, they finished the temple (516 BCE). The narrator credited the miracle to the command of God and the decree of the Persian kings, saying “they finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes” (6:14). Technically, Artaxerxes had nothing to do with the temple rebuild but because he favored the construction of Jerusalem’s city walls, the narrator inserted him into the list of favorable kings. The verse is a reminder that even if Judah lived under foreign rule, God still held sway over every earthly leader.

The dedication ceremony for the temple brought out “the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles” (6:16). After fifty years of exile and twenty years of struggling to relaunch the nation in Israel, they fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah: “Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10).

The Second Temple, while not as magnificent as its predecessor, boasted remarkable longevity. Over four centuries, it underwent several renovations, notably under Simon the Just in 200 BCE and, more famously, Herod the Great in 20 CE.

Compared to the opulence of Solomon’s Temple, the dedication ceremony for the Second Temple was notably more modest, as evidenced by the quantity of sacrificial animals required for each occasion (1 Kings 8:63). The narrator details that the community partook in the sacrificial meat of “one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs,” and “twelve male goats” (6:17). Amidst this celebration, the narrator emphasizes the prevailing spirit of unbridled joy within the community (6:16). Gone is the melancholy comparison to Solomon’s Temple; instead, the Second Temple is embraced with a sense of contentment and fulfillment.


Following the dedication ceremony, the community reconvened to observe the holiday of Passover (6:19). The Jewish liturgical calendar serves as a historical anchor in Ezra’s narrative. Before his reforms, the calendar must have been largely ignored or forgotten. Earlier, upon completing the altar, they celebrated Sukkot (3:4). Now, with the entire temple finished, they gathered to commemorate both Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which technically merge into one festivity.

One can imagine the Passover Seder meals of the newly returned captives felt especially poignant (Ex. 12:8). Each element of the tradition symbolized freedom and deliverance, underscoring the blessing of their generation. Through these rituals, they once again witnessed God’s active hand in the world, orchestrating their rescue.

The narrator emphasized that all the priests, Levites, and returned exiles took part in the offerings. Everyone needed ritual purity. Without the sacrificial system, the people of God had no way of dealing with the problem of sin. They were eager to repent and restore their standing before God (5:11-12). Even at the beginning of Haggai and Zechariah, the people seem conscious of their sins and determined to get things right in the covenant relationship (12; Hag. 1:12; Zech. 1:1-6). The sin offering, a Passover lamb sacrificed for every family, was essential to purify the entire community from the contamination of exile.

Among the Passover participants were those who “separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to seek the Lord” (6:21). According to Exodus, circumcision was mandatory for all converts joining the Passover celebration (Ex. 12:48). The narrator does not specify the circumcision status of these separatists, implying they were likely already circumcised Israelites who remained in the land after the Babylonian conquest. During years of separation from the community, they blended Yahweh worship with the worship of the neighboring gods. However, upon the return of the exiles, these separatists abandoned paganism, recommitting themselves to the covenant of Yahweh.

In contrast, later sections of Ezra and Nehemiah take a harsh stance towards outsiders. When the threat of assimilation arose, Ezra and Nehemiah erected literal and metaphorical barriers between the Israelites and surrounding peoples. Thus, it’s significant that at this moment, early in their restoration, they invited all who feared Yahweh to the feast.