During its history, the people of Israel had some form of contact with many kings and rulers of the empires and nations of the Ancient Near East. The kings and rulers of these nations were either friends or enemies, oppressors or allies of Israel. One of them, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, was seen as a liberator of Israel and the one who allowed the people to return to their ancestral home. Deutero-Isaiah called Cyrus “a shepherd” (Isaiah 44:28) and “the Lord’s anointed,” his Messiah (Isaiah 45:1). Jerome, in his commentary on Isaiah called Cyrus a type of Christ.
An article published by Spiegel Online begins by praising Cyrus and his declaration of 539 B.C. as follows: “A 2,500-year-old cuneiform document ceremoniously displayed in a glass case at the United Nations in New York is revered as an ‘ancient declaration of human rights.’” The cuneiform document referred by the writer is the Cyrus Cylinder, a document which contains Cyrus’ proclamation that allowed the captive nations in the Babylonian empire to return to their homes.
According to the book of Ezra, the following proclamation was made throughout all of Cyrus’ kingdom:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel- he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:1-4).
The version that appears in the Cyrus Cylinder contains a different reading:
All the kings of the entire world from the Upper to the Lower Sea, those who are seated in throne rooms, (those who) live in other [types of buildings as well as] all the kings of the West land living in tents, brought their heavy tributes and kissed my feet in Babylon. (As to the region) from . . . as far as Ashur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to (these) sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their former inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations.
The article in Spiegel Online, however, portrays Cyrus as “a despot who had his enemies tortured.” According to the article, “The notion that Cyrus introduced concepts of human rights is nonsense.”
The article continues:
Hanspeter Schaudig, an Assyriologist at the University of Heidelberg in the southwestern Germany, says that he too would be hard-pressed to see the ancient king as a pioneer when it comes to equality and human dignity. Indeed, Cyrus demanded that his subjects kiss his feet.
The ruler was responsible for a 30-year war that consumed the Orient and forced millions to pay heavy taxes. Anyone who refused stood to have his nose and ears cut off. Those sentenced to death were buried up to their heads in sand, left to be finished off by the sun.
This article seeks to reverse the positive picture of Cyrus portrayed by ancient historians by claiming that his proclamation was “a brilliant piece of propaganda.”
No one would say that Cyrus was the ideal king but there is historical evidence that Cyrus was indeed a benevolent king who, for political reasons, allowed many conquered nations to return to their homes.
Read and evaluate the writer’s view of Cyrus. As for me, I have a more positive view of Cyrus than the writer of the article published by Spiegel Online.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary