To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 11

Cyrus-the-Great

 

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:

 ‘Thus says King Cyrus 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 in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill-offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.’

 The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. And this was the inventory: gold basins, thirty; silver basins, one thousand; knives, twenty-nine; gold bowls, thirty; other silver bowls, four hundred and ten; other vessels, one thousand; the total of the gold and silver vessels was five thousand four hundred. All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem. – Ezra 1

King Cyrus is a hero.

At least, that’s how this story wants him to be presented and likely how many both in the post-exilic time and after saw him among the Jewish people. In fact there is strong reason to believe that many of the messianic texts that we now ascribe to Jesus around Christmas time were actually written about Cyrus.

Of course he’s a hero. He frees the people of Israel after their long captivity in Babylon. He sends them home with people and animals and valuables. He wants them to rebuild the temple. He’s honoring their God, for crying out loud.

Cyrus is a hero. And that’s exactly what he wanted people to think of him.

Cyrus figured out something that the Romans would also later adopt as their empire spread; it’s so much easier to rule people if you let them keep their own God. It’s the illusion of autonomy. It’s so hard to make a group you’ve conquered convert to your religion. It’s so much easier if you take them over but then benevolently allow them to worship as they please.

Empire 101.

Cyrus isn’t giving the people of Israel their freedom. He’s extending his empire and essentially using the occupied people as the military extension of his own power. It’s quite brilliant. throughout history, Cyrus becomes known as a statesman, a hero of religious tolerance, and a peacemaker.

Don’t get me wrong, by all accounts, Cyrus was a good ruler. I’m sure some of his actions were the result of some nobility in his character.

And yet, empire is empire. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator. I wonder what would have happened if the Jewish people had decided to declare their independence from Persia. Actually, I can easily imagine what would have happened.

How do we make sure that we’re not just making “nice” versions of oppressive systems? How do we ensure that people have real freedom and not simply the illusion of it? How do we keep from creating systems where the oppressed are force to praise their oppressors because they’ve lived through worse? I think these questions are the task of a truly liberative theology and therefore are a task that we should undertake.

 

 

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