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The Samaritan Antagonism Continues (Ezra 4:6-24) June 16-18

The chronology of this passage is debated based on differing opinions regarding the identity of the Persian kings mentioned within it. Recall from verses 4-5 that the Samaritans were constantly attempting to thwart the Jews who had returned to Judea (the tiny Persian district of Yehud), efforts that often included accusing them before the Persian court. This continued throughout the reign of Cyrus the Great.

Yet Cyrus, whom God had foretold would give the word to restore Jerusalem and its temple, was not swayed by the Samaritan arguments. But he eventually passed from the scene. As historian Werner Keller writes: "Cyrus, the liberator, died on an expedition to the east in 530 B.C., and was buried in the royal palace of Pasargadae near Persepolis [30 miles northeast of Shiraz in southern Iran]. His palace was built in the form of individual pavilions: each one lay in the centre of a magnificent garden: the whole area was enclosed by a high wall. On the southern slopes of a long range of hills there still stands among the rough grass of the highlands a small unpretentious stone building dating from the time of Cyrus. Six square blocks form the steps which lead up to a small chamber, above the entrance to which there could at one time be read the following plea: 'O man, whoever you are and whenever you come, for I know that you will come—I am Cyrus, who gave the Persians their empire. Do not grudge me this patch of earth that covers my body.' Alas, the small stone chamber in which a golden sarcophagus enclosed the mortal remains of the great Persian is now as empty as the place above the entrance which bore the inscription. Occasionally shepherds with their flocks pass unconcernedly by this forgotten spot, as they did in olden times, across the wide plateau where the lion is still lord of the chase.

"Cyrus was followed by his son Cambyses II. With the conquest of Egypt [in 525 B.C.] Persia became under him the greatest empire that the world had ever seen: it stretched from India to the Nile" (The Bible As History, 1980, p. 303).

According to verse 5, the Samaritans would continue to present their grievances against the Jews "until the reign of Darius king of Persia." This is generally recognized as referring to Darius Hystaspes (Darius I)—not to be confused with the earlier Darius the Mede mentioned in Scripture.

Royal Identity Dispute (Ezra 4:6-24)

The identity controversy mentioned above starts in the very first verse of our present reading, verse 6, with the identity of the Ahasuerus mentioned there and continues through the rest of the chapter over the identity of Artaxerxes. The Darius of verse 24 is the same as the one in verse 5 (as the temple was rebuilt during the reign of Darius I).

Notice the succession of Persian emperors (dates are B.C.):

Anglicized Greek Form Persian Form Dates of Reign
Cyrus II (the Great)Koorush559-530
Cambyses IIKambujiya530-522
Pseudo-Smerdis (Comates)Bardiya (Gaumata)522
Darius I (the Great) HystaspesDarayavahush/Darryoosh522-486
Xerxes I (the Great)Khashayarsha486-465
Artaxerxes I (Longimanus)Artakhshathra or Ardashir465-425
Xerxes IIKhashayarsha424
Secydianus/Sogdianus(Known only in Greek)424
Darius II (Ochus/Nothus)Darayavahush/Darryoosh423-404
Artaxerxes II (Mnemon)Artakhshathra404-359/8
Artaxerxes III (Ochus)Artakhshathra359/8-338/7
Artaxerxes IV (Arses)Artakhshathra338/7-336
Darius III (Codomannus)Darayavahush/Darryoosh336-330

So who is the Ahasuerus of Ezra 4:6? This name is now generally understood as a parallel to the Greek name Xerxes. Notice that the Persian form is Khashayarsha. Where the name Ahasuerus occurs in Scripture, the actual Hebrew form is Akhshurosh, much closer to the Persian form of Khashayarsha. Of Xerxes the Jewish Encyclopedia states, "The Babylonian tablets spell his name Khisiarshu, Akhshiyarshu, etc." ("Ahasuerus," http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=967&letter=A).

And what of the name Artaxerxes? Where this name appears in Scripture, the actual Hebrew form is Artakhshasta. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains: "In the Persian name Artakhshathra...the 'thr'...is pronounced with a hissing sound, and is therefore represented in other languages by [an s or sh]. Thus in Babylonian, Artakshatsu, Artakhshassu, and numerous variations; in...Hebrew... Artakhshasta...in Greek, [Artaxesses]...and by assimilation with the name Xerxes [it becomes Artaxerxes]" ("Artaxerxes I," http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1827&letter=A).

It would seem, then, that Ahasuerus in Ezra 4:6 is King Xerxes I, the husband of Esther. And Artaxerxes in verses 7-23 would appear to be Artaxerxes I, the king under whom Nehemiah later served. If that is the case, as most scholars now maintain, then chapters 4-6 are out of sequence. Here's how The Expositor's Bible Commentary explains Ezra 4: "This chapter summarizes various attempts to thwart the efforts of the Jews. In vv. 1-5 the author describes events under Cyrus (539-530), in v. 6 under Xerxes (485-465), in vv. 7-23 under Artaxerxes I (464-424). He then reverts in v. 24 to the time of Darius I (522-486), when the temple was completed (cf. Hag 1-2). The author drew on Aramaic documents from [Ezra 4] v. 8 to 6:18, with a further Aramaic section in 7:12-26" (note on 4:1-5). Chapters 5-6 concern events during the reign of Darius I. Chapter 7 advances the story to the time of Artaxerxes I.

Following the above interpretation, Eerdman's Handbook to the Bible has this to say in its note on Ezra 4: "Verses 1-5, 24: the opposition succeeds in bringing the work [on the temple] to a standstill for 15 years, until Darius is king. Verses 6-23 interrupt the chronological sequence to carry the account of the opposition through to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Here the bone of contention is the rebuilding of the city walls ([verse] 12)." This would mean Ezra interrupted the sequence of the book to drop in an overview of the antagonism even beyond the time of Darius, which seems a likely conclusion, especially given the mention of the city and its walls in the correspondence rather than the temple.

However, there is another school of thought that sees Ezra 4 as presented in chronological order—wherein the Ahasuerus or Xerxes of verse 6 is another name for Cyrus' son Cambyses (530-522) and the Artaxerxes of verses 7-23 is a reference to the imposter king Gaumata (522), who posed as Cambyses' slain brother Bardiya (Smerdis). Expositor's notes: "Some scholars claim that the parallel account in Josephus (Antiq[uities of the Jews, Book 11, chapters] 21-25...), which substitutes Cambyses for Artaxerxes I, gives the correct order" (note on verse 7). Yet what of the fact that the names Xerxes and Artaxerxes are specifically applied to other kings? "Some historians believe that the names Akhshurosh [Ahasuerus/Xerxes] and Artahshasta [Artaxerxes] were general titles for kings, such as 'Pharaoh' and 'Shah' or 'His Majesty' and that they were not specific names" (Allyn Huntzinger, Persians in the Bible, chap. 6, http://www.farsinet.com/persiansinbible/images/chapter6.pdf).

Yet it seems more likely that the majority opinion is correct—that these names refer to Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I. This would seem to be more consistent with other passages and avoids the problem of assigning these appellations to whomever "seems" to fit. Indeed, one might wonder why these names are used in Scripture if they provide no identification of particular kings. Regarding Josephus' identification, Expositor's notes: "[H.G.M.] Williamson (Israel [in the Books of Chronicles, 1977], p. 50) points out that 'at Ezra [4]...it seems likely that the author has grouped by theme rather than by chronology. Josephus' corrections, therefore, which rest from one point of view on accurate historical knowledge, result in the end in unhistorical confusion' (cf. also [C.G.] Tuland, ["Ezra-Nehemiah or Nehemiah-Ezra?" Andrews University Seminary Studies, 12] 'Josephus,' [1974]" (note on verse 7).

The truth is that we can't know the answer to this matter for sure either way. It should be noted that if the majority opinion is correct, as seems likely, then we are reading the current passage out of chronological sequence. However, that is really no dilemma since, in any case, we are reading the verses in order of scriptural arrangement—which, if not in chronological sequence, is nevertheless thematically consistent here. We will note these verses again where they more likely occur chronologically.

Letter Writing Campaign Against Jewish Rebuilding (Ezra 4:6-24)

Whoever the Ahasuerus of verse 6 is, whether Cambyses or the great Persian emperor known as Xerxes I (see previous comments), he apparently paid no heed to the Samaritan complaints. In verse 7 Artaxerxes, whether pseudo-Smerdis or Artaxerxes I (again see previous comments), at first pays no heed either. But another letter in verses 8-16 gets his attention.

Verses 9-10 identifies the plaintiffs as descendants of those the Assyrians had transplanted from the east into the land of Samaria after the northern tribes of Israel had been deported. Osnapper is evidently another name for the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-626 B.C.). His resettlement of people into Samaria was in addition to that of Esarhaddon (681-668 B.C.) mentioned in verse 2. Where the NKJV has "the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the people of Persia and Erech and Babylon and Shushan, the Dehavites, the Elamites" (verse 9), the NIV has instead, "the judges and officials over the men from Tripolis, Persia, Erech and Babylon, the Elamites of Susa" (see The Expositor's Bible Commentary for a technical explanation of the differences here). In identifying their nationalities, the Samaritans emphasize the kinship many of them share with the Persian authorities.

Furthermore, the Samaritans refer to themselves in the letter as "your servants" (verse 12)—implying a faithful vassal relationship. By contrast, they refer to Jerusalem as "the rebellious and evil city" (verse 12) and warn that the Jews will again revolt if they manage to rebuild and fortify it (verses 13-14). "A search of the king's official records confirmed the Samaritans' allegation of rebellion and sedition on the part of the people of Jerusalem, no doubt referring to the revolts under Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah (see 2 Kin. 24:1-20). The fact that these revolts were against the Babylonians and not against the Persians was not important. The Persians had become the heirs of the Babylonian Empire, and they would take such a report seriously" (The Nelson Study Bible, note on Ezra 4:19). Evidently Cyrus' decree regarding the Jews and Jerusalem had been forgotten by this point, as the Persians had an important precedent of unchangeable law (see Daniel 6:8, 12, 15).

It is also interesting to note in the king's response that he discovered that past kings of Jerusalem had ruled over all the region west of the Euphrates River (Ezra 4:20)—evidently referring to David and Solomon and perhaps a few later kings who had experienced periods of dominance over nearby nations.

The Persian ruler commands that the restoration of Jerusalem be brought to a halt but he leaves open the possibility of a change in policy, saying that "this city may not be rebuilt until the command is given by me" (verse 21). If the Artaxerxes here is pseudo-Smerdis, it would appear that the directive is later overturned when the next king, Darius I, finds the earlier decree of Cyrus (see Ezra 6). If the Artaxerxes in chapter 4 is the one known to history as Artaxerxes I, as most scholars believe, then the king ends up reviewing his own decision and issuing commands regarding rebuilding to Ezra and Nehemiah.

One important factor to note is that if the chapter is in chronological sequence, then the Jews were evidently forced to stop work on the temple (Ezra 4:24) when imperial decree and force of arms brought the rebuilding of Jerusalem to a halt (verses 17-23). But if the chapter is, according to the majority view, out of sequence, then the Jews simply gave up in the face of ongoing resistance (Ezra 4:4-5, 24). Once again, the latter seems more likely given that there is no reference to the work having been forced to cease when the rebuilding is questioned in chapter 5. The latter also seems more in line with Haggai's criticism of the Jewish neglect of temple reconstruction in the second year of Darius (see Haggai 1:1-11).

In any case, Ezra 4 ends with the fact of temple reconstruction ceasing until Darius' second year (verses 24). The recommencement and completion of the temple during the reign of Darius is the subject of the next two chapters in Ezra.

It may be of interest to note significant events transpiring elsewhere in the world at this time. It was during this period that Gautama Siddharta (Buddha) lived and taught in India (ca. 563-483 B.C.) and K'ung Fu-tzu (Confucius) lived and taught in China (ca. 551-479 B.C.). This was nearly a thousand years after the time of Moses (and nearly half a millennium from Solomon's building of the first temple).

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