Between the 8th-6th centuries BCE, Ancient Middle Eastern Empires, such as Assyria and Babylonia (both in modern-day Iraq), expelled nations that refused to accept their Empire’s authority and pay the imperial tax. The Hebrew People living in the Land of Israel were no exception to this rule. Over the course of the 8th century BCE, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, who rebelled against the Assyrian Empire, were expelled from the land of Israel to Assyria. Then, in 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire expelled most of the Hebrew People in the southern kingdom of Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the First Jewish Temple. With their kingdoms destroyed and most of the Hebrew People living in exile, the Jewish people had reached a historical nadir.In 539 BCE, the fate of the Hebrew People began to change when Cyrus, the king of Persia, conquered the Babylonian Empire. Unlike the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who believed in using harsh measures such as the threat of mass killings and expulsions to ensure loyalty to their empire, Cyrus had a different approach. Cyrus, along with his successors, believed in giving autonomy to their subjects. This autonomy allowed the peoples of the empire freedom to contribute money to their temples and the ability to live and practice their own religions freely. The subjects’ obligations towards the Persians were limited to remaining loyal to the empire, contributing imperial taxes, and participating in military service when and if necessary.
The Hebrew People were no exception to this policy of internal autonomy. According to the Biblical book of Ezra, Cyrus issued an official proclamation allowing the Hebrew People to return to their homeland in the land of Israel, rebuild their temple, and live according to their ancient laws. Those Hebrew People who stayed behind in Babylonia and Persia were ordered to supply the Hebrew People returning to the land of Israel with gold and silver. The English translation of Cyrus’s declaration found in book of Ezra (1: 2-4), written originally in Hebrew, reads:
‘Thus said Cyrus king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD, the God of heaven, given me; and He hath charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people–his God be with him–let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD, the God of Israel, He is the God who is in Jerusalem. And whosoever is left, in any place where he lives, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.’
There is external archeological evidence that Cyrus’ benevolence as described in the Declaration was extended to all subject peoples in his empire, thus confirming the authenticity of the Declaration mentioned in the Book of Ezra. This evidence comes in the form of a clay cylinder inscribed with ancient Akkadian writing. The text on the cylinder describes Cyrus as being the benefactor to Babylonia who restored the Babylonian temples, repatriated expelled peoples, and improved the lives of those living in the Mesopotamian region (now modern day Iraq). This cylinder is clear evidence of Cyrus’ policy of autonomy towards conquered peoples, including the Hebrew People.