The Fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and the Hope of Return to Zion
For the most part, the Neo-Babylonian empire was dominated by two outstanding rulers, Nebuchadrezzar (604–562 BCE) and Nabonidus (556–539). While the former took up the challenge of reestablishing Mesopotamian rule over the entire Near East after the demise of Assyria and left a record of conquest abroad and of building at home, the latter forsook his capital for a desert oasis, then lost it without a battle to Cyrus the Persian. Among the Judean exiles, it was Nebuchadrezzar whose name was incised in the collective memory. Around this king who had razed Jerusalem and had deported Judah to Babylonia, a store of derisive and derogatory tales inevitably grew up, though some of them had originally been associated with Nabonidus.
The last Babylonian monarch, Nabonidus, was probably not of Chaldean ancestry. His energetic support of the moon-god Sin and his cult center in the Syrian city of Haran suggest Aramean extraction. His mother had been a lifelong devotee of Sin. That this outsider could take the throne points up the instability in post-Nebuchadrezzar Babylon. During his first years, Nabonidus fought in northern Syria and the west, after which he abruptly departed Babylon for Tema in the north Arabian Desert. There he tarried for at least ten years of self-imposed isolation. Crown Prince Bel-shar-usur (the biblical Belshazzar) administered affairs in Babylon during his father's absence. One official duty, however, he could not fulfill. The annual New Year's festival, during which the king “took the hand of Marduk,” Babylon's chief deity, had to be postponed in his absence, to the displeasure of the god's priesthood.
While the Babylonian king seems to have busied himself with protecting and even developing trade centers in the west, a new power that would eventually challenge Babylonia arose on the Iranian plateau. Under the leadership of Cyrus of Parsua, who had rebelled against his Median overlord, the combined armies of Persia and Media fought their way across the entire Anatolian peninsula to conquer the Lydian capital of Sardis, not far from the Aegean Sea. By 546 BCE, the Babylonian empire had been surrounded, and the choice of time and place to strike belonged to Cyrus.
These geopolitical developments may have spurred Nabonidus's return to Babylon, though no answer to Cyrus's ascendancy was forthcoming. The rupture between the king and the city's leaders, especially the priests of Marduk, widened when he set about completing the constructions to Sin in Haran. For the year 539 BCE, the Babylonian Chronicle records that the Persians defeated the Babylonian army at Opis and Sippar in late summer, after which “the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle” and Cyrus declared peace to all. Biblical tradition associated Babylon's fall with Belshazzar in particular: the inscrutable handwriting on the palace that he observed was interpreted for him by Daniel as a message from God that his kingdom would be handed over to the Persian king (Dan. 5 ). From the tenor of the propagandistic inscription prepared for Cyrus by the priests of Marduk who welcomed the Persian in the name of their god, one wonders whether they had not acted in the end as a fifth column: Marduk “beheld with pleasure [Cyrus's] good deeds and his upright heart, and therefore ordered him to march against his city Babylon…Without any battle, he made him enter his town Babylon, sparing Babylon any calamity. He delivered into his hands Nabonidus, the king who did not worship him.” Such was the eloquent apologia signaling the orderly transfer of power to the Persian conqueror.
Among the Judean exiles in Babylonia, expectations ran high for the imminent fall of Nabonidus; they, too, looked to Cyrus as their deliverer. The emotion-charged words of an anonymous visionary, who held out hope for a speedy end of the exile, are preserved in the collection of speeches now appended (from chapter 40 on) to the prophecies of the eighth-century BCE Isaiah of Jerusalem. This “Second Isaiah” spoke of Cyrus as God's “anointed,” raised up to subdue the nations so that in the end Israel might be set free and Jerusalem rebuilt. Although Jeremiah's predicted seventy-year enslavement to Babylon had not run its full course—the number was, in any case, a typologically large one indicating completeness—Second Isaiah offered comfort and solace to his audience, that Israel “has served her term, her penalty is paid” (Isa. 40.2 ). God will lead his people safely home through the desert, in a stunning reenactment of the Exodus. It was not unusual for Israel's prophets to interpret contemporary events in terms of God's plan for Israel. Isaiah and Jeremiah in their days had referred to Assyria and Babylonia as instruments of judgment; in like manner, the exilic Isaiah greeted Cyrus as the God-sent liberator of Israel.
Along with his consoling message to the exiles, the prophet addressed a challenge to the nations: only the Lord had announced in advance what the future had in store, and its execution would be proof of his Godhead. His call to give up idolatry, the futile worship of wood and stone “that cannot save” (Isa. 45.20 ), held out the promise that those who would embrace Israel's faith would be welcomed in the new Zion:
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
(Isa. 56.6–7 )
Just how many foreigners, if any, actually took up the call and attached themselves to the community of exiles cannot be determined. But one pole of the ideological debate that was to divide Judeans over the next several centuries had been staked out: no longer the exclusive preserve of Israel alone, her faith now opened its doors to converts from all the nations to worship the Lord in a rebuilt and resplendent Jerusalem. Some of these grand visions draw on landscape images which suggest that Second Isaiah himself may have been one of the early returnees who responded to Cyrus's call:
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 in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him! Let him go up. (2 Chron. 36.23 )