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Cities of the Medes

by Tim O'Hearn

“In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria, and carried Israel away into Assyria, and placed them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.” (2 Kings 17:6) This was about 722 BCE.

In about 576 BCE some of the Jews returned from Babylon to their homeland to rebuild the Temple, at the command of Cyrus the Great, a Mede. In approximately 481 BCE, if Ahasuerus is the Xerxes who styled himself King of the Medes and Persians (and also King of the World), the Jewish people “from India unto Ethiopia” were saved from genocidal destruction.

Although the book of Esther does not mention God by name, his hand is clear in everything in the book. But perhaps God’s reach can be seen much farther than just the events in that book.

In Babylon the Jewish people received a mixed reaction. According to the book of Daniel, some of the more intelligent Jews gained positions of power. That, in itself, brought ethnic tensions between the Jews and the Babylonians. The accounts of the destruction of Judea by Nebuchadnezzar also show a dichotomy. The Babylonian king showed great cruelty toward one king of Judah (Zedekiah, 2 Kings 25:7), but his successor played the gracious host for another former king (Jehoiachin, 2 Kings 25:27-30). In the three deportations from Judah, the quality of the captives went steadily downhill, until those deported in the final destruction were barely above the abject peasantry. The Babylonians left only the poor of the land in Judah. (2 Kings 25:7)

When the Medes and Persians took power about seventy years later, however, one of the first acts of Cyrus the Great was to allow the Jewish captives to return to rebuild Jerusalem. Why was he so kindly disposed? Some historians claim it was simply Medean policy to allow all peoples captured by the countries they conquered to return home. Others say it was specifically the Jewish people that were singled out. If so, why? Could it be because the Jewish people had lived peaceably in the cities of the Medes for almost a century and a half? Did God see that the northern tribes were settled in the cities of the Medes, just so Cyrus would have had a pleasant experience with them, making him more disposed to assist the Jews of Babylon?

That the Jewish people continued in the cities of the Medes long after Cyrus is clear in the book of Esther. That book takes place perhaps almost a century after Cyrus acceded to the Persian throne, yet there were Jews living in the palace city of Susa (about 250 miles east of Babylon). The writer of the book indicates that there were Jewish settlements throughout the Persian Empire, perhaps as far east as India. There was enough hatred of the Jews that Ahasuerus was easily persuaded to order the total destruction of the Jewish people. (Perhaps a little prejudice, and $180 million in today’s US currency.) Yet there was sufficient fear of, or respect for, the Jews that he was also easily convinced to countermand his order. (Or he was influenced by a pretty face, as many people in power have been. Ahasuerus was notoriously wishy-washy.) One is again led to wonder if the transplantation of the Jews into the cities of the Medes almost two centuries before did not have some influence on the establishment of the holiday of Purim.

(Purim falls on February 24 in 2013 Gregorian/Adar 14, 5773 Hebrew.)