After the First Temple

Jewish history was permanently altered by the destruction of the First Temple, and the exile that came afterwards.

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Gedaliah is Assassinated

Although Gedaliah seems to have had the support of the people, there were those who opposed him. Ishmael the son of Netaniah, who was serving as a military commander under Gedaliah, assassinated Gedaliah (II Kings 25:25). Biblical texts are unclear about the date (either in the fall of 586 or 585), but in any case, his tenure was very short. The reasons for the assassination are not described in the Bible. Ishmael, who claimed to be descended from David's son Elishama, may have had royal pretensions of his own, or perhaps he sought vengeance against the representative of Babylon for the butchering of Zedekiah's family.

Following the assassination of Gedaliah, little is known about the Judeans who remained in the land. Much of the landed elite had been relocated to Babylonia; others, in the wake of the assassination, fled to Egypt, Jeremiah among them.

Although II Kings and the book of Ezra describe the total cessation of worship at Jerusalem, other evidence seems to imply that aspects of the cult remained in place. After the assassination of Gedaliah, "some men from Shechem, from Shiloh, and from Samaria, eighty men, having their beards shaven, and their clothes torn, and having cut themselves, came with offerings and incense in their hand, to bring them to the house of the Lord" (Jeremiah 41:5).

Cyrus and Restoration

Around 556, an Aramean named Nabonidus seized the Babylonian throne, and proceeded to alienate many of the Babylonians by elevating his own favorite deity, the moon god, Sin. Soon after, a Persian named Cyrus took over the Median empire in Ecbatana. By  547, Cyrus campaigned in Asia Minor and laid siege to the King Croesus of Lydia in his capital of Sardis. Nabonidus continued to lose support within his shrinking Babylonian empire, and in 539, Cyrus conquered Babylon itself, claiming the assistance of the Babylonian god Marduk, probably after receiving real support from the traditional priests of Marduk in the city.

Also among Cyrus' supporters were Jews like the prophet whose stirring poetry is preserved in the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55, called Second Isaiah).

Indeed, Cyrus adopted a general policy of restoration. The Cyrus Cylinder, perhaps the single most significant piece of primary evidence for the period, preserves a cuneiform record of the basic activities and policies of the founder of the Persian empire. It includes a significant notice that Cyrus (speaking in first person), restored the traditional worship to the cities of Ashur, Susa, Agade, Eshnunna and a few others

"I returned to these cities… the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned their habitations."

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.