A Colonized People


Persian Hegemony, Hybridity, and Community Identity in Ezra-Nehemiah


In: Biblical Interpretation
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  • 1 Durham University, UK


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The article draws on Achaemenid royal inscriptions in a postcolonial investigation of Ezra-Nehemiah’s portrayal of the community of immigrants from Babylon. The book presents the community’s identity as a hybrid of the way imperial hegemony portrays the colonized who live in the Persian Empire and of aspects of the community’s own Judean heritage that is strongly influenced by Yahwism. In Ezra 1–6, the community is portrayed as a group of colonists sent from the imperial center by the king, but, in these chapters, loyalty to the king amounts to loyalty to Yhwh, since it is the community’s God who commands the Persian king to act. In Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13, however, this loyal group of colonizers becomes a colonized people disloyal to their God and king. These chapters present the community as a group who has ceased to be the loyal imperial subjects of Ezra 1–6 and who have declined to the state of their ancestors, congenitally unable to keep Yahwistic and Persian law, and thereby justifying the colonized state of the community and imperial exploitation of its resources. In this section of the narrative, the community is just what Persian hegemony defines its colonized peoples to be: They are a group of “slaves” to the Persians, and rely utterly on individuals commissioned by the Persian king and sent from the center of the empire – that is, Ezra and Nehemiah – to lead them and to keep them loyal to their God and, therefore, a loyal colonized people to Persia.


  • 1

     So, for example, T.C. Eskenazi, In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (SBLMS, 36; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), p. 2; P.F. Esler, “Ezra-Nehemiah as a Narrative of (Re-Invented) Israelite Identity,” BibInt 11 (2003), pp. 413–26 (417–18); D. Janzen, “The Cries of Jerusalem: Ethnic, Cultic, Legal, and Geographic Boundaries in Ezra-Nehemiah,” in M.J. Boda and P.L. Redditt (eds.), Unity and Disunity in Ezra-Nehemiah: Redaction, Rhetoric, and Reader (HBM, 17; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), pp. 117–35.

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  • 3

     H. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 112. For discussion of this idea in the context of biblical scholarship, see, for example, R.S. Sugirtharajah, Asian Biblical Hermeneutics and Postcolonialism: Contesting the Interpretations (BLS; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), pp. 16–17; M. Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), p. 122; J.L. Berquist, “Psalms, Postcolonialism, and the Construction of the Self” in idem (ed.), Approaching Yehud: New Approaches to the Study of the Persian Period (SBLSS, 50; Atlanta: SBL, 2007), pp. 196–97.

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  • 20

     E.g., Xenophon, Oec. 4:6–10; Cyr. 8:2:10–12; Herodotus 8:85, 90; Plutarch, Art. 14:5; 15:2. And although not a Greek writing, we could also mention the sarcophagus of Eshmunazar of Sidon, which states that he received the gift of Dor, Joppa, and the Sharon plain from the Persian king for his “great deeds” (KAI 14).

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  • 21

     See K.E. Southwood, Ethnicity and the Mixed Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9–10: An Anthropological Perspective (OTM; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 185–90, and D. Janzen, Witch-hunts, Purity and Social Boundaries: The Expulsion of the Foreign Women in Ezra 9–10 (JSOTSup, 350; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 57–78.

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  • 22

     Bhabha, The Location of Culture, p. 47. So, writes Bhabha, the colonial vision of the Self simply is not possible without the construction of the Other “as the necessary negation of a primordial identity” (pp. 50–52 [52]). As Gayatri Spivak puts it, the colonized Other is the “shadow” of the colonial Self, defined as part of the imperial project of Self-definition; see her “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (eds.), The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 24–28 (24).

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  • 29

     See Lincoln, Religion, Empire, and Torture, pp. 12–13. In Achaemenid iconography, only the Behistun inscription portrays the king as triumphant over human enemies (Root, The King and Kingship, pp. 182–84).

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  • 30

     J.C. Greenfield and B. Porten, The Bisitun Inscription of Darius the Great: Aramaic Version (CII, 1/5/1; London: Lund Humphries, 1982), pp. 3–4. Wiesehöfer argues that the earliest copies of DB were Aramaic and were designed for quick distribution throughout the empire (Ancient Persia, pp. 18–19).

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  • 33

     Lincoln, Religion, Empire, and Torture, pp. 9–10.

  • 36

     See G. Ahn, Religiöse Herrscherlegitimation im achämenidischen Iran: Die Voraussetzungen und die Struktur ihrer Argumentation (Acta Iranica, 31; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992), pp. 278–81, 293–97.

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  • 37

     H.G.M. Williamson, “The Aramaic Documents in Ezra Revisited,” JTS 59 (2008), pp. 41–62 (47).

  • 38

     See R. Rendtorff, “Ezra und das ‘Gesetz’” ZAW 94 (1986), pp. 65–84; T. Willi, Juda – Jehud – Israel: Studien zum Selbstverständnis des Judentums in persischer Zeit (FAT, 12; Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1995), pp. 91–117; T.B. Dozeman, “Geography and History in Herodotus and in Ezra-Nehemiah,” JBL 122 (2003), pp. 449–66 (457–64); A.C. Hagedorn, “Local Law in an Imperial Context: The Role of Torah in the (Imagined) Persian Period,” in G.N. Knoppers and B.M. Levinson (eds.), The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2007), pp. 72–73.

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  • 39

     Ahn, Religiöse Herrscherlegitimation, pp. 278–81, 293–97.

  • 47

     Southwood, Ethnicity and the Mixed Marriage Crisis, p. 155.

  • 51

     So Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, p. 65; and Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia, p. 31.

  • 52

     See E.N. von Voightlander, The Bisitun Inscription of Darius the Great: Babylonian Version (CII, 1/2/1; London: Lund Humphries, 1978).

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  • 53

     A. Missiou, “Δοῦλος του βασιλἐως: The Politics of Translation,” Classical Quarterly 43 (1993), pp. 377–91.

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