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.
More than one scholar has noted that a basic theme of Ezra-Nehemiah is its focus on the community1 to whom the narrative refers variously as “Israel” (e.g., Ezra 2:1; 3:1; 6:16; 9:1; 10:1; Neh. 1:6; 2:9; 7:7; 8:1; 9:2), the ones “from the captivity [of the exile]” (e.g., Ezra 2:1; 3:8; 8:35; Neh. 1:2, 3), “[the children of] the exile” (e.g., Ezra 4:1; 6:16; 8:35; 10:6, 7, 16), “the assembly” (e.g., Ezra 2:64; 10:12, 14; Neh. 7:66; 8:17; 13:1), “the Judeans” (e.g., Ezra 4:23; 5:1, 5; 6:7, 14; Neh. 1:2; 2:16; 3:33–34 [4:1–2]; 5:1, 8; 13:23), and so on. This article uses a postcolonial lens to read Ezra-Nehemiah in light of the Achaemenid royal inscriptions, a textual dialogue that has really not yet been pursued in any detailed way, in an attempt to discover how the narrative constructs the identity of the community, particularly in terms of its use of the Persian imperial hegemony found in the inscriptions. In postcolonial analysis, hegemony is the ideology of the empire that claims to be normative and universal, that is accepted as such by the center of empire and by the colonized, and that thereby functions as a non-violent form of control, since it justifies the empire’s rule over the colonized, groups that are inevitably portrayed as in need of such rule.2 The narrative creates what postcolonial analysis refers to as hybridity, a reference to a formation of identity on the part of the colonized subalterns who do not entirely accept the identity through which imperial hegemony defines them, but who combine this imperial portrayal with aspects of their own culture. In a hybrid creation of identity, a colonized culture thus revalues and subverts the identity of the colonized subject imposed on it by imperial hegemony, writes Homi Bhabha, creating a communal identity that is at once compliant with and resistant to empire.3 The result of this, writes Bhabha, is mimicry,4 an apparent adoption by the colonized subject of the identity imposed upon it, but an adoption that is actually subversive, recognizing and validating the legitimacy of at least some aspects of the culture of the colonized, and so disrupting the categories that authorize and legitimate imperial power. The mimicry that results from hybridity can therefore turn into mockery of imperial claims.5
The community whom readers encounter in Ezra 1–6, the opening act of Ezra-Nehemiah, is a group loyal both to its God and to Persia. The narrative here reflects the community’s Judean culture, particularly its emphasis on the identity of “Israel” as the people of Yhwh, as well as the insistence of Persian hegemony that its colonized people remain loyal to royal command, so the narrative portrays the people as loyally following the command of the Persian king, who in turn has been empowered by and acts for Yhwh. These chapters combine the community’s Judean-Yahwistic heritage with Persian imperial discourse by making the Persian king subject to Yhwh, thereby allowing the community to be loyal Yahwists and loyal subjects of the great king of Persia at the same time. The narrative insists, in fact, that the community emerges from Babylon, a center of empire, and, even if they are a colonized people, the community acts like a group of Persian colonizers at the empire’s margins.6 In Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13, however, readers witness a decline in the community over time. The emphasis in the community’s hybrid status changes, and if Ezra 1–6 suggests they are more like colonists than colonized, perfectly loyal subjects to the king, Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13 points to the reverse. These chapters prioritize leadership from the imperial center, and the figures of both Ezra and Nehemiah emerge from the center of empire, commissioned by the Persian king, and bring leadership to a community that is portrayed as dangerously close to collapse. Like the Persian hegemony of the Achaemenid inscriptions, the narrative demonstrates that the colonized margins of empire benefit from the rule that derives from the imperial center. The narrative fuses Yhwh’s תורה with the Persian king’s dāta-, meaning that the community’s failure to keep the law of their God – and this failure is emphasized in every section of the narrative that discusses the law – is simultaneously a sign of its failure to remain loyal subalterns to the empire.7 In fact, the community’s failure to remain loyal to their God’s law is the explanation for their subaltern status and justifies Persia’s imperial exploitation of the land. The farther the community moves in time from their origins in Babylon, the less like a group of colonizers loyal to their king and God they appear, and the worse they seem. Community identity evolves in Ezra-Nehemiah, but it does so in a negative way. However loyal and linked to the imperial center the community might have been when it migrated from Babylon, the community readers encounter by the end of Ezra-Nehemiah is a colonized people portrayed by the narrative largely as Persian imperial discourse portrayed all of its colonized peoples: prone to a disloyalty that harms them and in need of a stabilizing imperial rule that benefits them.
Ezra 1–6: The Community as Loyal Colonists and Loyal Yahwists
An obvious way in which we see hybridity in the opening of Ezra-Nehemiah is in the mimicry of Persian hegemony, even to some degree of Achaemenid royal inscriptions, in Ezra 1:2–4. These inscriptions provide us with immediate access to Persian imperial hegemony, and DNa 1–8, which opens the inscription at Darius’s tomb, became the standard opening formula for the Achaemenid inscriptions: “A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created that sky, who created mortals, who created happiness for mortals, who estab־lished Darius as king, one king of many, one lord of many.”8 There may be many kings, but the Achaemenid is the only one whom Ahuramazda has placed in this role, and so he rules the others; this is why another very common feature of Persian inscriptions is the reference to the Achaemenid as “the great king, king of kings, king of [many] peoples/countries (dahyūnām).”9 Achaemenid inscriptions can emphasize the extent of the empire controlled by the king, sometimes by asserting that Ahuramazda has given the world to the Achaemenids to rule (DNa 30–34; DSf 15–18; DSm 3–5; DSs), or by providing long lists of subject peoples,10 or by suggesting that the king rules all habitable lands,11 an aspect of Persian hegemony of which Xenophon seems to have been aware.12 Ezra 1:2–4 does not refer to Yhwh as creator, but it otherwise opens in a fashion at home in Persian imperial discourse: “Thus says Cyrus, the king of Persia: Yhwh, the God of the heavens, has given all the kingdoms of the earth to me.” Besides its reference to Persian rule over the whole earth, it appears, like almost all Achaemenid royal inscriptions and reliefs, to avoid any mention of warfare in the establishment of this rule, describing it rather as a divine gift.13 “Thus says Cyrus” is language at home in Judean Yahwism, reflecting the phrase “Thus says Yhwh,” but it also mimics the ubiquitous use of θāti PN xšāya-θiya – “Proclaims PN the king” – in Achaemenid inscriptions. In Persian inscriptions, the phrase indicates that the king’s speech provides the true interpretation of the events relayed, and while “Thus says Cyrus” might suggest the king has usurped the divine power to command, the truth he conveys here is that Yhwh has given the earth to him, and has also given him a command – “He has commanded me to build him a house which is in Judah” – the result of which is that Cyrus exhorts “those among you from all his people” (Ezra 1:3) to go up to Jerusalem and build.
So if the opening of Ezra-Nehemiah mimics the Persian insistence that the great king rules the world, it also mocks this hegemony through its insistence that this rule is Yhwh’s decision, and that Yhwh has given rule to Persia to benefit Yhwh. A reader of Ezra 1:2–4 could even conclude that the basic point of the Persian Empire is to build the temple in Jerusalem. Ezra 1:7–11; 6:8–10; and 7:14–24, where the Persian kings donate vast resources to maintain the temple cult, might lead readers to the same conclusion. These passages also both mimic and mock Achaemenid imperial discourse, for Persian royal inscriptions emphasize the flow of resources and artisans from the margins of the empire to the center so that they can be used to build royal palaces in Persia (DSf, DSz, DSaa). These inscriptions enumerate the places in the colonies from which these people and materials emerge, thereby pointing to the extent of the empire and portraying the point of its existence as permitting the collection of peoples who make it up to willingly and with little effort contribute to the construction and maintenance of empire.14 Many of Xerxes’ inscriptions begin just as DNa does, referring to Ahuramazda’s creation of the world and establishment of Darius as king, followed by a reference to Xerxes as “great king, king of kings … king in this earth even far off,”15 followed by a description of his construction projects (XPa, XPb, XPc, XPd, XPf, XPg, XPj, XSc, XV; and see also A1Pa). Ahuramazda has created the world and the empire, and the building projects at the empire’s center are a manifestation of this truth, since the point of the colonies is to build up the empire’s center.16 Another way imperial discourse manifested this same ideology was through the display of the finest products of each colonized region at the imperial center.17 By reversing the flow of people and materials from the center to the margins in its story of the temple-building, however, Ezra-Nehemiah reverses the empire’s concepts of center and margin, and mimicry of imperial discourse becomes mockery of it in its narrative fusion with Judean Yahwism. According to Ezra 1:2–4, Persia rules “all the kingdoms of the earth,” just as hegemonic discourse claims, but this rule has been effected by Yhwh, who permits Persia to rule in order to have his house rebuilt. It is Jerusalem, not Persia, that is at the center of the concern of “the God of heaven” who orders the Persian king to act on his behalf.
As it follows the command of the Persian king, then, Ezra 1–6 portrays the community as simultaneously loyal to Yhwh as well, since Yhwh has commanded the king to act. Yet the narrative here is clear that the community comes from Babylon, a center of the empire, and it presents the community as, in essence, a group of colonizers, albeit one with roots in Judah, whom the Persian king has commissioned to act on his behalf – 1:2–4 presents the commissioning of the people to build the temple as the king’s idea, not Yhwh’s18 – as he follows the command given to him by God. Readers can understand Ezra 1–2 as claiming that a large group of exiles migrated from Babylon all at once at the beginning of the Persian period, and their origin at an imperial center is obviously central to their identity, given the names by which the narrative designates it: The community is “from the captivity of the exile” and the narrative sometimes simply describes it as “the exile” (Ezra 9:4; 10:6). And lest Mesopotamia not immediately appear to modern readers as an imperial center during Achaemenid rule, it is good to remember that the region had been the center of empire in Judean thinking from the appearance of the Neo-Assyrians in the Levant in the early ninth century until the fall of Babylon more than three centuries later. The king of Persia is also “king of Babylon” (Neh. 13:6), just as he can be “king of Assyria” (Ezra 6:22). This part of the community’s identity is a simple appropriation of Achaemenid hegemony: the community appears as a group sent from an imperial center to build under the orders of the king, a group so loyal that they virtually seem to be colonizers.
The vast gifts that the community receives from the great king reflect this identity as well; it was in this fashion that the kings rewarded those who cooperated or worked with (hamtaxš-)19 the king (DB 1:20–23; 4:65–67, 80–88; DNb 16–21), a matter well-attested also in the Greek sources.20 Not only do the Persians restore all of the costly temple vessels (Ezra 1:7–11), but they also pay for the temple construction (6:8) and for all of the sacrifices offered there (6:9–10; 7:15–23); in addition, they grant the temple personnel immunity from taxes (7:24). And the community certainly is “working with” the Persian king in Ezra 1–6, where Yhwh “roused” both Cyrus and the community in Babylon to rebuild his house (1:1, 5), where the community understands itself alone as commissioned by the king to rebuild the temple (4:3), and where the community completes the construction project by following the טאם (“order”) of God and of the kings of Persia (6:14). On one level, we can read Ezra-Nehemiah as the fulfillment of a series of royal commands by a community that therein demonstrates its loyalty as it works with the king. Certainly Cyrus appears to act out of his own volition in supplying the community with the temple vessels in Ezra 1:7–11, rewarding them for their decision to travel to Judah and build, as does Darius in Ezra 6:8–10 when he decrees that the empire will pay for the construction of the temple and provide for the material for its sacrifices. These are royal decisions, not divine orders.
The Community as Colonizers and the People of the Land as Rebels
A common aspect of hegemony is its portrayal of the colonized as the Other, the uncivilized peoples who live at the margins of the empire and who need imperial colonization for their own good. Since all social boundaries drawn around communities are arbitrary, they need to be rigorously enforced to maintain a sense of identity; the community must be clear as to the identity and difference of the Other so that it can be clear as to the identity of the Self.21 So the imperial and central Self cannot exist without the colonized and marginal Other, who becomes what the Self is not, a negation.22 In Ezra 1–6, where the community is sent by the king from the center of empire to build on his behalf, the Other is clearly the opponents of this group of colonizers: “the people(s) of the land(s).” Throughout Ezra-Nehemiah, and not just in Ezra 1–6, the people of the land are clearly what the community is not. They have not come from the center of empire (Ezra 4:2) or been commissioned by the king (4:3). They are not permitted to participate in the temple cult (Ezra 6:21–22)23 and may not become part of the community (Neh. 13:1–3), and Ezra-Nehemiah uses purity language to distinguish them from the community, nowhere more so than in the story of the divorce of the foreign women in Ezra 9–10. There, “Israel” is “the holy seed” (9:2) in God’s “holy place” (9:8), while the land is נדה (“unclean”) because of “the peoples of the lands” and “their abominations” and טמאתם (“their impurity”) (9:11). It is no wonder, then, that community exogamy angers Yhwh and results in punishment (Ezra 9:5–15; Neh. 10:30–31 [29–30]; 13:23–27). Ezra-Nehemiah defines the community boundaries clearly in order to distinguish them from the people of the land. The community cannot accept members who do not trace their ancestry back to families who emigrated from Babylon to Judah (Ezra 2:62; Neh. 7:5, 64; 13:1–3). Ezra 2 clearly defines “the people of Israel” as “the ones going up from the captivity of the exile” (Ezra 2:1–2); this is “the whole assembly” (Ezra 2:64),24 and so those in and around Judah who are not descended from the Babylonian immigrants are the people of the land.25
It is not clear to which group(s) specifically the term “the people(s) of the land(s)” refers. Ezra 4:1–4, the first place where we encounter the term, suggests that “the people of the land” are Yahwists in Samaria descended from settlers whom the Assyrians brought to the region, but this group may simply be one of “the peoples.”26 In these verses, the community refuses their offer of aid in the temple-building project, since the Persian king has designated them alone to build. The people of the land then oppose the community as the latter tries to faithfully carry out the royal order it has received from Cyrus, and so they act in rebellion against the king; insofar as the community of immigrants is portrayed like Persian colonists, the narrative now defines them in opposition to the colonized Other, a group who acts against the will of the king. The first thing that we see the people of the land do after this, in fact, is hire functionaries of the empire to lie to the king concerning the community and its intentions. The Aramaic section of 4:8–6:18 is made up in large part of correspondence between officials in the region and the king, beginning with correspondence with Artaxerxes in 4:11–22 in regard to the construction of Jerusalem’s walls. These letters about wall-building seem out of place in a narrative concerning the construction of the temple, and 4:11–22 may simply indicate that the narrative sees the temple and wall construction as a single project,27 but they also allow the narrative to make readers’ first encounter with the people of the land one that provides the people with the opportunity to claim that the community is disloyal to the king. Readers’ first impression of the people of the land, then, is as liars. The people have the officials claim in the letter that, if rebuilt, Jerusalem will not pay tax to the king (4:13), and that it was destroyed in the first place because it is “a rebellious city, causing injury to kings and provinces, and they have been making revolt in its midst for a long time” (4:15). This convinces Artaxerxes, who parrots their language in agreeing that Jerusalem “for a long time has risen against kings and rebelled, and revolt was made in it” (4:19), and he sees no reason to have his holdings in the colonies damaged by allowing Jerusalem to be rebuilt (4:22).
Artaxerxes has simply been misled by officials bribed to lie by the people of the land. As readers make their way through the narrative, however, the narrative will expose the claims made to Artaxerxes as the lies that they are. Readers will discover that Jerusalem was not destroyed because it was a city of subjects disloyal to empire; it was destroyed because Israel offended its God (Ezra 5:11–12; 9:7–9; Neh. 9:26–37). Nor, after Jerusalem’s walls are rebuilt, does the narrative give any indication that tax stops flowing to Persia. In fact, in Neh. 5:1–5, just as the wall is nearing completion, the community complains of the onerous burden of “the king’s tax” that is driving them to sell family members into slavery. Yet Nehemiah blames not the tax but the wealthy within the community for charging too much interest on the poor (5:6–13).28 He puts an end to the local payment of “the food of the governor” (5:18), but avoids any mention of or alteration to tax money going to the center of the empire – this despite how the complaint of the poor would present the perfect justification for stopping or diminishing that flow.
This initial presentation of the people of the land as liars who oppose the king, claiming that the community is disloyal to Persia rather than acting as a loyal group of colonizers, aligns the people of the land with the Other par excellence of Persian royal inscriptions: the rebel. Achaemenid royal inscriptions almost never discuss rebellions,29 but the glaring exception to this is the Behistun inscription, Aramaic copies of which were still circulating at least a century after Darius had it carved.30 At the root of each rebellion against his kingship that Darius discusses is a lie, or the Lie (drauga-). What unites Darius’s description of every rebel he defeats is that adurujiya: “he lied.”31 In his summary of his victories over these rebels (DB 4:2–31), he refers to “the peoples (dahyāva)32 who became rebellious; the Lie (drauga) made them rebellious, so that these [rebels] deceived (adurujiyašan) the people” (4:33–35). The foreigners Darius rules are clearly vulnerable to the Lie, to being misled into rebellion.33 Darius, though, does not lie (4:41–43); he is not a Lie-follower, and he acts out of arštā- (from the Indo-European root *rēg¯-, meaning “rule” or “reign”), which appears to refer to his righteous or correct rule, and to mean that he rewards those who “work with” him and punishes those who “did injury” (4:61–67).34 In this context, arštā- functions as the opposite of drauga-, and so refers to the righteous exercise of rule on the part of the king; as a result, the “injury” to which Darius refers here is injury to his rule.35 It is no wonder, then, that Herodotus received a tradition that claimed the Persians understood lying as the most shameful act anyone could commit (1:136, 138). Ultimately, in Achaemenid imperial discourse, the king must rule since his arštā-, his righteous rule, is the antithesis of drauga-, the Lie by which the colonized are easily misled.36
There is a clear distinction in Ezra-Nehemiah, then, between the people of the land who lie and so who effect rebellion against the king, who oppose the building project of the temple that he has authorized, and the community who works with the king and carries out his order. In Ezra 1–6 this group of colonized people, who are portrayed as a group of colonizers from the imperial center who works with the king, overcomes the rebellious opposition to the imperial project of temple-building through the imperial bureaucracy. Ezra 4:8–6:18, largely an exchange of letters between royal functionaries in the region and the king, is in Aramaic because this is the language of the imperial administration, and the imperial administration – ultimately its head, the king – solves the problem created by the disloyal people of the land (5:3–6:12). As Hugh Williamson points out, what we see in Ezra 1–6 is not a building account but an exchange of letters.37 The achronological arrangement of the letters allows readers to encounter the people of the land as the paradigm of the lying rebel and to then move from this portrayal to a story of the rebels’ defeat through the personal intervention of the king. Ezra 1–6, and particularly 4:8–6:18, portray a community virtually equivalent to the Persian colonizers, whose faithfulness to God and king is thrown into sharp relief by the lies of “the people of the land,” the colonized Other. In terms of Ezra-Nehemiah’s portrayal of community identity, the period covered by Ezra 1–6 appears as a kind of golden age.
Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13: The Community’s Decline
This original golden age of communal loyalty fades into the past as readers move beyond the opening act of the narrative to Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13. On a rather superficial level, this latter part of the book does not really seem to draw on Persian hegemony in its discussion of the community at all. Ezra brings and enforces Yhwh’s תורה in Ezra 7–10; Nehemiah’s wall-building of Nehemiah 1–6 and the settlement of the city in Nehemiah 11–12 make this city, not Persia, the center of concern; Ezra and the Levites teach the law, and the community agrees to keep it in Nehemiah 8–10; Nehemiah must chastise those who break Yhwh’s law upon his return from Babylon in Nehemiah 13. Nonetheless, we will see here that Yahwistic claims concerning community identity really function to support those of Persian hegemony in regard to the colonized. By Nehemiah 13 we can really no longer see the community as a group of colonizers from the imperial center; they are instead colonized subalterns prone to disloyalty who deserve and need imperial rule.
Ezra 7, at the beginning of this section of the narrative, shares some similarities with Ezra 1: A Persian king makes a proclamation in regard to Judah, commissions a journey there from the center of the empire, and supplies resources for the temple. Unlike Cyrus in Ezra 1, Artaxerxes commissions not a whole group to go to Judah and carry out his will but a single person, Ezra, a community member from Babylon (7:6, 9), and “a scribe skilled in the law of (תורת) Moses, which Yhwh, the God of Israel, had given” (7:6). At the beginning of the letter he gives to Ezra, Artaxerxes acknowledges him as “the scribe of the law (דתא) of the God of heaven,” while referring to himself with the standard Achaemenid title “king of kings” (7:12). Besides recounting the generous gifts the king and the Persian nobility give to the Jerusalem cult, the letter commands Ezra to establish a justice system in Across-the-River based on דתא די־אלהך ודתא די מלכא (“the law of your God and the law of the king”). By acknowledging תורה as דתא and setting it beside דתא די מלכא, Ezra-Nehemiah presents the Achaemenids as recognizing the authority of תורה, at least in the satrapy of Across-the-River, and placing it on par with the law of the king.38 The very fact that תורה/ דתאis law throughout Across-the-River and not merely in Judah suggests that this law is part of the king’s law, and the king is clear that he will enforce it (7:26); as in Ezra 1–6, to serve the king is to serve Yhwh. Law is at the center of the plot in Ezra 7–10, since that is what Ezra enforces upon his discovery of the community marriages with members of the peoples of the lands, what he and the Levites teach in Nehemiah 8–10, and what Nehemiah enforces in Nehemiah 13.
To put this focus on the law in the context of Achaemenid hegemony, the whole point of Persian rule is to replace turmoil and lies throughout the world with order and truth.39 The Achaemenid inscriptions frequently begin, as we have seen, with references to Ahuramazda’s act of creation, but this creative order needs to be reestablished by a king, since Ahuramazda finds the world yaudantim (“in turmoil”), and so establishes the Achaemenid as king so that the king can “set it [the world] down in its place,” with the result that the colonized “did what I said, as was my desire” (DNa 30–38). This reestablished divine order, which corresponds to fulfilling the king’s will,40 says Darius, is the result of his dāta- or “law” (DSe 30–41).41 The obedient subalterns “showed respect to my law” (DB 1:23),42 and it is the royal law that holds the lands Darius rules (DNa 21–22; DSe 20–21). Xerxes actually claims that Ahuramazda established the law (XPh 49–53). The king, as we have discussed, must rule so that his arštā- or “righteous rule” can replace the lies and the turmoil in which the world exists without empire. When the standard opening formula of Achaemenid inscriptions states that Ahuramazda has “created happiness for mortals,” it immediately follows this by claiming that “he established Darius43 as king”; human happiness is dependent on Achaemenid rule that ends turmoil. The dāta- the king enforces replaces the turmoil and violence in the world and guarantees order among the colonized (DSe 30–41); Xerxes insists that it provides happiness both during and after life (XPh 46–56). It provides happiness in this lifetime, at least, because the king is endowed with every necessary gift to create righteousness in his empire (DNb 5–49) and so restore the order Ahuramazda created at the beginning. When the Lie erupts, as it did before Darius became king, the world is thrown back into turmoil. Dāta- is how the king enforces his will, rewarding those who are righteous – that is, who do what he desires – and punishing those who are not.44 By linking תורה with the king’s dāta-, by making תורה into דתא, Ezra 7:12–26 states that the community in Judah, along with everyone else in Across-the-River, should be loyal subjects to Yhwh and to the king; in keeping Yhwh’s law they will be keeping the king’s law and working with him to establish the empire’s order, an order in which the colonized are down in their place and do what the king desires. This is greatly to their benefit, for it frees them from the turmoil in which they existed before Persia’s rise.
So while discussion of תורה is a dominant motif in Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13, the narrative is clear that it is supported by the great king and fused with his understanding of dāta-, and so it really does not appear as if the narrative simply drops its use of mimicry and mockery and hybridity in its portrayal of the community after Ezra 6. The narrative, however, does not portray the community as loyal to this law of God that has been endorsed and adopted by the empire. The group that migrated from Babylon and remained loyal to the orders from God and king, despite the opposition and lies from the native Other in Ezra 1–6, is repetitively found to be in violation of the law in Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13. The first thing Ezra must do after arrival in Judah is to proclaim the community’s “guilt” and “iniquities” (9:6, 7, 13, 15) because of their intermarriage with “the peoples of the lands” (9:1–2), which violates Yhwh’s commandments and תורה (9:10, 11, 14; 10:3, 4). When Ezra and the Levites teach the law to the community in Nehemiah 8, the people weep (8:9), and although the text does not explain why they do so and are grieved (8:11), it seems easiest to conclude that they are sad because they have failed to keep God’s law, the effects of which are discussed in the following chapter. And since the community sees it as necessary to make an agreement to keep the law in Nehemiah 10, emphasizing particularly the prohibition on marriages with the peoples of the land (10:31 ), it appears that Ezra’s earlier leadership in this regard was not entirely successful, a conclusion to which Ezra 10:15 had already brought readers, since it states that some within the community rejected the decision to send away the foreign women in the first place. In fact, almost all of the elements of תורה the community sees as important enough to mention in their agreement in Nehemiah 10 – the forbidding of intermarriage and trading with the peoples of the lands on the Sabbath, providing for the cult, and supporting the Levites – have been abandoned by the time Nehemiah returns from his meeting with Artaxerxes in Babylon (Neh. 13:10, 15–16, 23, 28).
It would appear that the longer this community remains in the land, the less loyal they become. From the standpoint of the Persian hegemony the narrative adopts when it portrays the community as being like Persian colonists from the center of empire in Ezra 1–6, they have “gone native.” They have mixed with “the peoples of the lands” and so have become just like them, another colonized people who need to be set down in their place by the Persian king to end their turmoil, and Ezra and Nehemiah are leaders from the center of the empire who aim to do just that. The wall-building is only possible because Nehemiah, who comes from Susa, at the heart of the empire, is allowed by Artaxerxes to lead the project (Neh. 2:1–8). Nehemiah’s claim to be משׁקה or “cup-bearer” (οἰνοχόος in LXXA) to Artaxerxes (1:11) signals to readers that he is equal in rank to the Persian nobles at court, since only they could hold positions such as cup-bearer, quiver-bearer, clothes-bearer, and chariot-driver to the king.45 Nehemiah is as central a figure as one could possibly imagine in the Persian empire, outside of the king himself, and the construction of the wall, which Artaxerxes forbids in Ezra 4:11–22 because of the lies of the officials bribed by the people of the land, is possible only because Nehemiah can speak to Artaxerxes personally. Artaxerxes even permits trees from one of the royal paradises to be used for Jerusalem’s walls (Neh. 2:8), a claim that would likely convey an incredible amount of goodwill in regard to Nehemiah, since the trees from these royal parks were rarely cut down.46 Ezra too is from the center of empire, and Ezra, like Nehemiah, works in Judah under written orders from the king (Ezra 7:11–26; cf. Neh. 2:7–8) and so like Nehemiah may be understood to be “working with” Artaxerxes when he follows his command to bring the law of Yhwh and the king to Across-the-River (7:25–26), when he leads the community in its enforcement in Ezra 9–10, and when he teaches it in Nehemiah 8. The narrative identifies both Ezra and Nehemiah as community members – Ezra is of priestly descent and a scribe of Yhwh’s law (Ezra 7:1–6), while Nehemiah refers to Jerusalem as “the city of the graves of my ancestors” (Neh. 2:3, 5) – yet both come from the center of the empire to guide the community and enforce תורה/dāta- upon its wayward members.
And the community certainly needs the leadership, as we have seen. However loyal to God and king this group may have been in the past days of the temple-building, they hardly seem to be so during the reign of Artaxerxes, the king who commissions Ezra and Nehemiah. The longer they remain in the land, the greater the desire they seem to have to intermarry with the colonized Other and “go native” themselves, straying from the loyalty the community exhibited to Persia in the first years after the migration. By Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13, it is clear that this community teeters on the edge of disaster. This section of the narrative links the declining state of the community to the ethical failures of their ancestors. It was Israel’s past guilt, says Ezra, that has resulted in the community now being a group of עבדים (“slaves”), although God has extended steadfast love to them “before the kings of Persia” in this state of slavery (9:6–9). After Ezra and the Levites teach תורה in Nehemiah 8, the confession of Nehemiah 9 refers to the ancestors’ continual failure to keep תורה and the punishment that has resulted from this failure. As a result, “we are slaves today,” and “we are slaves upon” the land given to the ancestors, “and its great yield belongs to the kings whom you [God] put over us because of our sins, and we are in great distress” (9:36–37). This confession leads to the community’s written agreement in Nehemiah 10 to keep תורה and commandments.
Both Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 relate the current state of slavery to the failure of the community’s ancestors to keep the law. As Katherine Southwood points out, Ezra-Nehemiah views sin as something that accumulates over time,47 and nowhere is this clearer than Neh. 9:6–37, although Ezra 9:6–9 makes the same point. When left to its own devices, readers discover, the community does not keep God’s law, just as their ancestors did not. Nor does the community appear to get any better at keeping God’s law over time. The successful temple-building of Ezra 1–6, which is the result of the aid given to them by “the king of Assyria” (6:22), might appear to end the punishment of Israel that began “in the days of the kings of Assyria” (Neh. 9:32).48 It does not, of course, since, as we have already discussed, the community continually fails to keep תורה and needs the leadership of those sent by the king from the imperial center to enforce it. If the community’s ancestors unsuccessfully followed Yhwh’s law, and if the community now demonstrates no signs of doing so in any comprehensive way, then they really are yaudantim (“in turmoil”) and in need of imperial leadership. So while it is possible to read Neh. 9:36–37 as reflecting negatively on the Persian kings, for they are the ones taking the produce of the land and causing the community’s distress,49 the point of Nehemiah 9 is that the community has always rejected Yhwh’s law, so it deserves the state of slavery in which it finds itself and the imperial exploitation that accompanies this. Neh. 9:6–37 emphasizes that the continual repetition of destruction and slavery that the community’s ancestors experienced was the result of an accumulation of sin, and while the community’s agreement to keep the law in Nehemiah 10 might signal a path out of colonized slavery, Nehemiah 13 shows readers, as we have seen, that this is not possible, for the community is no different than its ancestors in its continual refusal to keep God’s law. And without the leadership commissioned and sent by the king, worse lies in store, as Ezra 9 warns. Iniquity and guilt from the days of the ancestors have already led to destruction, says Ezra 9:6–9, and further iniquity and guilt might lead to absolute destruction leaving no remnant behind, not even an enslaved one (9:10–15). This is a community that deserves to be colonized and that will benefit from this colonization. If the ideas in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 are Yahwistic in origin, in their narrative context they only serve to reinforce the view of imperial discourse that the colonized are “in turmoil” by nature and so need the Achaemenid king to reestablish the divine order that existed at the beginning. The narrative still presents a hybrid identity of the community here. On the one hand, they are who the Persians portray their colonized to be, for their ancestors were in turmoil and subject to violence before the Achaemenids were divinely chosen, and without leadership from the imperial center the community will return to that state. On the other hand, however, it is still Yhwh who is in ultimate control of history and who uses the Persians to carry out the community’s punishment.
Yet even the punishment of slavery that forms an important part of communal identity is a hybrid concept, for if it is the result of Yhwh’s will it also reflects the Achaemenid inscriptions’ use of bandaka- (“subject, servant”), a word cognate with the Old Persian noun *banda- (“bond, fetter”) and used for both high-ranking Persians as well as everyone else within the empire.50 If the term can suggest a close relationship between king and subaltern,51 it also suggests slaves who are bound in fetters. The Akkadian version of the Behistun inscription uses qallu (“slave”) as the parallel for bandaka-,52 and it is possible that the Greek view that all of the great king’s subjects were δοῦλοι (“slaves”) derives from a similar understanding of the Old Persian word.53 The Behistun inscription uses a participial form of the verb band- to refer to the rebels: Once defeated and captured, they are bound (basta), mutilated, and killed (DB 1:81–83; 2:70–78, 86–91; 5:25–27). Binding in servitude for loyal service by doing the will of the king and working with him to build up the empire, or binding in preparation for torture and execution, are the two options faced by imperial subjects; this is precisely what Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 warn readers of. Because the narrative gives no indication that the community can be any more righteous than their ancestors it is doomed to remain in its status as “slaves” to the Persians, but at least this comes with the benefit of the leadership sent by the great king from the imperial center that can stave off further disaster.
This leadership may enforce Yhwh’s law, but this Yahwistic conception of communal identity in Ezra 7-Nehemiah 13 is one that simply reinforces the view of the colonized subaltern in Persian hegemony. However loyal to their God and the Persian king this group might have been when they went out from the imperial center in Ezra 1–6, it has “gone native,” and has become just like their ancestors who lived before the rise of the Persian Empire. As a result, the community in Ezra 7-Nehenmiah 13, although in decline, has one significant advantage over their ancestors: Achaemenid rule. The great king commissions individuals to go from the imperial center to Judah in order to enforce “the law of your God” (Ezra 7:26); if the community’s subaltern status to the Persians is due to the fact that they cannot keep this law, the empire also supplies them with leadership to keep their base impulses in check and so avoid the kind of total destruction that Ezra describes in Ezra 9:10–15. The empire exists to benefit the colonized, just as the Persians claim; the narrative of Ezra-Nehemiah has simply made this point in Yahwistic terms.
So for example T.C. EskenaziIn an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (SBLMS, 36; Atlanta: Scholars Press1988) 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.
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
)| false , ( So, for example, T.C. Eskenazi SBLMS, 36; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), p. 2; P.F. Esler, “Ezra-Nehemiah as a Narrative of (Re-Invented) Israelite Identity,” BibInt11 (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.
H. BhabhaThe Location of Culture (London: Routledge1994) 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.
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
)| false , ( H. Bhabha 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.
E.g. XenophonOec. 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).
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
)| false , . E.g., Xenophon 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” ( KAI14).
See K.E. SouthwoodEthnicity and the Mixed Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9–10: An Anthropological Perspective (OTM; Oxford: Oxford University Press2012) 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.
BhabhaThe 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 ). 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).
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
)| false , , p. Bhabha 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 ). 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).
See LincolnReligion 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).
J.C. Greenfield and B. PortenThe Bisitun Inscription of Darius the Great: Aramaic Version (CII, 1/5/1; London: Lund Humphries1982) 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).
See G. AhnReligiöse Herrscherlegitimation im achämenidischen Iran: Die Voraussetzungen und die Struktur ihrer Argumentation (Acta Iranica, 31; Leiden: E.J. Brill1992) pp. 278–81 293–97.
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.
- Search Google Scholar
- Export Citation
)| false , See R. Rendtorff “Ezra und das ‘Gesetz’” 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,” JBL122 (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.