Bible Commentator

Articles

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org


CYRUS AS MESSIAH

Most biblical scholars ascribe to the belief that Isaiah son of Amotz of Jerusalem, summoned to his mission in 740 BCE, authored the first 39 chapters of the canonized Book of Isaiah. The remaining chapters were almost certainly written by another prophet who composed them during or shortly after the lifetime of Cyrus (600 - 530 BCE); this author is often referred to Deutero Isaiah (D.I.). It is accepted that he composed at least chapters 40-55; some consider he wrote the remainder of the book; others that a third author, sometimes called Trito Isaiah (T.I.), wrote chapters 56-66.1 The identity and locale of D.I and T.I., Palestine, Babylonia or elsewhere, remain unknown.

   Lisbeth Fried2 suggested that Deutero Isaiah believed Cyrus would become the successor Davidic monarch.3 D.I. tells us 'the LORD has redeemed JACOB'   (44:23) in the past sense, implying that the Messiah has come. And 'everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy' (51:11)

Fried does not claim Cyrus or the Persians were intended to convert to Judaism; however, she believes that he was to be the Judean King; the King of Zion.4

   For Fried the relevant Isaiah sections begin with: Who has stirred up one from the East? Victory meets him at his feet. He places nations before him, and he subdues kings. He makes their swords dust; like chaff, their bows are driven. He pursues them and passes on safely; the path does not touch his feet. Who performed and did this from the beginning? I the Lord, am first, and with the last I am He . . . I stirred up one from the north, and he has come. From the rising of the sun, he is mine. He shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay (41:2-4, 25).

   Then, before introducing Cyrus, God notes that He is your redeemer and your Creator (44:24), the God KNOWLEDGE of history (44:25) and the rebuilder of Jerusalem (44:26). God then introduces Cyrus as His shepherd (44:28) and His anointed one, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him (45:1). When the people were aghast at this anointing (45:9), Isaiah says 'Thus says the Lord, the holy one of Israel, and It's Maker; will you question me about my children, or command Me concerning the work of My hands? . . . I will arouse him [Cyrus] in righteousness; I will make all his paths straight. He will build My city, and send out my exiles – not for a price and not for a bribe, says the LORD of Hosts' (Is. 45:11). This language is unique to D.I.,5 as is the idea of calling a non-Jew God's Messiah.6

   Fried suggests that collaborating with foreign powers was a standard method of gaining power.7 This approach was acceptable to Babylonian and Egyptian priests after their defeat, and seems be the approach of D.I. as well, envisioning Cyrus 'joining forces' with the Jewish people. Fried concludes that in fact Cyrus fulfilled his messianic role, by permitting the ingathering of the exiles and  the rebuilding of the Temple.8 Cyrus initiated a general policy of permitting religious freedom throughout his domains. According to the Cyrus cylinder,9 he permitted foreigners who had been forcibly settled in Babylonia to return to their own lands, including the Jews of the Babylonian captivity, who were also permitted to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. In light of this, the hero of Isaiah can be construed as Cyrus, the Messiah.

   Claus Westermann explains that God proved Himself by foretelling Jerusalem's doom through the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and He will reinforce His power through salvation. This is the theological function of Cyrus, the agent of God's salvation. D.I. is different than all other prophets in that he preached a salvation that was an accomplished fact rather than a future event.10 'The Lord had redeemed Israel' (Is. 44:23), note the past tense.

   This oracle from D.I. (Is. 44:24-28; 45:1-8)  is addressed to Cyrus and the people of Israel 'is unique in its importance for Deutero Isaiah's proclamation. Its form, too, that of the royal oracle is unique'.11 Much of the phraseology of this is remarkably similar to the Cyrus cylinder. Both documents include a non-Persian god, Marduk, the Babylonian god (in the cylinder) and the LORD of Israel (in Isaiah), choosing Cyrus as a 'friend', 'taking his hand' and nominating him as ruler. Cyrus will treat others with justice and righteousness (Is. 42:6), be compassionate, favorable to good deeds and intentions.12 The Lord's taking his hand would make Cyrus anointed to 'every contemporary . . . in the ancient Near East'.13

   According to Asher Eder14 Cyrus was praised 'as a warrior and as a statesman, his benevolence, tolerance, justice and righteousness, his sympathy for the oppressed' and as a result liberated and repatriated many peoples. Isaiah says of him 'I [God] have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct his ways' (Is. 45:19). Cuneiform records attest that there was a vast difference between Cyrus and the kings of Assyria and Babylon in the treatment of conquered people.15 According to D.I., God's servant's mission is justice and righteousness to the nations (Is. 42:1,6).

   In the traditional commentaries to Isaiah, Cyrus is seen simply as a temporary servant of God, a tool to carry out God's decree, much in the same way that Jeremiah refers to Nebuchadnezzar as a servant of God (Jer. 25:9). However, as we have seen, Cyrus could have been viewed as a temporary King of Israel, a Redeemer, even a Messiah.16 Sydney Smith, who stated this, says that not only would Isaiah's contemporaries be shocked to hear this, but he himself is still shocked at Deutero Isaiah's audacity.17  

   Cyrus returned the situation of the Israelites back to the status quo by allowing them to leave their exile and rebuild their Temple; one could even argue he saved the Jewish people, the function of the Davidic Messiah.

This article is dedicated to Michael Shapiro, a dear and learned friend who recently died.

NOTES

1. Bernhard Duhm, (Das Buch Jesaia published 1892) was the first to define in a scholarly manner for Christians the difference between Isaiah and Deutero Isaiah. The first Christian commentators to recognize that a different prophet wrote the latter parts of the Book of Isaiah were Ioannes Godofridus in 1783 and Johann Ludwig Doderlein in 1789.  Earlier medieval Jewish scholars recognized the divisions within the book.  These include Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), Maimonides - Rambam (1137-1204), Nahmanides - Ramban (1194-1270), Ibn Gikatilla (1248-1305), and Abarbanel (1437-1508).

2. Lisbeth Fried, 'Cyrus the Messiah? The Historic Background to Isaiah 45:1', Harvard Theological Review 95  (2002)  p. 374. She is Visiting Scholar at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies.

3. Sidney Smith, Keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum and Prof. of Near Eastern Archaeology in the University of London had in the Schweich Lectures of 1940 suggested that Cyrus was to be accepted as the chosen King of Israel, the one who brings 'the light of the nations' and the executor of the LORD's will '. Sidney Smith, Isaiah Chapters XL-LV: Literary Criticism and History, (London: Oxford University Press, 1944) pp. 59-60.

4. A few other scholars believed that: John Skinner, Isaiah, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905) and  R. A. Torrey,  Isaiah (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928).

5. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969) pp. 14-15.

6. The only other persons called God's Messiah in the Hebrew Bible are Saul (eleven times), David (three times), an unnamed King (1 Sam. 2:35), a Judahite King (Lam. 4:20), in Habakkuk's prayer (3:13), in Hannah's prayer (1 Sam. 2:10) and in eight of the Psalms.

7. Fried, pp. 387-389.

8. Fried, p. 393.

9. The cylinder is a ten inch long clay that tells of Cyrus's conquering of Babylon in 539 BCE. The cylinder states among other things 'I returned to [these] sacred cult-cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the gods who lived in them and established for them sanctuaries'. Thus it supports the accounts in Isaiah, Ezra and Chronicles.

10. Westermann, pp. 11-16.

11. Westermann, pp. 153-154.

12. Quoted from the cylinder in Westermann, p. 158.

13. Sidney Smith, p. 73.

14. John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (AB 20; Garden City: Doubleday, 1968),  p. XXIX            

15. Asher Eder, 'King Cyrus, Anointed (Messiah) of the LORD', Jewish Bible Quarterly 23 (1995) p. 190. He quotes Herodotus, Xenephon and Strabo.

16. Westermann, pp. 159-161; John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), p. 156; Klaus Baltzer, Deutero Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55 Trans. M. Kohl, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001)  p. 225.

17. Westermann, pp. 73-74.