Cyrus the Great
When Cyrus the Persian conquered Mesopotamia and the whole of the Middle East, he did so for religious reasons. Unlike any conqueror before him, Cyrus set out to conquer the entire world. Before Cyrus and the Persians, conquest was largely a strategic affair; you guaranteed your territorial safety by conquering potential enemies. But Cyrus wanted the whole world and he wanted it for religious reasons. Barely a century before, the Persians were a rag-tag group of tribes living north of Mesopotamia. They were Indo-Europeanthey spoke a language from the Indo-European family, which includes Greek, German, and English. To the Mesopotamians, they were little better than animals and so went largely ignored. But in the middle of the seventh century BC, a prophet, Zarathustra, appeared among them and preached a new religion. This religion would become Zoroastrianism (in Greek, Zarathustra is called "Zoroaster"). The Zoroastrians believed that the universe was dualistic, that it was made up of two distinct parts. One was good and light and the other evil and dark. Cosmic history was simply the epic battle between these two divine forces; at the end of time, a climactic battle would decide once and for all which of the two would dominate the universe. Human beings, in everything they do, participated in this struggle; all the gods and all the religions were part of this epic, almost eternal battle.
Cyrus believed that the final battle was approaching, and that Persia would bring about the triumph of good. To this end, he sought to conquer all peoples and create the stage for the final triumph of good. He was the greatest conqueror that had ever been seen; at his death, his empire was exponentially larger than any other empire that had ever existed. His son, Cambyses, conquered Egypt; the Persians, it seemed at the time, were on their way to world domination.
Although Zoroastrianism involved two godsone good and one evilall other gods were ranged on one side or the other of this equation. Cyrus believed Yahweh was one of the good gods, and he claimed that Yahweh visited him one night. In that vision, Yahweh commanded him to re-establish Yahweh worship in Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. Cyrus ordered the temple rebuilt. But what good is a temple without worshippers? To this end, he ordered that the Jews in Babylon return to Jerusalem. In fact, Cyrus sent many people back to the native lands in order to worship the local gods there, so the situation with the Jews was not unique. Not all of the Jews went home; a large portion stayed in Babylon and some had converted to Babylonian religions.
The Rebuilding of the Temple
The salient feature to keep in mind, however, is that Cyrus sent the Jews home for religious purposes only. Judah was re-established only so Yahweh could be worshipped, and the Jews were sent to Judah for the express purpose of worshiping Yahweh. Before the Exile, Judah and Israel were merely kingdoms; now Judah was a theological state . The shining symbol of this new state dedicated to Yahweh was the temple of Solomon, which had been burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. Under the direction of Zerubabbel and later Ezra, the temple is rebuilt and the walls of the city rebuilt by Nehemiah. The rebuilding of the temple was difficult; very few Jews actually returned home, so the effort was monumental.
During the Exile, the Jews set about "purifying" their religion; they attempted to return their laws and cultic practices to their Mosaic originals. This new-found concern with cultic purity and the Mosaic laws, combined with the re-establishment of Judah as a theological state, produced a different society. Hebrew society was almost solely concerned with religious matters in the Persian period; foreign religions were not tolerated as they had been before. Non-Jews were persecuted, and foreign religious expelled. During the Persian period and later, Judah was the state where Yahweh and only Yahweh was worshipped. Both the Persians and the Greeks respected this exclusivity, but the Romans would greatly offend the Jews when they introduced foreign gods.
The Jews had learned many things from the Persians and actively included Persian elements in their religion. It's important to note that this occurred side by side with the effort to purify the religion! Most of these elements were popular elements rather than official beliefs; they would persist only in Christianity which arose among the people rather than the educated and priestly classes. Among these were
a.) adoption of a dualistic universe. In early Hebrew belief, the universe was dominated only by Yahweh. All history was the result of two forces: Yahweh and human will. Perhaps in an effort to make sense of the Exile, the Hebrews gradually adopted the Persian idea that the universe is composed of two diametrically opposed forces, one good, and the other evil. So, after the Babylonian exile, the Hebrews, in their popular religion, talk about an evil force opposed to Yahweh, which becomes the "devil" in Christianity. (Satan in the Hebrew story, Job , is actually a member of Yahweh's circle; he seems to be some kind of itinerant prosecuting attorney.)
b.) belief in a dualistic afterlife. Before the Exile, the Hebrews believed that the soul after death went to a house of dust which they called "Sheol," to abide for a brief time before fading completely from existence. This belief was identical to all other Semitic versions of the afterlife. Therefore, Hebraism was primarily a this-world religion before the Exile. The Persians, though, believed that the souls of the good would reunite with the principle of good in eternal bliss; the souls of the evil would reunite with the principle evil to suffer until the final defeat of evil. In popular religion, the Hebrews adopted this view of the afterlife. This view of the afterlife powerfully explains suffering in this life, such as the Exile; cosmic justice is apparent only at one's death rather than during one's life. Again, it is only in the popular Jewish religions, such as the Essenes and the Christians, where this view becomes orthodox.
For another two hundred years, Persia dominated all of the Middle East and Egypt, and came within a hair's breadth of conquering Greece. During all this time Palestine was a tribute state of Persia. However, in the late fourth century BC, another man got the idea of conquering the world and set about doing it with ruthless efficiency. He was a Greek: Alexander of Macedon. When he conquered Persia in 332 BC, Palestine became a Greek state, and the children of Yavan would mix once again with the children of Shem.
Sources: The Hebrews: A Learning Module from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.