I’ve generally tried to stay away from politics lately not wanting to repeat the obvious flaws of our current administration that so many others do an effective job of point out. But here’s something that has an Old Testament/Ancient Near Eastern connection, so I could hardly ignore it.
One of the more ridiculous things I’ve run across lately is how some fundamentalist preachers, along with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been comparing Donald Trump to Persia’s King Cyrus, beloved by the post-exilic Hebrews for allowing them to return from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Somewhere around the middle of the sixth century, BCE, the prophet Isaiah of the Exile kept his ear to the ground, and knew that King Cyrus of Persia (now Iran) had conquered the Medes and set his sights on expanding his empire. Isaiah also knew that Babylon’s current king, Nabonidus, was a self-centered and privileged aristocrat who gave little attention to national affairs and spent most of his time away from the capital.
Putting two and two together, Isaiah assumed that Persia would easily dispatch Nabonidus and absorb Babylon into his growing empire. Under divine inspiration, perhaps, he came to believe that when Cyrus took control, he would set the Israelites free to return home.
Isaiah figured that if God could use a pagan king as an instrument of judgment on Israel, God could use a pagan king to deliver them, too. Thus, Isaiah proclaimed Cyrus as God’s “anointed” — using the word that can also be translated “Messiah” — chosen by God to deliver Israel.
“Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me” (Isaiah 45:1-5, see also 48:14-15).
In 539 BCE, Cyrus marched into the city of Babylon and took it without a fight. Cyrus was merciless in war, but had a different philosophy of empire than the Babylonians and Assyrians. He believed that subject peoples would be more loyal and productive in paying tribute if they were allowed to live in their own lands and worship their own gods. So, he soon began to issue proclamations allowing deportees from various countries to return to their homelands. He restored to them idols and temple treasures that had been looted by the Babylonians, and even claimed to have provided financing to help them rebuild their temples.
The Bible contains two different versions of a decree from Cyrus — clearly edited for Hebrew sensitivities — allowing the Israelites to return home (2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:2-4). A copy of Cyrus’ actual proclamation has not been preserved — or at least found — but we do have a copy of another decree, famously known as the Cyrus Cylinder. The football-sized clay document, written in the Akkadian cuneiform used for international relations, describes with propagandistic fervor how the Babylonian god Marduk had called him to dethrone Nabonidus and restore the gods to their proper places. Jerusalem is not among the specific places named to be restored, but the document provides clear evidence of the Persian policy of repatriation.
The Hebrew retelling of the story insists that it was Yahweh, rather than Marduk, who appointed Cyrus to defeat Nabonidus and let the Israelites go free, sending stolen vessels from the temple home with them.
So why would anyone compare to Donald Trump to the conquering Cyrus? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for one, raised heroic images of Cyrus when Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bringing outcries of outrage from just about everyone except ultra-orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians.
“I want to tell you,” Netanyahu said, “that the Jewish people have a long memory, so we remember the proclamation of the great king, Cyrus the Great, Persian king 2,500 years ago. He proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon could come back and rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem” (from an article in Christianity Today, available here).
Even earlier, fundamentalist preachers who slavishly support the Republican party were comparing Trump to Cyrus — a tacit acknowledgement that Trump’s morally atrocious behavior is far more pagan than Christian — but an excuse to support him anyway. If God could use the pagan Cyrus to deliver Israel, perhaps God could use an ethically unfit president to “deliver” Christians from perceived “persecution” from liberals who want them to treat others with equality. In return, Trump repaid the favor by supporting the right to discriminate as “religious liberty,” one of many ways in which the religious-political right has perverted the teachings of scripture.
I’ll agree that there’s one way in which Trump is similar to Cyrus. In the Cyrus Cylinder, the egocentric ruler declares “I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, ki[ng of the ci]ty of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, the perpetual seed of kingship …” (lines 20-22a). The document likewise speaks proudly of all the kings who had come to “kiss his feet.”
Trump’s rhetoric and attitude make it clear that he would love to be king — or at least king-like — so he wouldn’t have to deal with inconvenient things like laws and legislators and courts. Likewise, his constant demands for utmost loyalty from his appointees is little more than a modern version of required foot-kissing.
Should Donald Trump be likened to the king who came to be known as “Cyrus the Great”?
What do you think?
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.