The land that today is officially Israel has been called Canaan, the Levant, Judea, and Palestine. It may have been the Roman emperor Hadrian who changed its name to Palestine to spite the Jews. If that story is true, he called it Palestine after the infamous enemies of the Jews, the Philistines. Long before Hadrian, however, the Egyptians and Assyrians called the land by words that sounded like variations of Palestine. The first clear use of the name Palestine for this area was by Herodotus around 450 BC. This was the time of Ezra, which means that it is not incorrect to speak of the return from captivity as the first Palestinian conflict.
The modern State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948, under the British Mandate and the influence of the United States. The deaths of six million Jews during the Holocaust of World War II caused hundreds of thousands of Jews to end up in Israel. The new arrival of Jewish immigrants created an immediate conflict with the people living in the land. This contention is known throughout the world. It helps us understand the conflict that arose at the time of Ezra.
Just as British authority supported the modern return of the Jews, so did the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and Artaxerxes. Jewish exiles rose in authority in the Persian empire, just as they did in Great Britain. A million and a half Jews served in the allied forces during World War II. In both cases, their plight was critical. Their existence hung in the balance. In both cases, they were dispersed all over the world, with nothing official to unite them as a people. They would require outside forces to bring them together to become a nation. Palestinians would blame the ruling nations for establishing Israel. Israel would call it a miracle, and recognize it as the work of God’s hand.
Although the Greeks worked hard to eradicate any mention of the Persian Empire, we are fortunate that archaeology has restored many Persian artifacts, such as the famous Cyrus Cylinder, which declares that all exiled people should return to their homes. The book of Ezra begins by mentioning the decree of Cyrus in 538 BC and lists many of the returning families by name. The altar of burnt offerings, the foundation of the temple, and the Feast of Booth were reestablished in the first year or two. Then several waves of opposition arose. The people of the land did not want Jewish worship in their midst.
Ezra 4:5-7 mentions conflicts in the times of four Persian rulers:
- “all the days of Cyrus king of Persia”
- “until the reign of Darius king of Persia” (which includes Cambyses II and Bordiya)
- “in the reign of Ahasuerus”
- “In the days of Artaxerxes”
Why were the people particularly opposed to allowing the religion of the Jews to be practiced? The answer is well-known but bears repeating. They actually offered to cooperate with the Jews, saying, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here” (4:2). What they meant was that they had some respect for Jehovah and had assimilated him into their pagan worship. Remember that the northern Jews had been taken away and replaced by Assyrians. The Jews of Jerusalem had rejected the compromising Samaritans before this time and would continue to do so until the fall of Israel in 70 AD.
The Palestinians were opposed to the Jewish belief that there is only one truth and one God, who revealed himself clearly to all nations. Zerubbabel replied to the Palestinians, “we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us” (Ezra 4:3). After all, it was compromising with pagan religions that led to the Captivity. Ezra and Nehemiah were very strict on observance of the Jewish law. They went so far as to forbid marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, particularly the Ammonites and Moabites and Philistine cities (Ezra 9,10, Nehemiah 13:1-3, 23-27). They even forced them to divorce their foreign wives or be treated like pagans themselves (Ezra 10:19). This was because children were growing up without being able to speak Hebrew and without knowing Jewish customs (Neh. 13:24), not because they were against converting others to Judaism. Jewish exclusiveness was based on the belief that Jehovah was the true God. There was no excuse for worshipping any other in any way.
The Palestinians resorted to all sorts of intrigue and intimidation to stop the Jews from practicing their religion in an exclusive manner. Rehum, Shimshai, Tattenai, Shethat-bozenai wrote slanderous letters to the kings of Persia. Sanballat and Tobiah led various campaigns. In the end, all opposition failed. The people confessed their sins and committed themselves to keeping the Covenant with their God.