Giving Israel Gold and Silver, Cyrus Improves on a Biblical Motif
The book of Ezra-Nehemiah, composed during the Persian period, opens with Cyrus’s proclamation allowing the Judeans to return home and rebuild Jerusalem:
עזרא א:ב כֹּה אָמַר כֹּרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ פָּרַס כֹּל מַמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמָיִם וְהוּא פָקַד עָלַי לִבְנוֹת לוֹ בַיִת בִּירוּשָׁלִַם אֲשֶׁר בִּיהוּדָה. א:ג מִי בָכֶם מִכָּל עַמּוֹ יְהִי אֱלֹהָיו עִמּוֹ וְיַעַל לִירוּשָׁלִַם אֲשֶׁר בִּיהוּדָה וְיִבֶן אֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר בִּירוּשָׁלִָם.
Ezra 1:2 Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: YHWH God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 1:3And whoever among you of all His people, may God be with him, let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of YHWH, God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.
The proclamation continues with Cyrus’s authorization to the returning Jews to gather material support for their return:
עזרא א:ד וְכָל הַנִּשְׁאָר מִכָּל הַמְּקֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר הוּא גָר שָׁם יְנַשְּׂאוּהוּ אַנְשֵׁי מְקֹמוֹ בְּכֶסֶף וּבְזָהָב וּבִרְכוּשׁ וּבִבְהֵמָה עִם הַנְּדָבָה לְבֵית הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר בִּירוּשָׁלִָם.
Ezra 1:4 And whoever remains in all the places where they sojourn, let the people of his place support him with silver and with gold and with goods and with beasts together with the freewill offerings for the house of the God who is in Jerusalem.
According to this, the Judeans who will be returning to Judah should collect these goods from the locals. The chapter continues with the fulfillment of Cyrus’s proclamation:
עזרא א:ה וַיָּקוּמוּ רָאשֵׁי הָאָבוֹת לִיהוּדָה וּבִנְיָמִן וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם לְכֹל הֵעִיר הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת רוּחוֹ לַעֲלוֹת לִבְנוֹת אֶת בֵּית יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר בִּירוּשָׁלִָם. א:ו וְכָל סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם חִזְּקוּ בִידֵיהֶם בִּכְלֵי כֶסֶף בַּזָּהָב בָּרְכוּשׁ וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבַמִּגְדָּנוֹת לְבַד עַל כָּל הִתְנַדֵּב.
Ezra 1:5 So the chiefs of the clans of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites, all whose spirit had been roused by God, got ready to go up to build the House of YHWH that is in Jerusalem. 1:6 And all those around them strengthened their hands with silver vessels and with gold and with goods and with beasts and with delicacies besides all the freewill offerings.
Commentators debate who is expected to give the returning Judeans these goods: Is the reference to other Judeans who will not be returning themselves or to their non-Jewish neighbors? In support of the latter possibility is the use of the term סְבִיבֹתֵיהֶם “those all around them.” The term is generally geographical, referring to the outlying areas, but here clearly refers to people. Moreover, whereas the reference to surrounding people is often used to describe enemies that need to be subdued, here they are financial supporters of the move to Yehud (Judea) and the building of the Temple.
A Biblical Motif
This account of Judeans obtaining wealth in a foreign land and bringing it back makes use of a motif found in a number of biblical stories.
Abraham’s Return from Egypt
In Genesis 12, when Abram goes down to Egypt to avoid a famine, Pharaoh tries to marry Sarai, thinking she is Abram’s sister:
בראשית יב:טז וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ וַיְהִי לוֹ צֹאן וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים...
Gen 12:16 And it went well with Abram on her account, and he had sheep and cattle and donkeys and male and female slaves, and jennies, and camels…
The story concludes with:
יג:א וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ הַנֶּגְבָּה. יג:ב וְאַבְרָם כָּבֵד מְאֹד בַּמִּקְנֶה בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב
13:1 And Abram came up from Egypt, he and his wife and all he had, and Lot together with him, to the Negeb. 13:2 And Abram was heavily laden with cattle, with silver and gold.
Jacob’s Wealth from Haran
When Jacob runs away to Haran, and works as a virtual slave to his uncle Laban, he leaves with substantial property (Gen 29–31):
בראשית לא:יז וַיָּקָם יַעֲקֹב וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת נָשָׁיו עַל הַגְּמַלִּים. לא:יח וַיִּנְהַג אֶת כָּל מִקְנֵהוּ וְאֶת כָּל רְכֻשׁוֹ אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁ מִקְנֵה קִנְיָנוֹ אֲשֶׁר רָכַשׁ בְּפַדַּן אֲרָם לָבוֹא אֶל יִצְחָק אָבִיו אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן
Gen 31:17And Jacob rose and bore off his children and his wives on the camels. 31:18 And he drove all his livestock and all his substance that he had acquired, his property in livestock that had acquired in Paddan-Aram, to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan.
Egypt’s Gold and Silver in Exodus
At the scene of the burning bush, God announces that he will grant the people favor in Egyptian eyes; moreover, they will not leave Egypt empty-handed:
שמות ג:כא וְנָתַתִּי אֶת חֵן הָעָם הַזֶּה בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם׃ ג:כב וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם וְנִצַּלְתֶּם אֶת מִצְרָיִם:
Exod 3:21 And I will grant this people favor in the eyes of Egypt, and so when you go, you not go empty-handed. 3:22 But each woman will ask of her neighbor and of the sojourner in her house objects of silver and objects of gold and robes, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters and you shall despoil Egypt.
YHWH repeats the command in abbreviated form before the plague of the first born, and the fulfillment of this directive appears in chapter 12, in which the Egyptians are described as willingly handing over their belongings (Exod 12:35–36):
שמות יב:לה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת׃ יב:לו וַי־הוָה נָתַן אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם:
Exod 12:35 And the Israelites had done according to Moses’s word, and they had asked of the Egyptians objects of silver and objects of gold and cloaks. 12:36 And YHWH had granted the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, who lent to them, and they despoiled Egypt.
The three stories above share this same motif; the Israelite protagonist(s) obtains wealth from a powerful non-Israelite outside the land. In the case of the story of Abraham’s descent to and exodus from Egypt, interpreters as early as the rabbis (Gen. Rab. 40), continuing into medieval times (Ramban ad loc.) and modern exegesis, have understood it as a prologue to or foreshadowing of the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt and their eventual exodus.
The texts are connected thematically and even linguistically. Note specifically that both Abraham and the Israelites bring gold, silver, and מִקְנֶה כָּבֵד מְאֹד “laden heavily with cattle” (Exod 12:38), suggesting that this similarity is deliberate rather than accidental.
The Moral Ambiguity of the Motif
Each of these cases has moral ambiguity, as certain commentators note. For instance, Abram amasses his wealth on the back of a lie about Sarai.
Some traditional interpreters seem unfazed by the problem. For instance, the 1st century B.C.E. author of the Genesis Apocryphon (1Q20), embellishes the story in great detail, including Abram’s lie about his relationship with Sarai. The story emphasizes that because of plagues that God sent against him, the pharaoh never touched Sarai, and ends with (col. 20, lns. 29–33):
ו֗ק֗ם ו֗י֗הב ל֗י֗ מלכא ב[יומא] ד֗נֹא֗ מנתנ[ן]... ואת֗יֹב֗ לי לש֗ר֗י ויהב לה מלכא֗ [כסף וד]הב ש֗גיא ולבוש שגי די בוץ וארגואן... ואזלת אנה אברם בנכסין שגיאין לחדא ואף בכסף ודה֗ב וסלק֗ת מן [מצרי]ן
The king gave me gift[s] that [day]… Then he returned Sarai to me, and the king gave to her [m]uch si[lver and g]old and much clothing of fine linen and purple… So I [Abram] went forth with very much property (or “very many flocks”) as well as with silver and gold, and I went up from Egypt.
In this version, the pharaoh gives Abram gifts early on in the story, but the silver and gold come only after Sarai is returned, and they are given to her, though as her husband, they constitute Abram’s wealth. This retelling is likely influenced by the story of Abimelech in Genesis 20, since he too gives Sarah (=Sarai) silver after he learns of his error (v. 16).
In contrast, other Second Temple period authors seem to have been troubled by the story and try to adjust its details to avoid this problem. Jubilees (3rd/2nd cent. B.C.E.), for example, narrates:
Jub. 13:13 When the pharaoh took Abram’s wife Sarai by force for himself, the Lord punished the pharaoh and his household very severely on account of Abram’s wife Sarai. 13:14 Now Abram had an extremely large amount of property: sheep, cattle, donkeys, horses, camels, male and female servants, silver and very (much) gold. Lot—his brother’s son—also had property. 13:15 The pharaoh returned Abram’s wife Sarai and expelled him from the land of Egypt…
Jubilees makes no mention of Abram pretending that Sarai was his sister, and it mentions Abram’s wealth in the middle of the Egypt story without suggesting that it was given to him by the pharaoh.
A similar reimagining of how the patriarchs became wealthy appears in the book of Judith. In this story, the Assyrian general Holofernes asks the Moabites and Ammonites to tell him about the Israelites. In response, Achior, the leader of the Ammonites, gives a brief history of Israel, mentioning how they were once Chaldeans:
Jdt 5:9 Then their God commanded them to leave the place where they were living and go to the land of Canaan. There they settled, and grew very prosperous in gold and silver and very much livestock.
The author here alludes to Gen 13:1–2: “And Abram was heavily laden with cattle, with silver and gold” but instead of saying that the wealth came from his sojourn in Egypt, it says that the patriarchs gained their wealth while living in the land. Moreover, when retelling the exodus story, Achior makes no mention of wealth taken from the Egyptians.
The Jacob narrative has a similarly morally ambiguous element, since Jacob obtains this great wealth through impressing the sheep with the image of spotted staffs.
Despoiling the Egyptians
Finally, early and modern commentators, both traditional and historical-critical, have expressed concerns about the moral implications of the “despoiling” of the Egyptians. Much of this debate is based on the precise meaning of the two main verbs used in the contexts above: ש.א.ל and נ.צ.ל.
Did the Israelites request gold and silver objects and cloaks as a gift (one meaning of the root ש.א.ל) or did they cheat the Egyptians by borrowing the objects (the other meaning of the root) with no intention of returning them? Similarly, did the Israelites plunder/despoil the Egyptians, one meaning of the root נ.צ.ל, or perhaps they merely stripped them of their possessions, following this root’s meaning in Exod 33:6.
All three of these cases of borrowing or despoiling have been defended by noting that the Israelite protagonist was merely fooling a wicked person. The Egypt that Abram visits was a frightening place, and he needed to protect himself. Laban tricked Jacob into working for seven extra years for a woman he didn’t even want to marry. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites for centuries, and thus needed to pay them in arrears for their service.
But even for interpreters who might feel that such explanations are insufficient, an important difference between the story of the exodus and those of the patriarchs needs to be noted: Abram’s misleading of Pharaoh is his own idea, as is Jacob’s manipulation of Laban, while the Israelites requesting or “borrowing” silver and gold in the exodus story was carried out at God’s command. In fact, even before the revelation at the burning bush, God informed the first patriarch of this part of the plan.
God promise at the Covenant Between the Parts
In Genesis 15, at the Covenant between the Pieces, God promises Abraham that after being enslaved, the Israelites will return with great substance:
בראשית טו:יג וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה... טו:יד וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.
Gen 15:13 Know well that your seed shall be strangers in a land not theirs and they shall be enslaved and afflicted four hundred years 15:14 …and afterward they shall come forth with great substance.
The description in Exodus of the Israelites borrowing gold and silver objects from their neighbors prior to leaving Egypt fulfills the divine promise to Abraham that his descendants will obtain wealth from their oppressors in a foreign land, a notion that finds poetic expression in Midrash Exodus Rabbah (3:11.1). Viewed in this light, the Israelites obtaining wealth from the foreign Egyptians is meant to be interpreted as an unmitigated good, and this is how it functioned in the reception history of exilic and post-exilic literature.
Exilic Period: A Hopeful Message (Psalm 105)
Psalm 105, a psalm that surveys Israel’s history, retells and reinterprets various pentateuchal pericopae. It devotes extensive space to the Egypt experience (vv. 23–38), and in that context briefly mentions:
תהלים קה:לז וַיּוֹצִיאֵם בְּכֶסֶף וְזָהָב
Ps 105:37 And He brought them out with silver and gold…
This statement appears in the third-person singular, referring to God; this is consistent with the verb form found in the preceding verses with reference to divine actions, both with regard to his people and with regard to punishing the Egyptians. The use of third-person verbs underscores direct divine involvement in events and, in contrast to the passages in Exodus, sparks no linguistic-ethical dilemmas.
Scholars generally date this psalm to the exilic or Second Temple period, and its reliance on Torah traditions attests both to the formation of the Pentateuch and the Torah’s central status in restoration period Jewish society. Specifically, its use of the exodus material here fits with the way Second Temple authors used the exodus tradition to understand the return from Babylonia. Focusing on “the release from slavery in a foreign land and reaching the land of Israel,” Second Temple authors aimed to foster that generation’s self-perception as themselves “having left Egypt” and as heirs to the pre-exilic Israelites. This theme was expanded upon and canonized in the Passover Haggadah:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In every generation, people must see themselves as if they left Egypt.
In this case, the author of Psalm 105 sought to infuse in his audience the hope that just as God protected the wandering, homeless patriarchs, so too will he guard their descendants in Babylonian exile; just as he rescued the Israelites from Egypt, so too will he rescue them from Babylonian exile and restore them to their land, as promised in the Abrahamic covenant.
The Proclamation of Cyrus: A New Exodus from Egypt
Returning to the proclamation of Cyrus in Ezra-Nehemiah, we can now see clearly how the motif of leaving exile with substantial property underwent further development. First, Cyrus’s proclamation is addressed to the diaspora Jews, who are defined as YWHH’s people, who must “go up” (ע.ל.ה) to Judah in order to build the Temple. This root occurs frequently in the phrase עלה ממצרים (Gen 13:1; 46:4; Exod 3:8, 17; 13:18; Judg 11:13, among others), and its use draws a parallel between the going up from Babylonia and the going up from Egypt.
More significantly, the description of Israel going up from exile with goods taken from locals is reminiscent of the scene in Exodus in which alludes to the asking or borrowing of goods from their Egyptian neighbors in the exodus story, but here, significantly, the non-Jewish king donates these items of his own free will.
Here we see a development from the Pentateuchal text. Whereas the despoiling of Egypt in exodus is about YHWH giving the persecuting Egyptians their just deserts, and enriching his own people in the bargain, the text in Ezra has no negative valence regarding Cyrus or the Persian people.
Not only are the Persians innocent of having harmed the Judeans—it was the Babylonians who destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, not the Persians—here YHWH does not need the Judeans to fool the local population into giving them gold and silver. Instead, YHWH communicates the information to King Cyrus directly. It is thus Cyrus, not a Jewish leader, who encourages the Jews to ask for goods and for his people to supply them.
Such a contrasting presentation conveys the positive perspective that the Second Temple authors of Ezra-Nehemiah wished to convey concerning their Persian overlords. The return from Babylon was a second exodus, except this time, it is accomplished with the blessing of the gentile king, and the (real or imagined) wealth obtained in exile is entirely untainted.
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Prof. Hava Shalom-Guy is academic vice-president at the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem and teaches in its Department of Bible. She has a Ph.D. in Bible from the Hebrew University and is the author of The Gideon Cycle through the Mirror of Its Literary Parallels [Hebrew] and “Three-Way Intertextuality: Some Reflections of Abimelech’s Death at Thebez in Biblical Narrative”(JSOT).
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