The Sway of the Persian Sceptre: The Narrative Characterisation of the Persian Kings in Ezra-Nehemiah
Nykolaishen, Douglas J E
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Scholarly study of the biblical book of Ezra-Nehemiah has mainly focused on historical questions. Indeed, the book is one of the most important sources available for shedding light on the history of Persian-period Judea. It has been widely held that Ezra-Nehemiah in its final form reflects a pro-Persian attitude, based on its treatment of the Persian kings within the narrative. The present study seeks to provide a step toward greater precision in this assessment by employing a recognition of the techniques of characterisation used in narrative texts to evaluate the portrayal of the Persian kings in Ezra-Nehemiah. After a review of the techniques of characterisation and their resulting effects, as identified by narrative critics, a close reading of each of the passages in Ezra- Nehemiah contributing to the characterisation of Persian kings is undertaken in order to discover the picture of the kings that emerges. The book is treated as a literary unity, and the influence of earlier passages on the interpretation of later ones (and in some cases, vice versa) is noted. It becomes apparent that it is not the implied author's purpose in the narrative to communicate a particular perspective on the Persian kings. Rather, they function as secondary characters, enhancing the perspective the implied author intends to communicate about YHWH. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw further specific conclusions about their characterisation. The Persian kings in Ezra-Nehemiah merge together into a single character, or a single role played by virtually indistinguishable characters. The implied author constructs them as, in significant ways, both similar to and yet distinct from the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers who preceded them. They are assumed to have motivations similar to those of any non-Judean ruler of their general period. They appear to be regularly unhelpful to the Judean exiles, apart from instances of intervention by YHWH on the Judeans' behalf. These characteristics appear to be reflected consistently in all parts of the narrative, not only in isolated sections. Insofar as the narrative of Ezra-Nehemiah may reflect the views of one or more historical individuals, it is questionable whether it reflects a pro-Persian attitude.