Persia in the Old Testament
The History of Persia
Persia was originally a small territory (Herodot. 9:22). On the N. and N.E. lay Media, on the S. the Persian gulf, Elam on the W., on the E. Carmania. Now Furs, Farsistan. Rugged, with pleasant valleys and plains in the mid region and mountains in the N. The S. toward the sea is a hot sandy plain, in places covered with salt.
Persepolis (in the beautiful valley of the Bendamir), under Darius Hystaspes, took the place of Pasargadae the ancient capital; of its palace "Chehl Minar," "forty columns," still exist. Alexander in a drunken fit, to please a courtesan, burned the palace. Pasargadae, 40 miles to the N., was noted for Cyrus' tomb (Arrian) with the inscription, "I am Cyrus the Achaemenian."
The Persians came originally from the E., from the vicinity of the Sutlej (before the first contact of the Assyrians with Aryan tribes E. of Mount Zagros, 880 B.C.), down the Oxus, then S. of the Caspian Sea to India. There were ten castes or tribes: three noble, three agricultural, four nomadic; of the last were the "Dehavites" or Dali (Ezra 4:9). The Pasargadae were the noble tribes, in which the chief house was that of the Achaemenidae. Darius on the rock of Behistun inscribed: "from antiquity our race have been kings. There are eight of our race who have been kings before me, I am the ninth."
The Persian Empire
The Persian empire stretched at one time from India to Egypt and Thrace, including all western Asia between the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian, the Jaxartes upon the N., the Arabian desert, Persian gulf, and Indian ocean on the S. Darius in the inscription on his tomb at Nakhsh-i-rustam enumerates thirty countries besides Persia subject to him, Media, Susiana, Parthia, Aria, Bactria, Sogdiana, Chorasmia, Zarangia, Arachosia, Sattagydia, Gaudaria, India, Scythia, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Egypt, Armenia, Cappadocia, Saparda, Ionia, the Aegean isles, the country of the Scodrae (European), Ionia, the Tacabri, Budians, Cushites, Mardians, and Colchians.
The organization of the Persian kingdom and court as they appear in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, accords with independent secular historians. The king, a despot, had a council, "seven princes of Persia and Media which see his face and sit the first in the kingdom" (Esth. 1:14, Ezra 7:14). So Herodotus (iii. 70-79) and Behistun inscription mention seven chiefs who organized the revolt against Smerdis (the Behistun rock W. of Media has one inscription in three languages, Persian, Babylonian, and Stythic, read by Grotefend).
"The law of the Persians and Medes which alters not" (Esth. 1:19) also controlled him in some measure. In Scripture we read of 127 provinces (Esth. 1:1) with satraps (Esth. 3:12; 8:9; Xerxes in boasting enlarged the list; 60 are the nations in his armament according to Herodotus) maintained from the palace (Ezra 4:14), having charge of the revenue, paid partly in money partly in kind (Ezra 7:21,22). Mounted posts (unique to Persia and described by Xenophon, Cyr. 8:6,17, and Herodotus, viii. 98), with camels (Strabo 15:2, section 10) and horses pressed into service without pay (angareuein: Mt. 5:41; Mark 15:21), conveyed the king's orders (Esth. 3:10,12,13; 8:10,14), authenticated by the royal signet (so Herod. iii. 128).
A favorite minister usually had the government mainly delegated to him by the king (Esth. 3:1-10; 8:8; 10:2,3). Services were recorded (Esth. 2:23; 6:2,3) and the actors received reward as "royal benefactors" (Herodotus iii. 140); state archives were the source of Ctesias' history of Persia (Diod. Sic. 3:2.) The king lived at Susa (Esth. 1:2; Neh. 1:1) or Babylon (Ezra 7:9; Neh. 13:6). In accordance with Esth. 1:6, as to "pillars of marble" with "pavement of red, blue, white, and black," and "hangings of white, green, and blue of fine linen and purple to the pillars," the remains exhibit four groups of marble pillars on a pavement of blue limestone, constructed for curtains to hang between the columns as suiting the climate. One queen consort was elevated above the many wives and concubines who approached the king" in their turn." To intrude on the king's privacy was to incur the penalty of death (compare Herodotus, iii. 60-84 with Esth. 2:12,15; 4:11-16; 5).
Parsa is the native name, the modern Parsee; supposed to mean "tigers." Originally simple in habits, upon overthrowing the Medes they adopted their luxury. They had a dual worship, Oromasdes or Ormuzd, "the great giver of life," the supreme good god; Mithra, the sun, and Home, the moon, were under him. Ahriman, "the death dealing" being, opposed to Oromasdes. Magianism, the worship of the elements, especially fire, the Scythic religion, infected the Persian religion when the Persians entered their new country.
Zoroaster (the Greek form of Zerdusht), professing to be Ormuzd's prophet, was the great reformer of their religious system of Zoroastrianism, the contemporary of Daniel (Warburton 4:180, but according to Markham 1500 B.C., before the separation of the two Aryan races, the Indians and Persians) and acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures, as appears from his account of creation (Hyde 9; 10; 22; 31, Shahristani Relig. Pers.), and from his inserting passages from David's writings and prophecies of Messiah.
He condemns the notion of two independent eternal principles, good and evil, and makes the supreme God Creator of both (and that under Him the angel of light and the angel of darkness are in perpetual conflict) as Isaiah teaches, and in connection with the prophecy of Cyrus the Jews' deliverer from Babylon: "thus saith Jehovah to His anointed, Cyrus ... I will go before thee, I will break in pieces the gates of brass ... I form the light and create the darkness; I make peace and create evil."
Zoroaster taught that God created the good angel alone, and that the evil followed by the defect of good. He closely imitates the Mosaic revelation. As Moses heard God speaking in the midst of the fire, so Zoroaster pretends. As the divine glory rested on the mercy seat, so Zoroaster made the sacred fire in the Persian temples to symbolize the divine presence. Zoroaster pretended that fire from heaven consumed sacrifices, as often had been the case in Israel's sacrifices; his priests were of one tribe as Israel's. In his work traces appear of Adam and Eve's history, creation, the deluge, David's psalms.
He praises Solomon and delivers his doctrines as those of Abraham, to whose pure creed he sought to bring back the Magian religion. In Lucian's (De Longaevis) day his religion was that of most Persians, Parthians, Bactrians, Aryans, Sacans, Medes, and Chowaresmians. His Zendavesta has six periods of creation, ending with man as in Genesis. Avesta is the name for Deity. Zend is related to Khandas, "metre," from the same root as scandere, scald "a poet," "scan." Mazdao, his name of Ormuzd, "I am that I am," answers to JEHOVAH in Exo. 3. He expected a zoziosh or saviour.
Fire, originally made the symbol of God, became, as Roman Catholic symbols, at length idolized. The Parsees observe the nirang: rubbing the urine of a cow, she goat, or ox over the face and hands, the second thing a Parsee does in getting up in the morning. The women after childbirth undergo it and have actually to drink a little of it! The Parsees pray 16 times a day. They have an awe of light. They are the only orientals who do not smoke. The priests and people now do not understand one word of the Zendavesta. (Muller.) The Persian language was related to the Indian Sanskrit.
Achaemenes led the emigrating Persians into their final settlement, 700 B.C. Teispes, Cambyses I. (Kabujiya in the monuments), Cyrus I, Cambyses II, and Cyrus the Great reigned successively. After 80 years' subjection to the Medes the Persians revolted and became supreme, 558 B.C. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and restored the Jews (Isa. 44:28; 45:1-4; Ezra 1:2-4).
His son Cambyses III conquered Egypt (Ahasnerus, Ezra 4:6), but failed in Ethiopia. Then the Magian priest Gomates, pretending to be Smerdis, Cyrus' son, whom Cambyses had secretly murdered, gained the throne (522 B.C.), and Cambyses III committed suicide. He forbade the Jews building the temple (Ezra 4:7-22, Artaxerxes). By destroying the Persian temples and abolishing the Oromasdian chants and ceremonies, and setting up fire altars, Pseudo Smerdis aliented the Persians, Darius, son of Hystaspes, of the blood royal, revolted, and slew him after his seven months' reign.
He reverted to Cyrus' policy, by grant enabling the Jews to complete the temple in his sixth year (Ezra 6:1-15). Xerxes (Ahasuerus) his son held the feast in his third year at Shushan for "the princes of the provinces," preparatory to invading Greece. His marriage with Esther in his seventh year immediately followed his flight from Greece, when lie gave himself up to the pleasures of the seraglio. His son Artaxerxes Longimanus befriended Ezra (Ezra 7:1,11-28) and Nehemiah (Neh. 2:1-9) in their patriotic restoration of the Jews' national polity and walls. "Darius the Persian" or Codomanus (Neh. 12:22) was conquered by Alexander the Great (Dan. 8:3-7).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).