Before East Goes West: The Intersections of Monotheism in the 5th and 6th Centuries Before Christ

Connections that are left unwritten by Tom Holland in his book, Dominion, that go back to his starting point

The graves of the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes near Persepolis, Iran

I am finding a wealth of subject matter in Tom Holland’s history of western civilization, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Of particular interest is the place where he starts his history of the west – with Darius, the great Persian conqueror of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in the east.

It seems that Holland’s candid explorations of history have fascinated him as much in tracing the threads of his childhood fantasies about ancient history as in busting the myths that arose as part of those childhood fantasies. Below he describes the busting of one of those myths – that the Greeks fought off the evil Persians from the east to save the west:

In Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, which focuses on the Persian incursion into Greek territory, Holland realized that the Spartans were no champions for freedom, and the Persians were no moral monsters comparatively. In fact, the Persians were the ones motivated by what they believed were moral callings – something that would have been a completely foreign concept to the Greeks.

Darius and the Persians during his reign believed in Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian supreme, creator God. When I was in college, I learned in my World Religion class that Zoroastrianism was the first monotheistic religion. I had my doubts then about that statement, as I do now (see The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East), but the fact is that monotheism developed in the ancient Near East. Not in the west.

The first reference to Ahura Mazda appears in the Behistun Inscription by Darius. Darius reigned from 522 BCE until his death in 486 BCE. While Holland uses more “traditional” historical sources for Dominion, Hebrew Scripture intersects with Persian history in this time period.

Before Darius, the nation of Judah was exiled to Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem in 587 BC. The Prophet, Jeremiah, describes the siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 39:1-10 & 52:1-30), and Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned throughout the first four books of Daniel, who was one of the exiles from Jerusalem in Babylon.

Though Nabonides succeeded to the throne after Nebuchadnezzar, his son, Balshazzar, was left in charge in Babylon for ten years while Nabonides was away on an archaeological expedition. Balshazzar is mentioned in Daniel, chapters 5, 7 and 8. Daniel mentions his death, which occurred after Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) conquered Babylon (539 BC). Nabonides was also killed on his return to Babylon that same year.

Cyrus conquered Babylon while the Hebrews were exiled there, and the Hebrews were still exiled in Babylon when Darius 1 (Darius the Great) took over as the king in 522 AD. Again, the biblical reports intersect with the more “traditional” archaeological and historical sources.

Continue reading “Before East Goes West: The Intersections of Monotheism in the 5th and 6th Centuries Before Christ”

The Plans God Has for Us – Part II

The overarching theme of the Book of Jeremiah is judgment.


Though Jeremiah 29:11 is often quoted as a stand-alone verse, the context of it dramatically enriches its meaning. The context also reveals meaning that we would miss if we didn’t understand the circumstances in which these words were spoken. This is the main message of the first installment of this three-part series – The Plans God Has for Us – Part I.

When we read the following words, we should be mindful of the context:

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Aside from the fact that we often ask God merely to bless our own plans, not considering (or taking seriously) that He has plans for us, this verse is often quoted with anticipation of some immediate or not-too-distant hope and future. But the context suggests that we should apply the verse in a much larger context than the immediate and near future circumstances of our own lives.

Consider that the prophet, Jeremiah, lived and served God during the last four decades before the last of God’s people who were given the Promised Land, the nation of Judah, were overtaken and exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah’s life and prophetic ministry spanned from the 13th year of the reign of King Josiah (627/626 BC) through the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

These were doom and gloom years in which an ominous cloud of darkness loomed over Judah and eventually swallowed them up. Most of Jeremiah’s ministry focused on warning God’s people of the impending doom.

Jeremiah wasn’t’ a popular prophet (not that prophets are known to be popular). He was imprisoned, and his life was threatened multiple times during the course of his ministry. People didn’t like or receive well the drumbeat of warning that he pounded.

The Book of Jeremiah reveals a prophet whose life was full of emotional angst, as the people of Judah didn’t want to hear what he had to say and were hostile to his message. He was faithful to God in spite of the unpopularity it brought him. He often lamented the hard-heartedness of the people and their refusal to take heed.

“Jeremiah found himself addressing a nation hurtling headlong toward judgment from God. The Israelites may have feared the future as the outside powers drew near, but rather than respond with humility and repentance, the people of Judah primarily lived as islands unto themselves, disregarding both the Lord’s commandments and the increasing danger that resulted from their disobedience.”[i]

Because Jeremiah’s ministry stretched over the 40 years just before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and exile, the overarching theme of the Book of Jeremiah is judgment. The chronicle of the history of God’s people from the covenant God made with them in the Sinai Desert to the time of Jeremiah was approximately 900 years marked by ongoing disbelief and disobedience, culminating in the Babylonian exile.

Jeremiah 29:11 is quoted from a letter Jeremiah wrote to the Babylonian exiles after the judgment he had been proclaiming for four decades finally came to pass.

The larger context is almost 900 years of disbelief and disobedience from the very people God chose to call His own. The immediate context is 40 years of Jeremiah warning God’s people of God’s imminent judgment and their refusal to listen or change their ways. In that gloomy scenario in which that judgment finally came to pass, Jeremiah writes:

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11)

As we look at the entire letter from Jeremiah to his exiled brethren and consider its application, then and now, the nuances of Scriptural meaning and application to our lives becomes more poignant. We will do this in The Plans God Has for Us – Part III.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

[i] See Insight for Living, Jeremiah, by Charles Swindoll.