Following US President Donald Trump’s proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared the American leader to Cyrus the Great. While Trump’s words and actions deserve our appreciation, comparisons to Cyrus are premature.
During the signing ceremony at the White House, Netanyahu established the historical significance of the Golan decision. “In the long sweep of Jewish history,” declared the prime minister, “there have been a handful of proclamations by non-Jewish leaders on behalf of our people and our land: Cyrus the Great, the great Persian king; Lord Balfour; president Harry S. Truman; and President Donald J. Trump.”
This was not the first comparison of a US president to the Persian king.
President Truman was first, when he actually compared himself to Cyrus. Introduced at a dinner by his friend Eddie Jacobson as the man who “helped create the State of Israel,” Truman cried, “What do you mean, ‘helped create’? I am Cyrus! I am Cyrus!”
Cyrus the Great (600-530 BCE) was the founder of the Persian Empire. During his 30-year reign, he expanded his kingdom into the largest empire the world had then ever seen. From a historical perspective, he is known for his many achievements, but the Bible remembers him fondly for a very specific reason.
Cyrus was the Persian king who defeated the Babylonians after they destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. According to the Bible, one of his first acts was to reverse the damage caused by the Babylonians.
“In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of Hashem spoken by Yirmeyahu was fulfilled, Hashem roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing as follows: ‘Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the Earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Yerushalayim, which is in Yehuda. Anyone of you of all His people – may his God be with him, and let him go up to Yerushalayim that is in Yehuda and build the House of God of Yisrael, the God that is in Yerushalayim.’” (Ezra 1:1-3, The Israel Bible)
This proclamation, known as the “Edict of Cyrus,” which is repeated in 2 Chronicles (36:22-23), has been corroborated by archaeology with the discovery 140 years ago of the Cyrus Cylinder. In March 1879, an ancient clay cylinder from the 6th century BCE was found in Iraq with text affirming the biblical account. The fascinating Cyrus Cylinder is one of the great artifacts of biblical archaeology and now rests in the British Museum.
THANKS TO King Cyrus, tens of thousands of Jews returned to the Land of Israel, officially ending the Babylonian captivity, exactly as promised 70 years earlier by the prophet Jeremiah. However, it is not Cyrus’s progressive politics or permissive immigration policy for which he is acclaimed.
The biblical account is very specific, as the Edict of Cyrus calls explicitly for the building of “the house of God” in Jerusalem.
The “house” referred to by King Cyrus is the “house of prayer for all nations” that stood for nearly 1,000 years on the Temple Mount. Cyrus doesn’t simply allow the Jews to return to their ancestral homeland – he calls upon them to rebuild their Temple and worship their God freely.
The Bible’s recognition and appreciation of the non-Jewish king, and the momentous importance of the Edict of Cyrus, was not because of its political implications, but for its spiritual significance.
Today, despite the millions of Jews who have returned to Israel thanks to the proclamations of Lord Balfour and president Truman, there is one heartbreaking vestige of our ancient captivity.
Far from being a “house of prayer for all nations,” today, while Muslims are free to worship on the Temple Mount, Jews and Christians are forbidden to pray there.
On a recent visit to the Temple Mount, during the brief three hours a day that Jews are allowed to ascend, I was reminded by the accompanying Israeli Border Patrol officers of the rules and regulations.
I was warned not to move my lips in prayer and told not to stray from the path that Jews are allowed to walk. At one point, a Jewish boy in our group aroused the attention of a Muslim woman, who started violently screaming at the child for some unknown offense. Immediately, the police cut our visit short and escorted us off the Mount. It’s hard to imagine any other place where Jews are such second-class citizens as we are today on the Temple Mount.
The huge area covers 36 acres, or about 27 football fields, and remains largely empty. Oddly, Israeli sovereignty does not apply to the complex, which is under the control of Jordan’s Wakf Islamic religious trust, as it has been since 1924. Despite this strange “status quo,” it is easy to imagine carving out a space on the Temple Mount for a true house of prayer for all nations, so that Jews can pray to God in Jerusalem as proclaimed by King Cyrus 2,500 years ago.
It is surely significant that the US president recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And we are grateful that he declared Jerusalem to be the eternal capital of the Jewish people. However, for President Trump to truly earn the comparison to Cyrus the Great, there is one final piece of real estate that deserves his attention.The writer is the founder of Israel365 and the editor of The Israel Bible, which focuses on the connection between the Land and people of Israel and the Bible.
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