CYRUS (Heb. כֹּרֶש; old Persian: Kūruš ), king of Persia (reigned, 559–529 b.c.e.). At first, Cyrus ii's dominion consisted of Anshan, southwest of the Iranian plateau, of which he was the legitimate king, being a descendant of the Achaemenian dynasty that had already reigned there for several generations. A number of differing accounts of his birth, youth, and ascent to the throne have come down from ancient writers (Herodotus and others), but they apparently belong mainly to the realm of legend. Extant inscriptions from his time, chiefly from Babylon, provide reliable sources of information about him (see Pritchard, Texts, 305–16). Cyrus' first important act was to conspire against Astyages, king of Media, toward which end he entered into an alliance with Nabonidus, king of Babylon. The army of Astyages betrayed him, and Cyrus seized control of the Median kingdom in 550 b.c.e. This conquest brought him into conflict with Lydia in Asia Minor, a kingdom that wished to profit from the fall of Media. In 546 Cyrus defeated Croesus and conquered his kingdom of Lydia. The conquest of Asia Minor was completed when Persia seized control of the many Greek cities on the coast. Apart from these wars with neighboring empires, he campaigned against various tribes, chiefly on the northern and eastern borders of his kingdom. In a battle with one of these tribes – the Massagetae – he was killed. His conquests had created the most extensive empire yet known.
Cyrus holds a special place in the history of Israel. He is mentioned in the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah, in the Book of Ezra (and at the end of ii Chronicles), and in the Book of Daniel (1:21; 6:29; 10:1). In these passages he appears both as one destined to save Israel and to fulfill for it a certain mission on behalf of the God of Israel (Deutero-Isaiah), and as one whose edict and command served as a foundation for the return to Zion and the erection of the destroyed temple (Ezra). Apparently the successes of Cyrus, particularly the preparations and steps that indicated that a struggle between him and Babylon was pending, were in part responsible for rousing Deutero-Isaiah to utter his prophecies on the imminent redemption of Israel and the impending destruction of Babylon. The hopes of the prophet are clearly expressed in chapter 45:1–13: God turns "to His anointed, to Cyrus," whom He helped in the past and will further help in the continuation of his activities ("I will go before you, and level the mountains; I will break in pieces the doors of bronze, and cut asunder the bars of iron"). Cyrus is to rebuild Jerusalem and restore the exilic community. While he does not yet know the God of Israel ("… I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know Me"), he may eventually do so, due to the great assistance he will receive from Him. Delivered before the event, this prophecy reveals the feelings and hopes of the prophet who awaits the conquest of Babylon and its punishment (cf. Isa. 46:1–2; 47). The prophecy in 44:28 apparently refers to Cyrus' edict and was certainly uttered after the event. Cyrus is mentioned in other places though not explicitly by name (e.g., 41:2, 25; 46:11). Nevertheless, the place occupied by Cyrus in Deutero-Isaiah should not be exaggerated. Although he occasioned many of the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah, and his appearance was of great importance to the prophet, it is the people of Israel and its God that stand at the center of the prophecy. Cyrus is merely an instrument for the realization of the redemption of Israel through the will of its God. He is understandably a sympathetic figure, for he is a redeemer and not a "rod of anger," but it should not be assumed from his designation "anointed" and "shepherd" that he had an eschatological role or any function after the redemption of Israel (such as being their ruler in place of the House of David, etc.). It is doubtful if Cyrus was influenced in his congenial relationship with the Jews by the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah concerning him, or by the part taken by the Jews of Babylon in the war between him and Nabonidus. An explanation of the relations between Cyrus and the Jews rests upon an understanding of his general policy, particularly in Babylon itself. This policy was based upon benevolence toward the conquered, support and sympathy for their gods, and a correction of the injustices done to them by the previous ruler Nabonidus, or in the case of the Jews of Babylon, by Nebuchadnezzar. In conformity with this policy, he restored the Babylonian gods to their temples, reconstructed temples that had been neglected in the time of his predecessor, and even returned exiles to their homes (see the Cylinder Inscription of Cyrus, Pritchard, Texts, 315–6). His policy toward the Jews was similar to that toward the Babylonians. These principles find expression in the Hebrew edict issued to the Jews of Babylonia (538 b.c.e.), which appears in Ezra 1:2–4 (see also ii Chron. 36:23). There Cyrus attributes his decision to erect the temple to a command of God, just as he attributed his actions in Babylon to an order of Marduk. An additional document of his concerning the erection of the Temple is more administrative in nature and deals with the architectural and financial details of building (Ezra 6:3–5); this document is even written in Aramaic, the adminstrative language. As a result of the permission given by Cyrus, some of the Babylonian exiles returned to Judah, and with their return a new chapter in the history of Israel began – the period of the Second Temple.
In the Aggadah
Contradictory opinions are held about Cyrus, the Palestinian rabbis giving a rather favorable account of him while the Babylonians censure him. He was descended from Japheth who was thus rewarded for his commendable behavior toward Noah when drunk (pr 35). He was chosen by God together with Darius as the instrument of His vengeance against Babylon. Influenced by Daniel's prophecy to Belshazzar (Dan. 5:28) Darius and Cyrus slew him and vowed that they would permit the Jews to return to the Land of Israel with the Temple vessels (Song R. 3:4). His name is regarded as an anagram of the word kasher ("worthy"; rh 3b). He pledged to contribute to the Temple service and discovered the treasures that Nebuchadnezzar had hidden (Est. R. 2:1). He wept at the destruction of the Temple and as a reward the Medes received the domination of the world and he was thus vouchsafed to sit on the throne of Solomon (ser 20). Although he granted the Jews permission to rebuild the Temple he permitted the use of wood only, so that it would be easily destroyed should they rebel against him (rh 3b–4a). Moreover when he noticed that the Babylonian cities became desolate because of the emigration of the Jews he forbade them to leave the country (Song R. 5:5).
E. Bickerman, in: jbl, 65 (1946), 249–75; H.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (1948), 34ff., 86–87; Klausner, Bayit Sheni, 1 (19512), 121–47; R.N. Frye, The Heritage of Persia (1962), index; Ginzberg, Legends, index.