Life under Empire by Lester L. Grabbe

The Jewish people have spent most of their history under one empire or another. Only for a short time under the Judahite monarchy and for less than a century under the Hasmoneans was Judah a genuinely independent state. The biblical text is generally positive toward Persian rule, but this is probably the result of a strategy to elicit Persian goodwill toward the Jews (there is little in the historical sources to suggest that the Persian Empire was less oppressive than the Assyrians and Babylonians before them).

The book of Esther gives a mixed view of Jewish life under the Persians. Both Mordechai and his niece Esther are able to prosper in the Persian administration, yet they both become closely involved in an imperial attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Granted, the cause of the threat is not the Persian king but the Amalekite Haman; however, the ethnic origin of Persian officials seems to have been irrelevant in most cases, and Haman was in any case high up in the Persian administration and was in direct service to the king. The Ezra and Nehemiah traditions also show Jews who were given significant posts by Persian rulers. Yet Ezra states that the Jews of the province of Yehud are “slaves” in the Persian Empire (Ezra 9:7-9). Some of the hardships suffered by the people are outlined in Neh 5, though whether their lot was different then than it was in other periods is an open question (since crop failure, borrowing, and losing loan collateral were problems experienced throughout history).

These are stories whose historicity is far from straightforward, but they illustrate the views that Jews had of their past, and elements of history and society can be gleaned from them. Although most empires expressed the ideal of protecting their citizens (compare the introduction to the Code of Hammurabi), the oft-oppressive measures in all empires should not be overlooked. If the empire chose to attack or persecute a minority group or community (as happened to the Jews in the second century B.C.E. under Antiochus IV), there was little the victim could do about it. So, according to the book of Esther, all Jews within the empire were condemned to death, initially without any sort of remedy. Only later, after the death of Haman, were the Jews allowed to defend themselves. Similarly, Jews took on the task of defending themselves against the Seleucid Empire when Antiochus IV attempted to outlaw the practice of Judaism.

Yet Jews, like most other ethnic groups, usually thrived under imperial rule, whether in Judah itself or in the Diaspora. Mesopotamian documents that extend from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar to the latter part of the Persian period refer to Jews living in Babylonia, including a “City of Judah” and a “City of the Jews.” Some Jews seem to have engaged in agriculture. In other texts, individuals with Yahwistic names were small holders or lower-rank officials. We also have an archive of texts relating to the house of Murashu, a business and financial establishment of the Persian period that employed Jews as servants or agents. The Jews seem to have been well integrated into society. Apart from Antiochus IV, persecutions of Jewish communities seem to have been local rather than imperial actions, until the Roman Empire became Christianized.

Lester L. Grabbe, "Life under Empire", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Lester L. Grabbe

Lester L. Grabbe
Professor Emeritus, University of Hull

Lester L. Grabbe is professor emeritus in the Department of Religion and Theology at the University of Hull (England).  Recent publications include Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?, History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period: Volume 1 Persian Period; Volume 2 Early Greek Period (volumes 3 and 4 in preparation).

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

Ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175 to 164 BCE, he was emperor during the Maccabean Revolt.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Ancient lower Mesopotamia, which for much of the second and first millenniums was the under the control of an empire centered in Babylon.

Residents of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, also used to refer to the population of the larger geographical designation of lower Mesopotamia.

A legal code issued by the Babylonian King Hammurabi and distributed widely in the ancient world. Many of its laws, like "an eye for an eye," would enter other ancient legal codes.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

The king of Babylon from 1792-1750 BCE; he distributed a set of widely influential laws, the "Code of Hammurabi," throughout his kingdom.

A dynasty that ruled Israel from 140-37 B.C.E.; their origin is recounted in 1 and 2 Maccabees.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

The territories ruled by ancient Rome, from roughly 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E., encompassing terrorities in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Associated with the worship of Yahweh, the god of Israel and Judah.

The Persian name for the province including the territory of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem.

Ezra 9:7-9

7From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings ... View more

Neh 5

Nehemiah Deals with Oppression
1Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish kin.2For there were those who said, “With our ... View more

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