Daniel Block: Is Trump Our Cyrus? The Old Testament Case for Yes and No

Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t the first to compare Donald Trump to the ancient Persian leader, Cyrus. But he’s probably been the most prominent. Following the 45th president’s announcement earlier this year that the US embassy in Israel would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Israeli Prime Minister remarked, “I want to tell you that the Jewish people have a long memory, so we remember the proclamation of the great king, Cyrus the Great, Persian king 2,500 years ago. He proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon could come back and rebuild our Temple in Jerusalem.”

Netanyahu’s suggestion that Trump may be compared to Cyrus because of his specific policies affecting the Jewish community gives his analogy a unique twist. But American evangelicals have compared Trump to the Persian ruler since the Republican primaries. (This claim even made an appearance in the recently released film, TheTrump Prophecy.) They argue that just as Cyrus, scarcely a devotee of YHWH the God of Israel, served as God’s agent by authorizing Jewish exiles in Babylon to return to the Promised Land and to rebuild the temple to YHWH, so the narcissistic and morally flawed Trump can advance the causes of the evangelical community—and by extension, the country.

Who was Cyrus?

Cyrus the Great was the sixth-century B.C. emperor who made Persia great—indeed the greatest empire in history to that point—by taking over and expanding the empire of the Babylonians. Cyrus plays a critical role in the Bible’s story of YHWH’s relationship with his people Israel. All of YHWH’s covenant promises seem to have been dashed in 586 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies conquered Jerusalem, burned the temple of YHWH to the ground, and decimated what had remained of the Judean population after the deportation of the upper crust to Babylon in 598 B.C. (2 Kings 24:10–16). According to Ezra 1:1–4, in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 29:1–14), shortly after Cyrus assumed the rule of Babylon, the Persian king issued a decree authorizing the Judean exiles to return home and to rebuild the Temple of YHWH—with the aid of resources he provided.

A vital extra-biblical source of our knowledge of Cyrus, especially for the perspective it provides for Cyrus’s decree in Ezra 1, is a clay cylinder the size of a large wine bottle discovered in the ruins of ancient Babylon. The Cyrus Cylinder Inscription was produced after the Persian conquest of the city in 539 B.C. Written as government propaganda, the text lauds King Cyrus for his achievements, including his policy of permitting people whom his predecessors had brought to Babylon as captives to return to their homes to rebuild the temples for their respective gods. The following excerpt describes the Babylonians’ reaction to Cyrus when he arrived in their city:

He (Marduk, the chief Babylonian god) ordered him to march to his city Babylon. He set him on the road to Babylon and like a companion and a friend, he went at his side. . . . He made him enter his city Babylon without fighting or battle; he saved Babylon from hardship. He delivered Nabonidus, the king who did not revere him, into his hands. All the people of Babylon, all the land of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors, bowed to him and kissed his feet. They rejoiced at his kingship and their faces shone. Ruler by whose aid the dead were revived and who had all been redeemed from hardship and difficulty, they greeted him with gladness and praised his name (translation by M. Cogan, in The Context of Scripture 2Monumental Inscriptions [2000], p. 315).

At first glance, these sentences seem to conjure an image quite foreign to our 21st-century political scene. And, to be sure, the idea of the rise of a pagan monarch in the First Testament paralleling the rise of a democratically elected president may seem surprising. However, there are several striking links between the Babylonians’ reception to the rise of Cyrus and the American presidential campaign and election in 2016.

First, in both situations, an outsider rose to the supreme political position in the state. Cyrus was a Persian and a foreigner to Babylonian politics. A career businessman and entertainer, Trump’s rise involved eliminating a series of establishment Republican candidates before defeating the establishment Democratic candidate.

Second, although we do not know how Jewish exiles in Babylon felt about Cyrus when he first arrived, the grassroots citizenry greeted both Trump and King Cyrus enthusiastically. The cylinder identifies Cyrus’s supporters as “all the people” and “the black-headed people”—an epithet for the native population at large and a contrast to the ruling class. Similarly, Trump’s base has been described as “populist,” a contrast to the cultural urban establishment.

Finally, popular support for the newcomer arose from perceived abuse people suffered at the hands of the previous leaders and their disregard for traditional values. Cyrus’s inscription speaks of the Babylonian King Nabonidus neglecting the worship of the city’s divine patron, Marduk, and his imposition of forced labor upon the city’s inhabitants, ruining them all. Other texts portray Nabonidus as devoted primarily to Sin, the moon god. As for the Jewish population in Babylon, encouraged by Cyrus’s magnanimity and stirred by the Spirit of YHWH, they enthusiastically prepared for the long journey home. Remarkably, through the foreign king Cyrus’s decree, YHWH was fulfilling his ancient promise.

President Trump’s campaign targeted evangelicals, many of whom had felt marginalized during his predecessor’s eight years in office. In his two terms, Barack Obama alienated many conservative Christians when he stopped enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act, came out in support of gay marriage (and shockingly lit up the White House with rainbow colors after the Supreme Court’s affirmation of marriage equality), and, through the Department of Health and Human Services mandate, compelled people opposed to certain forms of birth control because of their faith commitments to provide it to their employees.

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Source: Christianity Today