Tattenai, An Impartial Governor

Babylonian EmpireBible References: Ezra chapters 5 and 6.

Heart of the Story: Governor Tattenai allowed the Jews to continue building God’s temple while he investigated their claim that King Cyrus gave them permission to build it.
Story Line: The events in this story (Ezra 5 and 6) occurred between 520-516 BC. Tattenai was the Persian governor of the Beyond the River province where Judea was located. Persian records showed that Tattenai reported to Ushtannu (Hystanes) who was the overall governor or satrap of the Trans-Euphrates region, one of the 20 Persian administrative areas under King Darius 1 (521-486 BC).

In August 520 BC the prophet Haggai brought God’s words to the Jews in Jerusalem: God was withholding blessings and prosperity from the returned exiles because they stopped building his temple. Instead of working on God’s home, the Jews spent the preceding years building their own homes and cultivating the land. When the Jews heard Haggai’s prophetic words, immediately they resumed temple construction under the leadership of the Jewish Governor Zerubabbel and the chief priest Jeshua.
At the beginning of Darius’ reign in 521 BC, many revolts flared throughout the Persian Empire. In this volatile environment, Governor Tattenai got word that the Jews were building the temple. Probably, the groups who discouraged and frustrated temple building a decade earlier apprised Tattenai of the Jew’s activity. As governor, Tattenai needed to ensure that resumption of temple construction wasn’t, or didn’t evolve into, another revolt; consequently, he went to Jerusalem to investigate.

When Governor Tattenai met with the Jewish leaders, he asked them two questions: 1) Who gave you a decree to build the Temple and finish the structure; and 2) What are the names of the men who are doing the building. Using information from the Jewish leaders, Tattenai wrote a letter to King Darius asking the King to verify the Jew’s account. The essence of Tattenai’s letter was the Jews’ assertion that King Cyrus made a decree that the house of God in Jerusalem be rebuilt. Further, Cyrus gave the gold and silver vessels from the original temple back to the Jews for use in the second Temple.

Darius had a search of the records of King Cyrus to find evidence of such a decree. Although Cyrus’ actual decree couldn’t be found, a scroll mentioning the decree was found in Cyrus summer palace at Ecbatana. The Jews were correct – King Cyrus gave them permission to return to Jerusalem, build a temple for God and place the gold and silver vessels in it.

King Darius ordered Governor Tattenai and his officials to not only let the Jews build their god’s temple, but to pay the costs of rebuilding from the royal treasury. Governor Tattenai was to provide the Jewish priests with animals, wine, oil, etc. for sacrifices on a daily basis. In turn, the Jews were to pray for the life of the king and his sons when they made their sacrifices. In his letter to Tattenai, King Darius ordered that if anyone alters this edict he is to be killed and his house destroyed.
Ezra recorded that Tattenai followed King Darius’ orders diligently. In 4-5 years the Jews finished construction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. The second temple was in 515 BC, almost exactly 70 years after the destruction of the Solomon’s Temple.

Analysis of Relationships: Tattenai behavior in Ezra 5 and 6 depicted an impartial Persian governor. Although he must have heard gossip about the rebellious history of the Jewish nation and revolt was prevalent in the Persian Empire, he didn’t rush to judgment. Rather he investigated the Jerusalem temple construction first hand. Probably Tattenai had his residence in Samaria about 35 miles north of Jerusalem; however, his seat of government could have been Damascus, a full 135 miles north of Jerusalem. Either way, traveling to Jerusalem would have been costly and inconvenient for him.

When Tattenai heard the Jew’s explanation for building the temple, he didn’t order them to stop construction until he heard back from King Darius. He assumed that the Jews were telling the truth – they had royal permission to build a temple to their god. Possibly, he concluded from experience that each people craved a place they could worship their god. Tattenai asked the Jews for the names of the men who were building the Temple. His motivation for that question could have been to differentiate these men from the remainder of the Jewish population. If King Darius ordered that temple construction cease and all builders punished, Tattenai knew exactly who to punish. He wouldn’t indiscriminately arrest and possible kill innocent individuals.

Tattenai’s letter to King Darius noticeably lacked any personal opinion or bias. Instead he reported exactly what he observed about temple construction, e.g., the temple was being built of huge stones, and the Jew’s rationale for building it. Tattenai asked for information – did Cyrus give the Jews permission to build the temple? His letter to King Darius gave the impression that he was a willing servant of the Empire and would act in a way the king directed.

Darius’ return letter authorized that Tattenai take money from the royal revenue and give it to the Jews so temple construction could continue. Further, the Beyond the River province should assume the costs of the day to day sacrifices at the Jewish temple. Conceivably, Darius decree reduced Tattenai’s personal revenue and the amount of money the province sent to Darius; thus lessening his political influence with the royal government. Nonetheless, Tattenai enacted Darius’ directions meticulously. Although the Bible doesn’t record what happened to Tattenai, historical documents indicated that he was later promoted to satrap of the entire Trans-Euphrates region (Ushtannu’s position).

Reflection: From reading Ezra 5 and 6, we get the feeling that Nehemiah respected Tattenai. Do you think that Tatennai was pro-Jewish or just even handed? What characteristics of Tattenai contributed to his promotion?

Copyright: May, 2014, Carolyn Adams Roth

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