New things often begin in the Bible when YHWH rouses someone to action. The word ‘or clusters around such moment, its latent connotative power poised to express activity over passivity, alertness over slumber, expectation conquering depression.
Characteristically, YHWH is able to rouse in just this way both his own people and those who do not call upon his name. The Medes, for example, seem particularly vulnerable to YHWH’s lighting of a purposeful fire under their quasi-imperial butts.
The prophet visualizes YHWH rousing Media and a cluster of allies against the tormenting powers of Babylon. For its part, the book of Isaiah dares to use elevated language normally reserved for YHWH’s own close kin to speak of the Persian ruler Cyrus’ liberation of the Jews from the exile into which Nebuchadnezzar had dragged them. The Isaiah text speaks repeatedly of this targeted divine rousing of the Persian monarch while urging upon the Jewish captives themselves the arduous sine qua non of freedom: that they should awake, should rouse themselves! Artfully—and meaningfully—the word employed is the same one.
Here in the relatively modest confines of the book of Ezra, the tale of liberation from exile and return to the Jewish homeland begins with YHWH rousing both Cyrus—who might have been expected to have only the most pragmatic of interests in the Hebrew deity’s geopolitical purposes—and his own exiled people.
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, the LORD 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: The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of you of all His people — may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of the LORD God of Israel, the God that is in Jerusalem; and all who stay behind, wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, besides the freewill offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem.’
So the chiefs of the clans of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites, all whose spirit had been roused by God, got ready to go up to build the House of the LORD that is in Jerusalem.”
Christian readers of the Bible are familiar with Jesus’ description of his Father’s inscrutable purposefulness. ‘The Spirit-wind blows where ever it wills’, he explained to curious Nicodemus. ‘You hear its sound but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going’.
So in what would have been ancestral days for the Galilean prophet. YHWH rouses foreign emperors and the grandchildren of exiled priests and shopkeepers who cannot believe that the God of Moses called them merely to this little work of gearing and cogging the machinery of empire. Back home, sacred soil awaited a quick, decisive spade held in caring hands that—however humble—knew something of destiny.