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 2: Monumental Inscriptions , 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.
Like orthodox Yahwists under Jeroboam I, the first ruler of secessionist Northern Israel (cf. 2 Chron. 11:13–17), American evangelicals felt squeezed out by the previous syncretistic administration. By 2016, more than 40 percent of evangelicals said that in recent years it had become more difficult to be an evangelical Christian—up seven percentage points since 2014.
Consequently, many Christians were willing to overlook Trump’s racially insensitive remarks and sexist comments and egotistical behavior, because he agreed that their convictions had been violated and offered hope that some of these violations could be overturned. During the Republican primary, Trump told hundreds of evangelical leaders, “The government has gotten so involved in your religion. Especially your religion, that it makes it very difficult.” Trump’s rhetoric recalls Cyrus’s promise to restore the proper worship of Marduk and to liberate the citizenry from the exploitation and abuse they had previously suffered.
But although these parallels are impressive, concluding that Trump imitates Cyrus ignores key differences in their stories. For starters, Trump is not a conquering emperor. He has not inherited what was once the land of Israel as part of his empire, the Jewish population of the world are not his subjects by virtue of his conquest of another nation, and he has not authorized the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
More importantly, regardless of the way leaders are chosen, Christians believe that the hidden hand of God is operative behind each transition in leadership (1 Sam. 2:6–8; Ezek. 17:24; Dan. 2:21, 4:17; John 19:11; Rom. 13:1–7). However, the purpose behind the divine operation is often unknown until long after the event. The Hebrew Scriptures recognize the unique role of Cyrus in the preservation of God’s people and ultimately his place in the divine plan of redemption (Ezra 1:1–11.) But we have no contemporary prophets like Isaiah (cf. Isa. 41:2–4, 44:24–45:7) or historians like the author of Ezra 1:1–4, who could have, under divine inspiration, predicted the emergence of President Trump as the key agent in the divine plan or, after his emergence, declared with prophetic certainty that he was God’s man for the hour. Nevertheless, within weeks of the presidential election, some American pastors were using biblical texts about Cyrus to declare confidently that President Trump’s election was God’s answer for a nation off course. (What’s more: Such pontifications are easier when “our” candidate wins, but one wonders what such leaders might have said had Hillary Clinton won.)
Christians’ eagerness to understand God’s will in real time can cause them to overlook fundamental biblical and divine principles. Despite Cyrus’s interest in the status of Jewish exiles in Babylon, both the Torah and the Prophets are clear that his leadership style did not fit the paradigm God had in mind for his people. Ancient Near Easterners expected their kings to perform three primary functions: (1) provide military protection against foreign threats, (2) provide judicial protection against internal threats among the citizens, and (3) provide spiritual protection against the fury of the gods by constructing temples for and promoting the worship of the state deity. According to these standards, Cyrus was successful. But these were not God’s metrics.
Moses’ “Charter for Kingship” in Deuteronomy 17:14–20 presents an alternative to the prevailing exercise of kingship, a model in which rulers are to function as servants of their people. To guard against the predominant megalomaniacal paradigm, Moses focused on the personal character of the king. They were not to use their position of authority in self-interest (multiplying horses, women, and silver and gold for himself). Rather, Israel’s kings were to read the Torah for themselves and then embody the righteousness the Torah called for in all of YHWH’s people: fearing YHWH, walking in the ways of YHWH, and walking humbly among their fellow Israelites (vv. 18–20). In short, the Israelite king’s primary function was to be a model citizen, so that people could look up to him and declare, “I want to be like that person!”
This image of leadership as the embodiment of righteous covenantal ideals and seeking the well-being of those one leads ahead of one’s own status is consistent with the Hebrew portrayal of YHWH as the shepherd of his people (Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34) and of the New Testament’s portrayal of true shepherds of God’s people (John 10; 1 Pet. 5:1–8).
When it comes to national governing, as we know from the stories of many of Israel’s kings, God has never demanded moral perfection of those he thrusts into leadership roles. Most of the judges in the Book of Judges were deeply flawed vessels, whom YHWH conscripted for his service and empowered by his Spirit, and who, through heroic acts of momentary reliance on God, were able to defeat their enemies (cf. Heb. 11). But most were not models of political leadership upon which to lavish praise as much as an honest look at deeply flawed men whom God used in spite of themselves.
To me, then, this biblical history suggests that no matter how and why we cast our vote for a particular candidate, Democrat or Republican, we must never allow ourselves to become blind to their personal and moral flaws. According to the Bible, leadership is more than effectiveness; it’s also (and, in fact, primarily) a matter of character. Jesus modeled perfectly the righteous standard of which he spoke: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11; cf. Eph 5:25b).
Daniel I. Block is the Gunther H. Knoedler Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of major commentaries on Ezekiel (two volumes), Judges, Ruth, and Deuteronomy, as well as For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship.