Emperor Darius gave a great banquet for all those under him, all the members of his family and staff, all the leading officials of Persia and Media, all his chief officers, administrators, and the governors of the 127 provinces stretching from India to Ethiopia.
When everyone had enough to eat and drink, they left, and Darius went to bed. He fell asleep but soon awoke.
Then the three young men who served Emperor Darius as his personal bodyguard said to one another,
“Let each one of us name the one thing that he considers the strongest thing in the world. The emperor will decide who has given the wisest answer to this question and will give magnificent gifts and prizes to the winner. He will wear royal robes, drink from a gold cup, and sleep in a gold bed. He will have a chariot with gold-studded bridles, wear a fine linen turban, and have a gold necklace. Because of his wisdom he will be an adviser to the emperor and will be given the title “Relative of the Emperor.”
Then each of them wrote down the best answer he could think of, sealed it, and put it under the emperor’s pillow. They said to one another,
“When the emperor wakes up, the statements will be given to him. He and the three leading officials of Persia will decide who gave the wisest answer. The winner will be given the prize on the basis of what he has written.”
The first wrote, “There is nothing stronger than wine.”
The second wrote, “There is nothing stronger than the emperor.”
And the third wrote, “There is nothing stronger than a woman, but truth can conquer anything.”
When the emperor woke up, the written statements were given to him, and he read them.
Then he sent messengers and called together all the leading officials of Persia and Media, including the chief officers, administrators, governors, and commissioners.
He took his seat in the council chamber and had the three statements read aloud.
“Bring in the three young men,” he said, “and let them explain their answers.” So when they were brought in, they were asked to explain what they had written. The bodyguard who had written about the strength of wine spoke first:
“Gentlemen,” he began, “wine is clearly the strongest thing in the world. It confuses the mind of everyone who drinks it.
It has exactly the same effect on everyone: king or orphan, slave or free, rich or poor. It makes every thought happy and carefree, and makes one forget every sorrow and responsibility. It makes everyone feel rich, ignore the power of kings and officials, and talk as if he owned the whole world. When men drink wine, they forget who their friends and neighbors are, and then they are soon drawing their swords to fight them. Then, when they sober up, they don’t remember what they have done. Gentlemen,” he concluded, “if wine makes men act in this way, it certainly must be the strongest thing in the world.”
The bodyguard who had written about the strength of the emperor spoke next.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “nothing in the world is stronger than men, since they rule over land and sea and, in fact, over everything in the world. But the emperor is the strongest of them all; he is their lord and master, and men obey him, no matter what he commands. If he tells them to make war on one another, they do it. If he sends them out against his enemies, they go, even if they have to break down mountains, walls, or towers. They may kill or be killed, but they never disobey the emperor’s orders. If they are victorious, they bring him all their loot and everything else they have taken in battle. 6 Farmers do not go out to war, but even they bring to the emperor a part of everything that they harvest, and they compel one another to pay taxes to the emperor.
Although the emperor is only one man, if he orders people to kill, they kill; if he orders them to set prisoners free, they do it; if he orders them to attack, they do; if he orders destruction, they destroy; if he orders them to build, they build; if he orders crops to be destroyed or fields to be planted, it is done. Everybody, soldier or civilian, obeys the emperor. And when he sits down to eat or drink and then falls asleep, his servants stand guard around him, without being able to go and take care of their own affairs, for they never disobey him.
Gentlemen,” he concluded, “since people obey the emperor like this, certainly nothing in the world is stronger than he is.”
The bodyguard who had written about women and the truth – it was Zerubbabel – spoke last.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “the emperor is certainly powerful, men are numerous, and wine is strong, but who rules and controls them all? It is women! Women gave birth to the emperor and all the men who rule over land and sea.
Women brought them into the world. Women brought up the men who planted the vineyards from which wine comes. Women make the clothes that men wear; women bring honor to men; in fact, without women, men couldn’t live. “Men may accumulate silver or gold or other beautiful things, but if they see a woman with a pretty face or a good figure, they will leave it all to gape and stare, and they will desire her more than their wealth. A man will leave his own father, who brought him up, and leave his own country to get married. He will forget his father, his mother, and his country to spend the rest of his life with his wife.
So you must recognize that women are your masters. Don’t you work and sweat and then take all that you have earned and give it to your wives? A man will take his sword and go out to attack, rob and steal, and sail the seas and rivers. He may have to face lions or travel in the dark, but when he has robbed, stolen, and plundered, he will bring the loot home to the woman he loves. “A man loves his wife more than his parents. Some men are driven out of their minds on account of a woman, and others become slaves for the sake of a woman. Others have been put to death, have ruined their lives, or have committed crimes because of a woman.
So now do you believe me? “The emperor’s power is certainly great – no nation has the courage to attack him. But once I saw him with Apame, his concubine, the daughter of the famous Bartacus. While sitting at the emperor’s right, she took his crown off his head, put it on her own, and then slapped his face with her left hand. All the emperor did was look at her with his mouth open. Whenever she smiles at him, he smiles back; and when she gets angry with him, he flatters her and teases her until she is in a good mood again.
Gentlemen, if women can do all that, surely there can be nothing stronger in the world.” The emperor and his officials just looked at one another. Then Zerubbabel began to speak about truth.
“Yes, gentlemen,” he said, “women are very strong. But think of how big the earth is, how high the sky is; think how fast the sun moves, as it rapidly circles the whole sky in a single day. If the sun can do this, it is certainly great. But truth is greater and stronger than all of these things. Everyone on earth honors truth; heaven praises it; all creation trembles in awe before it.
“There is not the slightest injustice in truth. You will find injustice in wine, the emperor, women, all human beings, in all they do, and in everything else. There is no truth in them; they are unjust and they will perish. But truth endures and is always strong; it will continue to live and reign forever. Truth shows no partiality or favoritism; it does what is right, rather than what is unjust or evil. Everyone approves what truth does; its decisions are always fair. Truth is strong, royal, powerful, and majestic forever. Let all things praise the God of truth!”
When Zerubbabel had finished speaking, all the people shouted, “Truth is great – there is nothing stronger!”
Then the emperor said to him, “You may ask anything you want, even more than what was agreed, and I will give it to you. You will be my adviser, and you will be granted the title “Relative of the Emperor.’
“Zerubbabel replied, “Your Majesty, permit me to remind you of the solemn vow you took on the day you became emperor. You promised to rebuild Jerusalem and to send back all the treasures that had been taken from the city. Remember that when Cyrus made a vow to destroy Babylon, he set these things aside and solemnly promised to send them back to Jerusalem. You also promised to rebuild the Temple, which the Edomites burned down when the Babylonians devastated the land of Judah.
So, Your Majesty, because you are a man of generosity, I beg you to fulfill the solemn promise you made to the King of heaven.”
Then Emperor Darius stood up, kissed Zerubbabel, and wrote letters for him to all the treasurers, governors, and administrators in the provinces, ordering them to provide safe conduct for him and all those going with him to rebuild Jerusalem. He also wrote letters to all the governors in Greater Syria and Phoenicia, with special instructions to those in Lebanon, to transport cedar logs to Jerusalem and help Zerubbabel rebuild the city. The emperor also provided letters for all the Jews who wished to return to Jerusalem.
These letters guaranteed their freedom and ordered all governors, treasurers, and other administrators not to interfere with them in any way. All the land that they acquired was to be exempt from taxation, and the Edomites were to surrender the villages they had taken from the Jews.
Each year 1,500 pounds of silver would be given for the construction of the Temple until it was finished. 52 In addition, 750 pounds of silver would be given each year to provide for the seventeen burnt offerings to be offered in the Temple each day. All the Jews who left Babylonia to build the city of Jerusalem would be granted their freedom, together with their children and the priests.
The emperor’s orders gave specific instructions, as follows: the priests must be supported, their robes for the Temple service must be provided, the Levites must be supported until the Temple and Jerusalem are completely rebuilt, and land and wages must be provided for all the guards of the city. He also reaffirmed Cyrus’ instructions that all the small utensils and Temple treasures that Cyrus had set aside should be returned to Jerusalem.
Then the young man Zerubbabel left the council chamber, turned toward Jerusalem, looked up to heaven, and praised the King of heaven:
“Lord, all praise belongs to you; you are the source of all victory and wisdom, 60 and I thank you, O Lord of our ancestors, for giving wisdom to me, your servant.”
Zerubbabel took the emperor’s letters and went to Babylon, where he told the other Jews everything that had happened. They praised the God of their ancestors because he had made it possible for them to go and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple which bears his name. For seven days they held a joyful celebration, accompanied by music.
– 1 Esdras 3; 1 Esdras 4
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