When the Set Task is Imperial: Judaeans under Persian Forced Labor

By Jason Silverman

The experience of involuntary labor is widespread in human history. For reasons varying from slavery to economic imperatives, humans are often compelled to work. The impacts of the various imperial systems that have resorted to compulsion have been extensively studied by sociologists. Despite scholarly acknowledgments that the Persians also continued previous Ancient Near Eastern policies of using forced migration and forced labor, surprisingly it has received little to no sustained discussion. The summarized paper lays some groundwork and points up a few pertinent issues that could impact one’s understanding of how the Judaeans lived in the greater Achaemenid context, and how the Jerusalem temple could have functioned within Yehud. Lastly, a potential reason for why the temple was rebuilt is posited as related to labor concerns. The hope is to suggest some potentially fruitful avenues for further research into the social history of Judaeans in the Persian Empire.

There are two issues related to forced labor which must be stated at the outset: 1) forced labor is rather often correlated with forced migration, though the two phenomena are distinct. For the present discussion this is highly relevant because the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple is often discussed in conjunction with a return of exiles from Babylonia, and when one considers the immense size of the Persian Empire. 2) The difficulty of the term “forced.” Though on first glance it might seem easy to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary forms of labor, in practice there is a fuzzy gradation from chattel slavery at one extreme to pure “capitalist” voluntarism at the other. Degrees of coercion operate all along this spectrum, from a basic economic imperative to eat, to forms of moral and legal obligations.

Sociology of forced labor
For the moment, “forced labor” is understood as labor imposed by the imperial state for non-personal interests or needs. It typically occurs when governments seek a policy of rapid development, very large scale construction works, or seek to utilize non- or under-utilized territories, particularly if they have sparse populations. There is often a link with taxation, and in the Achaemenid context this is obvious in terms of labor obligations. In the context of modern studies of forced labor, its use typically involves high mortality rates for the laborers. Another common correlate to forced labor in the literature is the use of food as an incentive to work, both in terms of quantity and quality. Unsurprisingly, forced labor in most of its attested forms is something universally avoided when possible. Lastly, a commonplace in much of the literature is that among populations subjected to forced labor, the experience gives rise to an expressed desire for education.

Use in the Achaemenid Empire
Jursa has described the Achaemenid taxation system within Babylonia as primarily consisting of labor obligations. Moreover, the labor obligations which accrued to the temples came from both their taxation obligations and special demands of the administration, including building projects and the king’s table. The Achaemenids took monumental building very seriously, from palaces to roads to paradises. All of these projects would have required labor. Another form of imperial service was military duty, sometimes in military colonies. Lastly, the Persepolis Tablets indicate a massive use of work groups within the heartland for a variety of tasks.

Judaeans and the Jerusalem Temple in This Context
An analysis of the above provides new ways to study the communities of Judaeans living in Babylonia, Elephantine, and Yehud. The Babylonian community were part of the land-for-service sector and the Elephantine Judaeans in a military colony, both contexts that could be enriched through consideration of forced labor. Nehemiah 3 suggests that Yehud and the Jerusalem temple may also be a part. The question of the obligations of the temple to the state is still something deserving fuller exploration.

Moreover, why was the temple rebuilt at all? The present author wonders whether or not the proximity to wine and oil production might actually be the purpose for Jerusalem in imperial eyes. Both wine and oil require laborers, in the field and in processing the products, and the Jerusalem region was centrally located to provide labor for such industries. Why would wine and oil matter? Though Jerusalem itself is often noted to be not quite strategically placed on the royal road to Egypt, it is nearby. The Shephelah has evidenced a number of storehouses, granaries, and forts, which are clearly related to the securing of the passageway to Egypt. As is visible in the Persepolis tablets, the basic commodity distribution system included grains, wine or beer, and oil. Jerusalem was poorly placed to feed grains into this system, but ideally placed to supply wine and oil. How does the temple figure into this? The temple may have provided an institutional basis for organizing labor in wine and oil production, whether or not this was done on “crown lands,” the estates of local elites, or land granted to the temple itself. This is a point which requires further research and consideration. If true, it would rather closely integrate the temple itself into the Persian systems of forced labor.

Overall, beyond a general indication that forced labor is a useful perspective for the Judaeans, it likely has particular import for the Jerusalem temple itself. As Davies has suggested elsewhere, not only is it possible that the returnees to Yehud were not voluntary; in Nehemiah it seems the settlement of Jerusalem itself was not necessarily voluntary (Neh 11). The reasons for this in general may have labor backgrounds, as workers were moved around the empire. Alternately, or additionally, the temple itself may have participated in forced labor regimes, either by owning land or industries or coordinating their manpower. If so, this would be a major aspect of its social role and impact within Yehud, as well as its economic effects. These are all elements which will bear closer inspection. Though it has not received the attention it deserves, the demonstrable use of forced labor by the Persians can thus be seen as a new and potentially fruitful angle to address the many long-standing problems of understanding Yehud and the Judaeans within the Persian Empire.

The above condenses and summarizes the contents of the article “Judaeans under Persian Forced Labor and Migration Policies” Anabasis 6 (2015): 14–34. The journal website is here. The article is available in open access from here.