Historical Background:

The books Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, but at some point after King Jesus the book was split into two.[1] The events of Ezra-Nehemiah take place primarily in the mid-400’s BCE. There are a few introductory chapters, chapters one through six, covering the beginning of the return of exiles to the land during the time of King Cyrus through the building of the 2nd  Temple under King Darius. The text then moves to when Ezra was sent to Jerusalem by King Artaxerxes in 459 BCE to be governor in Jerusalem, and then even later, 446 BCE, when Artaxerxes would send Nehemiah to be governor in order to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which would begin to revitalize the Jerusalem as a livable and important city in the region again. It only takes Nehemiah some fifty-two days to finish rebuilding the wall, possible since Jerusalem was much smaller at this time than what it would become in later centuries. Nehemiah continues to be governor through 430’s BCE. A number of portions of Ezra-Nehemiah read as first person accounts by Ezra and Nehemiah, but these are mixed with sections that are about Ezra and Nehemiah.[2] While it is possible the Ezra-Nehemiah text could have been compiled by the end of 400’s, it would be safer to assume its completion took more time than less. Because of the dates provided in the text, assuming a few decades after the governorship of Nehemiah before this historical accounts were written in their separate sections and then compiled together, it is safest to say that the Ezra-Nehemiah text was written sometime in the 4th century BCE, more likely in the earlier decades than in the later ones.

 

Literary Synopsis:

The beginning of Ezra-Nehemiah seeks to show how the Medo-Persian emperors approved of the Jews returning to their homeland and supported the rebuilding of the Jerusalem’s temple.[3] But these opening chapters also seek to teach a political theology, which extends throughout all of Ezra-Nehemiah, that sees Israel’s God, the Creator god, working through the emperors to bless God’s people.[4] There is a parenthetical section in 4:1-23 which explains that the surrounding peoples sought to disrupt Jerusalem’s rebuilding in the days of Artaxerxes because in the beginning of the Return the Jews would not allow those other peoples to contribute to the rebuilding of the new temple in Jerusalem. The thrust of these opening chapters, and this parenthetical chapter, is show that God as Creator uses his created empires in the world to bless his people, and the other peoples in the land cause trouble for the Jews because they do not understand the Jews’ singular devotion to the holy living.

After this introductory section, we find that Artaxerxes decides to send Ezra to Jerusalem to be governor. Ezra is a priest who is highly trained in the Law of Moses, but it can be assumed that Artaxerxes chose him because he is also trained in being an imperial administrator of the court. The story of Ezra continues the political theology espoused by the book, emphasizing that God was blessing Ezra, which is why he is chosen.[5] King Artaxerxes is shown to be following in the same divinely ordained ways as King Cyrus and King Darius before him as he blesses the Return of the Jews.[6]

The major issue that Ezra addresses as governor is the problem of Jews marry women from other people groups and having children by them. This is a topic in the Return that is being addressed in the Hosea text and the Malachi text, so this issue should not surprise readers of Ezra. Sex for the Jews in the Return was a major issue, particularly there was a major stigma with Jews having sex with, or taking in marriage, women of other people groups. As Ezra’s prayer expresses, and Nehemiah’s rebuke of the same issue, Jewish Exilic theology had come to lay most of the blame for Israel worshipping idols on the disobedience of having sex with foreign women.[7] Ezra, while in prayer after hearing of this great sin, is wailing, weeping, throwing himself down on the ground, tearing his shirt down the middle in anger, and literally yanking out his hair and beard. Many of the other Jerusalem and temple leaders gather around the new, highly religious governor throughout the day to wait for him to tell them what is the problem. When he does, the leaders confess that this is a great sin and offer a voluntary solution as the leaders of the people; the Jews will divorce their wives and put out their mixed blood children, and they charge Ezra to enforce their new oath.[8] So Ezra calls all Jewish men in the land to Jerusalem, on threat that if they do not come they will lose their family land by force, and informs all the people of the decision that every foreign woman and her mixed children will be expelled from being a part of Jewish families. The enforcement of this policy takes some two months and effected a recorded 114 families.

A decade later or so Artaxerxes allows Nehemiah, upon his request, to become governor of Jerusalem in order to restore Jerusalem back to a fortified city.[9] After arriving and inspecting the walls of Jerusalem, a city much smaller than it would later become, it only took some fifty-two days to complete.[10] During this time the neighboring peoples, those snubbed by the earliest Jews in the Return who built the 2nd Temple, sought to cause fear and political angst for Nehemiah and the Jews in order to impede or affect the building of the wall. It seems that the neighboring peoples consistently understood the Jewish dedication to ethnic and religious exclusivity as the hopes and dreams of a small people group to become a great empire in the land again,[11] which would mean that if the Jews became a formidable force based out of Jerusalem their own governed areas in nearby regions might be attacked.

After the wall is completed Nehemiah honors the first Jews in the Return who had come nearly a century before by pulling out the records and reading their names.[12] Ezra then leads the people in worship by having them listen to the reading of the Law of Moses, and all Jews in the land celebrated the Feast of Booths to commemorate the reality of the Exile and the goodness of God to allow them to live in the land again.[13] Nehemiah and Ezra together led the people in recommitting themselves to holy living according to God’s teachings.[14] And the last great project of Nehemiah’s governorship was to repopulate the city of Jerusalem, which had only been populated by the Jewish leaders for the last century. A raffle was started and a tenth of all families were called to come to Jerusalem, but some families chose to move to the holy city voluntarily and were blessed by their communities for it.[15] The end of Nehemiah’s story is the dedication of the wall and remembering how he was willing to confront other Jerusalem leaders to enforce this holy way of life among the people.[16]

 

Observations:

  1. In Ezra 3:12 the old men who return to Jerusalem under King Cyrus weep when they see the foundation stone placed to begin rebuilding the temple. Somewhere in my past I was taught these old men sat and wept for the ugliness of this new temple compared to the old while the rest of the Jews, who were too young to remember the splendor of Solomon’s temple, wildly praised God. This scene is beautifully intimated by Peter Jackson in his movie rendition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as the dwarves enter the Lonely Mountain. But reading the text, it does not seem that they are weeping out of dislike for the new temple or dismayed by its comparative splendor. It seems more likely their weeping is an expression of worship, a fully consuming gratefulness to God that he has been faithful in protecting his people through the Exile and is bringing them home again.
  2. Ezra-Nehemiah makes a concerted effort to make sense of the political dislike other nations have for the Jews. The explanation of this is rooted in the other peoples feeling like the Jews have a superiority complex. The Jews (the tribe of Judah) believe, as the last surviving tribe of Israel (with Benjamin and Levi), that it is their duty to remain pure physically and religiously in order to bring back the blessing of the Davidic kingship and perfect worship of God with his presence in the temple. As the Jews return to the land, Ezra-Nehemiah reveal a startlingly strong conviction that Jews must be separate from other peoples. Other peoples are neither allowed to help them build the temple in Jerusalem or possibly worship in it.[17] What modern peoples would call “ethnocentrism” in a negative sense, Jews would have scoffed at. They would have explained that such ethnocentrism is not xenophobic, fear of other peoples, but based on their theological understanding of God’s teachings and their experiences through the Exile. While texts such as Jonah fight the Jews’ disdain for other people groups, especially their oppressors, it seems the general understanding of 2nd Temple theology was that Jews must be distinct from other people groups in order for God’s Abrahamic blessing to come to pass, which eventually bless other peoples someday.
  3. It is also interesting that the 2nd Temple and Jerusalem are rebuilt with imperial monies. [18] This is a major element to the Jewish political theology in Ezra-Nehemiah which teaches that all blessings of the empire for God’s people are actually God himself working through his creation to care for his people. The Jews did not have to revolt in order to return to the land and rebuild their home. Instead, God has moved the hearts of the emperors to give the land back to the Jews in peace and blessing.
  4. In the earliest years of the Return after the temple is rebuilt the Jews celebrate Passover in the land for the first time.[19] Here, Passover is depicted as an act that reflects purity and cleanliness, identity and allegiance as a part of God’s people, and a celebration of liberation from the Exile or at least God’s work to begin undoing it. The Passover that remembers the former slavery of Israel in Egypt becomes an overt celebration for God’s future liberation of his people who are in the midst the oppression of the Exile. No longer is Passover simply a meal of remembrance of the past, but through the Exile the Passover becomes a living and enacted memory that longs for a future re-fulfillment of God’s liberation.
  5. Fasting also seems to be taking on a more prominent and important position through the Exile as a special form of petitioning prayer and mourning over communal sin.[20] It is possible this was a necessary process. The reality of slave life is starvation and a lack of food for many. This real circumstance could be redeemed through the communal practice of devoting certain periods of eating to prayer and worship in order to prolong what few provisions were available and to reflect on God’s provision even in the midst of enslavement.
  6. Ezra-Nehemiah continues to reveal a strong connection in 2nd Temple theology between wrongly practiced sex and idolatry. This was a major concern for the Jews of the Return and since it has worked into itself into many compiled texts of the prophets at this point (much of the sex language in the prophets is rooted in texts from before the Exile but then explicitly used to limit Jewish sexual practice in the Return, like Hosea and Malachi) it is my estimate that the issue of sex will likely be a prominent feature in many Jewish writings.
  7. Along the lines of 2nd Temple theology on sex, Ezra’s reform of forced divorce and expulsion of non-Jews from Jewish families was surprisingly small in number. I’m inclined to believe the numbers that Ezra gives, and Nehemiah later when he addresses the issue again, because the portions of text seem to be official reports made by government officials.[21] The texts seem to be Jews being meticulously open about their communal sin. They do not want to hide anything lest they incur God’s judgment again through a lack of repentance. Also, the numbers are small. Nehemiah, while saying he knew of a plurality of Jews whom he had to confront, only gives one example of an expulsion in the Jerusalem leadership. I expect if this were a fictional account of reform it would have been inflated much more to make the Jews’ repentance seem even greater and the leadership of Ezra even more authoritative.
  8. The interweaving of first person narrative and third person narrative is interesting to recognize. It breaks the books into major sections and gives clues to how later Jewish editors compiled texts. Ezra 1-7:26 is not Ezra, then 7:27-9:15 seems to be Ezra’s personal account of coming to Jerusalem and finding out about the issue of Jews intermarrying other peoples, and then the text goes back to a narrator talking about Ezra for the rest of the book starting in 10:1. Nehemiah begins as Nehemiah’s own storytelling about how he was appointed governor and his work in Jerusalem, from 1:1-7:73. Then the text switches for a section to be a narrator talking about Ezra and Nehemiah from 8:1-12:26. But the end of Nehemiah returns to his voice, in 12:27 through the rest of the book, so that he is able to recount his final acts as governor. An enlightening study of Jewish compilation practice.
  9. Lastly, the thing that jumped out to me about Ezra-Nehemiah was the existence of the Law of Moses. Ezra comes to Jerusalem specifically to teach the people who had returned earlier to build the 2nd Temple.[22] It is likely that those who had returned to build the Temple knew of many of the stories found in the first five books of the Bible, but that these stories were not yet compiled in their final form until after the Return had begun. Having been completed as final form texts by the teacher-priests in the Exile, Ezra comes to Jerusalem to teach the Jews by reading the texts to them and interpreting it for them.[23] It is this time period I would connect to the final form of the Torah, the Law of Moses. The stories found in Genesis through Deuteronomy, sometimes alluded to in earlier prophets, have finally been  compiled together as a unit and are viewed as authoritatively inspired documents by the early-5th century BCE, which is shown in Ezra’s dedication to bringing the Law to his fellow Jews in and around Jerusalem circa 459 BCE.

 

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This post is a part of a Read-Through project in which I am reading through biblical and extra-biblical literature. I’m reading the texts in an order based on a couple of timelines I compiled. If you would like to join me on this journey the timelines are available, as well as my prior posts. Each one gives some historical background, a literary synopsis, and a few observations I found interesting enough to share about the examined text.

 

 


[1] John Goldingay, ed., The First Testament: A New Translation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 457.

[2] Ez. 8:1-18.

[3] Ez. 1:1-6:22.

[4] Ez. 1:2-4, 6:12.

[5] Ez. 7:6b, 27-28.

[6] Ez. 7:11-26.

[7] Ez. 9:10-15, 10:2; Neh. 13:23-27.

[8] Ez. 10:1-5

[9] Neh. 2:1-8.

[10] Neh. 6:15.

[11] Ez. 4:11-16; Neh. 6:6-9.

[12] Neh. 7:5-73

[13] Neh. 8:1-18

[14] Neh. 9:1-10:39

[15] Neh. 11:1-2.

[16] 12:27-13:30.

[17] Ez. 4:1-3; Neh. 13:1-3

[18] Ez. 1:4, 6:8-10, 7:21-24.

[19] Ez. 6:19-22.

[20] Ez. 8:21-23, 9:5, 10:6; Neh. 1:4, 9:1.

[21] Ez. 10:16-44; Neh. 13:23-31

[22] Ez. 7:6, 10.

[23] Neh. 8:1-8

Posted by Justin Gill

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