Friday, May 5, 2017

Bible in a Year: Ezra and Nehemiah

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’ve been studying Ezra and Nehemiah. Originally one book, they tell the story of Judean exiles returning to the land following Cyrus’ decree, from about 539 BCE to about 432 BCE. The final verses of 2 Chronicles, about Cyrus’ decree, are repeated almost verbatim as the first verses of Ezra—so the story continues.

We are now about 1500 years after Abraham--and God's promise to give him and his wife many descendants and land. What a history followed!--years of Egyptian slavery, escape from Egypt, the Sinai covenant, the construction of the tabernacle, the years of wilderness, the conquest of the land under Joshua, the uncertain period of the judges, establishment of a monarchy, the adventures of David, the establishment of Jerusalem as David's city, Solomon's construction of the temple, the divided kingdom and the conquest of Israel, the ministry of the prophets, King Josiah's reforms, the destruction of the temple and the exile of the people, and now the restoration of the people to the land thanks to the Persian king's decree.

It's important to realize how great is Cyrus in biblical imagination: he was considered mashiach, "anointed one" or Messiah, in some of the early post-exilic traditions. Isaiah 44:28 refers to him as "[God's] shepherd" and as mashiach in 45:1. A rabbi friend tells me that Jews of the time considered Cyrus as such a king because he overthrew the people's enemies (the Babylonians), facilitated the people's return to the land and the restoration of their religion, and also he set the stage for their eventual self-rule on the land under a Davidic king.

It's also important to realize that the Jews saw their exile and restoration in both literal and metaphorical ways. For instance, the Chronicler interprets the history as a series of exiles (corresponding to different deportations at the end of the pre-exilic period), and two different kinds of literal restorations: the return of the people to the land, and also the return of the Davidic monarchy (Leslie C Allen, in the introduction to Chronicles in the New Interpreter's Bible, p. 301). But the Chronicler also thinks of the exile in metaphorical terms: as the symbolic homelessness of a faithful remnant, that will be followed by a glorious restoration. We find this metaphorical sense in other places of the Bible: the hope reflected in Psalms 85 and 126, the way Daniel 9 depicts the exile as lasting not 70 years but 70 times 7, and the prayers in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 (pp. 302-303). This metaphorical use is crucially important for the ongoing history of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity.

But the Chronicler and the authors of Ezra-Nehemiah depict differently the characteristics of this faithful remnant. For the latter, the Judeans must be a separate people focused upon obedience to the Lord’s Torah; for instance, the men must divorce their foreign wives and send them and their children away. The Chronicler has a more inclusive vision, often referring to “all Israel” that includes the break-off northern tribes and lauding Hezekiah’s efforts at reunification. Yet the Chronicler also affirmed Jerusalem as the place of true worship, so “the chronicler steered a middle course between separatist and assimilationist parties…” (pp. 305-306, quotation on 306).


The following is based on my article, “Ezra and Nehemiah: Bringing a People Home” in Adult Bible Studies, 11:4 (June-July-Aug. 2003), 2-4. Many thanks for the editor at the time, Eleanor Moore.

The two books contain Ezra’s memoir (7:27-9:15), third person stories about him, and Nehemiah’s memoir (1:1-7:73a, 11:1-2, 12:27-43, 13:4-31). Interestingly, although the two men are mentioned together in Neh. 8:9, their memoirs have little or no acknowledgment of one another, making some scholars wonder if, somehow, the chronology of the biblical text has become confused. It's also interesting that, although personal letters are such a major part of the New Testament, the Old Testament has very few, with the exception of Ezra and Nehemiah, where we find some of these texts.

The book of Ezra begins with Cyrus’ decree that allowed the Judea's to return to the land from exile. Chapter 1-2 provide an encapsulated account of the members of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and Levites with some of the Temple vessels and utensils. According to Ez. 2:64, 42,360 exiles, plus singers, servants, and livestock, returned, lead by Sheshbazzar and then Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah particularly extol Zerubbabel* as a great Davidic king, although in Ezra-Nehemiah, he disappears from the narrative after a few chapters. The people give thanks to God, and construction on a new temple begins (2:68-3:13). Samaritans offered to help with the temple construction, but the Judea's refused their help, and construction ceased for a while. By about 520 BCE, however, construction resumed, and it was dedicated in about 515 BCE (Ez. 4-6).

Priest and scholar Ezra himself came upon the scene in about 458 BCE, with a new group of Judeans. Ezra was a descendant of Aaron and of Zadok (Ez. 7:1-5) and was the son of Seraiah (2 Kings 25:18-21). On arriving to the land, Ezra was heartbroken that so many of the men have foreign wives. He calls the people to confession at the temple, and in time, the foreign wives and the children are sent away (Ezra 7-10). Seemingly Ezra was so eager to make this happen, that the people had to remind him that they were all standing in the rain listening to him and had to devote additional time to set these divorces in motion (Ez. 10:17). As Rabbi Telushkin points out (Biblical Literacy, 389), it's too bad no one seems to have thought to allow the wives and children into the community through conversion.

Back in Babylon, Nehemiah is a cupbearer to the king. While Ezra as an outstanding, trustworthy and pious leader (Ez. 8:16-18, 25-34), Nehemiah is also a noticeably prayerful leader, constantly offering his work to God and seeking God’s guidance. Prayers like Neh. 1:8-10 are lovely in their intercessory concern and humility. Nehemiah asks King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem to help rebuild Jerusalem and its walls. The king does indeed allow him to return. Nehemiah arrives in about 445 BCE and begins his work. (The events of chapter 13 are a little later, from about 432 BCE.) In spite of opposition and economic distress, Nehemiah and the people are able to rebuild the city walls (Neh. 3-7). Chapter 7 recaps the many people who returned from exile—with variations of names and numbers compared to the account in Ezra chapter 2. We find more names in Neh 11-12.

Other good things happen in these two books. Ezra reinstated festivals like Pesach (Ez. 6:19-22) and Sukkoth (Neh. 8:13-18). Nehemiah reinstated the Sabbath (10:31, 13:15-22), support of the priests (Neh. 13:10-14), support of the temple (10:32-39) and related reforms. The reading and subsequent study of the scroll of Teaching (Neh. 8) is one of the great moments in Bible history.

So is the construction of the Second Temple on the place of Solomon’s. The new temple marks a new era for God’s people, wherein they refocus upon devotion to God—and become a people characterized by worship, righteousness, and mitzvot rather than the rulership of a monarchy. The new era isn’t without poignancy, as we read in Ezra 3:10-13.

"When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,

‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’

And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away."

An African American preacher, whom I heard a few years ago, calls this passage, “the Gospel shout and the blues moan.” In such situations, both are necessary--praise for the blessings of God, and grief at what has passed.


In the Protestant Old Testament, Nehemiah is followed by Esther, then Job. It’s worth noting that, at this point in the Bible, some churches include additional, apocryphal books. In the Roman Catholic Old Testament, Nehemiah is followed by Tobit and Judith, then Esther, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. In the Eastern Orthodox Old Testament, the order is 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Nehemiah, Tobit, Judith, and Esther, then 1, 2, and 3 Maccabees.

Ezra is so significant, that other books carry his name. The apocalyptic book 2 Esdras is called 4 Esdras in the Roman Catholic apocrypha. Although this 2 Esdras/4 Esdras is an apocryphal book, some Roman Catholic Bibles refer to Ezra and Nehemiah as 1 and 2 Esdras. To make things more confusing, Eastern Orthodox Bibles name Ezra-Nehmiah as 2 Esdras, with 1 Esdras being an ancient Greek version that is nearly the same text as Ezra (which, as part of the Hebrew Bible, is originally Hebrew and Aramaic)---and this Greek 1 Esdras is called 3 Esdras in the Roman Catholic apocrypha.

Ezra is crucially important for Judaism. The faith of Judaism (the faith of Judah) really begins at this time: the faith devoted to Yahweh via the Torah. Ezra was a priest but also "a kind of proto-Rabbi who also has the authority of a prophet," establishing priniciples of Torah interpretation that are "at the heart of rabbinic interpretation" (Jewish Study Bible, 1670). See also these informative articles: The Talmud states that "Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah for Israel had not Moses preceded him" (Sanhedrin 21b), and his public reading of the Torah "democratized" Judaism's heritage, "making it as much the posses of the common laborer as of the priest" (Biblical Literacy, 388)

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible also contrasts Ezra and Nehemiah as biblical examples of professional religious workers and faithful laity. The prayerfulness and humility of Nehemiah--who doesn't necessarily seek appreciation but does want to be remembered---is also a lovely example for all of us (p. 683).

Finally: a personal shout-out to a distant relative, Ezra Griffith (1789-1860), one of the early settlers of my home area around Brownstown, Illinois. I've never met anyone named Ezra but at one time it wasn't an uncommon first name. One of Ezra's descendants, Chester Griffith, was a Brownstown friend of my grandmother's and got me interested in Sunday school attendance as a kid because he (Chester) had fifty years of perfect attendance.

* Although the genealogies of Mathew and Luke are from different sources than 1 Chronicles, Zerubbabel is listed in both gospels as an ancestor of Jesus.

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