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Old Testament: Ezra

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Summary

JerusalemEzra begins by seeing Cyrus's decree to release the exiles as the fulfillment of God's promise in Jeremiah 29:10 (Ezra 1:1-4). Three similarly structured episodes follow: return and reconstruction of the temple under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:5--6:22); return and reconstruction of the community under Ezra (7-10); and then, under Nehemiah, return and reconstruction of the walls (Nehemiah 1:1--7:73a). In each episode, return and reconstruction authorized by the Persian throne meet with opposition eventually overcome with God's help. The book of Ezra is concerned with the first two returns, the rebuilding of the temple, and Ezra's dealing with the social and religious difficulties that faced the community.

So What?

Ezra and Nehemiah are our only narrative source for the history of the restoration, 538 to 430 B.C.E. The postexilic period witnessed the reestablishment of the Jewish religious community in Jerusalem and the implementation of the Torah. Though the situations we face are quite different from those encountered by the postexilic community, both Ezra and Nehemiah provide many examples of hard work coupled with prayer and an unshakable faith in God as a formula for successful problem solving that is as relevant today as it was then.

Where Do I Find It?

Ezra is the fifteenth book of the Old Testament, coming immediately after 2 Chronicles and before Nehemiah.

Who Wrote It?

Jewish tradition identifies Ezra as the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Today, many scholars believe that Ezra and Nehemiah come from a different hand than Chronicles and that various older traditions have been gathered together and edited by a postexilic editor, though these may include an autobiographical section written by Ezra (7:27--8:34; 9:15).

When Was It Written?

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, separate works in English Bibles, appear as a single book in the earliest manuscripts, suggesting that they are best read and interpreted as a literary whole. The work was written in Judah, probably in Jerusalem after the return from Babylon, sometime during the Persian period (586-332 B.C.E.). Uncertain dates for Ezra and differing understandings of the compositional history of this material make precise dating impossible, though recent scholarship seems to favor a date somewhere in the first quarter of the fourth century B.C.E.

What's It About?

As the remnant of Israel, the returned exiles rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, and struggle to remain faithful to the law of Moses in the midst of foreign peoples.

How Do I Read It?

Ezra-Nehemiah looks like a history of the restoration. While important historical information is presented, Ezra-Nehemiah should be read as a theological, rather than a chronological, presentation of this formative period that saw the return of Israel from exile and the rebirth of God's people in the promised land. This is seen in the theological ordering of the final form of the text: the rebuilding of the temple, followed by the purification of the people, and the rebuilding of the walls, climaxing in the reading of the law.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

I.    Return under Zerubbabel and Reconstruction of the Temple (Ezra 1:1--6:22)
Released from Babylonian captivity by Cyrus, a remnant of the people returns under Zerubbabel and rebuilds the temple despite serious opposition from the surrounding peoples.

A.    Cyrus's Decree (Ezra 1:1-11)
After defeating the Babylonians, the Persian king Cyrus II allows the Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem, ending their exile.
B.    List of Returnees (Ezra 2:1-70)
This later insertion from the list in Nehemiah 7:6-69 assumes Zerubbabel led the returnees, not Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:7-11).
C.    The Altar Rebuilt and the Temple Foundations Are Laid (Ezra 3:1--4:24)
Some of the exiles return from Babylon with the temple vessels and rebuild the altar, reinstitute sacrifice, and lay the foundations of the temple that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.E., despite opposition.
D.    Rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 5:1--6:22)
Zerubbabel and Jeshua, with encouragement from the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, complete the rebuilding of the temple.

II.    Return under Ezra and Reconstruction of the Community (Ezra 7:1--10:44)
After securing permission from Artaxerxes, the Persian king, to return, Ezra brings a second group of returnees to Jerusalem--this time with worship leaders--and institutes extensive religious reforms.

A.    Ezra's Commission and Return (7:1--8:36)
Artaxerxes, king of Persia, commissions Ezra to lead a company of exiles back to Judah.
B.    Ezra Works to Reconstruct the Community (9:1--10:44)
Ezra learns about the community's lack of conformity with the law of Moses, especially evident in the marriage of Jews and non-Jews (9:1-4). He confesses this sin to God (9:5-15) and takes steps to end these marriages (10:1-44).

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

Though written a century later to help the Jewish community in Jerusalem understand their identity by describing the beginnings of Second Temple Judaism, the book of Ezra is situated in two separate historical settings that align with the two major sections of the book:

First, Ezra 1-6 describes the events of 539-515 B.C.E. Following his defeat of the Babylonians in 539, Cyrus II of Persia gave permission to the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Not all were eager to return. Those who did return rebuilt the altar and resumed the prescribed sacrifices, but the rebuilding of the temple lagged behind, despite offers of assistance from the surrounding peoples (Ezra 1-3). In 520 B.C.E., however, under the governorship of Zerubbabel and the prophetic leadership of Haggai and Zechariah, temple reconstruction was begun and finally completed in 515 (Ezra 4-6).

Then, Ezra 7-10 describes the activity of Ezra the scribe (458-430 B.C.E.), a priest commissioned by Artaxerxes I to rebuild the spiritual life of the Jewish community in the Persian province/satrapy of "Beyond the River"--Yehud (Judah)--and bring it into conformity with the law of Moses (Ezra 7). Two aspects of Ezra's mission are lifted up, the reading of the law that took place shortly after his arrival in 458 (Nehemiah 8) and his efforts to deal with the problem of mixed marriages (Ezra 9-10).

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

•    Date of Ezra's mission. The presence of two kings named Artaxerxes in Persia in the fifth century and the biblical text's ambiguity regarding them has led to a number of reconstructions of the ordering of the two reformers. The traditional view places Ezra in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I (458 B.C.E., Ezra 7:8), with Nehemiah arriving thirteen years later in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes's reign (445 B.C.E., Nehemiah 2:1). Others reverse this order to better explain certain difficulties in the text, such as why it took Ezra thirteen years to implement the mission designated by Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:25-26; 8:1-14) or how Nehemiah can be the contemporary of the high priest Eliashib (Nehemiah 3:1; 12:22; 13:4) when Ezra is a contemporary of Jehohanan, a priest who is also Eliashib's grandson (Ezra 10:6; Nehemiah 12:11). In this view, Nehemiah still arrives in 445, but Ezra comes later in the seventh year of Artaxerxes II (398 B.C.E.). Still others place Ezra's arrival before Nehemiah's but suggest that their missions overlapped. This is accomplished by altering the text of Ezra 7:8-9 from the "seventh year of the king" to the "twenty-seventh" or the "thirty-seventh." Recent opinion leans toward the traditional dating and order.

•    Order of the material. Many commentators are troubled by the placement of Ezra's reading of the law in the book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:73b--8:18) and seek to restore its proper placement in the Ezra memoir between Ezra 8 and 9, which better suits the chronological sequencing. While these verses probably have been taken from their original setting in Ezra and inserted into Nehemiah, scholars now ask theological rather than historical questions, such as why the move was made, and attempt to deal with the text as it now stands.

•    Original language. Ezra is unusual in that it contains sections written in the imperial Aramaic of the Persian Empire in addition to the standard Hebrew of the postexilic  period. The Aramaic sections include the official correspondence of the Persian rulers Artaxerxes and Darius about Jerusalem (4:8--6:18) and Artaxerxes's commission to Ezra (7:12-26).

•    Relation to Chronicles. Theological differences between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah have caused a revision of the view that Ezra, Nehemiah, and the books of Chronicles share common authorship and comprise the so-called "Chronicler's History." These differences include Chronicles' inclusive attitude toward the people of the northern kingdom; emphasis upon the Davidic monarchy; and concern with retributive justice--all essentially absent from Ezra-Nehemiah--as well as the differing understanding of "Israel" in the two works. In Chronicles, Israel is defined as all twelve tribes; Ezra-Nehemiah, however, limits Israel to Judah and Benjamin. Currently, most scholars suggest that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are separate literary entities.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

•    Fulfillment of prophecy. Jeremiah had prophesied a seventy-year exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10). Ezra 1:1 announces the fulfillment of that prophetic word. Since only sixty years have elapsed since the first deportation in 597 B.C.E. (2 Kings 24:12), we must assume this is an approximation.

•    God's providential hand. Ezra (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31) and Nehemiah (1:10; 2:8, 18) both claim that "the hand of our God" was upon them, directing their missions. This also becomes a fruitful way to speak of God's grace since "God's hand" is usually nudging those around the Jewish community to provide for them in caring ways. In five of the above references the Hebrew wording ("according to the hand of") is a technical expression for royal benevolence in each of its other canonical occurrences (1 Kings 10:13; Esther 1:7; 2:18). This may be a covert way of claiming that God is still king, despite the Persian rule of Yehud, and that it is God's grace and beneficence that sustains them.

•    Opposition. Both Ezra and Nehemiah encounter strong opposition to their work from the neighboring peoples. In Ezra, this is introduced in Ezra 3:3 with stronger opposition in 4:1-24. Ezra himself experienced opposition in the form of enemy attacks upon his caravan (8:31) and on his policy on mixed marriages (10:14-15).

•    Prayer. Both Ezra (9:6-15) and Nehemiah (1:5-11) pray. The long prayer in Nehemiah 9:6-37 is attributed to Ezra in the Septuagint and the NRSV, but more likely it is a prayer of the Levites. All three are prayers of confession. The Ezra and Nehemiah prayers begin with "I" statements that quickly move to "we" statements, showing how closely they identify with their people. The Levites' prayer is, obviously, the prayer of a group.

•    Return depicted as a second exodus. The exodus is recalled when the Babylonians provide the returnees with silver, gold, and other gifts (Ezra 1:4, 6), much as the Egyptians had done (Exodus 3:21-22; 11:2; 12:35-36); the "freewill offering" of materials for the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra 2:68-69 recalls a similar response for the erection of the tent of meeting in Exodus 35:21-29. The use of the passive verb (a technical term for "the exodus") in the phrase "when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:11b, emphasis added) recalls God's words to Moses at the first exodus: "Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 33:1a, emphasis added). Ezra's decision to leave on the "first day of the first month" (Ezra 7:9) is another allusion to the exodus. Second Isaiah also spoke of the return as a second exodus with similar vocabulary (43:14-21; 48:20-21; 51:10-11; 52:12).

Depicting the return as a second exodus also encourages comparison and lifts up several contrasts between the two events. For example, though all the Israelites left in the exodus, this time only those who responded to God's "stirring" returned (Ezra 1:5). In the exodus, the people left for a promised land where they would establish their own government; those returning from Babylon went to a ravaged land under Persian control. The "plundering" of the Egyptian jewelry in Exodus 12:36 contrasts with the "gifts" from the exiles' neighbors that are offered to help them (Ezra 1:6).

•    Separation. Ezra-Nehemiah sees the community as a holy people situated in a holy city (Ezra 8:28; 9:8). Ezra 7-10 emphasize that the true people of God were those Judeans who had returned from Babylonian exile and their descendants. Thus, the people are called to separate themselves from the other nations (6:21; 9:1; 10:11) or they will be separated (NRSV, "banned from," but the same Hebrew verb) from the congregation of the exiles (Ezra 10:8). This call for separation already appears in Ezra 1-6 when the overtures of foreign worshipers of Yahweh are rejected (4:1-3). Noteworthy for its apparent lessening of such strictures is the welcoming of other Judeans who were willing to adopt the beliefs of the returnees in 6:21. The most graphic example of separation occurs in the matter of mixed marriages.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament