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Passage: Ezra 7:1-8:36

Ezra 7:1-8:36 – Ezra’s Commission and Return

Summary

In 458 B.C.E., fifty-eight years after the dedication of the temple, Ezra leads a caravan consisting primarily of temple personnel from Babylon to Jerusalem.

Analysis

In this section we see the second of the great returns. Just as the first return was structured around the decree of Cyrus that allowed the exiles to return home and rebuild the temple, this second return is structured around the decree of Artaxerxes that calls for all Jews to obey the law of Moses.

Most important, this passage demonstrates Ezra's unique qualifications for his mission. First of all, he is included in the Aaronide line of priests and thus authorized to perform sacrifice and conduct temple worship, though nowhere is it said that Ezra functioned as high priest (7:1-5). Second, Ezra was a scribe, that is, someone trained in the interpretation of the law (7:6). This important qualification means that Ezra could function as an authoritative link to Israel's preexilic past, reinterpreting the law of Moses for a community no longer under the auspices of a Davidic ruler. Finally, Ezra enjoyed the favor of God (7:6, 9).

Ezra also enjoyed the favor of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, the present ruler of the province of Judah (7:12-26). Artaxerxes's commissioning of Ezra includes a description of the contributions for the temple (7:15-24) and a royal decree to reestablish the people based upon the "law of your God" (7:13-15, 25). The people are thus asked to define themselves as part of the Jewish community by their acceptance of the Torah. Since the leaders of the community were authorized by the emperor through Ezra, the officially recognized religion of Judah was what we know as Second Temple Judaism. Persian law permitted the observance of both local law ("the law of your God") and the law of the Persian Empire.

The account of the return itself begins with a list of those who accompanied him (8:1-14). A three-day stay at the Ahava River provides the occasion for Ezra's examination of the fifteen hundred males in the company, where he discovers that there are no Levites present (vv. 15-20). No reason is given for this crisis; perhaps the Levites were aware of the inferior status they would have in the new order and either resented the curtailment of their duties or preferred the lack of liturgical responsibility they had in Babylon. Ezra realized that their presence was necessary, at least for a symbolic representation of all Israel, and he successfully persuaded thirty-eight Levites and 220 temple servants to join the company.