Hello and welcome to the show that explores the history and literature of the bible. This is not your father’s bible podcast! Unless you’re my daughter, in which case you can completely disregard the previous statement. This is going great so far! Anyway, welcome to BOOK.
This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. We’re coming to the end of our examination of the Hebrew Scriptures, and today we round a major corner. The last several scrolls in the Hebrew canon have focused on Israel (and more specifically, Judah) and its traumatic experience in exile over several generations. Book after book has offered stories, prayers and prophecies from the people of YHWH in their forced relocation to Babylon and later Persia. We’ve watched with anxious empathy as everything from the first half of the Hebrew Bible – all the laws, songs, hopes and dreams of the Israelites – have been called into question. How could a religion and a covenant so firmly rooted in a specific geographical location survive an exile that lasts several hundred years? Specifically, how could they survive without the temple – the religious, social, and economic center of Israel – OR the Torah – the laws and precepts designed specifically for life in the so-called “promised land.”
In today’s material, we’ll see exactly what happens when the scattered Israelites – now internationally known as “Jews” – find their way back to Jerusalem. And, somewhat typical of Hebrew stories and biblical literature in general, it’s not exactly what we’d expect.
Ezra and Nehemiah offer two separate accounts of Israel’s return from exile, but there is evidence that the two were compiled together in ancient collections and early Jewish tradition considered them a single book. They both appear to be pieced together from public records, census data, and first person accounts. The Ezra portion begins where the book of Chronicles left off, with an historic proclamation from then-emperor-of-the-world, King Cyrus of Persia. Here’s how the text begins:
1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, when the word of YHWH spoken by Jeremiah was fulfilled, YHWH roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm by word of mouth and in writing as follows:
2 “Thus said King Cyrus of Persia: YHWH God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Anyone of you of all His people — may his god be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah and build the House of YHWH God of Israel, the god that is in Jerusalem; 4 and all who stay behind, wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods, and livestock, besides the freewill offering to the House of God that is in Jerusalem.”
Cyrus decrees what the people of Israel and Judah have been dreaming of for centuries: the end of exile and return to Jerusalem. This is good news, to be sure, and yet it comes through an unsavory channel. Emperor Cyrus was surely not the Jews first choice for liberator (though we recall that he was mentioned by name in a prophecy of Isaiah), and his decree leaves us wondering how much “liberation” is really going on. Instead of returning home of their own accord after the vindicating defeat of the pagan Persian hordes, Israel will return with Persian funding and Cyrus taking credit for their good fortune. When Cyrus declares that Israel’s god has “given me all the kingdoms of the earth,” we cannot help but think of Daniel and his very pointed visions about such matters. We also learn in chapter one that Persia has appointed a “Prince of Judah” who has a very Persian name. This is far from ideal.
Still, the decree is made and the pathway home is cleared for about 50,000 descendents of the original Judah exiles. And the first order of business for the heads of households upon returning to Jerusalem is a fundraiser for the demolished Temple. Remember, the two demolished, geographically-specific pillars of Jewish identity were Temple and Torah, and the first of these is already being rebuilt.
In chapter three the Temple altar is rebuilt so sacrifices can resume and feasts can be observed. Keep in mind that these were not merely superstitious religious observances. Temple activities like sacrifices and feasts were the engine of Israel’s religious, economic, political and social life, and they had been cut off and suspended entirely for hundreds of years. This is a major milestone in the restoration of Jerusalem and the people now known as “Jews.” There is still something missing, however, but we’ll get to that later. For now, the Temple is rebuilt and the text says that the people rejoice, but the old men weep. Are these tears of nostalgia, of awe, or of world-weary wisdom? Could things ever be like they were before? Should things ever be like they were before?
In Ezra chapter four the leaders of “New Judah” encounter opposition from a group of local inhabitants, themselves descendants of exiles who had been relocated to the land of Judah by the Assyrian empire generations earlier. At first, these local strangers make overtures about teaming up with the Judahites and building a Temple where they too could sacrifice to their (presumably pagan) gods. When the returned exiles reply with an emphatic “no,” the strangers begin to harass the Jews and bribe local officials to make their lives difficult. They also write a letter of complaint against the Jews to the new Persian emperor Artaxerxes (whom we remember from the book of Esther, the events of which were unfolding at approximately the same time). The letter warns the king that should the “rebellious and wicked” city of Jerusalem be rebuilt, the Jews would surely stop paying tributes and taxes to the empire. In response Artaxerxes shuts down all reconstruction work, which won’t resume for 15 years, until the reign of King Darius, who discovers the old decree of Cyrus in the imperial archives and upholds it. And in chapter six the Temple is fully rebuilt and the family of returned exiles celebrates the Passover feast. Things are looking up.
Chapter seven introduces our titular subject, Ezra, a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron and an expert in Torah, who had come back to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes (one of several Artaxerxes, possibly the same person as King Darius in the previous chapter. It’s confusing). From this point the text shifts to a first person account by Ezra of his journey back to the land. On his way he assembles all the Levites he can find. Levites were descendants of the tribe of Levi who were designated as Israel’s priests. When Ezra and his band of priests arrive in Jerusalem, they make a series of offerings and then Ezra takes stock of the covenant community in light of Torah legislation. The result is one of the most awkward and – to our modern eyes and hearts – unpleasant episodes in the bible.
In chapter nine Ezra throws a fit because the returned exiles – including many of the priests – had nullified their covenant status by marrying foreign women. He prays a long and anguished prayer to YHWH about the intermarriage problem, begging him to forgive the people. It’s awkward enough that he prays this in front of the assembly of men and their foreign wives, but then in chapter ten those guilty of intermarriage are identified and shamed, and Ezra makes this plea:
2 … “We have trespassed against our God by bringing into our homes foreign women from the peoples of the land; but there is still hope for Israel despite this. 3 Now then, let us make a covenant with our God to expel all these women and those who have been born to them, in accordance with the bidding of YHWH and of all who are concerned over the commandment of our God, and let the Torah be obeyed. 4 Take action, for the responsibility is yours and we are with you. Act with resolve!”
This may not be as shocking to us as some of the more bloody and fatal episodes in the earlier Hebrew literature, but the forced breakup of thousands of marriages and the banishment of women and children is not the easiest pill to swallow. And you can imagine what kinds of awful things this particular passage has been taken out of context to justify. We can remind ourselves that ancient marriage was a very different institution from what we know. We can tell ourselves that these are primarily fertility arrangements designed to maintain family lineage. But none of that can really put a happy face on what is essentially the “purification” of the returned people of Judah, and the forced exclusion of thousands of women and kids.
I cannot spin this into a positive situation, and beware of anyone who tries to do that. Our job as readers and interpreters is first and foremost to understand what is happening in context. And what we essentially have here is a hard collision between the ideals of Torah and the reality of the exile. We’ve observed many times on BOOK that the best and only way to understand the Torah covenant is as the boundaries of identity for a specific group of people in a specific place at a specific time. For the returned exiles, desperate to reclaim their original identity as the people of this God in this land, a different type of sacrifice was deemed necessary.
Let’s summarize Ezra like this: The people of Judah return from exile and set up shop in their beloved city of Jerusalem. They have two primary orders of business: rebuild the Temple, and enact the Torah. The first one is vertical, it deals with their relationship with their God as they understand it. They encounter some opposition and suffer setbacks, but ultimately their patience pays off and the Temple is restored. The second task is horizontal, it involves their relationships with one another (which is the real essence of Torah). This task proves much more difficult, and the account ends, somewhat obtusely, with a roster of all the families which were divided on that occasion.
Well, I’m really glad our time together doesn’t end there, and now we can turn the page to Nehemiah. Here’s how the scroll begins:
1 The narrative of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah: In the month of Kislev of the twentieth year, when I was in the fortress of Shushan, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, together with some men of Judah, arrived, and I asked them about the Jews, the remnant who had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3 They replied, “The remnant who have survived the captivity there in the province are in dire trouble and disgrace; Jerusalem’s wall is full of breaches, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”
At this news Nehemiah weeps and prays a heartfelt prayer to YHWH begging for the restoration of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah, by chance, is the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes I, most likely the same Artaxerxes who sent Ezra back to the land in the previous text. Nehemiah convinces the king to send him back to Jerusalem with credentials to inspect the ruined city and oversee its reconstruction. The king agrees, and Nehemiah makes the journey to his true home. There he organizes and equips the returned exiles to rebuild, and puts them to work. Chapter three details the groups of men and women who worked on the city walls, and lists the gates they repaired one by one: the Sheep Gate, the Fish Gate, the Valley Gate, and so on.
As in Ezra’s account of the Temple reconstruction, a small group of unhappy locals organizes against the rebuilding of the wall. These men, led by Sanballat the Horonite, begin to taunt and discourage the workers. They plot to fight against the Jews in Jerusalem, while their mockery begins to seriously dampen morale. It gets so bad that (in chapter 4) Nehemiah reorganizes the workers into half-shifts, some working on the wall, the rest guarding them with swords and spears.
Then, in what we call chapter five, Nehemiah discovers injustice among the returned exiles, as the Jewish officials and nobles levy fat taxes with interest on the rest of the people. Nehemiah appeals to them as “Jewish brothers” and convinces them to abandon their schemes. He is appointed governor of Judah by the people, and he is so generous that he suspends his own salary to help the poor.
Meanwhile Sanballat and his cronies continue to plot against Nehemiah, conspiring to destroy his reputation, but he catches wind of their scheme and refuses to dignify their insults. They even threaten to warn King Artaxerxes of a coming Jewish rebellion. Then things get intriguey in chapter six when this happens:
10 Then I visited Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel when he was housebound, and he said, “Let us meet in the House of God, inside the sanctuary, And let us shut the doors of the sanctuary, for they are coming to kill you, By night they are coming to kill you.” 11 I replied, “Will a man like me take flight? Besides, who such as I can go into the sanctuary and live? I will not go in.” 12 Then I realized that it was not God who sent him, but that he uttered that prophecy about me — Tobiah and Sanballat having hired him — 13 because he was hired that I might be intimidated and act thus and commit a sin, and so provide them a scandal with which to reproach me.
Sanballat’s gang pays off a friend of Nehemiah’s to lure him into the Temple, where his inappropriate presence would have ruined his reputation (because he’s not a priest, you see). But Nehemiah’s increasingly apparent integrity ruins their plot.
The Jerusalem wall is rebuilt and the people rejoice and a census is taken. It’s one of those biblical moments that pretty boring for us, but meant a lot to the people. Remember back in the Torah when the wandering Hebrews finally arrived at the land of Israel? Since the generation who settled weren’t the same as the generation that had set out, genealogies and tribal lineage became the way for the new Israel to have continuity with the old. Same thing here. In fact, we’ll have more to say about the similarities between the return from exile and the Exodus soon enough.
In Nehemiah chapter eight, Ezra appears, and stands before the congregation of Jerusalem reading the Torah out loud. The people celebrate and cheer, and the priests walk among them explaining the text to them. We need to understand that this is much more than a religious service. These Jews have likely never heard the actual stories and terms of their ancient identity. This is like getting a crash course in who you really are. The joyous significance of this moment for the exile remnant cannot be overstated.
Next the people celebrate the Jewish Feast of Succoth or “Booths,” and Nehemiah takes the occasion (in chapter nine) to retell all of Israel’s history from Creation to Abraham to Egypt to Canaan all the way to the exile. The people, under the guidance of Ezra and the priests, decide to renew the ancient covenant for their own time with a document signed by all the elders and officials.
Most of the rest of Nehemiah is a compilation of priestly duties, lists, and rosters which remind us very much of – you guessed it – Torah. At the very end of the scroll, the people of Judah hold a dedication service for the rebuilt city, and in chapter thirteen Nehemiah enacts a few final reforms – like cleaning out the storerooms of the Temple, which the officials who had harassed Nehemiah were using as a personal storage facility. He rights a few injustices and (rather forcefully) warns the Jewish remnant not to intermarry with the surrounding people, lest they compromise their mission to fully recover their Israelite identity. Then Governor Nehemiah leaves his post to return to his post in the court of Artaxerxes. The scroll ends with him praying to YHWH: “please remember me, O God, for good.”
In one sense, Ezra and Nehemiah represent a sort of climax for the bible’s exile drama. And this explains why the events of the books (and the literary presentation of those events) is so liberally peppered with allusions to and echoes of the Exodus story. In a very real sense, this was a second Exodus.
And yet, there’s something of an anti-climax here as well. The entire affair is conducted under Persian imperial scrutiny, the number of returning exiles is notably small, and every step of the process is mired by conflict without and within the Jewish community. And there’s one giant thing missing from the triumphant return of God’s people to Jerusalem as imagined by the prophets: there’s not a whole lot of triumph, and not very much god for that matter. There is no scene, for example, where God’s glory “fills the Temple,” as in the original Temple accounts or in Ezekiel’s prophecy about the return to the land. And while the Torah is celebrated and embraced by the fledgeling community at Jerusalem, it also tears the peoples’ lives apart. Overall, a violent and somewhat disturbing homecoming.
Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor oversaw an often painful, sometimes joyous and ultimately hopeful new beginning for the people of Judah, but there’s a real sense the exile, for all practical purposes, isn’t over, and may not be over for a long time. This is an important new biblical tension, and a theme to which we will return in the Greek New Testament. Stay tuned.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at email@example.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.