(Introductory note: I’ve been reading the Bible in Spanish as a means of learning a bit of Spanish—the Bible I use has the Spanish and English side-by-side in the text—and figured that in addition to learning some Spanish, I ought use the exercise to learn a bit about what I’m reading. I read roughly a chapter per day. I’m going to try, at the end of each book–starting with this one–to write a quick synopsis of the book’s contents. But in English. I am a long way from being able to write in Spanish.)
Conclusions about Ezra
Ezra was the Donald Trump of his day. He sought to make Jerusalem and the Jewish nation great again. Living as a learned and powerful Jewish scribe in Babylon, he likely compiled and recorded the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy), Joshua, 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings and Ruth in a bid to create a seamless narrative of Jewish history, combining the extant fragments of written history with oral myths and legends, the aim being to bind the rapidly assimilating Jewish people to their past such that they didn’t lose their identity in the present.
His is a chronicle of xenophobia, from Zerubbabel refusing to allow the locals to help in rebuilding the temple, to Ezra himself admonishing Jews in Jerusalem whom he’d found upon arrival had intermarried. The book provides a revealing example of the attitudes that animated ancient Jewry, especially after the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Given Ezra’s treatment of the locals in the narrative of his titular book, the claim that he wrote the Torah and other books of historical narrative in order that the identity of the Jewish people might be preserved against assimilation seems quite plausible.
Ezra in Context
Ezra was a prominent scribe and Jewish leader in Persian-ruled Babylon, some hundred and fifty years after the Babylonian exile (circa 586 bce) and over a century after the fall of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s successors to Cyrus (circa 539 bce), King of Persia, and the Persian King’s proclamation that the descendants and remaining remnant of Nebuchadnezzar’s captives were free (perhaps ordered) to return to Jerusalem for the rebuilding of the Temple. The book covers the period from Cyrus’ edict to Ezra’s leading of a second wave of exiles to Jerusalem from Babylon, so is something like the Chronicles that precede it, in that it is a historical narrative. However, to call the Jews in Babylon exiles or captives during the time in question mischaracterizes their situation—Babylon’s Jews were fully integrated in Babylonian society–allowed to marry, have families and own property and businesses. And to call their emigration to Jerusalem a “return” similarly mischaracterizes things (also, possibly for dramatic effect). By Ezra’s time, the Jews in Babylon were a half-dozen or more generations removed from the original exiles King Nebuchadnezzar had taken captive upon his destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. They were returning to a place they’d never been before.
Baruch de Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher of 17th century Amsterdam, relying and expanding upon the observations of ibn Ezra, a 12th century Rabbi and philosopher, believed that Ezra, not Moses or Joshua, either wrote or compiled much of the historical narrative in the Hebrew Bible, including not least, the Torah. That Moses didn’t write the Torah is a view that has gained fairly-widespread acceptance today. It is known that Ezra was a leading scribe and compiler of biblical texts in Babylon during the time of Artaxerxes and Darius. And that Ezra was sent to Jerusalem by King Artaxerxes of Persia to administer the land under the auspices of the Torah and other texts as a means of strengthening the Jewish people so that they might serve as a buffer against Persian foes.
The Book begins with Cyrus freeing the Babylonian Jews nominally being held captive so that they might return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. The decree instructs Jews wherever they may be found to offer up support for the endeavor, which was provided to the tune of 5,400 articles of gold and silver. The work got started under the supervision of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Some of the people rejoiced at the laying of the foundation, but the ones who knew of the earlier temple’s foundation wept bitterly.
Then, “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (actually, and hereafter, the “locals”) came and asked to help rebuild the temple, for, as they claimed, they had been sacrificing for Yahweh since the time of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria, who had brought them to Palestine. Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the Jewish leadership refused. So the locals tried to prevent the rebuilding by discouraging the Jews and instilling fear in them.
Several decades passed and several kings succeeded to the Persian throne until the locals wrote to the then-reigning King Artaxerxes, telling him that the Jews were rebuilding that “rebellious and wicked [Jerusalem]” and that once the project was completed, he would never see any more taxes, tribute or duty paid by the Jews. The locals then exhorted Artaxerxes to research his palace records so that he might know why the city was destroyed in the first place.
The King replied with a letter telling the Jews to immediately cease work.
Then Haggai and Zechariah exhorted the people to build anyway. When they were called to task for it, the reigning governor of Trans-Euphrates, Tattenai, confronted them and sent a letter to the new Persian King, Darius, which included the reply Haggai and Zechariah gave him—that if the King searched his archives, he would find that King Cyrus gave them permission to rebuild when he originally sent the Jews back to Jerusalem.
King Darius allowed the rebuilding, and warned Tattenai that he should not impede, but rather, help them. He gave the Jews both license to build and the resources to do it. The Temple was completed shortly afterward, by the sixth year of Darius’ reign.
Then the story is told of Artaxerxes (presumably the predecessor of Darius) ordering Ezra and whomever he wished to accompany him, to go to Jerusalem, “to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand”. He was to take with him the gold and silver that the King had given the God of Israel, along with any freewill offerings of the people, and any that may be provided from the province of Babylon, to do with as he saw fit. He further orders all the treasurers of the Trans-Euphrates to provide Ezra with whatever he might ask of them, and to refrain from taxing any of the Temple officials. Finally, he gives Ezra authority to administer justice under the laws of Ezra’s God and the laws of the King.
Ezra arrives with his retinue of priests, Levites, etc., and makes the requisite sacrifices and offers up the requisite prayers. He then admonishes the Jews for having intermarried with the locals, and compels them to confess of their sins and divorce their spouses, renouncing any children they might have had with them.