This entry focuses on the introduction (Ezra 1:1-2:70) and first step (Ezra 3:1-6:22) of the first half of Ezra-Nehemiah. These chapters cover material before the namesakes Ezra or Nehemiah appear on the scene. Some would argue that the whole of this section is a historical introduction to the book. Curiously though the census of Ezra 2 is largely repeated in the introduction to the second half of Ezra-Nehemiah (cf. Nehemiah 7). This observation supports the outline of the book suggested by Doug Green that we are following in these posts. Should you take some time to study this book and these posts you will find that this is all helpful background when it comes to the understanding of the New Testament. I would suggest thinking of this material as you read this today in light of the way that we are the house of God — both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ.
Doug Green calls Ezra 1:1-2:70 the introduction to the first chapter of Ezra-Nehemiah. It begins with the decree of Cyrus king of Persia to have the people of God return from exile and rebuild ”the house of YHWH” (Ezra 1:3,7) or ”the house of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:4). It is also called in these verses ”the house of YHWH that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:5). And Cyrus the Persian brought out the items that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and put in the house of his gods (Ezra 1:7ff). The text even includes the inventory of those items that were given to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. Here in Ezra 1 it is clear that Cyrus the king of Persia has in mind a temple building project. He is thinking of the building in Jerusalem where the priests offered sacrifices and such. One might expect then, as is often noted, that you might think the book would be over when the task of rebuilding the temple was complete. However, as Green says, ”But by weaving together the two different accounts of Gentile opposition, the author effectively redefines Cyrus’s [sic] intentions.” What happens is that the phrase ”house of God” begins to be defined much more broadly to the whole of Jerusalem in Ezra 3. Green says, ”Note also that the rebuilding of the city is described in terms of the restoration of its walls and foundations (Ezra 4:12-16). This is important for the development of the narrative because it creates the expectation that the ‘house of God’ cannot be completed until those walls are rebuilt.” However, since we do not have in view only the building of the house of God in terms of an empty building but also in terms of a people to fill it, Ezra 2 then gives us a census of the people. I’m thinking that this prepares us to expect the possibility that the ”house of God” is not really complete until spiritual walls are built. In terms of the event, it is just a census of those who can now return from captivity. But I would expect to see that this will be redefined later when we are talking about these same people.
There are some interesting notes in this boring census. The ESV puts the census in paragraphs reflecting the categories involved. Thus Ezra 2:2b-35 covers ”the number of the men of the people [i.e., laity] of Israel,” then Ezra 2:36-39 covers ”the priests,” then Ezra 2:40-42 ”the Levites,” Ezra 2:43-54 ”the temple servants,” Ezra 2:55-57 ”the sons of Solomon’s servants.” Ezra 2:58 sums up the previous two paragraphs – ”All the temple servants and the sons of Solomon’s servants were 392.” But the next paragraph is the most interesting of the chapter to me. ”The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, 652. Also, of the sons of the priests: the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name). These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor…” (Ezra 2:59-63). It appears then that there is already a concern in the book for well-defined boundaries of those who are in Israel and those who are not. This emphasis on genealogy, however, points this book in a trajectory for a head-on collision with the transformation that will take place in the New Testament. This being said, there is no indication that they were excluded from Israel (only the priesthood).
The census is largely repeated in the introduction to the second ”chapter” of Ezra-Nehemiah – that is, Nehemiah 7 repeats much of Ezra 2. This is a clear case of recapitulation. Such recapitulation, AT LENGTH even, reinforces the helpfulness of Green’s outline of the book of Ezra-Nehemiah into two ”chapters.” Of course, this is not to suggest that there are not minor differences between the two lists. Also, speaking of Ezra 2, one commentary says, ”That this extensive accumulation of names and numbers is an amalgamation of lists is recognized by all students of the material and is clearly evident from the fact that some are oriented by families, others by localities, and still others by classes” (Jacob Myers, Anchor Bible). Unlike such lists in the Torah, I am not aware of any particular patterns in these lists or any particular significance to the numbers mentioned. Nevertheless, the list does show that God is faithful in preserving His people. The introduction comes to a conclusion when some of the heads of families came to the house of YHWH and made freewill offerings and the offering total is noted and then the text tells us, ”Now the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel in their towns” (Ezra 2:70).
Doug Green calls, Ezra 3:1-6:22 the first step. The major theme of this first step is the rebuilding of the temple and city walls. The timing is the symbolic seventh month when ”the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem” (Ezra 3:1). And we see cooperation between the political and priestly leaders: ”Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God” (Ezra 3:2). What follows then is the observance of the feast of booths, ”but the foundation of the temple of YHWH was not yet laid. So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 3:6b-7).
The next verse is then set in the second year after coming to the house of God at Jerusalem in the second month. Zerubbabel and Jeshua are still taking the lead and appoint Levites to supervise the work on the ”house of YHWH.” This gives way to a worship service with music, ”according to the directions of David king of Israel.” Ezra 3 ends talking about the some people praising YHWH with shouts of joy and some people weeping at the sight of the foundation of this house being laid. Those who wept were those that had seen the Solomonic Temple.
Ezra 4 begins the story of the Gentile opposition to this rebuilding work. They are characterized from the beginning as ”enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1). Judah and Benjamin were the two tribes that made up the southern kingdom whose leaders had been taken into exile by the Babylonians. These enemies said to Zerubbabel, ”Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here” (Ezra 4:2b). This gives us a reminder of the policies of the different empires. The Assyrians carried off the northern kingdom of Israel into exile and moved other people into the region later called Samaria. The Babylonians carried off the southern kingdom of Judah into exile. The Persians moved those carried off into exile back to their homelands and thus were seen as liberators by those exiled by the Babylonians and Assyrians. In any case, the situation has gotten very messy. There were people in the area that had been relocated there by the Assyrians but chose to stay.
”But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, ‘You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to YHWH, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us” (Ezra 4:3). The text does not allow us to interpret these Gentiles in a gracious way – they are evil and the people of God want nothing to do with them. And sure enough they cause delays and even get the work to cease for a time.
Ezra 5 begins, ”Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, and supporting them” (Ezra 5:1-2). Once again there was opposition, but King Darius made a decree that Cyrus’ decree be carried out. The ”house” was completed in the 6th year of King Darius.
The one major curious question of this first step would be, ”Why did King Artaxerxes order the rebuilding of Jerusalem to come to a halt and then King Darius allow them to resume?” Moreover, why would they even let them rebuild the walls of Jerusalem later? Surely the danger that the Gentile opposition had noted (Ezra 4:13) if they were rebuilt might still be true. The Dillard-Longman introduction, if I’m understanding its contention right, says that the reason for a later king to desire a strengthened Jerusalem is that the Egyptians had revolted and the Greeks were a threat to the region.
Next in Ezra 6 is a dedication service for the house of God with joy and the priests and Levites were set in their divisions for the service of God at Jerusalem, ”as it is written in the Book of Moses” (Ezra 6:16-18). The next account is that of the people celebrating Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In this way the first step comes to an end. Given the narrow meaning of ”house of God” at the beginning, we might have expected the book to conclude here. However, we are just getting started. While the book is about the community, we have not even met Ezra or Nehemiah yet.