Ezra and Nehemiah originally constituted one book, so it works to treat them together. Let’s review the timeframe and story here.
586– Babylonian destruction of Temple, the walls of Jerusalem, and beginning of the Exile to Babylon. Although it is probably a more complex issue, this event, in my mind at least, constitutes the historical dividing line between “Israelites” and “Jews.” The events of the Exile change the culture and religion, pushing it to develop in the direction we see afterwards, in Ezra, Nehemiah, and the other post-exile books, as well as in the New Testament. If it’s helpful, think of the Exile as a “reboot” of Judaism.
539– Leading a Mede/Persian alliance, Cyrus the Great defeats the Babylonian army and enters the capital without bloodshed. He thus inherits the Babylonian empire, and will expand eastward it all the way to India and the edge of Kazakhstan. His son Cambyses will extend it westward to Egypt. The Persian Empire is sometimes termed Achaemenid, after its founder. (See the 16-page article here from the Anchor Bible Dictionary.)
538– In accordance with Persian policy, which maintained power by tolerance rather than cruelty or resettlement as Babylon and Assyria did, Cyrus issues a decree allowing the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the temple with royal funds. This is referred to several times in the Bible (and may well account for Cyrus being named as God’s messiah or anointed one in Isaiah). As it turns out, we also have a similar text from Cyrus himself, known as the Cyrus cylinder. Whether Cyrus made a separate specific decree for the Jews or they interpreted this one narrowly, we don’t know. I’ve posted the whole thing here, below is an excerpt, with the most relevant part italicized.
… I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, (of an) eternal line of kingship, whose rule Bel (i.e., Marduk) and Nabu love, whose kingship they desire for their hearts’ pleasure…. When I entered Babylon in a peaceful manner, I took up my lordly reign in the royal palace amidst rejoicing and happiness…. From [ Ninev]eh (?), Ashur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, Zamban, Meturnu, Der, as far as the region of Gutium, I returned the (images of) the gods to the sacred centers [on the other side of] the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been abandoned for a long time, and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned (to them) their dwellings. COS 2.124
Cyrus demonstrates his piety by respecting the gods and “returning the images of the gods” and peoples to their respective temples and lands, which also turns out to be a great appeasing policy for the peoples he conquered.
530-522 Zerubbabel is governor in Yehud/”Judea”, and the work on temple has probably begun. This is why it is sometimes called Zerubabbel’s Temple, in distinction from Solomon’s Temple (destroyed in 586) and Herod’s Temple (which is Zerubabbel’s temple, but greatly enlarged, decorated, etc. Think of Herod’s Temple as the HGTV version of Temple Remodeling.) Note, though, sources that say Zerubbabel began the temple are not contemporary.
There seems to be a good deal of confusion in the traditions associated with Zerubbabel, indicating that the details of his life and career were obscure to the later generations that passed on the history of the Return. Much about him, therefore, remains a mystery to us. One tradition suggests he was involved in an early attempt to rebuild the temple in the time of Cyrus (Ezra 3:1–4:4), but this appears to contradict the (Aram.) letter to Darius of 5:7–17, which attributes such an earlier attempt to Sheshbazzar (5:16). It also seems to conflict with the evidence of the book of Haggai that in 520 BCE the temple was in ruins (Hag 1:4) and that Zerubbabel as governor, together with Joshua as high priest, began its rebuilding at that time under the influence of the prophet Haggai.”- NIDOTTE, “Zerubbabel”
516– A much less glorious Jerusalem temple is finished and dedicated. While a joyous occasion, those returnees old enough to remember the glories of Solomon’s temple weep at the difference (Ezra 3:12-13.)
458– Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, which means that the information provided in the Book of Ezra about the early Return period is traditional, oral, etc. Ezra is not one of the very first back on the scene in Jerusalem after Cyrus decree, nor is Nehemiah, and their books thus include a lot more than just their “memoirs,” as the Jewish Study Bible terms them. Ezra descends from a priestly family, and is trained as a scribe, which means he becomes heavily involved in legal/religious issues that are plaguing the returnees.
445- Nehemiah, cupbearer to the Persian king, hears that the Jewish recolonization is not going well. He begs permission to return to Jerusalem, and the king sends him with officers of the army and cavalry (Neh. 2:9). This is roughly 85 years after Cyrus’ decree and the initial return, and 70 years after the dedication of the temple. As a royal official, but neither scribe nor priest, Nehemiah occupies a different part of society and has different goals than Ezra. (NB: this is not the same Nehemiah listed in Ezra 2:2, who returns to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel in 538.) Nehemiah “was a successful man of action. Through his energy, unselfishness, and cleverness he brought new life to the dying Jewish community in Jerusalem” (ABD, “Nehemiah.”) He builds the walls and gates of Jerusalem, resolves an economic crisis, and is eventually appointed governor of Yehud. In that capacity, he sets a generous example, essentially working for no minimal pay and not taking advantage of his position.
“Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah… neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people, and took food and wine from them, besides forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. Indeed, I devoted myself to the work on this wall, and acquired no land; and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover there were at my table one hundred fifty people, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations around us. Now that which was prepared for one day was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and every ten days skins of wine in abundance; yet with all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because of the heavy burden of labor on the people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” (NRSV, Neh 5:14ff)
One of the big themes is the conflict between those who are “returning” and those who stayed behind, as well as those Persians who run the province. The vast majority of those who “return” are a bit like Jacob in the book of Mormon; they were born outside of Jerusalem, outside of Israel, and never saw it in its glory. They are probably 2nd or even 3rd generation Jews born and raised in Babylon, thus “returning” somewhere they have never lived, going back to their grandparents homeland.
Another theme is the big loss of continuity with the past, and the “historical” nature of Israelite religion at this point. The status on the ground is different than it has been. There is no temple, no palace, no Davidic king. Israelite religion is no longer a largely unmediated tradition augmented by free-floating prophets, things have not continued the way they always have. It now has written scripture, “professional” and competing interpreters, a variety of issues around identity. Ezra/Nehemiah goes out of the way to undermine or heal this loss of continuity to the past, by repeatedly emphasizing that things are being done as they were in the past (as mediated by written scripture and scribes), that Ezra is a legitimate interpreter of the law and a new Moses in a sense. There’s a sense in which they now think that there was a golden age, The Good Old Days Before, and they try to recapture it and return to it.
Questions of identity and conflict come together in several places. We meet, for the very first time, the Samaritans. These are Israelites who were not hauled off by the Assyrians in 720, but have intermarried with all the other groups that Assyria resettled in the northern kingdom. They’re glad to see (from their perspective) fellow Jews return home and start rebuilding God’s temple and city. What’s the response? “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.” (Ezra 4:3). That doesn’t sit well, and the Samaritans start undermining and opposing their building.
In some ways, the issues here are common issues to every mixed congregation. We see it in Corinthians and Romans in the NT, with their Jewish and pagan converts to Christianity who disagree on various things. We see it today, with problems of race, class, and cliques in LDS wards. The ideal, I think, is expressed in Gal. 3:28, where all other identities are subsumed. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Ezra-Nehemiah involves a bit of legal excitement. As the Jews begin to rebuild the temple and city, the local Persians are upset, and write a letter back to the capital in Aramaic, “The Jews here are rebuilding the city! Check the archives! Don’t you know this place was destroyed because it was rebellious and refused to pay taxes? If they rebuild successfully, they’ll rebel and not pay taxes!” (Ezra 4:6ff)
Back comes the reply from the capital, “We checked the archives, and it’s true! Jerusalem was rebellious wicked and quit paying taxes and and was destroyed! Make them stop rebuilding at once!” Force is brought to bear, and temple work ceases. Time passes
(Ezra 5) The Jews start building the temple again, anyway, in spite of opposition. The Persians come and say, “who said you could do that? Give us the names of everyone working on it!” They don’t give names, but say Cyrus gave them permission. So the Persians send another report to the Persian king. “Hey, they’re rebuilding the temple again! Also, btw, check the archives again. Did Cyrus issue a decree? Let us know, thx.”
Back comes a royal decree from Darius (Heb. da-reh-YA-wesh, Eng. duh-RYE-us) “We found a decree from Cyrus, which I reiterate. Let them build the temple, and give them anything they need out of royal supplies- money, animals, food, in full and without delay.” Then Darius does something of interest to
Mormons we Latter-day Saints. He seals his decree with a curse formula. “Furthermore I decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill. 12 May the God who has established his name there overthrow any king or people that shall put forth a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God in Jerusalem. I, Darius, make a decree.”
Why is this significant to Mormons? We get Rev. 22:18-19 thrown at us, which is, frankly, not a strong argument. Like Darius (and lots of other ancient Near Eastern documents and decrees), John seals the Book of Revelation with a curse formula. It’s a form of copy protection, making sure that no one modifies it, just as in Darius’ decree.
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”
See my short paper I wrote up years ago.
The prayer of Ezra– I was quite moved by his long penitential prayer, years ago. I translated it here with some commentary.
KJV repeatedly says, sometimes with italics, something like “on this side of the river” (Ezr. 4:10, 11, 16; 5:3, 6; 6:13; 8:36 However, we understand now that under the Persian government, the name of the province (or “satrapy”) which included the area known as yehud or Judah was named Beyond-the-River, e.g. 4:11 (NRSV) “this is a copy of the letter that they sent: “To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the people of the province Beyond the River, send greeting. And now… ”
Ezra- Way back in Genesis, I talked about the “make a help, meet for him” phrase. Ezra’s name is a form of “help”or ‘ēzer (pronounced EY like the letter A, and zer, rhymes with bear, ĒY-zer), meaning either “The Help” or a shortened form of “God has Helped.” Notably at this season, Ebenezer is also a form of this name, meaning “Stone of Help,” found in 1 Samuel 7:12 and the hymn.
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