My Understanding of the Book of Ezra

In the Hebrew Bible, Ezra is not among the early prophetic books. It is part of the writings with Daniel and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Certainly it follows up on 2 Chronicles, that some see as the same author. It is definitely post-exilic. This really starts Second Temple Judaism in the fifth and sixth century BCE that existed until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. This is the first biblical book concerning the time after the Babylonian Exile. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were together in one scroll. There are numerous dating and chronology problems with these books. The Book of Ezra probably dates from the third or fourth century BCE. There are other books called 1 Esdras from the first century BCE and 2 Esdras from the first century CE, approximately at the time of the writings of the early Christians.

Who was Ezra? He was a descendant of the high priest Seraiah, perhaps in the line of Phinehas, the son of Aaron. Ezra (480-420 BCE), which in Greek is Esdras, was a learned scribe and pious Israelite priest residing in Babylon. He appears to have enjoyed great regard in the Persian court. He obtained permission to go to Jerusalem. Thus he took a company of about 5,000 Israelites. His first step was to enforce separation upon all who had married foreign wives. Thus he has been a favorite of many Christian revivalists.

The date of his death is uncertain. Many believe that he was the author of the biblical Chronicles. He may have been the one who first established synagogues, thus he is sometimes referred to as the “father of Judaism.” He is generally believed to have collected and revised the books of the Hebrew Bible, which form the present Hebrew canon or Christian Old Testament. So, in a sense, he is the first human editor of the Bible.

We learn about the repopulation of Israel that was hinted at in 2 Chronicles. This book is all about the return from Exile, the building of the Temple and the new community there. The Israelites go to great pains to show how they are subservient to the Persian kings. The Persian kings, in turn, are very tolerant towards religions as long as there is no rebellion. This biblical author continually cites Persian documents to justify rebuilding projects. In certain chapters (8-9) he used the first person singular (I) and plural (we) to describe the actions as an eye witness. Ezra does not appear until chapter 7 of this 10 chapter work. It might be that the author of the Chronicles wrote the first half of this book.

King Cyrus of Persia issued an edict to let exiled Israelites return to Jerusalem around the year 538 BCE. He even wanted the vessels of the house of Yahweh returned. This book then listed the leaders of the exiles and those who were returning by ancestral leaders. This included the list of the priests, the Levites, the Temple servants, and the sons of Solomon returning. There were some who could not prove their Israelite ancestry. The total of all those returning was about 50,000 people.

When they returned to Jerusalem they made an offering. They wanted to renew their worship. They began to plan the foundations of the Temple. When the foundation was completed, they had a big celebration. However, there were some adversaries, under King Cyrus, King Xerxes I, and King Artaxerxes. They were mostly from the leaders at Samaria. There were a series of letters between King Artaxerxes and the Samaritans. Finally, the construction of the wall in Jerusalem was stopped.

However, the construction of the Temple continued under the urging of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Once again, there was an exchange of letters between Governor Tattenai of Samaria and King Darius of Persia, including the opinion of the elders of Jerusalem. They began a search for the decree of King Cyrus. Sure enough they found the original decree of King Cyrus in Media. King Darius gave instructions to Governor Tattenai to let them complete the Temple. Thus there was a big celebration at the Temple and a Passover celebration.

Finally in the seventh chapter of this book, Ezra, for whom this book is named, appears with his genealogy around 458 BCE, about eighty years after the first exiles returned. He traveled from Babylonia to Jerusalem with a letter from King Artaxerxes of Persia that outlined his mission. Ezra also had a decree for the Province Beyond the Euphrates River. Ezra prayed to Yahweh before about five thousand exiled people went with him to Jerusalem.

Then this book became the memoirs of Ezra as he spoke in the first person. More people came with Ezra as he prepared with a fast. Ezra realized that he needed more priests so he got twelve priests to go with him. They went to

Jerusalem, where there was a great offering. Then Ezra was surprised and angered to find out that there had been marriages with foreigners. He then prayed for forgiveness because of these marriages with unclean strangers. He finally decided to do something. He wanted the foreign wives to be sent away, without saying where. He made the newly returning exiles swear an oath. He held a major assembly of the people of Judah, Benjamin, and Jerusalem in the rainy open air square in front of the Jerusalem Temple. Ezra demanded that they separate from their foreign wives. They agreed to do this on a case by case method. Finally, after three months, they listed all the priests, Levites, and others that had put away their wives. This book ends with this unhappy note of the wandering foreign wives.


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