Nehemiah and King Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1-2:8)

“At that time, I was the cupbearer to the king. In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served him, I carried the wine. I gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence before. So the king said to me. ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king. ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste? Its gates have been destroyed by fire.’ Then the king said to me. ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said to the king. ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.’ The king said to me, with the queen sitting beside him. ‘How long will you be gone? When will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me. I set him a date. Then I said to the king. ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah. Grant me a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber. Then I can make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.’ The king granted me what I asked. The gracious hand of my God was upon me.”

The cupbearer to the king was an important position with royal power. This is a firsthand account of his conversation with the king, which he seems to know quite well. It does not say how long he had been the cup bearer. Anyway, Nehemiah had a sad face and seemed troubled. The king asked him what was wrong since he had never seemed troubled before this. King Artaxerxes wanted to help him. Then Nehemiah gave him his request. He wanted to go to Judah to repair the graves of his ancestors. The graves were not his main motive. Then the king immediately wanted to know how long he would be gone, as if to say I need you here. Nehemiah gave an unspecified date. He also wanted letters of passage to the Province Beyond the River. On top of that, he wanted the guy in charge of the forests to let him have some wood to build the gates of the temple, the city, and his own home. Notice that someone was in charge of the forests and the wood. They were worried about the environment. The king said fine, because the gracious hand of God was with Nehemiah.

Marriages with foreigners (Ezra 9:1-9:4)

“After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said. ‘The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations. They were intermingling with the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. In this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ When I heard this, I tore my garments and my mantle. I pulled hair from my head and beard. I sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered round me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.”

Once they were settled, a new problem arose. The returning Jews from the exile were marrying the locals who had stayed behind, the hated “people of the land.” Not only the Jews in general but also the priests, the Levites, the officials, and the leaders were involved in marriages with non-Jewish people. Some of them were not Jews but the hated list of the usual suspects, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. Now this had not been a problem for Moses or King Solomon since they married non-Jewish wives. The fear as usual was that the female wives would want to worship their gods rather than Yahweh. Thus these wily females would lead astray the poor weak Jewish men into false worship. This had been a problem in the northern area of Israel before the captivity. The new post-exilic group wanted a pure race of Jewish people. They did not want the holy seed mixed with “the people of the land.” When Ezra found out about this, he was really upset. He tore his clothes and pulled his hair out. As he said in the first person singular, “I was appalled.”

The twelve priests (Ezra 8:24-8:30)

“Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests, Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their kinsmen with them. I weighed out to them the silver, the gold, and the vessels. These were the offerings for the house of our God that the king, his counselors, and his lords as well as all Israel present had offered. I weighed out into their hand six hundred and fifty talents of silver and silver vessels worth a hundred talents. I also weighted out a hundred talents of gold, twenty bowls of gold worth a thousand darics, and two vessels of fine polished bronze as precious as gold. I said to them. ‘You are holy to Yahweh. The vessels are holy. The silver and the gold are a freewill offering to Yahweh, the God of your ancestors. Guard them! Keep them until you weigh them before the chief priests, the Levites, and the heads of families in Israel at Jerusalem, within the chambers of the house of Yahweh.’  So the priests and the Levites took over the silver, the gold, and the vessels, as they were weighed out, to bring them to Jerusalem, to the house of our God.”

Ezra himself set aside 12 priests with 2 leaders, Sherebiah and Hashabiah. Sherebiah was a very important post-exilic priest. Hashabiah was important too but that was a common name shared by about 10 other people. Once again, notice the first person singular “I.” He weighted some silver and gold and then gave it to them. A talent was roughly the equivalent of small person about 125 pound. So that when you convert pounds to ounce you get a huge amount of silver and gold. 650 talents of silver would be worth about 10 million USA dollars today. The 100 talents of gold would be worth about 100 million USA dollars. This was quite a rich fortune, over 100 million dollars. This money was vowed to Yahweh. Thus these priests and Levites had to take good care of these precious items as they brought them to Jerusalem to the house of God there.

The fast of Ezra (Ezra 8:21-8:23)

“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river Ahava that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a straight journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him. However, his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. So we fasted. We petitioned our God for this. He listened to our entreaty.”

Ezra, “I”, proclaimed a 3 day fast at the River Ahava. They wanted to prepare for the journey ahead, which if like 80 years earlier would be about 4 or 5 months. They wanted God to protect them, their children, and their possessions. Ezra, “I”, was ashamed to ask the king for army protection. He believed that the gracious God would protect them. They fasted so that God would hear their petition. Their request was granted. All went well.

More people come with Ezra (Ezra 8:15-8:20)

“I gathered them by the river that runs to Ahava. There we camped three days. As I reviewed the people and the priests, I found there none of the descendents of Levi. Then I sent for Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah, and Meshullam, who were leaders, and for Joiarib and Elnathan, who were wise. I sent them to Iddo, the leader at the place called Casiphia. I told them what to say to Iddo and his colleagues the temple servants at Casiphia. He should send us ministers for the house of our God. Since the gracious hand of our God was upon us, they brought us a man of discretion, of the descendents of Mahli son of Levi, son of Israel, namely Sherebiah, with his sons and kinsmen, eighteen. Also they brought Hashabiah and with him Jeshaiah of the descendents of Merari, with his kinsmen and their sons, twenty. Besides two hundred twenty of the temple servants, whom David and his officials had set apart to attend the Levites, also came. These were all mentioned by name.”

Once again, we have the use of the personal pronoun singular, “I gathered them.” Over and over again “I” appears. This is a personal first person account of what happened. The Ahava River is not known, but probably a tributary of the Euphrates River in Babylon. Ezra realized that he had no Levites. So he sent a group of people to Iddo who was the leader at Casiphia. There 4 or 5 different people with the name of Iddo, including Levites, and prophets. This one was a temple slave leader at Casiphia, which must have been an important place for a group of Israelite exiles because they had so many temple slaves. They may have had their own house of God there in northern Babylon. Interesting enough this Iddo sent 2 Levite families of 19 and 20 people from the Mahli and Merari branch of Levites. He also sent 220 Temple servants who were to help the Levites. There must have been a lot of them there.