Ezra the scribe

Studying Ezra 7 1-10, 23-26

This week, we are looking at the beginning of the sage Ezra’s tremendous task of re-establishing a Torah-observant community in the land of Judah after the exile in Babylonia. We’re studying Ezra 7:1-26 for Sunday, February 13. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: There are a lot of complexities associated with the book of Ezra. Which many Biblical scholars regard as, at least in effect, a single text: Ezra-Nehemiah.

Similarly, for a long time people thought that Ezra-Nehemiah was effectively the continuation of 1-2 Chronicles. “Everyone knew that,” for various good reasons, like similar vocabulary. Until, some other people began pointing out that no, really, the themes and theology of the Chronicles and of Ezra-Nehemiah are strikingly different, so probably the work of two different authors. So that now there are at least a couple of schools of thought on this point.

In Protestant Bibles, Ezra-Nehemiah brings up the train of the history books, along with the book of Esther. In the Hebrew Tanakh, Ezra and Nehemiah are in the section known as the “Writings,” along with other 2nd Temple era texts (like Chronicles, Esther, and Daniel). In older Catholic Bibles, they might still be titled 1st and 2nd Esdras. [Not to be confused with the 1st and 2nd Esdras that used to be and sometimes still are called 3rd and 4th Esdras, and that are considered apocryphal by most.] All this name changing and re-ordering further points to the difficult status of the text.

The chronology in the text of Ezra-Nehemiah poses some challenges for people trying to line it up with the chronology of the historical time period in which the text seems to be set. The Persians [or, Achaemenids, a specific line of Persian imperial rulers] gobble up the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE, under Cyrus the Great. One way of reading the timeline in the text takes what historians know about these Persian [Achaemenid] kings, and lines it up with the dates given in the text for the same-named kings. This gives a long timeline for the events, and also means that we read some statements in the text as not being strictly in chronological order (e.g., Ezra 2:2, which mentions “Nehemiah,” but “we” think either a different Nehemiah, or possibly, a reference to the Nehemiah who will arrive much later).

Here’s how that chronology could work, as outlined by Hindy Najman in the Jewish Study Bible:

  • Cyrus II (559 – 530 BCE)
    • Sheshbazzar is governor of Yehud/Judah
    • 538 BCE exiles return under Zerubbabel’s leadership; 2nd Temple reconstruction begins        
  • Cambyses (530-522 BCE)
    • Zerubbabel is now governor of Yehud / Judah
    • 2nd Temple reconstruction work continues
  • Darius I (522-486 BCE)
    • Prophets Haggai, Zechariah are active
    • 2nd Temple reconstruction completed 516 BCE
  • Xerxes I (486-465 BCE)
  • Artaxerxes I Longimanus (465-424 BCE)
    • Ezra, scribe and priest, arrives in Jerusalem 458 BCE
    • Nehemiah arrives, is governor of Yehud / Judah from 445 BCE
  • Darius II (423-405 BCE)

This seems to be what people might describe as a “mainstream” scholarly viewpoint. Alternatively, some readers have labored to find a way to preserve a “short” timeline for the events in the two books, which those readers feel is a more straightforward, but maybe less plausible, way to read the text. [For instance, James B. Jordan devotes a multi-part discussion to weighing the implications of reading the events in the book as occurring early and within a short period of time.]

Implications of our decisions about how to read the chronology in the text might include our impression of the age of some of the characters as the events unfold, maybe the length of time some of the events require, maybe how we think of the political context of the events as they were taking place – or even, as the larger text of Ezra, or Ezra-Nehemiah, was being put together. But generally speaking, everyone seems to agree that Ezra-Nehemiah speaks of events following the Babylonian exile, after one or two or three waves of returnees have arrived in Judah and Jerusalem.

Everyone also agrees that Ezra-Nehemiah is a complex text, that incorporates a diverse set of kinds of literature. It includes narrative, genealogies, government documents and correspondence (in foreign languages, no less – Aramaic), and “memoirs” – first person accounts, which really do not occur elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. That, too, makes thinking about how to read this literature challenging.

And remember that the author / editor has a theological agenda. Which we may be able to gather from the text; but that still may leave us needing to think about why that agenda, right then.

[Sometimes I ask myself “but, does that really matter for us??” But then I think about how people’s agendas matter for readers in writing today, like in the newspapers or on websites. I remember that we more or less automatically take what we can tell, or think we can tell, about people’s political and cultural and social and educational and so on agendas and perspectives into account when we read their writing. So, yes, it probably does matter for us, in exactly that way. Unfortunately, we are less conversant with what that particular theological agenda meant in its own time and place.]

Our text follows the account of the return of the first group of exiles to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the temple. First there’s Cyrus’s decree that the people may return, and rebuild, and an inventory of the temple goods they can take back with them. Then a list of who returns, and their ancestry. Then the narrative of the rebuilding effort: it meets opposition and obstruction, and it takes time, and finally persistence wins out.

Our text begins with “after these things” – as a follow-up expedition to Jerusalem, bearing gifts, and with a further restoration project in mind. The rest of the book of Ezra, as it now stands, tells the story of that project.

The text tells us Ezra was a scribe. It also tells us he was a priest, and backs that up by the genealogy in verses 1-5. [Possibly of note, the genealogy in Ezra 7:1-5 is almost identical to the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:1-15. But Ezra 7:1-5 leaves out the mention of Jozadek, or Jehozadak, the son of Seraiah, “who went into exile.” Make of that what we will.] As a scribe, Ezra would have been a member of a presumably small, literate minority qualified to study and reproduce and comment on written texts (more on that here). As a priest, he would have been a legitimate figure for giving instructions about worship (More on priestly legitimacy here.) Importantly, Ezra combines, in his one sagacious person, legitimacy and authority regarding text and regarding worship ritual. This makes him well able to link the two, in more than one way, which he will proceed to do.

No part of the book of Ezra is in the lectionary, making our text for Sunday one of those things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Exam-inees be warned.

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CLOSER READING: Verses 1-5 give Ezra’s ancestry, going back to Aaron, the first high priest – after the children of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, remember. Ezra will remind us over and over again of Moses, like a second Moses.

In verse 6, he went up to Jerusalem; others go up with him (v7); and the hand of God echoes this going up, by being upon either Ezra or King Artaxerxes in v6, and again in v9. In v9, the hand of God is literally good, and seems to be unambiguously upon Ezra.

We might notice in v6 that the hand of God is upon the king, who has authority over Ezra, who after going up to Jerusalem will be upon it … in a nested hierarchical structure, it seems. But that might depend on who we think God’s hand is upon in v6, the king, or Ezra. Or both. Rashi thinks it is the king.

Verses 8 and 9 stress the exiles’ arrival in Jerusalem in the fifth month – the same month the exile began many years before. The dates may be significant reminders of the original journey out of Egypt, too. The Israelites left Egypt on the original Passover (Exodus 12:1-2, Exodus 13:3-4) – the “first month,” and Aaron died on the first day of the fifth month (Numbers 33:38), shortly before the Israelites arrive at the plains of Moab.

Verse 10 is perhaps the central verse for us: Ezra’s motive and mission. He had set his heart to study (or, seek, inquire, demand) the Torah of the Holy One, and to do it, and to teach, specifically, “statutes and ordinances.” This seems purposefully specific. It probably doesn’t mean that the commandments don’t matter to Ezra, but rather that people need instruction more in the statutes and ordinances. Rashi points out that the reason God’s hand is on Ezra is what he has set his heart on: to study, to do, to teach (God’s Torah).

Verses 11-26 are a royal letter (in Aramaic) authorizing Ezra to organize this return expedition, to procure sacrificial animals and other provisions for worship once they arrive in Jerusalem, and to take necessary steps to teach and administer the law (verses 23-26). It also grants the religious professionals a tax exemption (v24). And grants Ezra enforcement authority (v26).

Ezra’s memoir begins in the next verse, with a brief prayer of thanksgiving to God for this royal carte blanche.

Ezra’s vision seems to be to get back to living like the people of God; it focuses on worship and the regulation of community life, represented by “statutes and ordinances.” This seems like something to think about – namely, how do people go about re-making a way of life? Where do people need to begin? With the legal framework that supports and gives some structure to that way of life seems to be Ezra’s answer … especially since, as we were reminded in v6, that framework represents instruction from God.

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Ezra the scribe

Image: Ezra the scribe, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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