We are studying portions of Ezra 1 and 2 (1:1-8, 11; 2:64-70) for Sunday, March 6. This is the beginning of the story of “the return.” The return, that is, of the exiled Israelites, from Babylonia to Jerusalem. It includes the initial edict of King Cyrus that announced the possibility of a return, and that ordered the rebuilding of the temple (a “house of God”) there. Although some of the drama of the event is obscured by the bureaucratic tone of the text, with its inventories and genealogies, we know what a huge moment in the life of Israel this was. (See, for instance, Psalm 126.) Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The larger context for the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is the historical narrative of the people of Israel, from Exodus through the book of Esther, if we are thinking canonically. Ezra-Nehemiah – which most scholars still treat as originally a single work – comes almost at the end of that story. At least, the part of that story that is told in the Bible; the whole story is longer than that, obviously, and comes down to the present.
Ezra-Nehemiah presents the part of the story where some of the Israelites who had gone into exile in Babylonia come back to Jerusalem and Judah. The ones who return once lived in the southern kingdom of Judah [and Benjamin], so we could call them Judahites. The story of their going into exile in the first place is told at the end of the book of Kings (2 Kings 24 & 25), Jeremiah 52, and the end of Chronicles (2 Chronicles 36). One popular scholarly view, though not the only one, is that the author of the book of Chronicles is also the author of Ezra-Nehemiah.
These books skip over any account of Jewish life in Babylonia, and in the Persian empire that succeeds it. [For that, we would need to read Daniel, Esther, and perhaps the apocryphal books of Susanna and Bel and the Dragon. Or maybe Ezekiel, although he doesn’t tell many stories about actually living in Babylonia, either.]
The book of Ezra opens with the announcement that a new king, Cyrus, king of Persia, wants to send people and materials back to Jerusalem in Judah, to build a house of God. The act is, at least ostensibly, motivated by communication Cyrus has received from a divinity he refers to as YHWH, the God of heaven, the God of Israel, and the God who lives in Jerusalem. It’s hard to tell whether Cyrus thinks the God of heaven is his God, but he does say he credits this God with his acquisition of all the kingdoms of the earth, and is now doing something for this God in return. But on the other hand, this is presented as the text of an official document, so we might think about the way official documents in our own day word things … and what we think that wording literally means.
The story, if this is a story, is interrupted first by an inventory of the utensils that Cyrus sent back to Jerusalem for use in the soon-to-be-rebuilt temple, and then a long list of the returnees. It’s picked up again in Ezra 3, after a concluding summary of who came back that finishes up Ezra 2. The account of the rebuilding of the temple, and its rededication to the service of the God of Israel, is told for the next four chapters, finishing up in Ezra 6. In Ezra 7, the priest & scribe Ezra comes on the scene, and his work of the restoration of the torah of God takes up the rest of the book we call Ezra. The book of Nehemiah then gives an account of the work Nehemiah does on rebuilding the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and of administering appropriately observant civil life in the restored Judah.
The chronology of this book is notoriously complicated, as we’ve noticed before. This week, fortunately, we are in the least complicated part. There’s seemingly universal consensus that the first group returns from exile in 538 BCE.
The inclusion of the text of Cyrus’s royal edict, the inventory of temple implements and the bureaucratic procedure used to transfer them to the leader of the returnees, and the long list and counts of returnees themselves gives the opening of the book of Ezra an almost bureaucratic feel. It reads a little like an annual report or like testimony to a Congressional oversight committee. This may not be what we expect to find in the Bible. In fact, if we think the main reason we read the Bible is for moral uplift, we may not see much point to some of this text. But if we think of the Bible as a record of a particular people’s meaningful encounters and dealings with God, and if we think about the reasons people save some of the things they save – like that list of baby shower gifts, or that program from our daughter’s high school graduation, or any of the other things we have tucked away in our half-completed scrap books – we may have a better sense of what the author of the book of Ezra was aiming at, and why the rabbis never seem to have questioned whether it belonged in the canon.
Not one word from the book of Ezra (and only a little from the book of Nehemiah) makes it into the Revised Common Lectionary, so this whole story is another one of those things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees take note.
CLOSER READING: The first verses of Ezra 1 emphasize the figure of King Cyrus of Persia – mentioned three times in the first two verses, five times in the first eight verses. He is the main named actor in the text, besides YHWH, the God of Israel. The edict from Cyrus specifically names and credits YHWH with Cyrus’s victories, and with the instruction to build a house for the God of heaven in Jerusalem.
[It is a question in my mind, and maybe not only mine, whether Cyrus here is really acknowledging YHWH, or whether he is trying to use “culturally appropriate” terminology – that is, the Israelites’ name for their God. Because later on, he talks about “the God who is in Jerusalem.” (vv3, 4) We, as readers, probably don’t think YHWH is confined to Jerusalem. So I wonder whether we are encountering an ancient example of cultural pluralism, along with the traces of the differing ideas about God that would have gone along with that. But if so, the Judahites are benefitting from this pluralism.]
The text explicitly identifies God as the ultimate agent of the dramatic turn of events. God stirs or awakens the spirit of Cyrus (v1) to authorize the move, and then stirs the spirits of the families of Judah and Benjamin (v5) to make the move. V1 also explicitly identifies this as purposeful fulfillment of the words of the prophet Jeremiah. (See Jeremiah 50 and 51, and also Jeremiah 31.)
In v6, all those around them take an action that is literally something like strengthening or hardening – NRSV translates “encouraged” – by giving them things. This might remind us of the Hebrews leaving Egypt with valuables given to them by their Egyptian neighbors. In this case, the people around them are of unstated ethnicity – so maybe Babylonians, but maybe other Jews who are staying behind in Babylonia, but want to support the cause.
In v8 & 11, Sheshbazzar is named and identified in v11 as “the prince of Judah.” We have never heard of him before, and will only hear about him one other time, in Ezra 5:14, in the context of another official document saying “we do too have authorization to rebuild this house of God,” and attesting that he had been appointed governor, and been entrusted with the loot from the original temple. This reminds me of watching TV with my spouse. Someone new will come on the scene and she will say “Who’s that?” and I’ll say “We don’t know. We haven’t seen them before …” Who’s this Sheshbazzar? We don’t know. But whoever he was, the Persians put him in charge of the project.
Our select verses skip a long list of returnees, named by their ancestral families, and their significant occupations.
The totals are presented in Ezra 2:64-65, where the Uniform Series lesson picks up the text again. The reckoning of the people involved might be interesting. The people are counted, the servants are counted separately, and then the “singers” are mentioned. We don’t know whether this means the singers are additional, or whether among this group of people, this is how many singers there were. Either way, it’s a good sized choir.
Then vv66-67 count the animals they bring with them. Is this a lot of animals? What can it possibly mean about transportation arrangements? It just seems that most of these people must have been travelling on foot.
V68 treats “the house of YHWH” as a place – the travelers “come to” it. But then we realize that it still needs to be “raised on its place.” So, for these returnees, the “house” is in some sense still there, but also not actually there, or rather, not actually there yet. We might want to sit with this heartbreaking verse for a moment.
And then, the returnees have to make a living in the new old places. They have a big job to do.
Overall, the way this text comes at us seems to me like a screen behind which the presumable concrete human realities of the situation are hidden: the astonishment of the initial decree, the myriad individual soul-searchings and spirit-stirrings involved in deciding whether to return, or not to return, and then the concrete realities of the return trip, and then the confrontation with the reality “on the ground” back in Judah and Jerusalem. The text, something like Session minutes, goes into none of that. But we might imagine some of it, nevertheless.
It might be worth recalling that this episode is, precisely, the central one that gives our larger tradition its concept of “redemption.” That seems like something to think about, too.
Image: Ezra the scribe, Folio 5r from the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1), an image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Artist’s reconstruction, maybe obviously. Ezra’s scriptorium probably didn’t have Christian symbols in it in real life, assuming he had one, in real life.