People who are trying to “do the will of God” are doing so in the context of a world that has precious little interest in furthering that purpose, and sometimes actively opposes it. Nevertheless, at various times, and by various ways, or so we trust, God fulfills God’s purposes. When that happens, it can happen in a big way, giving us cause to rejoice. But the road to that result may require some risk-taking on our part. Or maybe I should say, “will.” That, as I read it, is one of the big practical lessons to take from the text we are studying for Sunday, March 13: Ezra 6:1-12. [Some questions on the text are here.] No doubt there’s more to see in this text, but here are my notes on it:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re continuing to look closely at the account given in the book of Ezra, of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the exile. Last week we read about the beginning of that effort, with the first return of some exiles to Jerusalem. This week, we focus on the conditions for the resumption of work on the building, which had ground to a halt in the face of strenuous local opposition.
Last week, we’d read up to the return of the exiles, and a freewill offering made by some of the returnees on behalf of the work to be done on the rebuilding project (Ezra 2:68-69). In Ezra 3, the returnees rebuild the altar, lay the foundations of the restored temple, and celebrate the beginning of the work. We think this is happening in 536 BCE.
In Ezra 4, however, trouble arises. The “adversaries” of “Judah and Benjamin” approach the leaders of the community, to offer their participation in the project, and are flatly turned down. This is the seed of the bitter conflict between “the Jews and the Samaritans,” if that seed hadn’t already been sown before now. From there, these “adversaries” proceed to mobilize the forces of the Persian empire to shut down the rebuilding project, and they are temporarily successful. Violence, or the threat of it, seems to have been involved [Ezra 4:23, “main force” (JPS), “force and power,” (KJV, NRSV), “military force” (NASB)].
The end of Ezra 4 says the work was discontinued until the second year of Darius of Persia. Darius becomes king in 522 BCE, so we think, until 520 BCE. [Assuming we are thinking of the right Darius. But … this will get us into the problem of dates in Ezra-Nehemiah, which I myself like to not get into, because I am pretty sure it is not the main point.]
Ezra 5 then tells the story of the resumption of the work in this second year of Darius, King of Persia. This resumption of work is prompted by the prophetic ministry of Haggai and Zechariah; we can read what they had to say in their [“minor prophetic”] books. And if we know anything about congregations, we could well imagine that this is one of those times when the community itself now has to get past the mentality of “well, we tried that, you know, and it didn’t work.” On the other hand, the “inspiration of the God of Israel” is explicitly part of the situation, now, too, which undoubtedly helps.
As does the obvious change in bureaucratic personnel. I admit, this is one of the fascinating things about the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to me, that is, the insight they give us into the operations of big political institutions like the Persian empire (or, the average US corporation these days). There’s a new Persian official involved (Tattenai), and a different king (Darius), and that changes things. The text of Tattenai’s letter to the king, which sums up the current state of affairs, takes up most of Ezra 5. It ends with a request to search the Babylonian records to see whether King Cyrus authorized the work. We gather from Ezra 5:8 that the work has been taken up again. So – we also gather – in response to the prophets, and in spite of the opposition, whether by this time still active, or just anticipated.
The Jewish leaders, Zerubabbel – the named leader of the returnees – and Jeshua – the named leader of the priests – seem to be the same ones named in Ezra 3:2 as the leaders of the community and this project. That is, they’ve been at this a long time. And this probably hasn’t been their only job, either, knowing how things are in real life.
Ecbatana, or Achmetha, was an important Persian city, which figures in later Greek as well as this Biblical history. Apparently there was a fortress and/or palace there, and the Persian king spent a couple of summer months there, three more months at Susa, and then the rest of the months in Babylon. [According to the entry on Ecbatana in the Perseus database. There is more detail at Livius.org; and a map that gives some idea of how far away this all would have been from Jerusalem at Bible Atlas.] This all makes me think: In this big empire, anything going on in Jerusalem among the Jews is of minimal concern to any of the big cheese. Darius’s decree in Ezra 6 is really little more than a rubber stamp on something his predecessor Cyrus did. But, that rubber stamp means a lot to the folks in Jerusalem.
Nothing from the book of Ezra is in the Revised Common Lectionary, so once again, this is a story you wouldn’t know is in the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees, listen up.
CLOSER READING: The main action in these twelve verses is the royal activity of issuing decrees! The issuance of decrees is mentioned five times – Darius issues a decree, evidently, to make a search of the records; that search turns up a decree issued by Cyrus; then Darius issues a decree again, regarding the work and payment of expenses and regarding its enforcement and sealing it with an affirmation that yes, I’m issuing this decree. Kings. Large and in charge. [This might possibly make us think about what it really means to be “the king of kings.”]
Thank God for those royal archives, literally that “house of writings.” In v1 this is identified as a place where “treasures” are “deposited” in or from Babylon. Later, in v5, we’ll learn that the gold and silver utensils from the original temple were meant to be “deposited” in the house of God in Jerusalem, according to that original royal decree. That might make us notice that the scroll that recorded the memorandum of Cyrus’s original decree turns out to be a treasure for the returnees, right up there with any silver and gold. Something to meditate on, notes the Clerk of Session.
The house of God is clearly the focus of the attention all through these verses; six mentions of “the house of God” or (once) “the temple” in Jerusalem. Talk then switches to “the God of heaven” in v9, and the God of heaven is mentioned another three times. The fate of “the house of God” is what’s at stake in these verses.
Another repeated word is “work.” In v7 it’s the work of the Jews, which the Persian officials are supposed to stay far away from; in v8, it’s work the Persian officials are supposed to do for the Jews; and in v12, it’s the work of working or executing this royal decree. Diligently. The word itself seems to be one that would stretch to cover “service” and even “worship,” an all-purpose word for “getting things done.” But again, something to meditate on here is the way all this work works towards the working-out of the purpose, which we readers assume is God’s purpose, of the completion of the rebuilding of that temple in Jerusalem. And – as we readers of the Bible might begin to think – of all the purposes that temple is going to contribute to the fulfillment of down the line.
The decree builds up to a crescendo of “diligently” in v8 and v12, as the appropriate level of enforcement. My guess is that this language is standardized, like “with all deliberate speed” in a Supreme Court decision or “without undue haste but without undue delay” in the Book of Order. But standardized language doesn’t mean not meaningful language. Darius, the king, who probably [my cynicism] doesn’t much care about the Jews one way or another, is making this whole thing something to get done and get over with and stop getting in the way of and in fact actively facilitate. “Diligently” seems to mean “Make it happen.”
If you have to live in the Persian Empire, then having the Persian Empire on your side instead of on the other side helps you get things done. We don’t have to live in the Persian Empire, probably fortunately. We do, however, have to live somewhere, where there are real life conditions that are alternately favorable and unfavorable for the getting done of projects that we ourselves are called to champion or to help out with.
In Ezra, we have the impression, I think, that God is at work in this story, too, though mostly in the background. God inspires, and God presumably influences the actions of the various bureaucrats and monarchs and people. But the consequences of that divine influence do not unfold in a simple, straightforward way. Some people oppose and obstruct; some imperial actors aid and abet that obstruction; others have independent agendas that converge on supporting the project. Getting that temple rebuilt was a complex process. Something else to meditate on, perhaps.
Image: “Ezra the scribe,” in Folio 5r from the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons