Ezra the scribe

Studying Ezra 6 13-22

Continuing the narrative of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem – or alternatively, the building of the “Second Temple” – we’ll get to celebrate the completion of the building project, and Passover, and think about the meaning of those big events in the larger story of the children of Israel. We’ll get to think, too, about the complexities of “freedom.” As I read it, these are some of the main things in the text we are studying for Sunday, March 20: Ezra 6:13-22. These verses are the immediate continuation of our reading from last week, and the climax of the first six chapters of the book of Ezra. Here are a few notes on this text:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are finishing up our short series of lessons from the book of Ezra. Together with the book of Nehemiah, this is the story of the return of [some of] the exiles from Babylonia, and their efforts to restore national life in Judah and Jerusalem, with restored sacrificial worship, conducted by a restored priesthood in a restored temple, and lived out in national observance of the “torah of Moses.”

As this narrative unfolds, the completion of the Second Temple construction is the first phase in the restoration. The next chapter begins the work of “Ezra the priest,” in returning to Judah and leading the purification and instruction of the community. Then, the narrative will turn to the work of Nehemiah, and the rebuilding of the walls of the sacred site of Jerusalem, along with further instruction in the behavior that needs to characterize the priestly people.

The leaders’ vision of communal restoration is not, as we might say today, “diverse and inclusive.” Just the opposite. We’ll get a whiff of that in our reading, which mentions “separating” from the “pollutions” of the people of the land. That foreshadows some of the content of Ezra 9 and 10 – the episode of separating [some of] the returnees from their foreign wives and families. Those foreign women are the thin end of the wedge of idolatry, from Ezra’s point of view. That foreign-origin idolatry was the whole problem that led to the exile in the first place, again from the point of view of this author.

[As an alternative perspective, I think Jesus has a comment about this whole episode (see Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18), and I don’t think it’s an approving one. But that may just be me.]

This is the last canonical writing we have about the history of Israel in its land. The setting of the book of Esther is in the Persian capital of Susa. Besides, it seems to take place before the events described in our text this week. History continues, of course, but for the story of that continuation we have to turn to the deutero-canonical or apocryphal literature, to outside sources, and eventually – if we’re Christians – to the gospels.

There are a couple of references to the Hebrew calendar in the text. The calendar in use at the time would have been a little different from the calendar in use now, but we are probably safe to think of the month of Adar, which occurs in early spring, as the last month of the year. The reference to the “first month” (v19) would be a reference to the month of Nissan, the month after Adar. [There is a little more detail on the Jewish calendar here, and a lot more detail here.] This timing seems clearly meaningful: the completion of one project at the end of one year, and the beginning of the next project – the restoration of community life – at the beginning of the following year.

The sacrifices listed in verse 17 occur against the backdrop of all that we would know about sacrifice if we read the first seven chapters of Leviticus. That would allow us to recognize these offerings as burnt offerings, and possibly offerings of well-being or thanksgiving, and then specifically the sin offerings called out in the text. We’ll remember that nine of the “twelve tribes” were lost when the Assyrian Empire gobbled up the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Those tribes have been “lost” for a couple of hundred years by the time the events in our text take place. So we might want to think about what it means that the people making these offerings have made offerings on those tribes’ behalf.

Another part of the backdrop to this verse would be the sacrifices offered at the dedication of Solomon’s original temple, which are described in 1 Kings 8:5 – so many they couldn’t be counted – and 2 Chronicles 5 and 2 Chronicles 7. The texts in Chronicles go into more detail about the uncountably many offerings, and the thousands of oxen and sheep sacrificed, and also the detail that fire from heaven was involved, and the way the glory of Adonai filled the temple. And no sin offerings seem to have been made. All of which may be meaningful contrast with the returnees’ experience of their own dedication ceremony – much less dramatic, by comparison.

The text also mentions the festival of Passover, and the subsequent festival of unleavened bread. We probably know Passover celebrates and commemorates the liberation of the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The “Passover” specifically was the passing-over of the Israelites by the angel of death, who slew all the firstborn [males] in the land of Egypt, if they had not identified as Israelites or allies by having splashed the blood of a lamb on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. Technically, the next seven days of eating unleavened bread are another festival, but people often think of them as part of Passover. We could study up on Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread by looking at Exodus 12, Leviticus 23:4-8, Numbers 28:16-25, and Deuteronomy 16:1-8. [And we might also notice that there are references to Abib in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Commentators identify that term as one that reckons time in relation to the life cycle of barley. It might be a more general reference to “the spring,” or it might have been the name of the month in use at that time, or it might be “the real” time Passover ought to happen according to the command of YHWH. It depends on whose commentary you read.]

As we’ve already noted, no part of the book of Ezra shows up in the lectionary, so this story is once again something we would not know about the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees, take note.

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CLOSER READING: In verses 13-14, we notice that a lot of people are at work to bring this project to completion. The positioning of the phrase “by the command of the God of Israel,” between the reference to the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah, and the decrees of the kings of Persia, might pointedly highlight the role of God’s command in bringing about both those things.

It puzzles people that Artaxerxes is mentioned in v14. If it means the Artaxerxes named in Ezra 4, the name seems out of order, and we also know that his command actually had to be overcome. If it means the Artaxerxes named in Nehemiah 2 – in which case, he doesn’t seem to have had much to do with the completion of the temple. If it means a different Artaxerxes, we are not sure who. I remind myself that getting the Persian monarchs exactly right is not the main point; if some of them are kind of a blur, that might be how they seemed to the Judahites, too.

There is joy and celebration, in any case. That really seems to be the main point.

In v18, the reference to the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their courses “as it is written in the book of Moses” bothers some readers, because there doesn’t seem to be a place in the Torah where the priests and Levites are organized into divisions and courses. Unless perhaps the author was thinking of Numbers 3 and Numbers 4. Or was thinking of 1 Chronicles 23 and 24, and thinking that whatever David did to organize the priests and Levites he had gotten from somewhere, like the book of Moses. Maybe this is a little like a contemporary Presbyterian saying something is “in the Bible,” and then when we check, it turns out it’s not in the Bible, but it is in the Book of Order. Which is not exactly the Bible, but we do take it pretty seriously.

In v21, the reference to “all who had joined them and separated themselves …” also seems to be part of the main point, since it speaks to the ethos of these reformers. It’s also, arguably, more restrictive than the boundaries the Torah sets on who may eat the Passover. Numbers 9:14 says any alien – according to whatever rules there are for eating the Passover. Or perhaps the reference to “the pollutions of the nations of the land” is just this author’s way of saying “whoever had agreed to follow our rules for eating the Passover.” Either way, it points to the way this community is trying to tighten up those purity boundaries. Whether that was for better or for worse might be something for us to consider.

V22 ends with a reference to “the heart of the king of Assyria.” If we thought the relevant kings were the kings of Persia last time we checked, and also thought there was no Assyrian empire at this time, then this comment will strike us as peculiar. It strikes me as peculiar. I also suspect its peculiarity is no accident or oversight, but rather a purposeful anachronism, which relates to those sin offerings made for the disappeared tribes, and which is meant to make us think. But what we are supposed to think, I do not know.

So lots of things are going on in these verses: The “high” of the returned exiles being back in Judah, and Jerusalem, and having succeeded in their task of re-building a temple where they can worship the God of Israel. The background against which this achievement happens – the glory days of David, Solomon, and “the good old days,” which might bring that high down a bit. The reminder that God is a God of liberation, underscored by the celebration of Passover right after the dedication of the restored temple. The awareness that all the restoration has been accomplished “by the command of God.” The continuing awareness that people are still missing from the community – but that God is a God of liberation and restoration, so the whole story is not over yet. The resolve, it seems, to really hold the line on keeping this restored community free of “pollutions” this time around – whether or not that was the lesson they should have learned from their experience of exile. Any one of these would be a lot to meditate on as we’re thinking about how this text is still speaking to people today.

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Image: “Ezra the scribe,” in Folio 5r from the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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