Ezra (Day 404-413)

Day 404: Ezra 1

            1-4: The first 4 verses of Ezra repeat the last 2 verses of 2 Chronicles with the added information that Cyrus’ decree also charges the neighbors of whoever wants to return to Judah with providing financial assistance for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.

            5-11: Many of the Jews prepare to return to Jerusalem, and those who are not returning provide them with gifts to help rebuild the city. The scene sort of reminds me of the scene in Egypt where the Egyptians give the Hebrews gifts to hurry them out of the country (Exodus 12:33-36). This time, however, the ruler of the country, Cyrus himself, participates in their endeavor by restoring to them all the things that have been taken from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The inventory is entrusted to Sheshbazzar, who is called “the prince of Judah.” The title indicates that he is of royal lineage. There is much disagreement among scholars as to his exact identity. Some evidence suggests that Sheshbazzar is the Babylonian name of Zerubbabel, who appears in the next chapter. Others believe Sheshbazzar is an uncle of Zerubabbabel. In any case, the name Sheshbazzar occurs only 4 times in Ezra (1:8, 1:11, 5:14, and 5:16), and nowhere else in the Bible, whereas Zerubbabel is much more frequently mentioned (in Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah) and is even named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:12 and 1:13, Luke 3:27).

Day 405: Ezra 2

            1-2: Interestingly enough given the name of the book we’re reading, Nehemiah is named in the first group of returnees, but Ezra is not. He’ll show up later. Zerubbabel is named here for the first time; see the note on the last paragraph.

            3-35: A list is given of the census of each clan that returns with Zerubbabel.

            36-39: The priests are counted separately.

            40-42: The Levites also are counted separately, some of whom are designated as singers and some as gatekeepers.

            43-54: Here is a list of other “temple servants,” but it is not explained why they are not among the Levites. Although they are named by clan they are not numbered, and it is possible that they belong in the group of Levites just listed in the previous verses.

            55-58: The descendants of Solomon’s servants get a special listing all by themselves. It is obvious that a great attempt was made while in exile to maintain as much of the lost culture as possible.

            59-63: A bunch of folks return with the Israelites although they can’t prove their lineage. They are excluded from the priesthood, and Zerubbabel decrees that they cannot partake of the most holy food (that is, they cannot eat the priests’ portion of the sacrifices with the families of the priests) until further investigation into their family pedigrees.

            64-67: Quite a group is gathering for the journey. There are lots of donkeys amongst them.

            68-69: When they get to Jerusalem, some of the family elders give a freewill offering of gold and silver, and 100 priestly robes (where’d they get priestly robes?) for the rebuilding of the temple.

            70: Not everybody settles in Jerusalem, of course, but they fan out through the land to resettle the towns their families had lived in before the exile.

Day 406: Ezra 3

            1-7: The returnees act quickly to restore the religious rituals in Jerusalem. The seventh month is a festival month for the Jews, beginning with the Festival of Trumpets on the first day of the month (Leviticus 23:23-25), then the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on the 10th day (Leviticus 23:26-32), and then the Festival of Booths (Succoth) for seven days beginning on the 15th of the month (Leviticus 23:33-36). So, on the 1st day of the seventh month all the returnees gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals. Jeshua the chief priest and Zerubbabel the governor build the great altar of burnt offerings. By the 15th of the month they are ready to observe the Festival of Booths (no mention is made of Trumpets or the Day of Atonement). Beginning with the seventh month in the year of their return they begin to observe the daily, Sabbath and new moon offerings. They also make arrangements with the governments in Sidon and Tyre to have cedars cut and brought down the coast to Joppa so that the rebuilding of the temple can commence. (See Haggai 1 for a different take on this.)

            8-9: In the second month of the second year after their return they begin to organize the work force to build the temple.

            10-13: When the foundation is laid the trumpets are sounded and the Levites sing a psalm and the people raise a great shout. However, the old ones who have lived long enough to remember the temple of Solomon respond not with cheers but with tears. Is it because they are overcome with emotion that the temple is being rebuilt, or are they weeping with bitter disappointment that the temple now being erected is nowhere near as magnificent as the one they remember? “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Haggai 2:3)

Day 407: Ezra 4

            1-3: An entourage from the northern territories comes to offer help to rebuild the temple, but is rebuffed by Jeshua and Zerubbabel. Years before, when Israel was conquered by Assyria, the Assyrians resettled the territory with people from other conquered areas. In order to please the “god of the land,” Esar-haddon, king of Assyria, ordered that one of the priests of Israel be sent there to teach them to worship the local god (2 Kings 17:24-28). However, the folks in the south do not recognize priests from the north because when the northern tribes seceded from the house of David and set up the kingdom of Israel with Jeroboam as king, Jeroboam appointed priests who were not even Levites, let alone descendants of Aaron (1 Kings 12:31), and they worshiped other gods besides the LORD. Zerubbabel and Jeshua do not want their efforts in building a house for the LORD to be thus contaminated.

            4-5: The “people of the land,” as they are called, begin to try to sabotage the building efforts of Zerubbabel and Jeshua.

            6: Ahasuerus succeeds Cyrus, and the enemies of the Jews, led by Rehum and Shimshai, write letters to him to discredit the leadership in Jerusalem.

            7-16: Artaxerxes succeeds Ahasuerus, and the folks in Samaria write him a letter in which they say all kinds of terrible things about Jerusalem. The funny thing is their charges are pretty much true.

            17-22: Artaxerxes has the royal archives searched and learns that, sure enough, Jerusalem has regularly refused to cooperate with its invaders and its conquerors. You just can’t depend on them to knuckle under. So, he tells Rehum and Shimshai to issue an order for Zerubbabel et al to cease and desist.

            23-24: The northerners, Rehum and Shimshai et al, hurry to Jerusalem and force them to stop working on the temple. But kings come and go, and soon a new Persian king, Darius, rises to power.

Day 408: Ezra 5

            1-2: The prophets Haggai and Zechariah stir up the people and the will is generated to ignore the order to stop working on the temple (see especially Haggai 1). The prophets are taking an active role in leading, side by side with the acknowledged political and religious leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua.

            3-5: The governor of the region, Tattenai, questions them about the authority to rebuild the temple. They even ask for names, but they don’t force them to stop. Instead, they send a letter to the new emperor, Darius, and await his reply.

            6-17: Here is the letter Tattenai sends to Darius. It is a fascinating study in oriental courtesy and court proceedings. Notice that Zerubbabel’s Persian name is used here, Sheshbazzar (see the note on 1:8), and notice also that the request is to search the archives for a decree issued by Cyrus, not Artaxerxes. In this they are being very clever.

Day 409: Ezra 6

            1-5: The Persian administrative organization is showcased here. Records from the reign of Cyrus are not found in Babylon, but in the capital of another province. Jeshua and Zerubbabel are upheld in their claim.

            6-12: The text moves immediately to record the letter Darius sends back to Tattenai. He tells them not only to not interfere with the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem but to assist the project by diverting funds from their annual tribute to Darius and give those funds directly to the building project. Not only that, they are to provide everything the priests need for making sacrifices so they can pray for Darius and his children to the “God of heaven.”

            13-15: Tattenai and his associates comply with Darius’ decree and the temple is completed.

            16-18: The temple is dedicated with modest sacrifices of only a few hundred animals, complete with sin offerings for the people. The priests and Levites are organized to run the Department of Religion.

            19-22: On the fourteenth day of the first month (Jewish calendar) they celebrate the Passover and the seven-day Festival of Unleavened Bread. All the people are happy that Darius is now their benefactor.

Day 410: Ezra 7

            1-6: The priest Ezra migrates to Jerusalem. The text is careful to register his pedigree as a direct descendant of Aaron. Some years have passed since Zerubbabel has returned, and another Artaxerxes is the Persian ruler — not the one mentioned earlier.

            7-10: Ezra brings an entourage of priests and Levites with him from Babylon, a journey of some 5 months.

            11-20: Ezra comes with a written document sealed with the seal of none other than the King of Persia, Artaxerxes. It places under his care gold and silver offerings from the Persian court and from the Jews living in Babylon.

            21-24: The letter goes on to order the surrounding provinces to provide silver, wheat, wine, oil and salt, and not to charge any of them a tax for passage through their territories.

            25-26: Moreover, Ezra is given judicial authority over the province “Beyond the River” (that is, the coastal territories beyond the Euphrates).

            27-28: The last sentence of the chapter is written in first person singular. Ezra has now become the narrator of the book that bears his name.

Day 411: Ezra 8

            1-14: A list is given of those who return with Ezra. Phinehas and Ithamar, in verse 2, are the sons of Aaron, so the list emphasizes that these are qualified priests, direct descendants of Aaron.

            15-20: Ahava is an unidentifiable location (in verses 24 and 31 it is called a river), but obviously not too far removed from Babylon. There Ezra gathers the people who are returning with him and discovers that although there are priests there are no Levites. The priests are themselves descendants of Levi, but the Levites are the ones who manage the temple affairs while the priests carry out the worship. He sends messengers to Casiphia to recruit Levites. Casiphia is also unidentifiable, but we speculate that it is a settlement of the Jews of the exile where a worshiping community is established. Iddo is the name of the leader of the Levites who live there. Several hundred Levites and temple servants are recruited and join Ezra at Ahava.

            21-23: Ezra has told the king that his God will protect them, and he therefore does not want to ask for a military escort. He calls for a time of prayer and fasting to ask God to protect them on the journey.

            24-30:  Ezra appoints 12 of the priests to serve as caretakers of the offerings they are taking for the temple in Jerusalem.

            31-34: Ezra and his group arrive in Jerusalem without incident. Once they have secured themselves they take the offerings to the temple. The temple has by now been completed, at least enough so to be used for worship. Jeshua the priest has apparently been succeeded by his son Jozabad.

            35-36: The returnees offer sin offerings and burnt offerings at the temple. Then they visit the political leaders of the province to deliver the king’s letter. The officials provide the support Artaxerxes’ letter demands of them.

Day 412: Ezra 9

            1-4: Ezra is informed that the leaders of the people have intermarried with the indigenous Canaanites as well as with foreigners. He is appalled. His reaction seems at first look to be overly dramatic, but remember that he is trying to resurrect a nation and a people who two generations before had all but disappeared from the face of the earth. The intermarriages represent a threat to their very existence as a unique people, and thus to their claim to be God’s chosen people.

            5-9: Ezra goes to the temple at the time of the evening sacrifices and prostrates himself before the altar. He confesses that the things Israel has suffered have been deserved because of their sin, and acknowledges that allowing them to return to Jerusalem is a special favor God has granted them.

            10-15: Their exile and punishment, he reasons, is largely because God’s people intermarried with other groups, resulting in their worship being corrupted by pagan practices. A remnant has been saved, he says, and allowed to return, but now they have fallen into the same errors that plagued their ancestors. Ezra is deeply, deeply ashamed.

Day 413: Ezra 10

            1-5: Ezra’s very public demonstration draws the attention of the people, who begin to gather before the temple. One Shecaniah speaks out and offers that they will send away their foreign wives and the children they have borne. He encourages Ezra to make a general decree and assures him that the people gathered there will stand behind him. Shecaniah is not listed among those who have married a foreign wife (10:18-44).

            6-8: Ezra retires to the house of Jehohanan, who is probably the high priest, where he continues prayer and fasting. They order the returned exiles to assemble in Jerusalem or forfeit their properties, so I suppose the attendance is pretty good that day. Note that the summons may only relate to those who are property owners, though, and might not include the common people.

            9-15: The people gather in Jerusalem on a day when it is raining heavily. Ezra levels the charge against them that many of them have married foreign women, and commands them to end those illegal marriages. They readily agree (it is raining heavily, after all), but offer a proposal by which the illegal marriages may be dealt with systematically. Ezra accepts the proposal and everybody is in agreement except for four men (who are probably the only ones with umbrellas). Interestingly enough, of the four only one, Meshullam, is included in the list (10:29) of those who are found to be in violation of the marriage laws.

            16-17: Ezra selects family heads to meet and address the matter, and six weeks later they do so. It takes them two full months but they finally arrive at an agreed upon list and process.

            18-22: The priests are treated first, and the ones who have married foreign wives agree to send them away, and they each make a guilt offering of a ram to atone for their transgression.

            23-24: The Levites, singers and gatekeepers are listed next.

            25-44: The remaining violators are listed. About half the family names are in the list in chapter 8 of those who returned with Ezra. The other half are names of those who had returned earlier with Zerubbabel, as listed in chapter 2. They all send away their foreign wives with their children. The list of violators contains only 110 men in all, which is surprisingly small, but some have suggested that only the leaders of the community, those who own property, are involved in the purge. We are not told what becomes of these women and children, but according to their own laws the Israelites have to provide for the needy, so perhaps they do not fare too poorly. It would be altogether too great a tragedy if they are simply sent away empty-handed. After all, their situation is not of their own doing.

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