The entire book of Ezra is only 10 chapters long. I briefly considered splitting it up into two posts, but then I decided to power through and do it all in one. It all takes place a while after the events of 2 Chronicles (and/or 2 Kings) and after Babylon was subject to Persia under Cyrus the Great. The people of Judah are eventually allowed to return to their land and rebuild the house of God and Ezra is later allowed to go back and shepherd them back to God.
God “inspired” Cyrus to make a proclamation to let “whoever is among you of all his people” that want to go back and rebuild the house of God to go ahead and do so and for their neighbors to help them out and donate whatever they had of value to the cause. It doesn’t explicitly say whether this is all Israelites back to Israel territories or just those of Judah to their territories here, but it looks in the next chapter that the rest of Israel shows up too.
Inspired is a strange word here. Inspired how? Inspired as in messed with his free will or inspired as in something happened and the result was Cyrus’s inspiration? We don’t know and it didn’t appear anywhere else I searched. Some other translations sound more like it’s the free will thing. “stirred the heart” “stirred the spirit” “put in his mind”
But still, none are really that sure. This terminology is vague and can be ascribed to plenty of things, not the least of which someone just feeling like they should do a thing. Cyrus could have just been moved by the Israelites or tickled by the idea of thwarting the Babylonians with this measure. It didn’t necessarily mean that God removed his free will for this moment. But it could. This isn’t the first instance where the existence of absolute free will is questionable (see Exodus).
So, everyone who wants to go prepares to go and their neighbors help out and even Cyrus returns all the things that Nebuchadnezzar took when Babylon took the Israelites back in 2 Chronicles/2 Kings. It all gets inventoried too.
Even in the beginning of this chapter, the people from Judah are mentioned, but the rest of Israel is mentioned at the end with this:
Now the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel in their towns.
Most of the chapter is an account of all the men and heads of houses that there were at that time and of the freewill offering.
Being that this is not a military census of fighters, it is possible that the repeated use of “sons” really means “children” because of the way the language uses the masculine plural. Several other translations used “descendants” so it’s possible that this actually includes sons and daughters and that the exclusion is merely a matter of language.
The people of Israel begin to get right with the Book of Moses, observing the feasts and the sacrifices they were supposed to. Then they start to build the temple again by laying a foundation.
Some bad neighbors come in and try to “help” at first but the credibility of their offer is suspect given that they immediately go about thwarting the morale and work to be done. They eventually even succeed in getting Artaxerxes to make them stop working. It is mentioned that work stops until the time of Darius king Persia. (remember this for when the timeline get weird later)
Some notable things mentioned in their effort to stop the work is that Jerusalem appears to have been completely demolished and they were rebuilding it as well, which upset the people in the surrounding areas. Also, that new people had moved into Samaria that were not Israelites. The letter to Artaxerxes is also the first place I’ve noticed “Jews” used.
They don’t appear to have stopped building and the local governor, who seems to have been appointed by Darius at this point asks them about it. They basically answered with the original decree from Cyrus and that it is for their God and then write a letter to Darius saying the same.
The plan to involve Darius works out for them because he reinstates everything that Cyrus had originally laid down and the house of God gets finished. There are some interesting lines and phrases that include a certain peace with Assyria at this point and that some of the people who had been living there while the Israelites (or Jews as they are suddenly being referred to as a lot) were away converted.
They do a Passover and continue to keep the feasts and such.
Here’s where the story starts messing with my head, though. The Persians, like some other monarchies of recent times, have a few favorite names. Artaxerxes, Darius, Xerxes. Cyrus’s part isn’t called into question, but I feel like the tug with Artaxerxes and Darius is a bit confusing. The study Bible and some other places I’ve seen make it out to be that during the time of rebuilding, the Persians were under Cyrus and then Darius and that was why they only needed the reminder that Cyrus had put down the decree for Darius to okay it and no one came out with the stop order from Artaxerxes. They make it out to be that the stop order for building Jerusalem that Artaxerxes put down was after Darius and after the house of God had been completed. But why wouldn’t anyone have corrected the order of the chapters if this isn’t chronological? I’m not a Bible scholar or anything, I’m just saying that it doesn’t make sense to me.
But it also didn’t skip 100 years for the same guys to be working on the house of God when the letters to Darius happen. There would have been time for a Cyrus, then Artaxerxes, then Darius, according to this list of the kings of Persia from the Book of Ezra Wikipedia page. So I’m pretty confused about the timeline already and then we meet Ezra, whose circumstances further confuse me.
Artaxerxes sends Ezra to teach the law of Moses to God’s people in Jerusalem and seems rather happy about it in the letter, including that there are freewill offerings and things he can take from the royal treasury and all that. I wonder if this is just before the letter from the adversaries mentioned in chapter four above and he just changes his mind later.
Another of the notable things about Ezra before we move on is that his whole genealogy back to Aaron is included in the chapter, probably meant to be seen as a form of credentials for what he is setting out to do.
Then, as if things hadn’t gotten confusing enough in other ways, we now change points of view. The end of this chapter is written in the first person, presumably by Ezra himself in a sort of journaling fashion.
Continuing in the first person in this chapter and the next, Ezra starts with genealogies of those who came with him who are a whole set of different people from those who had left for Jerusalem on Cyrus’s decree, so not everyone had left back there in the first chapter. Those numbers were just people moved to leave at that time and then moves on to getting to Jerusalem and not really having any issues.
I found this paragraph so incredible relatable as a Christian:
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Ezra hears that the few people who had returned in the first group are already breaking some of the commands from the Law of Moses by intermarrying with the “people of the land”.
Ezra is worried that they will be forsaken again and he goes to God in prayer, admitting the guilt of his own people but he doesn’t appear to ask for anything in the prayer. He just thanks God for the little they had received again after all that had been done before and laments what they are doing now. It seems to be the intermarriage that is the only issue here.
The delivery returns to the third person here.
During his prayer, the rest of the people had “gathered to him”. They appear to have realized the error of their ways but didn’t know what to do to get out of it or around it. They don’t give any specifics about it either.
The most we get on what is done is that all the men must “separate” from their foreign wives but there’s no mention of the daughters that had been given to the foreigners as wives. Also the people ask for there to be some form of proceeding, which does come to pass, but there’s no evidence in the chapter about how they went about it. Was it like a divorce in the 1960’s where those men were still financially responsible for the welfare of those women and the children but they were not in the presence of them? Were those women just kicked out? Did the children go with the mothers? What happened to the daughters who were given in marriage to foreigners?
I guess it wasn’t important enough for them to record in the history (so annoying) but the names of all the men who married them was recorded. I part of me appreciates this in the record because I can imagine that they needed it for part of the end of the proceedings to know who had been married, but I would also imagine that it would be important to know who they were married to for that sort of thing. Idk.
I just don’t like that we don’t get to know what happened to these women, what happened to the children from these marriages, what happened to the daughters of Israelites who had been married off to foreigners.
And that’s Ezra. All of it. It’s not a big book, but it’s the most confusing so far with that crazy timeline in the middle chapters. Also not many women mentioned and not one named in the whole book.
There is also this confusing thing where Jew, Judah, and Israel are being used in a manner that appears interchangeable for me. I have to wonder where it came from, but there’s no mention of it popping up this way in the study section of my Bible. There are several instances where they also talk about how it is the people of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin that show up in Jerusalem but then they reference Israel again and I get all confused all over again. To be fair though, this could simply be that only those of Judah and Benjamin of all the Israelites returned, meaning that only the “Jews” were allowed back since both were of the Kingdom of Judah instead of the Kingdom of Israel but that they were still considered Israelites in the grand scheme of things. We do know from chapter two that Israel was allowed to go back to their cities, so maybe they just weren’t involved in the building of the house of God, which would still be strange as that was part of the decree that let them go home and there I turn in circles again.
I saw on the Wikipedia page for Ezra that he is considered to be the writer of the Chronicles, so it would make sense that Israel is excluded only because he only wrote about Judah, but why wouldn’t they want to be a part of reconstructing the house of God? Well, they didn’t appear to have access to it for all of the previous books, so maybe it doesn’t have the same weight or bearing for them as for the people of Judah. I do recall that they built their own worship places in their own territory after the schism. Unfortunately, Wikipedia doesn’t help us with out with the timing of those middle chapters on their page on the Book of Ezra.