Reading Ezra and Nehemiah



ORIENTING DATA FOR EZRA-NEHEMIAH
  • Content: rebuilding and reform in postexilic Judah through the latter half of the fifth century B.C.
  • Historical coverage: from first return (539/8 B.C) to the end reign of Artaxerxes of Persia.
  • Emphases: successful completion of the second temple despite opposition; successful rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem despite opposition; the crisis of intermarriage and national identify; concern for covenant renewal and reform, based on the law, among the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem.    


OVERVIEW OF EZRA-NEHEMIAH

    Just as with Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which appear in our English Bibles as separate books, originally formed one book in the Hebrew Bible. They were not separated until well into the Christian era.You will do well to read them together, since they do in fact tell one story, not two.
    
    Using the memoirs (journals?) of Ezra and Nehemiah (noticeable for their use of " I "), plus archival letters and lists of various kinds, the author-compiler of this book (conceivably Nehemiah himself) records the story of Jewish reform between 458 and 430 B.C. The reform includes the building of the walls around Jerusalem (thus giving definition again to "the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name," Neh 1:9;  cf. Deut 12:5, 11), repentance over intermarriage, and a covenant renewal ceremony with the reading from the Book of the Law as its center point. In so doing, the author provides us with the most important source for the history of Judah in the postexilic period.

    By watching for the shift between first-person and third-person narratives, you can easily track the flow of the narrative. It begins (Ezra 1-6) with a historical review of events some seventy years earlier-the building of the second temple (538/7 to 516 B.C.). Based on several archival records, this review emphasizes the Persian kings' role in seeing that the temple was, in fact, completed. At the same time the author inserts by way of digression (4:6-23) a much later opposition to rebuilding the walls, which is the more immediate problem of Ezra-Nehemiah. With this literary stroke he ties the two events together as having the same sorts of difficulties from similar sources.

    The Ezra memoirs (Ezra 7-10) first locate him in the lineage of Aaron, thus of priestly descent, and then report his return along with others (in 458 B.C.) under the auspices of Artaxerxes. Here the main focus is on rebuilding the religious community in and around Jerusalem in the midst of a conflict surrounding intermarriage, which is recognized as a main source of going astray after other gods.

    The first of Nehemiah's memoirs (Neh 1-7) tells the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem despite intense opposition by various groups, including even some Jews who had resettled or remained in the land (and were quite syncretistic); it concludes (7:6-73) by repeating the list of returnees found at the beginning of the book (Ezra2).

    This is followed by the high point of the narrative (Neh 8-10)-a covenant-renewal ceremony, which begins with a reinstitution of the Feast of Tabernacles and continues for twenty-four days (ch. 8), climaxing in a great national confession (ch. 9) and a community document signed by the leaders, committing themselves to obedience to specific aspects of "the Law of God given through Moses" (ch. 10).

    After two more lists (of the repopulation of Jerusalem and its environs and of the priests and Levites, 1 1:1 -12:26) the book concludes with the second part of Nehemiah's memoirs (12:27-13:31). These describe the consecration of the wall (12:27-47) and some final reforms (ch. 13).


SPECIFIC ADVICE FOR READING EZRA.NEHEMIAH

    Before reading Ezra-Nehemiah, you may wish to review what was said about this historical period in "specific Advice for Reading 1 and 2 Chronicles", since the same basic historical and religious background lies behind this book as well. You should be looking for several emphases in the narrative that offer keys to making sense of i things as you read.

    Most important, and in keeping with all that has preceded him thus far, our author (reflecting his main sources, Ezra and Nehemiah) is intensely concerned with the purity of faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel. This purity is to be found in keeping the commandments in the "Book  of the Law of God." All the reforms mentioned in the book are based on the Law, and the repentance in Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 9-10 is in both cases solely in light of what is said in the Law. This also accounts for the emphasis on the priests and Levites (as in Chronicles), because of their role both in teaching the Law and in maintaining purity of worship.

    Crucial to this reform is the crisis over national identity: Who constitutes the true remnant of the people of God and thus is in genuine continuity with the past? It is in this context that you can best understand the urgent concern over intermarriage (Ezra 9-10; Neh 9:2; 10:28-30; 13:23-28). Thus the suggestion that Ezra-Nehemiah ls mostly about community building is not far off the mark; it is indeed i about rebuilding the community of God based on the religious realities of the past.

    This crisis over national identity is also the context in which to understand the passion for building the walls of Jerusalem. Walls do not simply keep unwanted people out; in ancient times they set boundaries and therefore give identity to a city and its people. Nehemiah lived in a time , when Jerusalem, the City of David and the place where God had chosen that his Name should dwell, had become the ultimate symbol of , Israel's national and religious identity (a theme that pervades the book of Psalms and is crucial to the Revelation of John).

    Finally, this concern over a pure people of God worshiping tn a purified temple tn a newly consecrated city (the word translated "dedicated" in Neh 3:1 is used most often for "consecrating" holy things) is also the ' context in which to understand the (somewhat ambivalent) attitude toward the Persian kings. On the one hand, the people, even those who have returned, are regularly referred to as "the exiles" (see esp. Ezra 10)-and they smart from their general lack of independent status as a people ("slaves" Ezra 9:9; Neh 9:36). On the other hand they know full well that both their temple and the wall around Jerusalem are possible only because of the decree and protection of their Persian overlords-which gives them a margin of safety from local opposition. This is a primary reason for the recounting of the building of the temple in Ezra l-6, since its construction under the decree of Cyrus serves as an introduction to the main project of Ezra-Nehemiah, namely, the building of the walls-this time ,n the basis of official letters from Artaxerxes (Neh 2:7-9).



A WALK THROUGH EZRA - NEHEMIAH 

Ezra 1-6 A Review of the Rebuilding of the Temple (538-516 B.C.) 

    Watch for the narrative art of the author-compiler as you read this introduction to his book. Except for 4:6-23, he basically reviews the events surrounding the building of the temple, begun under Cyrus in
538/7 and completed under Darius in 516. In turn he describes Cyrus's decree (cf. 2 Chr 36:22-23) and his beneficence toward the project (Ezra 1); the list of the exiles who returned at that time (ch. 2), focusing especially on the priests and Levites (the interest is in the temple, after all!); the successful beginnings of the project, starting with the altar and then the foundations of the temple itself (ch. 3; don't miss the repetition in v. 11 of the theme from chronicles); the opposition to the project that brought the rebuilding to a halt (4: 1-5, 24) down to the time of Haggai and Zechariah (you might want to read at least the book of Haggai in connection with this part of Ezra); the renewed opposition in 520 that brought about the exchange of official letters (Ezra 5: 1-6:12) and cleared the way for its completion (6:13-18), followed by a Passover celebration (6:19-22). What doesn't fit into this review chronologically, of course, is the insertion of the later opposition to an apparently abortive attempt to rebuild the walls (4:6-23 [ca. 448]), which is included here for literary purposes, anticipating the later opposition endured by Nehemiah.
Ezra 7-8The Return of Ezra and Others to Jerusalem (458 B.C.) 

    Note how the author begins this section with an introduction to Ezra and his return, emphasizing his being a priest and a teacher of the Law of Moses given by Yahweh (7:1-10). This is followed by Ezra's own memoirs (7:11-8 :36, note the shift to the first-person pronoun in 7:27 -28), which tell of the circumstances of his leaving Babylon (7:11-28, note especially the role of the Persian king), those who accompanied him (8:1 -14), and the circumstances of the return itself (8:15-36).
 Ezra 9-10The Crisis of Intermarriage  

    With this section you come to the first major threat for our author, namely, that the returnees-even many priests and Levites (10:18-24) -"have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them" (9:2) by intermarrying with them. Note how Ezra's prayer (9:6-15) sets forth the main issues (and includes the tension between their present "slavery" and the kindness of the kings of Persia). Chapter 10 then describes the reform itself. Note also that all of this is from Ezra's memoirs.
Nehemiah 1-7  Rebuilding the Walls under Nehemiah's Governorship (444 B.C.) 

    Using Nehemiah's memoirs, the narrator describes in some detail the circumstances surrounding the rebuilding of the wall. He begins with how Nehemiah, a prominent court figure, secured the king's permission and authority to return to Jerusalem (as governor, you learn in 5:14) to rebuild the walls (chs. 1-2).Chapter 3 describes in detail the who and the where of the participants in the project, while chapter 4 describes the opposition (thus recalling Ezra 4:6-23) and their rebuff. Note here also the surfacing of the holy-war theme (Neh 4:20). The interlude of chapter 5 relates Nehemiah's handling a conflict related to Jerusalem's poor-by reinstituting the "no usury" clause from the Mosaic Law (Exod 22:25; Deut 23:19-20). Further opposition and the completion of the project are recounted in Nehemiah 6:1-7:3. But note here the narrator's skill. Instead of going on to the dedication, which appears in 12:27 -43,he brings this first long section of his narrative (Ezra 1 -Neh 7) to completion by a nearly verbatim repeating of the list of returnees from Ezra 2. This enclosure, which also holds the narrative in suspension, is his way of calling special attention to the two events that follow.
 Nehemiah 8-10 The Renewal of the Covenant 

    With this account you come to the first of the two climactic moments in our author's narrative. Before the repopulation of Jerusalem and the dedication of its walls (chs. 11 - 12) comes the ceremony of primary significance for him-a time of national renewal of the covenant. It begins with a long celebratory reading of the Law (7:73b-8:12) and includes the great celebratory Feast of Tabernacles (8:13-18). This is followed by a time of community confession (ch. 9) in which the long history of disobedience is recounted (cf. Ps 106), and by the corporate signing of the renewal agreement (Neh 10).
 Nehemiah 11-12The Resettlement and Dedication of the Wall

    Note the narrative insight that puts this event after the covenant-renewal ceremony. once covenant loyalty on the part of the renewed community is in place, then in turn are listed the new population (ch.
11) and the priestly community ( 12:1-26). With that the walls that give them definition and protection are dedicated (12.27 -43)-in great ceremonial pageantry and with much music and praise (the reason for the Levites !).
 Nehemiah 13The Conclusion: Community Purity Reinforced
 
    Note that the final concern in the book is the one you have met throughout-that the renewed community of faith be pure with regard to the faith. Singled out are the exclusion of Ammonites from the sacred places (w. 1-14),the purity of the sabbath (w. 15-22), and (not surprisingly) intermarriage (w. 23-29).

Ezra-Nehemiah advances the biblical story by describing how the necessary reforms in Jerusalem were set in motion, which were later to serve as the basis for the Judaism out of which Jesus and the early church emerge.