{Old Testament History}

Exile and Return
Ezra the Scribe

Among the Biblical characters of the Post-Exilic period none assumes a greater historical importance than Ezra. There has been considerable disagreement concerning the date of Ezra, for some very able scholars feel that our texts have been dislocated and that Nehemiah should be placed before Ezra.1 The traditional order, maintained in the Masoretic Text of Scripture, fits it well with our knowledge of the Post-Exilic age and may be adhered to until convincing evidence to the contrary is produced.

Over fifty years pass in silence between the dedication of the second Temple (515 B.C.) and the arrival of Ezra in Palestine in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (457 B.C.). Although successful in building the Temple, the Palestinian Jews were certainly not a prosperous group during this period. Their city had no walls and it was open to attack from their numerous enemies. The people had become dispirited. Earlier resolves to live lives of separation from their neighbors had been quietly forgotten and mixed marriage was common.

Back in Babylon and in other parts of the Persian Empire there were numerous Jews who still looked with fond associations to Jerusalem as the center of their religious life and their spiritual hopes. Such a man was Ezra, a pious Levite who had devoted his life to the study of God's Law. As a lover of Zion, Ezra appealed to Artaxerxes for help in making it possible for a fresh company of exiles to return to the land of their fathers. The king granted his request (Ezra 7:11-26) and authorized Ezra to assemble such Jews as would volunteer to join him on the journey to Palestine. Ezra was authorized to take with him offerings for the Jerusalem Temple sent both by Artaxerxes and by the Jewish community. Ezra was instructed to use it to purchase sacrificial animals. The remainder could be spent as Ezra and his brethren saw fit (Ezra 7:17-18). Authority was also given to draw upon the royal treasury of the province of Syria if necessary (Ezra 7:20). Ezra was further authorized to appoint magistrates and judges and to teach the Law of God and the king to any who might not be familiar with it. The Law was to be rigorously enforced by imprisonment, confiscation of property, banishment, or even death (Ezra 7:26). Empowered in this way, Ezra was not merely a pious pilgrim but a representative of the Persian government with power to act. The provincial rulers were told, "Whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, requires of you, be it done with all diligence" (Ezra 7:21).

In all, about eight hundred men and their families responded to Ezra's appeal (Ezra 8:1-14). As the group gathered at Ahava, Ezra noted that there were no priests in the company. A special appeal was made and thirty-eight priests and two hundred and twenty Temple servants joined the party (Ezra 8:15-20). Artaxerxes in his decree had exempted priests and Temple servants from the Persian tax. Their reluctance to come may indicate that they were comfortably settled in Persia and felt no emotional ties with Jerusalem.

Having assured Artaxerxes of his confidence in divine protection, Ezra did not feel justified in requesting the usual military escort (Ezra 8:22). The group fasted and prayed (Ezra 8:23) before starting out on a journey of four months. No details are given concerning the journey itself, but we know that Ezra entrusted the silver, the gold, and the vessels which were to be brought to the Jerusalem Temple into the hands of the priests and Levites (Ezra 8:24-30).

As a delegated representative of the Persian crown in Jerusalem Ezra bore the title, "Scribe of the law of the God of heaven" (Ezra 7:12). In modern language we might designate him, "Minister of State for Jewish Affairs."2 The Persians were tolerant of the many religions in their empire, but they did wish them to be regularized under responsible authority. Ezra, armed with his official rescript, was responsible for Jewish affairs in the province of Abar-nahara, i.e. Syria and Palestine (Ezra 7:25).

Shortly after their arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra and his company brought their treasures to the Temple and offered special sacrifices on the altar in the Temple court. They could testify that, "...the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way" (Ezra 8:31).

Ezra did not find the populace enthusiatic about the measures which were close to his heart. Some of the people had grown prosperous (Haggai 1:4), but spirituality was largely missing. Many of the Jews, including the priests and Levites, had taken foreign wives (Ezra 9:1). Marriage, to Ezra, was not simply a matter of social arrangement, but one which involved obedience to the Law of God. Of the Gentile nations God had said, "You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons" (Deuteronomy 7:3). Intermarriage, as in the case of Solomon (I Kings 11:1-8), was a prelude to idolatry - the sin which had brought on the Babylonian Exile. Moved to contrition as he associated himself with his sinning compatriots, Ezra poured out his soul to God in confession and penitence (Ezra 9:6-15).

As the people gathered around Ezra, one of their number, Shecaniah, suggested that they all put away their foreign wives and their children (Ezra 10:2-3). Ezra then proposed that all Israel, led by the priests and Levites, vow to do as Shecaniah had suggested (Ezra 10:5). A decree was issued that all the people should assemble at Jerusalem within three days under penalty of confiscation of goods and excommunication (Ezra 10:7-8). When the people assembled they found that the task was too great to accomplish in the open square during a rain storm (Ezra 10:9-15). A divorce court was established (Ezra 10:16-17) and arrangements were made for the Jewish men to put away their foreign wives and children (Ezra 10:44).

Ezra's attitude in the matter of the foreign women was governed by his zeal for purity of Jewish life and faith. He was willing to sacrifice anything (and any one) that endangered that purity. His edict was certainly resented by many Jews and there can be no doubt that it stirred up in the non-Jewish population hostility against their Jewish neighbors.

Ezra had brought with him from Babylon "the book of the law of Moses" (Nehemiah 8:1) which he publicly read from a wooden pulpit (Nehemiah 8:4). Along with the reading there was an explanation (Nehemiah 8:8), probably in the Aramaic language which had become the popular language of the Jews during the time of their exile. When the people learned that it was the time of the Feast of Tabernacles which, through ignorance, they were not observing, they built booths for themselves and observed the ancient feast (Nehemiah 8:14-18).

The feast was followed by a solemn fast during which the Jews separated themselves from all foreigners and confessed their sin (Nehemiah 9:2). Again the Law was read (Ezra 9:4) and Ezra uttered a remarkable prayer in which he traced the mercies of God to Israel and deplored his people's unfaithfulness (Ezra 9:6-37). The princes, Levites, and priests solemnly covenanted before all the people to be faithful to God's Law (Nehemiah 9:38).

What was this Law that Ezra brought to Jerusalem? It was certainly not a new law, for it professed to go back to the days of Joshua (Nehemiah 8:17). It is termed "the Law of Moses" and was studied by the Jews of Babylon as the revelation of God's will which had been given to Moses at Mount Sinai. Whether Ezra had the complete Pentateuch, or some portion of it, we cannot say. We do know that the Babylonian Jews became diligent students of the Law during the period of the Exile.

This Law was received by the Palestinian Jewish community in solemn covenant before their God (Nehemiah 10). Although they lacked political independence, they became a religious community, subject to a religious Law. This was to mark the future of Judaism. Jews might exist under a variety of governments, but all could cherish the Law. They might be removed geographically from the Temple, or the Temple might be destroyed (as it was by the armies of Titus, A.D. 70), but the Law would still be theirs to cherish and obey. Legends were to develop around the person of Ezra, but his relationship to Israel as a second lawgiver, makes them unnecessary. His place in Jewish history is secure. Later generations said, "When the Law had been forgotten in Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and established it."3 A second-century Jewish scholar, Rabbi Jose of Palestine, gave him the highest compliment: "Ezra was worthy of having the Law given through him to Israel, had not Moses preceded him."4

Return From Exile < | Ezra the Scribe | > Nehemiah the Builder

{Old Testament History}

1H. H. Rowley, "The Chronological Order of Ezra and Nehemiah," in The Servant of the Lord and other Essays on the Old Testament, pp. 131-159.

2Cf. John Bright, A History of Israel, p. 370.

3Quoted in G. F. Moore, Judaism, I, p. 7

4Quoted in Harry M. Orlinsky, Ancient Israel, p. 136.

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