The books of Ezra and Nehemiah cover the key post-exilic period, from the Persian ruler Cyrus’ decree in 536, allowing the people to return to the land, until about 432 BC. The Tanakh (the Jewish scriptures) ends with Ezra and Nehemiah and the two Chronicles books, thus opening up the biblical story to the future of Jewish life and worship. The Christian Old Testament books are grouped differently, with the last prophet, Malachi, pointing toward the era of Jesus. The last Old Testament prophets—Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi—come from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Several years ago I was asked to write an article called, "Ezra and Nehemiah: Bringing a People Home," for the Adult Bible Studies June-August 2003 teachers' guide (The United Methodist Publishing House). I'm not reproducing that copyrighted article here. But looking over the article now, I enjoy remembering the discoveries I made as I researched these two (for me) seldom read books. Here are some things I learned from typical commentaries.
* Ezra and Nehemiah connect the people back to the law of the Torah. Genealogists, take note! Ezra’s 14-great-grandfather was Aaron himself (Ezra 7:5), while his 3-great-grandfather was Zadok, chief priest during David’s lifetime (2 Samuel 8:17; Ezra 7:2). Ezra was also the priest and scribe who, in an important sense, gave the law to the people of Israel by renewing its observance. His public recitation of the law, described in Neh. 8:1-12, connects the people back to the repetition of the law by Moses in Deuteronomy and the reading of the law by Joshua.
* Both Ezra and Nehemiah are depicted as exemplary leaders (1). Ezra maintained accountability for himself and others (8:16-18, 25-34). Nehemiah, meanwhile, was a model for constant prayer, beseeching God several times during the story. One author writes, “This man is possibly one of the most prayerful persons in the Bible outside of Christ. He realized there were times for long, sustained prayer and times for hard work and quick, whispered prayer.”(2)
* You probably know that the Bible contains many historical gaps as the chapters move along. For instance, when we're reading along in Numbers and arrive at chapter 20, we may not realize (without a commentary) that the story has leapt ahead 38 years. Ezra and Nehemiah have gaps, too. Ezra 1-6 describes the generation from 536 BC until the Temple’s completion in 516 BC, and next is Ezra’s arrival in about 458 BC (Ezra 7-10). Next is the events of about 445 BC (Nehemiah 1-12), and then Nehemiah 13 considers the events of 432 BC.(3)
Certain things about the books are odd, though. For instance, although Ezra and Nehemiah worked at the same time (e.g., Neh. 8:9), they never mention each other. Also, Nehemiah led the small population to the ruined city (Neh. 7:4) but Ezra came to a larger community (Ezra 9:4).(4) Thus, some scholars speculate that Ezra came later; instead of the seventh year of Cyrus’ reign (Ezra 7:7), he actually came in the 37th year, 428 BC, and that a scribe miscopied the year. If this is true, then Nehemiah became the many reforms of the period and then Ezra.
In this scenario, Nehemiah began religious and legal reforms, and Ezra arrived and continued those reforms (e.g., demanding that the men divorce their Gentile wives).(5)
* Ezra’s story (7:1-8:36, Neh. 7:73b-8:18, Ezra 9:1-10:44, Neh. 9:1-10:40) (6) and Nehemiah’s story (Neh. 1:1-7:73a, 11:1-13:31) are woven with historical sources of different kinds: census records, inventories, divine decrees, contracts, memos, decrees, the memoir of Ezra (Ezra 7:27-9:15), a third person narrative of Ezra (7), and a memoir of Nehemiah (1:1-7:73a, 11:1-2, 12:27-43, and 13:4-31). One scholar calls Nehemiah’s memoirs “one of the most accurate historical sources in the Old Testament, the only undisputed source for Jewish history between 520-175 B.C.”(8)
* Ezra doesn’t appear in his own book until chapter 7. First, we get the story of Zerubbabel, who is so praised as Israel’s hope in the corresponding prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel, and the priest Jeshua lead the Jews as they return from exile—42,360 returnees, according to the book, plus servants, singers, and livestock (Ezra 2:64). Soon Jeshua and Zerubbabel built an altar to God and, by the second year, commenced construction of the Temple (Ezra 2:68-3:13).
The Temple was eventually completed and dedicated in 515 BC (Ezra 5-6). But with a final reference (Ezra 5:2), Zerubbabel disappears from the story. What happened to him? Why does the narrative drop him, especially Zechariah and especially Haggai praise his authority and hint that he is a great new Davidic king? Although hopes for a Davidic monarchy in Judah continued, those hopes seemed suspended for the time being.
* The books give us information about the Samaritan-Judean rivalry. Of course, we know about the Samaritans because one met Jesus at Jacob's well (John 4) and another was, well, good (Luke 10:29-37). The Samaritans were descendants of northern kingdom Israelites who, conquered by the Assyrians in the 700s BC, had intermarried with Gentiles in the aftermath of that conquest. Samaritans had the law of Moses but no prophetic tradition. Samaritans offered to help the Temple rebuilding effort, but their help was rejected (Ezra 4). (9)
* Our two leaders were great reformers. Religious and social reforms included the easing of debts incurred by farmers, the return of seized properties to owners (Neh. 5), the establishment of festivals like Passover (Ezra 6:16-22), Sukkot (Neh. 8:13-18), and the Sabbath itself (Neh. 10:31, 13:15-22), and also the support of the priesthood and the temple (Neh. 10:32-39, Neh. 13:10-14).
* Controversially, Ezra and Nehemiah also moved the people toward separation from the Gentile world, for instance in demanding divorce of intermarriages (Ezra 9:2-25, 10:9-44, Neh. 13:23-29). At one point, the story has a bleak, comic edge:
Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them (Ezra 10:9-15).
“Please, Ezra, can we go inside and dry off first and make some contacts before we divorce our foreign women and avert God‘s wrath?”
As Bernhard Anderson points out, the book of Ruth, a lovely of Jewish and Gentile intermarriage, was written during the Persian era, possibly to counterbalance the exclusivity of Ezra and Nehemiah.
But looking at the situation from their standpoint (and not from the standpoint, for instance, of Jesus' criticisms of the Pharisees), the Jews of the post-exilic era were determining the best way to live to secure God’s mercies, considering God’s judgment upon them for their pre-exilic sins, including alliances with foreign nations. Historically, the Greek (Hellenistic), Roman, and later Christian influences further threatened Judaism, so the Jews’ uncompromising stance for religious values and observance helped them survive over the centuries.(10)
* And another thing I learned from my research, is that Ezra and Nehmiah indeed emphasize not barriers per se but God’s promises and God’s mercy. God’s help allowed his people to return to the land, recalling the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua centuries earlier.(11) Consequently, the two books do emphasize joy and blessing. When the people wept at the reading of the law, their leaders responded, Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (Neh. 8:10).
(And with those words, I'll have that darn praise-song stuck in my head all day, LOL. Here's an adorable YouTube video of the song, from someone's church: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=du-fufq7zNs)
1. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books,
1996), p. 235.
2. Ibid, p. 555.
3. Ralph W. Klein, “The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah," The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), p. 665.
4. Ibid. p. 562.
5. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice
Hall, 1975), p. 490.
6. Raymond A. Bowman, “The Book of Ezra and The Book of Nehemiah," The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 560
7. Ibid., p. 556.
8. Ibid. p. 555.
9. Anderson, p. 480.
10. Ibid., pp. 492-93.
11. Klein, p. 664.