Introducing the Book of Ezra

Introducing the Book of Ezra

The book of Ezra (to be read carefully alongside Nehemiah) covers a brief time span of about 25 years in Israel’s history. Second Chronicles, immediately before Ezra in the canon, reports one of the greatest tragedies in the Bible: the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation to Babylon. But 2 Chronicles places its final full stop after a note of hope. Cyrus the Persian king, conqueror of Babylon, would decree a release of the exiles and commission them to rebuild the Temple from its ruins.

This official decree (538 B.C.) opens the book of Ezra. What follows is a story of restoration, of rebuilding. The physical reconstruction of the Temple coincides with the reconstitution of Israel as God’s people. Having endured under Babylon the sort of calamity that dissolves nations, threatening to blot out their memory from the annals of the earth, Israel finds itself under the bountiful mercy of God who intends to sustain their identity as his own people.

Both projects recounted in Ezra—Temple reconstruction and national reconstitution—are dogged by enormous obstacles. The local rulers of “The Province Beyond the River” continually try to sabotage the rebuilding. A decree from King Artaxerxes (who did not recall the earlier decree of King Cyrus) threatened to put the project to an end permanently. But eventually, God’s favor shone through impossibilities and the Temple was rebuilt.

The greatest threat to the reconstitution of Israel appears near the book’s end. It will not rest well on our modern sensibilities. The problem is that the newly returned exiles began marrying the non-Israelite locals. For a people whose ethnic singularity was almost wiped out, a people whom God had decided to rescue from dissolution, these mixed marriages were regarded as offensive. In an odd twist, divorce became an act of faithfulness among these newly married exiles.

The namesake of the book, Ezra the priest, does not make an appearance until chapter 7. Artaxerxes permitted him to return to Jerusalem, its walls freshly rebuilt, its ghost-town status so recently annulled, its new Temple just completed. In Ezra 7:7 we read that out of Babylon came “singers” who had for years had no songs to sing (Ps. 137), “gatekeepers” who had had no gates to keep, and “temple servants” who had had no holy temple to serve.  They followed behind Ezra, known by Artaxerxes as “the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7.12, 21).

What had he been up to during all those years of exile in Babylon?  We know he had been studying.  Studying hard.  In a foreign land, there were surely late night

s and early mornings spent before whatever scrolls had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s flames.  Work both wearisome and toilsome… and charged with the emotional pain of loss and remorse.  The man was pouring over the words of the Law which Israel had discarded and had in turn been discarded (seemingly) as a people, forcibly ejected out of their land.  We have little access (in the canon) to Ezra’s exilic life before taking on leadership in Jerusalem.  But we know this:

“…Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of YHWH, and to do it, and to teach his statues and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).

And this is the man sent to lead and guide the reconstitution of God’s people. There is much to learn from this story and from this priest… enjoy.

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About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).