Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ezra: The Return of the Israelites

OK, Listen Up People! The 2009 session of MichaelReadsTheBible is now in session, and there's a lot of Bible left to read. So let's get eyes to Scripture, People! Hu-ah!


We'll jump in feet first today by covering the entire Book of Ezra. That's not too tough a task, because Ezra is short, heavy on lists of names, and really has only one key message.

That key message: The Jews come back to Jerusalem.

You'll remember that Jerusalem had fallen at the end of 2 Chronicles, and the Israelites had been taken off to forced resettlement in and around Babylon. Between then and the events of Ezra, roughly 70 years go by. Now, at the beginning of the book, God moves the Persian Emporer Cyrus to allow the exiles to move back to Jerusalem, taking some of the Temple treasures back with them. He gives them permission to rebuild the city and the temple, as well.

Except, it's not quite that easy. After a few years, and after Cyrus dies, local leaders around Jerusalem send a letter to the new emporer saying "Hey! You're letting these troublemakers rebuild their fortress-city! Check the archives, and you'll see what a pain they were before they were conquered." The archives are checked, and the rebuilding project is defunded.

Ezra the Scribe, 8th CenturyA few more years go by, another emporer is on the throne, and there is another exchange of letters. "Hey," the governer says, siding with the Israelites. "This project was authorized by Cyrus! Cyrus THE GREAT!! Check the archives!" The archives are again checked, the order is confirmed, and the Temple is allowed to be completed.

It is very confusing to keep the chronology of Ezra straight, however, because events are all situated in years of the reigns of the Persian emporers Xerxes, Artaxerxes, and Darius, and the Persian dynasty of the 6th Century B.C. is (as one finds with a quick peek at the Wiki) has multiple kings by all these names. I believe that Biblical historians have worked through all of this to their satisfaction, so if you are curious, I recommend you consult your local Biblical historian. I'll let it slide.

A Little Ethnic Cleansing

It appears that the exiles return in at least two separate waves, and if I read the text correctly there is quite a bit of tension between the groups who were in Babylon and the Israelites who remained in the countryside after the fall of Jerusalem. The returnees are more insular and religious, having had the shared experience of living as exiles in Babylon, while the locals have been doing what locals do in a multicultural environment, intermarrying and sharing cultural ideas back and forth with the neighbors.

At the end of the book, Ezra -- the leader of one of the waves of returnees -- prevails on the Israelites to enforce an expulsion of all "foreign" wives and and any children by these wives. The text presents this as an excellent idea, carried out with minimal opposition and by popular acclaim. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that this had to have been a brutally devastating wielding of power by the social conservatives. The fate of the wives and children is not mentioned.

Ezra "resolved the identity threat which arose by the intermarriage between Jews and foreigners," is says here on the Wiki, and for this is "highly respected in the Jewish tradition." So as usual my way looking at things is a bit non-traditional, I suppose.

Interesting Bits

  • This is, to my memory, the first time in the Bible that we have seen the word "Jews." It was the Israelites that were taken away to Babylon, but it is the Jews that return. There's no indication that this represents any change; it's just a new term introduced without explaination.
  • Ezra 8 and 9 are written in first person, by Ezra. Other books of the Bible have traditionally recognized authors -- Moses for the Books of Moses, for instance -- but I believe this is the first time we have an account that is directly written by participant in the action.
  • Finally, one of the human details that occasionally reward a close reading of the Bible. The people have been forcefully assembled in the central square of Jerusalem, knowing that they will be told that all "foreign" women and children will have to be expelled. ...all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, we're told, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain. (10:9) And wouldn't it just be like that? Not only do you have to endure bullying by social extremists, but to cap it off it has to rain on the outdoor meeting? It must have been a really, really awful day.
NEXT WEEK: Whatever book comes after Ezra!


Eversaved said...

Hey, what's a little ethnic cleansing between friends, eh?

Especially if it's just women and children.

Nichim said...

Hurrah for the new year of MRTB! And the book named after my first true love! He was named after a dog, not a, um, defender of jewish purity.

mhwitt said...

Thanks for returning Michael. I have been enjoying having you read the bible for me much more than I imagine I would enjoy actually reading it.

Ezra is one of those names that sounds Old Testament to me, and if someone told me it was a book of the bible yesterday I would of said, "oh, yeah, that does sound familiar." I had no idea what the book was about, so you've enlightened me. And here we are still so early in 2009!

gl. said...

welcome back, mrtb! the funding and defunding amuses me. the outcast of "foreign" wives & children does not.

Michael5000 said...

Holy Cow! Four comments has to be a MRTB record!

@Ms.Saved -- I was wondering as I wrote what your school's rabbis would make of what I have described, provocatively but reasonably I think, as "ethnic cleansing."

@Nichim -- My first college girlfriend had the same name as my childhood dog, but it was "Heather," not "Bowser" or something like that.

@mhwitt: Glad I could help!

@gl: There does seem to be a certain timelessness to the way that people strategize about how public funds are going to be used.

Eversaved said...


I am sad to say that I think the rabbis at my school, like most orthodox people of most religions, would probably find a way to justify it.

They justified everything about Israel's response in Gaza. And the churches I grew up in justified all that violence by G-d's chosen people in the OT, too.

jovaliquilts said...

It's significant in the middle ages when references to "France" rather then "the French" appear, or to "England" instead of "the English," etc., as it marks a move from identity as a tribe to the beginnings of a more modern state. What might be the difference between "Jews" and "Israelites"? Does that shift hold up in the original text (not just translation)?