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An Introduction to the Books of Ezra-Nehemiah

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A. Hebrew: The Hebrew title is hymjn-arzu (Ezra-Nehemiah)1

1. arzu is probably an Aramaic form of the Hebrew term rzu, meaning to help2

2. hymjn is Hebrew meaning Yahweh comforts.3

3. The Writings: The Hebrew placement of the books is among the Writings just before Chronicles4 and after Daniel:

a. The Hebrew Scriptures were probably originally canonized into a two-fold division: the Law and the Prophets5

b. By around the second century B.C.6 a three-fold division of the Hebrew Scriptures arose: The Law, The Prophets, and The Writings7

1) The three-fold division included the same books as the two-fold division

2) There are several possible reasons for a three-fold division:8

a) A distinction was made between books which were written by men who held the prophetic office, and men who only had the prophetic gift

b) Some at a later date may have felt that those books which were not written by prophets were not fully canonical

c) A more practical purpose was served by the topical and festal9 significance rather than by the two-fold categories

4. Unity: It seems that in the Hebrew canon Ezra and Nehemiah were one book (Ezra-Nehemiah)

a. Ezra Nehemiah were regarded as one by the Babylonian Talmud,10 Josephus11 and Melito of Sardis12

b. In the MT there is no space between the end of Ezra 10 and the beginning of Nehemiah 113

c. In the MT the verse statistics are given for both books at the end of Nehemiah and not at the end of Ezra14

d. Perhaps Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah were a first and second volume of Hebrew history15

e. The books were not divided in the Hebrew canon until around the fifteenth century A.D. (1448) when a Hebrew manuscript divided the books into two. This was sustained in the Bomberg edition of 152516

B. Greek: The Greek titles are ESDRAS and NEEMIAS17

1. The LXX also grouped Ezra and Nehemiah together as one book calling the canonical Ezra-Nehemiah Esdras B or 2 Esdras with 1 Esdras being the apocryphal book18

2. Later, by the time of Origen, the LXX divided the books of Ezra and Nehemiah

C. Latin: The Latin Vulgate divided Ezra-Nehemiah into First and Second Ezra because of the duplicate list in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7.

II. AUTHORS: Ezra and Nehemiah (and a possible Chronicler)

A. The Book of Ezra was written by the spiritual leader Ezra the scribe/priest

1. The Babylonian Talmud identifies Ezra the scribe as the chronicler of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah19

2. Note the use of the first person in Ezra 7:27--9:15

B. Most of Nehemiah seems to have been written by Nehemiah since it too is in the first person (cf. 1:1--7:5; 12:31--13:31)

C. It seems that Ezra incorporated into one work his writings in Ezra and Nehemiah (chapter 7) as well as Nehemiah's personal memoirs in Nehemiah

D. Another possibility is that a later, but not much later, Chronicler combined the works of Ezra and Nehemiah into the canonical work of Ezra-Nehemiah

III. DATE: Some time around 433/432-400 B.C.

A. Ezra: Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem was probably in 458/457 B.C.20

1. Ezra 7:1 affirms that Ezra arrived in Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes the king of Persia

2. Ezra 7:8 affirms that Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king (Artaxerxes)

a. The is some question as to whether this was in the reign of Artaxerxes I Longimanus (464-423 B.C.) or Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-359 B.C.)21

b. The evidence seems to be that this was during the reign of Artaxerxes I Longimanus; therefore, the seventh year of his reign would have been 458/457 B.C.

1) Nehemiah 8:2 identifies Ezra as Nehemiah's contemporary

2) The Elephantine Papyri22 [c. 400 B.C.] mentions Johanan (the grandson of Eliashib [Neh 3:1, 20])23

B. Nehemiah I: Nehemiah's first arrival in Jerusalem was probably in 445/444 B.C.

1. Nehemiah 1:2 and 2:1 affirm that the events of Nehemiah occurred in the twentieth year of king Artaxerxes

2. Nehemiah arrived the first time in Jerusalem twelve-thirteen years after Ezra arrived

C. Nehemiah II: Nehemiah's second arrival in Jerusalem was probably in 433/432-420 B.C.

1. Nehemiah 13:6-7 reads, But during all this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had gone to the king. After some time, however, I asked leave from the king, and I came to Jerusalem and learned about the evil ....

2. Nehemiah left Jerusalem in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes

3. Nehemiah may also have returned to Jerusalem in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (this is not certain since the text reads, After some time, ...

D. Conclusion: While portions of each book were probably written earlier during the lives and events of their authors, it seems that they were combined and canonized some time after Nehemiah's second return to Jerusalem in 433/432 B.C.24


A. To provide a record of the reconstruction of the Hebrew theocracy upon the physical and spiritual foundations of the past25

B. To emphasize covenant renewal in the restored community (e.g., Neh 8-10)

C. To demonstrate God's faithfulness through the physical rebuilding and dedication of the wall (cf. Zeph 3:19-20; Hag 2:1-9)

D. To emphasize the historical and theological continuity between the preexilic and postexilic Israel through the institution of the temple, installation of officers like priests and temple servants, the emphasis of the Law of Moses

E. To proclaim the legitimacy of the restored community's religious, political, economic, and social life as God's people (cf. Neh 9:32-37)

F. To trace the re-establishment of Yahweh worship and the securing of Jerusalem as a religious community separated from all foreign influences unto Yahweh's Law26

G. To foreshadow the full restoration of the nation through that which was accomplished by Ezra and Nehemiah27

1 Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung), 1411.

2 BDB, s.v. rz^u* , 740.

3 BDB, s.v. hy*m=j#n= , p. 637.

4 Perhaps Ezra-Nehemiah is placed before Chronicles (even though it covers information after Chronicles) because it was included in the canon first whereas Chronicles was included later since it had information similar to Samuel and Kings (cf. R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1136)

5 The two-fold division is argued upon (1) the way in which Moses' Law is referred to as a unit throughout the Scriptures, (2) the way in which the historical books are linked together as a unit, (3) the reference in Daniel to the Law and the books [9:2], and (4) the recognition of the Former prophetic books by the Latter (See Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, pp. 148-161).

6 Prologue to Ecclesiasticus (c. 132 B.C.), Jesus in Luke 24:44 (A.D. 30) Josephus, Against Apion, I.8 (A.D. 37-100).

7 The Writings include: (1) Poetical Books--Psalms, Proverbs, Job, (2) Five Rolls (Megilloth)--Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes, (3) Historical Books--Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles

Sometimes Ruth was attached to Judges, and Lamentations was attached to Jeremiah thereby making the Hebrew canon comprised of 22 books rather than the more usual 24 books (see Geisler and Nix, General, pp. 18-19).

8 Critical scholars assume that the three-fold division reflects dates of canonization in accordance with their dates of compositions--Law (400 B.C.), Prophets (c. 200 B.C.), Writings (c. A.D. 100). However, this thesis is untenable in light of early reports of a three-fold division (c. 132 B.C.; see above). See Geisler and Nix, General, p. 151.

This critical approach is suggested by La Sor et al as an explanation for the placement of Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, Esther, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes when they write, Essentially, the purpose of the Writings as a whole was to collect those sacred books whose purpose, character, or date excluded them form the collections of law and prophecy (Old, p. 508-509).

9 Song of Solomon (eighth day of Passover), Ruth (second day of Weeks, or Pentecost), Lamentations (ninth day of Ab, in mourning for the destruction of Solomon's temple), Ecclesiastes (third day of Tabernacles), Esther (Purim).

10 Bab. Bath. 15a.

11 Contr. Apion. 1.8.

12 In Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., IV.26.

13 Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung), 1430.

14 Ibid., 1458.

15 This is supported by the similarity of 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-2 (see Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 228-29). Childs writes, The repetition of the last verses of Chronicles in the introduction of Ezra, ..., interprets the Ezra story as a continuation of Israel's history. The author focuses only on certain events as theologically significant. Chapters 1--6 progress from release under Cyrus to the reconstruction of the temple. Chapters 7--10 treat the arrival of Ezra and his initial reform. Nehemiah 1--6 records the building of the walls and Neh. 7-13 handle the reordering of the community's life. Moreover, the particular structuring of these events reveal the writer's perspective. Ezra 1--6, 7--10 along with Neh. 1--6 are only preparation for the climax of this sacred history which occurs in the combined activity of Ezra and Nehemiah in chs. 7--13. Likewise, the last chapter (13.4ff) is subordinated to this section and not given an independent significance ...) (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 632-33).

16 R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1135.

17 Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library), 617, 631.

18 Hill and Walton write,Two books in the Old Testament Apocrypha are titled 'Esdras,' the Greek equivalent of the name Ezra. The apocryphal 2 Esdras is an apocalyptic work of the late first century A.D. and has no connection with the historical Ezra. The Apocryphal 1 Esdras dates to the second century B.C. and includes material from 2 Chronicles 35:1 through the end of the Old Testament book of Ezra, with Nehemiah 7:73--8:12 forming an appendix to the text. Though the book of 1 Esdras has some value for comparative analysis with the biblical texts of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, the book is generally considered inferior both historically and theologically to the Old Testament book of Ezra (e.g., 1 Esd. 5:70-73) (Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 228-229; For a good chart on this see LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 639; see also R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, 1135-36).

19 Baba Bathra 15a. It also adds that the work was completed by Nehemiah.

20 This was the second return from Exile. The first return was under Zerubbabel in 538 B.C. when Cyrus was King (Ezra 1--6). The second return was under Ezra in 458/457 while Artaxexes I Longimanus was King (Ezra 7--10) and the third return was under Nehemiah in 445/444 B.C. also while Artaxerxes I Longimanus was king (Nehemiah 1--13).

For a discussion of problems with the dates of Ezra-Nehemiah see Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 420-24. John Bright, A History of Israel, 391-402.

21 See Albright's early discussions. He seems to have changed his mind about this matter.

22 LaSor et al write, These business documents and letters were found on the island of Elephantine, north of the first cataract of the Nile and opposite Aswan. They belonged to a Jewish military colony established at least as early as the fall of Jerusalem in 586. The texts throw brilliant light on the affairs of the Jewish colony in Upper Egypt, especially for the period 425-400. In 410 these Jews wrote a letter to Johanan, high priest at Jerusalem (Neh. 12:22), regarding the rebuilding of their temple. In 407 they sent a long appeal in the same regard to Bagoas, governor of Judah, in which they mentioned a similar letter to 'Delaiah and Shelemiah, the sons of Sanballat the governor of Samaria. Assuming this is the same Sanballat who was the inveterate enemy of Nehemiah (2:19; 4:1 [MT 3:33]), the Artaxerxes referred to in 2:1 must be Artaxerxes I (LaSor, Hubbard, and Bush, Old Testament Survey, 560, n. 33; See also ANET, pp. 491ff).

23 Archer writes, This Johanan was a grandson of the Eliashib mentioned in Nehemiah 3:1 and 20 and Nehemiah was a contemporary of Eliashib. It therefore follows that when the biblical record speaks of Nehemiah going to Jerusalem in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes (Neh 1:1) and again in his thirty-second year (Neh. 13:6), the reference must be to Artaxerxes I (yielding the date 445 and 433 respectively) rather than the reign of Artaxerxes II (which would result in the dates 384 and 372 respectively--far too late for the high priesthood of Johanan) (Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 419-20).

24 It is also possible that a later Chronicler edited the memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah into this final form around 400 B.C. While this conclusion is not absolutely necessary, it is a possibility (see Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 229-30).

25 Gleason L. Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 419. Continuing he writes, As God protected His remnant from the hatred of external foes, so also He delivered them from the insidious corruption of the false brethren within the commonwealth (Ibid.).

26 Johnson writes, Although Israel now lived under Persian rule God worked in mercy through the Gentiles to restore a true form of worship and true worshippers separated to Himself. It would be in this context that YHWH would come to be received and worshipped in Spirit and truth (Elliott E. Johnson, Synthesis of Ezra, [unpublished class notes in 303 Old Testament History II, Dallas Theological Seminary, Spring 1981], 10). Continuing he writes, Whereas Ezra primarily was concerned with worship Nehemiah is primarily civil. Yet its civil establishment as a city in the Persian empire is not secular and political but establishes itself under Mosaic law as a religious community. The political authority remains securely in the control of Persia under whom Nehemiah functions. Still, it is YHWH's initiative and will that are being affected in the establishment of Jerusalem (Elliott E. Johnson, Synthesis of Nehemiah, [unpublished class notes in 303 Old Testament History II, Dallas Theological Seminary, Spring 1981], 9).

27 Childs writes, The reading of the law has been assigned to this section of Nehemiah [chapters 8--12] because it was only after the completion of the wall and the settlement of the people (7.5ff) that the conditions for the full restoration of the community were met. Separation unto God was internal as well as external. For this reason, Ezra's early reform and Nehemiah's building programme only served to foreshadow the full restoration. It has been reserved for the Nehemiah chapters to describe the formation of the ideal community of faith. This task required a combining of the sacred with the secular in a divine theocracy, and thus called forth the participation of both Ezra and Nehemiah as representatives of these two different offices. The paradigmatic purposes of these chapters in describing the ideal, faithful community is made further apparent in the two summaries at the conclusion of the assembly. 'On that day' (12.44; 13.1) both the service of worship and the purity of the people were established.

To summarize, the books of Ezra-Nehemiah offer an extreme example of a canonical process which has disregarded a strictly literary or historical sequence in order to describe the restoration as a theological model for the obedient and holy people of God. (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 636-37).

Johnson writes, It is written to demonstrate what God has done without any necessary implications directing attention to future actions. Rather, based on the demonstration of what God has begun to fulfill, the godly reader is encouraged to anticipate a complete fulfillment of what He has begun. The godly Jews were expected to continue in purity of worship with an expectation that God would continue to work He had begun (Elliott E. Johnson, Ezra and Nehemiah, [unpublished class notes in 327 Seminar in Old Testament Historical Literature, Dallas Theological Seminary, Spring 1989], 5).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines

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