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Chapter 3 An Analysis Of Plot In Ezra

The concept of “plot” received its first definitive treatment in the Poetics, Aristotle’s analysis of Greek tragedy.162 Aristotle regarded plot as the most important component of tragedy and defined it as that “ordered arrangement of the incidents … which has a beginning and a middle and an end.”163 Though the literary world has expanded the analysis,164 definition,165 and varieties166 of plot since the Poetics, it has steadfastly affirmed Aristotle’s basic contention that plot is an indispensable element of mimetic literature.167

The significance of analyzing plot for the Biblical theologian lies in the fact that narrative meaning, the object of exegetical study, is largely a function of plot.168 The arrangement of the incidents in a narrative plays a major role in shaping the implied relations between the incidents and, ultimately, the meaning of the narrative.169 Any close reading of Biblical narratives reveals the exacting care with which the authors arranged their narrative materials. Consequently, exploring the plot of Ezra is a vital part of the exegetical process.

Following Aristotle’s lead, plot, as used here, denotes the united sequence of events presented in Ezra’s narrative. This definition incorporates the elemental components that are a part of all Biblical plots: events,170 and the selection, arrangement, and presentation of those events.171 The purpose of this chapter is to expose the relations between Ezra’s plots172 and the message of the book as a whole. This will be accomplished by analyzing the structure and composition of Ezra’s plots.

Plot Structure in Ezra

In a narrative covering fewer than one hundred years in ten chapters, one might expect the plot to span the entirety of the book, perhaps with subordinate plot structures supporting and illuminating various facets of the main plot. Other Biblical narratives such as Ruth, Esther, and Jonah employ this basic pattern. The application of three traditional models for analyzing plot structure reveals, however, that Ezra cast his narrative in a different mold.173

The first traditional model comes from Aristotle’s dictum that every good plot must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.174 This approach is helpful, for it provides a means of ascertaining and verifying plot boundaries.175 Application of this model to Ezra yields two distinct plots. In the first section of Ezra, chapters 1-6 , the first two chapters constitute the beginning, chapters 3-4 the middle, and chapters 5-6 the end. Chapter six fits the Aristotelian criteria for “an end” perfectly: it logically follows from the action of the preceding chapter and requires nothing after it.176 Table 6 charts the structure of the episodes, phases, and scenes in Ezra 1-6 .177

Table 6 — Episodes, Phases, and Scenes in Ezra 1-6

Rebuilding the Temple: Ezra 1-6

Episodes

Phases

Scenes

Return 1-2

Return initiated 1:1-11

Edict and response 1:1-11

 

Return completed 2:1-70

List of returnees 2:1-67

   

Free will offerings given 2:68-70

Rebuilding 3-6

Temple started 3:1-13

Temple sacrifice restarted 3:1-6

   

Temple foundation laid 3:7-13

 

Opposition–successful 4:1-24

Help offered and refused 4:1-5

   

Xerxes and opposition 4:6

   

Artaxerxes and opposition 4:7

   

City wall effort stopped 4:8-24

 

Opposition–reversed 5:1-6:12

Building resumed 5:1-2

   

Tatnai’s questioning 5:3-17

   

Darius’s response 6:1-12

 

Temple completed 6:13-22

Temple completed 6:13-18

   

Passover celebrated 6:19-22

In the second section of Ezra, chapters 7-8 are the beginning, chapter 9 the middle, and chapter 10 the end. Chapter seven clearly constitutes an Aristotelian “beginning”: it has no necessary logical or actional antecedents, and the events of the following chapters proceed from it. The narrative action ends in chapter ten, completing the second plot. Table 7 provides a breakdown of the episodes, phases, and scenes of Ezra’s second plot.

Table 7 — Episodes, Phases, and Scenes in Ezra 7-10

Restoring the Community: Ezra 7-10

Episodes

Phases

Scenes

Second Return 7-8

Ezra’s commission 7:1-28

Introduction to Ezra 7:1-5

   

Second return summarized 7:6-10

   

Artaxerxes’ commission 7:11-28

 

Preparation to leave 8:1-30

Genealogical enrollment 8:1-14

   

Levites missing 8:15-20

   

Prayer for protection 8:21-23

   

Securing of offerings 8:24-30

 

Journey and arrival 8:31-36

Return journey 8:31-32

   

Temple vessels weighed 8:33-34

   

Burnt offerings offered 8:35

   

Officials informed 8:36

Marriage Crisis 9-10

Problem discovered 9:1-16

Princes’ report 9:1-2

   

Ezra’s humiliation 9:3-4

   

Ezra’s prayer 9:5-16

 

Problem resolved 10:1-44

Solution proposed 10:1-6

   

Meeting and covenant 10:7-14

   

Divorce commission 10:16-44

The second traditional model analyzes plot structure in terms of a pyramidal model of conflict development and resolution.178 In chapter one, the decree of Cyrus disrupts the equilibrium of exiled Israel, sending the Returnees on a mission to build the house of God (1:1-4 ). The action rises with the return and initiation of work on the altar and temple (1:5-3:13 ). When the Jews face the Samarians’ request to help build the temple, their choice to refuse that offer generates the primary plot crisis in which all building efforts come to a halt (4:1-24 ). The advent of Haggai and Zechariah initiates the falling action (5:1-6:12 ), and the completion of the temple along with the celebration of Passover marks the conflict’s unraveling and a return to a condition of stability (6:13-22 ). The plot resolves in a grand demonstration of God’s sovereign power.

Figure 2 — The Rise and Fall in Israel’s Fortunes in Ezra 1-6

In chapters 7-10 a Persian decree again disrupts the status quo of Babylonian Jewry, commissioning Ezra to seek the welfare of Judah and Jerusalem (7:1-28 ). The action rises as Ezra prepares to lead the returning Jews to Jerusalem (8:1-36 ). The apparent return to stability accomplished by the safe arrival of the Returnees is shattered by Ezra’s discovery that his people have been intermarrying with the peoples of the lands (9:1-2 ). The plot’s emotional climax coincides with its actional crisis in Ezra’s intense prayer of repentance (9:3-15 ). The action begins its descent as God-fearing Israelites respond to Ezra’s prayer, and the conflict resolves through divorce, leaving God’s people purified once again (10:1-44 ).

The third analytical model, again Aristotelian, examines plot structure in terms of the rise or fall of the protagonist’s fortune as he attempts to reach his objective.179 Figures 2 and 3 provide visual graphs of the rise and fall in the Returnees’ fortunes along the lines of Ezra’s plot.180 In chapters 1-3 the Returnees’ fortunes rise unhindered toward the completion of God’s word through Cyrus. In chapter four, the Samarian opposition and Artaxerxes’ decree create the impression of a huge peripety in fortune. The building effort makes a tenuous resurgence in chapter five and then soars to a grand conclusion in chapter six.

In the second plot, Ezra’s fortunes rise in Artaxerxes’ grant and with it the fortunes of God’s people. The Returnees’ successful journey marks the highest point of their fortune. In chapter nine the report of the people’s

unfaithfulness in marrying foreign women reveals the precarious state of their fortunes. The first half of chapter ten records the people’s response to Ezra, followed by the resolution to the crisis as they put away their foreign wives. Though the crisis is resolved and the law enforced, the fortunes of Israel fail to rise to the height they attained by the end of chapter eight.

Each of the three traditional models employed in analyzing the plot structure of Ezra leads to the same conclusion: the Book of Ezra is composed of two stories, each with a distinct plot.181 The changes in protagonists (the Returnees versus Ezra), time (538-516 B.C. versus 458 B.C.), and topic (temple versus community) all support this conclusion. This is not to argue that Ezra 1-6 and 7-10 are structurally or thematically unrelated. In fact, the opposite is true.182 Rather, the point is to establish the plot perimeters in Ezra, so that an accurate assessment of each plot may be made.

Plot Composition

After establishing the boundaries and overall structure of Ezra’s plots, the next step is to examine the composition of the plots. Plot composition is the result primarily of three activities: selection, arrangement, and presentation.

Figure 3 — The Rise and Fall in Israel’s Fortunes in Ezra 7-10

Selection of Events

Selection, the first principle of plot composition, operates in two directions: inclusion and omission. An author must choose which events he will include and those he will omit.183 No story can tell everything; therefore, it is reasonable to assume that an author’s communicative concerns will shape his selection of events and that the resulting plot will mirror those concerns in both its inclusions and its omissions.184

Omission

At times more telling than what an author says is what he does not say.185 Yet discerning the motivation for an omission is, as a rule, an exercise in speculation. The sheer volume of material omitted makes analysis impractical, and it is usually not possible to know what has been omitted.186 Ezra 1-6, however, narrates the only portion of post-exilic history to receive triple coverage in Scripture. The books of Haggai and Zechariah, both of whom prophesied during the temple reconstruction, also cover this same period. This multiple coverage provides an objective basis for determining what events Ezra omits from his narrative. Comparison of these three accounts reveals that Ezra omitted two key events from his narrative record: the Returnees’ selfish decision to refrain from building the temple and the ensuing judgment upon the land (Hag. 1:2 , 7-10 ).187

Had Ezra built into his narrative the Returnees’ self-centered unwillingness to build the temple and God’s consequent judgment, the distribution of blame would shift drastically from the Samarians to the Jews. Israel, in fact, deserved the greater share of blame.188 Yet Ezra deliberately avoids including information that would dissipate his narrative picture of the Samarians as relentless enemies of God’s plan. As the narrative stands, the reader gets the distinct impression that the temple work halted because of the opposition of the Samarians. And that is Ezra’s purpose: He intends to highlight the wrongdoing of the people of the land.189

Two significant spans of time are omitted from Ezra 7-10 : a 57-year gap between the end of chapter six and the beginning of chapter seven , and a four-month gap between the second return and the report that Jews were marrying foreign women. In these cases, however, there is no parallel record of that time period that might reveal whether or not these omissions color the reader’s perception of the events. The interpreter must rely entirely upon the events Ezra included.

Inclusion

Of the events an author selects for inclusion, not all have equal significance in the development of the plot. Two levels of plot events may be distinguished: kernel events and satellite events.190 Kernel events create the story’s backbone. They develop the main topic and main theme(s) and are, therefore, the means by which an author mediates his primary message.191 Satellite events, on the other hand, provide a basis for deducing subsidiary theological concerns.

The kernel events of Ezra’s first plot may be summarized as follows. In response to Cyrus’s divinely motivated edict, a group of some 42,000 Jews returns to Israel to rebuild the temple. After arriving, they reestablish the Mosaic sacrificial system and lay the foundation of the temple. The peoples of the land ask to help rebuild the temple and, upon refusal, repeatedly frustrate the Jews’ building plans. In Darius’s second year, two prophets stir the leaders to renew their rebuilding efforts. The renewed work precipitates an investigation by the provincial governor who reports to Darius, seeking confirmation of the Jews’ right to build. Darius confirms their right and orders the governor to place imperial resources at their disposal. Four years later the Jews complete the rebuilding project and dedicate the temple with joy.

Two topics emerge clearly from the kernel events of this plot. The first topic, though less dominant, is the return from exile (Ezra 1-2 ). The second topic is the Jewish effort to rebuild the temple (Ezra 3-6 ). The rebuilding of the temple receives the greater attention and is the point around which most of the action revolves. The development of these topics, in part, reflects the historiographic aims of Ezra. In his narrative, he preserves for posterity significant events in the life of their nation.

The historiographic concern is not, however, the driving force of the narrative, for Ezra omits large segments of post-exilic history and provides only meager details for the events he does narrate. The concerns that drive his selection of narrative events are theological. His opening line, “To fulfill the word of Yahweh from the mouth of Jeremiah” (1:1 ), identifies one of his key themes:192 the fulfillment of God’s word through Jeremiah.193 Cyrus’s return of the temple vessels (1:7-11 ) fulfills God’s promise that He would restore the temple vessels to His house (Jer. 27:21-22 ). The return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to Judah (Ezra 2 ) fulfills the oft-repeated promise that God would bring His people back to the land from which He had dispersed them.194 The renewal of free-will offerings (Ezra 3:5 ) and the thankful singing of Yahweh’s goodness and loyal love (Ezra 3:11 ) fulfill the prophecy that “again shall be heard … the voice of those saying, ‘Give thanks to Yahweh of hosts, for Yahweh is good, for his loyal love endures forever’; and of those bringing thank offering to the house of Yahweh” (Jer. 33:10-11 ).195

The sovereign power of God, the primary theme of Ezra 1-6 , develops through God’s orchestration of the fulfillment of His word, particularly in the rebuilding of the temple.196 As God turns the opposition of His enemies into support for His plans, the greatness of His power becomes evident. Antagonistic neighbors, local officials, and the greatest monarchs on earth all serve His ends willingly or otherwise. The God of Heaven reigns sovereign over all.

Woven among the kernel events of Ezra’s first plot are three satellite events developing subthemes that complement and expand the plot’s main themes: (1) the exclusion of priests who lacked proof of their ancestry from eating the most holy things (2:58-63 ); (2) the presentation of free-will offerings upon arrival in Jerusalem (2:68-69 ); and (3) the account of the Passover celebration after the temple is built and dedicated (6:19-22 ).197

Ezra 2:58-63 records an account of two groups of people who were “unable to declare the house of their father”: one lay, the other priestly. No explicit consequence is recorded for the laymen, but the priests were defiled198 from the priesthood and denied their livelihood through priestly channels.199 This brief incident, almost hidden in a long list of family names, introduces a significant theme that runs throughout the book: the importance of holiness—in the priesthood, in worship, and in the laity. Concern for holiness is the unspoken issue igniting the conflict in Ezra 4-6 , and it becomes the dominant theme in the second half of Ezra. Though this scene is tangential to the plot line of the first section, the issue at stake is crucial to the actional and theological dynamics of the whole book.

The second satellite event, the presentation of free-will offerings, characterizes the Returnees as willing supporters of God’s work. The positive impression created by their sincerity and fervor will heighten the contrast between them and the people of the land in the following chapters. The revelation in chapter six that Cyrus had decreed that the expense of rebuilding the temple was to be “given from the house of the king” heightens retrospectively the significance of this generosity (6:4 ).200 The gifts were not needed to finance the building project. Instead, the gifts evidenced the people’s heart for the work.

The final satellite event is the celebration of the Passover in 6:19-22 . The plot draws to a close with the resolution of the conflict (6:6-12 ) and the completion of the temple (6:13-18 ). Although the Passover celebration appears to be little more than an addendum,201 this scene is far more than that. While highlighting the holiness of God’s people, this scene unobtrusively adds a significant dimension to the book’s holiness theme: the legitimate participation of non-Jews in the worship of Yahweh when they have separated themselves from the uncleanness of the nations of the land (6:20-21 ).202 The final verse wraps the entire plot into an inclusio of divine action: God is the first actor in the story (1:1 ) and the last to leave the stage (6:22 ). God is shown to be both author and finisher of that segment of history’s plot. In these four verses Ezra’s main themes converge, reflecting in microcosm the message of the plot as a whole.

The kernel events of Ezra’s second plot, consisting of the commission, preparation, and execution of Ezra’s mission, may be summarized as follows. At Ezra’s request, Artaxerxes commissions him to return to Judah with all those willing to return and to promote its welfare by teaching and enforcing the law of God. Ezra prepares for the journey by gathering the people, appealing for Levites to join them, praying for protection, and appointing men to safeguard the valuables offered for the temple. After arriving in Jerusalem, Ezra learns that the Jews have been intermarrying with the peoples of the land. In mourning and self-humiliation, he confesses his people’s guilt. In response to Ezra’s prayer, Shecaniah proposes that the guilty divorce their wives, and at a following meeting, all the Israelites agree to separate from the peoples of the land and from the foreign women. A commission is established, and three months later 113 men have separated from their wives and children.

Table 8 — Artaxerxes’ Commission and Ezra’s Completion

Commission Tasks

Completion

Lead those who are willing to Jerusalem 7:13

8:1-14 , 31-32

Inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law 7:14
of your God, which is in your hand

8:1-10 :44 203

Carry silver, gold, and free willing offerings; use them to 7:15-17

buy offerings; and offer them upon the altar in Jerusalem

8:24-30 , 35

Dispose of the rest of the silver and gold as you desire 7:18

--------

Render in full the sacred vessels before the God of Jerusalem 7:19

8:33-34

Provide the needs of the house of your God from the king’s 7:20
treasury

--------

Inform the king’s treasurers about the credit available to 7:21-24
Ezra and the proscription of taxes on temple personnel

8:36

Appoint magistrates and judges for all the people who are in 7:25
Beyond the River to teach the law of God204

9:1-2 ; 10:14 , 16

Punish those who disobey either the law of God or the king 7:26

10:16-44

The primary topic of this second plot is Ezra’s mission to “inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of … God” (7:14 ). Artaxerxes’ commission outlines nine tasks for Ezra to complete,205 and in one way or another nearly every event in the following chapters relates to one of the elements of Ezra’s mission.206 Table 8 above outlines the tasks Artaxerxes gives Ezra and the narrative reference of each task’s completion.

The close correspondence between Ezra’s commission and the events he includes suggests that Ezra is deliberately establishing a record of his faithfulness to the king’s assignment. Perhaps a report was expected at the palace in Persia, or Ezra may have been vindicating himself to a readership that was critical of the way he handled the marriage crisis. In either case, the events testify to the diligence and conscientiousness of Ezra.207

Besides its historical and personal concerns, this second plot develops several important theological themes. The events of chapters 7-8 reveal God’s gracious goodness to His people primarily in the munificence of Artaxerxes’ grant. In chapters 9-10 the theme of holiness comes to center stage. Ezra magnifies the seriousness of the Israelites’ unholy alliances by his actions, his prayer, and the drastic remedy he prescribes. The relation between these two themes is stated in Ezra’s brief explanation for not asking Artaxerxes for an armed guard. He had told the king, “The hand of our God is upon all those who are seeking Him for good, and His strength and His wrath are against all those abandoning Him” (8:22 ). This statement enunciates perhaps the most important element of Ezra’s message, for it explains the relationship between human responsibility and divine sovereignty, between his audience’s actions and God’s interaction with them, and more specifically, between their present situation (rebuilding of city walls stopped) and their past behavior (marrying foreign women): man’s behavior co-determines God’s interaction with him.208

Two noteworthy satellite events are included in Ezra 7-10 . The first is Ezra 8:31-32, which informs the reader of the Returnees’ safe arrival. Ezra’s introduction had already stated that the group under his leadership made it to Jerusalem (7:7-9 ). This brief notice of safety, however, gives historical verification of the theological affirmation made in 8:23 —“and [Yahweh] was entreated for us.” The second satellite is in Ezra 10:6 . Though unnecessary for the plot action, the inclusion of Ezra retiring to Jehohanan’s room to mourn rounds out the picture of the seriousness of the Returnees’ sin and the genuineness of Ezra’s sorrow. It also illustrates the response of a godly man to unfaithfulness to Yahweh and thereby contributes to the development of the character model that God wants to set before His people.

Arrangement of Events

The second principle of plot composition is arrangement.209 Having selected the events he wants to include, an author must then choose how he will arrange those events. Sequential relationships exist at all levels of a narrative: across the totality, between episodes, between scenes, and within scenes. Of the variety of logical relations that can exist,210 Ezra arranges the main lines of his plots in accordance with the cause-effect pattern that is natural to life in time.211 All the actions of chapters 1-3 flow directly from the divine activity of verse one. The Jews and their “enemies” clash, and the work on the temple ends. In chapter five , prophetic leadership spurs renewed work on the temple, which in turn spawns an investigation resulting in imperial encouragement and provision. With the completion of the temple, the people celebrate God’s goodness in the Passover and feast of unleavened bread. In chapters 7-10 , the events follow cause-effect order as well.

The one significant deviation from this pattern takes place in chapter four. Here Ezra arranges the events thematically rather than in cause-effect order. Extracting similar events from an 80-year period, he concatenates them into a riveting display of the long-time opposition of the Samarians. Within chapter four, the inclusion of the city wall incident (4:8-23 ), which took place sometime after the events of chapter ten , adds complexity to the overall arrangement of the narrative with at least two effects. First, the situation of a current event in the past links Ezra’s original audience to their forebears. Their problems and enemies, shown side by side, appear virtually the same. Not only is there similarity in opposition, but more importantly, their fathers’ God is their God. As the narrative displays God resolving their fathers’ problem, it also implies hope for their current situation: what God did for their fathers, He can do again. Second, the nested arrangement of the city wall conflict within the larger temple setting temporarily obscures the fact that the conflict is not resolved. The overshadowing focus on the completion of the temple subtly defers scrutiny of the logical cause behind the wall-building conflict until the end of the narrative. At the end of the narrative, the exposure of Israel’s sin and the enunciation of how sin affects God’s dealing with men will place the incident in an entirely different light.

No other divergences from a cause-effect pattern manifest themselves in the inter-episodic and inter-scenic relations of Ezra 1-6 . At the intra-scenic level, however, Ezra’s reversal of his normal cause-effect ordering is interesting. At two points the effect is given before the cause. Human action takes place before the divine cause is revealed. In Ezra 1:3-4, Cyrus authorizes the people of the God of Israel to return to their ancestral home . The heads of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, the priests, and the Levites then rise in response to this imperial decree (1:5). It is the moment the faithful have long anticipated. Finally, they may return to their own land, people, and culture. Pausing at Ezra 1:5 a, the reader is inclined to see the people’s response to Cyrus’s decree as indicative of their longing to return to the promised land. Ezra 1:5 b, however, overturns this hypothesis, revealing the apparently natural consequence to be the result of divine causation. Those who responded were not merely the ones with a heart for the homeland; rather, they were themselves objects of divine election through His stirring of their spirits. Ezra’s effect-cause arrangement forces the reader to reevaluate his understanding of the relation between decree and response, driving home the point that God was the prime motivator in all that took place.

The second reversal is located in Ezra 6:22 . This reversal is the more significant, for two causes are exposed after their effects: the cause of Israel’s joy and the cause of imperial favor. The first half of 6:22 states, “And they made the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy.” The Jews had much to be joyful about: the Samarians had been foiled, the temple was finished, they could worship the Lord as He desired. The believing reader would likely attribute the good fortune Israel had experienced to the providential working of God. But that is not sufficient for Ezra. He is not willing to leave this conclusion to be inferred by the reader. He wants the linkage explicit: “For Yahweh had caused them to rejoice.”212 The fact that Ezra makes this cause-effect relation explicit reveals His concern that the reader not miss the relation between this event and God’s action.

Ezra immediately follows this statement of divine causation with a further revelation: “and [Yahweh] had turned the heart of the king of Asshur to them to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.” Narrative tension builds with the progress of Tatnai’s investigation (5:3-6:5 ), intensifying the reader’s hope that the appeal to Cyrus’s decree will hold good. When Darius confirms the Jewish claim, the tension relaxes. At this point, the reader might be inclined to congratulate the Jews for their political acumen. Ezra, however, will not allow any credit to human ingenuity. Darius’s grant of permission was not merely the continuation of an imperial edict issued by Cyrus; it was the result of God turning Darius’s heart.213

Two effects are evident in Ezra’s arrangement of the incidents in this plot. First, the adherence to the norm of cause-effect order complements and sustains the historical character of the narrative. Second, the reversal of this norm at the beginning and end of the first plot highlights the part God actually plays in real-life history. The reader must conclude that God is active in His world, working all things after the counsel of His will.

Presentation of Events

The final principle of plot composition is presentation. Having decided which events to include and in what order to place them, an author must then decide how to narrate his story. The principal modes of presentation available to an author are scene and summary.214 How effectively an author uses these presentational modes determines the degree to which the narrative absorbs the reader into its world, involving him in its emotions and psychology.215

Typically, an author uses summary to cover events that provide background information or to serve as a bridge between important events or dialogue.216 On the other hand, the scenic mode, which usually involves a close correspondence between narration time and narrated time,217 brings key events into sharper focus, creating narrative emphasis and accelerating thematic development.

Ezra achieves this relative match between narration time and narrated time primarily through dialogue and written discourse rather than through minute description of actions.218 The high ratio of discourse219 to narration indicates the significant role scenic discourse plays in the narrative.220 By discerning where the scenic mode is in operation, and particularly scenic discourse, an interpreter locates the narrative segments in which an author is striving to influence his reader most significantly.

Scenic discourse contributes to the continuing development of the two key themes in Ezra 1-6 . Ezra builds the theme of God’s sovereign power through (1) Cyrus’s written acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Yahweh and his own implied subordination (1:2-4 ), (2) the Jews’ confession that God had delivered them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (5:12 ), and (3) God’s control of Darius to overturn the Samarians’ opposition and accomplish His word (6:3-12 ). The opposition faced by God’s people, the second main theme, develops almost entirely through dialogue or letters (4:2-3 , 9-22 ; 5:3-4 ). Though a flinty Jewish rebuff sparks the opposition,221 Ezra brings the reader into sympathetic alignment with the Jews and puts him at odds with the people of the land by allowing his audience to hear their far-fetched rhetoric. Their letter reveals them to be political connivers, affecting dutiful loyalty to the crown while seeking to accomplish their own nefarious ends. Ezra’s use of the enemy’s words magnifies the conflict and thereby creates a narrative foil for the greater display of God’s power. This display also sets the stage for Ezra’s second plot so that when mandated divorce is executed, the reader has seen the wickedness of the people of the land and his sympathies are arrayed against them. Rather than reacting negatively to the abrupt displacement of women and children, the reader is inclined to give a grim approval to the decision. In this way Ezra presents a subtle defense of the drastic measures he undertook to restore God’s people to purity in their marriages.

The two main themes of Ezra 7-10 identified earlier, God’s goodness and the importance of holiness, also develop primarily through scenic discourse. The reader’s awareness of Artaxerxes’ generosity rises as he moves through the extended length of his grant. Ezra’s spontaneous outburst of praise to God for His goodness (7:27-28 ) frames the appropriate reader-response and directs the reader’s attention to Israel’s true Benefactor.

In chapter nine, the immediate juxtaposition of Israel’s unfaithfulness against the background of God’s sovereign goodness creates a jarring contrast. Omitting any information that might forewarn his reader, Ezra lets the prince’s report (9:1-2 ) crash upon his reader with the same startling rudeness as it had fallen upon him. Their words unveil Israel’s precipitous fall from holiness. Ezra’s prayer (9:6-15 ), along with the following dialogues (10:2-5 , 11-14 ), reveals the true nature and significance of that fall as abandonment of God’s commands (9:10 ), addition to Israel’s already great guilt (9:13 , 15 ; 10:10 ), unfaithfulness (10:2 , 10 ), rebellion (10:13 ), and ultimately a provocation of God’s “fierce anger” upon them (10:14 ). Ezra’s rhetorical control reaches its zenith at the moment in which he seems most out of control.222 Dialogue and supporting narration together sweep the reader into Ezra’s maelstrom of emotion as he pours out his heart, “weeping and falling down before the house of God” (10:1 ). If the pathos of Ezra’s prayer is insufficient, the congregation’s weeping models the appropriate response for the reader. Shecaniah’s rejoinder pierces the gloom of Ezra’s despondency, identifying hope for Israel in repentance, covenant renewal, and separation from the foreign women and children (10:3-4 ). As the narrative shifts from dialogue into narration and indirect discourse (10:5-9 ), its emotional grip on the reader diminishes in intensity. The final interchange between Ezra and the people, the only instance in the book where the people speak, brings Ezra, the leaders, and the congregation into a unified denunciation of the mixed marriages, ensuring the reader’s solidarity with the decision.

After the divorce commission has fulfilled its task, the names of the guilty file past one by one, and the story ends. The ending makes no attempt to tie the narrative together, and its suddenness denies the reader a sense of satisfactory completion. The abruptness, however, is a purposeful device intended to trigger a search for the principle that will bring the narrative to closure. As the reader reexamines the narrative’s earlier events in the light of the theological truths communicated in chapters 7-10 , two principles fill in the gap created earlier by glossing over the unresolved conflict in 4:8-23 . First, since God’s sovereignty encompasses even earth’s mightiest monarchs and His strength and wrath are against those who abandon Him, Artaxerxes is acting as a messenger of God’s judgment in stopping all wall building efforts. The disaster is caused, in fact, not so much by the Samarians as it is by the Jews’ unholiness. Their sin hindered the work on the walls.223 Second, since God’s hand is upon those who seek Him for good, resolution of the city wall problem hinges on their personal holiness. If they will seek the Lord and, like Ezra, set their hearts to do His commands, they will again experience God’s gracious goodness and blessing. These two principles tie together the past and present, providing a sufficient closure to the narrative while directing the reader’s mind toward the potential for a hope-filled future.

Conclusion

From the post-exilic history of Israel, Ezra presents a narrative in which holiness, human responsibility, and divine sovereignty operate in complex functional dynamics. Analysis of the narrative’s plot structure and composition clearly identifies the primary theological themes of the book: God’s sovereign power in the fulfillment of His word and in turning all opposition to His own ends; the magnitude of God’s gracious goodness; the importance of holiness and the consequences of impurity; and the relation between man’s holiness and God’s interaction with him. The book’s structural parallelism invites comparison between the plots, suggesting two main conclusions: first, the recent setback in building the city walls was a result of Israel’s failure to maintain holiness; and, second, God’s past dealings, illumined by an understanding of the principle governing His dealings with men, provide direction and hope for Israel’s future.


162 Leon Golden and O. B. Hardison Jr., Aristotle’s Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). All quotations are from this translation.

163 Poetics, VI-VII. Aristotle’s conclusion continues to be a key tenet of traditional literary criticism: “Of all the aspects of narrative, plot [is] … the most essential.” Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg , The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 238; hereafter Scholes-Kellogg.

164 Among modern treatments of plot that regard meaning as inherent in the text and not something conferred upon the text by the reader, the most valuable are Seymour Chatman , Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1978), 43-95; Scholes -Kellogg , “Plot in Narrative,” in The Nature of Narrative, 207-39; E. M. Forster , “The Plot,” in Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1927), 126-54; R. S. Crane , “The Concept of Plot and the Plot of ‘Tom Jones’,” in Critics and Criticism, ed. R. S. Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 616-47. Although the following authors do not share the previously mentioned assumption about the relation of text and meaning, their treatments of plot are nonetheless enlightening: J. P. Fokkelman , Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide, trans. Ineke Smit (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 73-96; Kieran Egan , “What is a Plot?” New Literary History 9 (1978): 455-73; Jonathan Culler , “Defining Narrative Units,” in Style and Structure in Literature, ed. Roger Fowler (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 123-139.

165 Three lines of definitional focus are evident in the literature on plot. The first line focuses on what plot is. Philip Brooks states, “Plot is the principle of interconnectedness and intention which we cannot do without in moving through the discrete elements—incidents, episodes, actions—of a narrative.” Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 5. Simpler and more helpful is Forster ’s conception: “A plot … is a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality” (130). The second line focuses on what plot does. For example, Shimon Bar-Efrat defines plot as the narrative
element that “serves to organize events in such a way as to arouse the reader’s interest and emotional involvement, while at the same time imbuing the events with meaning.” Narrative Art in the Bible, trans. Dorothea Shefer-Vanson, 2d ed. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 93. Kieran Egan goes even further, defining plot variously as “a set of rules that determines and sequences events to cause a determinate affective response” or as “a profound mental process which we use in making sense of [narrative] experience” (470). The third line synthesizes the first two approaches. M. H. Abrams defines plot as “the structure of [the narrative’s] actions, as these are ordered and rendered toward achieving particular emotional and artistic effects.” A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981), 137. Most Biblical scholars have followed the synthetic approach, recognizing that plot’s function is as important as its constitution. Grant R. Osborne ’s treatment of plot reflects this synthesis: “The plot encompasses the united sequence of events that follow a cause-effect order; these build to a climax and involve the reader in the narrative world of the story.” The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991), 158. Paul R. House ’s definition of plot provides another clear example of this synthesis: “Plot is a selected sequence of logically-caused events that solve a conflict by utilizing established literary conventions such as introduction, complication, crisis and denouement.” “Plot, Prophecy and Jeremiah,” JETS 36 (1993): 299.

166 The primary contributions of later critics include recognition of more types of plots than Aristotle identifies (the tragic and the comic) and what the plot does in terms of reader-effects. For two key treatments of plot typology, see R. S. Crane , “The Concept of Plot,” 620-21; and Northrop Frye , Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). For a brief but valuable application of Aristotelian plot typology to Scripture, see Meir Sternberg , The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 172-73; hereafter Poetics of Biblical Narrative.

167 This literary consensus has frayed some over the twentieth century as a growing number of authors and critics have dissented, even revolted outright, against the Aristotelian view of plot. Authors such as James Joyce, Thomas Mann, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, and Alain Robbe-Grillet contend that an ordered arrangement of incidents is not a necessary component of narrative, for life itself, the object of narrative imitation, lacks rational order (Scholes -Kellogg , 5). Therefore, they purposely avoid connecting events into meaningful sequence and refuse to grant resolution to the conflicts they engender in their narratives. For example, in one of Robbe-Grillet’s novels “the same character is murdered four times over.” Frank Kermode , The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 21. However, as Kermode has observed, the very existence of such attacks indicates that plot is essential to narrative. When absent, the conspicuousness of its absence substantiates its essentiality (ibid.). Plotless narrative is oxymoronic. For a similar analysis of “antistories,” see Chatman , Discourse and Narrative, 56-59.

168 Osborne , 159: “[Plot] is the best indicator of the basic message(s) of a literary work.” As Chatman notes, “[Plot’s] function is to emphasize or de-emphasize certain story-events, to interpret some and to leave others to inference, to show or to tell, to comment or to remain silent, to focus on this or that aspect of an event or character” (43). The following works provide helpful discussions of plot in Scripture: Bar-Efrat , “The Plot,” in Narrative Art in the Bible, 93-140; Jean Louis Ska , “Plot,” in “Our Fathers Have Told Us”: Introduction to the Analysis of Hebrew Narratives (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1990), 17-38; Leland Ryken , Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 62-71; Richard L. Pratt , Jr., “Structure in Individual Episodes,” in He Gave Us Stories (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1990), 179-204; Sternberg , Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 132-515 passim, esp. 172-176; House , “Plot, Prophecy and Jeremiah,” 297-307.

169 Bar-Efrat , 93. For an excellent study of the relation between the order of a text and its meaning, see Menakhem Perry , “Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates its Meanings,” Poetics Today 1-2 (1979): 35-64, 311-61.

170 “A proper narrative event occurs when the narrative tempo slows down enough for us to discriminate a particular scene.” The use of a verb, then, does not constitute an event. There must be a close parity between “narrating time and time narrated.” Robert Alter , The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 63. Since plot consists of events, non-events such as the lists in chapters 1 , 2 , 8 , and 10 , and Ezra’s genealogy are excluded from this chapter’s analysis. For a helpful discussion on the definition of an event, see Frank J. Matera , “The Plot of Matthew’s Gospel,” CBQ 49 (1987): 233-53.

171 See Wesley Kort for an alternative, though less compelling, analysis of the components of plot. Story, Text, and Scripture: Literary Interests in Biblical Narrative (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), 16.

172 The assertion that Ezra employs two distinct plots will be supported in the following section that analyzes plot structure in the book.

173 “Plot structure” may include both the macro- and the micro-structural elements of plot. In this section, plot structure refers to the large-scale layout of the plot in terms of episodes, phases, and scenes. The logical relations between individual scenes or phases are discussed below in the section on plot composition.

174 Aristotle clarifies what he means by these terms: “By a ‘beginning’ I mean that which is itself not, by necessity, after anything else but after which something naturally is or develops. By an ‘end’ I mean exactly the opposite: that which is naturally after something else, either necessarily or customarily, but after which there is nothing else. By a ‘middle’ I mean that which is itself after something else and which has something else after it” (Poetics, VII).

175 Establishing the boundaries of the literary unit under consideration is the first step in any literary analysis, and the second step is to “recognize the structure of a composition and to discern the configuration of its component parts.” James Muilenburg , “Form Criticism and Beyond,” JBL 88 (1969): 8, 10.

176 The tightness of this unity prompted H. G. M. Williamson ’s proposal that chapters 1-6 were written after chapters 7-10 “with the purpose of justifying the legitimacy of the Jerusalem temple and its cult after a possible split in its priesthood, the establishment of the Samaritan community, and the first moves to build a temple on Mount Gerizim.” “The Composition of Ezra i-vi,” JTS 34 (1983): 30. For a fuller statement of this view, see Williamson , Ezra, Nehemiah (Waco: Word Books, 1985), xxxv-xxxvi, 89.

177 A “phase” is a group of logically or thematically related scenes, and a “scene” is an event or event sequence that is complete in itself. For a general discussion of these terms, see Gerald Prince , Dictionary of Narratology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987). Richard Pratt ’s treatment of plot structure provides numerous illustrations of these divisions in Biblical plots (He Gave Us Stories, 179-204).

178 This pyramidal model originated with Gustav Freytag’s analysis of a five-act tragedy. Technique of the Drama, trans. Elias J. MacEwan, 3d ed. (Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1900), 114-15. Despite the fact that the original context of Freytag’s pyramid was a formal five-act structure in drama, Holman notes that “the fundamental dramatic structure seems impervious to change” even when applied to narrative (154). The analyses here draw heavily on Ronald A. Horton ’s helpful explanation of Freytag’s model in Companion to College English, 2d ed. (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 2000), 301. For a visual development and application of this model to Biblical narrative, see Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, vol. 3 of Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, ed. Moiss Silva (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 150-52.

179 Aristotle discusses the significance of the rise and fall of the protagonists’ fortune for plot structure in Poetics, X-XI. O. B. Hardison ’s commentary on these sections explains and expands Aristotle’s discussion quite helpfully (Aristotle’s Poetics, 151-67).

180 “Fortune” as used in this chapter refers to the relative favorableness of a character’s circumstances and should not be construed to imply that those circumstances are regarded as resulting from random or impersonal forces.

181 Literary critics typically distinguish story and plot, though not always with those terms. A story is “any account of actions in a time sequence” or “the collection of things that happen in a work.” A plot, on the other hand, “takes a story, selects its materials in terms not of time but of causality; gives it a beginning, a middle, and an end; and makes it serve to elucidate character, express an idea, or incite to an action.” C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon , A Handbook to Literature, 6th ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), 456-57. Russian formalists make a related distinction between the fabula and sujet of a narrative. For an excellent discussion of the similarities and differences between story and plot and fabula and sujet, see Meir Sternberg , Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 8-14. In simple terms one may say that the story of Ezra 1-6 or Ezra 7-10 is what happens, and the plot is the arrangement of what happens.

182 Both of the plots in Ezra begin with a decree from a Persian monarch. The first is “Go, Rebuild the temple,” and the second is “Go, Establish the law.” The subdivisions of each plot reflect these two-part commands. Chapters 1-2 and 7-8 both recount the “going” of exiles back to Judah. Chapters 3-6 narrate the rebuilding of the temple, and chapters 9-10 recount Ezra’s establishment of the law. In this way the Book of Ezra exhibits a parallelism between its plots. The thematic implications of this parallelism are developed below in the section on plot presentation and in Chapter Eight.

183 Classic examples of this negative selection in Scripture include Moses’s omission of the fact that Enoch announced the second coming of the Lord with his holy angels to judge the world (Jude 14-15 ), and the omission of David’s sin with Bathsheba in 1 Chronicles 20 .

184 J. P. Fokkelman enunciates well the significance of selection for understanding plot: “The series [of events] that we see [in a narrative] is a radical selection, and when we understand what it is that governs the writer’s choice, we will have found the main point of access into his linguistic work of art. Our understanding will increase considerably if we are able to retrieve the writer’s criteria for rejection (omission from the text) and selection (inclusion in the text). Every word that the writer allows to participate has a relation to his vision and themes” (76).

185 For an insightful treatment of the use of omission in Biblical narrative, see Sternberg , Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 186-222; 259ff.

186 In terms of omissions it is worthwhile to distinguish events that are omitted because they are irrelevant, and the omissions of relevant events. Sternberg terms them blanks and gaps, respectively (Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 235-38). There are large segments of history that are blanks in Ezra’s narrative. Examples include the events associated with the first Return and all the activity between the Returnees’ arrival and first assembly.

187 Ezra also omits the fact that God stirred the spirits of Jeshua, Zerubbabel, and the people to respond to Haggai’s message (Hag. 1:14 ). The rationale for this omission, however, is difficult to discern because the record of God’s stirring seems to be consonant with the material Ezra does include in his narrative. Ezra’s omission (5:2 ) of the lay response to the prophets’ messages argues against Tamara Eskenazi ’s view that one of the primary functions of Ezra(-Nehemiah) is to shift “the focus from leaders to participating community, … [to make] the people as a whole … the significant actors in the book” (In An Age of Prose, 2). Exclusion of the very ones who are supposed to be center stage suggests that magnification of lay participation is not a motif in Ezra.

188 It is fascinating to notice that Haggai omits any reference to the opposition the Jews faced from the Samarians. His prophetic indictment was trained wholly on Israel.

189 Alternately, one could argue that Ezra did not want to duplicate the material already in Haggai. Regardless of the original reason, however, the effect is the same: the Returnees are seen to be the victims of a relentless campaign to hinder their efforts to rebuild God’s house.

190 Seymour Chatman develops these helpful terms in his chapter on plot (Story and Discourse, 53-56). He defines a kernel as an event that “advances the plot by raising and satisfying questions. Kernels are narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events. They are nodes or hinges in the structure, branching points which force a movement into one of two (or more) possible paths… . Kernels cannot be deleted without destroying the narrative logic” (53). This definition, however, leaves something to be desired, for as Jonathan Culler points out, almost any action involves a choice between alternatives (Style and Structure in Literature, 135-36). More helpful is Chatman ’s definition of satellite events. Satellite events are “minor plot events [which] … can be deleted without disturbing the logic of the plot, though [their] omission will … impoverish the narrative aesthetically… . Their function is that of filling in, elaborating, completing the kernel” (54).

191 One may distinguish a narrative’s “topic” from its “theme(s)” in this fashion: the topic of the narrative is that subject that is talked about most, whereas the theme(s) of a narrative is the theological message it is intended to communicate. Fabian Gudas, “Theme,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (New York: MJF Books, 1993): 1281-82.

192 Each of the themes mentioned throughout this chapter receives a thorough treatment in the theological section of this dissertation. The object of this chapter is to point out the relationships between the literary features of Ezra and the theological message Ezra intends to communicate.

193 Williamson has suggested that “the word of the Lord through Jeremiah” refers not to promises of return from exile, but to “a passage [Jer. 51:1-14 ] predicting that the Lord would stir up the spirit of Cyrus in such a way that he would order the rebuilding of the temple and the return of the exiles” (Ezra, Nehemiah, 9-10 ). The problem with Williamson ’s view is that Jeremiah 51 says nothing about the rebuilding of the temple. The focus of the entire passage is on the Lord’s destruction of Babylon through Cyrus in vengeance for the Babylonian destruction of the temple.

194 Jeremiah 16:15-16 ; 23:3-4 , 7-8 ; 24:4-7 ; 29:10-14 ; 31:16-17 , 20-21 , 23-24 ; 32:6-15 , 37-38 ; 46:27-28 .

195 Edwin Yamauchi , “Ezra-Nehemiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 4:623.

196 Though Jeremiah makes no explicit mention of the rebuilding of the temple, it may be inferred from his prophecies that the city will be rebuilt (Jer. 30:18 ; 31:4 ) and that the temple vessels will be restored “to this place” (Jer. 27:22 ).

197 The record of two incidents of opposition in the reigns of Xerxes and Artaxerxes (4:6 , 7 ) could be considered another satellite event. However, these incidents function more as connective tissue, providing thematic linkage between the initiation of the conflict between the Jews and the Samarians (4:1-5 ) and its most momentous incident (4:8-23 ). Their inclusion serves to create a sense that opposition was not an isolated phenomenon, but a recurring problem.

198 Although lag II has the potential to be resultative (cf. Mal. 1:7 —iwnlag hmb “How have we defiled you?”), the nature of this event (a decision by the governor) argues for taking it as an estimative/declarative pu’al, that is, the priests had been esteemed to be or declared to be in a state of defilement. Ernst Jenni, Das hebrische Pi’el: Syntaktisch-semasiologische Untersuchung einer Verbalform im Alten Testament (Zurich: EVZ, 1968), 40-43, 241. Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor use the more opaque expression ‘psychological/linguistic’ factitive.” An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 399-403.

199 The Tirshathah or governor, probably Sheshbazzar, ruled that these unregistered priests could not eat of “the most holy things” (<yvdqh vdqm; cf. Lev. 2:3 ). In Numbers 18:9-22 God gives the Levites “from the most holy things” all the grain offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, wave offerings, first fruits and tithes of the people as their sustenance. Therefore, defilement from the priesthood and restriction from eating the most holy things meant these men could not function as priests. They were entirely excluded from that ministry and its provisions (Williamson , 37). Keil offers an alternate, though less compelling, conclusion: “The prohibition to eat of the most holy things … excludes from specific priestly acts: without, however, denying a general inclusion among the priestly order, or abolishing a claim to the priestly revenues, so far as these were not directly connected with priestly function” (27).

200 For a helpful analysis of the quantity of the gifts given in Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 Esdras, see Derek Kidner , Ezra and Nehemiah (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 44.

201 Some have explained the celebration as a conscious harking back to the celebrations of Hezekiah (2 Chron. 30 ) and Josiah (2 Kings 23 ). See, for example, Jacob M. Myers , Ezra-Nehemiah, vol. 14 of The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965), 53-54; and Mervin Breneman , Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, vol. 10 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 121. This is a weak explanation, for Passover, as an annual feast, would have been celebrated anyway. The text does not imply that this was the first Passover that was celebrated since the Return, a fact that would likely have been mentioned if it were.

202 The phrase “and all who had separated themselves unto them from the uncleanness of the nations of the land to seek Yahweh the God of Israel” (6:21 ) most likely refers to proselytes who had converted to Judaistic monotheism. This phrase shows the wideness of true holiness; it knows no racial or ethnic boundaries. All who will separate themselves unto the Lord may participate with His people in celebrating redemption. Among the commentators who take this phrase to refer to proselytes are Williamson , 85; Kidner , 60; Myers , 52; George Rawlinson , Ezra, vol. 7 of The Pulpit Commentary, ed. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., n.d.; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), 88; Joseph Blenkinsopp , Ezra-Nehemiah, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988), 133; and F. C. Fensham , The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 96.

203 Ezra 8-10 records the completion of this task. Specifically, Ezra’s search for Levites (8:15-20 ) reflects his commission to improve the welfare of Judah and Jerusalem. The welfare of God’s people is a function of their relationship with Him, and the Levites were God’s appointed mediators between Himself and the people. Their services, therefore, were indispensable to Ezra’s mission.

204 Artaxerxes here commands not Ezra alone, but all the judges and magistrates he will appoint. This is indicated by the use of the second masculine plural verb form /wudwht in 7:25 . LXX, Aquila, and the Syriac have a singular rather than a plural verb here; however, BHS lists no variation among the Hebrew manuscripts.

205 Blenkinsopp lists five components to the decree, but he groups related instructions together. For example, he combines 7:14 and 7:25-26 into one component (146).

206 Tasks four and six, the only tasks whose completion is not recorded, are general and diffuse in contrast to the other seven tasks. It is not surprising, therefore, that Ezra omits their completion.

207 Chapter Four will discuss Ezra’s use of characterization in the development of his message. Clearly, these events play a large role in establishing Ezra’s character and implicitly making him a model of godliness for Israel.

208 Chapter Seven develops the ramifications of this theme. In short, Ezra is teaching his audience that their behavior in conjunction with God’s unchanging character co-determines how He interacts with them.

209 Bar-Efrat explains the significance of sequence in a story: each event in a story “receives its significance from its position and role in the system as a whole… . The plot serves to organize [those] events in such a way as to arouse the reader’s interest and emotional involvement, while at the same time imbuing them with meaning” (93).

210 Bar-Efrat notes three types of logical relationships between scenes: “cause and effect, parallelism, and contrast” (93). Other potential relationships include paratactic coordination and synecdochic relations where new material specifies the preceding material, includes it, or uses it for generalization (Perry , “Literary Dynamics,” 50).

211 “Narrative coherence normally consists of a cause-effect chain of events in which one thing produces the next, or in some way grows out of an earlier event. The impact of a story depends on the presence of such coherence.” Ryken , Words of Delight, 70.

212 The piel form of jmc (<j*M=c!) in this verse is causative. This need not be taken as direct causation, that is, as meaning that God was producing joy in hearts where there was none or would have been none. Israel’s joy was a result of indirect causation in which God had done those things at which His people naturally rejoice.

213 Though the precise vocabulary is somewhat different, the reader could hardly fail to miss the allusion to Proverbs 21:1: “As channels of water, the heart of the king is in the hand of Yahweh: wherever He desires, He turns it.”

214 In the context of presentational modes, “scene” refers not to a block of text that is a subset of an episode, but rather to a method of presenting plot events and characters. The scene-summary distinction may also be expressed as “showing vs. telling” (Sternberg , Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 103, 122). “Telling” relates events in summary form, compressing time and action, whereas “showing” displays events with a relative fullness of action so that narration time approximates real time. For example, Ezra 7 and Nehemiah 1 both recount a request to Artaxerxes for a grant. Ezra summarizes the event with an indirect comment: “… and the king gave to him, according to the hand of his God upon him, all his request” (Ezra 7:6 ). Nehemiah, on the other hand, dramatizes his request with a verbatim account of his dialogue with Artaxerxes that runs nine verses (Neh. 2:1-8 ). While summary and scene differ markedly in this example, these presentational modes do not have entirely distinct vocabularies, syntactical constructions, or narrative conventions. As a result, scene and summary frequently shade into one another, making it difficult to determine the mode of a given segment of text (Bar-Efrat , 34). Two other presentational modes noted by J. Licht are “description and comment”; however, because neither of these modes involves the narration of events, they will be treated in the following chapter on point of view. Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1978), 29.

215 “Scenic representation creates the illusion of looking at the event itself, , … [and] increases the reader’s ability to be absorbed in the world displayed and to share in what happens” (Bar-Efrat , 34-35). As a result, “an event dramatized into a scene will assume greater importance than one telescoped into a summary” (Sternberg , 236).

216 Sternberg , Expositional Modes, 24-26. Robert Alter observes that “third-person narration is frequently only a bridge between much large units of direct speech” (65). The functions of this summary narration, according to Alter , are (1) “the conveying of actions essential to the unfolding of the plot … , (2) the communication of data ancillary to the plot … , [and] (3) the verbatim mirroring, confirming, subverting, or focusing in narration of statements made in direct discourse by the characters …” (77). Summary narration in Ezra fulfills the first two of Alter ’s functions, but the third is accomplished by narratorial comment, which is treated in chapter four.

217 Bar-Efrat , 147-49.

218 Ezra 9:3-5 is perhaps the one clear exception to this rule. Ezra uses six action verbs as he pictures the scene of his distress at the Israelites’ unfaithfulness: “I tore my clothes … I made bare from the hair of my head … I sat appalled … I arose … I knelt upon my knees … and I spread my palms to Yahweh.” On the whole, however, the scenes in Ezra are predominantly driven by written discourse or dialogue.

219 To avoid awkward repetition, the term “discourse,” without qualification, will serve to denote the various forms of dialogue and written communication Ezra uses throughout his book. Discourse comprises 10% of Ezra 1-2 (77 of 783 words), 51% of Ezra 3-6 (707 of 1144 words), 35% of Ezra 7-8 (322 of 907 words) and 49% of Ezra 9-10 (374 of 758 words). Ezra’s repertoire is not limited to direct speech (4:2-3 ; 5:3-4 ; 8:22 , 28-29 ; 9:1-2 ; 10:2-5 , 11-14 ) and written materials (1:2-4 ; 4:9-16 , 12-22 ; 7:12-26 ). He also uses indirect discourse (2:63 ), dialogue embedded in an epistolary framework (5:8-17 ), a decree quoted in a letter (6:3-12 ), and Scripture paraphrased in prayer (9:6-15 ).

220 Bar-Efrat , 147: “Conversations fulfil two principal functions in Biblical narrative. On the one hand they serve as a vehicle for the development of the plot … . On the other hand, conversations serve to illuminate the human aspect, revealing such psychological features as motives and intentions, points of view and approaches, attitudes and reactions.” As Adele Berlin notes, dialogue also yields much of the “evaluative material” in a narrative. Poetics and Biblical Interpretation (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1983; reprint, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 106. Robert Alter , who was among the first to recognize the primacy of dialogue in Biblical narrative, contends that “the Biblical writers … are often less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument of revealing the varied and at times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which they are implicated” (66). Rhetorically, dialogue grants immediacy to a narrative, drawing the reader into the circle of conversation and within range of the narrative’s emotional dynamics, ultimately aligning the reader in sympathetic identification with some side of the action. Written discourse, though not as powerful as dialogue, has many of the same rhetorical effects. For a fascinating analysis of the rhetorical use of dialogue in Biblical narrative, see Sternberg ’s chapter, “The Art of Persuasion” (Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 441-481).

221 “In any given narrative event, and especially, at the beginning of any new story, the point at which dialogue first emerges will be worthy of special attention, and in most instances, the initial words spoken by a personage will be revelatory, perhaps more in manner than in matter, constituting an important moment in the exposition of character” (Alter , 74). The first instance of true dialogue in Ezra (4:2-3 ) initially appears to reveal rank Jewish prejudice against the people of the land. Closer attention to Ezra’s thematic development and a knowledge of religious practices of the people of the land (2 Kings 17:24-41 ), however, lead one to the conclusion that the Jews’ refusal was, in fact, a consequence of their passion for holiness.

222 The irony of this narrative paradox is an inherent function of dialogue. As Sternberg has discerned, “Literary dialogue entails indirection by its very form, because in staging it the artist communicates with the audience through the communication held among his speaking characters … . As scriptwriter and stage manager rolled into one, even if he speaks in voices other than his own, he still speaks through voices and words and obliquities of his own devising. Hence every piece of dialogue enacts no less than a double message: two levels of communication, two pairs of communicators, each having its peculiar sphere, norms, horizons, intentions, rhetoric, but with the artistic one always overlaid or mediated by the lifelike.” “Double Cave, Double Talk: The Indirections of Biblical Dialogue,” in “Not In Heaven”, ed. Jason P. Rosenblatt and Joseph C. Sitterson, Jr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 28. Ezra pushes this duality of dialogue to its outer limits by staging himself as a character in dialogue with his characters.

223 A more subtle inference which Ezra’s plot may suggest is that even the failure to build the temple may be traced to Israel’s sinfulness. The opposition of the people of the land was a hindrance, but their failure to fulfill God’s purpose was a function of their sinfulness. Opposition is normal; failure is a sign of sin in one form or another.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines