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Chapter 7: Continuity With The Past And Hope For The Future

The thesis developed in the previous two chapters is that the focal point of the Book of Ezra is the relationship between the Returnees’ circumstances (past, present, and future), their conduct, and the character of Yahweh. Chapter Five developed Ezra’s revelation of Yahweh’s character, and Chapter Six demonstrated that holiness is the key to a proper relationship with Yahweh. The two-fold purpose of this chapter is, first, to analyze the narrative elements that establish the Returnees’ continuity with pre-exilic Israel and, second, to show how all of the book’s theological themes work together to teach Ezra’s post-exilic audience the grounds upon which they may have hope for the future.

Continuity with Pre-exilic Israel

Continuity with pre-exilic Israel was a major concern for the Returnees. Whether in determining a person’s suitability to serve as a priest, restoring the sacrificial system, or establishing one’s credentials, the Book of Ezra demonstrates that maintaining continuity with the past was the guiding principle of the restoration. As a narrative addressed to a post-restoration audience, however, it does more than provide a historical record of the past. The narrative’s genealogical, geographical, national, and spiritual elements of continuity authenticate the Returnees’ claim to be the true remnant of God’s chosen people Israel and affirm the ongoing importance of continuity with pre-exilic Israel.

Genealogical Continuity in Ezra

The first scene of the narrative introduces the theme of genetic continuity with Israel, for Cyrus permits the people of the “God of Israel” to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (1:3 ). The lists of those who returned from exile in Ezra 2:1-67 and 8:1-14 are the primary narrative elements that establish the Returnees’ genealogical continuity with pre-exilic Israel. For most readers, the interminable list of names in Ezra 2 or the list of names in Ezra 8 are to be skipped or skimmed until the narrative resumes. However, the principles of inspiration447 and authorial selection, that an author deliberately selects all the elements that appear in his narrative, argue that these lists make a definite contribution to the narrative message. In dealing with these lists, commentators frequently spend most of their time hypothesizing about their provenance and original intent and rarely consider how they function within the narrative. Since the original purpose for the lists’ creation does not affect its contribution to the message of Ezra, it will receive an abbreviated treatment. How these lists contribute to the theme of continuity will be the primary focus of the following discussion.

The Lists of Returnees in Ezra 2 and Ezra 8

The list of Returnees in Ezra 2 is not a genealogy. In fact, only 11 individuals, who appear to be the leaders of the Return (2:2 ), are named.448 All other groups are listed by their family name (2:3-20 ;449 36-63 ) or geographical origin (2:21-35 ).450 Laymen follow their leaders (2:3-35 ), and then come priests (36-39 ), Levites (40 ), singers (41 ), gatekeepers (42 ), Nethinim (43-54 ), descendants of Solomon’s servants (55-58 ), those without proof of their descent (59-63 ), the total number of Returnees (64 ),451 and personal servants and animals (65-67 ). The list concludes with a brief account of the offering given for the restoration of the temple (68-70 ).452

A broad range of views regarding the provenance of this list exists among scholars. Joel Weinberg argues that the list comes from the time of Ezra’s return and is, therefore, “an indication of the collectives belonging to the ‘citizen-temple community’ until the year 458/457 bce.”453 Some critics regard the list as a composite of various returns through the reign of Cyrus and into the early years of Darius’s reign,454 while others view it as a population census list from the time of Cyrus (Wellhausen), Nehemiah (Blenkinsopp ), or even as late as 400 B.C. (Mowinckel ).455 Kurt Galling argues that Ezra 2 is a census conducted in response to Tatnai’s investigation of the rebuilding of the temple and, thus, dates it to Darius’s second year.456 In contrast to all these critical theories, the text of Ezra clearly presents the list as a record of those who came up in the first return under Cyrus.457

The list of Returnees in Ezra 8 , besides being significantly shorter, contains at least two noteworthy differences from that in Ezra 2.458 The order of the groups listed is reversed with the priestly families heading the list (Phinehas and Ithamar; 8:2 a), followed by a descendant of David (Hattush, 8:2 b), and then the heads of twelve lay families and their descendants (8:3-14 ).459 Whereas women were apparently included in the total number of Returnees in Ezra 2 , the list in Ezra 8 includes only the numbers for the males (rkz).

In terms of their original purpose, both lists may well have been intended to provide the Persian government with an accounting of all those returning to Judah. It is highly unlikely that the Persian government would permit thousands of people to move across the empire without any record of who they were and how many there were. Additionally, Kidner suggests that the list in Ezra 2 would have been important for “settling claims to property,” since property rights were passed down through one’s family line.460 It is possible, therefore, that the groups who could not provide proof of their lineage (2:59-60 ) were included in the list to serve as a historical notice that they did not have the right to make land claims.

Whatever the original purpose for the lists’ creation and preservation, their function within the narrative is a different matter. At the most basic level, these lists serve as a historical record of those who returned from exile. Just as the list of Pilgrims journeying on the Mayflower might be of interest to Americans tracing their heritage, the lists of those returning from exile would have held a similar interest to the descendants of the golah.461 Beyond this basic function, Tamara Eskenazi argues that lists of Returnees were included primarily “to indicate who is truly important in Ezra-Nehemiah… . For Ezra-Nehemiah … these people and their fate are the main issue. The book therefore places this list in a prominent position, providing very definite content for each subsequent occurrence of the terms <u or Israel.”462 This statement reflects Eskenazi ’s conclusion that a primary motif of Ezra-Nehemiah is the replacement of notable leaders by “the people.” Her conclusion, as noted before,463 is more reflective of the political evolution of post-exilic Israel than it is of the narrative’s thematic content. Prominent leaders are the motivators and directors of every significant accomplishment in Ezra, to say nothing of Nehemiah. Joseph Blenkinsopp, on the other hand, takes the list as a narrative fiction designed to “fill out the impression of a unified full-scale response to the rescript [of Cyrus].”464 While it is true that the list does create such an impression, to regard the list as essentially fictitious is incompatible with the claims of the texts itself as well as the doctrine of inspiration. J. G. McConville , who sees Ezra 2 highlighting the legitimacy of the golah community, comes much nearer the mark. He asserts that “the central question in [Ezra 2 ] is: who belongs to ‘Israel’? … The idea of Israel is preserved in order to make the point that the returning exiles are the legitimate descendants of old Israel, and therefore the covenant community and heirs to God’s promises.”465 Marshall Johnson , however, provides the most helpful and comprehensive statement of the narrative purposes of Ezra’s lists. He concludes that the inclusion of these lists implies a concern for purity, legitimacy, and continuity.466

The list in Ezra chapter two implies a concern for continuity in several ways. The first is the listing of returning groups by their family names. These names provide the Returnees with a definite connection to their fathers. The second is the list’s record of those who could not verify whether they were of the seed of Israel (2:59 ). As noted before, this brief account indicates that all groups listed had given proof of their genealogical continuity with Israel, even those listed by their towns. Third, from a literary standpoint, the fact that Ezra brings the action of the plot to a complete halt in order to substantiate the Returnees’ connection with pre-exilic Israel further underscores the importance of this theme in the narrative. A simple statement that the Returnees were all descended from Israel could not authenticate the golah community in the same way as could a list detailing family names, localities, and numbers.467 The inclusion of the list of those returning with Ezra in chapter eight places Ezra’s personal imprimatur on the principle of continuity that had guided the formation of the golah community. Continuity with Israel was not merely a concern of the past. It remained an ongoing issue.468

The Genealogy of Ezra

Ezra’s personal genealogy also contributes to the theme of continuity. Ezra 7:1-5 traces his lineage through fifteen of his key ancestors back to Aaron to certify his own high priestly lineage.469 In this way Ezra subjects himself to the same test of continuity that every other priest had to pass and verifies his continuity with the people of God. Ezra’s genetic continuity with the Aaronic high priestly line, in combination with his skill as a scribe and the weight of Artaxerxes’ commission, establishes him within the narrative as a spiritual leader with impeccable credentials.470 Ezra’s genealogy, therefore, functions to provide the necessary bulwarking to sustain the narrative’s approving presentation of his mixed marriage reform. Since he was of the high priestly line, was a scribe skilled in the law, and was empowered by Artaxerxes to enforce the law, his concurrence with Shecaniah’s solution to the mixed-marriage crisis established its legitimacy.

Geographical Continuity in Ezra

A number of geographical references advance the theme of continuity by linking the Returnees to the land of Israel. These references are concentrated in the first part of the narrative and coincide with the exiles’ return to the land. Cyrus’s proclamation grants the exiles permission to return “to Jerusalem which is in Judah” (1:3 ). Judah was, of course, part of the promised land, and Jerusalem was the center of Israel’s national and spiritual life (1:2 ). The double mention of the fact that the exiles did return to Jerusalem connects them to their ancient capital (2:1 , 68 ). The most definite elements of geographical continuity are the cities, such as Bethlehem, Anathoth, Ramah, Bethel, Ai, and Jericho, named in the list of Returnees (2:21-35 ).471 The mention of these cities roots the Returnees in specific localities that had been part of Israel for hundreds of years. Once the Returnees arrive, the list in chapter two states three times that they each went “to his own city” (2:1 , 70 ; 3:1 ). The subtle affirmation of this three-fold repetition is that the Returnees had indeed returned home. They were once again in their own cities.

National Continuity in Ezra

The frequent use of the term “Israel” in reference the Returnees develops the third aspect of their continuity with pre-exilic Israel. On seven occasions the narrator, or one of the characters, refers to the Returnees as “Israel.” Perhaps the most notable of these is Shecaniah’s response to Ezra that, despite the Returnees’ great guilt, there is yet hope for “Israel” in repentance and returning to God (10:2 ).472 A variety of phrases also identify the Returnees as Israel. They are called the “people of Israel” in the Ezra 2 list (2:2 ), Artaxerxes’ decree (7:13 ), and the princes’ report to Ezra (9:1 ).473 They are called the “sons of Israel” four times: the “sons of Israel” gathered to Jerusalem to rebuild the altar (3:1 ), dedicated the temple with joy (6:16 ), ate the Passover (6:21 ), and went up with Ezra to Jerusalem (7:7 ). Five times they are referred to as “all Israel”: in 2:70 the narrator states “and all Israel [dwelt] in their cities,” referring to all non-temple personnel; in 6:17 and 8:35 the Returnees offer sacrifices “for all Israel”;474 the entire group of exiles returning under Ezra are designated “all Israel” (8:25 ); and Ezra puts “all Israel” under and oath to put away their foreign wives (10:5 ).475 The ubiquity and directness of these references, made by narrator and characters alike, establish the Returnees’ national continuity with pre-exilic Israel. The narrative argument is clear: the golah community is Israel revived (9:8-9 ).

Spiritual Continuity in Ezra

The final and most important aspect of the Returnees’ continuity with pre-exilic Israel is their spiritual continuity. Accounts of the renewal of worship, the exposure of the golah community’s guilt, and the use of remnant terminology connect the Returnees’ with their spiritual forebears.

Worship Renewal

At least four elements in the narrative establish the Returnees’ continuity with their forefathers in worship: they were worshipping the same God, on the same temple location, with the same vessels, in accordance with the same law. The frequent references to the Returnees as “Israel” find their ultimate significance in the spiritual realm. If they are indeed Israel, then Yahweh, “the God of Israel,” is their God. The narrative connection between the Returnees and the God of Israel could hardly be more explicit. Yahweh is referred to as “the God of Israel” thirteen times,476 and Ezra refers to Yahweh as “the God of our/your fathers” on three different occasions (7:27 ; 8:28 ; 10:11 ). The Jewish elders’ report to Tatnai strengthens this continuity as well (5:11-16 ). They identify themselves as the servants of the God of heaven and earth, the same God who handed their fathers over to Nebuchadnezzar (5:12 ) and stirred Cyrus to allow them to return to the land.

The second element of the Returnees’ continuity in worship involves the location of the temple. In three separate instances the narrative connects the second temple to its predecessor by stating that the temple was (to be) restored “to its place” (2:68 ; 5:15 ; 6:7 ). The report given by the Jewish elders also connects the temple they are working on with Solomon’s temple: “We are building the house that was built many years before this and a great king of Israel built it and finished it” (5:11 ).

The third element of worship continuity derives from the accounts of Cyrus’s restoration of the temple vessels, the very same vessels that Solomon had fashioned for the temple. In order to appreciate the significance of Cyrus’s return of the temple vessels, one must be aware of the controversy surrounding them in the years prior to the exile. In the fourth year of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, a prophetic “duel” took place between Jeremiah and the prophet Hananiah. Jeremiah prophesied that the prophets who were prophesying the soon return of the temple vessels were liars (Jer. 27:16 ). He also prophesied that unless Zedekiah submitted himself to Nebuchadnezzar, the rest of the temple furnishings and implements would be taken to Babylon as well (Jer. 27:19 ). In the fifth month of the same year, Hananiah prophesied in the name of Yahweh that the temple vessels that had been taken to Babylon in 597 by Nebuchadnezzar would be returned within two years to rejoin the vessels remaining in the temple (Jer. 28:2-4 ). As history proves, Jeremiah was right—the vessels were not returned.

The Jeremiah-Hananiah story reveals that the restoration of the temple vessels was a significant issue to the priests and people of Israel. Their loss caused great consternation among the Israelites. In this light, Ezra’s account of their restoration rises to its true level of significance. It is precisely, “the vessels of the house of Yahweh which Nebuchadnezzar had brought out from Jerusalem and had put in the house of his gods” (1:7 ), that are carefully counted out to Sheshbazzar—all 5,400 of them (1:11 ). The vessels serve as a definite link with the worship of pre-exilic Israel. The fact that the return of the temple vessels figures prominently in the elders’ account of the restoration to Tatnai (5:14-15 ), underscores the important role they played in establishing the Returnees’ spiritual continuity with Israel.477

The fourth element that links the Returnees to the worship of pre -exilic Israel is the constant references to the law. As the narrator recounts the Returnees’ progress toward their ultimate goal of rebuilding the temple, he is at pains to note that each step was taken in continuity with the spiritual guidelines that had been established, whether in the law or by king David. The altar is erected “upon its place” so that burnt offerings could be offered on it “as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God” (3:2-3 ; cf. also 6:18 ; 7:6). They celebrated the feast of tabernacles “as it is written,” and they offered the daily burnt offerings “according to the custom, the allotted amount for each day” (3:4 ). Afterward, they offered “the continual burnt offering … for all the appointed times of Yahweh” (3:5 ). When the temple was founded, praise to Yahweh with trumpet and cymbal was conducted “according to the hand of David the king of Israel” (3:10 ). When the temple was finally completed, the priest and Levites are set in their division and classes “according to the writing of the book Moses” (6:18 ). And the story of the first return ends with a celebration of the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month just as the Lord commanded (6:19 ; cf. Exod. 12:18 ). The narrator’s specification that they were following “the law of Moses” and that the worship was conducted according to the ordinances of “David, king of Israel” argues that the Returnees were worshiping in full accord with their spiritual heritage.478

A Guilty Remnant

Just as his mission appears to be beginning well, Ezra learns that certain of the leaders as well as laymen have been unfaithful to Yahweh and married pagan wives. They have returned to the sins of their fathers! As he responds to this crisis, Ezra connects the Returnees’ guilt to that of their fathers three times. In Ezra 9:7 he states, “From the days of our fathers we have been in great guilt unto this day.” Ezra recognized that beyond the significance of the Returnees’ present guilt is the fact that they were the inheritors of the already mountainous guilt of their fathers.479 By “again” violating Yahweh’s commands and intermarrying with the peoples of the lands as their fathers had (9:14 ), they were now “adding to the guilt of Israel” (10:10 ). The Returnees had proved to be the sons of their father spiritually as well as genetically. The horror of this continuity is that it placed them under the same wrath that exiled their fathers and destroyed their land.

It is in the context of the Returnees’ continuity in guilt that Ezra introduces remnant terminology. The term “remnant” is a key term in Old Testament prophecies of God’s judgment and restoration of His people. According to the prophets, the remnant was the object of God’s saving intention and the promised recipient of divine blessing.480 In Jeremiah 23:3-6 , Yahweh promises that He will gather the remnant [tyrav] of His flock, cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and raise up a Davidic king to rule over them who will be called “Yahweh our righteousness.” To be part of the remnant was, therefore, to be an heir to these promised blessings. Ezra’s use of the term “remnant” in his prayer, “Will you not be angry with us until we are totally consumed, and there is no remnant [tyrav] or escaped remnant [hfylp]” (9:14 ), indicates that he regarded the Returnees as that prophesied remnant.481 As the remnant of God’s chosen people, the Returnees were in a position to be the recipients of God’s good hand of blessing and to see the continued fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promises of restoration. Yet the very fact that they were a “remnant” testified to the reality of Yahweh’s righteous judgment upon His people. If they followed in the sinful footsteps of their fathers, they would incur the same wrath that reduced them to a “remnant” in the first place (9:15 ).

The irony of this situation is profound, and it teaches an equally profound lesson.482 In all their striving for continuity with pre-exilic Israel, they must not be like their fathers spiritually. Ezra’s prayer teaches that being of Israel’s seed, living in their ancestral towns, and worshiping at the same altar and temple is not sufficient to ensure Yahweh’s favor. If they have all these things and yet, as their fathers, are not holy, they are doomed. The only way to continue to experience the reviving that Yahweh had given them was to break with their heritage at any point where it deviated from God’s law. Adherence to the law, the positive manifestation of a heart set to seek Yahweh, is the all important element of continuity. The narrative does not suggest that continuity as a guiding principle should be disregarded or discarded. Rather it exposes the dangers of satisfaction with continuity apart from a commitment to Yahweh and His law. In doing so it illuminates the vital connection between continuity and holiness. Continuity with pre-exilic Israel was a prerequisite for being an heir, but it was no guarantee that they would receive their promised inheritance. Their concern for continuity must be the outflow of holy hearts or it would be in vain.


Taken together, the elements of genealogical, geographical, national, and spiritual continuity in the Book of Ezra present a cogent argument that the returned exiles are the direct descendants of God’s chosen people. The golah community is Israel. The reason the narrator goes to such lengths to establish the Returnees’ continuity with pre-exilic Israel would have been obvious enough to any post-exilic reader. The legitimacy of the golah community hinged entirely upon its continuity with God’s chosen people. All the promises and prophecies regarding Restoration and future blessing were given to Israel.483 The only way they could legitimately lay claim to those promises was to be of the seed of Israel. By establishing their continuity with Israel, the narrative assures the Returnees’ that there is yet hope for their future.

At the same time, the narrative also warns that their continuity is not sufficient in itself to ensure their reception of the promised blessings. The surprising revelation that the Returnees were engaged in the sins of their fathers exposes the limitation of continuity with the past. Continuity with the past cannot guarantee them the favor of God. The structuring of Ezra 7-10 —so that the ironic exposure of the Returnees’ guilt leads right into the major development of the holiness theme—argues that holiness of life and heart, not merely continuity with the past, is the indispensable key to their future.

Hope for the Future: The Nexus of Ezra’s Theological Message

In the aftermath of the mixed-marriage crisis and the forceful suspension of the wall-building efforts,484 the dominant question in post-exilic Israel must have been “Is there hope for Israel?”485 Over 80 years had passed since the first prophecy of their restoration was fulfilled. Yet they were still in servitude under the Persians, and no change in their situation appeared imminent. In fact, the imperial favor implied in Ezra’s commission had just recently been reversed. Some of the Returnees’ leaders and chief families appear to have concluded that isolation from their syncretistic neighbors had brought them nothing but 80 years of political opposition and setbacks. The lesson they were drawing from their long history of opposition was that pursuing a course of political separation because of spiritual concerns was ineffective. In order to realize the political independence they longed for, they must forge political alliances with the powers that be and be tolerant of those whose religious beliefs were not as narrow as theirs. The marriage of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the High Priest, to the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite (Neh. 13:28 ) as well as the constant correspondence between “the nobles of Judah” and Tobiah the Ammonite (Neh. 6:17 ) during the time of Nehemiah suggests how prevalent this concept became. Perhaps in response to this aberrant interpretation of the Returnees’ history, the Book of Ezra offers an alternative interpretation of their history since the first return. The narrative argues that there is indeed hope for Israel, but it is certainly not through political alliances and religious tolerance. Hope for Israel rests instead upon a proper understanding of who God is, who the Returnees are, and how God interacts with His people.

The Existence and Nature of Hope in Ezra

The spectrum of views on the existence and nature of hope in Ezra ranges from complete denial of any hint of hope in Ezra to the assertion that messianic and political expectations lie just beneath the narrative’s surface. Some scholars have suggested that the narrative argues for a complete acceptance of Persian rule with no anticipation of any independent political future for Israel. Sara Japhet , for example, asserts that the Book of Ezra “expresses a clear anti-eschatological orientation and a complete rejection of the aspiration for national liberation and political independence.”486 Taking a more moderate position, Wilhelm Rudolph argues that although messianic expectations were present in the post-exilic community, the Jews were content to bask in Persian favor and await the future fulfillment of God’s promises. Rudolph supports his conclusion by noting the absence of the “eschatological tension” that is so prominent in the frequent references to the Davidic covenant in Chronicles.487 J. G. McConville , on the other hand, argues that the narrative’s implicit dissatisfaction with the status quo488 in combination with its development of a prophecy-fulfillment motif489 “express the belief that the exiles’ situation is a stage on the way to an ultimate fulfillment of prophecy … and that the cause of the delayed fulfillment is the exiles’ sin.”490

To McConville ’s analysis of Ezra’s allusions to Jeremiah 31 may be added the more extended analysis of fulfillments of Jeremiah’s prophecies pursued previously.491 Jeremiah’s promises were given so that the people would have hope: “For I myself know the plans which I am planning concerning you, declares Yahweh, plans of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11 ; cf. 31:17 ). Yet, all of Jeremiah’s promises are not fulfilled by the time Ezra writes his narrative. As Robert Chisholm notes, the scope of Yahweh’s promises clearly extends beyond the restoration that took place in the sixth-fifth centuries B.C. The promises, as is typical of Old Testament prophecy, span the entirety of God’s restorative plan for Israel, including her ultimate salvation.492 At the same time, a comparison of post-exilic Israel’s political and spiritual status with the promises of Jeremiah exposes the radical differences between what was and what was to be. For example, Jeremiah prophesies that the city of Jerusalem and its citadel will be rebuilt (30:18 ; 31:38-39 ). Ezra 4:12 indicates that this began to be fulfilled, but its completion was terminated by Artaxerxes’ decree (Ezra 4:17-23 ). The Lord promises that He will break the yoke of foreign enslavement from their necks (30:8 ) and redeem them from their servitude (30:8 ; 31:11 ). Yet it is obvious that God’s people are still subject to the Persians. Ezra voices this reality in his prayer: “For we are servants …” (Ezra 9:9 ). The promise that they will no longer be afraid or terrified (23:3-4 ; 30:10 ; 46:27 ) is obviously not fulfilled. The promised Davidic ruler has not arrived (30:9 ; 33:15 ff.), nor have the spiritual promises been fulfilled (31:31-34 ; 33 ), as indicated by the people’s unfaithfulness. By invoking the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s word (1:1 ), Ezra reveals God’s faithfulness to His word, while underscoring the fact that there is much more to come. In this way, the narrative implies that there is hope for the continued fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promises, and thus for the political and spiritual future of the nation.

The Grounds of Ezra’s Hope: Ezra’s Theological Message

A proper view of the present often hinges on a proper view of the past. In order to show his post-exilic audience how they might yet have a future, Ezra retells the story of the first and second returns from captivity. It is unlikely that the “facts” of the story were new to his audience, but his perspective certainly was. Under inspiration, Ezra reveals the role Yahweh had played in their history. In the process, he exposes the character of Yahweh and the consequent responsibility that devolves upon His people. As Chapter Five showed, the narrative presents Yahweh as immanent in His world. He has not forgotten them. He has been at work in their history. Yahweh’s control of Cyrus, the Returnees, Tatnai, Darius, and Artaxerxes demonstrates His sovereign power. There is none too great and none too small to be outside the scope of His omnipotence. No opposition can thwart His purposes, regardless of its source or longevity. The Returnees should not worry about the external opposition they were currently facing, for Yahweh had demonstrated His ability to overcome their enemies. The development of the Returnees’ genealogical, geographical, national, and spiritual continuity with Israel, traced in this chapter, demonstrates that they are indeed Yahweh’s people and heirs of the promises to Israel. As the narrative unfolds, incident after incident testifies to Yahweh’s faithfulness to His word through Jeremiah. From the Restoration to the return of the temple vessels to the words used in celebrating the temple’s founding, Yahweh’s word proves true in its minutest detail. That there were yet Jeremian promises to be fulfilled was, in the light of Yahweh’s faithfulness, a great encouragement to hope. The narrator’s repeated notice of God’s good hand at work on behalf of His people calls attention to His goodness and His willingness to grant the desires of His people. Yet as their history shows, Yahweh is righteous; therefore, He will not tolerate sin. Just Yahweh poured out wrath upon their fathers for their iniquities, His faithfulness to His word guarantees that He will do it again, if they follow in their father’s sinful footsteps. Yahweh’s righteousness and holiness require righteousness and holiness in His people. Ezra enunciates the essence of his theological message in Ezra 8:22 . Because of who Yahweh is, His hand is for good upon those who seek Him and His strength and wrath are against those who abandon Him. Therefore, the only avenue of hope for the Returnees is holiness—a holiness that manifests itself in obedience to Yahweh’s law, separation from all that is unclean, and wholehearted devotion to Yahweh alone. They must be holy, not only in their ceremonial practices, but also in their personal lives. If they will pursue holiness, they can be sure that “there is yet hope for Israel” (10:2 ). The political connivings of the peoples of the land are no obstacle to the God of heaven and earth. If they will follow the example of holiness modeled by those who first returned and exemplified again in the life of Ezra the scribe they will see Yahweh overcome their obstacles and continue to fulfill His word on their behalf.


The theological message of the Book of Ezra is an answer to the question, “Is there hope for Israel?” Ezra’s answer is that the Returnees’ history reveals that the God of Heaven, who exercises sovereign control over history to fulfill His word, blesses those who seek Him and pours out wrath on those who abandon Him; therefore, their present and future fortunes as the people of Israel hinge not on external events but upon internal holiness, both individually and corporately.

447 2 Timothy 3:16-17 .

448 The copy of the list of Returnees in Neh. 7 lists 12 men at its head, adding Nahamani to those listed by Ezra 2:2 . Commentators who regard the omission in Ezra as a scribal error include Derek Kidner , Ezra and Nehemiah, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 37; C. F. Keil , “Ezra,” in vol. 4 of Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. Sophia Taylor (1866-91; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 21; Mervin Breneman , Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, vol. 10 in The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 76; F. U. Schultz , The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, trans. and ed. Charles A. Briggs, Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, ed. Philip Schaff (1871; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, n.d.), 30; and H. G. M. Williamson , Ezra, Nehemiah, vol. 16 of Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1985), 24. Kidner suggests that the twelve leaders (assuming Nehemiah is correct) were placed at the head of the list to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel and, thereby, make “a tacit declaration that the community they lead was no mere rump or fragment but the embodiment of the people of Israel” (37). For a discussion of the function of Neh. 7 within the literary structure of Nehemiah and a comparison of Ezra 2 and Neh. 7 , see Steve L. Reynolds , “A Literary Analysis of Nehemiah,” (Ph.D. diss, Bob Jones University, 1994), 156-60, 234-35. Reynolds does not specifically address the textual relationship between Ezra 2 and Neh. 7; he assumes that Ezra 2 is the inspired version of the list and may, therefore be given priority (157-59). Williamson , on the other hand, argues for the priority of Nehemiah 7 (29-30). Breneman follows Williamson ’s arguments adding two of his own (74, note 28). In light of the scholarly consensus that both lists have suffered from transmissional errors, however, any identification of textual priority is highly tenuous. As Fensham notes, “It is not improbable that the authors of Ezra and Nehemiah could have made use of another document or even of two different documents.” F. Charles 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 Company, 1982), 49.

449 There is some uncertainty surrounding the identity of Gibbar in Ezra 2:20 . Since Neh. 7:25 reads Gibeon instead of Gibbar and Ezra 2:21 begins the listing of place names, some commentators regard Gibbar as a corruption of Gibeon. Breneman , 77, and 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), 17. Others argue the reverse. For example, Williamson contends that “the presence of ynb ‘family’ in both forms of the list at this point slightly favors the text in Ezra” (25). However, as Breneman notes, list shifts arbitrarily between ynb and yvna throughout the section of place names (cf. 2:22-23 , 27-28 ). These terms, therefore, appear to be used synonymously and do not shed any light on the problem (78). Blenkinsopp and Fensham both come to this same conclusion as well. Joseph Blenkinsopp , Ezra-Nehemiah (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988), 85; Fensham , 50-51.

450 For an alternate analysis of which names are localities and which are family names, see Galling , 152. Various suggestions have been advanced to explain why the list switches from family names to place names. Keil contends that the groups listed by family name “must be regarded as former inhabitants of Jerusalem” (23). Williamson prefers a suggestion advanced by E. Meyer that the families listed by their cities “represent ‘the poor of the land’ (2 Kings 25:12 ) who, in contrast with those in vv. 3-20 , had no land or property in their own name.” E. Meyer, Die Entstehung des Judenthums (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1896), 152-54; cited by Williamson , 34. Whatever the reason for the switch, the fact that groups are noted who could not declare their lineage (59-63) must mean that the groups listed by locality could verify their genealogies (Williamson , 34).

451 The total number of Returnees recorded in Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 Esdras is identical: 42,360. However, there are numerous insignificant discrepancies regarding the numbers and names of specific groups listed. For helpful analyses of how these discrepancies may have occurred, see H. L. Allrik , “The Lists of Zerubbabel (Nehemiah 7 and Ezra 2 ) and the Hebrew Numeral Notation,” BASOR 136 (1954): 21-27; and Gleason L. Archer , Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 229-30. In addition to individual differences in names or number, not one of the sums of the numbers given by the three sources equals 42,360. For a discussion of the various answers to this question, see Breneman , 85.

452 For a comparison and analysis of the differences between the gift totals recorded at the end of the lists in Ezra 2 , Nehemiah 7 , and 1 Esdras 5 , see Kidner , 44.

453 Joel Weinberg , The Citizen-Temple Community, trans. Daniel L. Smith -Christopher (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 42. Loring W. Batten takes a similar approach in his A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1913), 72.

454 J. Liver, The History of the House of David, from the Destruction of the State of Judah to the Destruction of the Second Temple [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 1959), 87; cited by Weinberg , 41. Williamson , who takes a similar position, provides a helpful discussion of elements in the list that support an early date for its composition (31).

455 J. Wellhausen, “Die Rückkehr der Juden aus dem babylonischen Exil,” Nachrichten von der kniglichen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Gttingen (Klasse, 1895), 176-78, cited by Weinberg , 41; Blenkinsopp , 83; Sigmund Mowinckel , Studien zu dem Buche Ezra-Nehemia 1 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1964), 108.

456 “The ‘Gola-List’ According to Ezra 2//Nehemiah 7,” JBL 70 (1951): 149-158. Galling argues that the list was designed to counter Samarian opposition by clarifying “the ecclesiastical and legal structure of the gola community” and thus demonstrate that they were the “true Israel.” (152-54). McConville draws a similar conclusion: “the list aims to distinguish ‘the people of the province who came up out of the captivity’ (v. 1) from other people in the province … making the point that it was only those of the Gola who properly constituted ‘Israel.’” J. G. McConville , Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, The Daily Study Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 15.

457 Nehemiah describes the list as one of “those coming up at the first” (7:5 ). Both by its placement following chapter one and the narrative frame on either side of the list, the text of Ezra presents the list as a record of those who returned in response to Cyrus’s decree. In response to Blenkinsopp ’s argument that “clearly it is not a checklist of any one aliyah; the numbers involved (49,897 in Ezra, 49,942 in Nehemiah) are too high for that” (83), one may counter that there is nothing unreasonable about a return of nearly 50,000 people in view of the similar return to Israel of three times that many Jews in the 20th century. Edwin M. Yamauchi , “Ezra-Nehemiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 4:606-607.

458 For helpful discussions of the issues surrounding the list in Ezra 8:1-14 , see, Williamson , 107-111, or Blenkinsopp , 160-63.

459 Interestingly, all the lay family names in Ezra 8 may also be found in Ezra 2 , provided one supplies Zattu in verse five and Bani in verse ten. For a discussion of the textual evidence supporting this emendation, see Williamson , 107-108.

460 Kidner , 41.

461 Breneman , 77.

462 Tamara Cohn Eskenazi , In an Age of Prose: A Literary Analysis of Ezra-Nehemiah (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 48-49.

463 See Chapter Three, note 187.

464 Ezra-Nehemiah, 83.

465 McConville , 15-16.

466 Marshall D. Johnson , The Purpose of Biblical Genealogies, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 42-43. Johnson states that Ezra’s genealogies show that “the question of legitimacy and continuity was of utmost importance for membership not only in the priesthood but also in the theocracy itself… . [They] present the idea of genealogical purity more explicitly than any other OT material… . But underneath the notion of legitimacy and racial purity is the desire to express the continuity of the people of God, that is to say, the identity of the new Israel of the restoration with the old Israel of the monarchy” (ibid.). For a discussion of the implications of Ezra 2 for the theme of purity or holiness, see Chapter Six.

467 In addition to the listing of family names, Mark Throntveit suggests two other ways in which Ezra 2 emphasizes “the restoration community’s continuity with the past”: (1) the listing of twelve leaders in Ezra 2:2 (as harmonized with Neh. 7 ) is “suggestive of a complete restoration of the tribes that formed sacral Israel,” and (2) the geographical nature of the list recalls the original occupation of the land and allocation of territory and cities by Joshua. Mark A. Throntveit , Ezra-Nehemiah, in Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1992), 18-19.

468 Throntveit suggests that “the long lists of names … serves the very practical purpose of providing a running commentary on the status of the community in relation to the developing situation of reform. The list in Ezra 2 was important for maintaining the continuity of the restoration community with the past. The addition of the names of the family heads [in ch. 8 ] expands that expression of continuity into the present. The gap between the preexilic community and the present congregation had now been bridged and the stage was set of Ezra’s reform and reconstruction of the congregation along the lines of the Torah” (47).

469 It is evident that Ezra is including only those he considers key components of his lineage, for Seraiah lived at least 120 years before Ezra’s time, and 1 Chron. 6:14 states that Jehozadak was Seraiah’s son. Also, the six high priests between Azariah and Meraioth are omitted from Ezra’s genealogy (cf. 1 Chron. 6:7-11 ; Kidner , 62; Keil , 59-60).

470 Throntveit provides a fascinating analysis of the rationale for the construction of Ezra’s genealogy. He arranges the genealogy in the following manner:

    Ezra, reconstitution of Mosaic system
    seven priests to destruction of temple
    Azariah, first priest in Solomon’s temple
    seven priests before construction of temple
    Aaron, first chief priest

On the basis of this arrangement, Throntveit notes that “there are seven names of priests who served before the construction of the temple, between ‘the chief priest, Aaron’ (v. 5b), founder of the Levitical system, and Azariah, ‘who served as priest in the house that Solomon built in Jerusalem’ (1 Chron. 6:10 ), as well as seven names of priests who served until the temple’s destruction between Azariah and Ezra, the priest and scribe responsible for the reconstitution of the Mosaic system, it becomes clear that the genealogy has been carefully arranged to establish Ezra’s credentials …” (41).

471 For helpful descriptions of the locations of these towns relative to Jerusalem, see Blenkinsopp , 86-87, or Yamauchi , 610-11.

472 The other six occasions on which the Returnees call themselves or are called “Israel” are as follows: the Returnees praise Yahweh “for His lovingkindness is upon Israel,” referring to themselves (3:11 ); Ezra’s resolve to teach Yahweh’s word “in Israel” (7:10 ); leading men are gathered from “Israel” to return with Ezra (7:28 ); Ezra admonishes the vessel guards to watch them until they weighed them before “the heads of the fathers of Israel at Jerusalem” (8:29 ); in response to Ezra’s mourning over the Returnees unfaithfulness a large group of people gathers around Ezra “from Israel” (10:1 ); and the category for the laymen who married pagan wives is “and [those] from Israel” (10:25 ).

473 Interestingly, in all three cases “the people of Israel” refers to the laity as distinct from the priests and Levites. Keil suggests that “they are called the people of Israel, not the people of Judah, because those who returned represented the entire covenant people” (21). The fact that the priests and Levites are excluded from the phrase, however, argues against his suggestion.

474 It is noteworthy that in 6:17 , the narrator comments that 12 sin offerings were sacrificed “according to the number of the tribes of Israel.” Clearly, the Returnees saw themselves as representatives of the entire nation.

475 The identification of the Returnees as Israel could perhaps seem to imply that only those who were a part of the golah community in Judah were a part of Israel. There is, however, at least one passage that indicates that this is not the implication intended in the narrative. In Ezra 7:28 , Ezra states that he “assembled from Israel” those who were to go with him. “From Israel” here must refer to the Israelites who were in Babylon at the time. Ezra’s reference indicates that his conception of “Israel” includes but is not limited to the golah community.

476 1:3 ; 3:2 ; 4:1 , 3 ; 5:1 ; 6:14 , 21 , 22 ; 7:6 , 15 ; 8:35 ; 9:4 , 15 . For a chart of all the names of God that occur in Ezra, see the Appendix.

477 As Peter R. Ackroyd notes, “Restoration of the vessels implies re-establishment of that continuity of the cultus which was in some measure interrupted by the disaster of 597. The vessels are a symbol of this… . Thus across the disaster of the exile, in which the loss of the temple might seem to mark an irreparable breach, there is a continuity established which enables the later worshipper to know, through the actual vessels in use, that he stands with his ancestors in the faith. This theme makes its contribution to the wider one of continuity in priesthood and in worship as ordered by the Levitical officials of various kinds.” “The Temple Vessels—A Continuity Theme,” VTSup 23 (1972): 175, 180.

478 Leslie C. Allen concludes similarly: “Clearly Ezra-Nehemiah was intended to establish ideals of worship for the ongoing community, whose continuity with the divinely established pre-exilic Israel was emphasized. In contexts of worship this feature appears repeatedly with a literary emphasis on its claim to rely on the written Torah and so to reflect traditions associated with Moses … .” “‘For He Is Good …’ Worship in Ezra-Nehemiah,” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible, ed. M. Patrick Graham, Rick R. Marrs, and Steven L. McKenzie (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 33.

479 Fensham comments: “It is as if Ezra has realized that immediately in front of him are all the cumulative iniquities which have heaped up through history.” The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, 128. See also Fensham ’s article, “Some Theological and Religious Aspects in Ezra and Nehemiah,” JNSL 11 (1983): 63-64.

480 Elmer A. Martens provides a helpful summary of the key OT promises to the remnant: “granting of pardon (Mic. 7:18-20 ); God’s everlasting love (Jer. 31:2 ); taking root (2 Kings 19:30 ; cf. Isa. 37:31-32 ); removal of enemies and becoming established like a lion in the forest (Mic. 4:7-9 ); the Lord’s promise to be a garland of glory for the remnant (Isa. 28:5-6 ); and a grant by God for the people to possess all things (Zech. 8:6 ).” “Remnant,” in Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 670.

481 J. G. McConville suggests that the occurrence of both tyrav and hfylp in Isaiah 10:20-21 makes it a more likely referent of Ezra’s allusion than Jeremiah 23 : “And it will be in that day that the remnant of Israel and the escaped remnant of the house of Jacob will never again lean upon the one who struck him, but he will lean upon Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God.” “Ezra-Nehemiah and the Fulfillment of Prophecy,” VT 36 (1986): 220-21. Since the “remnant” is such a prominent OT concept, it seems better to regard the entire prophetic treatment of the remnant as the background for Ezra’s thinking rather than a single passage or two.

482 For a valuable discussion of the definition and use of irony in the Old Testament, see Edwin M. Good , Irony in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965).

483 Breneman , 73.

484 One cannot help wondering if the enforced separation of over 100 pagan women did not perhaps fuel the animosity of Rehum and Shimshai, whose letter of warning to Artaxerxes brought the wall-building efforts to a halt.

485 Eugene H. Merrill also concludes that hope is the central issue in Ezra. How he sees the narrative offering hope, however, differs from the analysis advanced by this dissertation. Merrill argues that the Book of Ezra answers the question “is there any hope for political and religious restoration… . Its central thrust is that there is indeed hope but that hope must be incarnated in the rebuilding of the Temple, the cultus, and the priesthood. Only as the remnant people became the theocratic nation, founded on and faithful to the covenant Yahweh made with their fathers, could they revive the Davidic house and anticipate the resumption of their mediatorial role among the nations of the earth.” “A Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 190. Merrill concludes that “the great theological theme of [Ezra-Nehemiah] lies, then, precisely in this nexus between the ancient promises of Yahweh and the present and future expectations of His chosen people.” Hope is “conditioned on the willingness of the community to reestablish the covenant foundations on which they had been built and to take seriously the mandate to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Ibid., 201.

486 Sara Japhet , “The Temple in the Restoration Period: Reality and Ideology,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 44 (1991): 240. She continues: “The book expresses a complete acceptance of the political status quo; moreover, it represents this status quo as an expression of God’s mercy. The beginning of the redemption, according to the author of Ezra-Nehemiah, is Cyrus’ proclamation, a grant which had only one purpose: ‘that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished’ (Ezra 1:1 ). In other words, it is the Temple’s construction which constitutes the realization of the [Jeremian] prophecy of redemption” (ibid.). Paul D. Hanson gives a similar evaluation of Ezra’s eschatological outlook in his essay “Israelite Religion in the Early Post-exilic Period,” in Ancient Israelite Religion, ed. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Paul D. Hanson, and S. Dean McBride (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 485-508.

487 “Wenn er aber nich das Bedürfnis hatte, die eschatological Erwartungen des Judentums strker zu betonen, so dürfen wir daraus schlieen, da diese damals nicht im Vordergrund standen; … solange die persische Weltmacht dem Judentum so freundlich gesinnt war und seine religisen und kultischen Wünsche so bereitwillig erfüllte, … konnte man zufrieden sein und brauchte nicht zur Eschatologie seine Zuflucht zu nehmen. Die politische Frieheit des religious geeinten Volkes Israel lag offenbar noch nicht im gttlichen Heilsplan. Htte der Chronicler in echter eschatologischer Gespanntheit gelebt, müte man davon trotz der gegenüber der persischen Regierung gebotenen Vorsicht seinem Werke mehr anspüren.” Wilhelm Rudolph , Esra und Nehemia samt 3 Esdras, Handbuch zum Alten Testament (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1949), xxix-xxx.

488 McConville locates three “signs of dissatisfaction” in the narrative. First, he cites passages that are unfavorable to the Persians: the reference to Darius as “king of Assyria,” which marks him as “true descendant of Sennacherib and Shalmaneser” (6:22 ); the moratorium placed by Artaxerxes upon work on the walls of Jerusalem (4:6-23 ); and Ezra’s reference to their political servitude (9:8-9 ). Second, he suggests that the ambiguity of the response to temple’s founding (3:13 ) and the unfavorable contrast between the feasts in Ezra 6:17-22 and those which followed the temple’s first founding argue that “the experience of the returned exiles falls short of a complete salvation … in relation to [its] cultic institutions.” Third, he argues that in Ezra’s prayer “the sin of the community … is made to account for its subservience to Persia, which is the real obstacle to its enjoyment of blessing” (“Ezra-Nehemiah and the Fulfillment of Prophecy,” 208-212).

489 McConville identifies in Ezra 8:15-9:15 eight instances of similarity in vocabulary and theme with Jeremiah 31 and seven such allusions to Isaiah. He concludes that the “similarity of theme and vocabulary suggests that the Ezra memoir is deliberately modeled on the prophecy in Jer. xxxi.” Ibid., 214-222; 215.

490 McConville concludes, “My main conclusion is that [Ezra and Nehemiah] express deep dissatisfaction with the exiles’ situation under Persian rule, that the situation is perceived as leaving room for a future fulfillment of the most glorious prophecies of Israel’s salvation, and that the cause of the delayed fulfillment is the exiles’ sin.” Ibid., 223.

491 See Chapter Five.

492 Robert Chisholm , “A Theology of Jeremiah and Lamentations,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 352, note 17.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology

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