Chapter 8: A Reader’s Guide to the Theological Message of Ezra: A Literary-Theological Synthesis
The introduction to this dissertation proposed the thesis that a Biblical-theological analysis of an OT narrative is incomplete until it has shown the relationship between the theological message of the narrative and the narrative itself. In other words, one must demonstrate how the narrative’s theological message develops along the line of the narrative. The first four chapters of this dissertation analyzed the literary techniques Ezra employs to develop and highlight his theological themes. Chapters five through seven then isolated these themes and traced their development across the narrative.
The analyses of Chapters One through Seven support the conclusion that the Book of Ezra was designed to answer the question “Is there hope for Israel’s future?” In sum, the answer the book gives 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 hinge not on external events but upon internal holiness, as individuals and as a people.
The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate how Ezra’s message develops as the narrative unfolds. Building on the analysis of Ezra’s plot structure in Chapter Three, the discussion here will follow the divisions of the narrative’s episodes, phases, and scenes.493 The treatment of each segment will note its literary features and the theological themes being developed. Following the discussions of Ezra 1-6 and 7-10 will be brief analyses of each section’s thematic structure and of the contribution each section makes to the narrative’s message. The chapter will conclude with an analysis of the relationship between Ezra’s two plots and the implications of that relationship for the message of the book.
The first six chapters of Ezra recount the first return of exiles from Babylonian captivity on a mission to rebuild the temple. Over 42,000 exiles, along with more than 7,000 servants, return to Judah under the leadership of Sheshbazzar. They quickly rebuild the altar and found the temple; however, opposition from the peoples of the lands halts the work for over 15 years. Under the leadership of Haggai and Zechariah, the reconstruction resumes and the temple is finally completed. The Returnees celebrate the completion of the temple with great joy.
Ezra 1-2 introduces two of the narrative’s main characters: God and the Returnees. It also introduces the main topic of the first section: rebuilding the house of Yahweh, the God of Israel. In the first phase of the action Cyrus’s decree and return of the temple vessels initiate the return. In the second phase, the people return to Judah.
Ezra’s third-person omniscient narrator opens the first scene (1:1-11 ) with a brief temporal notation locating the narrative in the first year of Cyrus (538 B.C.). He then discloses Yahweh taking action to fulfill His word through the prophet Jeremiah (1:1 ). Yahweh’s stirring of Cyrus introduces the first two theological themes of the book: the sovereign power and faithfulness of Yahweh. Yahweh’s sovereignty is evident, for the greatest monarch of earth is subject to His stirrings. Cyrus’s decree (1:2-4 ) further magnifies Yahweh’s sovereignty, acknowledging Him as the God of Heaven, the Owner of all the kingdoms of the earth, and the Master who has appointed him to rebuild the temple. Yahweh’s faithfulness appears in His purpose for stirring Cyrus: to fulfill His word through Jeremiah. The open-endedness of the narrator’s reference to Jeremiah suggests that he expects his reader to be familiar with Jeremiah’s words and to read the narrative in their light. Cyrus’s decree itself is the first fulfillment recorded in the narrative, for it initiates the end of the 70 years of exile and the beginning of the restoration which Jeremiah had promised (25:11 ; 29:10 ).
Verses 5-11 introduce the Returnees and extend the theme of Yahweh’s sovereignty and faithfulness. In Ezra 1:5 a the “heads of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites” arise to return to Judah, apparently in direct response to Cyrus’s edict. But the narrator reverses this impression immediately, revealing that those who rose were, in fact, “all whose spirits God stirred to go up to build the house of Yahweh” (1:5 b). Yahweh’s sovereign control of who responded to Cyrus’s decree reveals the scope of His power. His control comprehends all men, from the king to the captive. The second installment of Yahweh’s word through Jeremiah dominates the last half of the chapter and illustrates in carefully enumerated detail the faithfulness of Yahweh to keep His word. In Jeremiah 27:21-22 God promises that He will restore the temple vessels to His house in Jerusalem. Ezra 1:7-11 records the fulfillment of that promise. In addition to fulfilling Jeremiah’s promise, the return of the temple vessels also links the Returnees to the worship of their fathers, introducing the theme of continuity that predominates in chapter two.
Ezra chapter two is an independent document that has been incorporated into the narrative.494 The document lists the family names or towns of the exiles who returned “from the captivity of the exiles … to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his city” (2:1 ). The Returnees are listed and verified family by family or town by town, each one declaring the house of his fathers and his lineage (urz; 2:59 ). The principle of continuity with God’s people hinted at in chapter one is applied here with painstaking exactitude. From a literary perspective, the fact that Ezra brings the plot to a complete halt to incorporate this list indicates the importance of establishing the Returnees’ continuity with pre-exilic Israel. To be the legitimate heir of the promises given to Israel they must be able to prove their Jewish lineage. This list also contributes to the theme of Yahweh’s faithfulness to His word. First, it links them to their fathers and the land of their fathers in fulfillment of the promise: “I will restore them to the land which I gave to their fathers” (Jer. 16:5 ; 30:3 ). Second, the geographical sites (2:21-35 ) and the repeated statement that they returned each to his own city (2:1 , 70 ; cf. 3:1 ) fulfills Yahweh’s call for Israel to “return to … your cities” (Jer. 31:21 ).
The two brief scenes that are included in this list also have a thematic function. The account in 2:59-63 of a group of priests who could not verify their lineage being forbidden to participate in the priesthood indicates how seriously the Returnees took this matter, and it unobtrusively introduces the theme of holiness into the narrative. The law required that priests be from the tribe of Levi and the house of Aaron. The profaning of the priests from the priesthood testifies to the important of holiness in the priesthood and hints at the relationship between the law and holiness. The priests could not be holy and acceptable to God if they were not in harmony with the requirements of His law. The brief account of the Returnees’ generous giving in 2:68-69 portrays them as eager participants in the temple reconstruction and contributes to the positive picture of the Returnees developed in the first six chapters, a picture that will serve as a contrast to the sin discovered in chapters 9-10 .
In summary, chapter one rolls back the curtain separating the Returnees from the unseen world and shows the divine side of their history. At the end of chapter one, the reader should be struck by the sovereign power of God and His faithfulness. Yahweh initiated Cyrus’s decree. Yahweh was responsible for stirring their hearts to return. The whole reason the first Return happened was that Yahweh was faithfully fulfilling His word. The Ezra 2 list continues the theme of God’s faithfulness while developing the theme of the Returnees’ continuity with pre-exilic Israel. By the end of the chapter, the Returnees have been implicitly characterized as the remnant of God’s chosen people, fervent in their concern for obedience to His word and holiness in the priesthood, and eager in their willingness to contribute toward the rebuilding of the temple.
Ezra 3-6 is the second episode of the plot and focuses on the rebuilding of the temple. The reconstruction of the temple moves through four phases: temple construction started (3:1-13 ), successful opposition to God’s people (4:1-24 ), opposition reversed (5:1-6:12 ), and temple construction completed (6:13-22 ).
Ezra chapter three recounts the first two steps the Returnees make toward rebuilding the temple. The narrator’s temporal notations (3:1 , 8 ) indicate that these events followed quickly on the heels of the Return. In the first scene (3:1-6 ), the people gather to Jerusalem and restore the altar of burnt offering to its place. Although the narrator maintains his third-person omniscient perspective, his frequent intrusions emphasize the Returnees’ careful adherence to the law of Moses. At each step in their restoration of proper worship, the narrator notes that they are acting in continuity with God’s word (3:2-5 ). This spiritual continuity with pre-exilic Israel, extending back to the time of its founding under Moses, strengthens the developing theme that the Returnees are, in every way, the continuation of God’s chosen people. In Ezra 3:3 , the narrator also grants a glimpse of the Returnees’ emotional state as they rebuilt the altar: “for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands.” This brief exposure of the Returnees’ fear of their neighbors foreshadows the opposition that will soon arise. It also introduces the third main character of the narrative, the peoples of the lands. The mention of free-will offerings in Ezra 3:5 recalls Jeremiah’s promise that the voices of those “bringing thank offerings” will again be heard in the land (Jer. 33:11 ) and continues the theme of Yahweh’s faithfulness to His word. The concluding comment of this section, “and the temple of Yahweh was not founded,” implicitly explains why the Day of Atonement was not celebrated and reinforces the conclusion that the narrator is concerned with careful obedience to the law.
In the second scene (3:7-13 ), the rebuilding of the temple begins in earnest as Zerubbabel and Jeshua hire laborers, purchase supplies, and appoint overseers to manage the construction. When the foundation is laid, a grand worship celebration marks the occasion. Ezra 3:10 adds another link between the Returnees and their forebears as the narrator notes that the musical praise was conducted “according to the hand of David the king of Israel.” In Ezra 3:11 the record of the Returnees’ jubilant thanksgiving, resounding the goodness and faithfulness of Yahweh, advances the theme of Yahweh’s faithfulness in two ways. First, the people’s words affirm His eternal loyal lovingkindness (dsj) toward His people. Second, their songs and shouts (3:12 ) fulfill Yahweh’s promises that “again shall be heard … the voice of those saying, ‘Give thanks to Yahweh of hosts, for Yahweh is good, for His lovingkindness endures forever,’” and “From them will go forth thanksgiving and the voice of those who make merry” (Jer. 33:10-11 ; 30:19 ).
As chapter three ends, the Returnees appear well on their way to seeing the house of Yahweh rebuilt. The narrator’s note that their joyous shouts were “heard far away” connects chapters three and four, for it was when the peoples of the lands “heard that the sons of the exile were building the temple” that they came to offer their help (4:1-3 ). Before their silhouettes appear on the narrative horizon, however, the narrator labels them as “the enemies [<yrx] of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1 ). This direct characterization warns Ezra’s audience about the character of the approaching people, and it reveals the narrator’s view of the peoples of the lands. They are “the enemies.” Once “the enemies” identify themselves as exiles brought to Palestine by Esar Haddon, the reader should be aware of at least one sense in which they were enemies. 2 Kings 17 identifies these people, who considered themselves worshipers of Yahweh, as idolaters who had merely added Yahweh to their pantheon. Any cooperation with them would endanger the pure monotheism Yahweh demanded. Holiness is, therefore, the issue that ignites the primary plot conflict in Ezra 1-6 . The elders’ total rejection of their offer provides a second illustration of holiness in action. A holy people form no partnerships with idolaters. The Jewish elders’ refusal also exposes their enemies’ malice, which is promptly unleashed in opposition to the work of God’s people to the extent of hiring counselors to frustrate the Returnees’ plans (4:5 ). The second and primary sense in which the peoples of the lands were enemies becomes apparent in 4:4-24 . The narrator cites example after example, scattered across 80 years of post-exilic history, in which the peoples of the lands opposed the work of God’s people. (4:5 , 6 , 7 , 8-23 ).
A complex array of literary strategies cooperates in Ezra 4:6-24 to develop the theme of opposition and set the stage for the narrative’s message concerning hope for the future. In terms of temporal ordering, the observant reader would notice two things about these examples of opposition. First, they go beyond the time of the temple’s completion in 516 B.C. into the reigns of Ahasuerus (486-465 B.C.) and Artaxerxes (465-424 B.C.). The last example in 4:8-23 recounts the most recent setback experienced by the Returnees: the forced discontinuation of work on Jerusalem’s walls. The temporal compression in 4:5-24 presents a concentrated picture of the long-standing malice of the peoples of the lands and creates a compelling case for labeling them as “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin.” It also argues that the peoples of the lands are intractable opponents of God’s people, thereby establishing the necessary background for the victory narrated in Ezra 6 and the mixed-marriage crisis in Ezra 9-10 . The unfair characterization of the Jews in Rehum’s letter to Artaxerxes, which was effective in stopping the building of Jerusalem’s walls, further exposes the malevolent character of the peoples of the lands and provides solid evidence for the narrator’s direct characterization.
Second, there is a drastic chronological reversal in 4:24 . Having just recounted two cases of opposition during the reign of Artaxerxes, the current Persian king, the narrative suddenly returns to the second year of Darius (519 B.C.) and resumes the narrative thread it left in 4:5 . By embedding the current wall-building crisis (4:8-23 ) in the account of the opposition to building the temple, the narrative argues that the original reader’s circumstances are analogous to those faced by the first Returnees. Yahweh’s ability to transform the opposition faced by the first Returnees into support implies that He can transform the opposition of Artaxerxes into support as well.
In the third phase of Ezra 3-6 , the opposition that grew to such overwhelming proportions in chapter four seems to continue and then reverses dramatically with Darius’s official sanction and support for the temple’s reconstruction. Into the dark situation portrayed in the preceding phase, Ezra 5:1-2 introduces a ray of light: the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The appearance of God’s messengers implies that the God of Israel is still at work behind the scenes. Stirred by God’s word and supported by the prophets, Zerubbabel and Jeshua renew the reconstruction of the temple. Opposition immediately resumes (5:3-17 ), and another letter is sent to the king of Persia, this time from Tatnai, the governor of the entire province. But 5:5 reveals that God was, in faithfulness to His promise (cf. Jer. 24:6 ), watching out for the good of His people. The narrator’s omniscient perspective renews the reader’s awareness of God’s sovereign control: the elders were not stopped because Yahweh’s eye was upon them.
Tatnai’s letter also advances the theme of God’s sovereignty through the testimony of the Jewish elders. When asked who gave them permission to rebuild the temple, they reply that they are the servants of “the God of heaven and earth,” a clear assertion of the supremacy of Yahweh (5:10 ). The reason they give for the destruction of the temple is revealing. Their fathers had enraged the God of heaven, and as a result He had delivered them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar (5:12 ). Ezra 5:12 clearly connects men’s conduct to Yahweh’s wrath and judgment. Yahweh’s wrath is not arbitrary. It is the predictable response to men’s disobedience. Verse 12 also provides another testimony to Yahweh’s sovereignty over history, for He was the one who delivered them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.
The third scene of this phase (6:1-12 ) recounts Darius’s response in support of the Jewish elders. Darius’s decree resolves the conflict and heads the plot toward its conclusion. Cyrus’s official memorandum, included in Darius’s letter, sheds interesting light on the final scene in chapter two. The fact that the Returnees contributed generously toward reconstructing the temple is even more notable in view of Cyrus’s decree that all temple building expenses be paid for from the imperial treasury. Darius’s unqualified support for the Returnees is a tremendous victory over their opponents. Not only does he stop Tatnai from bothering them, but he also requires him to ensure the financial support of the project from his tax revenues. The radical reversal of the opposition implicitly testifies to the efficacy of Yahweh’s oversight and His faithfulness to His people.
With the imperially mandated support of the governor and the support of Haggai and Zechariah, the temple reconstruction prospers (6:13 ). According to Ezra 6:14, the temple is finally finished on the third of Adar, the last month of the Jewish religious calendar. Ezra 6:14 is a crucial verse both literarily and theologically. From a literary standpoint, the narrator’s intrusion into the narrative indicates that he has a point to make. In order to make his point, he connects the command of God with the command of the Persian kings: “and they finished from the command of the God of Israel and the command [of] Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, the king of Persia.” Since each of the three kings issued a separate decree relating to the temple, one would expect the narrator to say “the commands” rather than “the command.” This unexpected syntax in combination with the narrator’s sequential placement of “God’s command” before “the command” of the kings suggests that God’s command motivated the command of the Persian kings. In other words, Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes were simply echoing the decree of the God of Heaven.
The mention of Artaxerxes in this verse is also noteworthy, because his contribution to the building of the temple has not been recounted. The narrator’s inclusion of Artaxerxes in 6:14 foreshadows what is to come in the following plot. This foreshadowing bridges the 57-year gap between the end of chapter six and the beginning of chapter seven, uniting the two plots under the overarching theme of God’s sovereign control.
The narrative’s development of the Returnees’ continuity with pre-exilic Israel surfaces again in the account of the joyful dedication of the temple (6:16-18 ). The “priests and the Levites and the rest of the sons of the exile” are identified as “the sons of Israel” (6:16 ). The narratorial notice that the Returnees offered 12 goats as a sin offering for the 12 tribes of Israel presents them as the representatives of the entire nation (6:17 ). The mention of the law of Moses again in 6:18 also connects the Returnees to the spiritual heritage of their forefathers.
Though the story seems to be finished in 6:18 , the narrator continues with a brief account of the Returnees’ Passover celebration the following month (6:19-22 ). This satellite event is, however, far more than an unnecessary addendum. It permits the narrator to illustrate the essence of holiness in action. The purified priests, Levites, and the sons of the Exile are joined by “all who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the nations of the land to seek Yahweh the God of Israel.” This narratorial description establishes the definition of holiness for the narrative. The dual nature of holiness is evident in the statement. Negatively, the proselytes were separated from all uncleanness. Positively, they were separated unto Yahweh. Since the Lord had stipulated that everyone who partook of the Passover had to be circumcised, one can infer from this incident the seriousness of those joining the Returnees (cf. Exod. 12:48 ). The fact that proselytes were permitted to join the Returnees in celebrating their most sacred feast demonstrates that true holiness knows no ethnic boundaries. Anyone who is willing to renounce all uncleanness and wholly set his heart to follow the Lord is welcome to worship Him with His people. This scene also provides a standard against which the unwillingness of the foreign wives to renounce their idolatrous ways can be measured.
In 6:22 the narrator intrudes with another theological explanation, given in effect-cause order. The Returnees celebrate the feast “with joy” because Yahweh had caused their hearts to rejoice and had turned Darius’s heart to support them. Their joy was a result of Yahweh’s turning of Darius’s heart. If Ezra 6:14 did not make it clear that Darius’s decree was divinely prompted, the narrator ensures that his point is made here. Darius’s heart was as a river of water in the hand of Yahweh, and He had turned it where He desired (Prov. 21:1 ).
At every point where there was progress toward building the temple, from stirring Cyrus and the people (1:1 , 5 ), to stirring the people anew (5:1 ), to turning the heart of Darius (6:22 ), Yahweh was responsible. Yahweh’s sovereignty is not just an abstract theological fact but a practical necessity for the success of His people. Yahweh’s faithfulness to His word and His people manifested itself in His fulfillment of Jeremian prophecies and in His protective oversight. The genetic, geographic, national, and spiritual continuity of the returning exiles with pre-exilic Israel has demonstrated that the Returnees are indeed God’s people. The consistent opposition of the peoples of the lands has made it abundantly evident that they are the enemies of God and God’s people. Yet God is greater than the opposition, for He controls the heart of the king. Holiness has been illustrated three times: first, in obedience to the law’s requirement that priests be from the line of Levi; second, in the elder’s rejection of advances made by syncretists to help build the temple; and third, in the account of proselytes who, having separated themselves from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land and having set their hearts to seek Yahweh, joined the Returnees in celebrating the Passover.
The sequence of the thematic emphases in Ezra 1-6 is as follows: Yahweh’s sovereign power and faithfulness (ch. 1 ), the Returnees’ continuity with pre-exilic Israel (chs. 2-3 ), the opposition of the peoples of the lands (chs. 4-5 ), and Yahweh’s sovereign power (ch. 6 ). The themes move from the heights of divine initiation and prophetic fulfillment to the depths of overwhelming opposition and then back to the heights of divinely granted victory. This thematic inclusio highlights Yahweh’s sovereign power as the primary theme of the first plot.
Ezra’s first plot develops the positive side of the narrative’s message—that there is hope for Israel’s future—in three ways. First, Yahweh is a faithful God. He will fulfill what He has promised His people: to restore the city wall, to remove the yoke of foreign bondage, and to set up a Davidic king over them. Second, the Returnees, as demonstrated by their continuity with pre-exilic Israel, are His people. Therefore, they are the legitimate heirs of Yahweh’s promises. Third, Yahweh is the sovereign God of heaven and earth. Earth’s greatest kings are His servants. He can overcome the opposition of the peoples of the lands. No opposition can thwart Yahweh’s faithfulness to His word. Both the character of Yahweh and the continuity of the Returnees argue that there is hope for their future.
Chronologically, the events in Ezra 7-10 take place 57 years after the completion of the temple in 516 B.C. In contrast to the 80-year span of Ezra 1-6 , this section covers exactly one year to the day, and narrates the return under Ezra and the mixed-marriage crisis.
Chapters 7 and 8 treat the return under Artaxerxes in two phases. The first phase introduces Ezra, his mission, and the decree with which Artaxerxes commissioned him. The second phase recounts the preparations Ezra made for the return journey and the events that took place immediately after the Returnees’ arrival.
The first five verses of Ezra 7 delineate the priestly genealogy of Ezra, the main character in the plot. Ezra’s genealogy demonstrates that he meets the criteria established by the law to be a priest and contributes the narrative’s emphasis on continuity with the law. The summary that follows in verses 6-10 continues the introduction of Ezra and briefly recounts the temporal beginning and ending points of the return trip. In 7:6 a the narrator characterizes Ezra as a “scribe skilled in the law of Moses which Yahweh, the God of Israel, gave.” This direct characterization reveals two things. First, it exposes the narrator’s view of the origin and authority of the law. Yahweh had given it to Moses; therefore, it has divine authority. Second, it informs the reader that Ezra was an expert in the law and paves the way for the reader to accept Ezra’s interpretation of the law in chapter ten. In 7:6 b the narrator explains why the king gave Ezra all he requested: “the hand of his God [was] upon him.” This statement, which will be repeated five more times in Ezra 7-8 , introduces the theme of God’s “gracious goodness.”
In verses 7-9 a the narrator breaks with narrative convention and informs the reader of the journey’s end before telling of its beginning. This end-before-beginning reversal eliminates any suspense the story might have created and increases the reader’s awareness of God’s gracious goodness at work on behalf of His people. In 7:9b-10 the narrator echoes his theme of the goodness of God and then inserts a key theological explanation for why God’s hand was upon Ezra: “For Ezra had fixed his heart to seek the law of Yahweh and to do it, and to teach in Israel statute and judgment” (7:10 ). This statement links Yahweh’s gracious goodness to the character of Ezra, implying that God’s good hand rests upon those who have set their hearts to seek His law. In the person of Ezra, two of the three aspects of holiness developed previously are united. His passion for Yahweh’s law recalls the concern for the law evidenced by the Returnees in 2:62 , and his seeking after Yahweh’s law, which is a seeking after Yahweh, recalls the description of the proselytes whose hearts were set to seek the Lord (6:21 ). The development of Ezra’s character in 7:1-10 sets him up as a model of holiness, a person to be observed and emulated.
Artaxerxes’ decree occupies the next 16 verses (Ezra 7:11-26 ) and contributes several things to the narrative. First, it is an external testimony to the character of Ezra. The authority Artaxerxes invests in Ezra testifies to Ezra’s integrity. He permits him to lead a return, trusts him to handle all the money properly, and commissions him to appoint judges for the entire province of Beyond the River and to execute justice on those who are disobedient. The generosity of the decree magnifies God’s goodness. The king offers silver and gold for the maintenance and support of the temple and provides vessels for use in the temple. He gives Ezra access to the royal treasury, authorizes the treasurers in Beyond the River to provide Ezra the resources he needs, and exempts the temple personnel from tax, tribute, or toll. It is no wonder that Ezra bursts forth in praise: “Blessed by Yahweh, the God of our fathers, who put this in the heart of the king, to beautify the house of Yahweh which is in Jerusalem” (7:27 ). Ezra’s doxology exalts Yahweh’s sovereignty, faithfulness, and goodness. If the original reader missed Ezra’s parenthetical statement in 7:6 that Artaxerxes’ commission was granted “according to the hand of his God,” he could not possibly miss it here. The sovereignty of Yahweh shines through in His control of Artaxerxes’ heart. Ezra’s statement that the Lord had extended to him His lovingkindness through Artaxerxes (7:28 ) indicates His faithfulness. The repetition of Ezra’s key phrase, “according to the hand of Yahweh my God which was upon me,” emphasizes again that the good hand of God is in all that is taking place.
Besides bearing testimony to the gracious goodness, faithfulness, and sovereign power of Yahweh, Ezra 7:27-28 introduces a radical shift in the narrator’s point of view. The narrator has operated from a third-person omniscient position throughout the entire preceding narrative. In 7:27-28 , however, he shifts from his unseen third-person position to a visible first-person point of view and reveals himself to be Ezra the scribe. This shift in point of view produces at least two effects. First, it creates a sense of immediacy, giving the reader the impression that he has moved from the grandstands of history onto the playing field next to the main character. Second, it informs the reader that the point of view in 1:1-7:26 was Ezra’s and that he may, therefore, expect it to be consonant with the point of view that follows. This unity of perspective contributes significantly to the narrative’s coherence.
The second phase of Ezra’s return recounts his preparations for the journey (8:1-30 ). The first scene (8:1-14 ) lists either the names of individuals or the leader of a family and the numbers of those returning with the leader. The inclusion of this list renews the narrative’s theme of continuity and suggests that concern for continuity is not just a matter of the past but that it continues to have relevance to the post-exilic community.
In the second scene (8:15-20 ), Ezra tells of his discovery that there were no priests or Levites among those who had volunteered to return with him. He sends a delegation to Casiphia requesting “servants for the house of our God” (8:17 ). The Levites were God’s ordained mediators for a proper relationship with Him, and the priests were God’s chosen instruments to teach His people the law (Deut. 24:8 ). Ezra’s concern that there be sufficient Levites in the return is, therefore, indicative of his concern for the spiritual life of God’s people. Ezra reiterates the theme of God’s gracious goodness in his acknowledgment that the tremendous response he received (250 men) was the result of “the good hand of our God upon us” (8:18 ).
After the arrival of the Levites, Ezra calls a fast to “humble ourselves before our God and to seek from Him a straight road” (8:21 ). Ezra’s action models the humble dependence upon God that should characterize His people. This ties in with the narrative’s constant exposure of God’s role in human history. For Ezra, even the safety of his journey was dependent upon God. In 8:22 , he admits a desire to avail himself of human protection but realizes that to do so would undermine his testimony to the king: “The hand of our God is upon all those who are seeking Him for good, and His strength and His anger are against all those abandoning Him” (8:22 ). Ezra recognizes that man’s behavior and God’s character are the two factors that co-determine the relationship between them. If men will seek Him, God will bless them. On the other hand, God will not sit idly by when His people abandon Him. His strong wrath will surely descend upon their heads. This is the principle that motivates Ezra to lean hard upon the Lord and not upon the arm of flesh.
Ezra 8:22 also provides the theological cipher to the discouraging situation in which the Returnees found themselves. By enunciating the grounds upon which Yahweh interacts with His people, this verse explains the relationship between the Returnees’ circumstances and their conduct. But at this point in the narrative, the force of this principle is not yet evident to the reader. Only in retrospect will the principle emerge as the link between Yahweh’s favor and their behavior.
Ezra 8:22 also connects the four preceding statements about the hand of God (7:6 , 9 , 28 ; 8:18 ) with the final statement of this motif (8:31 ), explaining why God was with Ezra in blessing: He was seeking the Lord (7:10 ). In 8:23 , Ezra’s affirmation that “God was intreated for us” models faith in Yahweh’s faithfulness.
In the final scene of the preparation for the journey (8:24-30 ), Ezra chooses twelve of the “princes of the priests” for the special task of guarding the gold, silver, and vessels that were being transported to Jerusalem. The amazing quantity of gold and silver Ezra weighs out to the priests reveals the extent to which He had moved Artaxerxes’ heart and subtly reinforces the theme of God’s gracious goodness. In 8:28 , Ezra tells the 12 men he chose that they are “holy to Yahweh, and the vessels are holy.” Ezra’s charge to these men contributes to the developing theme of holiness. It reinforces the concept that holiness always involves separation unto Yahweh. Implicit in Ezra’s charge is the fact that Yahweh is holy. A holy God may be worshipped only with holy vessels, and holy vessels require priestly guards who are holy to Yahweh as well.
Ezra 8 concludes with four brief scenes that recount the safe arrival of Ezra’s convoy, the weighing of the temple vessels, the returning exiles’ burnt offerings and sin offerings, and the informing of the provincial satraps and governors of Artaxerxes’ decree. When his journey ends, Ezra again acknowledges, as he has at every step in the way, that the exiles’ safe arrival was the result of the good hand of God upon them, delivering them from the enemies along the road (8:31 ). The theme of continuity also resurfaces as the Returnees again sacrifice on behalf of all the tribes of Israel: “12 bulls for all Israel … 12 goats of the sin offering” (8:35 ).
Ezra 7-8 develop a concentrated picture of God’s gracious goodness. The use of first-person point of view permits Ezra’s personal character to dominate the narrative. The narrator first introduces Ezra as a scribe skilled in the law and a priest dedicated to Yahweh. The reader then sees him in action, and it becomes evident that his character and conduct model the kind of life God blesses. He is a man who is concerned about holiness, not only in priestly and ceremonial matters, but also in the practical matters of living.
The mixed-marriage incident is the nexus into which all of Ezra’s thematic strands run. It illustrates and amplifies the heart of his message. A proper understanding of this episode is essential to a proper appreciation of the message of the book as a whole.
Chapter eight ends on a very positive note with the satraps and governors of Beyond the River supporting the people and the house of God. Four months after Ezra’s return (10:9 ), the princes inform Ezra that they have discovered their fellow leaders are not living separated lives, but have been unfaithful to Yahweh and mingled “the holy seed with the peoples of the lands” (9:2 ). The princes’ report initiates the conflict of the second plot and ties this episode directly into the narrative’s treatment of holiness. Their report also introduces the key word for the Returnees’ sin: unfaithfulness. The lack of separation and mingling of the “holy seed” in marriage with pagan foreigners signals the Returnees’ failure to be holy to Yahweh. Ezra’s dramatic response—ripping his clothes, tearing his hair, and sitting down in stunned silence—portrays the appalling nature of their sin. Ezra’s note that the gathering crowd was trembling concerning the “unfaithfulness” of their fellow exiles also intimates how serious their sin really was.
Ezra 9:5-16 adds Ezra’s viewpoint to that of the princes and the surrounding crowd. Ezra’s prayer is the longest spoken discourse in the narrative. The narrative’s temporal pace slows dramatically in verses 3-16 . Whereas chapter eight covered over four months, 9:3-10:6 focuses on a single day. The near equivalence of the time required for Ezra to utter his prayer and the reader to read it argues that this prayer deserves careful attention. From a thematic standpoint, Ezra’s prayer is the theological heart of the entire narrative. In it he unites all the themes that he has been developing to teach his audience the connection between man’s conduct and God’s dealing with him. In verses 6-7 the theme of continuity resurfaces, this time with a biting irony. The Returnees’ guilt links them to the guilt of their fathers. By participating in the very iniquity that subjected their fathers to the sword, captivity, spoil, and shame, they have become inheritors of their fathers’ guilt. The theme of God’s sovereign power enters Ezra’s prayer in his statement that “we were given … into the hand of the kings of the lands” (9:7 ). Like the Jewish elders before him (5:12 ), Ezra acknowledges that the Exile was a manifestation of Yahweh’s sovereign power in punishment.
In verses 8-9 , Ezra recounts Yahweh’s gracious goodness and faithfulness to the exiles. He had granted them favor (hnjt) in permitting a remnant to escape destruction. He had given them back a small place in the land, encouraging and reviving them. He had not abandoned them but had extended His loyal lovingkindness to them, enabling them to rebuild the temple. Despite Yahweh’s incredible faithfulness to them, they had “abandoned” His commands (9:10 ). Ezra drives his point home forcefully with the repetition of the word “abandon.” The Returnees’ abandonment of Yahweh’s commands presents a sharp contrast to the fact that He had not abandoned them, and it recalls Ezra’s statement that Yahweh’s strong wrath is poured out on those who abandon Him (8:22 ). Verse 10 also sets the Returnees in opposition to their immediate predecessors who had shown such fidelity to the law of God.
Ezra’s paraphrase of the prophetic commands regarding intermarriage with the peoples of the lands illuminates Yahweh’s goodness. His reason for giving the command is that His people “may be strong and may eat the good of the land.” Even in His prohibitions, Yahweh’s aim is the good of His people. Verses 13-14 recapitulate verses 6-12 , acknowledging the undeserved mercy Yahweh had granted them. Ezra’s fear that their present guilt might rouse Yahweh’s anger to annihilate them (9:14 ) reinforces the principle that their behavior co-determines Yahweh’s interaction with them. The plot conflict reaches its climax as Ezra ends his anguished confession, acknowledging Yahweh’s righteousness and their shameful guilt.
Chapter ten narrates the second phase of the mixed-marriage crisis. Interestingly, Ezra resumes his hidden third-person perspective and finishes the narrative from this vantage. His return to a third-person point of view distances the reader emotionally from the crisis and permits a broader view of the action. The third-person perspective also enables the point of view of other characters to be presented objectively.
The response of the God-fearing Israelites in Ezra 10:1-6 initiates the plot’s actional descent. Even though the response of Ezra and the crowd was vividly displayed in chapter nine, the narrator’s additional comment that Ezra was weeping and falling down, and that the people were weeping as well, reveals the depth of their distress over the unfaithfulness of their fellow Returnees. In 10:2 , Shecaniah joins his voice in admitting the unfaithfulness of the Returnees in marrying foreign pagans, but he also addresses the absence of any mention of hope in Ezra’s prayer: “Now there is hope for Israel concerning this.” In the person of Shecaniah the question that has motivated the entire narrative receives a positive answer. There is hope for Israel. The first step to restoring that hope was to reestablish their relationship with God by repentance and obedience to His law (10:3 ). Shecaniah’s solution emphasizes the importance of holiness (separation) and obedience to the law. Ezra’s mournful paralysis is broken, and at Shecaniah’s behest he arises to require all Israel to swear to do as Shecaniah had suggested, implying that he approved of this solution. In the brief notice that Ezra spent the night mourning, the narrator repeats for the fourth time the term “unfaithfulness,” reinforcing the point that intermarriage with idolaters constitutes an abandonment of the Returnees’ relationship with Yahweh.
The second scene recounts the elders’ proclamation of an assembly that all members of the congregation must attend, Ezra’s address to the congregation, and their response.The narrator’s brief temporal notation in 10:9 fills in the temporal gap between 8:36 and 9:1 , informing the reader that only four months had passed before the Returnees’ sin came to light. Ezra’s address to the people is terse and to the point, hitting the key points of this episode: unfaithfulness, guilt, obedience, and separation. They must confess their guilt to Yahweh and do His will by separating from the peoples of the lands and their foreign wives. The strong negative portrayal of the peoples of the lands in chapter four has prepared the reader for the severity of this solution. There can be no holiness without separation from idolaters. The congregation’s affirmation of Ezra’s indictment unites all the narrative viewpoints in condemnation of marriage with the peoples of the lands. The congregation’s statement that their rebellion had brought God’s fierce anger upon them (10:14 ) reinforces the conclusion of Ezra’s prayer.
Three months later the community is purified. The narrator brings the narrative to a unique close. The names of over 100 men file by and the story ends. Ezra 10:18-44 is the only list in the narrative that is composed of personal names. Ezra 2 and 8:1-14 list family names, and 7:1-5 is a genealogy. This list constitutes a permanent display of those who abandoned Yahweh. It is the literary equivalent of stringing them up before the public eye as a testimony to the seriousness of their sin.
Ezra 7-10 develops the themes of Yahweh’s gracious goodness, the enduring importance of continuity—particularly obedience to the law, and the importance of holiness. The narrative portrays Yahweh’s gracious goodness through Ezra’s repeated references to the good hand of God and his acknowledgment of God’s goodness in reviving and restoring His people. The narrative tempers its development of the importance of continuity by revealing that continuity with the guilt of the past may destroy all hope for the future. The repetition of the term “unfaithfulness,” Ezra’s prayer, and the enforced divorce of the foreign wives demonstrate the importance of holiness.
The sequence of the thematic emphases in Ezra 7-10 moves from God’s gracious goodness in chapters 7-8 , to holiness profaned in chapter 9 , to holiness restored in chapter 10 . The result of this sequence of themes is that holiness dominates the narrative’s conclusion. This section’s emphasis on the role of the Returnees’ conduct in their relationship with Yahweh qualifies the hope generated in chapters 1-6 . The required separation from all foreign wives and their children clearly communicates that there can be no hope without holiness.
The sense of an insufficient closure to the plot’s conflict in 10:44 and the unresolved conflict in 4:8-23 suggest that the message of Ezra is not fully comprehended by a simple reading from start to finish. The narrative is designed to force the reader to think more deeply about the relationship between its two sections.495 A comparison of the two sections of the narrative reveals both parallels and contrasts. Both plots have two episodes. The first episode in both plots narrates a return from exile motivated by a Persian decree and contains a list of those who returned from Babylon. In both plots the Returnees encounter significant problems soon after arrival, and in both plots the problems revolve around the peoples of the lands.
It is in the contrasts between the sections, however, that the crux of Ezra’s message lies. The first plot ends with joy, and the second plot ends on a somber note. Whereas in the first return their predecessors’ steadfastly adhered to the law and carefully maintained separation from the uncleanness of the lands, by the second return the Returnees have abandoned the law and mingled themselves with practitioners of abominations. Whereas in the first return, priests were forbidden to function in the priesthood until their lineage could be proven to be in compliance with the law, by the second return, priests head the list of those who had married pagan foreigners. The most significant contrast between the narrative’s plots involves the type of problems the Returnees encounter. In Ezra 1-6 the problems are external: the Returnees are opposed by the peoples of the lands. In Ezra 7-10 the problem is internal: the Returnees are unfaithful to Yahweh and unite with those who had opposed them. The significance of this contrast between external problem and internal problems lies in its temporal artificiality: chronologically, the wall-building crisis in Ezra 4:8-23 took place after the mixed-marriage crisis.
Recognition of the historical order of events illuminates a potential cause-effect relationship between the mixed-marriage crisis and the wall-building crisis. Perhaps some of Ezra’s contemporaries were beginning to conclude wrongly that the narrow exclusivism of orthodoxy was the prime impediment to their future. Ezra’s reform simply provoked greater antagonism from the surrounding nations and resulted in the demolition of their efforts to rebuild the wall (cf. Neh. 1:3 ). In order to counter this misinterpretation of their circumstances, Ezra embeds the wall-building crisis in a series of similar crises. This permits him to reveal Yahweh’s sovereign ability to overcome the opposition of the peoples of the lands. It also enables him to expose the relationship between Yahweh’s character and the conduct of His people.
The arrangement of the narrative so that all external problems were narrated in 1-6 , leaving the internal problem to the end, suggests that the reason Artaxerxes stopped the wall building was that Yahweh was angry with the Returnees for their sin. Although circumstantially it appears that Rehum and Shimshai are responsible for Artaxerxes’ moratorium, the consistent pattern of the narrative is that Yahweh’s hand was behind the Persian decrees. Artaxerxes’ decree to stop building the walls was, therefore, motivated by Yahweh’s wrath upon their sin. The connection between Artaxerxes’ decree and the mixed-marriage crisis can also be seen in the relationship between Ezra 5:12 , 8:22 , and 9:6-7 . God’s wrath comes upon a nation that abandons Him in the form of political trouble and even destruction. Their troubles are a result not of political isolationism or spiritual exclusivism, but of spiritual adultery. Rather than conclude that the reform motivated and sanctioned by Ezra was the cause of their political problems, Ezra wanted the Returnees to realize that their sin was the root of their problem.
The order of the narrative’s thematic emphases makes sense once one has reconstructed the actual order of events. In terms of its primacy-effect,496 the narrative’s emphasis on Yahweh’s sovereignty and faithfulness initiating the rebuilding of the temple and then turning the opposition into support would have generated a strong sense of hope that what God did in the past He can do again. The narrative’s recency-effect is, however, the stronger of these two effects, and the narrative ends with its main point. Holiness is the key to Yahweh’s favor.
Meir Sternberg concludes one of his incisive essays on chronological ordering in Biblical narrative with the following questions regarding Ezra and Nehemiah:
How, in short, does construction within and especially across these books stand to reconstruction? It is as impossible to tell, with anything like confidence, as to figure out a reason other than genetic for the impossibility. No play of gaps this, because
the elisions and incoherencies have run out of control: we can neither infer what happened, nor pattern the happening into well-defined ambiguity, nor refer the darkness of facts to its effects.497
In stark contrast to Sternberg ’s bleak analysis of the intelligibility of Ezra’s narrative, this dissertation has argued that Ezra offered the post-exilic community an account of their history that provides an answer to how they might continue to have “a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11 ). The Book of Ezra ties together human responsibility and divine sovereignty. It reveals the direct link between the apparently political events of history and Yahweh’s sovereign fulfillment of His word. It argues implicitly that all the events in Israel’s history have divine antecedents and that every Israelite’s actions have spiritual ramifications. There is no sacred-secular divide. Even social activities such as marriage have direct bearing on the nation’s relationship to Yahweh. Hope for their future is, therefore, contingent upon their holiness. They must separate themselves from the uncleanness of the peoples around them, seek the Lord, and obey His word. Then, and only then, will they again experience the “good hand of God” in blessing upon them.
493 For tables giving a break down of the episodes, phases, and scenes in Ezra’s two plots, see Chapter Three, pages 72 and 73.
494 This same list is included in Nehemiah chapter seven.
495 This is not intended to imply that the difficult syntax of Ezra 10:44 is deliberate. It appears to be the result of scribal error. The Hebrew literally reads, “And there was from them (masc.) women, and they (masc.) put sons.” Derek Kidner concludes aptly: “Such a tangle is proof of a damaged text … .” Ezra and Nehemiah, The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 72; similarly C. F. Keil , “Ezra,” in vol. 4 of Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. Sophia Taylor (1866-91; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 84. Regardless of how one reconstructs Ezra 10:44, it fails to grant the second plot the full denouement that Ezra 6:22 gives the first plot.
496 For definitions and a discussion of the significance of primacy- and recency-effects on the reader, see Chapter One, note 64.
497 “Time and Space in Biblical (Hi)story Telling: The Grand Chronology,” in The Book and the Text: The Bible and Literary Theory, ed. Regina Schwartz (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1990), 140.
Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines