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Conclusion to A Literary and Theological Analysis of the Book of Ezra

The objective of this dissertation was to answer two questions: what is the theological message of Ezra, and how does its literary composition communicate that message? Since Ezra’s literary form both precedes and embodies its theological function, Chapters One through Four analyzed the narrative’s temporal ordering, plot, point of view, and characterization for indications of its theological themes. Chapters Five through Seven organized these themes topically and traced their development through the narrative, concluding (in Chapter Seven) with a demonstration how each theme contributes to the narrative’s central theological message. In order to finish answering the question of how the narrative communicates its message, Chapter Eight synthesized the foregoing literary and theological analyses and traced the development of Ezra’s theological message as the narrative unfolds. This chapter will summarize the conclusions reached in the three parts of this dissertation, and it will offer suggestions regarding areas that hold potential for further study.

Literary Analysis

Chapter One analyzes the use of temporal notations, chronology, and anachrony in Ezra. Despite the narrative’s chronological appearance, attention to temporal notation discerns four instances of anachronous arrangement: (1) the shift from Artaxerxes back to Darius in 4:23-24 , (2) the non-chronological relationship of 7-10 to 4:8-23 , (3) the reference to Artaxerxes in 6:14 , and (4) the end-before-beginning arrangement of Ezra’s return in 7:1-9 . After suggesting the historical order of the events,498 Chapter One examines the four instances of anachrony, concluding that Ezra’s anachronous arrangement of the narrative events accomplishes at least five major purposes. First, the topical arrangement of 4:6-23 proves that the “peoples of the lands” are indeed the enemies of God’s people. Second, the concatenation of the incidents of opposition faced under Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes in 4:6-23 suggests that they are analogous. Therefore, the reversal of the opposition under Darius in 5:1-6:22 argues that just as God transformed past hostility, He can transform the hostility the Returnees were currently facing under Artaxerxes. Third, the anachronous inclusion of Artaxerxes with Cyrus and Darius in 6:14 unites both plots in magnifying God’s sovereignty over His people’s rulers. Fourth, the end-before-beginning arrangement of Ezra’s return minimizes narrative suspense in order to maximize the reader’s awareness of Yahweh’s gracious goodness. Fifth, Ezra’s non-chronological arrangement of the narrative isolates all external problems to the first plot (1-6 ) so that the second plot can end with the narrative’s main point: the Returnees’ future hinges not on external problems but upon personal holiness.

Chapter Two rounds out the analysis of temporal ordering in Ezra by examining the historical order of Ezra and Nehemiah, the three major approaches to the chronological anomalies in Ezra, and the narrative’s temporal proportions. After analyzing the evidence adduced by critics in support of the position that Ezra followed Nehemiah, this chapter concludes that the critical claims do not hold up under scrutiny. There is no reason to reject the Biblical presentation that Ezra preceded and ministered together with Nehemiah during his governorship. The second section argues that both external and internal evidence indicate that the narrative was deliberately arranged non-chronologically: (1) the MT, Esdras b (LXX), Syriac, and Qumran fragments (4QEzra) support the current order of the text; (2) philological analysis of the Persian monarch’s names in Ezra 4 supports the traditional identification of Ahasuerus with Xerxes and Artachshashta with Artaxerxes; (3) the liberal use of temporal notations throughout the narrative argues that the author was fully aware of the historical order of the events he narrates; and (4) the sequential appearance of 4:23 and 4:24 may be explained as an instance of resumptive repetition. The final section of this chapter contends that that 80:1 ratio of time between Ezra 1-6 and 7-10 and the concentration of temporal parity in the documents and dialogues of 7-10 indicate that the narrative’s temporal proportioning focuses the reader’s attention on the final episode.

Chapter Three analyzes the structure and composition of Ezra’s plots. Following a survey of the various approaches to plot analysis, plot is defined as “the united sequence of events” in a narrative. In order to determine the structure and boundaries of Ezra’s plot, three models of plot structure are applied to the narrative: Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end model, Freytag’s model of conflict development and resolution, and a second Aristotelian model tracing the rise and fall of the protagonist’s fortune. The application of each model yields a two-plot structure in Ezra (plot 1: Ezra 1-6 ; plot 2: Ezra 7-10 ). The largest segment of Chapter Three explores Ezra’s selection, arrangement, and presentation of the narrative events for indications of the narrative’s theological message. The selection of plot events involves both omission and inclusion. A comparative analysis of Haggai and Zechariah with Ezra reveals that Ezra omits the Returnees’ selfish decision not to build the temple in order to highlight the relentless opposition of the peoples of the lands. Building on Seymour Chatman ’s analysis of the logical hierarchy of events in a plot,499 the section on plot inclusions analyzes the kernel and satellite events of Ezra’s two plots. Yahweh’s sovereign power and His faithfulness to His word are the primary themes of the kernel events in Ezra 1-6 . The kernel events in Ezra 7-10 develop Yahweh’s gracious goodness and the importance of holiness in the Returnees’ relationship with Yahweh. The arrangement of events in Ezra primarily follows the standard logic of cause-effect. Two deviations from this ordering principle (1:5 ; 6:22 ) reverse reader expectation to highlight the sovereign activity of Yahweh, and a third (4:6-24 ) temporarily defers the reader’s awareness that the conflict in 4:8-23 is not resolved until the end of the narrative. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the narrative’s elements of scenic discourse: letters, dialogues, decrees, and prayers. In Ezra 1-6 , scenic discourse develops the theme of opposition to God’s people and contributes to the theme of God’s sovereign power. In Ezra 7-10 , scenic discourse advances the primary themes of this section: God’s goodness and the importance of holiness.

Chapter Four examines the four techniques that distinguish Ezra’s use of point of view from that of other Biblical narrators: narratorial intrusion, shifts between third- and first-person narration, use of internal perspective, and direct characterization. The narratorial intrusions in Ezra are either elaborative or explanatory in nature. The narrator’s elaborative intrusions, which primarily develop the origin, authority, and importance of the law, reveal his deep concern with keeping the law. His explanatory intrusions support the conclusion that the sovereign power and gracious goodness of Yahweh are two of the book’s major themes. In addition to their rhetorical effects, the shifts between third- and first-person narration in Ezra 7-10 identify the narrator as Ezra the scribe and thereby grant the reader direct access to the narrator’s theological point of view. The inclusion of multiple points of view in chapters nine and ten strengthens the conclusion that unfaithfulness to Yahweh was the primary problem with the Returnees’ mixed-marriages. The analysis of internal perspective and direct characterization concludes that these techniques support the narrative’s negative picture of the peoples of the lands and present Ezra as a positive model of holiness.

Theological Analysis

After reviewing the themes identified in Chapters One through Four, Chapter Five identifies the three focal points around which the narrative revolves (Yahweh, the Returnees, and the relationship between them) and then develops the themes relating to Yahweh’s character. The Book of Ezra highlights four main aspects of Yahweh’s character: His sovereign power, faithfulness, goodness, and righteousness. The theme of Yahweh’s sovereign power develops as the narrative shows Yahweh controlling the hearts of men. The greatest potentates of the Persian world (Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes) make decrees and their subjects (the Returnees) take action in response to Yahweh stirring their spirits to accomplish His purposes. The narrative’s account of Yahweh’s behind-the-scenes triumph over the opposition to His people further magnifies His sovereign power. The thematic development of Yahweh’s faithfulness has two foci in the narrative: His word through Jeremiah and His people. After surveying Jeremiah’s restoration promises, Chapter Five demonstrates that Ezra records the fulfillment of no less than eight specific Jeremian promises. Ezra portrays Yahweh’s faithfulness to His people through various testimonies to His loyal lovingkindness. The most powerful of these testimonies occurs in Ezra’s prayer where he acknowledges that despite Israel’s great guilt, Yahweh did not abandon them in their servitude. Ezra’s picture of Yahweh’s gracious goodness develops through narratorial comments informing the reader that a given event was the result of “the good hand of God,” praise at the founding of the temple, Yahweh’s restoration and reviving of His people, and the rationale Yahweh gives for commanding His people to separate from the uncleanness of the surrounding nations. The theme of Yahweh’s righteousness involves both His justice, shown in past judgment for sin, and His mercy, shown in preserving an escaped remnant of His people. Chapter Five concludes by suggesting that the divine titles used for Yahweh, while not developing a narrative theme, nonetheless imply that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the one supreme God who rules both heaven and earth.

From an examination of five narrative events that develop the theme of holiness, Chapter Six argues that Ezra presents separation as the heart of holiness. Holiness’ separation necessarily involves both positive and negative orientations. Negatively, holiness requires separation from all that is common or unclean. Ezra’s hallowing of twelve priests to guard the holy vessels dedicated to Yahweh illustrates holiness’s separation from the common or ordinary. The Returnees’ refusal to permit their syncretistic neighbors to help rebuild the temple and the proselytes’ separation of themselves from the “uncleanness of the lands” (6:22 ) provide two illustrations of holiness’s separation in the spiritual realm. Positively, holiness involves separating oneself wholly unto Yahweh. This positive separation is the outflow of a heart set to seek Yahweh and manifests itself in obedience to His law. The narrative portrayal of Ezra’s personal relationship with Yahweh and his commitment to study, practice, and teach the law models the positive orientation of holiness. Ezra 8:22 enunciates the relevance of this theme to the narrative’s audience: “The hand of our God is upon all those who are seeking Him for good and His strength and His wrath are against all those abandoning Him” (8:22 ). The primary conclusion of this chapter is that Ezra 8:22 establishes the principle that holiness is the key to the Returnees’ relationship to Yahweh. Without holiness there is no hope of receiving His future blessings. If, on the other hand, they will set their hearts to seek Him and separate themselves from the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, the good hand of God will again be upon them.

Chapter Seven concludes the dissertation’s analyses of Ezra’s theological themes. It examines the narrative elements that establish the Returnees’ continuity with their past and demonstrates how all of the book’s theological themes work together to answer the question, “Is there hope for Israel?” The first section of the chapter argues that the Returnees’ genealogical, geographical, national, and spiritual continuity with pre-exilic Israel authenticates their implicit claim to be the true remnant of God’s chosen people Israel. These elements of continuity also affirm the enduring importance of continuity with their past. At the same time, the ironic exposure of the Returnees’ continuity in guilt with their fathers exposes the limitations of a focus on continuity and argues that such a focus must be guided by an overriding concern for holiness. The second section of the chapter proposes that the question motivating Ezra’s narrative interpretation of post-exilic history is “Is there hope for Israel?” After summarizing the contention of some scholars that the Book of Ezra has nothing to say about hope for the future, the thematic elements that contribute to this motif are examined. Ezra’s answer to this question is that their history demonstrates that Yahweh’s sovereign power can overcome their enemies, that He is faithful to His promises, that He is disposed to be good to His people, and that their continuity with pre-exilic Israel authenticates them as the true remnant of His people. But their history also teaches that Yahweh is righteous and will not tolerate sin in His people. The key to their future is, therefore, not political accommodation or spiritual compromise but holiness: a steadfast allegiance to Yahweh that separates from all uncleanness and wholeheartedly obeys His law.

Literary-Theological Synthesis

Chapter Eight brings the dissertation’s analysis of the Book of Ezra to a conclusion by synthesizing its literary and theological analyses in a demonstration of how Ezra’s message develops along the line of the narrative. This chapter illuminates the relationship between the narrative’s theological message and the narrative itself. This is accomplished by tracing the theological themes introduced and developed by Ezra’s literary techniques in each section of the narrative. As the informed reader moves through the narrative, it becomes apparent that its thematic structuring was designed to highlight the relationship between Yahweh’s character and the Returnees’ conduct. The final section of the chapter analyzes the parallels and contrasts between Ezra’s plots, noting how they contribute to the message of the book.

Prospects for Further Study

The apocryphal book of 1 Esdras, which covers the same period of history as Ezra, includes material Ezra does not and arranges its material in a different order. A comparative analysis of the literary and theological aspects of 1 Esdras and Ezra would provide a demonstration of how a different literary setting alters the ideological emphasis of a narrative. It might also provide evidence for the superiority and inspiration of the canonical Ezra. Although Tamara C. Eskenazi devoted a chapter of her published dissertation to this topic, there is yet room for a more thorough investigation.500

The most significant aspect of one’s pre-understanding in approaching any book of Scripture is his view of inspiration. Genre identification, the nature of the Biblical narrator (reliable or unreliable) and his point of view (normative or arbitrary), the selection, arrangement, and presentation of plot events, the rationale for adherence to or deviation from chronological order—the doctrine of inspiration impinges on all these aspects of literary analysis. A wide spectrum of views exists regarding the significance of inspiration for literary analysis of the Bible. Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis emphatically rejects the doctrine of inspiration as a major obstacle to “studying the Bible as literature.”501 In a different vein, Meir Sternberg argues that “inspiration simply figures as an institutional rule for writing and reading; and it is no more liable to questioning than the Bible’s rules of grammar (or the reality of Hamlet’s ghost). To make sense of the Bible in terms of its own conventions, one need not believe in either, but one must postulate both.”502 To date no one has investigated the ramifications of the doctrine of inspiration for conservative narratology. Such an investigation would have the practical value of providing the conservative interpreter with a set of guidelines that would guard him from misusing literary analysis in his search for a fuller understanding of the message communicated by Biblical narratives.

Then and Now: Homiletical Values in Ezra

To most readers of Scripture, Ezra is a largely unknown and unappreciated book. Written during a period of Persian dominance, Ezra appears to be little more than a brief history of the first two returns of exiles from Babylonian captivity. As this dissertation has demonstrated, however, the Book of Ezra communicates a powerful message concerning the relationship between the character of Yahweh and the conduct of His people. In relation to His character, Ezra reveals Yahweh as the God of heaven and earth, who exercises sovereign control over history to fulfill His word, blessing those who seek Him and turning His strong wrath against those who abandon Him. The view of history presented in Ezra radically opposes modern secularism. History is not a closed continuum in which the actions of men ramify in cause-effect fashion. Not only does Yahweh’s sovereignty make Him the governor of human history, but it grants Him license to be an actor within history. All effects do not have merely human causes. God is an active participant in history, moving both king and subject to accomplish His ends. This picture of Yahweh’s sovereignty should be a great solace to the believer. It should also remind him that he serves the God who is in charge of history and who may be “entreated” by His people to intervene in their behalf (8:23 ).

Ezra also enunciates in propositional form the truth that Yahweh’s character and men’s conduct co-determine the relationship between them. Yahweh’s sovereignty knows no bounds, for He is the God of heaven and earth, without rival and without equal. Yet He has sovereignly chosen to grant men responsibility for their actions and make His relationship with them contingent upon their use of that responsibility. Ezra articulates this principle with a clarity equal to that of the parable of the potter’s house in Jeremiah 18 : “The hand of our God is upon those that seek Him for good, and His strength and His anger are against all those that abandon Him” (8:22 ).

The conduct that provokes Yahweh’s strong wrath is disobedience to His word and disloyalty to Him. The sad irony of the Returnees’ intermarriage with “foreign women” is that they were uniting with those who had consistently opposed the work of God. This danger still faces God’s people today, tempting them to deny their Lord through fleshly capitulation to the world’s enticements. On the other hand, the conduct which Yahweh blesses may be summed up in the word holiness. Holiness, as illustrated in Ezra, is essentially separation: separation from all that is common or defiling, and separation unto the Lord. Yahweh’s holiness demands that His people avoid any relationship that compromises their undivided loyalty to Him. The few glimpses of Ezra’s life given in the narrative illustrate that such whole-hearted devotion manifests itself in a passion for God’s word and humble dependence upon God. Holiness is no less the key to the believer’s experience of God’s blessing than it was for the Returnees living in the post-exilic period.


498 If arranged historically, the order of the text would be 1:1-4:5 ; 4:24-6:22 ; 4:6-7 ; 7:1-10 :44 ; 4:8-23 .

499 Seymour Chatman , Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1978), 53-56.

500 In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 155-74.

501 Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1982), 2:16-17

502 The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 81. In Sternberg ’s view, “inspiration is primarily nothing but a rule that governs the communication between writer and reader, licensing the access to privileged material (e.g., thoughts) that would otherwise remain out of bounds and giving all material the stamp of authority” (33).

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines