Lesson 47: “Let Us Rise Up and Build”
This 1957 lesson comes from a book written for the seminaries and institutes of the Church: Heber Cyrus Snell, Ancient Israel: Its Story and Meaning (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing Co., 1957) It covers both Nehemiah and Ezra, as does our current manual, and may provide some useful background (read past the first paragraphs before you give up on it).
Nehemiah and Ezra
We are indebted to the chronicler for preserving some first-rate sources for the important half century in which two of the greatest men in Jewish history, Nehemiah and Ezra, did their work. These sources, edited by the hand of the chronicler or some one else of his school, are contained in our two books of Nehemiah and Ezra, which originally formed a series with Chronicles. As presented by a modern English authority [W.O.E. Oesterley and T.H. Robinson, pp. 111-114], the sources referred to are (1) the Ezra Memoirs, (2) The Rescript of Artaxerxes, (3) the Nehemiah Memoirs, and (4) the Temple Records In addition to these are the “Greek Ezra,” the Elephantine Papyri, and Josephus, Antiq., 11:1 (1-5 (8), each of which is of value in piecing out the Old Testament materials.
The view the reader gets from the chronicler’s narrative, as it stands in the Old Testament, is that the priest Ezra came from Babylon in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I, i.e., in 458 B.C., and that Nehemiah came in 445 B.C., thirteen years later. But the evidence of the original sources seems to require an abandonment of this view, as far as Ezra is concerned. If his coming to Jerusalem is placed in the seventh year of the second king of this name, Artaxerxes II, i.e., in 398 B.C., many difficulties of the narrative disappear and the events of the history fall into a natural sequence. So it is now pretty well agreed, by those most competent to judge, that Nehemiah preceded Ezra to Palestine by from ten to about fifty years.
The student must bear in mind also that Jewish history is now of a piece with that of the vast empire of Persia. What was once the Kingdom of Judah had become first a Babylonian and then a Persian province. Following Cyrus, who died in 529 B.C., great kings such as Darius I and Xerxes I had ruled. IN 465 B.C. Artaxerxes I began a reign lasting forty years. It was in the days of this king, at the mid-point of his reign, that Nehemiah, the royal. cupbearer, obtained a commission form him to go to Palestine as governor of the Jewish province. But more concerning this presently.
The enlightened policy of Cyrus in governing subject nations was followed, in the main, by his successors. This permitted a good deal of local control. Each province was a part of a larger unit of government called a satrapy, whose head, the satrap, was directly responsible to the king. Provincial governors, such as Sanballat of Samaria and Nehemiah of Judah, seem also to have had the right to appeal to the Persian king directly. Within the province the governor exercised large powers, and in Judah the high priest appears to have shared some of his authority. We know of two Jewish governors before Nehemiah, Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel, but the names of others have not been preserved.
Nehemiah the Governor
The early sources pretty well agree as to conditions in Palestine about the middle of the fifth Century B.C. Jerusalem, though still showing many effects of the Babylonian destruction nearly a century and a half before, had continued to be inhabited. The Temple, as we have seen, was rebuilt by 516 B.C., and the walls of the city had been repaired from time to time after the raids of hostile neighbors. But at best Jerusalem was only the shadow of its former self. A short time before Nehemiah arrived it had suffered again, parts of the wall having been torn down and the gates destroyed by fire. Social conditions were no better. The people were disunited, with at least two parties, the more powerful one favoring amalgamation with neighboring peoples, the other representing an exclusive attitude. In both groups were the religiously unregenerate and those who loved and followed the worship of Yahweh. One gathers from Malachi that the ‘sinners’ far exceeded in the ‘saints’ in number.
In the great summer palace at Shushan (Susa), meanwhile, a Jew named Nehemiah was serving the Persian king in the high office of cupbearer. He was one who greatly cared about the ancient Covenant with Yahweh and the religious condition fo his fellow Jews. One day certain men came from Judah and Nehemiah asked them about conditions there. They said to him:
The survivors who are left of the captivity there in the province are in great misery and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates have been destroyed by fire (Neh. 1:3).
Nehemiah heard these words with a heavy heart and began a season of fasting and praying.
One day, as he was serving the royal wine, the king noted in him an unwonted sadness and inquired the reason. Nehemiah, apprehensive but eager to speak, replied that it was because of the desolate state of Jerusalem, the place of his fathers’ sepulchres. The king then asked what request he had to make.
So I prayed to the god of the heavens, and I said to the king, ‘If it please the king, and if your servant is acceptable in your sight, that you would send me to Judah to the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may rebuild it” (Neh. 2:5).
The petition was readily granted and soon Nehemiah was on his way west, clothed with authority as governor of Judah and furnished with the necessary passports through the provinces. He was given a letter also to Asaph, the keeper of the royal forests, that timber might be provided for the needed work of restoration.
Arriving in Jerusalem, and forewarned of the opposition he would meet within and without the city. Nehemiah, secretly and by night, viewed for himself the walls and the extent of the damage they had suffered. He knew that he could depend don the loyalty of only a part of the city’s population and that there would be opposition from Sanballat, the governor of Samaria. Nowhere do humility, courage, and executive ability stand out more than in the story of how Nehemiah met and conquered all obstacles.
One may gather instructive lessons from the study of the opposition this brave Jew faced. Sanballat may have been jealous of his power as the newly commissioned governor of the Jews, especially since he himself was related by marriage to the high priest Eliashib (Neh. 13:28) and had many friends in Jerusalem. It appears that he formed a personal hatred for Nehemiah, which went the length of framing a plot to assassinate him (Neh. 5:1-8). But it is more likely that the latter’s known, or suspected, purpose of building a wall to separate the city’s population from outsiders caused great irritation to the Samaritan governor and his people, and to their friends and relatives within the older walls. This accounts almost entirely for the opposition of many of the Jews, who had until now mixed freely and intermarried with their neighbors outside. Whether Nehemiah was right in his more exclusive policy, it is certain that many of the community’s principal officials were not in harmony with it. [Neh. 2:3 mentions rulers, priests, and nobles, some of whom undoubtedly did not cooperate wholeheartedly with the governor. Some of the prophets were even among this number (Neh. 6;10-14).] It is apparent also, from a close study of the sources, that the opposition of the Jews in Jerusalem was a bigger factor with which to reckon than that of the Samaritans outside.
Hardly had the work on the walls begun when it became necessary for armed guards to be placed for the protection of the workers. Some of the men on the wall, in fact, were complaining, if not actually hindering the progress of the work. In the sources, the opposition from the inside has probably been glossed over in order not to make too much of it, for the chronicler was not interested in putting his fellow Jews in a bad light. On the other hand, he probably stresses too much the efforts of Sanballat and his men to obstruct the project. In spite of all opposition, however, the walls are said to have been completed within fifty-two days! On the assumption that certain sections only stood in need of restoration, this would not be an impossible feat, but there are good reasons, and some data, for thinking that the time required was much longer, possibly more than two years.
Social and Religious Reforms
With the walls restored to something like their former strength Nehemiah could breathe more easily, for now it was possible to carry through whatever program of reform he had in mind. His Memoirs – which have been too well worked over by the chronicler – give items, in a fragmentary way, of the dedicatory service which must have followed soon after the completion of the walls (Neh. 12:27-32, 37-39). After this important ceremony Nehemiah out his brother, Hanani, and Hananiah, “commander of the castle,” in charge of Jerusalem.
Perhaps the governor thus shared some of his authority in order that he might be freer to devote himself to bringing more people from the country into Jerusalem. The Septuagint records that nobles and others met for a conference, which was for the purpose, possibly, of setting this enterprise on foot. Neh. 11:1, 2 implies that one out of every ten country dwellers was selected by lot to lie “in Jerusalem the holy city.”
About 432 B.C., after twelve years in Judah, Nehemiah returned to the Persian court. After some time there he secured leave of the king and came back to Jerusalem, this time to carry through certain reform measures which he had probably long planned. On his arrival he learned that Tobiah the Ammonite, one of his worst enemies, was actually living within the Temple precincts, and this too by permission of Eliashib, the high priest. Nehemiah threw him, and all his belongings out and had the place ceremonially cleansed. Then he brought back the vessels and offerings which properly belonged there. This action served notice, no doubt, on the high priest and others who had mixed too freely with outsiders, that the governor meant business in his program of reform.
Nehemiah next discovered that tithes on grain, wine, and oil had fallen off to such an extent that the Levites and singers, who were supported by them, had deserted the Temple service to make a living int heir fields. Responsible officials were shortly appointed, tithes flowed into the treasury, and the Temple workers were brought back to their posts. another evil Nehemiah found was the profanation of the Sabbath by both Jew and foreigner. Products from outside the city, brought in on the eve of the holy day, were making it an occasion for buying and selling rather than for worship. Nehemiah ordered the gates closed until the Sabbath was past and threatened to arrest those who waited with their wares outside.
The evil that vexed the governor most was mixed marriages. Som eof the Jews had married foreign women, and their children were not able to speak “the Jews’ language.” The drastic treatment accorded these sinners (Neh. 13:25) must have been a sufficient warning to others not to repeat the mistake. even so, Nehemiah, unlike Ezra some years later, stopped short of requiring the Jews to divorce their foreign wives. His order went to further than to forbid future marriages with outsiders (Neh. 13:25-27).
Because Nehemiah was a simple man, honest, sincere, and straightforward, scheming enemies thought to take advantage of him but they were foiled at every turn. He had the rare genius to judge human motives accurately, and so to stay free from entanglements that might have brought ruin to his plans. One secret of his strength was his humility. He undertook nothing, apparently, without seeking divine guidance. Once convinced that he was right he went ahead with unusual courage to do his duty. Few Old Testament characters show more manly vigor and single-minded devotion to a cause. Nehemiah was not without faults – for example, a certain harshness in dealing with those whose views differed from his own, and a fear lest his good deeds be forgotten; but in the light of his great virtues these are but minor detractions. He was one of the greatest Jews of the post-Exilic period.
Ezra, Man of Faith
So enmeshed together are the chronicler’s accounts of Nehemiah and Ezra that it is impossible, without thorough criticism to separate them with confidence. All who have regard for the truth will be grateful for what devoted scholars have done to give us the historical facts. The reconstruction which requires that Ezra, the more radical reformer of the two, follow Nehemiah at some distance has done much to clarify the history of the period.
According to this view, Nehemiah, as we have seen, terminated his work a generation, possibly, before Ezra came on the scene. How many years the devoted governor served his people, or how his career ended, is not known, the chronicler’s story of him breaking off quite abruptly at Neh. 13:31. Ezra is introduced (Ezr. 7:1-6) in an equally abrupt manner after the dedication of the Temple, an event which transpired more than a century before!
Following the story given in Ezr. 7 and 8, we learn that Ezra “went up from Babylon” on “the first day of the first month” of the seventh year of King Artaxerxes, and arrived in Jerusalem in just four months to the day. On the view that this particular king was Artaxerxes II, this event was in the year 397 B.C. Like Nehemiah the scribe Ezra carried certain letters from the king. The long letter in Ezr. 7:12-26 evidently contains a number of additions by the Jewish editor.
Ezra brought with him to Judah a company fo people among whom were some leading Jews from the “captivity.” The emigrants apparently mustered at the river Ahava somewhere in the Babylonian country (Ezr. 8:15, 21). here Ezra proclaimed a fast as a means of securing divine protection against the perils of so long a journey, for, as he explains, he was ashamed to ask the king for an armed guard. No incident of the return is given, but we are assured that “the hand of God was upon” the company and that it was delivered from all perils by the way (Ezr. 8:31).
Ezra’s Missionary Objective
What was the main objective of this much belated company of exiles bound for Judah and Jerusalem? It is almost certainly stated in the words of Ezr. 7;10:
For Ezra had set his heart to seek the law of the Lord,
to keep it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances.
Not all that this statement comprehends appears on the surface, its full meaning being tied up with the work of religious-minded Jews in Babylonia who were concerned about the success of Ezra and his company. Their interest in the expedition we must now try to make clear.
Ezra was a priest and scribe, one of a number of leading Babylonian Jews devoted to a strict interpretation of the Law. These men had become convinced that only through a fuller codification of Yahweh’s laws to Israel, and a more devoted obedience to them, could she be kept free from outside evils and save her great heritage. It was the thought that Ezekiel had planted two centuries before: Yahweh was a holy God and he must have a holy people. Holiness was now made to depend almost entirely on ritualistic purity and separateness, which were to be secured by the teaching of strict religious laws and whole-hearted obedience to them.
Ever since the time of Ezekiel the most influential Jewish leaders in Babylonia had been at work on the ancient law codes, preserving some laws as they were, bringing others down to date, and creating new ones to aid Israel in becoming a people acceptable to Yahweh. Valuable lessons and insights had come from the long, difficult years of exile and these must now be utilized. The result was a new writing of Israel’s history, from the point of view of this experience as it affected her institutional life. Together with the new codes of law, which formed the heart of it, it has come to be known in our time as the Priestly History of Israel. Before Ezra left Babylonia this document had become the framework into which was fitted the older histories.
That the Jewish priests and teachers in Babylonia, who wrought out the Priestly History of Israel, were men devoted to their religion cannot be doubted. They did a great work for their people and for the world; but the student of religion cannot help feeling that, had the ethical and universal ideals of the prophets been given a larger place, it would have been a distinct gain. As it was, the moral law had no greater significance in what these men gave to Israel than the ceremonial, if indeed this did not at times quite cover up the greater thing. For them, the keeping of sabbaths and festivals, and the strict observance of rules of ritual cleanness and sacrifice, meant as much as to be honest, just, and merciful. Then again these men of Israel had quite forgotten the teaching of the great prophet of the Exile that Israel was not to live unto herself alone, but that her mission was the broader one of teaching and suffering for mankind.
Thus it was the more particularistic aspect of their religion that had come to dominate the Jews of the Captivity. Undoubtedly there were men in Babylonia, distant disciples of the unknown prophet of the Exile, perhaps, who accepted and taught the more universal conception, but they were a minority group. In the homeland meanwhile, almost any shade of Jewish religion – and some anything but Jewish – could be found. There were those in Jerusalem, chiefly returned exiles, who were followers of the dominant party in Babylonia, but apparently these were greatly outnumbered by others with a less strict and less exclusive attitude. Put in a modern way, and from the point of view of the conservatives from Babylonia, Judah offered a great opportunity for missionary work.
The sufficient explanation, then. of Ezra and his company is that they went to Judah to teach and enforce the more orthodox form of Judaism fostered in Babylonia. In doing this they were following in Nehemiah’s footsteps, with the aim of continuing the reforms which he had begun a possible half century before. Back fo Ezra, as of his predecessor, was the large and influential body of Babylonian Jews zealous for the priestly interpretation of Israel’s religion. The statement of Ezra’s purpose in Ezr. 7:10, therefore, fits perfectly the historical situation – he had indeed
set his heart to seek the law of the Lord, to keep it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.
The Fruits of Ezra’s Zeal
The first act of the noted missionary for orthodox Judaism, when the company reached Jerusalem, was to present to representatives of the Temple priesthood the silver and gold and vessels which had been gathered for “the house of the Lord.” The gift was followed by a most elaborate burnt offering – twelve bulls, ninety-six rams, twenty-seven lambs, and twelve he-goats (Ezr. 8:33-35). The glorifying pen of the Chronicler has probably been at work here, as also in the statement that the offerings were made by “those who had come up from the captivity, the returned exiles.’ It is not likely that the “people of the land” were left out in the cold, or that the regular Temple priests stood by while all this was going on.
It was a foremost article of faith among the orthodox Jews of Babylonia that there should be no social intercourse with foreigners, certainly no marriages. In Judah, among the native Jews and others, there was no such rule. Even the priests, and other members of the upper classes, had freely mingled with neighboring peoples and some had married foreign wives. Ezra found it particularly repulsive that some of the Jews who had come from Babylonia had done so (Ezr. 10:6-8). Nehemiah, although he had attempted it, had failed to put a stop to the practice. This situation posed for Ezra an acute problem. he found but one way out: the men who had married women of mixed blood, and foreigners, must let them go and their children with them. How else, he must have reasoned, could God’s people be a separate and holy nation?
Restive in these circumstances Ezra went into action. To the assembly that had gathered he made so dramatic and powerful an appeal –r ending his clothes, pulling out his hair, and making public confession before God of the people’s guilt – that many were deeply moved and “wept bitterly.” A proposal was made by a leading priest. Shecaniah, that drastic collective action be taken, whereupon Ezra made all present swear that they would act in accordance with it should this be done. A proclamation shortly went forth, calling all returned exiles to a public gathering in Jerusalem and threatening dire penalties against those who failed to come.
According to the Chronicler, all the men of Judah and Benjamin came to the assembly and, standing in a pouring rain, heard Ezra’s accusation:
You have broken faith and married foreign wives to increase the guilt of Israel (Ezk. 10:10).
He then called on them to make confession to God and separate themselves “from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezr. 10:10, 11). The Chronicler says that the entire assembly “answered with a loud voice” and confessed their transgression. The multitude also proposed the way out: the offenders were to meet the elders in a kind of court session and hear their fate. The Chronicler’s account closes with an imposing list of descendants of the priests and others who had taken the unlawful wives – and who cast them off with their children! Thus Ezra, the scribe and priest, put away iniquity from Israel.
If a certain attractive theory of the origin of two small Old Testament books is correct, two young men stood in the assembly that day listening to Ezra and were inwardly repelled by his ‘theology’ and extreme action. One went home and wrote the book of Ruth, in which he showed that the great David was the product of a mixed marriage, that of Boaz the Israelite and Ruth the Moabitess. the other man told the story of Jonah and the Ninevites: Jonah was like Israel, claiming God’s exclusive care, but God taught him a great lesson through the gourd, and when Jonah was angry because Nineveh repented and was spared, God said to him:
Should not I, indeed, have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than a hundred and twenty thousand infants, that cannot distinguish between their right hand and their left, and much cattle? Jon. 4:11).
In spite of the religious particularism of Ezra and the Babylonian Jews, it is probably not far wrong to say that this kind of religion preserved Judaism and its literature. The more liberal ideas and practices of the Palestinian Jews were not virile enough to persist in the face of the environment and to see Judaism through. What was required was a form of religion which conserved, if only in a repressed way, the higher values of Hebrew culture, and to which the people could give enthusiastic allegiance. Ezra builded, perhaps, better than he knew: attempting to save his world from the world he succeeded in saving them for the world. It would ahve been a calamity fo tragic proportions if Judaism, by stressing an ethic and a universalism too high for its people, had failed utterly to keep itself alive. Instead, possibly because of its particularism, it weathered the storms of the centuries and gave us Christianity.
For playing an important role in this unfolding religious drama Ezra is entitled to credit. he and the company which came with him out of Babylon, were the bearers and advocates of this dynamic orthodoxy. they established it as firmly in Palestine as it had been in Babylonia. The story of the beginning stages of the process can be recovered from a section of the Ezra Memoirs found in the book of Nehemiah.
Here is the story as it might be reconstructed. In the seventh month a great assembly of men and women was held in ‘the broad place that was before the Water Gate.” The purpose of the meeting was the public reading by Ezra of parts of “the book of the Law of Moses.” Ezra stood on a raised platform so that he could be seen by everyone. During the reading he paused occasionally so that his assistants could instruct the people by sections in the meaning of the Law. This procedure is said to have been followed each forenoon for seven days, and it is implied in the Chronicler’s account that the people accepted in the most solemn manner what had been read, and promised to obey it.
What the specific portions of the Law were which Ezra read is not known, but it is probable that they were from various parts of the Pentateuch, and that they included matters, worked over in Babylonia, which were thought to be most essential in the lives of religious people. Among these would be such items as cleanness of foods and of physical habits, circumcision, the Sabbath, and the celebration of national festivals. In the Priests’ Code these were of the greatest importance, and they had acquired new significance at the hands of the scribal editors of the Priestly History written in Babylonia.
The beginnings of synagogue worship are usually assigned to the early period of the Babylonian Exile. The story of Ezra’s reading of the Law on a raised platform before the people, its interpretation, with the people standing up to hear, are all suggestive of like features in the alter worship of the synagogue. Along with the newer version of Israel’s law and history, Ezra would be anxious to establish correct modes of worship from Babylonia, and so it may be that in the story of the great assembly is to be found the beginnings of the synagogue service in Palestine.
Two Centuries of History
After Ezra there are no outstanding persons or events connected with Judaism until the conquest of Persia by Alexander in 333 B.C. Josephus gives an account of a quarrel between two brothers, Joshua and Johanan, over the office of high priest, and another affair, in which the Jews were fined for seven successive years, possibly for an attempted revolt against Persian rule. Both events occurred toward the end of the reign of Artaxerxes II. From other sources we learn that the Jews actually joined a widespread revolt in 351 B.C. and fought for three years before being subdued. As a punishment many were carried to Babylonia and to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
With the “seventy years of silence” before Nehemiah, and the long, uneventful period following Ezra left out of account, it is comparatively easy to visualize Jewish history from the completion of the Second Temple to the time of Alexander. This is a period of nearly two centuries. As far as external events can tell us, only these two great Jews stood out from the ongoing community in all this time. but each of them made history.
Nehemiah and Ezra came upon the stage after Judaism was far advanced, yet both had much to do with its development, particularly in Palestine. Finding here a mongrel kind of religion, with little to distinguish it from the religions of neighboring peoples, they substituted for it the virile Judaism of Babylonia. While this had many shortcomings, it was the medium through which Israel’s culture could be continued for the benefit of later ages. In the light of this fact their contribution to what the Divine Spirit was accomplishing in history must be judged. In the next chapter more will be said about their work in relation to the various significant developments within Jewish life and religion.
1. What is meant by early sources of Hebrew history? mark in your Bible some which were used in the compiling of Ezra-Nehemiah.
2. Who composed this work? What other biblical books did he (or they) produce? When?
3. Why is Cyrus of Persia called an enlightened monarch?
4. What was Nehemiah’s immediate objective in going to Jerusalem? His remoter one?
5. List as many facts as you can which indicate that Nehemiah was an efficient leader. What traits of greatness did he possess?
6. On what original source was the story of Ezra mainly based? Tell the story of his coming to Jerusalem.
7. What constructive religious work had certain Jews in Babylonia carried on during the Exile? Why had they done this work?
8. What connection was there between this work and that of Ezra?
9. Define the following terms as applied to religion: institutionalism, liberalism, orthodoxy, particularism, universalism.
10. What reasons are there for supposing that Judaism in Palestine would not have survived if Nehemiah and Ezra had not gone there?