Back to the Bible - A Former Believer Re-Reads the Old Testament

Jim Moyers, MA

Rebuilding the Temple: Ezra-Nehemiah

What are now the two books of Ezra and Nehemiah were a single book until the early Christian era.  Some scholars believe Ezra-Nehemiah was originally written as an addition to Chronicles to bring the narrative up to the rebuilding of the temple.  The first few verses of Ezra detailing the decree of Cyrus authorizing the return of the Judean exiles to Jerusalem repeat the last verses of Chronicles.  The text is a bit of a mess, with sudden jumps back and forth in time as well as between the main characters of Ezra and Nehemiah.  It appears that somewhere in the history of the transmission of the text whole sections became dislocated.  Some passages that should be in Ezra are in Nehemiah and some Nehemiah material in Ezra although there are no direct references to Nehemiah in Ezra.  There are indications that a later editor tried to resolve some of confusion by inserting connecting sentences as well as the names of Nehemiah into Ezra narratives and Ezra into those concerning Nehemiah.   All of Ezra along with Ezra material from Nehemiah (7:38-8:12) is repeated in somewhat more coherent order in the apocryphal book of 1 Esdras.  While events are dated according to the reigns of the Persian kings who ruled over Judah it is unclear whether the Artaxerxes referred to was the first or second monarch to bear that name.  Like the book of Daniel, the Hebrew text of Ezra-Nehemiah has some lengthy passages in Aramaic with letters and decrees between Persian kings and officials left in their original language.

As in Chronicles there are several long census/genealogical lists which make for less than fascinating reading.  The same lengthy census/genealogy appears in both Ezra (2:1-70) and Nehemiah (7:6-73).  The genealogies were important as people unable to prove their ancestry were regarded as “unclean” and excluded from participation in temple rituals (Ezra 2:62-63) as were the Samaritans whom the returning Judeans found occupying the land.  Throughout both books the focus is on restoration of proper worship in the temple and purification of  “the holy race” which had become contaminated through intermarriage with “the people of the lands” (Ezra 9:2).

There seem to have been four stages of the return from exile in which groups of people from Babylon went to Jerusalem.  The first, about 538 BCE, followed Cyrus’ decree.  The returned exiles began rebuilding the temple but their work was stopped due to opposition of the people already living in the land.  The second group  returned when Darius I (521-485 BCE) was on the Persian throne and despite local opposition completed rebuilding of the temple.  This was the time of the incidents recorded in the books of Haggai and Zechariah; both prophets are mentioned in Ezra.  The third stage was led by Nehemiah, an official in the Persian court of Artaxerxes (thought to have been Artaxerxes I who reigned 464-423 BCE) who came twice as an appointed governor to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and establish purity of worship.  Ezra, a priest learned in “the laws of Moses,” seems to have come after Nehemiah during the 404-358 BCE reign of the second Artaxerxes, although some have suggested as a solution to textural problems that he was before Nehemiah during the time of the first Artaxerxes.  Whatever the actual sequence and dates may have been, rebuilding of the temple and then the city took place in fits and starts amid local opposition over a couple of centuries during which Judah was under Persian rule.

Throughout the rebuilding there was push back from the people already living in the land, who were probably descendants of “the poorest of the poor” Judeans left behind by Nebuchadnezzar as well as people from other places settled in the former Israel by the Assyrians after their conquest of the northern kingdom.  Claiming that “we worship your God as you do” and had been sacrificing to Yahve for as long as they had been in the land, these people asked to be allowed to join in the building but were pointedly refused: “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God” (Ezra 4:2-3).  Some commentators point to this rejection of the people who were not exiled as the beginning of hostilities between the Jews and Samaritans.

Ezra 4-6 describes a series of letters from governors of neighboring provinces to the Persian ruler (actually several rulers - the passages are confusing with different letters sent at different times during the reigns of different kings out of chronological order) raising concerns about the rebuilding going on in Jerusalem.  At one point Artaxerxes I responded to claims that the Jews would rebel against Persia by ordering a stop to the building (4).  This passage probably belongs between the end of Ezra and beginning of Nehemiah as background for Nehemiah coming to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes to rebuild the walls.  Then Ezra 5 jumps back to the time of the second return during the reign of Darius when a search of the royal archives found Cyrus’ decree concerning the return of the exiles to rebuild the temple.  Darius ordered the complaining governors to leave the Jews alone under threat of being impaled upon a beam pulled out of their house (Ezra 6:11).  Construction was to be paid for from royal revenues.  Four years later the temple was finished and dedicated.

About seventy-five years later, Nehemiah who was a cupbearer to Artaxerxes I, heard distressing reports about what was happening in Jerusalem where the wall was broken down with its gates burned (whether this was still un-repaired ruins left behind by Nebuchadnezzar or the result of a later assault on the city is unclear).  The king noticed his servant was sad and asked why.  With some trepidation Nehemiah explained and was given permission to go to Jerusalem to repair the walls and its gates.  As before local leaders (who also appear by name in non-biblical sources) opposed the Jews and accused them of planning to rebel against Persia (Nehemiah 1 -2).  Out of fear half of the builders stood guard while the other half worked.  In addition to re-building the wall Nehemiah instituted economic reforms that lessened the burden of debt imposed upon the poor by their more well-to-do fellow Judeans.

In chapter 7 of Nehemiah the story is interrupted by a census of the first return from Babylon which duplicates Ezra 2:1-70.  There follows a continuation of the Ezra story which probably belongs at the end of the book of Ezra, then returns to Nehemiah in chapter 11 with lists of the people “who willingly offered to live” (11:2) in Jerusalem, which perhaps wasn’t the ideal dwelling place, followed by another involved list of priests and Levites.  Nehemiah 12:27-47 describes the dedication of the completed wall of Jerusalem.

After an absence at the Persian court Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem to find that, ignoring the Mosaic prohibition against Ammonites and Moabites entering “the assembly of God,” an Ammonite had been given a temple chamber (it’s unclear for what purpose).  Nehemiah threw the man out.  He also found that the “portions” allotted to the Levities and temple singers had not been given to them; without adequate support for themselves and their families they had left the temple.  The Sabbath was being violated.  He was especially angry with Jews who had married alien women and whose children could not speak Hebrew.  “I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair” (13:25).  Thus Nehemiah “cleansed them from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work; and I provided for the wood offering (to burn sacrifices), at appointed times, and for the first fruits (offering)” (13:30-31).

An apparently insoluble textual problem has to do with when Ezra and the group of returnees with him arrived at Jerusalem.  If, as usually assumed, it was during the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358) some time after Nehemiah.  But if Ezra came to Jerusalem during the 464-423 reign of Artaxerxes I he may have been a contemporary of Nehemiah as he apparently is in Nehemiah 8:9, which however is generally regarded as an editorial attempt to resolve the issue.  The textual evidence is anything but clear.  Some biblical scholars have even suggested that Ezra is a fictional creation meant to emphasize the establishment of Mosaic law in post-exilic Judah.  

While Nehemiah was primarily responsible for physically rebuilding Jerusalem, Ezra rebuilt Jewish theology.  Ezra     , who first appears in chapter 7 of the book bearing his name, “was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6).  That such a person would be in Babylon rather than Jerusalem is not as surprising as it might seem.  Many of the exiles and their descendants remained in Babylon which became an important center for Judaism that thrived into early medieval times, producing the Babylonian Talmud which is a central text in Rabbinical Judaism.  

Ezra was given a letter from the king authorizing him to go with other Jews from Babylon to teach proper observance of the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem.  On arrival he was horrified to learn that “the people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations,” intermarrying “so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” ((Ezra 9:1-2).  There followed a several months long process of determining who the guilty parties were.  The book of Ezra ends with a list of the priests who had married foreign women which concludes with “and they put them away with their children” (Ezra 10:44).  Nothing is said about what became of the “put away” wives and children.  This exclusivist attitude is far removed from that of the book of Ruth in which a Moabite, one of the most forbidden peoples, is welcomed into Israel to become an ancestor of King David.  It is also all too representative of the kind of intolerance of people who are in some way different that runs through the history of religion and human culture in general.

Nehemiah chapter 8 describes Ezra reading the book of the law of Moses to “all the people gathered as one man.”  A neglected festival was celebrated after which there was a mass confession and worship.  A covenant was made to keep the law (that text however may belong with  the Nehemiah story of dedication of the completed wall which follows).

Despite the mixup of their stories, it is clear that Nehemiah is represented as the person primarily responsible for the physical renewal and governance of Jerusalem while Ezra led the religious renewal of the Chosen People in their new identity as Jews.  It is also apparent that identity was no more secure than it had ever been in the Bible’s account of the history of Yahve’s Chosen People in which the Law of Moses seems (to take a line from Hamlet out of context) to have been more often honored in the breach than observance.

© 2021 James Moyers


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