INTRO NOTES TO EZRA
For an entire generation, half a century, Jewish priests like Ezra were jobless in their fields. For priests, work revolved around the Jerusalem Temple. But it had been a busted rock pile since Babylonian invaders leveled it in 586 BC.
Then along came an Iranian (Persian in Bible times). He conquered the Iraqis (Babylonians in Bible times). His name was Cyrus, king of Persia. He freed Babylon’s political captives, including Jews the Babylonians brought back with them after the war.
Remarkably, Cyrus and Persian kings after him paid for supplies to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. Seven of the 10 chapters in Ezra’s short book are about struggles Jews faced in rebuilding that Temple. Local non-Jewish officials opposed it. They didn’t want the Jewish nation to rise from the dead. That may be because they lived in what used to be the Jewish nation. Jews might start confiscating their land.
Ezra’s dream job
Ezra’s dream was to teach Jews at Jerusalem’s Temple. He wanted them to know the laws of God, and to live by them. So, he left Babylon. He led a caravan on a three-and-a-half month march from Babylon to Jerusalem. They arrived in the summer. His story will end the next spring, as far as the Book of Ezra tells it.
With winter approaching, he discovers that many Jews—priests included—have married local, non-Jewish women. He rips his clothes and tears out some of his beard hair in horror.
Marrying non-Jews and adopting their religion and culture is what had gotten both Jewish nations erased from the world map. Israel fell to Assyria in 722 BC. Judah in the south fell to Babylon in 586 BC. To Ezra, it looks like the Jews haven’t learned a sliver of a thing.
So, the priest decides to teach them a lesson.
One hundred and thirteen Jewish men have married non-Jews. Some men had kids by those ladies. Ezra orders the men to divorce those wives and send them back to where they came from. And they’re to take the kids with them.
There’s no byline on Ezra’s story. Ancient Jewish tradition credits Ezra. But most of the book is history before his time. It sounds like it’s coming from a narrator.
On the other hand, much of what is written about Ezra seems written by him. He’s doing the talking—no third-person narrator.
The oldest copies of the Jewish Bible don’t separate Ezra and Nehemiah. They’re one book.
586, Babylon levels Jerusalem, takes Jewish captives to Babylon
539 BC, Babylon surrenders to Persians
538 BC, Persians free Jews and other captives
516 BC, Jews finish rebuilding Temple
458 BC, Ezra arrives
446 BC, Nehemiah arrives and repairs Jerusalem walls
Ezra’s personal story in the book covers just one year, from the spring of 458 BC to the following spring of 457 BC.
The Book of Ezra, however, covers about 80 years. It starts with Jews wrapping up 50 years in exile to what is now Iraq. Babylonians had conquered the southern Jewish nation of Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC. They took Jews home with them as captives.
Ezra 1 begins in 539 BC, when Persia King Cyrus conquers and assimilates the Babylonian Empire. He frees the people they took captive, including the Jews. Many go home and rebuild the Jerusalem Temple in 516 BC.
In the spring of 458 BC, some 80 years after the first Jewish exiles returned home, Ezra leads another group of Jews to Jerusalem. The nearly thousand-mile trip takes almost four months. They arrive in the summer.
By that winter, Ezra is ordering all Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives. The story ends a few months later, in the spring, when 113 Jewish men reportedly divorced their wives.
There are two main sites in Ezra:
—Babylon, a city near Baghdad, Iraq.
Ezra begins in Iraq, then called Babylon. At the time, Persian King Cyrus reigned over a growing empire, headquartered out of what is now Iran. He had just added the Babylonian Empire to his massive empire.
Ezra apparently lived in or near the Babylonian capital city of Babylon during the time of another Persian king, Artaxerxes (reigned 465-424 BC). Artaxerxes became king after a royal bodyguard assassinated Queen Esther’s notorious husband, Xerxes, killer of 300 Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae.
Ezra lead a group of Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem, which is where Ezra’s story ends.
Ezra tells two main stories:
—Rebuilding of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple
—Ezra’s order that Jewish men divorce their non-Jewish wives.
Jews rebuild the Temple, over the objections of regional non-Jews who take their complaints to one Persian king after another. It must have felt like a punch to the gut when the kings told them to use their own tax-collection income to fund the building project. Jews provided the labor. Local non-Jews provided the money.
Ezra’s second story was what some scholars call an overreaction to the destruction of the Temple and Babylon’s exile of the Jews. Prophets said God did this to punish them for breaking his laws, which distinguished the Jews as God’s people, uniquely devoted to him. But they became devoted to themselves.
Instead of making Israel more Jewish, they let the locals make them more non-Jewish. They intermarried the locals and embraced foreign gods and ungodly customs, like sleeping with temple prostitutes in what was considered an act of worship.
Ezra was horrified to see that the Jews hadn’t learned their lesson. So, he reminds them that it’s a sin to marry outside of the Jewish faith. And now it’s time to repent.