Jews celebrate being Jewish
Ezra reads Jewish laws to a crowd1Jews met at the Water Gate one day, early in the autumn month of Tishri. They came to hear a scholar teach them the Laws of Moses. They had invited him to come and read aloud the book of laws God gave Moses to write.
2Ezra, who was also a priest, read the Law to all the people so they could hear for themselves what God wanted them to do. Ezra read this on the first day of the month. 3He read all morning, with his back to the Water Gate and his face toward people in the courtyard. He started early and didn’t stop until noon.
4Ezra stood on a platform someone had built for the occasion. Thirteen men stood with him. Six on his right side: Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah. Seven on his left: Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam.
5Everyone could see Ezra standing there on the raised platform. When he opened the book, everyone stood. 6Ezra praised the great God in a prayer of thanks. The people raised their hands and said, “Yes. Amen.” They bowed low with their faces to the ground as expressions of worship and respect for the LORD.
7These Levites helped the people understand what Ezra read: Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah. The people stayed where they were the whole time.
8Levite read from the Law again, this time adding explanations. They helped the people understand what the Law meant.
Jewish crowd erupts into crying9As the people listened to the Law and began to understand it, they started crying. Nehemiah the governor tried to calm them, with the help of Ezra the priest and scholar, along with the scribes. They told the crowd, “Don’t be sad about this. Don’t cry. This is a holy day—a day we’ve set aside to spend time with the LORD our God.”
10Nehemiah told them, “You need to eat something. Go and eat a good meal—good food with sweet drinks. Share some with others who need it. This isn’t a day for mourning. It’s a holy day to celebrate what the LORD our God means to us. Doing this will make us stronger.”
11Levites moved among the crowd saying, “Quiet down. Stop crying. This isn’t a day to be sad. This is a holy day because we’re devoting ourselves to the LORD.” 12So, the people left to get something to eat and drink. They shared food with others, too. And before long the whole town was celebrating—happy because they understood the Law.
Camping: Festival of Temporary Shelters13The next day, the scholar Ezra met with family leaders, priests, and Levites. They studied the Jewish laws together. 14They read one law that said they were supposed to celebrate a sacred festival this month, the one-week Festival of Temporary Shelters.
15The law said they should give these instructions to all Jews in Jerusalem and their outlying towns: “Go outside and collect leafy tree branches, such as myrtle and palm. Use them to make temporary shelters for your families, like the law says you’re to do.”
16So, that’s what the people did. They built those little shelters on flat rooftops of their homes, in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the Temple, the Water Gate leading into the city, and the Ephraim Gate. 17All the Jews who came back from exile did it. They made shelters and lived in them for a week. People of Israel had been doing that since the time of Joshua son of Nun. The Jews enjoyed their week of celebration.
18Every day of that week, Ezra read them excerpts from the Law of God. On the eighth day, the people met together for a time of worship, as the Law instructed.
Tishri spanned mid-September to mid-October. It’s the seventh month of 12 on the Jewish calendar.
More literally, a scribe. Scribes in Ezra’s day specialized in the Jewish laws. They were a bit like our Bible scholars today. In the years that followed Ezra, each of the major groups of Jews that emerged had their own scribes. These included the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. In the time of Jesus, most scribes were Pharisees. This was the branch of the Jewish faith well-known for its meticulous devotion to observing the Law as they interpreted it and for insisting that everyone else do the same. In the Gospel of Mark, scribes represent the moral opposite of Jesus. If the Gospel of Mark were a cowboy movie produced in the early 1900s, the scribes would be wearing black hats and starting fistfights in the saloon. Ezra’s insistence that Jews divorce non-Jews and send them away with their children might suggest to some that he would have fit in nicely with Pharisees 400 years in the future (see Ezra 9—10).
No clue who the men were. Perhaps the best guess is that they were leaders in the community—possibly priests and Levites and senior men from large extended family groups.
This is one of more than 7,000 times the Bible refers to the name of God, abbreviated in ancient Hebrew writings as YHWH. Bible experts are left to guess what vowels to add. The current guess: Yahweh (YAH way). Many English Bibles translate the name as LORD, printed in capital letters. “Lord” in lower letters is more like: Master, Leader, Boss.
It’s unclear who is doing what and when. Were the Levites explaining while Ezra read, like language interpreters do in a meeting? Or was this an afternoon follow up to Ezra’s presentation? And who was doing the reading in verse 8; the Hebrew text says only “they” read from the law.
The words “Levites” and “again” are only presumed. They’re not in the original Hebrew text. The vague Hebrew text says only “they read.” Who are “they?” And why and when are they reading what Ezra already read? Scholars are left guessing. Some scholars say it sounds like a follow up session. Others say the text is so awkward that it looks like an editor popped it in there; perhaps a Levite who didn’t think Levites were getting enough credit in the story. Many Bible scholars think like that, outside the box—even when it’s not safe for them to say what they think. They’ll think it and wait patiently for everyone else to catch up with them. Some people do. Some don’t. And sometimes the scholars get it wrong. Ezra, some would say, as seen in Ezra 9-10, when he orders Jewish men to abandon their non-Jewish wives and children.
Why do they cry? Perhaps because they suddenly find out that they aren’t obeying the laws of God—because they didn’t know these laws existed. There’s a lot to know. Many Jews seemed to believe that ignoring the laws of God is what got their ancestors exiled and their Jewish nation erased from the world map. Now, they may have felt it could happen to them, too.
How will the celebration make them stronger? Perhaps the strength comes from celebrating who they are as a group of people: God’s people, the Chosen, the people of Israel. Maybe the strength they find in this is a bit like the strength a nation gets when the people are united in a struggle they face, or when a nation such as the USA celebrates its birthday, July 4th. Elsewhere there’s the King’s Birthday in the United Kingdom, Australia Day in the Down Under, and Bastille Day in France. Celebrating who we are builds us up.
It’s often called the Festival of Shelters or Festival of Booths. In Exodus, it was the last harvest festival of the year, beginning on day 15 in the seventh month on the Jewish calendar: Tishri (mid-September to mid-October). That’s when farmers harvested late-season crops such as grapes, figs, and olives (Exodus 23:16). The Hebrew word describing the festival is sukka. It can mean tent, canopy, or temporary shelter. Moses said God wanted the Israelites to observe this festival by building temporary shelters and living in them for seven days “so you and your descendants will remember that the people of Israel I led out of Egyptian slavery once lived in shelters like this” (Leviticus 23:43).
For the day of worship at the end of the week, see Leviticus 23:36.
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