With Ezra and Nehemiah we move towards the end of the Old Testaments initial ‘history’ section. That is the section of the bible that describes events and derives conclusions form those events. We are going to see other sections; Psalms and Proverbs. Than eventually the various minor prophets before hitting the New Testament.
For now it’s enough to look on the historical evolution of the texts and then the contents and how we can place them and view them in regards other historical knowledge.
Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one text. Sometime in the early Christian Era they were separated into two books, their theological narrative broken. A very brief examination of the subject indicates the break occurred by Latin Translators and became standard, eventually crossing back into the Jewish Tradition in the middle ages.
Ezra itself has two main sections; the first recalls and retells the building of the second temple and the end of the Babylonian Captivity. The second highlights the prophet Ezra’s attempts to purify the ‘body’ of the Jewish People.
We’ve touched a little on the historical elements of the end of the captivity. The Persians overrun the Babylonian empire and operated on a diffuse imperial basis which seems to correspond to what is transcribed here, permitting local religious expression. Of course Ezra ascribes the ‘release’ of the thousands from Babylon by Cyprus the great as an act of God. As God working through the Persian Monarch, who than, in this text, decree’s the reconstruction of the temple. This takes a considerable length of time and is, according to the text, fraught with opposition. It seems to imply there are others who wish to initially aid the construction, but who are opposed by the returning exiles, and than work against the construction.
Who these groups are is unclear. Perhaps Jews who remained behind in the Exile? Other intermingled peoples who have settled the area. The end of the supremacy of the Judaic religion and the religious pluralism that may have followed could logically mean contests and conflicts between various religious groups, each vying for material control over people and wealth. However this is all mostly conjecture on my part.
What does happen is that a later persian King, Darius I, reaffirms the order to rebuild the temple, and it’s rebuild, thus ushering in the second temple era.
In terms of historical evidence to validate this chapter, we do have some archeological evidence with regards the second temple(the Wailing Wall being the most obvious). There was some archeology done in the 19th century, but given the obvious religious and political implications none since than. There is plenty of evidence with regards Darius I existence, and his religious policies in Greece and Egypt. It seems pretty reasonable that at least the reconstruction of the temple did occur and that we can assume there were political conflicts in the area over it’s reconstruction.
The reason to be skeptical of the entirety of the text is that it’s obvious the text is pushing forward a theological point of view. One in which God takes a direct hand in the fate of the Jewish people, and foreign leaders are the agents of this Divine will. One in which, in the next section, directs what is put forward as a moral and necessary act, but which, while standing at that potentially from the point of view of a people trying to grasp their identity, looks very questionable in other regards.
Basically the remainder of Ezra is taken up with Ezra trying, and eventually succeeding, to get the Jews to give up their foreign wives and their children. i.e. to basically kick them out of the polity. Whether this particular act took place? It’s hard to say. It wouldn’t be unprecedented in history obviously, but without non-biblical sources of evidence how much stock can we put in it? Some perhaps? Removing foreign wives from among a political/religious elite does make a certain degree of sense, so we may be witnessing here an expansion on an idea(i.e. the record is being overblown for historical and theological purposes). On the other hand it may be near exactly as recorded, in which case while a powerful political act, it seems a morally reprehensible one, even by the moral standards of the time. Indeed one might argue more-so, in so far as the tribal society of the ancient Mediterranean was built on familial relationships and a rejection and exodus by husband and father would be potentially catastrophic for these women and children. Here, the book demonstrates it’s authors focus, which is on the spiritual purity of the Jewish state, most likely in a book written to justify the exclusion of foreign wives and attempts to maintain a degree of insular control. We can contrast this with the earlier reading of Ruth and recognize here why that book might be moved in the Christian tradition, to highlight a more universalistic aspect than is on display here.
This is one of those sections of the bible which I knew had to occur, that is at least in terms of the building of the second temple, but about which I knew nothing. I can understand why. In terms of the crafters of the King James Bible and it’s inheritors, why this has historical significance, it’s lesson in terms of morality or theology doesn’t really jive. It seems to me that this story doesn’t enter popular discourse because it is particular in it’s historic focus.
Next time we’ll look at Nehemiah and the ‘end’ of the early bible histories.