Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
We finished the Minor Prophets, paused for a four-week Prophets 101 course, and today we are launching our study of Ezra-Nehemiah. I am referring to the two books together because historically, in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one scroll. Early Church fathers, like Origen and Jerome, later distinguished Ezra and Nehemiah as separate books in the Christian canon.
Authorship and Dating
Ezra and Nehemiah do not present a straightforward literary scheme or a chronology easy to outline. Still, it is possible to divide the books into three distinct historical periods that each tell the story of a leader commissioned by God: Sheshbazzar, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Ezra 1-6 records the events of the first wave of returnees under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, who was quickly succeeded by Zerubbabel (538-516 BCE). Only in chapter 7 does Ezra, the namesake of the book, make his first appearance. Ezra 7-10 records the wave of exiles who accompanied the reformer’s return to Judah. The book of Nehemiah relates the life and times of his governorship. The total timeframe of the two books stretches from 539-400 BCE.
Neither book has a formal superscription or claim of authorship nor are the books written in the same voice all throughout. Together, the sections are a mix of autobiographical statements and anonymous narrations interrupted twenty times by the insertion of official letters, genealogical records, and inventories. Most Bible scholars theorize that an editor with both Persian Imperial and Jerusalem temple connections attained personal statements of Ezra and Nehemiah and cobbled them together with Persian documents and temple archives. The resulting effect is that the narrative portions pull the reader in while the tedious parts, like the long and repeated genealogical records, bog the reader down like reading an internal audit. Don’t worry; it’s alright to admit that! However, the lists and records give the books an air of historical authenticity and tell us that the editor was doing more than telling a good story.
The Prophecy of Jeremiah
Ezra begins, “In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord from the mouth of Jeremiah, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also in writing” (1:1).
The author is making a stunning claim, classifying the edict of King Cyrus as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah. After so many months of studying the Minor Prophets, I was jolted when I first read this verse. The author is not claiming the prophetic gift for Ezra with the usual preface “thus says the Lord.” Ezra was a priest and a scribe. Rather, the author refers to the prophet Jeremiah’s oracles as if the whole collection of his oracles is commonly understood. The period of sacred history in the Old Testament where the prophets walked among the people will soon close, but Ezra’s reference to Jeremiah shows the people were soaked in the recorded products of prior revelation. Those early prophecies communicated God’s plan and purpose for the remnant.
Remembering Jeremiah was highly unpopular before the exile makes this assumption in Ezra even more meaningful. Jeremiah’s predictions of the fall of Jerusalem and the people’s captivity were understandably interpreted by his contemporaries as anti-nationalistic and fatalistic. Yet, when the unthinkable happened, the writings of Jeremiah were validated by the rivers of Babylon. Like an artist, Jeremiah was best understood in postmortem.
Jeremiah warned the Judahites of his day that because of their evil and unrepentant hearts, God would permit King Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem, the Temple, and exile her inhabitants to Babylon. The land would lie desolate for seventy years, but God would not abandon his people forever. After the period of punishment was over, God would retaliate against Babylon, destroying the once mighty empire, and bring back the exiles to the covenanted land (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10-11).
Ezra’s introduction is most likely declaring Jeremiah’s seventy-year prophecy fulfilled, but the actual period of exile in Babylon did not quite span seventy years. Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE and the edict of Cyrus was issued in 539 BCE, officially ending the captivity after only fifty years. Jeremiah’s prophecy may have been approximating the length of the exile. Or, perhaps, God in his mercy, heard the cries of his people and ended the exile before the seventy-year mark.
Alternatively, the prophecy can be interpreted as fulfilled with various start and end dates. Without going to deep into the commentary weeds, I will say my preferred theory is that the seventy years reflects the span of time that the temple was destroyed. Another twenty years passed after Cyrus issued his proclamation for the Jews to return before the temple was officially complete. In the Jewish mindset at the time, Jeremiah’s oracle of restoration could not be considered fulfilled until a temple once again in Zion.
The Edict of Cyrus
Soon after King Cyrus’s army brought much of the Ancient Near East under Persian control, Cyrus proclaimed the right to return for all peoples who were deported from their national homelands by the defeated Babylonian empire. The Cyrus Cylinder, one of the most important artifacts from the Ancient Near East, is historical proof of this remarkable act of imperial benevolence. The edict represented a reversal of both the Assyrian and Babylonian policies of division and dispersion of conquered peoples (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 24-25).
At the time of the edict, Persia was comfortably in control of most of the Ancient Near East. A quick succession of military campaigns brought Media, Lydia, Elam, and Babylon into the Persian empire. The Cyrus Cylinder emphasizes that by the time the Persian army advanced on Babylon, the Babylonian people put up no resistance. Granted, the Persian witness may be intentionally painting a rosy picture for propaganda purposes. However, historians agree that the last Babylonian King, Nabonidus, was very unpopular. Nabonidus further irritated his people by elevating the moon god Sin over the chief god in the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he heralded himself as the one to restore worship of Marduk to his proper place. The Babylonian subjects seem to have responded in kind to Cyrus’s gambit.
Though there is no extrabiblical evidence of a royal edict issued specifically for the Jewish people, the idea is consistent with what historians know about Persian imperial policy. Likely, Cyrus submitted individual proclamations for each subjected nation, customizing his decree to credit their gods with his success. While the Cyrus Cylinder is evidence of the general decree for all foreign captives to return to their homelands, the book of Ezra captures the unique impact of this momentous decision for the Judean exiles.
Along with Jeremiah’s seventy-year prophecy, we can also count Isaiah’s prophecies as fulfilled in the edict of Cyrus. Prior to the exile, Isaiah foretold that God would “stir up” a foreign leader from the north to defeat Judah’s captors (Isa. 41:25). The prophet Isaiah called Cyrus God’s “anointed” who he led by the hand to defeat Babylon and conquer nations (Isa. 45:1). No indication is given, either biblically or historically, that Cyrus ever came to faith in the one true God of Israel. Isaiah is clear that he used the Persian army “for the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen” despite Cyrus’s lack of acknowledging Yahweh (Isa. 45:4-6). How sovereign is God that he used a pagan king as the key instrument to execute his divine will? Not only that, but he sent his promise of deliverance for the covenant people many years before through the mouth of Isaiah. Cyrus was “aroused in righteousness” to rebuild Jerusalem and set the exiles free (Isa. 45:13).
In his decree, Cyrus attributed his military victory over Babylon to “the Lord, the God of heaven” (Ez. 1:2). The flexibility of his polytheism was on full display in this statement. Cyrus was not particular to Judaism but rather open to all the native religions of his land. He asked for prayers on his behalf from all patron deities. In the Cyrus Cylinder, for example, the king credited the Babylonian god Marduk for his success. Though most likely Cyrus was a devotee of Ahura Mazda, he appealed to all the gods of all his conquered peoples, a courtesy that served him well as a savvy diplomatic strategy. Still, it is an unusual sign of reverence that Cyrus calls Yahweh “the God of heaven” and not just the localized “God of Jerusalem.”
Cyrus decrees that Yahweh “has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (Ez. 1:2). Four times in the edict of Cyrus, he repeats specifically that the house of Yahweh was in Jerusalem. In the Persian period, there were at least two rival temples built to Yahweh, one in Elephantine and one in Samaria. Cyrus may be repeating Jerusalem so often for clarification as to which of the Yahweh temples he is endorsing.
Collection of Offerings
Cyrus permitted every willing Judean and Israelite to return to their homeland, “any of those among you who are of his people” (Ez. 1:3). Although no restrictions were placed on who was allowed to return, we know that plenty of exiles decided to remain in Babylon even if we are not made privy to those internal deliberations. The edict invites those who chose not to emigrate to still contribute financially to the volunteers as to alleviate the heavy costs of their four-month journey and the task of rebuilding. The exiles who stayed behind contributed generously as did non-Judean subjects. They offered the returnees “silver, gold, with goods, and with livestock” (Ez. 1:4). In addition, they sent freewill offerings with the returnees to sacrifice on the altar in Jerusalem once it was restored. The text describes the donations as “freely offered” but how free is an offering when it was also decreed by the powerful king? I imagine that a modern equivalent is Jews in the diaspora who fax prayers to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
In describing the offerings of non-Judeans to the returnees, the narrative echoes the events of Exodus when Israel’s Egyptian neighbors aided their journey with valuable gifts (Ez. 1:6; Ex. 3:21-22). Signaling a Second Exodus motif, the narrator in Ezra intentionally draws a parallel in this section between the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem with the journey from Egypt to the promised land. The only other time in the Hebrew scriptures that a pagan king was prompted to free God’s people was the Exodus from Egypt. The God who stretched out his arm and delivered them from Egypt is doing another mighty act in restoring the exiles to Jerusalem. Over and over the reader is reminded that nothing in the restoration movement is happening outside of God’s control.
Return of Temple Treasures
The narrator of Ezra explains that “King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods” (Ez. 1:5). The enormity of this act cemented the high status of Cyrus in Jewish memory for all time. Never do the Hebrew scriptures or even the rabbinic texts speak ill of the pagan king. No prophet ever predicted judgement on Persia. How could they after he freely returned what Nebuchadnezzar’s army stole?
When the Babylonians overtook the Jewish temple, Nebuchadnezzar had all the gold removed from the temple and “cut up” (2 Kings 24:13), presumably because the precious metal meant more to him melted down than as molded vessels. Scholars theorize that the temple vessels stored for a generation in the Babylonian treasury were from prior Babylonian raids of Jerusalem and not the raid of 587 BCE. The Book of Daniel relays a story of the debauched Babylonian King Belshazzar bringing out goblets from the Jerusalem temple which were stolen by his father. His guests drank from the sacred vessels and according to Daniel, the next day the Persian armies overtook the city (Dan. 5).
Granted, what Cyrus did for the Jerusalem temple was not an isolated incident. Tolerance of native religions was characteristic of the Persian empire. In the case of other conquered people groups in his empire, Cyrus returned their stolen idols back to their local sanctuaries for their patron gods in exchange for prayers on his behalf. Experts in cuneiform have shown how Persian administrative records from the period (called the Persepolis Fortification Tablets) track a consistent policy of supporting local religion, laws, and customs even through funds from the imperial treasury.
In the case of the Jewish temple, there was no carved image to return. The temple vessels were sacred in that they were used in the worship of their invisible unrepresentable God. The vessels provided a special continuous link from Solomon’s temple to the Second temple, but they were not objects of adoration themselves. The Persian treasurer brought out over 5,000 vessels. Although, no mention was made of the Ark of the Covenant, the return of so many sacred vessels surely gave courage to the exiles committed to return to the land and rebuild their lost temple.
The theme of God’s sovereignty is introduced in the first chapter of Ezra and will continue as dominant throughout the narrative of the postexilic community. The narrative makes certain that only God is accredited for the miraculous restoration of the people to their homeland. Nothing that happens in the restoration movement is happenstance, but strictly goes according to God’s design. God first “stirred up” the heart of Cyrus to proclaim the release and restoration of the Jewish people to their promised land (Ez. 1:1). Then God “stirred up” the spirit of a remnant, committed to return to Jerusalem despite the hardships that inevitably laid ahead (1:5). Within this first chapter, the narrator established that God, and he alone, provided the people with everything they needed to launch the process of restoration. Cyrus was a good guy in the story but only God shines as the hero.
They had the imperial coverage of the Persian empire. They had the financial means to get started based off the contributions of their neighbors, the imperial treasury, and the Jews content to remain in Babylon. What we will get to next week in our reading of Ezra 2-3 is that God also provided them with the community leadership they required.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week we are reading Ezra 2 and 3! For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
I don’t say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
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