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.
This week we are continuing our study of the book of Ezra, diving into chapter 2. The first six chapters of Ezra revolve around two missions: rebuilding the sanctuary and rebuilding the community.
I admit that a first pass of Ezra 2 is about as riveting as reading a rollcall. In case once was not enough, the same extensive list of volunteers will be repeated in Nehemiah 7. As tedious as these genealogical registers are to read, they are permanent acknowledgements of the 42,360 exiles who bravely returned to Jerusalem, sacrificing the comforts of Babylon for the task of rebuilding Judah. These were the heirs to the covenant promise. The detailed inventory of families demonstrates the seriousness of making certain that the new nation was a continuation of the previous nation.
Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel
Right at the outset of the list of exiles are three leadership names that spark historic interest: Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and Nehemiah. The Nehemiah listed here cannot be the reformer, governor, and namesake of the next biblical book. Almost a century separates the initial caravan of returning Judeans from Nehemiah’s journey to Jerusalem. Nehemiah, which in Hebrew means “God comforts,” was likely a common name among the Jewish exiles.
Zerubbabel and Jeshua are introduced at the top of Ezra 2’s record alongside what is presumed to be other family heads and clan leaders. They will remain featured characters in the rest of the restoration story with the first wave of returnees (Ez. 1-6).
Strangely though, Sheshbazaar is missing from Ezra 2’s list of returnees. Sheshbazaar was the initial leader of the movement appointed governor by Cyrus. He was described as no less than “the prince of Judah.” Working with the Persian authorities, Sheshbazaar was put in charge of the returned temple vessels (Ez. 1:8, 11; 5:14). Suddenly, the narrator no longer mentions Sheshbazaar and no explanation is given for his disappearance.
Without any biblical clues of Sheshbazzar’s death or the transition of leadership, we can only guess when and how Zerubbabel superseded Sheshbazzar. We do not know the number of years between Cyrus’s edict and the commencement of the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem.
One assumption is that Sheshbazzar died in the interim or fell out of favor before setting out or perhaps even in route. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, reconciled the issue by identifying Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel as the same person with two different names.
According to Ezra, Sheshbazzar laid the temple foundations (Ez. 5:16) but according to Zechariah, Zerubbabel laid the foundations (Zech. 4:9). Granted, ceremonial foundation laying for temples can happen more than once. There are other historical examples of the practice. The last theory is that Sheshbazzar was never the exiles choice but only Cyrus’s choice of leader. As soon as the people gained some relative independence, they recognized the leadership of Zerubbabel.
As grandson of King Jehoiachin, Zerubbabel was in the line of David and therefore had a legitimate claim to the position (1 Chron. 3:16-19). Jehoiachin was the last legitimate king of Judah, exiled by the Babylonians in 597 BCE after he and his royal household surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar and were taken prisoner (2 Kings 24:8-17) As a province of the Persian empire, Judah was in no position to give Zerubbabel a royal title despite his bloodline. He operated in the role of community organizer as he worked alongside the priest Jeshua, or Joshua as he is referred to in Haggai and Zechariah. Jeshua was a legitimate high priest in the line of Aaron, a descendant of the last priest before the expulsion (1 Chr. 24:7).
Both Zerubbabel and Jeshua seem to have had equal authority and sway in the restoration movement. Even by the reign of King Darius, Zerubbabel and Jeshua still stood as head of the community. Haggai first shares “the word of the Lord” with Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Hag.1:1). Haggai’s prioritization of Zerubbabel and Jeshua demonstrates divine recognition of their proper credentials as leaders. Through Haggai, God even refers to Zerubbabel as “my servant” (Hag. 2:23), a term normally reserved for King David. In the eyes of the world, neither leader had much political or military power as leaders of a Persian province. In the eyes of the Judeans, however, they were legitimate successors to their positions and appointed by God to see the community through this tenuous time.
Zerubbabel and Jeshua were key figures in the vision sequences of Zechariah. In his vision of two lampstands with an eternal oil supply, an angelic interpreter tells Zechariah, “these are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech. 4:14). Yahweh selected Zerubbabel and Jeshua to provide the leadership needed to finish the task of temple rebuilding. Because Zerubbabel’s grandfather Jehoiachin was an unrighteous king, God spoke through the prophet Zechariah to carefully endorse Zerubbabel as his chosen leader. God assured Zechariah, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it” (Zech. 4:8).
In one of Zechariah’s visions, the satan stood before Yahweh and accused Jeshua of being unfit for the priesthood. Yahweh, in a moving moment, commanded angels to remove Jeshua’s filthy clothes and robe him with clean white priestly garments (Zech. 3:1-7). The angel of the Lord told Jeshua, “If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (Zech. 3:7). The symbolism of the vision is powerful and for Christian readers is ripe with our understanding of salvation that Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8).
In the proclamation of Cyrus, the king decreed that “all survivors in whatever place they reside” could return to Judah (Ez. 1:4), without putting any cap on the number of volunteers. The wide scope of the decree permitted the ten northern tribes to return home as well, but we do not know if any of those tribes took advantage of the offer. Perhaps their dispersion and assimilation were too far advanced. The narrator only names the “heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites” (Ez. 1:5). They were the ones “stirred up” by God’s call and “got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (Ez. 1:5). The Hebrew verb ala for “going up” is used in this verse. Ala is always the verb used for pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A believer “goes up” to the holy city both spiritually and physically.
Lay people (2:2-35)
The genealogical register begins with the lay people. Families of returnees are subdivided first by clan (2:3-21) and then by family land (2:20-35). The family clans are listed as “descendants of” and the land-based groups are listed as “men of.”
Fifty years of captivity meant some exiles no longer had documentation of their ancestry or land claims. Still, there was a surprising number of returnees who apparently retained their tribal affiliations and property rights.
Temple servers (2:36-58)
Fifteen percent of the returnees were priests or temple personnel: 4,000 priests, 74 Levites, and 128 temple singers. Considering the principal task of the first wave of returnees was to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, the more temple workers the better to assist and supervise. The singers were all from one family. Though there were an abundance of priests, they represented only four of the original 24 priestly families from the first temple period. The paltry number of Levites is the most concerning, but that explains why in chapter 8, Ezra’s first priority after his arrival will be to recruit more Levites to return to the land (Ex. 8:15-20).
The Undocumented (2:59-63)
Lastly, the names are given of those lay people and priests unable to prove their pedigree. They made the journey, but without any record of their tribal affiliation or ancestral land. Without such proof, there was no way to verify their link with preexilic Judah. Three family groups did not have the proper documentation to qualify for priestly status. Interestingly, Judean leaders told them they could not participate in the priestly Temple rituals until a priest could consult the Urim and Thummim to confirm their purity (2:63). However, we know that the mysterious Urim and Thummim used in the First Temple period never returned to the Second Temple.
In total, 42,360 exiles volunteered to return. In addition, they brought with them 7,337 male and female servants and 200 singers who presumably did not sing for the temple since they are mentioned separate from the temple musicians.
Judging from the high ratio of servants, the numerous livestock, and the gold and silver financing the trip, the returnees were not making the journey out of desperation or poverty. They were zealous to take part in the restoration promise. They understood that they were the living fulfillment of the prophetic goal. God stirred their hearts to accept the risk.
Though this must have been an extraordinary caravan to make the long journey, the number of returnees was a small fraction of the preexilic population (2 Sam. 24:9). The rest of the exiles remaining in Babylon were hesitant to leave their flourishing city lives behind. The book of Esther shows God did not abandon those Jews who stayed behind in Babylon, but they led a dicey existence in exile.
There are slight variations between the list in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. Hebrew numbers are much easier to get lost in scribal transmission. In both cases, the grand total does not match the listed subtotals. The discrepancy likely has something to do with how they counted women, children, and slaves.
What was the purpose of including the exhaustive inventory of returning exiles in the book of Ezra? By storytelling standards, it would have better served the narrative if the narrator gave a general headcount of volunteers and moved on. One theory is that the inventory was meticulously kept to help them in their land claims to ancestral property.
They needed these records in confrontations with their enemies who occupied the land in their absence. One of the first priorities of the new arrivals would be to resettle their abandoned homes and recultivate their land, but what if they were occupied?
Later in Ezra, the local population will ask to help with the temple rebuild project. Zerubbabel rejects their request. The Bible does not give his reasoning. Perhaps, only people with proven ancestry were allowed to work on the temple. Perhaps, Ezra 2’s list helped distinguish the local population from those pure Israelites who survived exile and returned as the remnant.
This was not a Second Exodus in the sense that a “mixed multitude” joined the returning Israelites. These were all ethnic Israelites, even if many of their names were Persian and few of them retained Jewish style names with a form of Yahweh attached. The importance of pure blood lines will be paramount in the reforms of both Ezra and Nehemiah.
American historians estimate that 10 million Americans today can trace their ancestry to a passenger or crew member on the Mayflower. What the Mayflower passenger lists are to American history, Ezra 2 is to Israel’s history. The list forever cements the charter members so that we are here 2,500 years later talking about them!
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Next week we are reading Ezra 3, an action packed chapter about the Temple rebuild! 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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