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Old Testament | Hebrew-Bible | Ezra | Summary

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Summary

There is a major chronological break between Ezra 1–6, which narrates the initial dedication of the temple in the 6th century BCE, and Ezra 7–10, which introduce the person Ezra's reforms in the 5th century BCE. The first part of the book describes the return of Judean exiles in 538 BCE and their work restoring the temple over the next two decades.

  • After conquering the former Babylonian Empire, the Persian King Cyrus declares that Judeans in exile may return home to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple of Yahweh.
  • Many exiles return, bringing with them sacred temple furnishings that had been carried away to Babylon when the First Temple was destroyed.
  • After arriving in Jerusalem, the exiles begin rebuilding the temple under the leadership of the high priest Jeshua (Joshua) and Zerubbabel, newly appointed governor of Judah and heir of the Davidic dynasty.
  • An altar is soon built so the people can resume the offering of burnt offerings to Yahweh and the observance of religious festivals.
  • When the foundations are laid for a new temple, nonnative inhabitants of Judah initially attempt to join the rebuilding effort. After Zerubbabel refuses them, they organize opposition to the rebuilding effort and progress on the temple stalls.
  • The prophets Haggai and Zechariah urge renewal of the rebuilding efforts, and the Persian King Darius grants permission to continue the rebuilding.
  • The temple is completed in the sixth year of the reign of Darius, 515 BCE, and the Judeans observe the Passover festival shortly thereafter.

At this point the narrative skips ahead about fifty years and relates Ezra's own return to Jerusalem around 460 BCE.

  • During the reign of Artaxerxes in the mid-5th century, "a scribe skilled in the Torah of Moses" named Ezra returns to Jerusalem with the Persian king's blessing, bringing more exiles back with him.
  • When he arrives in Jerusalem, Ezra is dismayed that Judeans are marrying foreigners and urges the people to cease this practice and expel any foreigners from their families immediately. The people publicly repent of the practice and follow Ezra's advice, sending away all foreign wives and their children.

Analysis

Ezra is complex and confusing for the reader. The story of events leading to the completion of the temple combines narrative and quotations of primary source documents. These sources include letters from the reigns of Darius and of Artaxerxes several decades later. The letters also refer to documents from the earlier time of Cyrus. When the first letter is introduced, the text of Ezra switches from Hebrew to Aramaic. When it returns to Hebrew at the end of chapter 7, Ezra narrates the story in the first person until the final chapter switches back to third person.

The primary concerns of the book of Ezra are clear. The first part of the book describes the process of rebuilding the temple after the return to Jerusalem, the people's dedication to that task, and Yahweh's provision for the temple's completion, even in the face of opposition and delays. Ezra presents all of these tasks as part of Yahweh's plan. He emphasizes that they require faithful obedience by the people. After Ezra returns several decades later, there are two primary concerns. The first is to instruct the people in proper observance of the Torah. The second is to maintain their distinctive cultural and ethnic identity by ending marriage with foreigners and dismissing any foreign wives already among them, along with their children. Ezra's instructions regarding these marriages were harsh and xenophobic. Ezra viewed them as necessary to prevent cultural assimilation amidst the vast and diverse Persian Empire.

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