Yeesh, if I thought the books of Chronicles were dry, I had another thing coming when I got to Ezra. This one was a bit of a snoozefest and a half. Luckily it was only 10 chapters long though, as opposed to the 20-something and 30-something of the past 6 or so books before this one. Actually I’m pretty sure it’s the second shortest book I’ve read thus far.
This is a book called “Ezra” which does not actually get around to introducing the character of Ezra until 7 (out of 10) chapters into the book. It takes its sweet … sweet time with that. No rush. It’s probably easiest to look at this book as two separate parts: The first 6 chapters before Ezra is involved, and then the last 4 chapters (7-10), after Ezra shows up. The book is not physically split into two parts, but I will split it and refer to them as “Part I” and “Part II” in my summary, just to make things more clear.
Part I (Chapters 1-6)
You’ll recall that both 2nd Chronicles and 2nd Kings ended with Judah being completely obliterated by the Babylonians. The people of Judah were forced into exile, most of them under the servitude of king Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. 2nd Chronicles actually gives a tad more detail on the events following this, which is the fact that this area eventually becomes the kingdom of Persia. God had apparently promised (via a prophet named Jeremiah) that he would keep the Jews in exile for 70 years, and in the 70th year, God keeps his word and “moves the heart” of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation that he will allow all the exiles to go home to Jerusalem and he will help them rebuild Lord’s temple there. It’s kind of funny because this story ends, quite literally, mid-sentence at the end of 2nd Chronicles. Ezra then starts with the exact same verse (which is this proclamation by king Cyrus), but finishes it properly and continues from there.
Ezra then gives the super exciting list of all the exiled families who return to Jerusalem. Once the peeps journey back to Jerusalem, they rebuild the altar and start up their sacrifice rituals again (whee!). They then rebuild the foundation for the temple, but at that point, they hit a snag. The people of the neighboring lands aren’t thrilled about the Jews’ return, so they spend the entire reign of Cyrus doing things to sabotage and stop up the building process. They continue this tactic during the reign of Xerxes as well. Then during the reign of Artaxerxes over Persia, they convince Artaxerxes that the Jews are a threat to their neighboring lands (which, let’s be honest, is true, considering all the warring and killing the peeps of Judah did with their neighbors when Judah was still riding high back in its glory days). So Artaxerxes puts a stop to the work going on on both the temple and Jerusalem itself.
In the 2nd year of king Darius of Persia, the Jews start rebuilding again. So Tattenai (governor of Trans-Euphrates) and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates kinda butt in again and tell king Darius what is happening. But they also tell Darius that the Jews claim that waayy back during the reign of king Cyrus, Cyrus had decreed that the Jews should rebuild this temple. So king Darius orders his people to do a search into the archives stored in the treasury at Babylon, to see if any such decree really exists. Sure enough, they find the scroll. Not only does it say that the Jews should be allowed to do this, but that the costs should be covered by the royal treasury. The best part of the decree is the last part: “Furthermore, I decree that if anyone changes this edict, a beam is to be pulled from his house and he is to be lifted up and impaled on it. And for this crime his house is to be made a pile of rubble. May God, who has caused his Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem.” Awesome. So the Jews get back to work on the temple again, and Tattenai and Shethar-Bozenai help them out, as instructed. They finish building the temple in the 6th year of Darius’ reign.
Part II (Chapters 1-7)
It’s at the beginning of chapter 7 that Ezra finally waltzes into the picture. He is a descendent of Aaron (Moses’ brother). He is a “teacher well versed in the Law of Moses,” and God is with him in all he does. We are given absolutely zero indication of how much time has passed between this point and the end of chapter 6. And to make matters even more confusing, the guy who is king of Persia at the time of Ezra’s intro is named Artaxerxes!! Same name as one of the earlier kings from Part I. Anyway, this king Artaxerxes (which may or may not be a different king from Artaxerxes in Part I) issues a decree to Ezra that is quite similar to the decree from king Cyrus early in Part I. Well, it’s slightly different this time, because now the temple has already been rebuilt in Jerusalem by the peeps from Part I. So Artaxerxes tells Ezra to bring whichever of his people want to go with him (I guess there are still Jewish exiles in Babylon by this point) and go be a priest to the people in Jerusalem and re-establish the governing bodies.
“And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.” (excerpt of Artaxerxes’ decree). Lovely. Anyway so Ezra takes a bunch of Israelites with him and journeys to Jerusalem.
So, essentially, Part I focuses on the return of the first batch of exiles to Jerusalem and the physical rebuilding of the temple/city, while Part II focuses on Ezra coming back (with more exiles) and re-establishing God’s laws over the people and their way of life in worshiping God and following his laws properly. Chapters 9 and 10 focus on this latter piece specifically, and they are by far the most interesting in the book, because they go in a direction that’s a tad … unexpected: ethnic cleansing. Basically. Well, you see, the Jewish exiles at this point have intermarried and had children with other people from neighboring lands such as the Canaanites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, etc. This is a problem, and Ezra is here to solve it. Chapters 9 and 10 focus entirely on this effort, and that closes out the book of Ezra. As you might expect, I will get into the details of this in the “Bad Stuff” section.
While there is nothing specifically great that happens in Ezra, I will give it this: It is extremely rare (thus far) to get through a book of the Bible with basically zero wars in it. In Ezra, people argue with each other by writing angry letters to the king and intimidating/playing dirty tricks on each other, but they don’t kill each other. They don’t rape, they don’t chop off limbs and heads, they don’t throw people off cliffs. They don’t burn each other on stakes, and they don’t compel angry bears by the power of the Lord to maul small children. So that’s a refreshing change of pace.
It’s also nice to read a book that is mostly spent on building things (the temple and city in this case) rather than tearing and burning things down. It’s a bit heartwarming to see a couple kings of Persia being so helpful to the Jews too, but it seems that they are not doing it of their own volition – God is compelling them to do it so that he can re-establish his people. So that makes it less impressive to me. But still, it could be worse, as we’ve seen in almost all the other books so far, save for Ezra and Ruth. MUCH worse.
So, let’s get back to that little ethnic cleansing thing I touched on earlier, huh? Chapter 9 starts like this (told from Ezra’s p.o.v.):
1. After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. 2. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” 3. When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.
The rest of chapter 9 is spent on a prayer from Ezra, begging the Lord for his mercy on the Jews for their sinful ways. None of this is particularly shocking of course, because one of the key sins in the books of Kings and Chronicles was around intermarriage with cultures who worship “detestable gods” and turn God’s people away from him. But in chapter 10 of Ezra, it suddenly gets much more extreme – A guy named Shecaniah stands up and tells Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. 3. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. 4. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”
So that is just what they do. “7. A proclamation was then issued throughout Judah and Jerusalem for all the exiles to assemble in Jerusalem. 8. Anyone who failed to appear within three days would forfeit all his property, in accordance with the decision of the officials and elders, and would himself be expelled from the assembly of the exiles.” Everyone then assembles in Jerusalem. Ezra tells them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” Ezra and the elders and judges of each town then spend the next 3 months going through each family case by case, and the man of each intermarriage family pledges to send away his wife and kids!! The chapter and book then end with a list of the men who have intermarried and then have to go through this lovely process.
So … yeah. What can I say about this that isn’t already totally obvious?? It’s … disturbing, to say the least. Extremely disturbing. But I guess that’s just how they rolled in Judah. And as usual, God was apparently totally cool with it.
I’ve already mentioned earlier how ridiculously confusing this book is. It gives zero indication how much time passes between the temple construction being completed at the end of chapter 6 and Ezra showing up in chapter 7. It tells two stories of a king named named Artaxerxes that directly conflict with one another: The first story involves Artaxerxes stopping building of the temple and Jerusalem/Judah, and the second story involves Artaxerxes encouraging Ezra to re-establish the nation of Judah! An internet search tells me that there were actually three kings of Persia named Artaxerxes, but none of them reigned before Darius, even though Part I puts Artaxerxes’ reign before Darius’. Wtf??
Wikipedia suggests that the book of Ezra may have been pieced together from different texts and undergone many edits and re-edits over time, which if true would explain the horrible narrative structure. My favorite part of the book is when it switches from a third person narrative to first person (Ezra’s point-of-view) at the end of chapter 7 with absolutely NO warning or explanation. Frustrating as hell to try to read.
Anyway that’s the gist of Ezra. What’s my rating, you say? I’d give it a:
There’s nothing super extreme on either side of the fence in this book, good or bad. But as usual, the bad stuff still outweighs the good by a comfortable margin. Hey, look at the bright side, at least this book gets a higher rating than I’d give that terrible similarly-named band from the 90’s. Next up is the book of Nehemiah, which, at 13 chapters, is another relative shorty. Woo!