Ezra part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Ezra part 1
Ezra was a Jewish scribe and priest. In the Book of Ezra, he is called "Ezra the Scribe" (sofer) and "Ezra the Priest" (kohen) and was a Jewish lawyer and teacher who was very wealthy. Ezra was an individual with his own ideas on many issues; he strongly disagreed with interracial marriage. In Greco-Latin, Ezra is called Esdras (Greek).
Jewish tradition has long attributed authorship of this historical book to the scribe and scholar Ezra, who led the second group of Jews returning from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:11–26). Ezra 8 includes the first-person reference, implying the author's participation in the events. He plays a significant role in the second half of the book and the book of Nehemiah, its sequel. In the Hebrew Bible, the two books were considered one work. However, some internal evidence suggests they were written separately and joined together in the Hebrew canon (and separated again in English translations).
Date of birth: 504 BC
Place of birth: Babylon
1. In the Hebrew Bible
2. "Who wrote the book of Ezra?"
2.1 The apocalyptic Ezra traditions
2.2 "What is the big idea?"
2.3 "Where are we?
3. Why is Ezra so important?
4. Gaining knowledge of Ezra
5. Academic view: The question asked most often is, "who wrote the book of Ezra?"
6. Why is Ezra so important?
7. Second Temple period literature
8. The apocalyptic Ezra traditions
9. Ten Standing Laws and Orders
12. How Do I Apply This?
In the Hebrew Bible
The events in Ezra are set in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. The returning exiles could populate only a tiny portion of their former homeland. Ezra came at the head of a caravan of about 1,800 men, not including their women and children. They made the four-month journey from Babylon without the benefit of military escort, thereby demonstrating their trust and reliance upon God.
Soon after he arrived in Jerusalem, Ezra reorganized the Temple services. In response to his vigorous program to persuade the people to observe the Mosaic Law, they entered into a covenant to keep the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year and other precepts of the Torah. However, the problem that perplexed Ezra most was that many of the Judean settlers had taken heathen wives from the neighboring peoples. Mixed marriages had become so prevalent as to threaten the very survival of the Jewish community. Ezra induced his people to divorce their pagan wives and to separate from the community those who refused to do so.
Ezra's extreme action, but he felt the critical situation warranted it. It aroused the ire of the Samaritans and other peoples, who resented the affront to their women. In retaliation, the Samaritans denounced Ezra to the Persian King for attempting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which he was not authorized to do. The King stopped the work, and the rebuilt part was demolished.
Ezra convened an assembly of the people in Jerusalem (about 445) to bring about a religious revival. Standing on a wooden pulpit, he read aloud a portion of the Law of Moses, which the Levites expounded. At that time, too, Ezra reinstituted the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. He probably died shortly after this episode. The traditional tomb of Ezra is located in Basra, Iraq, though Josephus stated that he was buried in Jerusalem.
The Talmud ascribes a far more critical role to Ezra than recorded in the scriptural book bearing his name. The Talmud asserts that Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given to Israel had Moses not preceded him. It also attributes to him many ancient laws, perhaps to give them prestige and authority. It states that he introduced the use of the square Hebrew script. Ezra also is said to have determined the precise text of the Pentateuch. Moreover, tradition regards him as the founder of the Kenesset Hagdolah, the Great Assembly, which exercised supreme religious authority until the end of the 4th century B.C.
Other prominent Jewish religious customs are associated with Ezra. He is generally credited with removing the Torah from the priesthood's control and democratizing it by teaching it to the people. Scholars believe Ezra replaced the altars and shrines in the villages with synagogues. Finally, Ezra is regarded as the savior of Judaism's national and religious life at a most critical period.
The son of Seraiah, Ezra was a descendant of the ancient priestly house of Zadok. In 458 B.C., the seventh year of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra obtained the King's permission to visit Judea, bearing the latter's gifts for the Holy Temple. However, the primary purpose of his mission was to inquire into the deteriorating religious conditions of the Jewish community in Judea.
The question asked most often is, "who wrote the book of Ezra?"
Ezra was a direct descendant of Aaron, the chief priest (7:1–5); thus, he was a priest and scribe in his own right. His zeal for God and God's Law spurred Ezra to lead a group of Jews back to Israel during King Artaxerxes's reign over the Persian Empire (which had since replaced the Babylonian Empire that initially exiled the people of Judah).
Did I hear someone ask another question, "What is the big idea?"
Ezra's narrative reveals two main issues faced by the returning exiles: (1) the struggle to restore the Temple (Ezra 1:1–6:22) and (2) the need for spiritual reformation (7:1–10:44). Both were necessary for the people to renew their fellowship with the Lord.
A broader theological purpose is also revealed: God keeps His promises. God had ordained that His chosen people would return to their land after a seventy-year exile. Ezra's account proclaims that God kept His word, and it shows that when God's people remained faithful to Him, He would continue to bless them. Hence, the book emphasizes the Temple and proper worship, similar to Chronicles (also written during these days).
The questions keep a-come'in, "Where are we?"
The book of Ezra records two separate periods directly following the seventy years of Babylonian captivity. Ezra 1–6 covers the first return of Jews from captivity, led by Zerubbabel—twenty-three years beginning with the edict of Cyrus of Persia and ending at the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (538–515 BC). Ezra 7–10 picks up the story more than sixty years later when Ezra led the second group of exiles to Israel (458 BC). The book could not have been completed earlier than about 450 BC (the date of the events recorded in 10:17–44).
Finally, I want to know, "Why is Ezra so important?"
The book of Ezra provides a much-needed link in the historical record of the Israelite people. When their King was dethroned and captured and the people exiled to Babylon, Judah as an independent nation ceased to exist. The book of Ezra provides an account of the Jews' regathering, their struggle to survive and rebuild what had been destroyed. Through his narrative, Ezra declared that they were still God's people and that God had not forgotten them.
In the book of Ezra, we witness the rebuilding of the new Temple the unification of the returning tribes as they shared everyday struggles and were challenged to work together. Later, after the original remnant had stopped work on the city walls and spiritual apathy ruled, Ezra arrived with another two thousand people and sparked a spiritual revival. By the end of the book, Israel had renewed its covenant with God and had begun acting in obedience to Him.
Ezra also contains one of the great intercessory prayers of the Bible (Ezra 9:5–15; see Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 9 for others). His leadership proved crucial to the Jews' spiritual advancement.
Gaining Knowledge of Ezra
Ezra, Hebrew ʿezraʾ, (flourished 4th century BC, Babylon, and Jerusalem), religious leader of the Jews who returned from exile in Babylon, a reformer who reconstituted the Jewish community based on the Torah (Law, or the regulations of the first five books of the Old Testament). His work helped make Judaism a religion in which Law was central, enabling the Jews to survive as a community when dispersed worldwide. Since his efforts did much to give Jewish religion the form to characterize it for centuries, Ezra has been called the father of Judaism; i.e., its specific form after the Babylonian Exile. So important was he in the eyes of his people that later tradition regarded him as no less than a second Moses.
Knowledge of Ezra is derived from the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, supplemented by the Apocryphal (not included in the Jewish and Protestant canons of the Old Testament) book of I Esdras (Latin Vulgate form of the name Ezra), which preserves the Greek text of Ezra and a part of Nehemiah. It is said that Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes (which Artaxerxes is not stated) of the Persian dynasty then ruling the area. Since he was introduced before Nehemiah, who was governor of the province of Judah from 445 to 433 BC and again, after an interval, for the second term of unknown length, it is sometimes supposed that this was the seventh year of Artaxerxes I (458 BC). However, serious difficulties are attached to such a view. Many scholars now believe that the biblical account is not chronological and that Ezra arrived in the seventh year of Artaxerxes II (397 BC) after Nehemiah had passed from the scene. Still, others, holding that the two men were contemporaries, regard the seventh year as a scribal error and believe that perhaps Ezra arrived during Nehemiah's second term as governor. Nevertheless, the matter must be left open.
When Ezra arrived from Babylon with the people he brought with him, the situation in Judah was discouraging. Religious laxity was prevalent; the Law was widely disregarded, public and private morality were low. Moreover, intermarriage with foreigners posed the threat that the community would mingle with the pagan environment and lose its identity.