Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 9

In this chapter, Ezra discovers that the people are intermarrying with other peoples and prays to confess his guilt before the LORD.

We are nearing the conclusion of the book of Ezra.  In fact, this particular story arc (relating to intermarriage with foreigners) constitutes the subject of both this chapter and the next chapter, which is the last chapter in the book.

As with every book in the bible, I think it is helpful for us to understand the author’s bias and intentions when reading it.  For many books (like Kings and Chronicles) we do not know who is the author, but with Ezra we do, and I think that can help guide our interpretation.  As I previously discussed, Ezra is a scribe with a special focus on guiding Judah to do “the right thing”, i.e. living in obedience to the Law of Moses and the commands of David.

The majority of this book is Ezra’s descriptions of what happened during the restoration before he personally returned to Jerusalem.  We see Ezra place a special focus on the reconstruction of the temple and the Passover.  Now that Ezra has arrived in Jerusalem, we see him continue in the same pattern where I believe he is still focused on ensuring that Judah obeys the Law, but now he’s in a position to influence events.  Intermarriage with foreigners might seem like a much more mundane detail than the rest of the book, but I think it’s included for two reasons.  First, while it may be subtle, I think intermarriage with foreigners is an existential threat to Judah.  Second, I think it’s included because it is a meaningful example of Ezra’s responsibilities in the nascent community.  Ezra does not have a firm conclusion at the end of the book, which suggests that it may not have been intended to end here.  It’s possible that Ezra planned to continue appending to his journal but for whatever reason he was unable to do so.  Either way, I think the book of Ezra is still an excellent (if short) account of the early transitional period when Judah was returning to the promised land and some of the challenges they faced during that time.

There are a few questions I want to ask, and then subsequently answer.

First, why did the elders approach Ezra to tell him about this?  I think from this passage we can infer that Ezra was considered an authority figure in the community.  Besides having a letter from the king himself, he is also leading an expedition of nearly 1,000 men to Jerusalem.  It would appear that Ezra is one of the elders of the community.

Second, why is it such an important issue for Judeans to be intermarrying with foreigners, that it is the first thing brought up to Ezra when he settles in the land?  Previously I described this as an existential threat, which is pretty strong language but I think it’s deserved in this case.  In essence, if they intermarry with non-Judeans, it threatens to undermine the cohesion and culture of the Jewish community.  Since they are outnumbered, they risk being absorbed into the larger Middle eastern society in which they exist.  I think this is a real threat.  We have already seen the almost gravitational pull of idolatry from the surrounding peoples luring both Israel and Judah into sin, and intermarriage with foreigners is a simple continuation of that same threat.

It’s a strange thing, because in modern society intermarriage can often be positioned as a good thing.  Interracial marriage, inter-cultural marriage, are considered positive values by many people.  Nobody dies, nobody is hurt, in fact these are voluntary marriages so nobody is being forced into it.  I think it’s a subtle thing; if you want to keep people alive, then sure, intermarriage is completely fine.  However, if you want to keep a culture alive, then there are real reasons why you would seek to keep your culture as isolated as possible from the surrounding forces, especially when your culture is a minority in the region, which is the case here.  Since we can see that Ezra’s driving purpose is to maintain the purity of Judah’s faith and devotion to the LORD, his abhorrence of intermarriage with foreigners is a natural result of that attitude.

Lastly, Ezra’s prayer constitutes the majority of this chapter, and I don’t have too much to say about it.  I think the language is striking, particularly Ezra’s focus on Judah’s sin and God’s mercy to them through the restoration.  In fact, it’s not even a prayer as many people regard prayers, because Ezra does not ask the LORD for anything, it is simply a confession of God’s great mercy and their guilt and sin both before and after that mercy.  I think Ezra’s prayer is a concise statement of what he personally thinks about this entire period of their history.  After passing through the great trauma of the exile, Judah is now entering a period of tremendous hope; to them, the blessing and favor of God is evident through the kind treatment they are receiving from their Persian rulers.  Ezra does not see this as variance in Judah’s relationship with the Persians, he clearly sees events in their history as a reflection of Judah’s relationship with the LORD, and it is the ups and downs of their relationship with the LORD that governs the political reality faced by Judah.  Ezra sees great hope in the restoration, and he is legitimately afraid that Judah is going to mess it up by continuing to sin against the LORD.

In the next chapter, we see Ezra’s response to this great sin.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 8

In this chapter, Ezra describes the men who traveled with him to Jerusalem and the temple offering they brought.

This chapter reveals Ezra to be the proper scribe that he is, with a long list of names and numbers.  Jewish scribes have a well-earned reputation for being precise and detail-oriented, and Ezra is no exception.

I would also like my readers to note how Ezra shifts from third person to first person.  In fact he begins speaking in the first person after finishing the king’s letter (see. Ezra 7:28), but before that he wrote his own introduction in the third person.  I think the first person section strongly indicates that this book was indeed written by a historical Ezra, and at the same time it shows that sometimes authors in the OT write about themselves in the third person, which may be relevant when assigning authorship to the later prophetic books.

In verses 2-14, Ezra lists first the clan (or family) and then the family patriarch and number of men from that family who were returning.  The number of men adds up to just about 1,000 (including women and children, we could expect the total to be around 2500-3000).  On the one hand, to my modern mind, this sounds like a large group.  I’ve gone on roadtrips with 3-4 people before so the thought of traveling with over 2,000 people seems like a lot to me.  On the other hand, this is a very different kind of world they lived in.  Remember that the journey took four months and they were traveling through a much more dangerous world than you usually find today. Sadly, it would probably be about as dangerous for 3,000 Jews to travel (on foot) through Iran and Iraq as it was for Ezra and his compatriots 2,500 years ago.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lastly, I would also like to point out that the size of the group returning with Ezra is much smaller than the number of returning exiles documented in Ezra 2.  In that case the number totaled around 50,000 (Ezra 2:64-65).  It appears that all of the most willing and capable men left with the first group and the other, following groups are smaller.

Verse 15 is a fascinating observation.  Ignoring demographic questions for now, one obvious implication is that the Levites are somehow much less motivated to return to the promised land than “the people and the priests”.  My NIV bible notes suggested that the Levites may have had some advantageous economic situation in Babylon and that returning to Jerusalem would have reduced their standard of living.  It’s certainly interesting that out of 1,000 returning men, Ezra was only able to find 38 Levites (v. 18-19).

The other side of this verse is that Ezra finds the Levites essential and basically refuses to leave without them.  Why is Ezra so determined to bring Levites with him?  It is because Ezra, as a scribe, is trying to get things “right”.  I am guessing that Ezra has some kind of vision for what temple ministry done correctly looks like, and he is trying to make sure that this vision is fulfilled.  1 Chronicles 23-26 lays out a structure for how temple ministry should be carried out, and the role of the Levites in particular is given in 1 Chron 23.  I believe that Ezra was familiar with the text of Chronicles and was intending to follow those regulations as his organizing principle behind temple ministry.

Remember the role of the scribe is to study, practice and teach the Law.  While the Law of Moses takes supremacy in the heart of every religious Jew, anything commanded by David would have also been regarded as authoritative.  Since David created an exclusive role for the Levites in temple ministry, obeying the commands of David would require Ezra to have Levites with him for temple services*.

Verses 21-23 show more directly the dangerous nature of Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem.  This is one of the most important reasons why Ezra (and the other Jews) traveled in such large groups, because it was simply safer to go in larger groups than smaller ones.  Even with a group of around 1,000 men Ezra is still concerned about their safety and they fast and pray for a safe journey.

Verses 24 and onwards focuses on the offering of gold and silver that was given by the king, the royalty and the people of Judah in exile.  The emphasis in this chapter was on the responsibility of the men administrating the offering.  The money is weighed while they are in exile and then weighed again when they reach Jerusalem.  Therefore any loss or theft would be noticeable and the priests and Levites who carried the offering would have been held accountable.

While Ezra documents all of his precautions for their safe travel and the offering, apparently everything goes smoothly.  Everyone arrives safely in Jerusalem and the offering is also fully accounted upon arrival.  Once again I would say that Ezra appears to be detail-oriented and a responsible steward towards everything under his care, and he is successful because of it.

In the next chapter, Ezra faces his first challenge in Jerusalem, when he discovers that the people had been intermarrying with foreigners.

*One counterpoint here is that Levites had most likely gone with Jerubbabel and Jeshua as part of the first group of returning exiles.  This means that Ezra bringing Levites with him was not strictly necessary, but I still feel like Ezra’s primary motivation was adherence to David’s ordinances.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 7

In this chapter, Ezra returns to Jerusalem from exile.

This chapter has two main sections.  The first section is Ezra’s autobiography and the second section is King Artaxerxes’s letter of authorization for Ezra.  I will discuss these two sections in turn.

Beginning with Ezra’s biography, from his genealogy (v. 1-5) we see that Ezra is a priest, a descendant of Aaron and perhaps more interestingly, a descendant of Zadok.  In the book of Chronicles, Zadok showed up several times as a prominent figure in the story, and I suggested at the time that it was because the descendants of Zadok may have been increasingly important in the post-exilic era when Chronicles was written.  What we see here is that Ezra, one of the authors of the post-exilic histories, is himself a descendant of Zadok.  According to Jewish tradition, Chronicles was also written by Ezra which if it were true, would help to explain the bias in Chronicles towards the priestly line of Zadok, though that bias could also be explained by other factors so I don’t think it necessarily indicates Ezra’s authorship.

We also see that Ezra is a scribe, which is something I mentioned in the introduction.  I am very interested in learning about the scribal class, because the Jewish scribes are the secret hands behind the OT.  Think about it: how many books have we read where we do not know the author?  Basically all of them?  Especially for the histories like Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, many books in the OT do not have a specific author and it may not even be possible that they had a single author when the book spans over more than a hundred years of time.  Behind every book in the OT there is a lineage of scholars who wrote, guarded and transmitted the book down from generation to generation until it reached the present day.

As in the case of Ezra, many of these scholars would have been passionate individuals who dedicated their lives to study the Law, practice it and teach it to others.  While many of them lived and died without recognition in modern times, they did not live without making a difference.  In fact, I would suspect that many of the scholars who curated the biblical books did not have realized how their diligence to preserve the history of God’s interactions with Israel would change the world.  Without men such as Ezra, who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD”, we might not have the Law with us today and simply put, our knowledge of God and his salvation plan would have been diminished.

Verse 7 also tells us that Ezra went up with priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and “temple servants”.  This is another similarity between the book of Ezra and Chronicles, because Chronicles spent a great deal of space discussing the various components of the temple ministry (see e.g. 1 Chron 9, 26).  Since all of these groups of people were involved with the temple ministry, it is another way of showing Ezra’s focus on the temple ministry as his central mission for traveling to Jerusalem.

That said, I would also like to point out that Ezra returns to Jerusalem after the temple has been finished.  The main people involved with building the temple were Jerubbabel, Jeshua, Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2).  Ezra is coming in a second wave of refugees, and while he writes about the construction of the temple (likely having interviewed sources who were there), he was not himself involved with its construction.

So what was Ezra’s purpose?  Why did he spend four, dangerous months hiking through modern day Iran and Iraq (v. 9)?  Ezra’s immediate purpose is given in the letter from Artaxerxes.  Ezra is being sent on behalf of the king for several reasons: to “inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 14), to bring the king’s offering for the temple (v. 15) and to appoint judges for the Trans-Euphrates province to enforce Jewish religious law on their people.  As such, it appears that Ezra is being placed in a role of local authority, being given power to enforce not only their own Law, but also the laws of the king (v. 26).

While these are the reasons the king sent Ezra, I’m not sure that they are the reasons Ezra went.  I think Ezra went to Jerusalem because firstly, like most other religious Jews, he wanted to return to the land of the covenant with God.  Second, I think Ezra wanted to fulfill his role as a scribe: to instruct the people in Jerusalem and ensure that they are properly obeying the Law of the LORD.

The terms of the letter to Ezra are highly favorable, giving him liberty to collect money as needed from the royal treasury, an offering for the temple, freedom from taxes, and authority to enforce the religious and royal laws.  It’s no wonder that Ezra repeatedly thanks God for his favorable treatment (v. 6, 27, 28).

Ultimately, Ezra is going to Jerusalem to see if the people are properly following the Law.  In the next chapter, we will learn more about Ezra’s companions and journey.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 6

In this chapter, the temple is completed and the exiles celebrate the Passover again.

As we might have expected from the previous chapter, the king once again issues a directive to search the royal archives from the former king Cyrus’s order to rebuild the temple and when he finds it, king Darius orders that Cyrus’s order be fulfilled and he gives further donations for the dedication of the temple and sacrifices on behalf of the king.  Although Cyrus’s exact motivation can be somewhat hard to discern, I think it’s possible that Darius wants to enforce his predecessor’s order because it projects an aura of royal infallibility if different kings never contradict each other.  For instance, in the books of Daniel and Esther there are several times it says that the order of a king may not be repealed.  If a king claims, or even implies, that he made a mistake, then it undermines the notion that the king has a divine mandate to rule.

Once the order is found, it’s very unlikely that Darius will contradict it, but he actually goes further by also commanding for royal support.  The entire cost of the temple is paid out of taxes from the Trans-Euphrates region and additional animal sacrifices as the priests require are also given so long as they pray for the king’s life and reign (v. 10).

On one hand, we can see this as a joyful victory for the Judean exiles.  They have finished the temple and can now offer sacrifices to the LORD.  On the other hand, I think what stands out to me here is how the fate of the Judeans is determined largely by the decisions of their foreign rulers.  While under the authority of a hostile king, the temple is halted, and while under the authority of a friendly king the temple is constructed.  If another king rises up who is hostile to Judah, there is nothing they can do to fight back and control their own destiny.  To be sure, the LORD reigns over the earth and can lead even these foreign kings wherever he wishes, but I think it’s notable how powerless the Jews appear through this story.

The chapter concludes with another Passover service, the first one that we have seen since the Babylonian exile over 70 years ago.

Tangent: It’s possible that this really was the first Passover in a generation, because the statutes generally require Jews to perform all animal sacrifices at the temple.  With the temple destroyed, the Jews may not have sacrificed any animals during the Babylonian exile.  Certainly one of the biggest issues that the rabbis of the Babylonian exile had to resolve was the proper way to follow the Law when the Law itself commands that all sacrifices be performed at the temple.  It’s possible that they could have chosen to build a new tabernacle and offered sacrifices there, but there is no historical evidence that they ever did so.

In modern times Jews do not sacrifice animals on the Passover precisely because there is no modern Jewish temple.  Without a temple, modern orthodox Jewish interpretation of the Law forbids any animal sacrifice for any reason.  A fuller explanation of modern Jewish law is beyond the scope of this post, but I’m just mentioning it because it’s possible the reconstruction of the temple coincides with the restoration of the Jewish festivals and sacrificial offerings.  End tangent.

We have evidence from the bible that the Passover may have been especially significant to the returning exiles in Jerusalem.  The reason we know this is that Kings and Chronicles are two books covering roughly the same time period and they were written before and after the exile respectively.  Therefore we can contrast the structure and focus of these two books to figure out some of the details of how their religious views changed over time.  As a basic first principle, whatever events or topics received greater attention in Chronicles compared to Kings were likely more important to the returning exiles than to the pre-exilic Israelites.

Bringing us back to the topic at hand, the Passovers celebrated during the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah were barely discussed at all in the book of Kings but received extensive coverage in the book of Chronicles (2 Chron 30, 35).  While we certainly have strong evidence that the Passover was celebrated before the exile (since the book of Exodus is clearly pre-exilic), it appears to have taken on a renewed importance during the restoration era.

I can only speculate as to the reasons why, so that is exactly what I am going to do.  My guess is that the post-exilic Jews placed a renewed emphasis on the Passover precisely because it could serve as a connection point to their pre-exilic religious traditions.  Securely placed as the first and most important religious festival in the book of Exodus, it is a logical starting point for rebuilding the temple worship system.

In that sense, Chronicles’ particular focus on the Passover celebrations under Hezekiah and Josiah serves a dual purpose.  The first, obvious purpose is to highlight the historical role of the Passover celebration in Judah’s history in order to affirm the continuing sanctity and relevance of the Passover in the “modern” times of the restoration era when this book was written.  The second, less obvious purpose is that both Hezekiah and Josiah themselves were trying to restore the temple worship system in their own lifetimes, even before the exile.  In that sense, it is actually something that both Hezekiah and Josiah have in common with the returning exiles of the restoration era.

To make my point more directly, what are the three things that the returning exiles have done first?  They built the temple, they initiate the daily sacrificial offerings (v. 9) and they celebrated the Passover.  What were the first three things that Hezekiah did when he became king (2 Chron 29-30)?  He cleansed the temple, began daily sacrifices, and celebrated the Passover.  What were the first three things that Josiah did (2 Chron 34-35)?  He destroyed the altars of Baal, repaired the temple and celebrated the Passover.

It’s almost as if the author of Chronicles was trying to put together a how-to guide for national revival and then the book of Ezra is documenting the Jews of his own time walking through that same process, building the temple and then using the temple as the basis for their sacrificial system and national festivals.

To reiterate my previous point, I believe this same system of temple offerings and national festivals existed before the exile as well, though in many respects it was less centralized (we have considerable evidence that the Israelites worshiped at many different high places, e.g. Gibeon in 1 Kings 3:4).  We also know that when the kingdom was divided between north and south, Jeroboam constructed two idols in the northern kingdom specifically to keep the people from going down to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Therefore in the pre-exilic period, the temple worship system never had the same unifying power as what it attained in the post-exilic period.  I think it was always meant to be a unifying force across all twelve tribes, but for political reasons it simply never happened until after the exile and the complete destruction of the northern kingdom, when, for all intents and purposes, “Israel” simply became “Judah”.  Political unity came through the destruction of the non-Judean tribes, essentially.

I’m writing all this because I really want to give my readers, to the best that we can discern, a sense of what life was like for Ezra and his contemporaries: their struggles, their victories, their hopes and dreams and their self-perception.

The central issue reflected in Chronicles and Ezra is “restoration”.  They are still under the power of the Persians, but they have been granted a certain measure of favor with their masters to go and rebuild their society.  A particular emphasis is placed on rebuilding their religious system in the same way that Hezekiah and Josiah did, following the pattern established by David.  David stands above all others, not only as an embodiment of devotion to the LORD to be emulated, but as a foreshadow to the expected messiah, who would come to free the Judeans from their oppressors and bring about a great deliverance.

Make no mistake about it: the Jews expected that their religious devotion to the LORD would produce an eventual political deliverance from their enemies.  The binary language in Deuteronomy and elsewhere leaves little room for misinterpretation.  It says that if Israel is faithful to obey the LORD’s commands, then they will be set above all other nations, blessed and victorious in every sphere of life (Deut 28:1-14).  In the same way, the LORD threatens to destroy Israel and cast them out of the promised land if they fail to obey the covenant and serve other gods.  The Jews have seen the fulfillment of this second half of the Law when they were taken to Babylon in the exile, and now that they are restoring the temple worship system, there can be no doubt that they are waiting for God to fulfill the first half, blessing them and making them the greatest nation on earth.

Their hope is to be free, to be an independent and great kingdom again.  They hope to have a godly and righteous king to lead them into glory, like David.  They are rebuilding the temple and offering sacrifices to follow the pattern established by David because they want to return to God and be faithful to follow the covenant, which is inextricably tied to their foregoing desire for freedom and blessing.

How do they view themselves?  Obviously, there is a lot of humility and self-deprecation.  They have suffered greatly and blame themselves for bringing it upon themselves by their idolatry.  However, they also see themselves as part of this great tradition, descending from David and Solomon and the other great figures of their past.  Theirs is a humility at their present circumstances but an aspiration for greatness and a belief that they are still a great people.  In a word, the Jews believe they are still “connected”.  They believe that even after everything, they are still connected to their past and through it and through the covenant, they are still connected to God.

Their desire to be free and powerful, their desire for a king like David to come back and lead them to glory; these things do not happen during Ezra’s lifetime.  Instead, Ezra celebrates smaller victories like the “encouragement” of the king of Assyria (i.e. Persia) in v. 22.  For now, many of these greater hopes will be deferred.

I’ve written perhaps longer than I should have, but I think this is important.  I hope my readers understand that these same hopes, dreams and struggles continue until the lifetime of Jesus with only minor adjustments, and that these same expectations powerfully shape the Jews’ reaction to Jesus’s ministry.

In the next chapter, Ezra himself travels to Jerusalem.

Bible Commentary - Ezra 5

In this chapter, the Judeans begin building the temple again and the local officials ask the king a second time if the temple should be permitted.

Having been commanded by the authorities in the previous chapter to not build the temple, the Jews decide in verse 2 that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, so they simply start rebuilding the temple until someone comes again to tell them to stop.  The prophets play a key role as well, encouraging the leaders.  Both Haggai and Zechariah have their own prophetic books amongst the minor prophets, so my readers may wish to read those books while going through Ezra and Nehemiah for the additional perspectives.

There are many parallels between this chapter and the previous one.  In both chapters, the Judeans begin rebuilding the temple.  In both chapters, Persian officials write a letter to the king asking if the Judeans should be permitted to rebuild the city.  The next chapter has the Persian king again searching through the royal archives to find past records about Judah.

In both cases I would also say the king is relatively neutral and detached from the situation in Judah.  Even in the previous chapter I would not say that Artaxerxes showed any real malice towards the Judeans.  Instead, king Artaxerxes’s response was shaped by the tone of the letter that he received and the (real) historical basis in Judah’s rebellions against the Babylonians.

The real difference between these two letters is the reaction of the local Persian authorities.  In the previous chapter, the local authorities were Samaritan men hostile to Judah.  In this chapter, the local Persian governor and other officials seem much more neutral.  Their letter to the king is largely shaped by the response of the Judean elders, who highlight king Cyrus’s (real) order permitting the reconstruction of the temple.  I think the key difference is in verse 5: “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews”.  By the grace of God, the Jews had favor with their local Persian officials and they were able to control the narrative sent to king Darius.  I also think it’s interesting how both letters are able to cite real events in support of opposite conclusions.  Asking the king to confirm Jerusalem’s rebellious history, the enemies of Judah stopped the temple, but now asking the king to confirm Cyrus’s order to rebuild the temple, Judah is on the path to success.

I think it’s peculiar how the enemies of Judah disappear entirely from this chapter.  What happened to them?  Zerubbabel is still the chief leader of the Judeans so it’s not like some huge amount of time has passed, and yet the overt resistance to the Judeans has vanished.  We are not given an explanation for this.  To the Judeans, it is a windfall; they are permitting to renew construction of the temple under the leadership of the prophets and their efforts go unimpeded.

In the next chapter, the king affirms the Judean efforts and the temple is completed.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 4

In this chapter, the enemies of Judah come to obstruct the construction of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.

Before going through the content of this chapter, I want to begin by discussing the nature of these enemies.  Verse 9-10 gives us a broad description of Judah’s enemies.  It appears that their enemies were largely the officials and leaders of the foreign nations that had been exiled into Samaria.  I will give a brief backstory.

During the Assyrian exile, the northern kingdom was destroyed and deported.  As part of that process, the Assyrians also imported a bunch of foreign peoples INTO Samaria to populate the land.  They did this for the same reason that they deported the Israelites: to divide and destabilize the conquered peoples and make it harder for them to rebel and fight back against the Assyrians.  Even though the deportation occurred under the Assyrians, the Babylonians inherited the Assyrian possessions in Samaria when the Assyrians themselves were conquered by the Babylonians, and the Persians took over when they, in turn, conquered the Babylonians.  At the time of this chapter, both the Judeans and the Samaritans are under Persian dominion.  These imported peoples (as verse 9 tells us, they are men from Erech, Babylonians and Elamites) are just as much enemies to the Judeans as the former Israelites had been, though with less of the complex history.

We have to use a bit of inference to guess at the Samaritans’ motivations.  In this case, when the Judeans had been exiled, it had depopulated and opened up this large land to the south that the new Samaritan inhabitants could have gradually expanded into and dominated.  With the return of the exiles, it is possible that a resurgent Judah could have resisted or encroached on the Samaritans interests or territory.  Therefore the conflict in this chapter should be largely understood as a local conflict between these two groups, the Judeans and the Samaritans.

However, the Samaritans realize that they cannot tell this directly to the Persian authorities, because the Persians are largely disinterested between the local interests of their vassal states.  Neither can the Samaritans physically attack the Judeans because they are both vassals of the Persian authorities, who would most likely stomp out the Samaritans if they were fighting against another province of the Persian empire, so military action is largely out of the question for the Samaritans.  Instead, they attack Judah indirectly by claiming that Jerusalem is a rebellious city and insisting that the Persians need to keep the Judeans from rebuilding.  It’s worth mentioning that the “rebellious city” claims are completely true.  Jerusalem rebelled against the Babylonians several times towards the end of the pre-exilic period (see 2 Kings 24:1, 20).  However, I think it’s also clear that this is just a pretext; the Samaritan officials don’t care even slightly that Jerusalem is a “rebellious city”, they are enemies of Judah who are trying to restrain the Judeans to protect their own economic and political interests.  However, this conflict is entirely waged through political maneuvering with the Persian authorities.

Now that my readers understand the nature and intent of Judah’s enemies, I will move on to discuss the rest of the chapter.

In the context of Ezra, while the political conflict between the Samaritans and the Judeans is the backstory and would have been implicitly understood by Ezra’s readers, it is not the immediate purpose for why this story in included in Ezra’s history.  Instead, Ezra is not concerned about the identity of Judah’s adversaries but rather what they represent: in my opinion, the Samaritans stand in for the amorphous “enemies of God” that are fighting to prevent Judah from fulfilling her destiny, similar in function to the hostile tribes that fought against Israel when Joshua led the people into the promised land the first time around.  The Samaritans are an obstacle to be overcome in Judah’s struggle to rebuild the temple and by extension, recover their place in the promised land.

With all that said, the chapter starts off in a strange way with the enemies of Judah offering to help build the temple and the Judeans refusing (v. 2-3).  It’s funny because going from verse 1 to 2, you see these “enemies” offering to help Judah and by verse 4, they are “discouraging” the people from building.  My guess is that the offer to help Judah was some kind of Trojan horse, where the enemies of Judah would perhaps sabotage the temple or use it as a way to get into the land and kill the Judeans in their sleep or something.  I’m not sure exactly what the Samaritans had in mind because the Judeans refused this likely duplicitous offer and we never hear about it again.

Instead, things quickly shift to discouragement and the writing of letters to the Persian authorities.

Here’s another funny thing about this chapter.  In verse 1, the principle listed concern is the construction of the temple.  This is what the enemies of Judah are trying to prevent.  In verses 12-13, the same enemies of Judah warn the king that the people are rebuilding the wall and the foundations of the city.  I.e. they are warning the king about a military threat, that the Judeans are building defensive fortifications as preparation for rebelling against the king again, and telling the king to search the records to see that it is indeed a rebellious city and likely to revolt again.  Note how the temple is not mentioned at all in the letter to the king, yet the wall and city foundations are not mentioned at all in the Samaritans’ earlier concerns.

Going on to verses 23-24, the city walls and foundations vanish again and the Samaritans are specifically stopping the Judeans from rebuilding the temple.  It’s possible that the Judeans were also rebuilding the city wall (and the later book of Nehemiah will give us some evidence about that), and it’s possible that the Samaritans prevented construction of both the wall and the temple, but Ezra focuses entirely on the temple here.

There are two ways to read this discrepancy.  The first is that the Samaritans actually only cared about preventing the construction of the temple, and used Judah’s past rebellions as an excuse to stop it from being rebuilt.  From this perspective, we could say that “rebuilding the city” (v. 13) is framed in a deliberately vague way to include any possible construction in Jerusalem and not limit their complaint to the obviously military purpose of the city wall.  When king Artaxerxes reads the letter, the focus is on “they are building defenses to rebel again”, but when the Samaritans get the king’s response, they can stop any construction they want and immediately go to disrupt the temple.  This interpretation is supported by the Samaritans' earlier statement, "Hey, let us come help build the temple with you."  They would not have been trying to undermine the construction of the temple through that Trojan horse proposal if they did not care about the temple.  This suggests that the Samaritans had a real objective in preventing the temple's completion, though it's political value is unclear to me.

The second way to read this discrepancy is that the Samaritans wanted to stop any construction in the city, that the Judeans actually were building walls and other defensive structures, but that Ezra himself is biased in his focus on the temple rather than the other things that may have been higher priority to the Samaritans.  It would certainly be more rational for the Samaritans to care about the city walls and other things than the temple because the temple does not serve any military function and apart from the symbolic value (more significant to the Judeans than to their enemies), there isn’t any obvious reason why the Samaritans would care about the temple.

In either case, the Samaritans are successful at this time stopping the temple by force.  The Judeans are forced to wait for another time, and in the next chapter we see it is only a change in the ruling king that permits the Judeans to begin construction again.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 3

In this chapter, the community leaders institute the prescribed sacrifices and begin construction of the temple.

When reading this chapter, the overall sense I get from it is that their priorities are very similar to the pattern we see in the lives of Hezekiah and Josiah, who were revivalists during the kingdom era.  For instance, in verses 2-6 we see that the people focus on beginning the regular sacrifices that were given in the Law of Moses.  They are offering these sacrifices on an altar, probably in the temple compound, even before the temple was built.  Afterwards, they gather the materials and begin construction of the temple itself starting in v. 10.

In 2 Chronicles 29, we see Hezekiah institute religious reforms in Judah.  He begins by cleansing the temple and then his first religious act is to offer sacrifices.  2 Chron 31:2-3 confirms that Hezekiah continued with the regular offerings.

We also see emphasis placed on the worship ministry in both Chronicles and in this chapter.  In this chapter, v. 10-11 describe the Levites praised with music and song when the foundation of the temple is laid.  In 2 Chron 29, we see music and singing accompanying the sacrificial offering (2 Chron 29:27-30).

Lastly, this chapter emphasizes the importance of the temple.  In the revival of Hezekiah, the temple is purified of all uncleanness.  In the revival of Josiah, the temple is repaired.  In the time of Ezra, the temple is being entirely rebuilt from the ground up.  In these three cases, we can see the temple declining to a worse condition each time, and each time the community leaders are focusing on the temple as the centerpiece of their revival.

There are two ways that we might interpret this pattern.  First, it represents a pattern in Judah’s religious traditions.  It shows that over time, the shape of religious revivals is quite similar even over hundreds of years.  Second, since Chronicles was written during the lifetime of Ezra, it is possible that the Chronicler was shaping his narrative to reflect the culture and priorities of the post-exilic community.  We can confirm with certainty that the temple and regular prescribed sacrifices were incredibly important to the community leaders of the returning exiles.  It’s harder to be sure that they were so important to the pre-exilic revivalists because of the implicit bias of the Chronicler.

That said, I do believe that regardless of the Chronicler’s bias, the narrative in Chronicles is detailing a real religious tradition that survived through the exile into the early post-exilic community.  It’s difficult for us to independently assess the accuracy of Chronicle’s representation because we simply don’t have a good independent text to cross-verify.  Even thoug the book of Kings is a pre-exilic source about Hezekiah, it almost entirely omits Hezekiah’s religious reforms (see 2 Kings 18:1-6), so it doesn’t help us to assess the pre-exilic religious tradition.

Both Chronicles and Ezra are designed to highlight the continuity between the post-exilic community with their pre-exilic ancenstors and traditions.  It’s unlikely that the post-exilic community would find these arguments credible if they were not based on a real pre-exilic tradition.

Lastly, I want to discuss verses 12-13.  This is at the very end of the chapter, after the foundation of the temple is laid, we see the people react in two different ways.  The young people shouted for joy, but the older men who had seen the first temple “wept with a loud voice”, and in the confusion of sound nobody could tell the difference between the shouts of joy and the cries of weeping and sorrow.  This is perhaps confusing when you read it the first time.

The way I understand this passage is that the new temple is much smaller than the older one.  The older men who had seen the previous temple are weeping because they see their national decline in the temple.  They used to have a large and prosperous nation, and now they are small and poor.  They used to have a large, rich temple, and now they are building a much smaller temple.  The young people rejoice because they see the greatness of what they are building, but the old people weep because they see how much less it is than what they used to have and be.  This topic is specifically addressed in the book of Haggai, which we have not yet read, but that’s basically what is happening here.

Beyond that explanation, I find this passage striking.  Could you imagine being in a situation where two groups of people are seeing the same thing, that they both support, and one group is rejoicing while the other group is weeping?  I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot recently.  The only difference between these two groups is their perspective.  The older groups knows their past in a tangible way, while the younger group only knows their past by description.  There are so many things we are building in the church today, both my local church as well as the global church, and we rejoice over many of these things.  I wonder how often I would weep rather than rejoice if I had been alive to see the church in the past.  Even the revivals of the past like the great awakening or the protestant reformation; if I had been alive for those revivals, would I find the modern church to be stronger or weaker than the church of the past?  Have we grown to be less than our ancestors?

It’s a troubling thought because the younger people were living side by side with their elders, and yet they were unable to understand their elders’ perspective.  In the space of just one generation, much that had been known was lost, even when they were yet living together.

I wonder when the LORD saw the temple foundation being laid, did he rejoice or did he weep?  Which of these two reactions is closer to the truth?  Or perhaps they were both true in different ways.  In the end I guess both reactions are true in the sense that they represented a reaction to a particular understanding of the temple.  The temple is smaller and looks like nothing compared to the prior temple, and yet it is building built.  It’s small, but it’s happening.  The restored community is small and weak, yet they are being restored.  I think in the restored community, there is reason for joy as well as tears.

This chapter concludes by saying that their shout was heard from a great distance away.  In the next chapter, we will see that the enemies of Judah (metaphorically) heard the shout, and begin plotting to disrupt their restoration efforts.