Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 6

In this chapter, Sanballat and his allies resume their threats and deception against Nehemiah and the other Jews.

This chapter feels like a continuation of chapter 4.  It does not repeat the same material, but it continues along the same lines, with Sanballat and his friends spewing threats and rumors in a continued effort to disrupt the construction of the wall.  We learn from verse 1 that the wall was built, but that the gates and doors had not yet been placed in it, so the wall is still incomplete.  Depending on how you count, there are three or four distinct attacks in this chapter, so just like in chapter 4 I will go through the attacks and Nehemiah’s responses.

The first attack is distraction.  Sanballat and Geshem invite Nehemiah to go down to Ono to meet together.  As an aside, I’ve heard more than one speaker now say “if someone is inviting you to “oh no”, you should always decline” or variants of that.  Anyway, to modern readers this language of “let’s meet together” sounds very peaceful and friendly, but I would like to point out that in the bible this phrase is also sometimes used for “meeting in battle” (one example is 2 Samuel 2:13).  While I think a peaceful interpretation may be supported, I also think that this invitation hints at a challenge for Nehemiah to come down and fight it out with Sanballat and his supporters.

Either way, it is clear that Nehemiah going down to meet with Sanballat (whether to talk or to fight) does not serve towards Nehemiah’s purpose in building the wall.  Nehemiah’s response to these attempts at distraction is focus.  He focuses on his vision, which is to finish the wall, and his response shows this.  He says, “I am doing a great work”, why should I disrupt the work just to meet with you (v. 3).  To me, meeting with Sanballat feels like an attempt to placate one’s ego.  Sanballat is an influential but distant man who has been eminating threats against Nehemiah, but without any concrete action.  Sanballat is a man filled with talk and little action (driven by circumstance I am sure, it’s unlikely Sanballat was in a position to act against Nehemiah).  In contrast, Nehemiah sometimes speaks but his focus is on action: building the wall and rallying other men to build the wall.

In this instance, Sanballat is attempting to reduce Nehemiah to his level.  Why else would Sanballat ask Nehemiah to go out and meet him, rather than Sanballat himself coming up to Jerusalem to meet Nehemiah?  Sanballat is in the middle of Oh No, spending all his time trying to tear down Nehemiah.  Nehemiah is in Jerusalem fulfilling his vision.  If Nehemiah went out to Ono, he would become like Sanballat, doing nothing, accomplishing nothing, and in that way he would cease to be a threat to Sanballat.

Sanballat represents the status quo.  Change is threatening to Sanballat because Sanballat is dominant in the current world system.  Everyone who is trying to change the world will always face a Sanballat in their life because there’s always at least one person who wants to keep the world exactly the way it is, regardless of how messed up that might be.  By going out to meet Sanballat, we become like him because at that point, we have thrown away our vision which is the only thing separating us from Sanballat in the first place.

Nehemiah refuses Sanballat’s invitation all four times, and passes the first test.

The second attack is when Sanballat again threatens Nehemiah, this time implying that Nehemiah was trying to make himself king, which would have been a direct act against their Persian authorities.  Interestingly, the conclusion of Sanballat’s statement is the same as his first attack, which is to come and meet with him (v. 7).

This is basically attempted blackmail.  The opened letter is intended to show that somebody was “reporting” Nehemiah to the Persians for his supposed treachery.  Sanballat is basically saying, “here is this letter I found that says you’re going to betray the Persians, and I heard that somebody is going to report you to the king for it, so how about coming to meet me now?”  Previously Sanballat was asking “nicely” for Nehemiah to come meet him, now he is trying to more or less extort Nehemiah into doing it under the threat of falsely reporting him to the Persian king.

In this case, Nehemiah responds to Sanballat, basically just denying the allegation and remaining in Jerusalem to continue building the wall.  Nehemiah is effectively daring Sanballat to report him to the king and trusting in his superior relationship with the king to get him through whatever crisis follows.  Remember that Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king, which is a highly trusted and influential role.  In the end, it appears that Sanballat did not follow through with his threat because we never hear about this letter again.  If Sanballat had reported Nehemiah to the king and the king found the allegation false, it is possible that Sanballat himself would have been punished for lying, so I would guess that actually following through would have carried a risk for Sanballat as well.  Otherwise we would have expected Sanballat to report Nehemiah to the king.

The third attack is via Shemaiah, a Jewish man and secret ally of Sanballat.  This follows on the same kind of threats as before, warning Nehemiah that men were coming to kill him and he should go hide in the temple.  This again sounds innocent to us, how could going to the temple be a bad thing?  Besides distracting Nehemiah from the work, this would have also looked suspicious to the Persians because the temple is kind of like a fortress and it’s also where Jewish kings were crowned in the past.  For instance, remember the story of Joash in 2 Kings 11 when he was anointed by the high priest and overthrew Athaliah from the temple.  2 Kings 11:14 specifically says that the king was “standing by the pillar, according to the custom”.  So apparently it was customary for kings to be anointed as king next to a particular pillar in the temple, and this may have been foreshadowed if Nehemiah fled to the temple.

Nehemiah again refuses.  He basically says, even if my life is in danger it is not right for me to flee before the enemy.  It is a different kind of distraction, but with the same end result: if Nehemiah had fled, the work would have been disrupted.  Think about it this way: if Nehemiah flees from the wall, then how can any of his men remain?  Nehemiah is the first person threatened but if he left, the threats would fall on whoever remained, because Sanballat would not stop until the work was either finished or destroyed.  Nehemiah is actually sheltering his men from these threats because so long as he remains the leader of this effort, all of Sanballats attacks will be directed against him.

In the end it all proves to be a vapor.  Sanballat continues issuing threats and rumors and insinuation, and Nehemiah may very well be afraid, but he cuts through it by staying focused on his vision and refusing to be distracted, even by fear for his own life.

Lastly, this chapter concludes with a description of “many letters” (v. 17) passing between Tobiah (an ally of Sanballat) and the leaders of Judah.  We learn specifically that many of the leaders of Judah had intermarried their families with these Samaritans.  In my opinion, this is like a practical demonstration of why God commanded the Jews to not intermarry with foreigners, because Tobiah uses all of his influence and leverage with the leaders of Judah to undermine Nehemiah and Jewish interests.  The leaders of Judah may have thought that they were strengthening themselves and their people, but here we can see it was doing the exact opposite, compromising the nation’s leadership by giving influence to the enemy.  In the book of Ezra we saw Ezra trying to break apart the marriages between his people and foreigners, and I see this brief passage in Nehemiah as supporting evidence for why Ezra’s efforts were so important for preserving their nation (besides the moral reasons of obeying the Law).

The good news is that Nehemiah passes all of the challenges and the wall is completed.  In the next chapter, Nehemiah assigns men to various responsibilities and takes a census of the people.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 5

In this chapter, Nehemiah confronts the nobles of Judah and forces them to return the property and servants that they purchased from the Jews under duress.

Basically what’s going on is that there is another famine in Judah, like the famine that struck Egypt and the promised land during the time of Joseph (Genesis 41-42).  The wealthy men, by virtue of their wealth, have accumulated grain and are now selling it back to the Jews at extortionary prices, using the money to buy property and making slaves of the Jews.  Verse 11 tells us that they were taking “the hundredth part” of money and grain, which is referring to a 1% interest rate.  That sounds low, but it’s likely that they were charging the people 1% per month, so around 12% per year.

At this point, I should mention that Deut 23:19-20 specifically commands the Israelites to refrain from charging their brethren interest, so in this case the nobles are violating the Law of Moses as well as exploiting their countrymen in a time when the poor Jews would have been unable to resist.

When Ezra returned to Jerusalem, he found the men of Judah intermarrying with foreign women, which was contrary to the Law.  This chapter is Nehemiah’s equivalent experience, and Nehemiah’s response is also quite similar.  Like Ezra, Nehemiah gathers all the people together and then publicly confronts the leading men of Judah and tells them that they are doing wrong.  Also like with Ezra, the men agree that they are doing wrong and promise to fix their behavior.  Verse 13 confirms that they “did according to this promise”, so it appears as though Nehemiah’s intervention fixed the problem.

The last 6 verses of this chapter include Nehemiah’s descriptions of his own righteous behavior as governor (which directly confirms his political role as ruler of the Judeans on behalf of the Persian king).  What it boils down to is that he refused to take food or money from the people (which was a right conferred on the governor) and on the flip side, he permitted 150 men to eat from his table, for free, provided from his own personal wealth.

This is the first sign that Nehemiah was a wealthy man.  We knew that he was an influential official in exile, but that was most likely as a slave in the king’s household.  It’s possible he could attain great wealth through his role and the king’s generosity, but it’s not a certainty.  So apparently Nehemiah is a wealthy man, and he refuses to use his position to enrich himself at the expense of the Jews.  We learn from v. 8 that other Jews are not faring as well in exile, and that many Jews had to be “redeemed” (i.e. re-purchased) from slavery in Babylon.  The upshot is that Nehemiah himself is using his personal wealth to redeem other Jews from their slavery.

Coming to the end of this chapter, I would like to again ask the question: what lessons can we learn from this chapter?  I think there are a couple directions we could take this chapter, but I think what stands out to me is contrasting Nehemiah with the Judean nobles and in particular, how they use their wealth.

Like the nobles of Judah, Nehemiah is a wealthy man, and his wealth gives him influence.  However, the way Nehemiah uses his wealth could not be any more different.  The nobles use their wealth as leverage to continue enriching themselves.  Not only does Nehemiah not take advantage of his people, he uses his wealth to purchase freedom for some and provide food for others, free of charge.

Nehemiah probably owns land (though he says in v. 16 that he did not buy any land, which probably refers to buying property from distressed owners) and he certainly owns large flocks and herds.  One thing I’ve learned as I became an adult is the power that comes with wealth to produce yet more money.  If you have a million dollars, you can buy businesses or land and property, you can hire employees and produce new wealth.  It’s very likely that Nehemiah was doing that, growing his flocks and herds to sustain his table and his own personal lifestyle while serving as governor.

In fact, in v. 10 Nehemiah says that he was also lending money and grain to the poor Jews, but he was doing so without interest which is really the important part.  It is possible to run a business in an honest and fair way and to become wealthy through honest and fair means.  I think God is happy to have his people become wealthy through honest trade and honest labor.  However, the Jewish nobles are seeking to enrich themselves to the detriment of their brothers, which is a poisonous attitude.  What do they want the money for?  Is this not greed?  Is this not coveting, which the LORD condemned in Deut 5:21, the tenth commandment?

In discussing Nehemiah chapter 3, I talked at length about the importance of unity and collaboration for the community to succeed in building the wall.  It might seem like Nehemiah is going off topic in this chapter, but I think the attitude of the Judean nobles is cutting directly against the unity of the people, because the nobles are seeking to benefit themselves by hurting their neighbors.  There cannot be unity between two people if one is taking unfair advantage of the other, because it destroys any possibility of trust between them.  The nobles see the poor not as their brothers, but as targets or resources to be exploited.  The poor see the nobles not as their brothers, but as oppressors or predators.  In an indirect way, this actually threatens Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the wall, so Nehemiah is earnest to fix this issue above and beyond the pursuit of justice.

Nehemiah does the opposite with his wealth.  Rather than using it as leverage to exploit the poor, he uses his wealth to help his people.  He grows his wealth through honest means and uses the excess to literally feed his people.  Rather than destroy unity, this helps to build unity because it enhances trust between the people and Nehemiah.  The people know that Nehemiah is not trying to take advantage of them, so they don’t have to be on guard or protect themselves against him.

If you’ve ever felt like someone was trying to take advantage of you, it’s as if you have to draw a shield between yourself and that person.  You create barriers between yourself and that person as a defense mechanism, but a side effect is that you cannot be fully honest and open with that person.  Through his generosity, Nehemiah breaks down those barriers and walls between him and the people he is leading.

For instance, in the past I used to have a manager at work that never really convinced me he was supporting my personal interests.  I always felt like he would help me if it didn’t conflict with what he wanted, but that he would always put his own interests and the interest of the team above myself.  I’m not sure that it’s true, but it’s the impression he created in me and as a result, I never felt like I could really trust him.  On the other hand, I had another manager who always seem really honest to me and it was clear he supported me as an individual more than the team.  Like if I wanted to transfer out of the team, he would have helped me even though it would have hurt the team’s effort.  Ironically, because I knew that he would support me, it left me free to sacrifice my own interests on behalf of the team.  For so long as I had a manager who wasn’t taking care of me, it’s like I instinctively knew that I had to take care of my own interests because nobody else was doing it.  When I had a manager who I knew was going to look out for my interests, I felt like I could put the team first because I knew that my manager would never ask me to do something that would hurt my career and that he would always counsel me if he felt I was making decisions that did not benefit me.

Between those two managers, I was always willing to work harder for the person who supported me in part because he made me feel safer and in part because I had an instinctive desire that I wanted him to succeed as a manager because in a sense, I want good people to win.  He was helping me so it seemed only natural that I would seek to benefit him by producing strong results.

I see this same attitude with Nehemiah.  He is seeking the good of his people, and it seems only natural that the people would reciprocate by helping to build the wall.  In this way, Nehemiah demonstrates his leadership skills as well as his altruistic use of wealth.

In the next chapter, the verbal attacks of Sanballat resume.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 4

In this chapter, the enemies of the Jews begin to conspire against them, without success.

I think this is a really interesting chapter.  In broad terms, I want to discuss two patterns in this chapter.  The first is the pattern of attack; that is, the methods that Sanballat, Tobiah and their friends use to attack the Jews.  The second is the pattern of defense; what the Jews do in response to the attacks that they suffer.

The first attack is mockery and insults.  Sanballat and Tobiah mock and insult the Jews when sitting amongst their allies, but the words reach Nehemiah and the Jews (verse 5 makes this clear, that their words reached the builders and demoralized them).  The message is clear: the Jews are weak and they will not be able to complete the work of rebuilding the wall.  I think it’s really interesting that the way Sanballat tries to stop the Jews is by telling them they cannot succeed.  If he actually believed that, he wouldn’t have felt the need to do anything; the Jews would have simply failed on their own.  Ironically, the attack itself is proof that Sanballat himself believes the Jews are capable of accomplishing what they set out to do.

Nehemiah doesn’t have any particular response to this first attack; they simply continue building the wall.  The lesson is that certain kinds of attacks should not be engaged.  If Nehemiah had responded by going to speak to Sanballat or sending messages back to him, then first of all, it would have distracted Nehemiah from rebuilding the wall, and second, it would have created more opportunities for Sanballat to continue attacking in this way.  As someone who largely grew up on the internet, one of the first lessons I learned is that certain kinds of arguments simply can’t be won.  There are certain battles that you can only lose and the best thing to do is to not fight them.

It would be like Sanballat is saying, “the Jews are feeble and won’t succeed” and Nehemiah replies, “yes we will.”  What would that accomplish?  Are you really going to change Sanballat’s mind?  Is he someone that Nehemiah can reason with?  Through careful demonstration of their building progress to date, their careful organization, can you really convince Sanballat that the project will be successful?  It’s funny because the idea is so absurd.  Sanballat isn’t criticizing the Jews because he believes they will fail, it’s because he wants the Jews to believe they will fail.

We also have certain voices that cannot be reasoned with.  Sometimes these voices are external critics, other people, and other times they are internal voices, our own doubts and fears telling us that we are weak and we cannot succeed (not in a schizophrenic way… hopefully you know what I mean).  Sometimes there are opinions in life that we can reason with, where a careful argument and evidence can be worthwhile.  There are other opinions that nothing will ever change.  It is very important that we learn to tell the difference, so that we don’t spend our lives waging arguments and fighting battles that cannot be won.

After Sanballat hears about the Jews’ continued progress, he is very angry (again) and wages his second attack which was planning a physical attack against Jerusalem to kill the builders and stop the wall.  I think it’s interesting how often Nehemiah was told that Sanballat was planning an attack (ten times, according to v. 12).  If the Ammonites and Arabs actually wanted to attack Jerusalem, they probably would have been more secretive about it rather than tell the Jews in their neighborhood.  From this, it seems like scaring the Jews is still part of their plan, perhaps even a large part of their plan.

Verse 10 is an interesting interlude in the story because it shows that the criticism of Sanballat was starting to take root amongst the people of Judah.  They began repeating his words, saying that the strength of the Jews was failing, there is still a great task left to accomplish and finally that they would fail to rebuild the wall.  Nehemiah does not directly respond to this sentiment, and while the Jews are discouraged they do not stop building.

The first attack was mockery and criticism.  The second attack is fear and the threat of a real, physical attack.  Nehemiah’s responds to both, though again we do not see him addressing Sanballat himself but only the Jews.  It is clear once again that the battleground is mostly in the minds and hearts of the Jews, to keep them united and keep them working towards the goal of building the wall, as Nehemiah recognizes the futility of engaging with Sanballat.

In the previous chapter, I talked about how the wall could only be built through the unified effort of the whole Jewish community working together for the common good.  In this chapter, the majority of the attacks are designed to break that unity by either discouraging or scaring the Jews into stopping the work.  Nehemiah’s response, then, is to encourage the Jews, to keep them united and to keep them actively building the wall so that the work would not stop.

Nehemiah’s response is firstly to set guards.  Secondly, when he “sees their fear” (v. 14) he encourages the people by reminding them of the people they are fighting for.  If they were only building the wall for themselves, it would not be enough because the task was hard and long.  I think this is a powerful lesson that, weird as it may sound, we are capable of doing more if we do it on behalf of somebody else than if we are doing it for ourselves.  Nehemiah could have said, “fight for yourself, they will kill you if you don’t build this wall”; but he didn’t.  He said, you are building this wall and fighting this enemy to protect the people you care about.

Even though I think Sanballat was largely trying to work through fear, verse 15 establishes that setting guards “frustrated their plans”, which is interesting because he did such an absolutely awful job of keeping their plans secret.  So, I’m not entirely sure what they were hoping to accomplish but it suffices to say that Sanballat and his allies failed to stop the Jews, whether by violence or by threat.

Lastly, verses 16-23 presents the Jews standing with a hammer or tool in one hand and a sword in the other hand.  I think this is such a poignant image that I simply have to expound some kind of lesson or teaching from it, though I’m not sure exactly what.

All of the people in Jerusalem are carrying two identities at the same time.  One identity is that they are warriors.  Every man is armed and ready to fight at the moment of need.  The other identity is that they are builders, with each man carrying burdens or tools to build the wall.  As far as Nehemiah reports, the people never have to actually fight a battle against their enemies.  They are prepared to fight continually, but they have to fight only rarely (or never).  Meanwhile, they are constantly building.  In the same way, I think we need to keep our focus on always building, always creating new things, always building new ministries and building up the church.  We also need to stay constantly vigilant so we are ready in case someone or something tries to attack what we are building and stop the work.

In any case, the construction continues and Sanballat’s attacks are defeated.  This is not the end of the conflict, but in the next chapter Nehemiah takes on a new adversary, the nobles and wealthy men of Judah itself.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 3

In this chapter, the people work together to rebuild the wall.

This entire chapter is a list of all the different families and clans that contribute to rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem.  In this way, Nehemiah shows that he has the same scribal predilection for lists and censuses that fill many other parts of the bible.

This chapter does not have much in the way of story, so my commentary will be relatively brief.

Verse 1 refers to a new high priest, different from Jeshua the high priest when the temple was rebuilt (see e.g. Ezra 3:2 for the high priest during Ezra’s period).  I don’t have an exact chronology, but Eliashib is almost certainly high priest after Jeshua, since Ezra implies that Jeshua was the very first high priest to return with Zerubbabel and the people from Babylon.  Given that there is now a new high priest and Jeshua is probably dead, it suggests that Nehemiah’s departure for Jerusalem could be anywhere from 3-15 years after the temple was rebuilt.  To be honest, I’m making up the numbers but you just have to ask yourself how long it would take Jeshua to die, and add some undefined length of years after that, and that is when Nehemiah left for Jerusalem.  What’s clear is that Nehemiah did not come with the first wave (and for that matter, neither did Ezra, but Jeshua was still alive when Ezra arrived and he is not alive when Nehemiah arrives).

Verse 15 implies that “City of David” refers to a part of Jerusalem, perhaps some kind of “old city” in Jerusalem that was a nucleus for later development of the city.  In later times, “City of David” becomes an alternative name for Jerusalem as a whole, not just the “city of David” that inherited the name in Nehemiah’s lifetime.  So it’s kind of interesting to see Nehemiah use the term in what we can imagine was the original sense.

More generally, I think it is useful for us to ask why Nehemiah is including this passage in the text.  Why does Nehemiah want to list every family that helped build the wall?  Why is this important to Nehemiah, and what can we learn from it?  I think it’s simple enough for us to understand why this is important to Nehemiah: rebuilding the wall is why Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in the first place, and it makes sense that he would want to record the details of the rebuilding process.  But what can we learn from this chapter?

There is always room for many interpretations and many lessons from a given story, but what I notice here is that nearly every man in this chapter is only known from this one place.  These are people who are not mentioned anywhere else in the bible and certainly not in any other extant ancient literature.  In a sense, the book of Nehemiah is a memorial to their efforts that they most likely did not anticipate.  At the time, these men were probably thinking 90% about how the wall would help protect them from raiders and foreign armies, and perhaps 10% how the wall would be a legacy to help protect their children.  They probably thought that the wall, a massive physical structure, would be the enduring testimony to their hard labors.  Ironically, the wall itself was destroyed long ago by Judah’s numerous enemies, but Nehemiah’s chronicle of their efforts has survived, and through this book memory of their deeds has been preserved.

Lastly, and I think this could be my most important point, this chapter is a testimony to the power of unity and collaboration.  Even though the book bears Nehemiah’s name, Nehemiah himself recognizes that the wall was not a product of his own labor as much as it was the product of dozens of leaders with their hundreds of followers, all working together with a common purpose.  Each man is given a distinct role.  Each section of wall or each gate has a different name, a different context and situation.  Different people are called to different places.  If every person in Jerusalem sought to rebuild the Sheep’s gate, they would have had dozens of gates but no wall to place it in.  They recognized that different people had to build different parts of the wall in order to make a whole.  Diversity was more than just a progressive ideal promoted for its own sake.  If they did not have a diversity of people building different parts of the wall, they would not achieve their goal.

Nehemiah writes this chapter to recognize their contribution to the good of the Jewish people as a whole.  They all benefitted from the wall, and as far as I can tell it was the product of the whole community as well.  Even though Nehemiah was zealous to rebuild the wall, the effort required was greater than the power of any one man no matter how diligent.  There are certain goals that require a community to achieve them.  I would go one step further and say that usually the most important things require a community effort to achieve.  We can be faithful to God as individuals, we can seek to build the kingdom of God as individuals, but in order to transform society we usually need a community to do it.

Knowledgeable readers may point out counterexamples (for instance, many of the judges saved Israel singlehanded), and it is true that just one person, empowered with the Spirit of God, is capable of anything.  But I would argue that the message of Nehemiah is the critical importance of having a community work towards a common goal and I think we see that in both the old testament and the modern church.  It seems like God only starts working through solo prophets when the community itself goes off into idolatry or something awful like that.  From what I’ve seen, I think God works through communities of believers for so long as a viable community exists and only starts using prophets or judges as a tool to get the community back into obedience.

In the next chapter, the resistance begins to plot against the Jews in earnest.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 2

In this chapter, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and initiates the reconstruction of the city wall.

Now, the first thing I notice about this chapter is that Nehemiah is a servant of the Persians.  This is another big difference between him and Ezra; while Ezra may have lived within Persian dominion (as all the Jews), Nehemiah was directly involved in the Persian administration.  This raises a couple interesting questions, the most important of which is this: is it right for Nehemiah to serve the Persians, who are by all rights his enemies?  In serving the king, is Nehemiah acting to further the oppression of his own people by supporting their foreign rulers?  If so, how do we reconcile Nehemiah’s service to Artaxerxes with his obvious patriotism and love for his people that he demonstrates in this chapter?  Lastly, what lessons can we learn from Nehemiah and how do we apply his example in our own lives and situations?

This is the first time that king Artaxerxes sees Nehemiah sad in his presence.  Nehemiah has been serving the king for many days, possibly for many years, and his people have been in bondage for 70 years, but this is the first time he appears sad before the king.  I wanted to point this out before discussing the questions I raised above, because I think it highlights the paradox of Nehemiah’s life.  For months or possibly even years, he served with a joyful appearance before the king, serving diligently and effectively.  Upon hearing the news that his people were in a difficult situation and in need, he immediately uses his position to help his people.  What I think is so remarkable about Nehemiah is how he bides his time over these long years before acting.

We see many parallels in the bible to Nehemiah’s story.  For instance, Joseph is best known for his diligent service to his Egyptian masters leading to his promotion over and over until he was second only to Pharaoh.  In the next book after Nehemiah, we will see Esther follow a similar pattern of ingratiating herself to the Persian king even in her own slavery and using her position to aid her people.

Going back to my previous questions, I think in general these kinds of questions are easier to ask than they are to answer.  I don’t have any really good answers, but I do have some ideas.  First of all, I think we can reasonably deduce that Nehemiah is seeking to elevate himself within the Persian administration so that he can advocate for his people more effectively.  As slaves, the Jews did not really have an “opt out” for serving the Persians.  If they chose to “not serve” their masters, it would be the equivalent of choosing pain and then death.  The Persians would have no reason to provide food and housing for slaves who refuse to serve.  Perhaps as a political statement the Jews could have chosen death, but in practical terms their options were to serve well or serve poorly.

For Nehemiah in particular, what would have happened if he served poorly and remained a household servant?  Presumably, someone else would have been elevated to be the cupbearer.  It is possible that new cupbearer would not be a Jew (since the Persians had many peoples in their empire), and the cause of the Jews as a whole would have been that much weaker.  In such a way, the Persians could hold the different races of slaves in competition with one another, rewarding those who served best and in that way maintain the bondage of them all.  If the Jews were the only ethnic group in the entire Persian empire, perhaps going on strike would be an option, but in this case the cosmopolitan nature of the empire acts against the interests of each constituent group and supports the Persian overlords.  Because there is no unity amongst the empire’s constituent groups, their individual interests remain in conflict with each other and aligned with the interests of the Persians.

Nevertheless, each individual Jew is presented with the choice of playing within the Persian system or resisting the system.  It’s not a binary decision; they can play within the system to a greater or lesser extent.  While some would present resistance to the system as the “principled” choice, Nehemiah chooses the “pragmatic” and works within the system and secure a better future for his people.

What does the bible say, however, about this decision?  Of course, the book of Nehemiah itself tells us what Nehemiah actually did, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what he ought to have done.  In a similar way, Deuteronomy 28:48 threatens that because the people did not serve God, they will be forced to serve a hostile nation.  Again, I don’t think that is a very strong statement about how the Israelites should act in captivity, simply that they would be forced into captivity as a punishment for egregious sin.

Throughout the majority of Israel’s history, they were independent and under the rule of no foreign power (though they were frequently oppressed by foreigners during the Judges era).  The majority of the Law of Moses and God’s commands to Israel basically assumes that they are an independent nation or kingdom and it details things like how Israel should treat foreigners and widows in their land and other such things.  Foreign oppression is mostly used in the Law as a threatened punishment for Israel’s disobedience, not as a status that should be anticipated or normalized.  In a similar way, the religious code makes an unspoken assumption that the temple (or tabernacle) would always be available for conducting their nation’s religious ceremonies.  The destruction of the temple presents a similar problem for the Jews to which they have no precedent or instruction.

In all these ways, the Jews were forced to innovate and decide how to practice their faith.  We’ll get a better sense of how the prophets were advising the Jews when we read through the book of Jeremiah, but for now let it suffice to say that the written Law does not have any advice for how the Jews are to proceed.  In my opinion, when you consider the biblical text as a whole, I believe that God’s intent was for the Jews to serve the Babylonians in order to learn the harshness of serving other masters, and this would teach them how he is a good master whom they ought to serve.  It sounds harsh, and I think a full discussion is outside the scope of my commentary here, but that is how I interpret the Babylonian exile.  It’s an extreme action, but ultimately God is not concerned with Israel’s comfort as much as he is concerned with their redemption and salvation.  If making Israel suffer is the only way to bring their hearts back to him, it is better that they suffer than that they worship other gods and be destroyed thereby.  Anyway, this would have to be a longer discussion and I still need to finish discussing the chapter at hand.

The point is, I think Nehemiah was trying to do his best in the midst of a difficult situation, and since there isn’t any clear guidance from the LORD for him to do otherwise, I think his behavior is reasonable and I don’t think I have the liberty to criticize him from the security of my home.

The rest of the chapter is fairly long and has a lot of action in it, so I’ll just try to comment on the things that stand out to me.

One thing that stands out is the contrast I see between verse 6 and 8.  In verse 8, Nehemiah explains why the king granted his request: “because the good hand of my God was on me”.  In verse 6, I see the king’s explanation of why he granted Nehemiah’s request: “when will you return?”  What I see here is a king who really likes Nehemiah because the king would not ask when he’s coming back if the king didn’t want him to come back.  In my opinion, I think Nehemiah served the king honestly and with excellence, and the king treats Nehemiah with respect because Nehemiah treats the king with respect.  In classic form, though, Nehemiah honors God as well, and while he may understand his own role in his success, at least he doesn’t mention it.  This is something we will see a couple times from Nehemiah, declaring his various successes to be the result of God’s grace.

Another thing that I simply have to mention is verse 9, when Nehemiah travels to Jerusalem with a contingent of horsemen.  My readers may recall in Ezra 8:21-22 that Ezra specifically declined a military guard because he had extolled to the king that God would protect Ezra and all the Jews who traveled with him.  This implies a contradiction in attitude between Ezra and Nehemiah, which is interesting because they both lived in the same time period and have such similar lives in general.

I will be brief.  Both Ezra and Nehemiah faced the same threat; the possibility of assault on their return journey.  I mentioned in my commentary on Ezra 8 how dangerous the ancient near east could be.  This is not like driving a car from Illinois to Iowa.  Traveling in the ancient near east was dangerous.  Just imagine riding a camel from Iran, through Iraq and Jordan to Israel.  Imagine doing that as a Jew with all of the same antipathy that exists towards Jews in the modern mid east, with few if any weapons, and with women and children to ensure that you could not in any situation outrun raiders that might attack your party.  This is what both Ezra and Nehemiah did, with the people who returned with them.

Placed in that kind of situation, Ezra and Nehemiah made two different choices that represent two attitudes.  Ezra chose faith; he believed that God would protect him and was ashamed to ask the king for protection.  Nehemiah chose wisdom, knowing that it was a dangerous journey and receiving the help that the king offered.  This is a choice that many people are still faced with: do we choose medicine, or prayer and faith?  Do we take the secure job that we know we can hold, or become a missionary and live on uncertain donations and goodwill?  Do we live in the city where everything is planned out and secure, or do we move to a new town where we don’t have any friends, any job, any home and any plans?

As you can see, this is a choice that can take many forms, and the answers can be equally diverse based on the circumstances.  To make my answer short, I don’t think either Ezra or Nehemiah did the wrong thing.  I think ultimately we have to ask, “where does my faith lie?  Where is God leading me?  What is God saying?”  In the case of Ezra, he felt like his conscience constrained him from asking the king for help, so he didn’t, and in the case of Nehemiah, he clearly didn’t feel his conscience pulling him in the same direction, so he did ask the king for help.  In the case of Abraham, we have a clear record of God asking Abraham to move to a foreign land where he knew nobody and had nothing (Genesis 12).  It would have been a sin for Abraham to disobey such a clearly spoken direction from God.  On the other hand, most people only move to a new city when they have a good job opportunity or family there or something like that because it’s simply not wise to be moving all over the place without having a good reason to do so.  So in most cases, people choose wisdom, but when the voice of God breaks into our lives in a clear way, our conscience demands that we obey even when it doesn’t make sense.

The last thing I’ll mention is “the resistance”.  Normally, in most movies “the rebellion” are the good guys, but in this case “the resistance” are the people who are fighting against Nehemiah and against God.  By name, they are Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem.  This is a triumvirate of non-Jewish inhabitants of the promised land, who, as the text so clearly explains, were “displeased that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel. (v. 10).  As is so often the case, the politics of the Mideast is largely a zero-sum affair, where the “welfare” of one group is often to the detriment of their neighbors.  To put it in more aggressive terms, the foreigners surrounding Judah most likely have plans to expand into Jewish territory and gradually consume them.  A stronger Judean nation would be able to resist that aggression and perhaps over time encrouch upon their neighbors.  In that way, the prosperity of the Jews works directly against the interests of their neighbors in this competitive landscape.

This trio of enemies fills almost exactly the same role as the various adversaries who resisted Ezra.  For all intents and purposes, they are a dramatic foil against whom Nehemiah must persevere on his way to victory.  As a servant of God, Nehemiah’s victory is all but assured, but it wouldn’t be an interesting story if there wasn’t a challenge to overcome, and I don’t think “the resistance” is ever given more of a personality than that.  They are a physical representation of the largely abstract “challenges that we face in life”.  We could perhaps also view them as Nehemiah’s conception of “that which stands opposed to God”, which is sometimes a spiritual force but in the OT is usually exemplified by Israel’s hostile neighbors.

In conclusion, Nehemiah declares his intention to rebuild the wall, his enemies begin marshalling their forces, and the stage is set for inevitable conflict.  In the next chapter, the men of Judah arise to build the wall according to the word of Nehemiah.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 1

In this chapter, Nehemiah learns about the struggles of Jerusalem and prays for God’s favor for his petition to the king.

As the beginning of the book, this chapter establishes a couple different points.  First, it establishes Nehemiah’s attitude towards God.  Namely, he is keenly aware of his people’s failings, how they have sinned and turned away from God, but he also reminds God of his promise that if the people return to God, then God would bring them back to the promised land.

Second, the chapter establishes that Nehemiah himself is in captivity (in Susa) and is a cupbearer to the king.  It might sound like menial service, but in ancient times being a cupbearer was a highly trusted position because you were in a place where you could potentially poison the king’s wine.  In addition, cupbearers were often called upon by the king as advisors, so they would also have occasional political responsibilities.

Third, it establishes the difficult situation in Jerusalem.

Fourth, and lastly, it establishes that Nehemiah himself is deeply concerned about the status of his people.

Take all four of these points together, and we can see that Nehemiah is in a fairly senior political position, he cares about Jerusalem, learns about its distress and believes that God will bring his people back to the promised land if they obey the covenant.  The obvious conclusion is that Nehemiah will seek to return to the promised land and he believes that God will aide him in this endeavor, and this is the object of his prayer when he asks God to give him favor with “this man” in v. 11.

In the introduction to Nehemiah, I mentioned that Nehemiah and Ezra were contemporaries who both left Susa and returned to Jerusalem.  Beyond that, there were thousands of other men and women who went with them, fulfilling the “gathering” that Nehemiah talks about in verse 9.  I think Nehemiah is quoting that verse with an awareness that this was the time.  I think he knew that the king was favorable to his people returning to their homes and I believe that Judeans were likely already making the journey home before Nehemiah, so Nehemiah realized that this prophecy was coming to pass.

A lot of the time when I am reading a bible passage, I like to ask myself what God is trying to say through this passage.  And in this particular chapter, what I see is Nehemiah quoting from God’s word (essentially paraphrasing Deuteronomy) and Nehemiah recognizes that he is living in the moment of God’s promise fulfilled.  He recognizes the need for his personal return and he recognizes that he is living in the season when God is opening the door for his people to return to the promised land, and in this moment Nehemiah is praying that God would give him success because Nehemiah is about to act.

So what I learn from this chapter is that we should always keep our eyes open to understand what is our season (individually and in our community), understand what God is doing in that season, praying for favor and then acting.  The action doesn’t happen until chapter 2, but Nehemiah is clearly a man who is willing to act in partnership with God’s purpose for his people in this time.  In the same way, we should seek to discern our present season, understand God’s intentions for us, pray for grace as we follow God’s leadership and then act, letting our actions follow God’s direction.

In the next chapter, Nehemiah does exactly that and he petitions the king for his right to return to Jerusalem.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah Introduction

The book of Nehemiah has much in common with the book of Ezra.  One can pretty easily group together Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther together as a core set of post-exilic historical narratives.  Out of these four books, Chronicles is very similar to Samuel and Kings both in terms of the format as well as the content.  Esther (which is the next book after Nehemiah) is very similar to Ruth in that it’s presented as a stand-alone story that has a clear narrative and moral arc.

Ezra and Nehemiah don’t have any close parallels in the other OT books, but are exceptionally similar to each other.  They both have a diary-esque kind of flavor as they intermix narrative descriptions of factual events with commentary on their emotions reacting to those situations.  Both of these books are highly personal, reflecting the viewpoint of their authors during a major transitional period for their nation.

Ezra and Nehemiah both have a “return to Jerusalem” story, they both have some kind of building project they undertake to help restore Jerusalem to its former glory, and they both face hostility and resistance from their non-Israelite neighbors.  They also both face a moral crisis of some kind due to Judeans not properly following the Law (in the case of Ezra, it was intermarriage with foreigners, in the case of Nehemiah, it’s wealthy Judeans charging excessive interest rates on loans to other Judeans during a famine).  Both Ezra and Nehemiah seek to restore a religious festival to popular observance, with Ezra re-instituting the Passover and Nehemiah re-instituting the festival of Booths.  Since the book describe similar events, they also have similar themes and messages.

There are many other similarities in the writing style and general historical setting, but I want to also point out some of the differences.  Perhaps the most important difference is that Ezra is a priest and a scribe, while Nehemiah is a royal official from the Persian king’s court, and Nehemiah is appointed to be governor of Judah.  In essence, this means that Nehemiah is acting as a political official and a formal element of the Persian administration, while Ezra is a religious official.  They are both in positions of authority, but different kinds of authority.  I think this gives them different perspectives, though Nehemiah is still obviously very devout.  I don’t think there is any real distinction between Ezra and Nehemiah’s moral systems, but we do see differences between their spheres of authority.  Ezra attempts to rebuild the temple (the religious center) and Nehemiah attempts to rebuild the city wall (necessary for military defense).

When reading Nehemiah, my readers should observe two parallel narratives that are interwoven throughout the book.  The first is the narrative of Nehemiah himself.  This is a highly personal narrative about his own journey first in captivity, as a servant to the king, then his return to Jerusalem, and lastly his challenges and accomplishments as governor of Judea.  One thing I like a lot about Nehemiah (and to a similar extent Ezra) is the records of his emotional state in various situations.  I remember commenting at length about the earlier books in the OT that tended to have very dry and emotionless descriptions, even in the narrative portions.  Nehemiah is a welcome break from that trend.

The second narrative is the story of Judah’s redemption in the midst of their ongoing subjugation to a foreign power.  As described above, that story involves Judah battling external enemies (in a political sense), attempting to rebuild the city and facing a moral crisis all at the same time.  They are weak, but God is with them and they accomplish much.

Reading through this book, what I see over and over again is the struggles and weakness of the Jewish people.  I see their fear in the face of powerful and threatening adversaries, but I see them persisting and struggling and fighting to rebuild.

Overall, I think Nehemiah is a longer book than Ezra and it is more complex, but I don’t think there is anything else that I need to cover in the Introduction; everything else can be discussed more appropriately in each chapter’s commentary.  Therefore, let us begin with the first chapter of Nehemiah.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 10

In this chapter, Ezra and the people agree to divorce their foreign wives.

This is the final chapter in the book of Ezra, and it concludes the story about the Judeans and their foreign wives.  I mentioned in the previous chapter that I found the conclusion of this book rather abrupt.  Every time I read Ezra, I always find myself wondering, “what next?”  What happened after the foreign wives were sent away?  Did the men remarry Judean women?  What happened to Ezra?  Did he stay in the promised land or move back to Babylon?  Granted, nobody ever writes about their own death, so it’s not like Ezra could write a full account of his life, but without following through into Judah’s later history, this book always felt incomplete to me.

Nevertheless, I will analyze what this chapter does tell us and then after this we move on to the book of Nehemiah.

Beginning in verse 1, we can see that the people emphatically support Ezra.  As we read through the chapter we see that Ezra is supported by both the people and the nation’s leaders.  To me, this raises the question of why the leaders of Judah did not address the problem before Ezra arrived.  From last chapter we saw that the leaders clearly knew that Judeans were marrying foreigners (they were the ones who told Ezra).  Here we see that both the people and the leaders acknowledge their foreign marriages are a sin.  This is in contrast to previous periods in Israel’s history when the people sinned deliberately and rebelled against God and against Moses and some of the other leaders.  I think in this book we see the people much more contrite and humble, compared to their earlier rebellious attitude.  In my opinion, I think the Judeans were sincerely broken by their time under Babylonian rule.

However, if they knew it was a sin, and knew it was happening, why didn’t they do anything about it?  It’s nice that the people are willing to stop sinning, but why did they need Ezra to come and prod them into motion?  It seems to suggest that the leadership (without Ezra) was simply not strong and decisive enough to take action against sin.  That said, it seems like they have all the necessary leadership structures in place to enforce Ezra’s order when he commands the people to gather in Jerusalem and separate from their foreign wives.

In the previous chapter I also discussed why intermarrying with foreigners would be considered a sin by Ezra.  In verse 3 we see that Ezra’s response is to “fix the glitch”; along with the support of the community leaders, Ezra demands that every Judean separate from his foreign wife.  It’s an interesting story if you think about it in terms of biblical morality.  A priest moves to Jerusalem, and then tells hundreds of people that they should get divorces.  I think it would be fascinating to hear someone preach about this at a church, since it runs contrary to the morality narrative that you normally hear about the sanctity of marriage.  Without going into all the details, I will just say that Judah in the restoration era is a substantially different historical context than Judah in the New Testamental period.  I think the best way to understand this chapter is the way that Ezra presents it: a call for the people to separate themselves from the idolatry and sin that surrounds them on every side.

This is one of the big differences between Judaism and Christianity: Judaism is generally a call to separate oneself from a sinful world, while Christianity is generally a call to go into a sinful world and transform it.  Judaism generally strives to create a utopian society separate from the rest of the world and invite people into it (under strict conditions).  Christianity still aims to create a utopia, but it does so by going out into the world and being like salt mixed in with a bowl of dough.  From this context, Ezra is asking the people to separate themselves from the idolatrous foreigners so that they could be wholly dedicated to God.

The rest of the chapter just flows through the logistics of fulfilling Ezra’s command which I don’t find particularly interesting.  There are a few minor notes I would like to include.

First, in verse 4, the people tell Ezra to “be courageous and act”.  I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but this reminds me of God’s command to Joshua in Joshua 1:9 when the LORD tells Joshua to “be strong and courageous”.

Second, I find it a surprisingly human touch when Ezra mentions the heavy rain in verse 9.  As far as I can remember, this is the first (and possibly only) reference to weather as an element of a biblical story.  The bible references weather frequently as a reward or judgement from God (e.g. you have sinned therefore you will have a long drought), but as a neutral component of everyday life I can’t think of any other place the bible discusses weather.  For instance, search the bible for words like “cloudy” or “sunny” or anything like that.  It might depend on your translation but at least for the NASB I can’t find anything.

And with that, we conclude the book of Ezra.  Next, we will read the book of Nehemiah.  See you there!

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.