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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 2

In this chapter, Ezra gives us a categorization of the returning exiles.

The list is broken down into several segments.  First, in verse 2, Ezra lists the leaders of the returning community.  Second, in verses 3-39, Ezra lists the people who were returning to various towns in Judah and Benjamin.  Third, in verses 40-58, Ezra lists returning Levites and several categories of servants.  In verses 59-63, Ezra lists the returning men who could not prove their lineage.  Lastly, verses 64-70 provides a summary of all the returning people and their possessions.

There are three main categories of returning exiles that are represented in this chapter: the Judeans, the Benjamites and the Levites (including priests).  These groups show up over and over in the chapter, in both the returning leadership and amongst the people.  Even though Chronicles tried to emphasize the unity of all twelve tribes, there were almost no survivors from the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom.  Only the southerners survived through the Babylonian invasion, which meant Judah, Benjamin and the Levites living in those territories.

Verse 2 lists some of the community leaders that are returning from the exile.  Of these figures, several of them show up elsewhere in the bible.

Zerubbabel is a direct descendant of the kings of Judah through Zedekiah, who was the very last king before the exile.  He is sometimes called the “prince of Judah”.  Politically, we should understand that Judah does not ever have a king again after the Babylonian exile.  Judah remained as a province in Babylon that was administered by a governor, and after the Babylonians were destroyed, Judah was handed down as a possession from one empire to another until the Romans, at which point Jerusalem was destroyed a second time, almost finally.  While Judah did not have a true king, the royal family still held a great deal of influence and Zerubbabel is basically the chief representative of the royal family.  Zerubbabel appears elsewhere in the bible, perhaps most prominently in Haggai and Zechariah (neither of which we have read yet).  Zerubbabel is also one of the ancestors of Jesus that is given in Jesus’s genealogy in the new testament.

Jeshua is the high priest.  He is the chief representative of the priests, Levites and the religious authorities.  Like Zerubbabel, Jeshua shows up as one of the central figures in Haggai and Zechariah.

The Nehemiah mentioned in this chapter must be a different person from the eponymous Nehemiah who wrote the following book of the bible. We know it’s a different person because when we read Nehemiah, we will see that he traveled to Jerusalem with a different group of exiles and chronologically later than Ezra.
I’m not sure who is Seraiah.  There are several men named Seraiah during the lifetime of Ezra.  For instance, Ezra’s father was named Seraiah (Ezra 7:1).  The more likely identity is that Seraiah is one of the senior priests under Jeshua (Nehemiah 12:1).

The last person I want to mention specifically is Mordecai.  We can’t be sure it’s the same man, but there was a man named Mordecai in the book of Esther who is Esther’s uncle.  We haven’t read Esther yet but in that story Mordecai emerges as one of the senior leaders of the community through his own personal merit as well as his relationship with Esther.  As far as I know, none of the other community leaders play any substantial role in the bible.

In verses 3-39, it gives us a long list of groups of people.  When I first read through this, I thought the these were family names and that they represented returning exiles from different families.  The vast majority of the names are unknown to us outside of this one chapter.  However, other names are actually cities we have previously read about.  For instance, Bethlehem (in Judah, v. 21), Anathoth (in Benjamin, v. 23), Ramah and Geba (a town in Benjamin, v. 26), Bethel and Ai (in Benjamin) v. 28) and Jericho (in Benjamin, v. 34) are all towns in Judah and Benjamin.  This means that the names we have not seen before are most likely also towns in Judah and Benjamin with returning exiles.

What makes this confusing is that the names of the towns are very similar to Hebrew personal names.  For instance, I’m pretty sure there is a person named Adonikam.  It’s even more ambiguous because the later section in verses 40-58 actually does list family names when describing the returning servants.

In any case, regardless of whether these are names of people or towns, what I said before holds true: these are nearly all obscure names that do not show up anywhere else in the bible.  It’s not very important to know or recognize the names, but I do want my readers to get a sense of what Ezra is trying to communicate.  Like the genealogies, this chapter is showing us the importance of identity and continuity to the Jewish community.

We see this most clearly in verses 59-63, when Ezra says that a group of returning exiles “were not found” in the genealogical records and excluded from the priesthood.  What this means by implication is that everyone else in the returning community was found in the genealogical records.  This is astonishing when you consider that they were somehow able to keep their genealogical records through the Babylonian exile.  So many people died and so much of their society was destroyed; the temple was destroyed, yet these records were preserved (along with the religious text of the Torah).

This was not cheap or easy for the exiles.  With so much death and destruction, I really want my readers to feel the human cost of preserving these records.  I think the best analogy I can give is that it’s as if the Jewish community woke up in the middle of the night with their house burning down.  What do you grab when your entire house is burning down and you only get to grab the most important thing?  Maybe you wake up your kids, a photo of your dead grandparents?  What do you take with you when you get to choose one thing from all your possessions to keep, leaving everything else to be destroyed?  The Judeans chose to keep their genealogical records.  This is not a lighthearted or easy decision, this is a somber and grim decision, and MANY things were lost to them forever.  They chose to keep what was most important, which was the genealogical records.  This was how they established their identity and connection to the past.

This historical identity was so important that people who could not be found in the records were excluded from the priesthood.  These people most likely were real priests, but they simply couldn’t prove it.  Verse 63 gives the backup strategy, which is Urim and Thummim.  In essence, this was a kind of religiously permitted divination.  Similar to casting lots, it was a method to query the LORD.  We mostly saw this applied in the book of Samuel; the Urim and Thummim do not show up anywhere else in the bible after this passage (and the parallel passage in the book of Nehemiah).  In this case, what it means is that they wanted to use the Urim and Thummim to confirm if these men (without proper genealogical records) were indeed qualified to serve as priests.

The Urim and Thummim were most likely taken by the Babylonians, and it seems like Ezra is anticipating them being restored to the exiles but they have not yet been restored.  Eventually they were both lost to history, perhaps stolen or destroyed in one of the various destructions of Jerusalem that followed the restoration era.

In any case, the people have successfully returned to the land.  The numbers are tiny compared to how many people had previously lived here.  The entire community is now barely more than 40,000 people when in the past, each of the individual tribes would have been greater than that.

Nonetheless, the community has survived and in the next chapter, they begin the process of rebuilding the temple.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 1

In this chapter, Cyrus authorizes the remnant of Judah in exile to return to Jerusalem.

Ezra 1:1-3 are very interesting verses from a textual analysis point of view.  To a casual reader, it might not be apparent why.  The simple answer is that it is an almost direct copy of 2 Chron 36:22-23, which raises all kinds of questions about the authorship and source material for these two books.  At first glance, someone might think that they are simply copying Cyrus’s declaration, but it must be more than that because they both also share the same preamble referring to Jeremiah’s prophecy and “the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia”, which is also copied word for word between the two books.

There are basically three possible explanations: Either Chronicles copied the passage from Ezra, Ezra copied the passage from Chronicles, or both books copied the passage from some other (non-extant) source.  It is difficult to figure out the real answer from this passage alone since the exact date of composition for these two books is not firmly known.  That said, traditional scholarship and writers in antiquities (i.e. ancient bible scholars) have typically assigned Ezra as the author of Chronicles, as well as his eponymous book.  As the author of both books he could have simply written the same passage twice.

From a literary perspective, the repetition of these verses at the end of the last book and beginning of this book makes for a very smooth transition.  Chronicles concluded with the return from the Babylonian exile, and that is exactly the context in which Ezra lives and begins his book.

Now, there are a few other points I would like to address regarding the content of this chapter.

First of all, why does Cyrus (who would have been a pagan) call the LORD the God of heaven?  There can be no question that Cyrus was not himself a worshiper of the LORD.  There are two ways to look at this.  The less likely is that Ezra is overwriting Cyrus’s original declaration with pious-sounding language to make it seem more favorable to his Jewish audience.

I think the more likely explanation is that Cyrus himself is couching his declaration in language that would appease the Jews and engender favor with them.  Cyrus is by no means beholden to the Jews or their demands, but he also does not have any reason to antagonize them and I think he is probably just being a good politician here, not expressing any true devotion to the LORD nor do I think this is a misrepresentation of Cyrus’s original message.

Second, we see that Judah, Benjamin, Levites and the priests constitute the four primary groups that return from the exile (v. 5).  This is yet another similarity between Ezra and Chronicles where those four groups figured prominently in e.g. the genealogy at the beginning of 1 Chronicles, as well as other places.  Even though the other tribes have token representation in Ezra and other post-exilic sources, it’s pretty clear that the dominant surviving groups are the four mentioned above, which is a clear and direct byproduct of the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdom, and the destruction of those two kingdoms in two separate events.  In this case, the surviving Israelites are from the southern kingdom only; the northern tribes do not have a “return” event in the same way as Judah and its constituent groups.

Third, we see two forms of encouragement for the returning exiles.  On the one hand, we see the people gathering up their wealth and giving it to the pilgrims both to fund their expedition and to fund the temple construction.  On the other hand, we see king Cyrus returning all of the temple furnishings to the returning exiles.  Like the proper scribe that he is, Ezra carefully documents the number and type of each item returned to the Jews by the king.

This presents us with a picture of unified support between the people of Judah and the Persian administration that rules over them.  At least for the beginning of their return home, this is an auspicious beginning.

In the next chapter, Ezra documents the number of returning exiles from each family.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra Introduction

And so we begin the book of Ezra.  :)

There are two broad historical narratives in the OT.  The first spans from Genesis through 2nd Kings.  The second is from 1 Chronicles through Esther.  The critical difference between these two narratives is that the first one is written before and during the Babylonian exile, the second narrative was written strictly after the Babylonian exile.  For the sake of convenience, I will refer to these two narratives as the pre-exilic narrative and post-exilic narrative respectively.  Those terms are not completely accurate because at least some of the pre-exilic narrative was written during the exile, but I think it's close enough to the truth that my readers will (hopefully) not be misled.

We have finished reading through the pre-exilic narrative and are now in the middle of the post-exilic narrative.  The best way to understand both of these narratives is to think about what effects the exile might have had on Judean society, how their society reacted to this massive disruption in their way of life, and how the authors of the OT are attempting to construct a religious narrative to intertwine with and explain the historical events that occurred to their nation.  I emphasized this point over and over when going through the book of Chronicles, and I’m going to continue harping on it as I go through the book of Ezra.

In this context, we learned that Chronicles was written as a retrospective history, and it was structured with several goals in mind.  Chronicles was written to provide a vision of an idealized past for the Judeans to strive to rebuild, to provide a historical justification for their possession of the promised land, and to justify the centralized temple worship system in Jerusalem.  The temple figured prominently in Chronicles as a central element of Judean identity as well as Israel’s relationship with God.

On the other hand, while Chronicles was written retrospectively, Ezra is much more of a present-day narrative, giving us a first-hand look at the events immediately surrounding the return from the exile and the reconstruction of Jerusalem.  Ezra himself was a participant in these events as one of the returning Jews.  Ezra was a scribe (Ezra 7:6) and one of the Levitical priests.  Ezra 7:10 explains some of Ezra’s responsibilities as a scribe.  He was part of a professional class whose central focus was studying, teaching and copying the Torah (the Law of Moses).

Similar to Chronicles, Ezra also places a tremendous focus on the temple.  In the case of Chronicles, it was focused on the historical importance of the temple to Israel and Judah.  In the case of Ezra, it’s the importance of rebuilding the temple for the newly resurgent Judah.  I actually think Ezra gives us some of the context for why Chronicles focuses so much on the temple.  It was a point I made several times in my commentary, but Chronicles was written as a not-so-subtle prod to encourage the people to help build and maintain the temple worship system.  Ezra shows us some of the actual history of those events as the temple worship system is being reconstructed.

More generally, I think the broad theme of Ezra is “restoration”.  A lot of that "restoration" is restoring the temple, but not all of it.  Ezra and the people are trying to restore and rebuild Judah.  They do this by returning to the land, rebuilding the temple, and restoring the biblical prohibition against intermarrying with the non-Israelite tribes.  We will study all of these in more depth as we go through the book.

Secondly, while I can’t exactly call it a theme, I would also like my readers to note that Judah remains under the dominion of the Persian* empire.  This shows up in the story in various ways almost from beginning to end.  When Judah’s enemies attack them, it’s by attempting political manipulation of their Persian overlords, and when Ezra is shown favor, it’s by those same Persian overlords.  And so forth; this pattern continues through most of the book.

Taken as a whole, we can view Ezra as a story about Judah trying to re-establish their identity, culture and autonomy while under the dominion of a foreign power, and having suffered the destruction of nearly everything they once held dear.  Even in the midst of all these hardships, this story has the same hopeful tenor that we find in many other parts of the OT.  Judah persists, God shows them favor, and they are able to rebuild the temple in spite of opposition.

The book ends inconclusively, which is a little frustrating because I would have liked to see a more definitive ending, but it kind of makes sense when you think about it.  The book of Ezra is not the whole story, it is only one short piece of the larger narrative: it is focused on the life of just one man as a prism through which we can view the greater story of God’s interactions with his chosen people.

* Some of my readers may be surprised that while I refer to the Babylonian exile frequently, Judah is suddenly under the authority of the Persian empire, which was not heretofore mentioned.  The biblical narrative does not directly discuss it, but basically what happened is that the Persians came through and conquered the Babylonians.  By the right of “I kill you and take all your possessions”, the Persians inherited all of Babylons territories which included Judah.  This is similar to the transition between the Assyrian empire and the Babylonian empire that occurred during the lifetime of Josiah, and that transition was only tangentially mentioned in Kings and Chronicles.  Remember that to Ezra, the transition from one empire to the next would have been current events and he would not have seen any reason to explain these background facts to a contemporary audience that would have similarly known all about the Babylonians and Persians.