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.