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.
Nehemiah is the eponymous author of the book of Nehemiah, which is the next book in the bible. We will see his story in greater detail when we read that book. Nehemiah was also one of the political figures in the Babylonian administration, as we will read in the book of Nehemiah.
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.