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.