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.