Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 6

In this chapter, the temple is completed and the exiles celebrate the Passover again.

As we might have expected from the previous chapter, the king once again issues a directive to search the royal archives from the former king Cyrus’s order to rebuild the temple and when he finds it, king Darius orders that Cyrus’s order be fulfilled and he gives further donations for the dedication of the temple and sacrifices on behalf of the king.  Although Cyrus’s exact motivation can be somewhat hard to discern, I think it’s possible that Darius wants to enforce his predecessor’s order because it projects an aura of royal infallibility if different kings never contradict each other.  For instance, in the books of Daniel and Esther there are several times it says that the order of a king may not be repealed.  If a king claims, or even implies, that he made a mistake, then it undermines the notion that the king has a divine mandate to rule.

Once the order is found, it’s very unlikely that Darius will contradict it, but he actually goes further by also commanding for royal support.  The entire cost of the temple is paid out of taxes from the Trans-Euphrates region and additional animal sacrifices as the priests require are also given so long as they pray for the king’s life and reign (v. 10).

On one hand, we can see this as a joyful victory for the Judean exiles.  They have finished the temple and can now offer sacrifices to the LORD.  On the other hand, I think what stands out to me here is how the fate of the Judeans is determined largely by the decisions of their foreign rulers.  While under the authority of a hostile king, the temple is halted, and while under the authority of a friendly king the temple is constructed.  If another king rises up who is hostile to Judah, there is nothing they can do to fight back and control their own destiny.  To be sure, the LORD reigns over the earth and can lead even these foreign kings wherever he wishes, but I think it’s notable how powerless the Jews appear through this story.

The chapter concludes with another Passover service, the first one that we have seen since the Babylonian exile over 70 years ago.

Tangent: It’s possible that this really was the first Passover in a generation, because the statutes generally require Jews to perform all animal sacrifices at the temple.  With the temple destroyed, the Jews may not have sacrificed any animals during the Babylonian exile.  Certainly one of the biggest issues that the rabbis of the Babylonian exile had to resolve was the proper way to follow the Law when the Law itself commands that all sacrifices be performed at the temple.  It’s possible that they could have chosen to build a new tabernacle and offered sacrifices there, but there is no historical evidence that they ever did so.

In modern times Jews do not sacrifice animals on the Passover precisely because there is no modern Jewish temple.  Without a temple, modern orthodox Jewish interpretation of the Law forbids any animal sacrifice for any reason.  A fuller explanation of modern Jewish law is beyond the scope of this post, but I’m just mentioning it because it’s possible the reconstruction of the temple coincides with the restoration of the Jewish festivals and sacrificial offerings.  End tangent.

We have evidence from the bible that the Passover may have been especially significant to the returning exiles in Jerusalem.  The reason we know this is that Kings and Chronicles are two books covering roughly the same time period and they were written before and after the exile respectively.  Therefore we can contrast the structure and focus of these two books to figure out some of the details of how their religious views changed over time.  As a basic first principle, whatever events or topics received greater attention in Chronicles compared to Kings were likely more important to the returning exiles than to the pre-exilic Israelites.

Bringing us back to the topic at hand, the Passovers celebrated during the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah were barely discussed at all in the book of Kings but received extensive coverage in the book of Chronicles (2 Chron 30, 35).  While we certainly have strong evidence that the Passover was celebrated before the exile (since the book of Exodus is clearly pre-exilic), it appears to have taken on a renewed importance during the restoration era.

I can only speculate as to the reasons why, so that is exactly what I am going to do.  My guess is that the post-exilic Jews placed a renewed emphasis on the Passover precisely because it could serve as a connection point to their pre-exilic religious traditions.  Securely placed as the first and most important religious festival in the book of Exodus, it is a logical starting point for rebuilding the temple worship system.

In that sense, Chronicles’ particular focus on the Passover celebrations under Hezekiah and Josiah serves a dual purpose.  The first, obvious purpose is to highlight the historical role of the Passover celebration in Judah’s history in order to affirm the continuing sanctity and relevance of the Passover in the “modern” times of the restoration era when this book was written.  The second, less obvious purpose is that both Hezekiah and Josiah themselves were trying to restore the temple worship system in their own lifetimes, even before the exile.  In that sense, it is actually something that both Hezekiah and Josiah have in common with the returning exiles of the restoration era.

To make my point more directly, what are the three things that the returning exiles have done first?  They built the temple, they initiate the daily sacrificial offerings (v. 9) and they celebrated the Passover.  What were the first three things that Hezekiah did when he became king (2 Chron 29-30)?  He cleansed the temple, began daily sacrifices, and celebrated the Passover.  What were the first three things that Josiah did (2 Chron 34-35)?  He destroyed the altars of Baal, repaired the temple and celebrated the Passover.

It’s almost as if the author of Chronicles was trying to put together a how-to guide for national revival and then the book of Ezra is documenting the Jews of his own time walking through that same process, building the temple and then using the temple as the basis for their sacrificial system and national festivals.

To reiterate my previous point, I believe this same system of temple offerings and national festivals existed before the exile as well, though in many respects it was less centralized (we have considerable evidence that the Israelites worshiped at many different high places, e.g. Gibeon in 1 Kings 3:4).  We also know that when the kingdom was divided between north and south, Jeroboam constructed two idols in the northern kingdom specifically to keep the people from going down to Jerusalem to worship at the temple.  Therefore in the pre-exilic period, the temple worship system never had the same unifying power as what it attained in the post-exilic period.  I think it was always meant to be a unifying force across all twelve tribes, but for political reasons it simply never happened until after the exile and the complete destruction of the northern kingdom, when, for all intents and purposes, “Israel” simply became “Judah”.  Political unity came through the destruction of the non-Judean tribes, essentially.

I’m writing all this because I really want to give my readers, to the best that we can discern, a sense of what life was like for Ezra and his contemporaries: their struggles, their victories, their hopes and dreams and their self-perception.

The central issue reflected in Chronicles and Ezra is “restoration”.  They are still under the power of the Persians, but they have been granted a certain measure of favor with their masters to go and rebuild their society.  A particular emphasis is placed on rebuilding their religious system in the same way that Hezekiah and Josiah did, following the pattern established by David.  David stands above all others, not only as an embodiment of devotion to the LORD to be emulated, but as a foreshadow to the expected messiah, who would come to free the Judeans from their oppressors and bring about a great deliverance.

Make no mistake about it: the Jews expected that their religious devotion to the LORD would produce an eventual political deliverance from their enemies.  The binary language in Deuteronomy and elsewhere leaves little room for misinterpretation.  It says that if Israel is faithful to obey the LORD’s commands, then they will be set above all other nations, blessed and victorious in every sphere of life (Deut 28:1-14).  In the same way, the LORD threatens to destroy Israel and cast them out of the promised land if they fail to obey the covenant and serve other gods.  The Jews have seen the fulfillment of this second half of the Law when they were taken to Babylon in the exile, and now that they are restoring the temple worship system, there can be no doubt that they are waiting for God to fulfill the first half, blessing them and making them the greatest nation on earth.

Their hope is to be free, to be an independent and great kingdom again.  They hope to have a godly and righteous king to lead them into glory, like David.  They are rebuilding the temple and offering sacrifices to follow the pattern established by David because they want to return to God and be faithful to follow the covenant, which is inextricably tied to their foregoing desire for freedom and blessing.

How do they view themselves?  Obviously, there is a lot of humility and self-deprecation.  They have suffered greatly and blame themselves for bringing it upon themselves by their idolatry.  However, they also see themselves as part of this great tradition, descending from David and Solomon and the other great figures of their past.  Theirs is a humility at their present circumstances but an aspiration for greatness and a belief that they are still a great people.  In a word, the Jews believe they are still “connected”.  They believe that even after everything, they are still connected to their past and through it and through the covenant, they are still connected to God.

Their desire to be free and powerful, their desire for a king like David to come back and lead them to glory; these things do not happen during Ezra’s lifetime.  Instead, Ezra celebrates smaller victories like the “encouragement” of the king of Assyria (i.e. Persia) in v. 22.  For now, many of these greater hopes will be deferred.

I’ve written perhaps longer than I should have, but I think this is important.  I hope my readers understand that these same hopes, dreams and struggles continue until the lifetime of Jesus with only minor adjustments, and that these same expectations powerfully shape the Jews’ reaction to Jesus’s ministry.

In the next chapter, Ezra himself travels to Jerusalem.

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