Sunday, July 16, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 9

In this chapter, Ezra discovers that the people are intermarrying with other peoples and prays to confess his guilt before the LORD.

We are nearing the conclusion of the book of Ezra.  In fact, this particular story arc (relating to intermarriage with foreigners) constitutes the subject of both this chapter and the next chapter, which is the last chapter in the book.

As with every book in the bible, I think it is helpful for us to understand the author’s bias and intentions when reading it.  For many books (like Kings and Chronicles) we do not know who is the author, but with Ezra we do, and I think that can help guide our interpretation.  As I previously discussed, Ezra is a scribe with a special focus on guiding Judah to do “the right thing”, i.e. living in obedience to the Law of Moses and the commands of David.

The majority of this book is Ezra’s descriptions of what happened during the restoration before he personally returned to Jerusalem.  We see Ezra place a special focus on the reconstruction of the temple and the Passover.  Now that Ezra has arrived in Jerusalem, we see him continue in the same pattern where I believe he is still focused on ensuring that Judah obeys the Law, but now he’s in a position to influence events.  Intermarriage with foreigners might seem like a much more mundane detail than the rest of the book, but I think it’s included for two reasons.  First, while it may be subtle, I think intermarriage with foreigners is an existential threat to Judah.  Second, I think it’s included because it is a meaningful example of Ezra’s responsibilities in the nascent community.  Ezra does not have a firm conclusion at the end of the book, which suggests that it may not have been intended to end here.  It’s possible that Ezra planned to continue appending to his journal but for whatever reason he was unable to do so.  Either way, I think the book of Ezra is still an excellent (if short) account of the early transitional period when Judah was returning to the promised land and some of the challenges they faced during that time.

There are a few questions I want to ask, and then subsequently answer.

First, why did the elders approach Ezra to tell him about this?  I think from this passage we can infer that Ezra was considered an authority figure in the community.  Besides having a letter from the king himself, he is also leading an expedition of nearly 1,000 men to Jerusalem.  It would appear that Ezra is one of the elders of the community.

Second, why is it such an important issue for Judeans to be intermarrying with foreigners, that it is the first thing brought up to Ezra when he settles in the land?  Previously I described this as an existential threat, which is pretty strong language but I think it’s deserved in this case.  In essence, if they intermarry with non-Judeans, it threatens to undermine the cohesion and culture of the Jewish community.  Since they are outnumbered, they risk being absorbed into the larger Middle eastern society in which they exist.  I think this is a real threat.  We have already seen the almost gravitational pull of idolatry from the surrounding peoples luring both Israel and Judah into sin, and intermarriage with foreigners is a simple continuation of that same threat.

It’s a strange thing, because in modern society intermarriage can often be positioned as a good thing.  Interracial marriage, inter-cultural marriage, are considered positive values by many people.  Nobody dies, nobody is hurt, in fact these are voluntary marriages so nobody is being forced into it.  I think it’s a subtle thing; if you want to keep people alive, then sure, intermarriage is completely fine.  However, if you want to keep a culture alive, then there are real reasons why you would seek to keep your culture as isolated as possible from the surrounding forces, especially when your culture is a minority in the region, which is the case here.  Since we can see that Ezra’s driving purpose is to maintain the purity of Judah’s faith and devotion to the LORD, his abhorrence of intermarriage with foreigners is a natural result of that attitude.

Lastly, Ezra’s prayer constitutes the majority of this chapter, and I don’t have too much to say about it.  I think the language is striking, particularly Ezra’s focus on Judah’s sin and God’s mercy to them through the restoration.  In fact, it’s not even a prayer as many people regard prayers, because Ezra does not ask the LORD for anything, it is simply a confession of God’s great mercy and their guilt and sin both before and after that mercy.  I think Ezra’s prayer is a concise statement of what he personally thinks about this entire period of their history.  After passing through the great trauma of the exile, Judah is now entering a period of tremendous hope; to them, the blessing and favor of God is evident through the kind treatment they are receiving from their Persian rulers.  Ezra does not see this as variance in Judah’s relationship with the Persians, he clearly sees events in their history as a reflection of Judah’s relationship with the LORD, and it is the ups and downs of their relationship with the LORD that governs the political reality faced by Judah.  Ezra sees great hope in the restoration, and he is legitimately afraid that Judah is going to mess it up by continuing to sin against the LORD.

In the next chapter, we see Ezra’s response to this great sin.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 8

In this chapter, Ezra describes the men who traveled with him to Jerusalem and the temple offering they brought.

This chapter reveals Ezra to be the proper scribe that he is, with a long list of names and numbers.  Jewish scribes have a well-earned reputation for being precise and detail-oriented, and Ezra is no exception.

I would also like my readers to note how Ezra shifts from third person to first person.  In fact he begins speaking in the first person after finishing the king’s letter (see. Ezra 7:28), but before that he wrote his own introduction in the third person.  I think the first person section strongly indicates that this book was indeed written by a historical Ezra, and at the same time it shows that sometimes authors in the OT write about themselves in the third person, which may be relevant when assigning authorship to the later prophetic books.

In verses 2-14, Ezra lists first the clan (or family) and then the family patriarch and number of men from that family who were returning.  The number of men adds up to just about 1,000 (including women and children, we could expect the total to be around 2500-3000).  On the one hand, to my modern mind, this sounds like a large group.  I’ve gone on roadtrips with 3-4 people before so the thought of traveling with over 2,000 people seems like a lot to me.  On the other hand, this is a very different kind of world they lived in.  Remember that the journey took four months and they were traveling through a much more dangerous world than you usually find today. Sadly, it would probably be about as dangerous for 3,000 Jews to travel (on foot) through Iran and Iraq as it was for Ezra and his compatriots 2,500 years ago.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lastly, I would also like to point out that the size of the group returning with Ezra is much smaller than the number of returning exiles documented in Ezra 2.  In that case the number totaled around 50,000 (Ezra 2:64-65).  It appears that all of the most willing and capable men left with the first group and the other, following groups are smaller.

Verse 15 is a fascinating observation.  Ignoring demographic questions for now, one obvious implication is that the Levites are somehow much less motivated to return to the promised land than “the people and the priests”.  My NIV bible notes suggested that the Levites may have had some advantageous economic situation in Babylon and that returning to Jerusalem would have reduced their standard of living.  It’s certainly interesting that out of 1,000 returning men, Ezra was only able to find 38 Levites (v. 18-19).

The other side of this verse is that Ezra finds the Levites essential and basically refuses to leave without them.  Why is Ezra so determined to bring Levites with him?  It is because Ezra, as a scribe, is trying to get things “right”.  I am guessing that Ezra has some kind of vision for what temple ministry done correctly looks like, and he is trying to make sure that this vision is fulfilled.  1 Chronicles 23-26 lays out a structure for how temple ministry should be carried out, and the role of the Levites in particular is given in 1 Chron 23.  I believe that Ezra was familiar with the text of Chronicles and was intending to follow those regulations as his organizing principle behind temple ministry.

Remember the role of the scribe is to study, practice and teach the Law.  While the Law of Moses takes supremacy in the heart of every religious Jew, anything commanded by David would have also been regarded as authoritative.  Since David created an exclusive role for the Levites in temple ministry, obeying the commands of David would require Ezra to have Levites with him for temple services*.

Verses 21-23 show more directly the dangerous nature of Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem.  This is one of the most important reasons why Ezra (and the other Jews) traveled in such large groups, because it was simply safer to go in larger groups than smaller ones.  Even with a group of around 1,000 men Ezra is still concerned about their safety and they fast and pray for a safe journey.

Verses 24 and onwards focuses on the offering of gold and silver that was given by the king, the royalty and the people of Judah in exile.  The emphasis in this chapter was on the responsibility of the men administrating the offering.  The money is weighed while they are in exile and then weighed again when they reach Jerusalem.  Therefore any loss or theft would be noticeable and the priests and Levites who carried the offering would have been held accountable.

While Ezra documents all of his precautions for their safe travel and the offering, apparently everything goes smoothly.  Everyone arrives safely in Jerusalem and the offering is also fully accounted upon arrival.  Once again I would say that Ezra appears to be detail-oriented and a responsible steward towards everything under his care, and he is successful because of it.

In the next chapter, Ezra faces his first challenge in Jerusalem, when he discovers that the people had been intermarrying with foreigners.

*One counterpoint here is that Levites had most likely gone with Jerubbabel and Jeshua as part of the first group of returning exiles.  This means that Ezra bringing Levites with him was not strictly necessary, but I still feel like Ezra’s primary motivation was adherence to David’s ordinances.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Ezra 7

In this chapter, Ezra returns to Jerusalem from exile.

This chapter has two main sections.  The first section is Ezra’s autobiography and the second section is King Artaxerxes’s letter of authorization for Ezra.  I will discuss these two sections in turn.

Beginning with Ezra’s biography, from his genealogy (v. 1-5) we see that Ezra is a priest, a descendant of Aaron and perhaps more interestingly, a descendant of Zadok.  In the book of Chronicles, Zadok showed up several times as a prominent figure in the story, and I suggested at the time that it was because the descendants of Zadok may have been increasingly important in the post-exilic era when Chronicles was written.  What we see here is that Ezra, one of the authors of the post-exilic histories, is himself a descendant of Zadok.  According to Jewish tradition, Chronicles was also written by Ezra which if it were true, would help to explain the bias in Chronicles towards the priestly line of Zadok, though that bias could also be explained by other factors so I don’t think it necessarily indicates Ezra’s authorship.

We also see that Ezra is a scribe, which is something I mentioned in the introduction.  I am very interested in learning about the scribal class, because the Jewish scribes are the secret hands behind the OT.  Think about it: how many books have we read where we do not know the author?  Basically all of them?  Especially for the histories like Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, many books in the OT do not have a specific author and it may not even be possible that they had a single author when the book spans over more than a hundred years of time.  Behind every book in the OT there is a lineage of scholars who wrote, guarded and transmitted the book down from generation to generation until it reached the present day.

As in the case of Ezra, many of these scholars would have been passionate individuals who dedicated their lives to study the Law, practice it and teach it to others.  While many of them lived and died without recognition in modern times, they did not live without making a difference.  In fact, I would suspect that many of the scholars who curated the biblical books did not have realized how their diligence to preserve the history of God’s interactions with Israel would change the world.  Without men such as Ezra, who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD”, we might not have the Law with us today and simply put, our knowledge of God and his salvation plan would have been diminished.

Verse 7 also tells us that Ezra went up with priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers and “temple servants”.  This is another similarity between the book of Ezra and Chronicles, because Chronicles spent a great deal of space discussing the various components of the temple ministry (see e.g. 1 Chron 9, 26).  Since all of these groups of people were involved with the temple ministry, it is another way of showing Ezra’s focus on the temple ministry as his central mission for traveling to Jerusalem.

That said, I would also like to point out that Ezra returns to Jerusalem after the temple has been finished.  The main people involved with building the temple were Jerubbabel, Jeshua, Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1-2).  Ezra is coming in a second wave of refugees, and while he writes about the construction of the temple (likely having interviewed sources who were there), he was not himself involved with its construction.

So what was Ezra’s purpose?  Why did he spend four, dangerous months hiking through modern day Iran and Iraq (v. 9)?  Ezra’s immediate purpose is given in the letter from Artaxerxes.  Ezra is being sent on behalf of the king for several reasons: to “inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 14), to bring the king’s offering for the temple (v. 15) and to appoint judges for the Trans-Euphrates province to enforce Jewish religious law on their people.  As such, it appears that Ezra is being placed in a role of local authority, being given power to enforce not only their own Law, but also the laws of the king (v. 26).

While these are the reasons the king sent Ezra, I’m not sure that they are the reasons Ezra went.  I think Ezra went to Jerusalem because firstly, like most other religious Jews, he wanted to return to the land of the covenant with God.  Second, I think Ezra wanted to fulfill his role as a scribe: to instruct the people in Jerusalem and ensure that they are properly obeying the Law of the LORD.

The terms of the letter to Ezra are highly favorable, giving him liberty to collect money as needed from the royal treasury, an offering for the temple, freedom from taxes, and authority to enforce the religious and royal laws.  It’s no wonder that Ezra repeatedly thanks God for his favorable treatment (v. 6, 27, 28).

Ultimately, Ezra is going to Jerusalem to see if the people are properly following the Law.  In the next chapter, we will learn more about Ezra’s companions and journey.