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.