Ezra - Introduction
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah form a single book in the Hebrew Bible, though its two parts are separated in Christian tradition. It overlaps the end of Chronicles (2 Chr 36.22–23 || Ezra 1.1–3 ), with an account of the return from exile in 538 BCE. The return, authorized by the edict of the Persian king Cyrus, marked the beginning of a lengthy process of rebuilding of the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem. During this period, under Persian control, Israel constituted itself as the “people of the Book,” with scripture, specifically the first five books of the Bible (the Torah, also known as the Law of Moses, or the Pentateuch), becoming authoritative for communal and personal life. These developments took place in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah. While the Temple and its personnel gained unprecedented powers, so did the community itself, as new criteria for identity and membership developed.
Cyrus's edict permitting the return sets the agenda for the entire book. For Ezra‐Nehemiah, it launches a national and religious rebirth and reconstruction that includes rebuilding the Temple, the community, and Jerusalem. The edict also establishes official Persian legitimation of Jewish life in the Persian province of Yehud (earlier Judah), claiming harmony between Persian imperial policies and the will of Israel's God, a position that pervades Ezra‐Nehemiah.
It is difficult to reconstruct the actual history of this period. Most likely, the return and rebuilding took place in three or four stages. First, the initial returnees, led by Sheshbazzar in 538, began to rebuild the Temple but were forced to abandon the project. Second, a further group of exiles, under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, returned during the reign of the Persian king Darius I (522–486) and completed the Temple reconstruction in 515. Third, a group led by Ezra in 458 during the reign of Artaxerxes I (465–424) reestablished the Torah, the law of Moses, as the authority for Jews in Judah. Finally, a group led by Nehemiah beginning in 445, also during the time of Artaxerxes I, restored Jerusalem's walls and repopulated Jerusalem. Some scholars have suggested that Ezra's return took place after Nehemiah's. The majority of scholars, however, favor the reconstruction given above, which will be used in the annotations.
The returned exiles were concerned not only with restoring preexilic institutions, such as the altar, the Temple, and the city, but also with establishing religious practices that conformed to their understanding of the book of the Torah, which likely reached its final form in the late exilic or early postexilic period. To the author, the returned exiles were a godly remnant with a renewed commitment to perpetuate the covenantal teachings that kept them distinct. The author was especially worried that the community might repeat the mistakes that caused the exile, and a new destruction would follow.
The returned exiles were a minority within the vast, polytheistic and multicultural Persian Empire. Consequently, they sought to protect their ethnic and religious identity by establishing rigorous religious boundaries between themselves and their neighbors through the observance of the Torah. According to Ezra‐Nehemiah, marriages with non‐Jews posed an especially serious threat to maintaining distinctiveness; such marriages were prohibited, and if they had already taken place were dissolved.
Ezra‐Nehemiah was probably composed in Judah shortly after 400 BCE. It shares some themes and vocabulary with Chronicles, another Persian‐period book, but is probably not by the same author (see Introduction to 1 Chronicles, p. 576 HB ). It also shares elements with several later books under the name of Ezra that circulated in antiquity and are preserved in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, including 1 and 2 Esdras.
Ezra‐Nehemiah shows signs of having a complicated literary history. In part this is because it incorporates what are presented as contemporary sources into its account; these include first‐person memoirs of both Ezra (Ezra 7.27–9.15 ) and Nehemiah (Neh 1.1–7.5; 12.27–13.31 ); letters of various officials, often written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian empire; and assorted lists. Moreover, although most of Ezra‐Nehemiah is written in Hebrew, Ezra 4.6–6.18 and 7.12–26 are in Aramaic, including not only official documents but also the narrative in which they are quoted.
Despite this composite appearance, however, there is a carefully developed structure to the final form of Ezra‐Nehemiah. The work opens with God's promise and Cyrus's decree allowing the Temple to be rebuilt (Ezra 1.1–4 ), and continues with exiled Israel's response (Ezra 1.5–Neh 7.73 ), culminating in celebration of reconstruction (Neh 8–13 ). After an anticipatory summary of enthusiastic response (Ezra 1.5–11 ) and a framing section of the list of returnees (Ezra 2.1–70 ), the response takes place in three stages: the first stage of reconstruction, building the Temple in 538–516 BCE (Ezra 3.1–6.22 ); the second stage, the mission of Ezra and the formation of the community according to Torah in 458 (Ezra 7.1–10.44 ); and the third stage, rebuilding Jerusalem under Nehemiah's leadership in 445–444 (Neh 1.1–7.5 ). These stages close with another framing section, the repeated list of returnees (Neh 7.6–73 ). Then follows a celebration of renewal and reconstruction (Neh 8–13 ), consisting of the reading and implementation of the Torah (Neh 8 ); the confession and commitment of the people (Neh 9–10 ); the repopulation of the city and review of the people (Neh 11.1–12.26 ); and a service of dedication, including celebration, purification, procession, and separation (Neh 12.27–13.3 ). The work as a whole closes with a coda (Neh 13.4–31 ) in which Nehemiah recounts some of his reforms and invokes God's remembrance.