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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on 1 Esdras

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Commentary spanning earlier chapters

The Material Restoration (chs. 2–7 )

( 2:1–30 ) First Beginnings

Following the hint of the Chronicler, who concluded his work with the decree of Cyrus, 1 Esdras moves directly from the destruction in the days of Zedekiah, to the new beginnings in the time of Cyrus. The theme of prophecy and fulfilment, found in his sources (esp. Ezra 1:1; 2 Chr 36:21 ), is further emphasized by the augmented role of the prophet Jeremiah in the time of the destruction ( 1:28, 32, 47, 57 ). His prophecies of doom have all come true, and now the time has arrived for the fulfilment of this prophecy of hope, with the first steps towards restoration undertaken by Cyrus, king of Persia. Ch. 2 covers all the events that preceded ‘the second year of Darius’, that is, Cyrus's decree and the people's response (vv. 1–9 ), the transfer of the holy vessels to Sheshbazzar (vv. 10–15 ), the intervention of Judah's enemies and the cessation of the work (vv. 16–30 ).

Following the literary method of Ezra (cf. Japhet 1996: 127–8; Williamson 1983: 1–26), the chapter's three paragraphs are composed in a similar way: a document, embedded in a narrative framework. The decree of Cyrus (vv. 3–7 ) is framed by an introduction (vv. 1–2 ) and a narrative conclusion (vv. 8–9 ); the list of holy vessels (vv. 13–14 ) has a narrative introduction (vv. 10–12 ) and conclusion (v. 15 ), and the official correspondence with Artaxerxes (vv. 17–24, 26–9 ) has the necessary introductions (vv. 16, 25 ) and narrative conclusion (v. 30 ).

( 2:1–9 ) Cyrus's Decree (Ezra 1:1–6 )

Cyrus's declaration in his first year as king of Babylon (538 BCE) is addressed to the Jews in Babylon and grants them permission in three matters: to rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, to return from Babylon to Jerusalem for that purpose, and to take with them money and presents that were to be collected in the Diaspora. Immediately after the decree the people start to effectuate it. They organize the return (v. 8 ) and collect money and presents from those who remained (v. 9 ). Another version of Cyrus's decree, in a bureaucratic style and with some differences in content, is recorded in 6:24–6 (Ezra 6:1–3 ). The relationship between the two documents, and the question of their respective authenticity has drawn the constant attention of scholars (cf. the commentaries on Ezra and the specialized studies), but the existence of such a document seems to be generally accepted. A consistent difference between the text of 1 Esdras and his source is expressed in the representation of the divine names, mainly in two features: the avoidance of the common title in the Persian period, ‘God of heaven’ (Japhet 1997: 25–6), and its replacement by various other titles (cf. Ezra 5:11, 12; 6:9, 10; 7:12, 21, with 1 Esdras 6:13, 15, 29, 31; 8:9, 19 , respectively), and the preference of ‘the Lord’ (kuriou, usually representing the tetragrammaton) over the more general ‘God’. Here, in v. 3 , ‘the God of Heaven’ is replaced by ‘The Lord of Israel, the Lord Most high’ (see Moulton 1899: 226–30).

( 2:10–15 ) The Return of the Holy Vessels (Ezra 1:7–11 )

The theme of the holy vessels, pillaged by Nebuchadnezzar, kept in Babylon during the period of the captivity, and returned by Cyrus, is greatly emphasized in the book of Ezra and serves as a concrete symbol of restoration and continuity (cf. Ackroyd 1972 ). The holy vessels are also prominent in 1 Esdras, but their fortunes are differently conceived. Contrary to the picture given here (= Ezra 1:11 ) and repeated, although with some rephrasing, in 6:18–19 (= Ezra 5:14–15 ), according to 4:44 Cyrus took the vessels out of Babylon, but did not send them to Jerusalem. They were transferred to Jerusalem only in the time of Darius, by Zerubbabel.

The list of vessels includes only the small ritual utensils, such as cups, censers, and vials, which were not broken up or damaged during the destruction of Jerusalem. Unlike at Ezra 1 , there is full correspondence in numbers between the details and total.

( 2:16–30 ) Disruptions in the Time of Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:6–24 )

Outside interference with the building begins immediately, during the reign of Artaxerxes, who is conceived here as Cyrus's successor. This obvious divergence from the historical sequel of the kings of Persia is ‘corrected’ by Josephus, who identifies the king as Cambyses, heir to Cyrus (Ant. 11.2.1–2). However, the problem is not historical but literary, since the whole episode comes at this point as a surprise. According to 1 Esdras, the building has not yet begun and the description of the energetic construction in Jerusalem, as well as its cessation, are all premature. All these are the consequences of the literary reorganization of the material, which dealt with the larger blocks of the story but did not take care of the details. (See 1 ESD D. 1)

After the introduction to the correspondence (v. 16 ), the heading of the letter is recorded in v. 17 , which is a fine example of the author's reworking method. In Ezra 4:6–10 three letters are mentioned: an ‘accusation’ sent to Ahasuerus (Xerxes), regarding ‘the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem’ (v. 6 ); a letter written to Artaxerxes by ‘Bishlam and Mithredath and Tabeel and their associates’ (v. 7 ), and another letter to Artaxerxes, sent by Rehum the royal deputy, Shimshai the scribe, and a long list of officials (v. 8 ). The last letter is actually quoted. These complex data have been condensed in 1 Esdras to form one single letter, sent to Artaxerxes. However, rather than writing the new narrative in his own words, the author made use of selected phrases gleaned from Ezra 4:6–11 thus:

In the time of king Artaxerxes of the Persians [= Ezra 4:7, 8 ], Bishlam, Mithridates, Tabeel [= Ezra 4:7 ], Rehum, Beltethmus, the scribe Shimshai [= Ezra 4:8 ], and the rest of their associates [= Ezra 4:8 ], living in Samaria and other places [= Ezra 4:10 ], wrote him [= Ezra 4:6 , also 7, 8] the following letter [= Ezra 4:11 ] against those who were living in Judea and Jerusalem [= Ezra 4:6 ]: ‘To king Artaxerxes [= Ezra 4:8, 11 ] our lord, your servants the recorder Rehum and the scribe Shimshai [= Ezra 4:9 ] and the other members of their council [= Ezra 4:9 ] and the judges [= Ezra 4:10, 11 ] in Coelesyria and Phoenicia [= Ezra 4:9 : beyond the river]…’

The letter itself (vv. 18–24 ) begins by presenting the situation: the Jews who came ‘from you to us’ are building the city of Jerusalem. It follows with the threat: if the city is built, the Jews will refrain from paying tribute and the income of the king will be damaged. Then comes the basis of this deduction: the city has a record of being rebellious, which was the cause of its initial destruction; and conclusion: if the city is rebuilt, the interests of the king will be greatly damaged. The accusational intent of the letter is revealed already at its beginning, where Jerusalem is described as ‘that rebellious and wicked city’ (v. 18 ), and is continued through various rhetorical means, such as the emphatic repetition of ‘Judeans’ (ioudaioi, NRSV: Jews), who were ‘rebels and kept setting up blockades in it from of old’ (v. 23 ; in addition to the parallel of Ezra 4:12 with v. 18 ).

In structure and contents, the version of 1 Esdras faithfully follows its source in Ezra 4:12–16 , but there are some interesting changes in detail, most important of which is the scope of the construction. In Ezra 4 the complaint is directed exclusively against the building of the city and its walls (vv. 12, 13, 16 ), as is confirmed by the king's answer (v. 21 ). In 1 Esdras the accusation also refers to the building of the temple: they ‘are building that…city…and laying the foundation for a temple’ (v. 18 ). The change expresses the author's historical criticism of the original story and his own view that the temple and the city were built at once, and not—as in Ezra-Nehemiah—in two different stages at different periods. However, this change does not do away with the initial difficulty of the new structure, since according to 1 Esdras, the reference to the building of either the city or the temple is premature, from both the literary and historical points of view. Another difference, of less significance, is the accusers' attempt to justify their intervention by pointing to their loyalty and lack of self-interest: ‘because we share the salt of the palace and it is not fitting for us to witness the king's dishonour, therefore we send and inform the king’ (Ezra 4:14 ). This is rephrased in 1 Esdras in neutral language: ‘Since the building of the temple is now going on, we think it best not to neglect such a matter, but to speak to our lord the king’ (vv. 20–1a ). Through slight rephrasing, the tone of the king's response (vv. 25–9 = Ezra 4:17–22 ) has become more strict and final. Rather than leaving the order in the hands of his deputies (Ezra 4:21 : ‘Therefore issue an order that these people be made to cease’), Artaxerxes issues the order himself, ‘Therefore I have now issued orders to prevent these people from building the city’ (v. 28 ). The possibility that this order may be revoked at some point (Ezra 4:21 : ‘until I make a decree’) is omitted, and the general, rather ambiguous, warning (Ezra 4:22 ), becomes a straightforward reference to the circumstances at hand: ‘take care that nothing more be done and that such wicked proceedings go no further to the annoyance of kings’ (vv. 28b–29 ). v. 30 reports the conclusion of the event, its anticipated purpose: the accusers hasten to cause the work to stop ‘until the second year of the reign of King Darius’.

( 3:1–4:63 ) New Beginnings

The pericope is composed of two units: the competition ( 3:1–4:41 ) and its consequences ( 4:42–63 ).

( 3:1–4:41 ) The Competition

The story of the competition is composed of two uneven units, representing two genres: the wisdom story, in itself comprising ‘story’ and ‘speeches’, and the historical narrative. The inclusion of a fully fledged wisdom story seems out of place in a historiographical work, but the literary inclination of the author leads him to retain the wisdom story in its entirety, including the speeches. (Somewhat similar is the inclusion of Esther in the records of Josephus; see Ant. 11.b. 1–13.) The structure of the story follows the lines of the plot: the circumstances, terms, and setting of the competition ( 3:1–17 ); the speech of each of the contestants ( 3:18–24; 4:1–12; 4:13–40 ), and the decision (v. 41 ).

( 3:1–17 ) Proposition

Since the introductory, narrative part of the wisdom story had been already adapted to fit the specific historical situation, it is difficult to say how much of it belongs to the original source and how much was reformulated for the present context. The circumstances as described are somewhat problematic. Following Esth 1:1–3 , Darius is described as having held a grand feast for all his courtiers, officials, and subjects, from all the 127 provinces of his empire, after which he went to his chambers but could not sleep (vv. 1–3 ). Then his three bodyguards brought up the idea of a competition, decided between them on its terms, and took the first steps towards its execution by writing down their answers and putting the written note under Darius's pillow for his decision after he had arisen (vv. 4–12 ). When Darius got up, he read the writing and accepted the idea, but turned the competition into a public event. The guards were asked to present their case before the assembly. The problematic nature of this exposition seems clear. The ‘great feast’ which opens the story plays no role in the development of the main theme. The motif of the king's sleeplessness stands in contrast to the sequence, in which the note is put under his pillow during his sleep. Even more difficult are the consequences for the image of Darius, who is presented as totally passive. Indeed, while the idea of the competition might have come from the guards, it is difficult to see how they could decide upon the winner's reward and make the king comply with their terms. All these seem to result from an elaboration of an original story with motifs borrowed from the book of Esther (the feast, the king's sleeplessness, the participants deciding upon the rewards to be extended by the king), but not fully integrated. Josephus's version is smoother in all these aspects (Ant. 11.3.2), but seems to be a secondary adaptation rather than a reflection of the original.

( 3:18–4:40 ) The Speeches

The speeches are set in a conventional pattern of openings and conclusions, retouched by small stylistic variations: ‘Then the first who had spoken of the strength of wine began and said’ (v. 17 ); ‘When he had said this he stopped speaking’ (v. 24 , and see 4:1, 12; 4:13 ). Only the conclusion of the third speech deviates from that pattern, probably as a result of the new literary sequel.

3:18–24 , the power of wine is presented from various perspectives, individual and social, positive and negative, with some ambivalence. Most important of all, wine is seen as depriving a human being of his greatest advantage, his mind and reason. Wine obliterates the social differences within society because it transfers people from the world of reality to a world of illusion. There, all are equal, all are masters, all are rich, all are happy. This blurring of distinction may lead a person to treat a friend as an enemy, but he cannot be asked to take responsibility for his deeds, for the world under the influence of wine is unreal: when the wine is gone nothing remains of the illusory world, not even memory.

Although this speech is independent of the other themes, it already refers to the next contestant, ‘the king’—which might suggest a different original order. The king is mentioned from two different angles: the influence of wine on the king himself, whose wisdom then becomes similar to that of an orphan (v. 19 ), and its influence on his subjects, who then forget their masters and rulers (v. 21 ). The king may be strong, but wine overcomes him.

4:1–12 , the focus of this speech is the control of the king over his subjects: people may be strong because they dominate nature (v. 2 ), but the king is the strongest because he masters people (v. 3 ). The power of the king is then illustrated by several examples: he commands wars in which people kill and are killed, pillage and destroy (vv. 4–5 ); by means of his tax-system he is a partner of everyone's toil (v. 6 ); and he demands and receives absolute obedience (vv. 7–10a ). The apparent illogical nature of the people's obedience is greatly emphasized: they fulfil the king's command although they themselves are strong, although the king is but one person and they are many, although he may deprive them of their property and even life, and command them to do things that they do not agree with. Thus, while wine controls man by affecting his body and mind, the king subordinates the human will!

Two textual notes: (1) v. 4 describes the army as overcoming ‘mountains, walls and towers’, ‘mountains’ being a misreading of the Hebrew ‘cities’ (῾ārîm/hārîm); (2) the absolute obedience to the king's command is expressed in vv. 7–10a in a series of oppositions in a conditional structure. The list has seven items (kill/release; attack; lay waste/build; cut down/plant), and one wonders whether the list originally had four pairs, with one of the items having been lost (attack), or was built originally around the typological number seven.

4:13–33 , the third guard takes advantage of his position as the last contestant, and utters two speeches rather than one, on women and on truth. The two speeches are already connected in the present context, together with the identification of the third guard as Zerubbabel (v. 13 ), but this sequel may still be broken down into its several components. The first speech, about women, is in itself structured in two parts: a general exaltation of the power of women (vv. 14–27 ,32), and a secondary concrete example, taken from the court-life of the present king and his mistress (vv. 28–31 ). The speech opens with a rhetorical question directed at the two earlier contestants: the king is great, people are great (Gk. ‘many’ is a mistranslation of the Heb. rabbîm) and wine is strong—but are they not ruled by a higher master, women (v. 14 )? As mothers, women are the origin; they give birth to the king, to the people who master nature, and to the farmers who prepare wine (vv. 15–16 ). They provide the physical and spiritual needs of men—clothes and honour (v. 17 ). A man may give away everything that he had amassed for a beloved woman (vv. 18–19 ); he may leave his parents and country to stay with his wife until his death (vv. 20–1 ). He may adopt all kinds of lifestyles—good or bad, on sea or land—to satisfy his wife (vv. 22–5 ). In sum, many men who loved women were led to insanity or slavery, or lost their way (vv. 26–7 ). Isn't this proof that women rule men and are the strongest (v. 32 )?

Into this general praise of women, fully in line with the preceding two speeches, a short passage of the most surprising and dramatic nature was interpolated: a ‘hot’ story from the king's private chambers. It is an illustration of the general statement that women may lead men to madness and improper behaviour, as exemplified by the person who is supposed to be the measure of all things, the present king. This is in fact a penetrating criticism of the king, almost bringing him to trial, in which the guard betrays the king's trust by exposing his misconduct. This unexpected move is indeed followed by general embarrassment: ‘the king and nobles looked at one another’ (v. 33 ). Would the guard's words about the power of women be judged for their value, or would he be punished for his outright criticism of the king? At this point, the guard takes advantage of the general embarrassment and continues his argument, as if saying: ‘I told what I did because this is the truth. I speak in the name of truth—the greatest value of all.’ This bold and dramatic turn offers the king a way out of the embarrassing situation and brings the guard the longed-for victory.

4:34–40 , this speech, too, begins with a comparison to the preceding argument: women are strong, but truth is stronger. Henceforth, the speech goes its own way and moves onto an elevated plane, in both content and style. The speaker refers to the foundations of the world—the earth, the heavens, and the sun (vv. 34–5 ), and these are but a path towards the highest of all: the Creator. Having made this cursory identification of truth and God, the speaker goes on to eulogize truth, through praise of the earth, the heavens, and everything else (v. 36 ). The essence of truth is that it has absolutely no injustice, a statement that highlights the concrete, moral concept of truth as ‘justice’. With great rhetorical force, and with a fourfold repetition of the word ‘injustice’ in a parallel rhythm, the speech compares truth with all the other claimants to the throne of ‘the strongest’. Wine, king, and women are unrighteous, indeed, all human beings are unrighteous. They are all transitory, having no lasting existence or value (v. 37 ). The speaker moves from the petty world of mankind to the eternal world of absolute values and ends in a hymnal eulogy, ‘to it belong the strength, and the kingship, and the power, and the majesty, for ever and ever’ (v. 40 ), which leads to what is now self-evident: ‘Blessed be the God of truth!’ The speech is a mixture of Jewish and Hellenistic elements, but its origin seems to be clearly in the Hebrew psalmodic style, with echoes from Isaiah, 1 Chr 29:11; Ps 148:13 , etc., and the repetitious use of keywords: truth, injustice, great, strong.

( 4:41 ) Decision

The spirit in which the words were said overtakes the audience; they react to the rhetoric of the speech and are moved by its force. Their reaction, ‘Great is truth and strongest of all’ is a verbal echo of the keywords of the speech: truth, great, and strong! In its Latin translation, this sentence has become a universal slogan, whose force and validity have not waned.

( 4:42–63 ) The Consequences of the Competition

vv. 42–6 , the beginning of the king's address continues in the vein of the wisdom story and accentuates the king's generosity toward the guard (v. 43 ). But the guard's response does not follow this lead, and rather than asking for additional personal favours, he moves boldly from the personal to the political sphere and addresses the king as the political sovereign. The scene seems to have its origins in the book of Nehemiah, where Nehemiah addresses the Persian king Artaxerxes with the request to build Jerusalem (Neh 2:3–9 ), but the differences are noteworthy. Zerubbabel's request is much longer than that of Nehemiah, and more important, it is presented as if he does not really ask anything new. He only reminds the king of his vow and provides him with an opportunity to be ‘righteous’—in line with the spirit of the speech. Darius's vow is not known from any other source, and its historical basis seems doubtful. When did Darius make this vow? Why? How did Zerubbabel come to know about it? And if he made the vow—why did he not fulfil it? Darius's vow is not a historical datum but a literary device, which elevates his dedication to the building of Jerusalem on the one hand, and affords Zerubbabel the opportunity to achieve his goals with no need for explanations on the other. The king had already recognized, by his earlier vow, the need to build the city of Jerusalem, to return the holy vessels, and to build the temple.

The historical picture drawn by Zerubbabel has several peculiar points: (1) The burning of the temple is not ascribed to the Babylonians who conquered the city, but to the Edomites. The participation of the Edomites in the destruction of Jerusalem is attested in several places (e.g. Ps 137:7; Ob 11–14 ), but the main story in 2 Kings 25:8–10 ascribes its burning to Nebuzaradan, the king's general. Does the information given here reflect the more precise historical facts, or is it one more trick of the speaker, avoiding possible embarrassment on the part of Darius who, as ‘the king of Babylon’, might find it difficult to revoke an earlier ‘Babylonian’ deed? (2) The holy vessels were not sent to Jerusalem by Cyrus—who only took them out of Babylon and made a vow to send them to Jerusalem—but were still in the hands of the Persians. This twist of the story (see 1 ESD 2:15 ) is another aspect of shifting the credit for the restoration from Cyrus to Darius. Cyrus's decree is not mentioned; what remains is his unfulfilled vow regarding the holy vessels. (3) The story seems to imply that Cyrus actually destroyed Babylon, a fact which is not confirmed from any other source.

vv. 47–57 , it seems that Darius was only waiting for the opportunity provided by the guard's request. He turns energetically to the project, issues a bill of rights, and begins to implement it by writing to all the officials who were to be involved. These measures provide for: (1) Permission for Zerubbabel and others to leave Persia and go up to build Jerusalem, to be supported by the officials' help in this matter (v. 47 ). (2) Permission to build the city, to be supported by the right to transport cedar wood from Lebanon (v. 48 ). (3) Exemption of the people going up to Jerusalem from taxes (v. 49 ). (4) Exemption from taxes on the territory under their control (v. 50 ). (5) Recovery of the land that had been taken over by the Edomites (v. 50 ). (6) Concrete allowances for the furtherance of the building: twenty talents a year for the construction of the temple (v. 51 ), and ten talents a year for the maintenance of the temple cult (v. 52 ). (7) Tax exemption of all those who came from Babylon and their descendants (v. 53 ). (8) Priestly exemption from taxes (v. 53 ). (9) Special allowance for the upkeep of the priests and provision of their vestments (v. 54 ). (10) Special allowance for the Levites, until the completion of the temple and the city (v. 55 ). (11) Provision of land and wages for the guards of the city (v. 56 ). (12) Return of the holy vessels that Cyrus ‘set apart’ (v. 57 ). (13) A general confirmation of all the rights extended in the past by Cyrus (v. 57 ). This extensive bill of rights is taken from many sources and goes beyond the original request. For example, it opens with the securing of a safe journey for Zerubbabel and his caravan, although Zerubbabel did not mention that he wanted to go to Jerusalem. This feature, as well as the provision of wood, is certainly taken from the story of Nehemiah (Neh 2:7–8 ). Issues concerning the taking of land by the Edomites may reflect actual historical facts, but were not relevant to the building of Jerusalem, and are nowhere mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah. The generous exemption from taxes also seems to reflect some reality of the Hellenistic, rather than the Persian period; in the latter period, only the letter of Artaxerxes refers to this matter and that only concerning the clergy (Ezra 7:24 ).

No mention is made in this context of the appointment of Zerubbabel as the governor of Judah, and the exact political order envisaged by Darius is not specified. The freedom from taxes and tributes seems to imply a broader concept of self-government than is usually known in the Persian period. In any event, the political terminology of 1 Esdras is very similar to that of Maccabees.

vv. 58–63 , the episode is concluded in accordance with the conventions of the time: a thanksgiving prayer of Zerubbabel (cf. Ezra's prayer after he had received the letter of Artaxerxes, Ezra 7:27–8 ), and the celebrations of the community. The conventional hymnal style of the prayer, as well as its parallel structure, are obvious.

Aware of the historical reality, the competition having taken place in Persia and the Jews living in Babylon, the author concludes by telling of Zerubbabel's journey to Babylon. The people react to the news with thanksgiving and rejoicing. The special emphasis of 1 Esdras that the city and the temple were built together is expressed here too: ‘to go up and build Jerusalem and the temple’. With these celebrations, the story of the competition has completed its role as an opening for a new beginning, and comes to an end.

( 5:1–46 ) The Return

Due to the new arrangement of the material, the great return to Jerusalem, ascribed in Ezra 2 to the time of Cyrus, is here transferred to the time of Darius, and Ezra 2 is connected to the new sequel by a new narrative introduction (vv. 1–3 ) and a new preface to the list of returnees (vv. 4–6 ). The author then resumes his source, and follows it faithfully (with small divergences) from v. 7 onwards (Ezra 2:1–70 ).

vv. 1–3 , the preparations for the return consist of one thing: the choice of returnees. The idea that only a fraction of the people returned from Babylonia to Jerusalem probably represents the historical reality, but the explanation of this fact as a result of ‘choosing’, namely, that permission was extended only to a minority that was to be chosen from the great multitude, seems to be the author's own. It was probably suggested to the author by the story of Nehemiah's repopulating of Jerusalem, in which he designated by lot one out of ten to live in the city (Neh 11:1–2 ). The end of the passage refers again to this issue but from a different perspective: the people who accompanied the returnees were so joyful that they too were allowed to go up!

The caravan described is similar to that of Nehemiah who went to Jerusalem with an escort (Neh 2:9 : ‘the king had sent officers of the army and cavalry with me’), rather than to the caravan of Ezra who ‘was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way’ (Ezra 8:22 ). 1 Esdras sees the return as a festive procession, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem accompanied by musicians and song (see Isa 30:29 ), rather than a long voyage through the desert.

(vv. 4–43 ) The List of Returnees

vv. 4–8 , the introduction is composed of two parts: the original heading of the list, taken from Ezra 2:1–2 , which appears in vv. 7–8 following the author's presentation of the leaders (vv. 4–6 ). After establishing the fact of the return (v. 4 ), three leaders are mentioned (vv. 5–6 ): ‘the priests…Jeshua the son of Jozadak…and Joakim his son, and Zerubbabel, the son of Salathiel’. (Due to a minor textual corruption in the Heb. bnw w to bn, the three leaders have become two, both of them priests: Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and Joakim the son of Zerubbabel. For various attempts to explain the text as it is, or to restore it differently, see Cook 1913: 34; Myers 1974: 66.) The leaders are provided with short genealogies which connect them to the constitutive periods of their respective authority. The priests are related to Phineas the son of Aaron on the one hand, and to Seraiah, the last high priest of the First Temple (2 Kings 25:18 ; following 1 Chr 5:40 ) on the other. Zerubbabel is connected to the house of David, the family of Perez, and the tribe of Judah, but nothing is said about his descent from Jehoiachin, the exiled king of Judah (cf. 1 Chr 3:17–19 ), perhaps because of the divergent traditions in this regard, in 1 Esdras as well. Tracing the hero's genealogy to his ancient, tribal origin is a literary mark of the period—see Esth 2:5–6; Tob 1:1; and Jdt 8:1 . This is the most elaborate genealogy of Zerubbabel at our disposal; it reflects in an unmistakable way one of the important features of 1 Esdras—the glorification of Zerubbabel and his Davidic lineage. The short note that Zerubbabel was the person who ‘spoke wise words before Darius’ highlights the sequence of the events. The date of the competition, here added to the story, seems to have been created under the influence of several sources: the date of Nehemiah's approach to Artaxerxes, ‘In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year’ (Neh 2:1 ), illustrating again that Nehemiah's memoirs were drawn upon for the story of Zerubbabel; Esth 3:7 , ‘In the first month which is the month of Nisan’; and perhaps also Ezra 7:9 .

In vv. 7–8 the text returns to its source in Ezra 2 and produces the original introduction, with small changes. Most important is the replacement of the term: ‘people of the province’ with ‘people of the land of Judah’ (NRSV: the Judeans), which is the term generally used in this book. Also worth noting is the emphatic rendering of ‘each to his own town’, and the twelve names of the leaders (as in Neh 7:7 ) rather than the corrupt eleven in Ezra 2:2 .

vv. 9–43 (see Ezra 2:2b–67; Neh 7:7b–72 ), while the literary structure and general contents of the list faithfully follow its source in Ezra 2 , there are numerous differences in the details of names and numbers. Some names in Ezra 2 are not found in 1 Esdras, and some names in 1 Esdras are missing in Ezra 2 . There are also changes in the order of names, and above all, their forms—as everywhere in the book—are sometimes unrecognizably reshaped. There are also several changes in the numbers, which could be easily explained as a result of corruption, but the original version cannot be determined. In what follows we will not deal with the variant details (see Cook 1913: 35–8), but present only the list's broader lines. It is structured in three main parts: vv. 9–35 , register of the people according to their ancestry; vv. 36–40 , register of those who lack a genealogical record or could not verify it; vv. 41–3 , summary, including servants and property.

vv. 9–35 , the register of the people is divided between the laymen (vv. 9–23 ) and the clergy (vv. 24–35 ). Among ‘those of the nation’ (v. 9 ), the people are registered in groups in two ways: by their ancestral genealogy or by their settlements. From a formal point of view, some are described as ‘the descendants of’ and others as ‘those of’, and while in general there is some correspondence between these criteria (‘the descendants of Parosh’, ‘those of Netopha’), the correlation is only partial, and with the obscurity of some of the names, no precise division can be made. It is worth noting, however, that the groups registered according to their ancestry are usually larger than those of the settlements. Also, the settlements, as far as they can be identified, are mostly in Benjamin, with only a few place-names (Bethlehem, v. 17b ; Netophah, v. 18a ) in Judah. The list does not refer to Jerusalem, and it is hard to say how many of those enumerated were regarded as living in Jerusalem.

The clergy are divided into six groups, representing the temple orders in a declining hierarchy: priests (vv. 24–5 ), Levites (v. 26 ), singers (v. 27 ), gatekeepers (v. 28 ), temple servants (vv. 29–32 ), and the descendants of Solomon's servants (vv. 33–4 ). In matters of terminology, the singers are termed—as throughout 1 Esdras—‘the holy singers’ (NRSV: temple singers), probably to distinguish them from non-cultic singers, mentioned for instance in v. 42 ; and the Nethinim (Ezra 2:43 etc.) are consistently defined as ‘temple servants’ (hierodouloi). In all versions of the list, the priests outnumber all the other orders put together: 4,288 (4,289) priests against 713 (733, 752) for all the others.

vv. 36–40 , two groups are mentioned in this supplement to the list of persons without proper record: three families who could not prove their Israelite ancestry (vv. 36–7 ), and three families of priests, who could not prove their priestly origin and were rejected from service until the restoration of the now lost priestly Urim and Thummim (Ex 28:30; Num 27:21 , etc.), that is, indefinitely (vv. 38–40 ). In listing the Babylonian origins of those without record, 1 Esdras presents three of the place-names, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, as the names of the people's leaders—in harmony with his general tendency to emphasize the role and person of the leaders (cf. above, vv. 5–6, 9 ). An interesting rephrasing is found in v. 40 , which cannot be fully explained on textual grounds. According to Ezra 2:63 the decision regarding the priests was made by the Tirshata, a Persian loanword probably meaning ‘his highness’, referring anonymously to the officiating governor. In Ezra-Nehemiah ‘the Tirshata’ is identified twice with Nehemiah (Neh 8:9; 10:2 ) and this identification is similarly assumed here, introducing Nehemiah at this period, alongside Zerubbabel. However, as a result of misunderstanding or a later corruption, the title ‘Tirshata’ has been transformed to a proper name and presented in transliteration.

vv. 41–3 : the summary provides the final numbers: the free people of Israel and, as against Ezra 2:64, 1 Esdras distinguishes explicitly between freemen and slaves, substituting for the original ‘the whole assembly together’, ‘All those of Israel, twelve or more years of age, besides male and female servants’ (v. 41 ). The age of 12 years as denoting maturity or a change of status, is not recorded anywhere in the Bible; the general age for full membership in the community being 20 (inter alia Num 1:3–46 ). The specification of age may either reflect a certain reality of the time which is not otherwise attested to (but cf. Lk 2:42 ), or another typological use of the number 12.

(vv. 44–6 ) Arrival and Settlement

The arrival in Jerusalem is not stated explicitly, as in Ezra 8:32 or Neh 2:11 : ‘We/I came to Jerusalem’; rather, it is stated apropos the principal information: the vows of the returnees to build the temple. An interesting change of contents is introduced by the rendering of ‘made freewill-offering’ (hitnadbû) as ‘vowed’ (nādrû). This turn of phrase is evidenced throughout 1 Esdras and may have originated with the Greek translator. The derivations of the root n-d-b are almost consistently rendered with ‘vow’ (see 2:7, 9 , as compared to Ezra 1:4, 6 , and more). The actual donation of Ezra 2 , made by the heads of the families ‘according to their resources’ (vv. 68–9 , in itself a summary of Neh 7:69–71 ), is turned into a vow ‘that to the best of their ability, they would erect the house … and … they would give’.

The settlement of the returnees is described somewhat differently in the various versions of the list (Ezra 2:70, Neh 7:72a ), but according to 1 Esdras the higher ranks of clergy, the priests and Levites, and some of the people of Israel settled in Jerusalem and ‘in the land’, whereas the other clerical orders, the singers and the gatekeepers, together with all Israel, settled ‘in their towns’. It seems that an original distinction between ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘their towns’ has been obscured by the addition of ‘in the land’ for the first group (NRSV: ‘and its vicinity’ is a nice way out of the difficulty). Why none of the lower orders of the clergy settled in Jerusalem is not made clear.

Concerning the reality behind the list, it seems self-evident, and indeed is generally accepted, that the list cannot be taken at face value; all these people could not have come up at once from Babylon to Jerusalem. The magnitude of the return would be impossible for the journey assumed here, and it may be compared to the return under Ezra, already of an outstanding size (Ezra 8:2–14, 18–19 ). On the other hand, there can be no doubt that a return to Judah did occur at that time as both Joshua and Zerubbabel were born in Babylon and their activity in Jerusalem is reflected in the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah (Hag 1:1, 12, 14; 2:2–4, 21; Zech 3:1–9; 4:6–10 ). There are two main solutions suggested: that several, separate returns, throughout a longer period of time, hinted at by the twelve leaders at the heading of the list, have been condensed into one record, as if they represented a single event (Williamson 1985: 30–2); or, that a distinction should be made between the list proper and its narrative framework. While the introduction and the narrative section refer to a return, the list itself represents a census of all the inhabitants of the province, returned exiles and non-exiles alike. In this context, all these inhabitants are legitimized as ‘returned exiles’. This second view is supported by the archeological data, which estimates the population of the province of Judah in the fifth century BCE to have been around 50,000 (Lipschits 1997: 331–6; for a much smaller estimate see Carter 1994: 133–7), and it is no longer possible to regard them all as returned exiles.

( 5:47–73 ) Laying the Foundations

Following his source faithfully, 1 Esdras records the first steps towards the restoration of Jerusalem as the religious centre of the Jews: constructing the altar and establishing the pattern of worship, making preparations for the building of the temple, and laying its foundations in joy and celebrations. This is followed by the intervention of Judah's enemies, which brought the effort to a halt.

(vv. 47–55 ) Building the Altar and Establishing a Regular Cult (Ezra 3:1–6 )

With the arrival of the seventh month, the date of the great pilgrimage, the people gather in Jerusalem to perform their duties. The place of the convocation, ‘the square before the first gate towards the east’, is not mentioned in Ezra 3:1 , but is probably influenced by Neh 8:1 in the version of 1 Esd 9:38 . Their first step, under the leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel, is to build an altar on which sacrifices can be offered. As at Ezra 3 , it is emphasized that everything was done properly: the altar was built ‘in its place’ (v. 50 ), the burnt offerings were ‘in accordance with the directions in the book of Moses the man of God’ (v. 49 ); they offered sacrifices ‘at the proper times’ (v. 50 ), and kept ‘the festival of booths, as it is commanded in the law’ (v. 51 ). In fact, two sets of sacrifices are described here: the daily sacrifices and those of the festivals, as of that specific date (vv. 50b–51 ), and the regular sacrifices throughout the year from that point onwards (v. 52 ). The free-will offerings, here termed ‘vows’ (cf. vv. 44–6 above), were also resumed at that time.

In an interesting rephrasing of his source, the attitude of the ‘other peoples’ is differently conceived. According to Ezra 3:3 ‘they were in dread of the neighbouring peoples’, alluding to the animosity that accompanied all their actions. According to 1 Esdras there were two groups among the ‘other nations’: those who ‘joined them from the other peoples of the land’ (v. 50a ), and others, who were ‘hostile to them and were stronger than they’ (v. 50b ). The stereotypical negative attitude to the ‘other nations’, characterizing Ezra-Nehemiah, is somewhat qualified.

At the same time, first steps are taken towards the building of the temple, with the provision of building materials: hewn stones, probably found in the immediate vicinity and mentioned cursorily, and cedar wood, brought from Lebanon with the special permission of Cyrus (vv. 54–5 ). The reference to this permission, as the whole chapter, follows the source of Ezra 3 (v. 7 ), and although there is no explicit reference to this item in Cyrus's decree (either in Ezra 1 or 6 ), one may assume that this was one aspect of his general support of the building. However, in the context of 1 Esdras, our chapter is explicitly placed at the time of Darius and follows his explicit order to this effect ( 4:48 ); the reference to Cyrus here is a glaring deviation from the new historical sequel.

(vv. 56–65 ) Laying the Foundations of the Temple (Ezra 3:7–15 )

Seven months later, at the beginning of the second month of the second year, the work on the temple, the main goal of the return and the symbol of restoration, is begun with a great ceremony under the leadership of Joshua and Zerubbabel. The ceremony is described as a grand liturgy—the priests in their holy vestments with trumpets, and the Levites with musical instruments, accompany the builders in music and song. In a touching scene, the reaction of the people is described: the old people, who had seen the previous temple and witnessed its destruction, react in ‘outcries and loud weeping’, while the majority of the assembly ‘came with trumpets and joyful noise’. These voices mingle together in an indistinguishable loud voice, heard from afar. The inspiration for this story, based literally on Ezra 3:12–13 and somewhat rephrased, comes from Hag 2:3–4 . While in Ezra 3 the event occurred in the time of Cyrus, in the present context it is transferred to the time of Darius, where Zerubbabel's return is placed.

(vv. 66–73 ) Intervention of Judah's Enemies (Ezra 4:1–5 )

This scene is connected to the previous one in a narrative chain: The noise of the celebrations raised the interest of the neighbouring foreigners and caused them to come to Jerusalem. These people are described in three different ways: the enemies of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (v. 66 ); those who were brought to the land by ‘king Esar-haddon of the Assyrians’ (v. 69 ); and ‘the peoples of the land’ (v. 72 ). Although, even according to this text, they have obeyed and worshipped the Lord for many years, the threefold identification marks them as complete foreigners whose intentions are met with great suspicion. It is generally assumed that the people designated in this way are the inhabitants of the former northern kingdom, but no single ethnic term is used to identify them. This is an authentic reflection of the prehistory of the Samaritans and their early relations with the people of Judah. Their origin and loyalty are questioned and they are totally rejected, but their separate identity in religious and ethnic terms is not yet established.

The natural offshoot of rejection, aggression, does not take long to appear: the rejected people now take every possible measure to obstruct the building, which stopped ‘as long as king Cyrus lived … for two years, until the reign of Darius’ (v. 73 ). The insurmountable historical difficulties created by this statement are mainly twofold: (1) There is no direct sequel from Cyrus to Darius; Cambyses, Cyrus's heir, ruled for eight years between them, and so the time gap was longer than two years. (2) According to the context of 1 Esdras, the events described in ch. 5 , including the laying of the temple's foundations, took place in the time of Darius, after the second year of his reign ( 2:30; 5:6 ). A reference to Cyrus at this point deviates from the historical sequence. These difficulties may be fully understood as a result of 1 Esdras's literary procedure. 1 Esdras has completely reorganized the story by transferring Ezra 4:6–24 to ch. 2 and relocating all the events of Ezra 3 to the time of Darius. However, these have not influenced the phrasing of the original story, which is now continued in its original sequence.

( 6:1–7:15 ) New Start and Final Realization

Following Ezra 5–6 with small changes, the story now goes on to tell about the resumption of work on the temple ‘in the second year of Darius’ under the inspiration of the prophets, and its completion ‘in the sixth year of King Darius’ ( 7:5 ). In Ezra 5:1–2 , the resumption of the building stands in outright contradiction to Artaxerxes' command that no work should be executed ‘until I make a decree’ (Ezra 4:21 ). With the removal of the correspondence with Artaxerxes (Ezra 4:6–24 ), the logic of the story in this regard has improved. Nevertheless, the broader historical context remains problematic, since it displays the short memory of everyone involved. According to the historical view of 1 Esdras, ‘the second year of Darius’, given here as the date of the governor's inspection (vv. 1, 3 ), is also the date of the competition of the three guards ( 5:6 ), which resulted in Darius's extended bill of rights and Zerubbabel's return. On that occasion Darius wrote letters to all the governors in Syria and Phoenicia and instructed them to help Zerubbabel on his way back and aid his projects ( 4:47–57 ). All this is completely ignored by the present story; neither the governor, nor the Jews, not even Darius himself, take cognizance of the events described in 4:47–57 . This is another result of 1 Esdras's incomplete method of reworking.

( 6:1–2 ) Resumption of Work (Ezra 5:1–2 )

The data about the role of Haggai and Zechariah in encouraging the people to build are probably dependent on their prophecies as preserved in their books (see Hag 1:1–11; 2:1–9; Zech 4:6–10; 8:9–13 ), although these prophecies speak about the construction and not its resumption.

( 6:3–22 ) The Governor's Inspection (Ezra 5:3–17 )

Immediately after the successful resumption of the work, the builders are visited by the supreme authority of the satrapy, but contrary to other interventions, the inspection is described in neutral terms, as part of the governor's routine duties. Nevertheless, the high rank of the visiting officials may suggest an earlier unrecorded act of conspiracy. The circumstances of the inspection are recorded in two forms: briefly, in the introductory narrative passage (vv. 3–6 ), and more extensively, in the governor's letter to Darius (vv. 8–22 ). Its purpose is implied in the governor's questions: to investigate doubts regarding the official authorization of the building. The point made at the beginning, that the inspection did not result in an immediate halt of the work, as would have been expected under such circumstances, is understood as an expression of special divine grace (vv. 5–6 ).

The letter of Sisinnes (Ezra 5:3 : Tattenai) is an interesting example of official correspondence and local politics, structured carefully and phrased in official terminology. It begins with precise information regarding the governor's visit and observation (vv. 8–10 ), informs the king about the governor's investigation and his demand to be given the names of the responsible leaders (vv. 11–12 ), and continues with a lengthy recital of the answer he received, presented literally in the first person plural (vv. 13–20 ). The letter concludes with the governor's request: that the veracity of the elders' claim in the matter of authorization be checked, and that he be given further instructions (vv. 21–2 ). To the question of authorization, ‘at whose command are you building this house ..?’, the elders of the Jews provide the formal answer by referring to Cyrus's edict in the first year of his reign. However, they set this answer within a long report of the history of the house, before and after Cyrus's command. Their central point is that they were not doing anything new! The house was built ‘many years ago by a king of Israel’, burned down by Nebuchadnezzar, began to be restored by the command of Cyrus, and had been being built since that time. Their words do not hint at any break in the process of building, nor at any previous intervention to stop it. The elders' answer is marked by strong religious tones, which are absent from the official language of the Persian visitors; they present themselves as ‘the servants of the Lord who created the heaven and the earth’ (v. 13 ), and explain the destruction of the temple as divine punishment (v. 15 ).

The version of the letter in 1 Esdras has undergone several changes from the version in Ezra in both content and style. The term ‘God of heaven’ has been replaced by other divine titles (vv. 13, 15 , as against Ezra 5:11, 12 ; see 1 ESD 2:1–9 ); the city of Jerusalem is mentioned right at the beginning (vv. 8, 9 , with no parallel in Ezra 5 ), and the house is glorified in several ways (vv. 9, 10 ). Also, the king is addressed more formally as ‘our lord the king’ (vv. 8, 22 ) and the Jews are defined as those ‘who had been in exile’ (v. 8 , absent in Ezra 5 ).

A matter of special interest is the addition of the name Zerubbabel to that of Sheshbazzar as the one who received the holy vessels from king Cyrus (v. 18 ). While the theological goal of this insertion seems obvious—the wish to glorify Zerubbabel by connecting him from the very beginning with the fortunes of the vessels and the restoration of the temple—the historical result is embarrassing. Contrary to the picture drawn in this book, where Zerubbabel makes his first appearance as Darius's guard and receives the holy vessels from him, he is projected here back to the time of Cyrus and the vessels are seen as already delivered in Cyrus's time.

( 6:23–34 ) Darius's Response (Ezra 6:1–12 )

Darius's response is a precise reaction to the governor's request: he conducts a search in order to find confirmation for the Judeans' claim of authorization (vv. 23–6 ) and issues his own instructions (vv. 27–34 ). The search throughout the empire produces an archival record of Cyrus's decree, found in Ecbatana, the king's summer residence in Media. The record confirms the main claim, that the permission to build the temple was granted by Cyrus, but differently from the decree in 2:3–7 , it refers to the measurements of the house and the manner of its building, imposes the coverage of the expenses on the royal treasury, and contains an explicit order to return the holy vessels. It does not mention the people's return to Judah. All these create a coherent picture in which the issues that involve the imperial administration are set down, and the features of the house carefully detailed, because the expenses are to be covered by the treasury.

Darius's own instructions (vv. 27–34 ) are styled somewhat differently from Ezra 6:6–12 . In both versions, the instructions are presented as an excerpt from Darius's letter, addressed to the governor in the first person, with the heading of the letter omitted. 1 Esdras turns the one long excerpt into four passages, phrased alternately as direct speech (vv. 28–31, 33–4 ) and indirect speech (vv. 27, 32 ). The instructions provide the governor with the answer to his query, but go far beyond that. Their main point is the recognition of the temple as a ‘king's sanctuary’, under the direct protection of the emperor. The royal treasury assumes responsibility for the provision of the ritual, and the priests are required to make sacrifices and pray for the welfare of the king and his offspring. The orders are upheld by severe penalties to transgressors—death by hanging and confiscation of property—and a general prayer to God to punish anyone who would act against the temple. However, unlike Ezra 6:8 , the contribution of the king towards the building is absent in the present version.

Note that contrary to Ezra 6 , which refers in a general fashion to ‘the governor of the Jews’ (v. 7 ), or ignores him altogether (v. 8 ), Zerubbabel is mentioned here twice as the governor (vv. 27, 29 ).

( 7:1–9 ) Completion and Dedication of the Temple (Ezra 6:13–18 )

The completion of the temple and its dedication are told in a very concise style: the governor and his escort complied with the contents and spirit of Darius's orders and helped the Jews to complete the building. The house was finished on the 23rd (Ezra 6:15 : the 3rd) day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of Darius's reign, and dedicated. Compared with the extravagant dedication of the first temple (1 Kings 8:1–66 ), the elaborate ceremonies reported in Chronicles (e.g. 1 Chr 15–16; 28–9; 2 Chr 29:20–36 ), and even some of the events described in Ezra-Nehemiah (e.g. Neh 12:27–44 ), the conciseness of the description and the modesty of the ceremony and its puristic character are striking. The ritual includes only sacrifices, with no accompaniment of music or song, which had become a hallmark of Second Temple ceremonies. The number of sacrifices—although quite high in itself—is minimal in comparison to the extent of the other ceremonies, and no details at all are provided regarding the actual ritual practice. In Ezra 6 , the ceremony is qualified succinctly in two ways: that it was conducted ‘with joy’ (v. 16 ), and ‘as it is written in the book of Moses’ (v. 18 ). 1 Esdras omits even the single reference to ‘joy’, and replaces it by another statement that the people did ‘according to what was written in the book of Moses’ (v. 6 ). On the other hand, 1 Esdras adds a few details of the ceremony: the priests and the Levites stood ‘arrayed in their vestments’ (v. 9 ), the gatekeepers were at their gates (v. 9, cf. 1:16 ), and the sin offerings were brought according to the number of the leaders of the tribes, rather than of the tribes themselves.

One more point should be made. According to Ezra 6:14 , the complete success of the building was achieved ‘by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia’, expressing very loudly the book's view of the role of the Persian kings as the agents of God's will for his people (Japhet 1996: 132–6). Although 1 Esdras generally shares this view, it is softened here in his phrasing of the same verse: ‘they completed it by the command of the Lord God of Israel. So with the consent of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of the Persians, the holy house was finished’ (vv. 4–5 ).

( 7:10–15 ) Passover (Ezra 6:19–22 )

The pericope is concluded with a short description of the Passover following the dedication. This sequel is clearly an imitation of earlier events, such as the dedication of Solomon's temple followed by the Feast of Booths (1 Kings 8:65 ), and Josiah's Passover following the restoration of the temple (2 Kings 23:1–20, 21–3 ). The description of the festival is again very concise, with brief mention of the date of the Passover and the celebration of the feast of unleavened bread after it; no details are provided concerning the sacrifices, the ritual, and the ceremony.

One matter stands out beyond the information of Ezra 6 , that of purification, probably under the influence of 2 Chr 30 . Ezra 6:20 refers to the general purification of the clergy, ‘both the priests and the Levites’, and says nothing about the people. 1 Esdras repeats this information, but extends it to relate to the status of the people ‘Not all of the returned captives were purified’, and repeats again that ‘the Levites were all purified together’ (v. 11 ). Another difference regards the composition of the celebrating community. According to Ezra 6:21 the celebrating crowd was composed of two groups: ‘the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also … all who had joined them and separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the LORD the God of Israel’. While the identity of the latter group, mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah only once more (Neh 10:29 ), may be debated, the note certainly refers to people outside the narrow circle of the returned exiles. This group disappears in the rephrasing of 1 Esd 7:13 , where ‘those who had separated themselves from the abominations of the peoples of the land’ are the same as ‘the people of Israel who had returned from exile’.

The peculiar view of the book of Ezra, emphasizing the role of the foreign rulers as the vehicle by which God's grace is extended to his people, is retained here too (v. 15 ).

The Last Kings of Judah and the Destruction of Jerusalem ( 1:1–58 )

1 Esdras begins his story with the last period of the kingdom of Judah, from the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah (622 BCE) to the destruction of Jerusalem in the time of Zedekiah (586 BCE). Except for a short section in vv. 23–4 , it faithfully follows 2 Chr 35–6 .

( 1:1–33 ) Josiah (2 Chr 35:1–27 )

The story of Josiah comprises two major parts, the celebration of Passover (vv. 1–22 ) and the story of Josiah's end (vv. 25–33 ), connected by the author's note in vv. 23–4 .

( 1:1–22 ) Celebrating Passover (2 Chr 35:1–19 )

After a brief introduction of the historic event in v. 1 —a Passover held by Josiah in Jerusalem at the appropriate date (echoed and elaborated in the conclusion of the story, vv. 19–22 ), vv. 2–9 begin the detailed description of Josiah's preparations, referring to two matters: the summoning of the cultic personnel for the performance of the ritual (vv. 2–6 ), and the grant of sacrificial animals (vv. 7–9 ). Only one verse deals with the priests (v. 2 ), with special attention to their garments—the external representation of their special status and privileges (see also 7:9 in comparison to Ezra 6:18 )—a matter which seems to have been of great import at the time. It is followed by Josiah's long address to the Levites (vv. 3–6 ), which seeks to legitimize their ‘trespass’ into the performance of the ritual: the change in circumstances, which freed the Levites from the task of carrying the ark, made them available for other roles, to ‘worship the Lord’ and ‘serve his people’. They are now asked to take upon themselves the main burden of the festival: to prepare the Passover sacrifices for all the people of Israel, according to their organization into divisions.

vv. 7–9 enumerate the sacrificial animals: lambs and kids for the Passover sacrifice, and cattle for the peace-offerings of the festival (Japhet 1993: 1050). The four groups of donors in Chronicles ( 35:7–9 )—the king, his officials, the priestly and levitical heads—here become three, with the omission of the king's officers (see also v. 54 versus 2 Chr 36:18 ). The levitical heads are unexpectedly changed (a textual corruption?) into ‘captains over thousands’. The complex ritual, regarding both the Passover sacrifice and the peace-offering of the festival, is described in 2 Chr 35:10–16 in great detail, relating to the various stages of the sacrifice and the division of work between the Levites, priests, singers, and doorkeepers, from the perspective of the levitical service. This precision is not preserved in ch. 1 (vv. 10–18 ). With the omission of 2 Chr 35:11–12a and the rephrasing of v. 12b , the details concerning the slaughtering of the Passover sacrifice, the sprinkling of the blood, the flaying of the animals, the removal of the fat parts, and their delivery to the representatives of the people, are not recorded. Due to these changes, the description of the ritual begins with the roasting of the Passover sacrifice (v. 12 ), the cooking of the other sacrifices, and their distribution. In addition, a completely unknown feature is introduced, namely, the priests and Levites standing ‘with the unleavened bread’ (v. 10 ), most probably a result of a textual corruption (bĕmiṣwāt, ‘according to the king's command’, to bemāṣot ‘with the unleavened bread’). Each sector of the clergy performed its task with great precision and dedication: the priests offered the fats ‘until nightfall’, the singers were ‘in their place’, the gatekeepers were at ‘each gate’, and the Levites made it all possible, for they prepared the Passover sacrifices for everyone: the people, the priests, the singers, the gatekeepers, and themselves. Even more than Chronicles, 1 Esdras emphasizes the brotherhood (NRSV: kindred) of the Levites, not only to the singers and gatekeepers (v. 16 ǁ 2 Chr 35:15 ) but also to the priests (vv. 13, 14 ).

vv. 19–22 (2 Chr 35:17–19 ) are a detailed conclusion of the story, summing up the general facts and the significance of the event: the celebration of the Passover and the feast of unleavened bread for seven days, the uniqueness of the festival and, again, the precise date, the eighteenth year of king Josiah.

In all, 1 Esdras retains the emphases of 2 Chr 35 : the innovative character of the Passover, its having been celebrated in Jerusalem as a national festival; the magnitude of the festival, demonstrated by the number of sacrifices; the conformity of the ritual with the prescribed rules, the emphasis on matters of authority: the command of the king, of the Lord, as prescribed, etc.; and the diligence and sense of responsibility displayed by all, particularly the Levites.

( 1:23–4 ) The Author's Comment

The author's only explicit theological reflection points to the purpose of the chapter: the transition—in the very glorious days of Josiah—from glory to doom. According to the author's view, the end of Josiah marks the turning-point in the history of Israel and demands an explanation. In 2 Chr 35 , the story moves from the Passover to Necho's campaign, with a broadened conventional formula: ‘after all this, when Josiah had prepared the house, Necho king of Egypt went up to fight’ (v. 20 ). Although Pharaoh's war is not waged against Judah, its end with the death of Josiah poses a grave theological problem: rather than being rewarded for his zealous dedication to the Lord, Josiah is confronted with a test that he does not pass.

The book of Kings provides the necessary explanation in the form of a special paragraph; it juxtaposes Josiah's unprecedented merits with Israel's accumulated sins, and concludes that God did not repent his decision to destroy Judah (2 Kings 23:25–7 ). This theological explanation was rejected by the Chronicler, who omitted the passage altogether (for his own theological solution see Japhet 1997: 156–65), but its absence was felt by 1 Esdras, who supplemented it in the present passage in his own words. The juxtaposition of vv. 23 and 24 draws a contrast between Josiah, whose heart was ‘full of godliness’, and the ‘former times’ (NRSV: ancient times), when the people of Israel sinned against God and made him angry. The last statement, ‘the words of the Lord fell against [NRSV: upon] Israel’ are the necessary introduction to the next paragraph: Josiah's merits could not change the Lord's decision to destroy Israel, which now begins to be carried out with the untimely death of Josiah.

( 1:25–33 ) Josiah's End (2 Chr 35:20–7 )

Several changes have been introduced in 1 Esdras to the passage that describes the defeat of Josiah, his death and burial, and the conclusion of his reign. In the phrasing of v. 25 : ‘After all these acts of Josiah’ the reference to the preparation of the temple (2 Chr 35:20 ) has been omitted, an obvious adaptation to the new literary context, since the ‘preparing of the house’ has not been told in 1 Esdras and a reference to it became irrelevant. In the story itself, the proper name of the king of Egypt is omitted, and more significantly, the theological part of the story—the address of the king of Egypt and the explanation of Josiah's sin—is rephrased. In 2 Chr 35:21 Pharaoh speaks and threatens Josiah in the name of his god, ‘[g]od who is with me’, and Josiah is blamed for not listening ‘to the words of Neco from the mouth of [g]od’. In 1 Esdras, Pharaoh speaks in the name of ‘the Lord God’ (kuriou tou theou) or ‘the Lord’ alone (mentioned altogether four times), which may refer only to the God of Israel. Josiah is blamed outright for not listening to the ‘words of the prophet Jeremiah from the mouth of the Lord’ (v. 28 ). These changes overcome the pressing theological difficulty, implied in the Chronicler's phrasing, that Josiah was punished for not obeying Pharaoh's god, and express the belief that the foreign rulers serve as instruments of God's works in history. This universal biblical concept is reformulated here (also elsewhere, e.g. the decree of Cyrus in Ezra 1:1 ) to say that it was not only the Jews who saw world history in this way but the foreign rulers themselves adopted this view and conceived their task in history similarly.

In Chronicles (in contrast to 2 Kings), the text followed by 1 Esdras, the devastating significance of Josiah's death was recognized by his own generation as well as by later ones, and was acknowledged in the unprecedented scope and depth of mourning: the people of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah, the princes and their wives (a misreading of haśśārîm wĕhaśśārôt for the original haššārîm wĕhaššārôt ‘singing-men and singing-women’), all mourn upon his death ‘to this day’. In v. 33 the conclusion to Josiah's reign is recorded in great detail, as appropriate for the last great king of Judah. His fortunes and achievements were recorded in two books rather than one: the mourning over him was written in the ‘book of the histories of the kings of Judea’, while every one of his deeds and his great virtues were put down ‘in the book of the kings of Israel and Judah’.

( 1:34–58 ) The Last Kings of Judah (2 Chr 36:1–21 )

The story of the last kings of Judah faithfully follows the source in Chronicles and presents a similar historical picture. There are, however, several differences in the names of the kings and their relationship to each other, which do not seem to result from mere textual corruption (an attempt at harmonization is seen in the various MSS). A comparison of the three sources, with the order of reign in parentheses may clarify the picture.

The relationship of (5) Zedekiah is not recorded.

In 1 Esdras, Joahaz/Jehoahaz disappears (as in 1 Chr 3:15 ); Jeconiah, who is elsewhere presented as another name for Jehoiachin (e.g. 1 Chr 3:16–17 ), the son of Jehoiakim and Josiah's grandson, is placed as Josiah's son and successor; Joiakim/Jehoiakim's son carries the same name as his father, and the relationship of Zedekiah—the son of Josiah in 2 Kings, of Jehoiakim in 2 Chronicles—is not given. Although no precedence should be given to the historical picture created by 1 Esdras, it reveals some independent traditions and an effort at reconciliatory interpretation.

( 1:34–8 ) Jeconiah (2 Chr 36:1–4 : Jehoahaz)

The clear historical picture drawn in 2 Kings 24:31–4 , blurred somewhat in Chronicles by the omission of the death of Jehoahaz, is further obscured here. After having reigned for three months, Jeconiah was removed by the king of Egypt and replaced by his brother, Joiakim. Beyond that, the details are impenetrable: why did Joiakim ‘put the nobles in prison’? Who was ‘Zarius’, whose brother was he, and how did he get to Egypt? Why and how was he taken out of Egypt? It is not clear what part of the picture is a result of textual corruption, and what echoes conflicting traditions, like those of 2 Kings, which were not repeated in Chronicles. In any event, the historical picture of 2 Kings should clearly be preferred.

( 1:39–42 ) Joiakim (2 Chr 36:5–8 )

1 Esdras presents the abbreviated and reworked form of the history of Jehoiakim, as drawn in 2 Chronicles. Jehoiakim is the only king in 1 Esdras for whom the standard Deuteronomistic framework is preserved (vv. 39, 42 ). Recorded within the framework are two matters: (1) Nebuchadnezzar took Joiakim as prisoner to Babylon—a tradition which appears for the first time in 2 Chr 36:6 , and then in Dan 1:1 . The date given in Daniel for Jehoiakim's exile (the third year of his reign) explains well why 1 Esdras has completely omitted to mention the length of his reign. (2) Nebuchadnezzar took the holy vessels from the temple in Jerusalem and put them in his own temple (rather than his palace—2 Chr 36:7 ; cf. also Ezra 1:7 ) in Babylon. Thus, following 2 Chronicles, 1 Esdras views the spoiling of the temple's vessels as a multi-stage process, during the reigns of Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, parallel to the fate of those kings who were all exiled to Babylon.

( 1:43–58 ) Joiakim II and Zedekiah (2 Chr 36:9–21 )

The strict Deuteronomistic structure of Kings, followed also in Chronicles, in which the descriptions of the kings are clearly distinguished by standard formulas, is disrupted in 1 Esdras. The formulas are abandoned in favour of a more continuous and fluent discourse, which combines the stories of Joiakim II (vv. 43–5 ) and Zedekiah (vv. 46–58 ) into one sequel. Contrary to 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, in all MSS of 1 Esdras the name of Joiakim's son is not Jehoiachin but Joiakim, like his father. It probably reflects the reality of the author's times, in which consequent kings would bear the same name. Other than this change, the history of the king is described along the lines of 2 Chronicles: the king reigned just over three months and was exiled to Babylon, together with the holy vessels. The history of Zedekiah is the story of the destruction, following the Chronicler and adopting his theological presuppositions. According to the Chronicler's philosophy of history, the destruction was God's reaction to the transgressions of the generation in which it happened—that of Zedekiah and his people. Thus the measure of their sins has been augmented in the necessary proportion. Moreover, since God does not exert punishment without first warning the sinner and trying to make him repent his sin, God's warning through the prophets is described in great detail and the people's rejection of the prophets' rebuke is added to their sins. The destruction relates to Jerusalem and its people: many were killed; all the great buildings were burnt to ashes; the treasures were spoiled and brought to Babylon; and those who survived were exiled. All those who sinned received their due, and the place of their transgression became desolate.

The Chronicler's description assumes a poetic character, while the actual fortunes of the king (reported in detail in 2 Kings 25:4–7 ), the details of the deported bronze vessels (2 Kings 25:13–17 ), the fate of the dignitaries from Jerusalem who were deported and killed (2 Kings 25:18–21 ), as well as some facts regarding the aftermath of the destruction (2 Kings 25:22–30 ), are all passed over in silence. Jerusalem became desolate, and was to stay in this situation for seventy years, until it had repaid its debt, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths.

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