Saturday, August 9, 2014

Ezra: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

While the Israelites were living in exile in Babylon, the Persian Empire grew in strength and took power over Babylon.  The king of Persia, Cyrus, made a decree that some of the Israelites living in exile be allowed to return to their homeland, and rebuild Jerusalem and their Temple.  Cyrus even gave them money and provisions to do so.

So a group of Israelites returned to Jerusalem and the first thing they did was offer a sacrifice.  Then they began to rebuild the temple.  When the foundations were laid, the priests led a dedication ceremony and gave thanks, saying, “For He (God) is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever."  Present at this ceremony were some old men who remembered the first temple, and these men wept.  This dedication was so emotional “that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people.”

"Rebuilding the Temple" by Gustave Dore

As the Jews were busy rebuilding the Temple, some of their neighbors tried to frighten and hinder them from completing the work.  The neighbors even went so far as to write a letter to the new Persian emperor, Ataxerxes, complaining about the Jews, and saying that they were a potentially rebellious people, citing Israel’s rocky history in the the region.  Fearing unrest, Ataxerxes made the Israelites stop building.

Some time passed, and new prophets arose in Israel named Haggai and Zechariah, who encouraged the people to resume building the Temple, even without permission.  So they did.  Again, Israel’s neighbors complained, this time to the local Persian governor Tattenai.  The governor spoke with the elders of Israel, and then wrote a letter to the emperor Darius, explaining the situation.  The Israelites encouraged Darius to check the royal archives for a decree made by Cyrus, years ago.  Darius found Cyrus’s decree, and he not only allowed the Temple to be re-built, he provided provisions and legal protection.  So, under the reign of Darius, Israel finally completed the second Temple in Jerusalem, and had a big Passover celebration.

Some time passed, and the new governor, Ataxerxes II, allowed an Israelite scribe named Ezra to lead a new group of Jews form Babylon to Jerusalem.  Then the narrative changes to first person, continuing the story from Ezra’s point of view.  Ezra led a new generation back to Israel.  Upon arriving there, Ezra found a troubling situation: Jews had inter-married with other ethnic groups or, in the words of Ezra, “the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the land.” This inter-racial marriage caused Ezra such distress that he tore his clothes, pulled out his hair and beard, led a massive prayer of repentance, and pretty much forced all the men who had married foreign women to divorce them and leave them, along with their children.

Racism aside, Ezra was an important figure in post-exile Israel, describing their situation in this way: “Now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the Lord our God, to leave us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.”  Some scholars, like Richard Elliot Friedman, argue that it was Ezra the scribe/leader who first assembled the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) in it’s current form.  To read my book report on Friedman's book Who Wrote the Bible? (in which he argues for this view) click HERE.

"Ezra" by Michelangelo Buonarroti (from the Sistine Chapel)

No comments:

Post a Comment