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by John Dummelow
General Introduction on Ezra and Nehemiah
1. The period of the Exile. The contents of Ezra and Nehemiah are separated from the last events in the previous historical writings by an interval of 50 years. The books of Chronicles, like the books of Kings, virtually close with the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar and the deportation of a large number of its inhabitants into Babylonia. There they were probably gathered into colonies or settlements at various places, such as Tel-abib (Ezekiel 3:15), Tel-melah, Tel-harsha (Ezra 2:59), Casiphia (Ezra 8:17), and others. So long as they remained quiet subjects they were not, as a rule, persecuted or enslaved. They were at liberty to cultivate the land and to acquire servants (Jeremiah 29:5; Ezra 2:65); and, to judge from the value of the contributions made for religious purposes (Ezra 2:65, Ezra 2:69; Zechariah 6:10-11), some must have accumulated considerable wealth. On the other hand, those who were disaffected and insubordinate brought upon themselves cruel punishments (Jeremiah 29:22); and several passages in the prophets imply that many of the exiles were not unacquainted with harsh conditions of service (Isaiah 14:3; Isaiah 47:6).
Jewish religious life in the time of the Exile was distinguished from that of the pre-exilic period by the suspension of the sacrificial system. Notonly was the Temple at Jerusalem destroyed—the place which the Lord had chosen to put His name there—but the captive Jews were withdrawn from the actual soil of Israel and were dwelling in an ’unclean land’ (cp. Amos 7:17), where acceptable sacrifices could not be offered. They maintained, however, such religious ordinances as the sabbath and circumcision; and the cessation of material oblations probably intensified rather than impaired the practice of prayer. Reflection upon the calamities sustained by their race must have deepened their sense of national sin; and the lessons of experience at last bore fruit in the gradual eradication of their propensity towards idolatry. The hope of a future restoration to their own country led to an increasing study of the ceremonial law which circumstances prevented them from carrying out in the present; and the loss of national independence enhanced the interest attaching to the records of their past greatness, some of the historical books (including the books of Kings) being completed during this period.
The Exile was brought to a close when the Babylonian empire fell before Cyrus, prince of Anshan or Elam. Cyrus, though an Elamite, was connected by descent with the Persian house of Achæmenes; and he not only became master of Media (in 549 b.c., through the deposition of Astyages), but subsequently of Persia likewise. In character he was courageous, magnanimous, and pious; and when he advanced to attack Babylon (then ruled by Nabunahid, or Nabonidus, a feeble prince), his career was watched with intense interest by the Jews, who regarded him as their destined deliverer. In 538 he took possession of Babylon, which surrendered peaceably; and when Nabonidus, who had fled, was captured, the Jews passed under the rule of a new lord. The way in which their expectations respecting Cyrus were fulfilled forms the subject of the opening narrative of the book of Ezra.
2. Political and Religious Conditions after the Return. When the Jewish people returned from exile their political condition was very unlike what it had been before the Fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of its inhabitants. With those events the national existence which they had enjoyed for many centuries came to an end; and though a number of them were restored to their country by Cyrus they remained subjects of the Persian empire. Jerusalem and the surrounding districts were under the control of a governor (Pehah or Tirshatha), who, though he might be occasionally a Jew, must often have been an alien. And whilst the Persian rule was probably in general not oppressive, various circumstances must have made the position of the Jewish community rather a hard one. They were surrounded by a hostile population, who seized every opportunity of bringing them into disfavour with the Persian authorities. They were for the most part poor (the richest men, according to Josephus, having remained in Babylon), and the land they cultivated, which was naturally not very fertile, had doubtless suffered from neglect; and yet they not only had to pay tribute, custom, and toll to the royal exchequer (Nehemiah 5:4; Ezra 7:24), but had to contribute to the support of the local governor. And the pressure of external hardship was aggravated by internal friction. The poorer classes, to meet the payments required of them, had to borrow of their more prosperous neighbours at a high rate of interest, and the latter enforced to the full the rights which the Jewish laws conferred upon the creditor over an insolvent debtor. Many, to support themselves, had not only to part with their fields, but with their families, who were sold into bondage. The bitter feelings created by this situation might have had serious results, had it not been for the prudence and self-sacrifice of Nehemiah, who from 445 to 433 was Tirshatha. By his exhortation and example he succeeded in averting the social divisions that at one time threatened the people; and though some of the measures he adopted to safeguard the religion of his countrymen did not conduce to friendly relations with their neighbours, his statesmanship ensured during the tenure of his authority not only the security but the contentment of the community In religion the Jews enjoyed a degree of freedom denied them in civil affairs. When they returned to Jerusalem they were authorised by Cyrus to restore the Temple; and though some years elapsed before the Temple was actually reconstructed, the altar of the Lord was set up as soon as they were once more settled in their own land, and the system of sacrificial worship, which had been suspended during the Exile, was re-organised. But though the religious life of the community again flowed in its old channels, its general tenor was in some respects unlike what it had previously been. Three points of difference may be noticed here, (a) The proneness to adopt alien religious rites, or to worship the Lord by means of material symbols, which was so common before the Exile, disappeared after the Return. The severe national judgment which they had sustained, and the experience of polytheism which they had acquired in Babylon, seem to have confirmed them finally in their allegiance to the God of their fathers and in the principles of spiritual religion; and the protests against idolatry, so frequently required in earlier times, are henceforward seldom heard. (b) Prophecy, which in pre-exilic days had been so conspicuous a feature in their religious history, now declined in importance; and though several prophets did arise in the course of this period, they were more circumscribed in the range of their thoughts and less vigorous and original in the expression of them. In some respects the diffusion of a knowledge of the Law among the people at large rendered the need of such exceptional teachers less urgent, their places as moral and religious instructors being, in a measure, filled by the scribes, (c) Ritual was regarded differently by the leaders of religious thought before and after the Exile, in consequence, no doubt, of a difference in the needs of the times. When Israel enjoyed national independence, there was less need to emphasise the external features distinctive of Jewish worship, the prophets being chiefly concerned to insist upon the moral conditions demanded by the Lord of His worshippers. But after the Exile, when the nation had lost its independence, it was only by its ecclesiastical organisation and observances that its separateness as a community could be maintained, and therefore increased importance was attached to the ceremonial requirements of the Law.
List of Kings of Babylon and Persia
|List of Kings of Babylon and Persia|
|Fall of Babylon||538|
|Persia—Cyrus, king of Babylon||538|
1. Character and Contents. The book of Ezra was combined by the Jews with the book of Nehemiah, the two being regarded as constituting a single work, of which Ezra himself was the reputed author. In the Hebrew Bible they both precede Chronicles; but it is probable that with the latter they form a consecutive history of which Chronicles is the first half. The close connexion between these three books is shown, not only by the way in which the closing verses of Chronicles are practically repeated in the opening verses of Ezra, but by (a) a common interest in statistics and genealogies; (b) a common sympathy for the ecclesiastical side of Jewish life; (c) a common use of certain phrases (e.g. ’father’s house’) which are comparatively rare elsewhere. If the three are all portions of one single work the composition of it cannot be earlier than the close of the 4th cent.; for, as has been seen, Chronicles must be as late as 340 b.c., whilst Nehemiah contains a reference (Nehemiah 12:11, Nehemiah 12:22) to the high priest Jaddua, who was contemporary with Alexander the Great (336-323). Consequently, since Ezra cannot have outlived the 5th cent. b.c., his authorship of the connected books is out of the question; and the writer is really unknown.
The book of Ezra relates the history of the Jewish people from their return under Zerubbabel from Babylon to their own country in 536 to the arrival at Jerusalem of a second body of exiles under Ezra in 458, and includes an account of the building of the Second Temple. It thus covers a period of rather more than 78 years; but of these the 15 years between 535 and 520 and the 58 years between 516 and 458 are practically a blank; so that it is less a continuous record than a description of selected incidents.
2. Sources. The principal sources employed in the compilation of the book are (a) the actual memoirs of Ezra, distinguished by the use of the first person (Ezra 7:27 to Ezra 9:15); (b) genealogies and registers (2, Ezra 10:18-44); (c) extracts derived from documents written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic (Ezra 4:7 to Ezra 6:18; Ezra 7:12-26).
3. Value. The historical importance of Ezra is very great, since it is the chief authority for the period of Jewish history with which it deals. Though the work of which it forms part is separated by a considerable interval from some of the events narrated, it makes use (as has been just shown) of earlier documents, and, for some portion of the time covered by it, it draws upon records composed by one of the principal actors in the incidents described. Nor is its religious value inferior to its secular interest. As a record of the past it recounts the fulfilment of one of the most remarkable predictions of Hebrew prophecy, namely, the restoration to their own land of the exiles who 50 years before had been carried into captivity; it relates the establishment at Jerusalem of the community to which the world owes the preservation, arrangement, and completion of the Hebrew Scriptures; and it marks the beginning and development of that intense attachment to the Mosaic Law which became so conspicuous a feature of Jewish religious life in after times. And as a means of conveying practical instruction the book is animated with a spirit of fervid patriotism, of uncompromising adhesion to principle, and of loyal devotion to God. The character of Ezra in particular exhibits qualities deserving much admiration—deeply-rooted personal piety conjoined with a high regard for ecclesiastical order and the external rites of religion, and unwavering faith manifesting itself in, and through, active works.
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