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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Ezra

- Ezra

by Thomas Constable

Introduction

TITLE

The title in the English text comes from the main character in the second part of the book (chapters 7-10). Also in the Septuagint translation, this book bore the name of Ezra: "Esdras," the Greek transliteration of "Ezra." "Ezra" is a short form of Azariah, which means "Yahweh has helped." The Hebrew Bible has the same title.

Early Hebrew copyists placed Ezra together with Nehemiah because Nehemiah continues the history of Ezra. [Note: For an extended discussion of the views of scholars on the relationship of the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah, see H. H. Rowley, "The Chronological Order of Ezra and Nehemiah," in The Servant of the Lord and other Essays on the Old Testament, pp. 137-68; John Bright, A History of Israel, pp. 375-86; and Edwin Yamauchi, "Ezra-Nehemiah," in 1 Kings-Job, vol. 4 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 573-80. Bright argued that Ezra followed Nehemiah to Jerusalem rather than preceding him, but this is a minority view.] Another reason they may have done this was to make the total number of canonical books agree with the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. [Note: Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 400.] Another view is that they were written originally as one book and then divided later. [Note: Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, pp. 37-41.] Even today the Hebrew Bible links Ezra and Nehemiah, as did the Septuagint translators. However, the repetition of Ezra 2 in Neh_7:6-70 suggests that these two books were not originally joined together. Evidently, Origen (third century A.D.) was the first to divide Ezra-Nehemiah into two books, and Jerome followed this precedent in his Latin (Vulgate) translation. [Note: F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 1.] Thus, the division of Ezra-Nehemiah appears to have come from the Christian tradition. They appear as one book in all Hebrew manuscripts until the fifteenth century A.D. [Note: David M. Howard Jr., An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, p. 275.]

STRUCTURE

Rhetorical studies of Ezra-Nehemiah have revealed a chiastic structure that supports the view that these two books were originally one.

"A.    Zerubbabel’s return and list of returnees (Ezra 1-2)

Building of the temple and opposition (Ezra 3-6)

Return of Ezra (Ezra 7-8)

D.    Center: Purification of the people (Ezra 9-10)

C.’    Return of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1-2)

B.’    Building of the walls and opposition (Neh_3:1 to Neh_7:3)

A.’    Zerubbabel’s return and list of returnees; final reforms (Neh_7:4 to Neh_13:31)" [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, in The Old Testament Explorer, p. 342.]

WRITER AND DATE

Due to the ancient tradition that the same writer composed both parts of the Book of Ezra (chapters 1-6 and 7-10), many scholars believe Ezra produced all of it. [Note: E.g., W. F. Albright, "The Date and Personality of the Chronicler," Journal of Biblical Literature 40 (1921):119; et al. Albright also believed Ezra wrote Chronicles.] A passage in the Talmud credits Ezra with the authorship of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. [Note: Baba Bathra 14b-16a.] Ezra speaks in the first person in Ezr_7:28 to Ezr_8:34 and in chapter 9. [Note: See A. Philip Brown II, "Point of View in the Book of Ezra," Bibliotheca Sacra 162:647 (July-September 2005):310-30.] This may suggest that he drew from a source such as the so-called "Ezra Memoirs" that recorded Ezra’s personal recollections in the first person. [Note: Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, pp. 134-35; Breneman, pp. 35-36; Howard, pp. 277-79; et al.]

Another popular view is that Ezra and Nehemiah each wrote the books that bear their names. [Note: R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 1149-50; et al.] A third view is that the joint book was a compilation that a "chronicler" made long after the events recorded took place. [Note: Fensham, pp. 2-4; et al.]

As a scribe (Ezr_7:21), Ezra had the qualifications needed to write this book. He was a general contemporary of Nehemiah (Neh_8:1-9; Neh_12:36). Another reference in the Talmud claimed that Ezra was a disciple of Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe. [Note: Megilla 16b.]

The last historical reference in the book is in Ezr_4:21-23. In view of other chronological references in the book, this event must have occurred about 446 B.C. Therefore Ezra could have written the book about 446 B.C. or shortly after that. [Note: For discussion of the view that Ezra returned to Jerusalem in 398 B.C., see Howard, pp. 281-84.]

GENRE

Though Ezra is basically a book of history designed to teach theology, there are a number of sub-genres within it. These include letters, royal edicts, lists, and memoirs.

DISTINCTIVE EMPHASES

"Regardless of one’s view of the authorship of Ezra-Nehemiah and its relationship to Chronicles, the theological viewpoint of the whole collection is essentially the same. The message is addressed to the postexilic community of Jews who wonder if there is any hope of political and religious restoration. Its central thrust is that there indeed is hope but that hope must be incarnated in the rebuilding of the Temple, the cultus, and the priesthood. Only as the remnant people became the theocratic nation, founded on and faithful to the covenant Yahweh made with their fathers, could they revive the Davidic house and anticipate the resumption of their mediatorial role among the nations of the earth. Ezra and Nehemiah are therefore burdened to clarify (1) the Person and works of God, (2) Israel’s own identity and function as a covenant people, and (3) the nature of that covenant in postexilic times." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "A Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 190.]

Other major themes include a shift from leaders to community, a relaxing of the place where holiness is restricted, the shift from oral to written authority, and an emphasis on walls. Ezra’s wall separated the Israelites from the Gentiles, and Nehemiah’s wall separated the Jews in Jerusalem from their enemies. [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 211-12, following T. C. Eskenazi, "The Chronicler and the Composition of 1 Esdras," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 48 (1986):39-61; and D. Green, "Ezra-Nehemiah," in A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, pp. 206-15.]

SCOPE

The earliest historical reference in Ezra is to the decree of Cyrus that he issued in his first year on the throne (Ezr_1:1), 538 B.C. [Note: See my comments on that verse below for further explanation.] The latest historical reference was just prior to Nehemiah’s first trip back to Jerusalem (Ezr_4:21-23; cf. Neh_1:1-3) in 446 B.C. Therefore this book spans a period of 92 years of history. [Note: See Fensham, pp. 9-16, for the historical background in the ancient Near East.]

However, most of the events recorded took place in 538-515 B.C. (chapters 1-6) and 458 B.C. (chapters 7-10). [Note: See A. Philip Brown II, "Chronological Anomalies in the Book of Ezra," Bibliotheca Sacra 162:645 (January-March 2005):33-49; idem, "Nehemiah and Narrative Order in the Book of Ezra," Bibliotheca Sacra 162:646 (April-June 2005):175-94; and Longman and Dillard, p. 206.] Between these two separate series of events the Book of Ezra records nothing. The events in the Book of Esther transpired during those years (in 482-473 B.C.). The books of Ezra and then Nehemiah record the last events, chronologically, in the Old Testament.

"These books [Ezra and Nehemiah] are tightly packed with spiritual messages waiting to be extracted. They communicate a rich spirituality during times when things were not overwhelmingly positive for God’s people. They are concerned with lists that show the unity of God’s people, the importance of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, sacrificing, and reading of the Scriptures is [sic] exemplified throughout both books. There is much we can learn in them." [Note: Howard, pp. 273-74.]

Correlation of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Esdras Books [Note: Adapted from ibid., p. 276.]
EnglishVulgate (Latin)Septuagint (Greek)
EzraEsdras IEsdras B (Beta)
NehemiahEsdras IIEsdras C (Gamma)
1 EsdrasEsdras IIIEsdras A (Alpha)
2 EsdrasEsdras IV

1 and 2 Esdras are apocryphal books.

OUTLINE

I.    The first return under Sheshbazzar chs. 1-6

A.    The return from Babylon chs. 1-2

1.    The edict of Cyrus and its consequences ch. 1

2.    The exiles who returned ch. 2

B.    The rebuilding of the temple chs. 3-6

1.    The beginning of construction ch. 3

2.    The opposition to construction ch. 4

3.    The delay of construction ch. 5

4.    The completion of construction ch. 6

II.    The second return under Ezra chs. 7-10

A.    The return to Jerusalem ch. 7-8

1.    The decree of Artaxerxes and its consequences ch. 7

2.    The journey itself ch. 8

B.    The restoration of the people chs. 9-10

1.    The problem of mixed marriages ch. 9

2.    The solution to the problem ch. 10

Conclusion

The Book of Ezra records two major Jewish returns to the Promised Land from Babylon. The first of these took place in 537 B.C. under the leadership of Sheshbazzar and then Zerubbabel. About 50,000 Jews returned, rebuilt the temple, and re-established worship as the Mosaic Law directed to the best of their ability (chapters 1-6).

The second return occurred in 458 B.C. under Ezra’s leadership. About 1,700 men (perhaps about 5,000 Jewish men, women, and children) returned on that occasion, and the result was a restoration of the people’s allegiance to the Mosaic Law. Their purified marriages illustrate the sincerity of their commitment.

In both returns, God’s sovereign control over the Persian kings is very evident. God moved the hearts of these men to permit His people to return and so fulfill His will (cf. Pro_21:1). God can and will do seemingly impossible things to remain faithful to His promises to His people.

This book is also a powerful revelation of how God deals with His chosen ones when they prove unfaithful to Him. He does not discard what He has chosen, but He fashions it anew when it fails.


Appendix

The Hebrew Calendar [Note: From John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt, p. 142.]
Name of MonthNumber of MonthFestivalModern MonthAgricultural Season
Pre-exilicPostexilicSacred YearCivil Year
AbibNisan171 New MoonMar./Apr.Spring Equinox
14 PassoverOccasional Sirocco
15-21 Unleavened BreadLatter rains; flood season; beginning of barley season
16 FirstfruitsFlax Harvest
21 Holy Convocation
ZivIyyar28Apr./MayDry season begins; apricots ripen
Sivan397 Pentecost (Feast of Weeks)May/JuneWheat harvest begins; dry winds; early figs; grapes ripen
Tammuz410June/JulyHot, dry season; grape harvest
Ab511July/Aug.Air still; heat intense; olive harvest
Elul612Aug./Sept.Dates and summer figs
EthanimTishri711 Feast of TrumpetsSept./Oct.Early (former) rains
10 Day of AtonementHeavy dews
15-21 Feast of BoothsPlowing; seed time
22 Solemn Assembly
BulHeshvan82Oct./Nov.Rains; winter figs; wheat and barley sown
Chislev9325 DedicationNov./Dec.Winter begins; pastures become green
Tebeth104Dec./Jan.Coldest month; rains; snow on high ground
Shebat115Jan./Feb.Growing warmer; almond trees blossom
Adar12615 Feast of PurimFeb./Mar.Spring (latter) rains begin; citrus fruit harvest


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