EZRA, BOOK OF
A record showing how Jehovah fulfilled his promises to restore Israel from exile in Babylon and reestablish true worship in Jerusalem. Included are the imperial orders to restore Jehovah’s worship among the Jews after the 70-year desolation of Jerusalem and the account of the work done, despite obstacles, to achieve this. Ezra stuck closely to the above purpose throughout the book. This is apparently the reason for the omissions of what went on during certain lapses of time, such as between chapters 6 and 7 of the book, for the writer was not trying to give a complete historical account of the times.
Writer. Ezra, as a priest, scholar, skilled copyist, and man who had “prepared his heart . . . to teach in Israel regulation and justice” and to correct the things wanting in the worship of Jehovah that was carried on among the repatriated Israelites, was eminently qualified to write the book bearing his name. The royal power granted to him by the king of Persia would give him added reason and authority to do the research necessary, and it would be logical for such a man to write a record of this important segment of his nation’s history. (Ezr 7:6, 10, 25, 26) The book is honest, therefore, in its use of the first person for the writer from chapter 7, verse 27, through chapter 9. Most scholars are in agreement that the book of Ezra carries on the history at the point where the Chronicles leave off, as a comparison of 2 Chronicles 36:22, 23 with Ezra 1:1-3 will show. This again points to Ezra as the writer. Jewish tradition likewise assigns the writership to Ezra.
Authenticity. The book of Ezra is included in the Hebrew canon. Originally it was combined with Nehemiah to form one scroll. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) follows this tradition, but since the 16th century, printed Hebrew Bibles mark a division, although they count the two books as one in the total number of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Douay Version uses the designations First and Second Esdras, following the Greek form of spelling. It notes, however, that the second book is also known as Nehemiah. There is an apocryphal book in Greek called Ezra III. This is composed of passages from Second Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah as well as certain popular legends; also there is the book falsely called Ezra IV.
The greater portion of Ezra was written in Hebrew. But a sizable portion is in Aramaic, since Ezra copied from the public records and official documents. These include the copies of letters sent to the Persian kings by officials “beyond the [Euphrates] River” and the royal replies and decrees imposing commands on these officials. Also, Ezra supplied a brief connecting history linking these documents. Aramaic was the diplomatic language and that used in international commerce of Ezra’s day. The Aramaic portions are found in chapters 4 to 7. Some of Ezra’s information was copied from Jewish archives, and this part is, of course, in Hebrew. These facts also strengthen the argument for the authenticity of Ezra’s account.
Ezra 7:23-26 records that the Persian government approved the Law of Moses as applicable to the Jews and that the Persians thus had a hand in restoring true worship. Ezra’s references to the Persian kings put them in their accurate order. Today the majority of scholars accept the accuracy of the book, The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible frankly saying that “there is no doubt about the reliability of the historical contents.” (Edited by H. Gehman, 1970, p. 291) The record in the book is, therefore, dependable, and Ezra was a historical person.
Time and Setting. The book of Ezra was written about 460 B.C.E., along with the books of Chronicles. Ezra begins by relating the decree of Cyrus for the restoration of the Jews from Babylon. It was in the first year of Cyrus that this Persian king issued a restoration proclamation. (Ezr 1:1) Judah and Jerusalem had been left desolate of inhabitants, in the autumn of 607 B.C.E., when those left by Nebuchadnezzar moved to Egypt. The 70th year of Jerusalem’s desolation, the last enforced sabbath on the land, would end in the autumn of 537 B.C.E. Cyrus’ decree must have been issued late in 538 B.C.E. or early in 537 for two reasons. The desolation had to last until the 70th year ended, and the released Israelites would not be expected to travel in the winter rainy season, as would have been the case if the decree had been made a few months earlier. Likely it was issued in the early spring of 537 B.C.E. in order to give the Jews a chance to travel during the dry season, arrive in Jerusalem, and set up the altar on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri) of the year 537 B.C.E., September 29 according to the Gregorian calendar.—Ezr 3:2-6.
After describing the Passover and the Festival of Unfermented Cakes that were held after the temple was completed in 515 B.C.E., Ezra passes over the subsequent period of time until the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes, the king of Persia, 468 B.C.E., when Ezra personally comes into the picture. Ezra uses the first person from chapter 7, verse 27, to chapter 9 but changes to the third person in chapter 10, putting himself in the background to concentrate on the activities of princes, the priests, the Levites, and the rest of those who had been repatriated, especially dealing with correcting the situation of the ones who had married foreign wives.
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HIGHLIGHTS OF EZRA
The rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and the restoration of true worship there after the Babylonian exile
Covers a period of some 70 years following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon
Cyrus issues liberation decree, and a remnant of Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem (in 537 B.C.E.) to rebuild the temple (1:1–3:6)
Rebuilding of the temple (3:7–6:22)
Foundation laid in second year of the return from exile
Enemies repeatedly interfere with temple rebuilding and finally succeed in having the work stopped until the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, in the second year of Darius I (520 B.C.E.), encourage the people to resume construction
An official investigation of Persian records in Babylon and Ecbatana reveals that the temple rebuilding was authorized by Cyrus, so Darius I decrees that the work continue without hindrance, stipulating the death penalty for violators
In the sixth year of Darius I (515 B.C.E.), temple construction is completed, after which the building is inaugurated and the Passover observed
Ezra goes to Jerusalem (in 468 B.C.E.) with gifts for the temple and to appoint judges (7:1–8:36)
Permission for the trip granted by Persian monarch Artaxerxes (Longimanus)
Ezra and about 1,500 men, besides 258 Levites and Nethinim from Casiphia, depart from a point of assembly at the river Ahava with gold, silver, and utensils for the temple; they arrive in Jerusalem over three and a half months later
Cleansing of Israel, including the priesthood (9:1–10:44)
Learning of the defilement from marriage to foreign women, Ezra makes public confession in prayer to Jehovah
Shecaniah acknowledges sin and proposes the making of a covenant to put away foreign wives and their offspring
All former exiles are commanded to assemble at Jerusalem; a decision is then made to have princes investigate the individual cases of defilement progressively
Priests, Levites, and the rest of the men follow through in dismissing foreign wives and sons