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Introduction to the Book of Ezra

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General Info

The Book of Ezra is named for the book’s principle character and author, the Hebrew Priest whose name means “Yahweh helps”.  In the modern Hebrew canon, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are located in the third and last section known as the Ketuvim (Writings), following the Torah (Teachings or Law, Books of Moses) and the Nevi’im (Prophets).  Ezra-Nehemiah precedes the last book of the Hebrew Canon (the Chronicles), and many believe Ezra-Nehemiah and the Chronicles originally formed a single volume known as the “Chronicler’s History”.  The last few verses of the Chronicles are repeated as the first few verses of Ezra.  In addition, the last verse of the Chronicles is a partial sentence that is completed in Ezra.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah themselves were originally one book.  Ezra-Nehemiah was translated as one volume in the Septuagint (OT Greek translation from the 3rd-2nd Century BC).  The Jewish historian Josephus (~37-100 BC), and the Babylonian Talmud (5th-6th century AD) also treated Ezra–Nehemiah as one book.  The book was first divided into two volumes by Origen in the mid-third century AD, and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate did the same a half century later, naming Ezra as 1 Esdras (Greco-Latin word for “Ezra”) and Nehemiah as 2 Esdras.  These names may still be encountered in some older Roman Catholic canons (not to confused with the apocryphal books of 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras that were originally named 3 Esdras and 4 Esdras in the Vulgate).  The Hebrew manuscripts were finally divided into two volumes in the mid-fifteenth century, and virtually all of the English translations followed this division.

Even though modern translations followed this same division, we recommend treating the two books as a single work due to their historical literary structure.  For example, Ezra the Priest enters the story in chapters 7-10 of the first volume (Ezra), then his story is continued in chapters 8-10 of the second (Nehemiah).  The books are our sole biblical source of the historical and theological events in Israel from 583-432 BC, and each would be incomplete without the other.

In the modern Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox canons, the Ezra and Nehemiah make up two of the twelve OT Historical Books (Joshua to Esther in the Protestant canon).

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Brief Survey

The book of Ezra begins in the first year of Persian King Cyrus (538 BC).  After conquering the Babylonians who had exiled the Jews, King Cyrus issues a decree permitting the Jews to return to Judah to live and rebuild their temple.  The Jews had gotten comfortable in the foreign land however, so it is estimated that only a small percentage of the total Jewish population initially chose to return to their homeland.  They are led by Zerubbabel (aka Sheshbazzar, but see “Interpretation Challenges” below), one of the leaders of the tribe of Judah, and grandson of King Jehoiachin who was taken to Babylon in the first exile in 597 BC by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

Chapters 3-6 cover the events in Jerusalem involving the first returning exiles.  First, they erect the altar, re-establish the sacrifices, and then lay the temple’s foundation.  After this however, they encounter opposition from opponents that delay the work for ten years.  Work then resumes under the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.  Again, they are opposed by the local authorities, but God causes Darius, the new king of Persia, to lookup Cyrus’ original decree and warn the locals not to interfere.  Thus the Temple is completed and Passover observed for the first time since before the exile.

Approximately 60 years pass between the events at the end of chapter 6 (~516 BC) and the beginning of chapter 7 (538 BC).  The events in Persia that are recorded in the Book of Esther occur during a portion of this time period.

Chapters 7 and 8 chronicle the return to Jerusalem of an additional 1-2 thousand Jewish exiles under the leadership of Ezra and with the financial support of Persian King Artaxerxes I.  The genealogy that opens chapter 7 establishes Ezra’s priesthood as a descendent of Aaron via Phinehas and Zadok.

In chapters 9 and 10, Ezra confronts the problem of Jewish intermarriage with pagan foreigners.  This dangerous practice, that often led Israelites and resulting mixed children to adopt the pagan practices of their foreign spouses, had been allowed by the Jewish leaders.  Ezra interceded on behalf of the nation, the people confessed and dealt with their sins.

Ezra the Priest’s story continues in Nehemiah chapters 8-10.

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Key Verses

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah.  Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them…  (1:1-3)

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the Lord, as prescribed by David king of Israel.  With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord: “He is good; his love toward Israel endures forever.”  And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.  (3:10-11)

So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo.  They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia.  The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.  Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy... On the fourteenth day of the first month, the exiles celebrated the Passover.  The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean.  The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their brothers the priests and for themselves.  So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.  For seven days they celebrated with joy the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because the LORD had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria, so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.  (6:14-16, 19-22)

Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king.  He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.  For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.  (7:8-10)

Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage.  He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia:  He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.  (9:9)

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Author and Date

The book does not name its author, but Jewish tradition identifies the author as Ezra, the Priest and scribe who was well versed in the Law of Moses (Ezr 7:6).  The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Baba Bathra, Folio 15a) states that “Ezra wrote the book that bears his name [Ezra-Nehemiah – that was originally a single volume] and the genealogies of the Book of Chronicles up to his own time.  In addition, the book contains very strong internal evidence for Ezra’s authorship.  The first six chapters were written in third person, but when Ezra arrives on the scene in Judah (7:27-28; 8:15 and afterward), the author switches the narrative to first person.

In addition to his own memoirs, Ezra also drew from many other sources such as Cyrus’s decree, multiple lists of families and returnees to Jerusalem, Rehum’s letter and Artaxerxes’s reply (ch 4), Tattenai’s letter and Darius’s reply (ch 5&6), and lists of those who intermarried (ch 10).  It is interesting that the author inserted some of these source documents in their original Aramaic language (diplomatic documents were often written in Aramaic during this time period) rather than translating them into Hebrew.

The author could have completed the portion of the book that is now contained in Ezra as early as 445 BC, when Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, or he may have compiled the two volumes together shortly after 432 BC, when the events of what is now Nehemiah were complete.  Some have argued for a later date, but the book’s linguistics have been shown to be more similar to some fifth-century Aramaic papyri found in an Egyptian Jewish community from the fifth century BC (during the lifetime of Ezra) than to later writings.

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Historical Background

After the death of Joshua, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land of Canaan (~1400 BC), the tribes were led by a series of judges for the next three centuries.  The nation was then ruled by Kings Saul, David and Solomon.  After Solomon's reign, the Northern Kingdom of Israel seceded (931 BC), but the house of David continued to rule over the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  After two centuries of continuous disobedience to God’s covenant, God allowed the Northern Kingdom of Israel to be conquered and exiled by the Assyrians in 722 BC.  The southern kingdom of Judah survived an additional 134 years before being conquered and exiled by the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Selective historical events for the period of the united and divided kingdoms are recorded in the books of Samuel, the Kings, and the Chronicles.

In 539 BC, Babylon was conquered by Persia, and the following year, Persian King Cyrus the Great issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland.  The books of Ezra and Nehemiah provide an account of the return of certain remnant groups of Jewish exiles to Judah to re-settle the land.  Just as there were three waves of exiles from Israel to Babylon (605, 597 and 586 BC), there were three returns to Judah under Zerubbabel in 538 BC, Ezra in 458 BC, and Nehemiah in 445 BC.  Ezra-Nehemiah also records the opposition to, and triumph of the Jews in their endeavors to re-build the Temple, repair and re-build the walls of Jerusalem, and restore worship of the one true God.

For more Information:

See OT History Books for the position of the Exile and return to the land within the context of the OT historical periods.

See OT Historicity for Historicity of the OT History books.

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See OT History and Monarchy Chronology for timeline of additional historical events.

The original Book of Ezra-Nehemiah spans a period of over 100 years from Cyrus’s capture of Babylon (539 BC) through Nehemiah’s reforms just prior to returning to Babylon (432 BC).  Most dates in this list can be accurately fixed within a year or so.

586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Jewish Population
539 BC Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
538 BC First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel
~ 516 BC Rebuilding of the Temple Completed
~ 478 BC Esther and Mordecai Foil a Plot to Exterminate Jews in Persia
458 BC Ezra and other Exiles Return to Jerusalem
445 BC Nehemiah Returns to Jerusalem, Begins Rebuilding the Walls
432 BC Nehemiah Recalled to Babylon
~400 BC Writing of the Last Books of OT - Possibly assembled by Ezra

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The historical purpose for Ezra and Nehemiah is to continue the narrative from the Chronicles by documenting key events related to the return of the Jews to their homeland after years of exile in Babylon.  The return also fulfilled the prophecy that Judah and the surrounding nations would serve the king of Babylon for 70 years (Jer 25:8-13, see also Dan 9:1-2).  Primary historical events are the rebuilding of the temple for the purpose of worship in Ezra, and the new wall around the city of Jerusalem for safety and defense purposes in Nehemiah.

The spiritual and covenantal purpose is to re-assure the Jews that God’s plan for Israel was still in effect.  As mentioned earlier, Zerubbabel was from the tribe of Judah, and the grandson of King Jehoiachin who was deported to Babylon.  So the royal line of David that would lead to Jesus the Messiah over five centuries later had not been broken (Mt 1:6-16).  Likewise, the Levitical priestly line of Aaron (brother of Moses) continued through Ezra himself (Ezr 7:1-5).  Finally, the return to the land also kept God’s promise of the Land to Israel as descendants of Abraham (Neh 9:7-8), a promise still in effect today.

So in all this, we see the prominent theme of the sovereign providence of God.  In addition, God moved King Cyrus to issue the return decree (Ezr 1:1), aided the people during construction (Ezr 5:5; 6:14, 22; Neh 4:14, 20), protected them during their journey back to Judah (Ez 8:22), and secured Nehemiah’s appointment as Governor (Neh 2:8).

The theme of prayer was very prevalent in lives of both Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezr 8:21, 9:1-15, Neh 1:4-11, 2:4, 9:5-37). Many of these prayers were related to the covenant. Both Ezra and Nehemiah relied heavily on prayer, and Nehemiah often acknowledges God’s answer.

We also find much emphasis on worship (Ezra 3:10–13; 6:16–22; Neh 11:17, 23; 12:8-9, 27–43).  The order of the construction projects is also evidence for the importance of worship and thanksgiving among the people.  First, they built the altar, and then the temple before beginning construction of the city walls.  This was done because of what was written in the Law of Moses (Ezr 3:2-4).  The people relied upon God instead of man-made walls for protection.  This also reflected a high view of Scripture.

We see the pinnacle of this reverence for Scripture in Nehemiah 8 as the people all stood up when Ezra opened the Book of Moses.  The people remained standing for hours, then bowed down with their faces to the ground in worship.  This led to a binding written agreement of obedience to God’s law with the people that the priest and Levites sealed (Neh 9 and 10).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Who was Sheshbazzar in Relation to Zerubbabel?

In preparation for the first return (Ezra 1), we find the Persian treasurer giving the collected offering for rebuilding the Temple to “Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah”.  Later, we read that Sheshbazzar laid the foundations for the Temple in Jerusalem (Ezr 5:16).  Earlier in the chapter, Ezra writes that “Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel” began work on the Temple.  How do we explain the apparent discrepancy in the names of the Jewish leaders?  Some have proposed that Sheshbazzar volunteered to lead a small group of Jews to Jerusalem just prior to the group led by Zerubbabel.  We find no evidence to support this possibility.

Instead, apparent discrepancy can be easily solved by noting that foreigners serving in the Persian courts were typically given a Persian “court name” (Dan 1:6-7).  So “Sheshbazzar” was probably the court name assigned to Zerubbabel (similarly, Daniel's court name was Belteshazzar).  Others have suggested that Sheshbazzar was the court name assigned to Shealtiel, the father of Zerubbabel (Ez 5:2, Neh 12:1).  In this case, Zerubbabel accompanied and assisted his father with the Temple construction, then eventually took over.

We believe the former case, that the names Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel refer to the same person is the most likely scenario.  Ezra appears to use the names interchangeably in the chapter 5 narrative.  In addition, both of the names Sheshbazzar and Shealtiel are missing from the extensive list of returnees in Ezra 2.  Given Shealtiel’s position in the royal line, either his Hebrew or court name would almost certainly have been included if he had made the trip.  In either case, no error is introduced into the text, nor is any theme of the book altered by this uncertainly.

Intermarriage and Divorce

Ezra chapters 9 and 10 may raise many questions in our modern society regarding the themes of Marriage and divorce.  There are also some apparent differences between the banishment of foreign wives in Ezra versus the New Testament teaching of Jesus and Paul regarding divorce.

We first note that Jesus and Paul were teaching under the New Covenant.  Under the Old Covenant, the nation of Israel was not to intermarry because people from other nations were not merely agnostics, but were committed worshipers of false pagan gods.

Next, the Jews, as God’s chosen people to reach the other nations, were to keep themselves pure.  Intermarriage almost always resulted in the participating Israelite adopting the pagan religion rather than the foreigner adopting worship of the true God of Israel.  See our OT Intermarriage article from our Ruth Commentaries for a detailed treatment of the subject.

Thus, in Ezra’s case, even though banishment of the foreign wives wasn’t an ideal solution, it was much preferred for the time to prevent God’s chosen nation from being polluted by pagan worship.  Israel had just endured the exile due to adopting the pagan ritual of the surrounding nations.  Now, they were in danger of repeating the same mistake, so severe measures were required.

In the case of Paul’s teachings (see 1Cor 7), he is speaking to Christians from many nations who have married an unbeliever.  In this case, he advises Christians not to enter into any partnerships, contracts or agreements (2Cor 6:14-16) that also includes marriage.  However, Paul also forbids anyone already married to an unbeliever against getting a divorce (1Cor 7:10-17).  This was likely done to uphold the sanctity of marriage and for the possibility of the unbeliever becoming saved because of the faith of the believing spouse.  Unlike the cases of the Israelites, it is much more likely that the unbelieving spouse will eventually become a believer, and a believing spouse that is truly sealed by the Holy Spirit will not be induced to leave the faith.

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The Book of Ezra can be divided into two sections.  The first six chapters record the return of the first exiles to the Land, and the rebuilding of the Temple.  Chapters 7-10 gives an account of Ezra leading the return of the second wave and, after arriving in Jerusalem, he instituted a series of religious reforms.

1:1 - 1:11 Cyrus’ Proclamation; First Return to Jerusalem of the Exiles
2:1 - 2:70 List of the First Exiles who Returned
3:1 - 3:13 Rebuilding of the Temple Begins
4:1 - 4:24 Opposition to the Rebuilding
5:1 - 6:22 Completion and Dedication of the Temple; Celebration of Passover
7:1 - 8:30 Return of Ezra and the Second Exiles to Jerusalem
9:1 - 10:44 Ezra’s Reforms

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