The book of Ezra can be divided into two major sections, chapter 1-6 and chapter 7-10, each of which can be divided into two sub-sections. The first section deals with the first return under Cyrus (
Two portions of Ezra are written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), and this seems to be caused by the weaving of documents into the book. The Aramaic begins in Ezra 4:8 with a letter written to King Artaxerxes. Since Aramaic was the language of diplomacy in the Persian empire, the letter would have been written in Aramaic. Ezra is simply presenting the original document. Similarly, Ezra 7:12-26 records a decree of Artaxerxes which would have originally been given in Aramaic.
However, not all of the verses in Aramaic are reproductions of diplomatic correspondence or decrees of Persian kings. Some of the
Notably, the book does not proceed in a strictly chronological fashion. Chapters 1-3 take place in the reign of Cyrus. Chapter 4 describes opposition from “the people of the land,” with verse 5 indicating that opposition to rebuilding the temple lasted from the reign of Cyrus (through the reign of Cambyses) until the reign of Darius I. Ezra 4:6 recounts that during the reign of Ahasuerus/Xerxes, an accusation was made against those living in Judah and Jerusalem. Ezra 4:7-23 moves to the reign of Artaxerxes in the period just before Nehemiah’s mission to Jerusalem (457 BC). Ezra 4:24-6:22 then moves back to the time of Darius I (520-516 BC). The latter half of the book, 7:1-10:44, is located in the reign of Artaxerxes, but in an earlier period (458 BC) than the events recounted in 4:7-23 (Brown 2005a: 34-35, though with the data conceptualized differently).
Ezra’s nonchronological ordering serves a larger literary and theological purpose. By clustering external opposition in the first section of the book, Ezra is able to show the depth of opposition that the Jews faced and is thus better able to display the sovereignty of God in overruling that opposition (Brown 2005b: 191). Frontloading the opposition also “aligns the reader’s sympathies strongly in favor of the Jews,” places the reader’s view of the Jews’ failures in proper perspective (Brown 2005b: 101). Most significantly, as Brown observes, “[b]y placing chapters 7–10 out of chronological order, Ezra isolated all the returnees’ external problems to chapters 1–6 so that he could direct the reader’s undivided attention to the most serious problems faced by God’s people—internal problems” (Brown 2005a: 47).