Ezra 2 may be the most difficult chapter for modern readers. It is a list of names, most of which are unfamiliar to the reader, along with numbers of returnees. And yet, this chapter is also inspired Scripture. Further, when the book is read aloud, this chapter takes a significant amount of time to read. Its inclusion is purposeful and important.
Because the list is schematized, the structure is easy to follow:
heading (1-2), lists of lay people [according to their family (3-20), according to their ancestral town (21-35)] (3-35), of priests (36-39), Levites (40), singers (41), gatekeepers (42) and other temple servants [the netinim (43-34), the sons of Solomon’s servants (55-57)] (43-58), and of those whose genealogies could not be proved (59-63); totals (64-67); summary of gifts for the temple building (68-69), and conclusion (70). [Williamson 1985: 28; cf. Steinmann 2010: 167]
Verse 1 specifies that the returnees “came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia.” This detailed description firmly links the returnees to the exile, and thus establishes continuity between the returning exiles and pre-exilic Israel. This continuity is one of the major purposes of this list.
The opening to chapter 2 also specifies that the exiles returned “each to his own town” (2:1). In the books of Numbers and Joshua God allotted the land that the people from each tribe were to inhabit. The return from exile is a return to these divine allotments. Shepherd notes that this “was not merely a symbolic but also [a] quite literal (re)settlement of the land.” (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 14, 17).
Ezra consistently emphasizes the reality of the return while at the same time emphasizing its partial nature. He speaks of the returning exiles as “the men of the people of Israel” (2:2). This signals that a return of all Israel is in view (KD 4:21; Breneman 1993: 77). In addition, the leaders of the return were likely twelve in number, symbolizing a restoration of the twelve tribes. But the text also signals the partial nature of the return when it says that they “returned to Jerusalem and Judah.” The locations of the towns where the location is known were all in Judah and Benjamin, that is, generally in the region of the southern kingdom of Judah (Steinmann 2010: 173).
Ezra only lists eleven leaders in 2:2, but the parallel text in Nehemiah includes a twelfth name, Nahamani. An additional name is also present in the parallel in 1 Esdras 5:8. Possibly Ezra originally had twelve names listed (Steinmann 2010: 154, 70; cf. KD 4:21; Williamson 1985: 32). Another possibility is that Ezra originally listed only eleven names because Sheshbazzar, mentioned in 1:8, was understood to be the twelfth leader. Nehemiah, with his list in a different context, perhaps inserted a different leader to keep the number at twelve.
It is not clear that the twelve leaders were each from one of the twelve tribes. Not enough is known of many of the leaders to ascertain this (KD 4:21). It may be that the number of leaders is symbolic, as with the number of disciples chosen by Christ. The number twelve was significant, and the disciples were promised rule over the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28), but the disciples were not each from one of the twelve tribes.
The first of the leaders listed, Zerubbabel, was a governor over the province of Judah after Sheshbazzar (Hag. 1:1; 2:2). He was the grandson of Jehoiachin (Jeconiah) (1 Chron. 3:17), who was king when Nebuchadnezzar led the Judeans (and their temple vessels) into exile (2 Kings 24:12-15). The name Zerubbabel means “offspring of Babylon” and may be an indication that he was born in Babylon (DOTHB, 1016). He is identified as the son of Shealtiel (Ezra 3:2, 8; 5:2; Neh 12:1; Hag. 1:1, 12, 14; 2:2, 23) and as the son of Pedaiah, a brother of Shealtiel (1 Chron. 3:19). It may be that Pedaiah is not Zerubbabel’s biological father but that Pedaiah married Shealtiel’s widow in a levirate marriage, which made Zerubbabel legally the son of Shealtiel (DOTHB, 1016; Williamson 1985: 32).
Zerubbabel stands in the line of Davidic kings. He is in the genealogy of Christ in both Matthew (1:12-13) and Luke (3:27). But he is never king over Israel. In fact, Ezra does not even mention Zerubbabel’s Davidic lineage. This is another evidence that Ezra understands the return from exile to be partial. The prophets predicted the restoration of the Davidic throne along with the return of exile. But the return in Ezra’s day happens without the restoration of the Davidic monarchy (cf. Levering 2007: 48).
Jeshua (Joshua in Haggai [1:1, 4, 12, 14; 2:2, 4, 18] and Zechariah [Zec 3:1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9; 4:14; 6:11, 12]) is identified as the son of Jozadak in Ezra 3:2. Jozadak was the son of Seraiah (1 Chron. 6:14) who was the chief priest when Nebuchadnezzar finally put an end to Judah during the reign of Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:18). He was killed (2 Kings 25:21), but Jehozadak went into exile (1 Chron. 6:15). Jeshua/Joshua is the chief priest upon the return from exile.
Of the remaining leaders nothing further is known.
After the listing of the leaders comes the listing of lay people according to family or town. The two categories of “kinship and land” were of the utmost importance in Israel. Wright observes,
If you belonged to an Israelite family living on its inherited portion of the land given to your tribe, then you had secure membership in all the affairs of the community. If you were (or became) familyless (widows and orphans) or landless (foreigners, immigrants), then you were much more vulnerable and insecure. That is why the laws repeatedly urge Israelites to take special care of those categories of people in their midst. [Shepherd and Wright 2018: 134]
It is for this reason that this list emphasizes these two aspects of life. These are people who can claim kinship and land within the covenant promises.
The listing then follows the pattern of the listing in Numbers by moving from the people to the priests and the Levites. This is another subtle reminder of the new exodus theme (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 15).
The priests had been divided into twenty-four groups by David (1 Chron. 24:1-19), but only four of these groups are represented in this list. However, compared to the priests even fewer Levites returned. This also points to the partial nature of this return.
After the Levites comes the listing of the temple servants (ESV, NASB, NIV, CSB), or the nethinim (NKJV; cf. KJV). The term Nethinim is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew word which refers to the ones who are given. Ezra may be continuing to pattern this list after Numbers. In Numbers the Levites were “given” to the priests to help in the tabernacle service (Num. 3:9; 8:19). These temple servants may have been given to the Levites to assist them (Williamson 1985: 35; cf. Num. 31:30-47 and Breneman 1993: 81).
Following the priests and Levites were those who could not demonstrate their ancestry. Some have suggested that this demonstrates a concern for “racial purity” that differs from an earlier acceptance of proselytes (Williamson 1985: 36), but Ezra recognizes the existence and legitimacy of non-Israelites who proselytized (Ezra 6:21).
The difficulty of not being able to establish one’s ancestry was most significant for those who believed themselves to be in the priestly line. They could not serve as priests until their genealogy could be established. The governor of the time, probably Sheshbazzar, determined that they could not be treated as priests until a high priest with the Urim and Thummim could determine that they were indeed priests (2:63).
The Urim and Thummim were placed in the high priest’s breastplate and were used for determining God’s will in certain matters (Ex. 28:30; Num. 27:21). They were evidently not operative or present at the time of the return, and they do not seem to have survived the exile (Steinmann 2010: 174-75). Notably, the second temple, the rebuilding of which is described in Ezra, never had the ark of the covenant nor was it filled with the presence of Yhwh. It may be that the presence of Yhwh and the ability to inquire of him using the Urim and Thummim went together, and this explains why they were never used after the return from exile (KD 4:27-28). This all points, once again, to the partial nature of return from exile. The great expectations of the prophets regarding what would happen with restoration after exile are not coming to pass, even though a partial restoration is taking place.
The final total of those returning also testifies to the fact that this is the return of a remnant. In the first exodus, the number of the fighting men in Israel numbered 603,550 (Num. 1:45-46). This number excluded the Levites, women, children, and the aged. Some think that the actual total of Israelites in the first exodus was around 2 million. Here only 42,360 return (cf. Levering 2007: 47-48).
If one totals the numbers given in the list, the number of returnees comes out at 29,818. Parallels in Nehemiah 7 and 1 Esdras 5 yield different totals, possibly due to textual corruption in the various lists. But all three sources agree that the given total is 42,360 (Steinmann 2010: 175). The best solution is probably that woman were not counted in the list but were included in the total (Steinmann 2010: 176; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 16). The ratio of men to women would have been off if this was the case, but this could be explained by the fact that it may have been easier for young, unmarried men to make this journey than for families to do so. It might also shed some light into the problem of inter-marriage with unbelieving foreigners later in the book (Steinmann 2010: 176). Steveson rejects this explanation, noting that women are mentioned alongside men in the numbers of singers and servants (Ezra 2:65; Steveson 2011: 35, n. 45). But the mention of women comes in a separate enumeration, following the total. The preceding lists, which are the ones the total refers to, is headed by the phrase, “The number of the men of the people of Israel,” thus specifying that the men in particular are in view.
The actual arrival back in the land is only briefly noted: “when they came to the house of Yhwh that is in Jerusalem.” However, it is notable that the arrival is focused on the temple. Coming to the land was only important if the people enjoyed God’s presence in the land. Thus there is an emphasis on Jerusalem and the temple (Levering 2007:49).
There may be a hint from the beginning that all is not well in the fact that only “some … offered willingly for the house of God to restore it on its foundation (McConville 1985: 17).
The chapter closes with the same emphasis with which it opened. The people returned their own cities. This is a restoration to the land allotments that God had appointed. So the return from exile focused on Jerusalem, but it was not limited to it. It extended to the rest of the land (Shepherd and Wright 2018:17).
New Testament scholars speak of the already / not yet nature of the kingdom. Some of the kingdom promises are being fulfilled now as Christ reigns from the Fathers right hand. But other kingdom promises w wait for Christ’s return for fulfillment.
The Book of Ezra presents readers with an already / not yet approach to the return from exile. Some of the promises from the prophets about return from exile were already being fulfilled for them. Others would not be fulfilled until the ministry of Christ, and others have still not yet been fulfilled but await Christ’s return. The Book of Ezra, can serve as a guide for how we live in the already / not yet era.