The great shout of the people at the laying of the temple’s foundations “was heard far away” (3:13). Indeed, in a manner of speaking it was heard by “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1) (Steinmann 2010: 220). As a result of hearing about the rebuilding, these adversaries come to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses to offer to help in rebuilding the temple (4:2). This offer is rebuffed by Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the other leaders (4:3).
Kidner notes the danger of “form[ing] an impression of the encounter as a rude rebuff to a sincere and friendly gesture” (Kidner 1979: 54). The chapter opens by identifying those who offer help as “adversaries,” tipping the reader off to the fact that this is “the opening of a battle of wits” (Kidner, 1979: 54).
The adversaries themselves tip their hand when they claim that they have been sacrificing to the Israelite God since Esarhaddon deported them to the land of Israel. Second Kings 17:24-41 describes the worship of those who had been brought to Israel by the Assyrians. It was syncretistic (2 Kings 17:28-41). The author of Kings indicates twice that this syncretism endured to his own day (17:34, 41), which could be no earlier than the death of Jehoiachin (somewhere in the range of 562-540 BC; Merrill 2011: 324).
Second Kings 17 records the resettlement of foreign peoples in Israel under the reign of Sargon II (721-705 BC). These foreigners claim to have been resettled by a subsequent Assyrian king, Esarhaddon (681-66 BC). In one of the letters to Artaxerxes, Rehum, Shimshai, and others claimed to have been resettled in Israel by Ashurbanipal (called Osnappar in Ezra 4:10) (Steinmann 2010: 226-27). Though arriving in Israel later than the people described in 2 Kings 17, the adversaries of Ezra 4:1-2 were clearly also syncretistic (Kidner 1979: 55; Levering 2007: 60-61; Steinmann 2010: 221-22). This is hinted at in enemies reference to “your God” and the reply of the Israelite leaders referring to their determination to build the temple of “our God” (4:2, 3; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 21).
Bilkes suggests that these people intermarried with the Israelites of the northern kingdom (Bilkes 2013: 34). This is nowhere stated in Scripture, but it is not unlikely. If so, and if the original readers made this connection, these opening verses of chapter 4 foreshadow the problem of intermarriage with unbelievers later in the book.
It may be significant that the adversaries are identified as “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1, emphasis added). At points Ezra, to emphasize continuity with the entire nation, uses the label Israel to identify the returned exiles. But the label Judah and Benjamin in 4:1 and the mention of the heads of the fathers’ houses in verses 2 and 3 link these verses back to Ezra 1:5, which says that Yhwh stirred heads of the father’s households of Judah and Benjamin “to go up to rebuild the house of Yhwh that is in Jerusalem.” (The only other use of the phrase “heads of fathers’ houses” between 1:5 and 4:2 is in 3:12, in the narrative about laying the foundations of the temple.) Implied in the statement that the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin approached the heads of the fathers’ houses is that, despite words to the contrary, these people are enemies to the temple building project.
The explicit mention of Judah and Benjamin here might also serve to draw a contrast with the Northern Kingdom. Since Jeroboam, the official religion of that kingdom was a deformed Yhwh worship, centered on Bethel and Dan (cf. Levering 2007: 60-61). It was this deformed Yhwh worship that was mingled with pagan worship by those the Assyrian kings settled in the land (2 Kings 17:28).
If the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin had been permitted to participate in the rebuilding of the temple, they would have earned a say in how the temple worship was subsequently carried out (Blenkinsopp OTL: 107; as cited in Steinmann 2010: 221; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 21). This was a strategy to “destroy by assimilation” (McConville 1985: 26). The Jewish leaders recognized this and firmly reject the assertion that their adversaries have anything in common with them.
Note that the problem was not that the adversaries were of foreign extraction. A foreigner who “separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land” would be accepted in Jewish worship (Ezra 6:21; cf. Bilkes 2013: 35).
At this rebuke the offers to help are replaced with more active opposition (4:4). What was done to make the Jews discouraged and afraid is not specified, but it may have been similar to the what is recorded in Nehemiah 4:1-3, 7-9.
The Judean leaders had appealed to Cyrus’s edict to provide a clear legal basis on which to reject the participation of their enemies in the temple building project (4:3; Williamson 1985: 50; Steinmann 2010: 222; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 21). However, the enemies of the Jews turn the Persian powers against them by bribing government officials. This puts an end to temple building during the remainder of Cyrus’s reign, throughout the reign of Cambyses, and into the reign of Darius.