Andrew Steinmann’s commentary on Genesis just released today, replacing Derek Kidner’s contribution in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. While Kidner is a classic, Steinmann is one of my favorite current Old Testament commentators. Based on the Look Inside the Book feature, I can see that he clearly defends the Mosaic authorship of Genesis, operates with an early date for the exodus, and defends the days of creation as actual days (in distinction from a framework/analogical day approach).
Search of the Royal Archives
Tattenai’s recommendation to Darius was to search the royal archives in Babylon for the decree of Cyrus that the Jewish leaders mentioned (5:17). Darius does decree for the search of the archives to be made, and a memorandum describing the decree was found in Ecbatana, which was where the Persian kings resided in the summer” (6:1-2; Williamson 1985: 80).
These are the kinds of details that a writer who was fabricating an account at a much later date would not get right. They attest the genuineness of the account (Williamson 1985: 80; Steinmann 2010: 266).
Ezra 6:3-5 presents the memorandum of Cyrus’s decree which was found in Ecbatana. The Jewish leaders said that Cyrus decreed the rebuilding of the temple and that he sent back the temple vessels to be placed in the rebuilt temple. The memorandum confirms these points (Breneman 1993: 115; Steinmann 2010: 268). However, it adds some additional material, most notably that cost of the building project would be paid from the royal treasury (6:4). This is an example of potential opposition being providentially redirected to support.
Darius fully supported Cyrus’s decree. He ordered that Tattenai not interfere with the project but instead pay for the cost of rebuilding—and for the cost of the sacrificial animals. He further requests for prayers to be made on behalf of himself and his sons. This seems to reflect the Persian policy of aligning with all of the gods of the conquered peoples.
The details regarding sacrifices are correct in Darius’s decree, which probably indicates that Darius made use of Jews to write the decree. Steinmann says that this reflects the “standard Persian practice of consulting religious authorities (in this case, Judeans) to ensure that worship practices of a particular religion were followed correctly” (Steinmann 2010: 269; cf. Kidner 1979: 64).
The decree is backed up with provisions for enforcement. Kidner notes that “[t]here was poetic justice intended in making a man’s own house his instrument of execution for tampering with the house of God (Kidner 1979: 64). Notably, Darius recognizes that God has caused his name to dwell in Jerusalem. God himself, Darius recognizes, will ensure that the decree to carry out the rebuilding of the temple will be carried out.
Conclusion: Tying up Narrative Threads
Verses 13-15 bring to an initial resolution the part of the narrative begun in 5:1 by tying together the various narrative threads. Tatttenai and his associates are diligent to carry out Darius’s decree. The elders of the Jews, with the support of the prophets. And the building is finished according to the decree of God and of the Persian kings. The decree of the kings comes from the decree of God (Steinmann 2010: 269-70; Brown 2005a: 43).
The mention of Artaxerxes in the list of kings is a bit odd since Artaxerxes reigned after the temple had been completed. Since Artaxerxes contributed to the beautifying of the temple (Ezra 7:29; cf. 7:15-24), Ezra includes him in the list (Williamson 1985: 84). Brown notes, “Ezra’s use of anachrony signals that thematic development is again overriding chronological presentation. The inclusion of Artaxerxes’ name in 6:14 brings into one compass all the Persian kings who contributed to the temple—from initial rebuilding to final beautification—and unites the entire preceding narrative around one of the narrative’s theological centerpoints: Yahweh’s sovereign control of history” (Brown 2005a: 42-43).
Ezra recorded that the temple was completed in the sixth year of Darius’s reign. Though Ezra does not himself make the connection to the seventy years’ prophecy (just as he did not in Ezra 1 make explicit mention of that prophecy), the date enables the diligent reader to make the connection. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in 586 BC, and the Second Temple was dedicated in 516 BC.
I find its interface a little overwrought: your notes are kept in “pages,” which are nested into “sections,” which are then nested into multiple “notebooks” (and you can even have subpages nested within your pages). The extra layers of organization are the most infuriating things about OneNote. The second most infuriating thing is that it treats each page like a “canvas” where text is just one of many possible elements — which is great in theory, but in practice sometimes makes for a weird interface where you end up typing in an extraneous text box.
If you’re not annoyed to death by those interface issues, you’ll find OneNote to be fast, reliable, and powerful.
However, it is the nesting feature that allows me to have notebooks on the Bible, Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, etc. with sections and pages that cover the books and chapters of the Bible or the loci of Systematic Theology and their doctrines. I’ve not found other note-taking apps to allow for this kind of organization.
The canvas feature is not quite as essential to my note-taking. But especially on work projects, I make use of it to organize material that I want to keep distinct, but still want to gather on a single page.
Ezra 5-6 forms a cohesive unit that concludes the first part of the book of Ezra. Chapter 4, after the recitation of various kinds of opposition, ended with the observation “work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
In the second year of Darius, God raised up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to stir up the people to begin work on the temple once more. The prophets exercised divine authority because they speak “in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (5:1).
The pronoun in the phrase “over them” could refer to either the prophets or the people. Brenneman notes, “it would seem best to apply the phrase to the Jews because the whole community was subject to God’s will” (Breneman 1993: 107), but whatever the referent, the phrase communicates God’s authority is conveyed in the prophetic message (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 24-25; Kidner 1979: 60).
Ezra does not reveal in his narrative that part of the problem lay with the people themselves. But the book of Haggai reveals that the people had developed excuses for avoiding continued work on the temple. They had even come under the curses of the Mosaic covenant (cf. Hag. 1:5-11 and Deut. 28:16-18, 22-24). Both Joshua and Zerubbabel seemed to need prophetic encouragement that God was with them in the rebuilding endeavor (see Hag. 2 and Zech. 4:11-14; 6:11-15). Furthermore, they all needed to be encouraged to not despise the day of small things (Zech. 4:10; cf. Hag. 2:1-9).
Zerubbabel and Joshua were responsive to the prophets’ preaching, and they lead the people in beginning again to rebuild the temple.
However, as soon as the building project was restarted, the people encountered another challenge. Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai (presumably Tattenai’s secretary or assistant), and others with them came to investigate. While Zerubbabel was governor over the region of Judah, Tattenai was governor over the larger province Beyond the River, and thus held a higher position than Zerubbabel.
Tattenai did not seem to be fundamentally opposed to the rebuilding of the temple, as the peoples of the land were (Williamson 1985: 76; Steinmann 2010: 263; Steveson 2011: 53). But he did believe that it was his responsibility to confirm that the Jews did have permission to rebuild the temple. The fact that Persian officials had put a stop to the rebuilding during the reign of Cyrus at least cast some uncertainty about whether the project would be permitted to go forward. The request for names may also have struck the Jews as ominous. If the Persian response was unfavorable, what would be done with the names (Kidner 1979: 61)?
While the Jews would have remained in suspense during the months in which Tattenai’s inquiry took place, Ezra records a fact that signals the outcome and which should have encouraged the Jews. Tattenai did not prevent the Jews from continuing to rebuild the temple while he waited for a response from Darius (KD, 49; Breneman 1993: 109).
Ezra’s explanation is that “the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews” (5:4). Notably, when Solomon dedicated the first temple, God told Solomon, “My eyes and my heart will be there for all time” (2 Chron. 7:16; cf. Shepherd and Wright 2018: 25). However, if the people turned away from God’s commandments, God said, “this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples” (2 Chron. 7:20). That judgment had happened, but it could not be the final word because of the previous promise that God’s eyes would be on the temple for all time. So God’s eye on the Jewish leaders who were rebuilding the temple was a sign that they were moving out of judgment and being restored to blessing. This is precisely what Jeremiah prophesied: “Thus says Yhwh, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah…. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land” (Jer. 24:5-6; cf. Shepherd and Wright 2018: 25).
Ezra 4:5 brings the reader up to the point at which the temple is rebuilt in the second year of the reign of Darius (cf. 4:24). However, verse 6 moves thirty-five years after the temple rebuilding to the reign of Xerxes (cf. Brown 2005a: 39-40). Thus verses 6-23 recount the opposition that the Jews continued to face after the temple. The text brings the reader into the reign of Artaxerxes. In verse 24, the narrative reverts to the time of Darius’s second year and the finishing of the temple’s construction.
Older commentators, like Matthew Henry, identified Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes in Ezra 4:6, 7 with Cambyses (Henry 1991: 618; cf. Josephus, Ant. 11.2.1-2). But there is no evidence that אחשׁורושׁ or ארתחשׁשׂתא refer to Cambyses while these are the Aramaic names for Xerxes and Artaxerxes (Brown 2005b: 183-87; cf. Williamson 1985: 57).
Steinmann agrees with other modern commentators that chapter 4 does not present a chronological account, and he offers a proposal for why the chronology is disrupted. He holds that the entire Aramaic section from 4:8 to 6:18 is a document prepared by Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and others, possibly at the behest of Nehemiah, to persuade Artaxerxes to allow for the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. This document was written so that the most recent events were recorded first and then moves backward in time. Though not written by Jews (cf. 5:5, which refers to “their God” and note the fact that the name Yhwh does not appear in the Aramaic section), it was written to favor their cause (Steinmann 2010: 201-2). In this document the entire city of Jerusalem is understood to be the house of God; thus the whole city, not just the temple proper ought to be rebuilt (Steinmann 2010: 248).
In response, it is not clear that this section forms an argument for the rebuilding of the walls. The verses relating to wall building focus on opposition, and there is a significant difference between rebuilding a temple and rebuilding city walls (Williamson 1985: 59; cf. Fensham 1982: 71). Most significantly, verse 24 appears to be a “repetitive resumption.” That is, words from 4:5 are repeated in 4:24 to bracket the intervening verses (Williamson 1996: 45; cf. Kidner 1979: 59; McConville 1985: 25). Since the resumption connects to text that precedes the Aramaic section, Steinmann’s theory that 4:8-6:18 is self-contained is not possible.
Ezra looked ahead at this point to the opposition to rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls for multiple reasons. First, this digression highlights the depth of opposition that the Jews faced. Lest anyone wonder if the Jewish leaders simply brought opposition upon themselves for spurning an offer of help, this digression demonstrates the depth of opposition. It lasted long after the temple was rebuilt. It reveals that these adversaries are going to relentlessly oppose the Jews at every turn. The Jewish leadership was right to avoid the trap of their adversaries’ offer (cf. Williamson 1985: 57; McConville 1985: 26).
On a literary level, this digression delays the resolution of the problem of halted temple construction. This narrative delay combined with the greater insight the digression gives to the depth of opposition only heightens the reader’s sense of the significance of Israel’s triumph in rebuilding the temple (Kidner 1979: 53-54; Brown 2005b: 40-41).
Finally, Ezra lived through the period being recounted in this section of the book (he and those he led back to Jerusalem may be referred to in 4:12; Kidner 1979: 58; Levering 2007: 65, n. 4; cf. Williamson 1985: 63). If Ezra was written around the time of the conflict over the rebuilding of the walls (possibly writing before Nehemiah returned), then linking the current opposition to the wall-building with the failed opposition to the temple-building would encourage his original readers (cf. Brown 2005b: 41).
First Letter of Opposition
Ezra first recorded an unspecified accusation from the reign of Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes; the king who added Esther to his harem). The letter was written “in the beginning of his reign,” which may indicate that it was written in 486 BC, the partial year prior to his first full year of reigning (Williamson 1985: 60). Williamson notes that “just prior to Xerxes’ accession Egypt rebelled against her Persian overlord, obliging Xerxes to pass through Palestine during 485 B.C.” (Williamson 1985: 60). This unrest lasted until 483 BC (Steinmann 2010: 224). The unrest in this region gave the adversaries of the Jews an opportunity to lodge an accusation against the Judeans and Jerusalemites.
Second Letter of Opposition
Verse 7 documents letter of opposition, written in the days of Artaxerxes by Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and others. Since the following verse lists different authors, verse 7 is probably refers to a distinct letter (Kidner 1979: 57; Williamson 1985: 61; McConville 1985: 27). The content of the letter is not specified.
The statement, “The letter was written in Aramaic and translated,” is difficult. Williamson suggests that it was probably translated into Hebrew (the primary language of the author of Ezra). But it was written with an Aramaic script, which was notable at the time since it was not yet common (Williamson 1985: 61; cf. Breneman 1993: 102).
Third Letter of Opposition
This third letter was written in Aramaic, and Ezra switched to Aramaic at this point to give the letter in its original language. Ezra first provides the senders’ designation of themselves. They identify themselves as deportees who were settled by the Assyrians in Israel. They were settled in the land at a later date from those mentioned in 2 Kings 17 or Ezra 4:2. They also claim a Persian heritage. Ashurbanipal (Osnappar) did conquer Elam and Susa in 642-643 BC (Williamson 1985: 62). These deportees were from that event. The fact that they were from Persia could incline Artaxerxes to credit their report.
Steinmann notes that many translations in 4:9 translate “the judges, the governors, the officials.” He argues against combining titles and ethnic designations: “Instead all the entries in this list ought to be understood as ethnic designations, as in the KJV and 2 Esdras 4:9. The Dinaites may be people from the city Dîn-šarru, near Susa, who were captured and brought to Ashurbanipal in Ashur and then probably resettled in yet other places. The origin of the Apharsathcites is unknown. The Tarpelites may be inhabitants of Tripoli in Syria” (Steinmann 2010: 238).
They accused Jews who had come from Artaxerxes of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem because they planned to rebel against Persia. This could be an accusation directed at Ezra and the those he led back to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:1-26; Kidner 1979: 58; Levering 2007: 65, n. 4; cf. Williamson 1985: 63), though the statement is not specific enough to be certain of anything other than that this predates Nehemiah (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 22).
The accusers suggested that a search of records would demonstrate that Jerusalem was destroyed because it had stirred up revolts and refused to pay tribute. This is a reference to pre-exilic Jerusalem. Toward the end of the Southern Kingdom, Judean kings did at times try to shake off their vassalage. Notably, Jeremiah warned the Judeans against rebelling in this way (Jer. 27-28). Their disobedience now brought about further difficulties.
This argument, however, is weak. Jerusalem was no longer the capital of an independent nation that was seeking to maintain its independence. The fact that the rebuilt Jerusalem never did rebel against Persia demonstrates the emptiness of the claim (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 23).
However, in the first part of Artaxerxes reign, the Egyptians rebelled (461 BC). The Persian general who defeated the Egyptians then rebelled against Artaxerxes in 449 BC. During this same time, the Persians were fighting the Greeks (Levering 2007: 66; Steinmann 2010: 246-47). Since Jerusalem was in proximity to these rebellions, the accusations resonated with Artaxerxes. He did not wish to deal with another rebellion, and the Persian empire at this time could not afford a reduction in revenue that would come if a portion of the empire broke away (McConville 1985: 28).
Though the accusation was weak on the merits, it was skillfully crafted to target areas that concerned Artaxerxes. Finding in the historical record that pre-exilic Jerusalem did rebel against its overlords, and recognizing that these overlords (the “mighty kings”) received financial benefit from a subdued Jerusalem, Artaxerxes ordered the wall building in Jerusalem to cease (Williamson 1985: 64; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 23).
Artaxerxes commanded that Rehum, Shimshai, and the others who wrote him “not be slack” in putting an end to the wall-building. They certainly had no desire to “be slack.” Indeed, they used force to make the Jews stop their building. They may have even damaged what had already been built (cf. Neh. 1:3; Steinmann 2010: 248).
The “then” that begins verse 24 does not indicate that the work on the temple ceased subsequent to Artaxerxes’ decree since Darius clearly ruled before Artaxerxes. Verse 24 resumes the narrative line left off in verse 5 (Fensham 1982: 77).
Yamauchi observes that in the first two years of Darius’s reign he had to deal with rebellion. But once the rebellion was put down, he was willing for the temple to be rebuilt (Yamauchi 1988: 634).
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.
Adherence to the Word of God and Continuity with Pre-Exilic Israel
Throughout Ezra 3 there is an emphasis on acting in accordance with the Mosaic law and in accordance with the temple procedures established by David. Verse 2 specifies that they built the altar in order to adhere to what was written “in the law of Moses, the man of God.” The identification of Moses as “the man of God” is probably a reference to Moses’s prophetic function (Steinmann 2010: 207; cf. Shepherd and Wright 2018: 18). The order in which the sacrifices are listed is probably based on Numbers 28-29, which “once again emphasizes continuity with the preexilic Israelite community and fidelity to God’s Word” (Steinmann 2010: 213). Later, when the temple foundations were laid, the Levites carried out their duties “according to the directions of David king of Israel” (3:10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:16, 19, 28; 16:5; 25:1, 6; cf. Steinmann 2010: 189).
This adherence to the law of Moses and the directions of David plays into Ezra’s emphasis on continuity between pre-exilic Israel and post-exilic Israel. This is reinforced by placing the altar in the same location as in Solomon’s Temple (3:3; cf. Williamson 1985: 46; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 18).
Another signal of continuity between the preexilic Israelites and those who returned from captivity is the reference to cedar brought from Tyre and Sidon to Joppa for the purpose of temple building (2 Chron. 2:10, 15-16; Kidner 1979: 51-52; Williamson 1985: 47; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 19). The reference to “masons” and “carpenters” may allude to Josiah’s repair of the temple (2 King’s 22:6; 2 Chron. 34:11). This is thus a rebuilding akin to Josiah’s rebuilding (Steinmann 2010: 214-15).
The first hint of opposition to the return to worship occurs in Ezra 3:3: “They set the altar in its place, although fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands” (ESV, altered; cf. NIV, CSB, NET).
Verse 3 could indicate that the altar was set in place because the Israelites feared the peoples of the lands (NKJV, NASB, ESV) or although they feared the peoples of the lands (NIV, CSB, NET). The former translation is the more common way to translate this Hebrew word, but the concessive translation is a possible translation (DCH, 4:378). The concessive reading makes better sense. To make their fear of the peoples of the land the cause of setting up the altar would imply an existing conflict that the Israelites thought that they could counteract by setting up the altar. However, the rest of the book reveals that it was the temple-building project that aroused the opposition of the peoples of the land. It makes better sense to read this as the Israelites moving forward despite fearing that their actions will stir up opposition.
The peoples of the land refers to the people who were brought by the Assyrians to populate the northern kingdom (Ezra 4:2; cf. 2 Kings 17:24). These people mixed the worship of what they perceived to be “the god of the land” with their own gods (cf. 2 Kings 17:26-33).
The ESV translates “peoples of the lands,” reflecting the fact that in Hebrew both words are plural. However, the sense is peoples of the land (Joüon, §136o). The plural may indicate that plurality of nations from which these people came. The phrase, “people of the land,” in variations, occurs with different referents throughout the Old Testament. In some cases, it refers to Israel (cf. Lev. 4:27; Hag. 2:4). In others, it can refer to the Canaanites who lived in the land prior to Israel (cf. Gen. 23:7).
By referring to opposition from syncretistic peoples of the land, Ezra may be evoking the condition prior to the conquest when the idolatrous people of the land occupied Canaan. If so, this is another signal of the already/not-yet nature of the return from exile in Ezra. The full and final expulsion of idolaters from the land will happen when the Messiah returns to earth in the Day of the Lord. However, between the time of Ezra and the Day of the Lord, Samaritans (the likely descendants of the peoples of the land) and Gentiles heard and responded to the gospel. They will in the future be included as residents of the New Jerusalem along with believing Jews.
Response to the Laying of the Temple Foundations
Ezra 3 closes with the laying of the temple foundation. The Levites led in worship according to the Directions that David had given. The psalm they sang is a Davidic psalm recorded in 1 Chronicles 16. According to Chronicles, it is the psalm that was sung when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (the words recorded in Ezra being the last lines of the psalm). These words were again sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron. 5:13), and the people said these words when the glory of Yhwh descended on the first temple (2 Chron. 7:3) (Steinmann 2010: 189, 216).
And yet, even this points to the diminished nature of what these returned exiles are doing. “This time there is no ark, no visible glory, indeed no Temple: only some beginnings, and small beginnings at that” (Kidner 1979: 53; cf. Williamson 1985: 48).
This led to a mixed response from the people. There is both shouting for joy and weeping with a loud voice. This mixed response seems to capture something significant about the whole book of Ezra. There is rejoicing because God has begun to fulfill his promises regarding the return from exile. And yet the fulfillment is partial and small. The temptation would be to become discouraged about the smallness of the fulfillment (Hag. 2:3-5; Zech. 4:10; Kidner 1979:53). But that would not be the right response, because God was truly with his people and fulfilling his word.
Nevertheless, it was important for the people to recognize that God’s promises were only partially fulfilled and to desire the full fulfillment of his word. The first and second comings of Christ are necessary to complete what was begun in the day of Zerubbabel and Joshua.
We too live between the already and the not yet. Our condition is better than the returned exiles. Christ has come and is building the church as his temple. But he is also away in heaven preparing a place for us in the New Jerusalem, where there is no need for a temple because the Lord is there.
While we wait for the return of Christ we too face opposition as we seek to build up Christ’s church (1 Cor. 3:10). Our efforts even in New Testament times often seem feeble, and it may appear that opposition to God’s work is on the march while Christians are regularly suffering setbacks.
The message of this chapter is to encourage us to maintain true worship, which we do by adhering to the written Word of God. (Later chapters will address the heart.)
Ezra 2 closed with the exiles each returning to their own cities. But in the seventh month the Israelites all came to Jerusalem. The Feast of Trumpets was observed on the first day of the seventh month (Lev. 23:23-25; Num. 29:1-6). Special sacrifices were offered at the beginning of each month, the new moon (Num. 28:11-15). But the blowing of the trumpets on the first day of the seventh month signified that this month was set apart in a special way for the worship of God. The Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths occurred in this month (EDBT, 252).
The Israelites were not required to come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Trumpets as they were for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths (Dt. 16:16). However, on their first year back in the land, the Israelites gathered “as one man” to Jerusalem. This emphasizes the importance of worship to the returned exiles, and it shows their unity (Brenneman 1993: 89).
Certain sacrifices were supposed to be offered on the Feast of Trumpets (Num. 29:2-6). For these sacrifices to be offered the Temple altar needed to be rebuilt. This is precisely what Joshua, the high priest, the other priests, Zerubbabel, and his kinsmen did. It is appropriate for Joshua and the priests to be mentioned first in this endeavor, but since temple building is the in the provenance of the Davidic son (2 Sam 7:13), it is appropriate for Zerubbabel and his kinsmen to also be involved.
Sheshbazzar was probably the governor at this time, but if he was not in the Davidic line, as Zerubbabel was, then it was more appropriate for Zerubbabel to take the lead in matters relating to the rebuilding of the Temple and for Ezra to highlight Zerubbabel’s role.
Though the sacrifices for the Feast of Trumpets were the first sacrifices that the altar was built for, Ezra notes they also offered the other sacrifices required by the law: “the continual burnt offering (Ex 29:38-42; Num 28:1-8), the New Moon offering (Num 28:11-15), the three annual pilgrimage feasts (e.g., Ex. 23:14-17) and voluntary contributions (e.g., Lev 22:17-25)” (Steinmann 2010: 190).
After the Feast of Trumpets, the returned exiles also kept the Feast of Booths (3:4). This was an appropriate feast to celebrate soon after their return to the land because it commemorated the first exodus. To observe the Feast of Booths, the Israelites would travel to Jerusalem and live in temporary shelters (the booths that gave the feast its name) (McConville 1985: 20; Steinmann 2010: 213). It may also have been the case that the Feast of Booths was closely connected with bringing the ark into the first temple (1 Kings 8:2; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 18).
The other feast celebrated in the seventh month was the Day of Atonement. Ezra does not mention that feast, however, because it was impossible to observe. Not only was there no temple, but there would never be an ark of the covenant in the Second Temple. This meant that the Day of Atonement, as prescribed in the law of Moses, could never again be carried out.
In the end, the typological Day of Atonement would find its fulfillment in the actual atonement of Christ on the cross. But from the exile until the death of Christ there was a significant gap Israelite worship. The exile was due to human sinfulness, and yet the central ceremony having to do with atonement from sin was not observable in the way that God had ordained it to be observed.
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.
The remainder of Ezra 1 flows from Cyrus’s decree. Just as Yhwh “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (1:1), so he also “stirred” up the Jews to return (1:6). Just as Cyrus decreed that that Jews could return to Jerusalem to “rebuild the house of Yhwh, the God of Israel” (1:3), so God stirred up the returnees “to go up to rebuild the house of Yhwh that is in Jerusalem” (1:5). And just as Cyrus decreed that the returning sojourners “be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings” (1:4), so “all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wars, besides all that was freely offered” (1:6) (Steinmann 2010: 141-42).
Thus the themes of the first four verses continue throughout the chapter. Yhwh was clearly at work in the returnees just as he was at work in Cyrus to permit the return (Breneman 1993: 71-72). Cyrus’s return of the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple also shows Yhwh’s providential working (Breneman 1993: 72). Even the passive in verse 11—the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem—points to God’s providence. Who brought the exiles up from Babylonia to Jerusalem? Yhwh (Williamson 1985: 19).
This is all in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. His prophecy of return in seventy years does not specifically mention the return of the temple vessels, but it occurs in a context in which the return of those vessels was under discussion (Jer. 28:3, 6). Further, the return of the people was specifically in view in Jeremiah 29. Jonathan Edwards proposed that a fulfillment of Jeremiah 51:44 was also in view: “And I will punish Bel in Babylon, and take out of his mouth what he has swallowed.” Edwards suggested that the temple vessels were what Bel had swallowed because they were carried to his temple (Edwards 2006: 418). This is possible, but the context points to the return of the people as a result of the Medes conquering Babylon.
The same Hebrew word is used to refer to Cyrus bringing out the temple vessels and Nebuchadnezzar carrying them away from Jerusalem. This wordplay highlights that Cyrus’s action is a reversal of the exile. The Babylonian kings took the idols from the temples of the conquered peoples to Babylon; Cryus restored these images to their temples (COS 2.314-16). The Israelite temple had no images; the temple vessels would have been the equivalent in the eyes of the Babylonians and Persians (Kidner 1979: 37; Williamson 1985: 16-17; Yamauchi 1988: 604; Breneman 1993: 72).
This section emphasizes that the return was for the rebuilding of the temple. Verse 6 specifies that God stirred up the returnees “to rebuild the house of Yhwh that is in Jerusalem.” The catalog of temple vessels that were being returned also served to emphasize the temple-focused nature of the return (Breneman 1993: 71).
The enumeration of the vessels totals 2,499, but Ezra 1:11 gives a total of 5,400. An ancient suggestion is that only the major vessels were enumerated but that all the vessels, including minor vessels, were included in the total. Some modern interpreters accept this suggestion, while others suggest that the discrepancy is due to scribal error (KD 4:18-19; Yamauchi 1988: 604; Steinmann 2010: 144-45).
The emphasis on the temple is related to the portrayal of the return as a second exodus. The book of Exodus gives a great deal of space to the tabernacle (Breneman 1993: 71). The gifts of silver and gold from the Jews Gentile neighbors also recalls the spoiling of the Egyptians by Israel in the first exodus (Ex. 3:22; 11:2; 12:35; Ps 105:37) (Williamson 1985: 16; 1996: 85; Breneman 1993: 72; Steinmann 2010: 139). Even the reference to Sheshbazzar as “prince of Judah” may allude to the princes of the tribes in Numbers (Num 2:3-31; 7:1-83; 34:18-28), who brought the tabernacle vessels as part of a dedication offering of the altar (Num. 7:84-86) (Williamson 1985: 17-18).
The identity of Sheshbazzar is a matter of debate. Because both Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel are said to have laid the foundation of the temple (Ezra 3:8; 5:2, 16), some claim that these are two names for the same man (KD 4:17). However, others note that Ezra 5:14-16 seems to be an explanation to Tattenai, the governor of the Province Beyond the River, of Sheshbazzar’s identity. Tattenai would have known Zerubbabel, the present governor of Judah (Ezra 5:2) (Williamson 1985: 17; Howard 193: 303). In addition, while people in this period could have more than one name, it is more likely for a Jewish person to have a Jewish name and a Babylonian name. But if Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel are identified, this individual would, oddly, have two Babylonian names (Williamson 1985: 17). It is most likely that both men returned to the land under Cyrus, that Sheshbazzar was the first governor of over the returned exiles, and that he was succeeded by Zerubbabel. On this view, both men could have been involved in laying the foundation of the temple (Steinmann 2010: 33-34).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV, with Yhwh substituted for the LORD.