Good morning! There exists in the Bible no “history” of the seventy years that upper- and middle-class Hebrews spent exiled in Babylon. Some parts of the prophets and psalms were likely written there, but the narrative history hinges on “before” and “after” Exile. This is why yesterday’s reading at the end of 2 Chronicles discussed the revolving door of evil kings before the exile, then jumped immediately to Cyrus’ decree that the Hebrews should return home from Babylon. Before we turn to the post-exilic narratives of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther, consider for a moment how much changed in seven decades. That’s the vast majority of a person’s life these days, and at that time there was likely no person who lived that long. Those in Babylon would have grown up with that as their only home, and those who remained in Jerusalem would have had no living memory of those who were exiled. Imagine if the people who moved away from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina all returned en masse in 2077, having had no contact with relatives who stayed and rebuilt the city. How much change happens in seventy years? The experiences of those who stayed and those who left would likely be so divergent that they would be hard-pressed to recognize a common cultural connection. So it was with the Hebrew people in 539 BCE.
Ezra and Nehemiah are companion books, written by leaders returning from Babylon. Their perspective stems from historical privilege, based on the fact that their parents and grandparents were wealthy and influential enough to have been driven into exile when Nebuchadnezzar wanted to deny Judah its leadership. This will not be the voice of Israelite peasants in Judah, who experience conflict when the descendants of their former religious and political leaders return and presume to govern the region again. Nevertheless, this is the written record we have of this time (reflecting the fact that those who could write/record history told their own stories and not those of other groups). As a result, Ezra-Nehemiah emphasizes religious orthodoxy and cultural purity, seeking to return to the “good old days” and ignoring how the exile might have colored the perspectives of those left behind in Judah. This does not mean we read these next two books judgmentally, but rather we read them contextually.
All that is by way of introduction. Today’s passage itself (Ezra 1-2) begins where 2 Chronicles left off, with the decree of Cyrus that Hebrews were to leave Babylon and return home to Judah. Note that Cyrus is Persian, and this edict comes because the Persians have just defeated and conquered the Babylonians. Perhaps it is an effort to ingratiate himself with the locals, but Cyrus expresses an oracle to (re)build a temple to God in Jerusalem. Israelites in Babylon are sent home with the material assistance—animals, goods, gold—of those who lived nearby (like when the people leave Egypt). Cyrus sends them also with the items from the temple which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple seventy years earlier. What might they have felt or imagined, seeing (probably for the first time) the treasures of the temple which had been lost when their parents and grandparents were carried off into exile?
Chapter 2’s census lists the people who live in each town, then the descendants of all the people who were former office-holders: priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, etc. Some cannot prove their ancestry in genealogical records, and so are excluded as unfit for priestly service until their genealogy can be confirmed. (Here’s the first example of rigorous orthodoxy.) We see the arrival of these families in Judah, then hear of the dwelling places they set up in and around Jerusalem. There is no mention of the Israelites already living there. Once in Jerusalem, some families put money and goods toward the rebuilding of the temple, which will be the first major project they undertake. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Ezra 3-6. Thanks for reading!