Good morning! Today we focus in Ezra 3-6 on the progress of and challenge to rebuilding the temple. Recall that despite its ruins, the temple is still a site where God has promised to be especially present. In the language of Celtic Christianity, the temple is a “thin place” where heaven and earth are so close they all but touch. No wonder the exiles sought to make the building whole again. Yet the opposition they face over rebuilding demonstrates how bound the Hebrews are to the will of those who have conquered them.
Worship resumes with a simple altar for burnt offerings at the temple site before reconstruction begins at all. This emphasizes the overriding importance of worship, which happens independently of buildings (seen also in the centuries of tabernacle worship before the temple was built). The resumption of regular worship at the temple site helps to re-affirm the temple as a place of holiness. When the foundations are laid for the rebuilt temple, spiritual celebrations again underscore this point. I find such poignancy at the weeping among old-timers in the Hebrew crowd, for whom this is an occasion of grief as well as gladness. Some there must remember stories of the earlier temple before it burned, and the memory of it flowed down their wrinkled cheeks. Was the new temple smaller than the earlier one? Were they grieving the loss of a perceived golden age, before the captivity caused such destruction? What were the tears of the elders about? We can’t know for certain, but I suspect that it was some mix of longing, anticipation, and hope, along with sadness for the pain of the past.
“Adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” appear at the beginning of chapter 4. They sound like non-Jews who were forcibly immigrated by Assyria to work the ground and keep the land occupied during exile. When the exiles reject their request to join in building on the temple, we see another example of the instinct among the returned Israelites to keep to themselves, avoiding any “contamination” by outsiders. Perhaps because they feel jilted, those who are in “middle management” of this province organize bureaucratic opposition to the temple by appealing to Cyrus. They succeed in getting a “cease and desist” letter from the Persian king to Jerusalem, which suspends the construction for years.
Permit me a brief detour to mention several interesting features of the letters back and forth that make up much of these chapters. To begin with, this is the first time we have such an extensive focus on the written word, giving evidence of a more literate population. This focus on letters carries over into the book of Esther, which is also identified as taking place during the reign of one of the kings mentioned here, Ahasuerus. Secondly, “Beyond the River” is a new reference for the province that includes Judah. It reveals the vantage point of Persia, located farther east. Hence, Jerusalem is in the western frontier, beyond the (Jordan) River. The fact that the Jews use this language in addressing Persian kings reveals deference to their conqueror, and suggests that their worldview is still shaped by decades in Babylon.
In chapter 6, the institutional logjam against the temple finally breaks up. Darius (successor to Cyrus) decrees that leaders of the province Beyond the River stay out of the way of those in Jerusalem. Furthermore, they are to pay whatever the Jews need for supplies, food and sacrifices! Note how the author understands God, turning the foreign king Darius into an advocate for the rebuilding of God’s address, the place where—Darius affirms—God has “established his name”.
When the temple is complete, Jews rededicate it with great celebration, and afterward keep the Passover. Note how the Passover is kept: still identifying people (at least a decade later) as “returned exiles” rather than inhabitants. Others are invited to celebrate Passover with these Jews, so long as they have separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land”. Here again we see a strong “us”/”them” dynamic at play. The story of Passover could be interpreted to support this insularity: “Our God long ago delivered us from powerful oppression, and has done so again”. I prefer to recall other parts of Torah, where the Passover is celebrated with slaves, resident aliens and all who wish to join in the feast. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Ezra 1-2. Thanks for reading!