Good morning! Today we start a new narrative of the Hebrew return from exile in the book of Nehemiah. Key areas of focus in Nehemiah 1-4 include leadership of the fledgling community in Jerusalem, and rebuilding the protections of the city against its opponents. The book as a whole, as we see, also emphasizes the separateness of the Hebrew community over and against other cultures.
Good morning! Today we finish the book of Ezra with chapters 9-10. This final section reveals the core of Ezra’s concerns for purity and the extent to which they govern official Hebrew practice after the exile. Ezra has such fear that the seedling of recovering Hebrew culture would be corrupted or choked out by others in the land that he leads a movement to split up marriages between Jews and non-Jews throughout Judah. There are parallels to this in anti-Jewish and anti-Black laws of the last century, and many still today consider marrying outside one’s faith sufficient grounding for severe disapproval. Ezra expresses a very contemporary sentiment, with families being severed because some members are deemed “unworthy” by others, who put ideology before blood.
Good morning! Today’s passage (Ezra 7-8) officially introduces us to Ezra—the priest, scribe and leader for whom this book is named. Note the prominence of writing again as a theme, both in the occupation of Ezra (scribe), and in the content of chapter 7, which is one long letter from Persian king Artaxerxes. Ezra is essentially an ancient lawyer, commissioned by Artaxerxes to lead a wave of Hebrew migrants from Babylon to Jerusalem. Their journey comes with the full blessing of the Persian king, including gold and silver. Ezra receives what amounts to a blank check to cash at treasuries anywhere along the way through the province Beyond the River.
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.
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.
Good morning! With today’s passage (1 Chronicles 34-36) we conclude the pre-exile historical narratives that have stretched from the beginning of Joshua (March 11th) all the way until today. Ezra and Nehemiah (which follow today) offer a brief interpretation of events after exile, but we’re nearly done with all the books in the “historical” section of the Hebrew scriptures. Today we finish Chronicles with a focus on righteous Josiah and the unrighteous kings who follow him, all powerless to stop the convergence of Egyptian and Babylonian powers against Judah.
Good morning! We are nearly done with Chronicles—only one more day after this! With today’s passage (2 Chronicles 32-33), we celebrate Hezekiah’s righteous triumph and revisit the less successful generations until Josiah’s reign. Part of the background here—unmentioned in Chronicles because of its focus on Judah—is the capture and exile of the northern kingdom to Assyria. Hezekiah’s ability to withstand where Israel had fallen is credited to him as righteousness, but the kings who follow him forsake his example and thereby imperil the kingdom.