Welcome to the book of Ezra. It continues the story where we left off with the Babylonian exile and needs a bit of explanation and context – or at least it did for me. After reading the first couple of chapters I was hopelessly lost and had to do some research to figure out what the heck was going on. Here’s what I found.
Ezra is full of contradictions. In addition, there are incompatible events in its timeline. Its authorship is uncertain, its historical data is sketchy, and it has likely been subject to much editing over an extended time period (centuries). Apparently the author(s) were more concerned with making certain theological points rather than with accuracy.
So at the end of Kings/Chronicles, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon loots Jerusalem, destroys the temple, and exiles the Jews to Babylon where popular story has it they spent 70 years in captivity. The number 70 appears to come from prophesy in Jeremiah 25:7-11, although we haven’t read Jeremiah yet, and won’t get there for a while. (The editors of the bible seem to go out of their way to make it as obtuse as possible.) But when we do get to that passage in Jeremiah, the SAB will point out that the actual period of captivity more like around 50 years. So much for inerrancy.
The time line goes roughly like so – The original temple (Solomon’s Temple) was destroyed in about 587-586 BCE. However, Judah was constantly at war around that time, and the earliest exiles to Babylon actually began leaving around 597. The biggest bunch left when the temple fell in 587, and a few stragglers hung around until 582 or so.
In 539 BCE, Babylon fell to King Cyrus the Great of Persia. Under his rule, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem, and they began to do so beginning around 538. They began rebuilding the temple around 521. It’s not clear to me what they spent the first few years doing after their return or why they didn’t start on the new temple sooner. Maybe they needed some time to get re-established. But after a brief construction delay caused by complaints from the neighbors (which we’ll read about in chapter 4), the Second Temple was completed and dedicated around 516 (under King Darius, who took the throne around 522).
Now hopefully Ezra will make a bit more sense.
The lord fulfills Jeremiah’s prophesy that the Jews would be repatriated after 70 years of exile – which of course, we now know wasn’t really 70 years…. To accomplish this, Yahweh ‘stirs the heart of Cyrus’ to liberate them and restore their plundered possessions. (So Cyrus was just a puppet, then? Kind of like Pharaoh?) There follows a long boring list (v 7-11) of the items returned, supposedly 5,400. But there are only 2,499 items on the list. Oops.
Moving right along….
Here’s a list of 42,360 people who returned to Judah, in addition to 7,337 servants (what, they weren’t people?), and 200 singers (singers are so special they are a separate category?). But there’s a problem with the count – the people listed only total 29,818 – nowhere near 42,000. Furthermore, the lists of names here will repeated when we get to Nehemiah 7 – but with 19 contradictions between the two lists. Oops again.
We’re not done with the errors. Once in Jerusalem, the people make offerings towards the rebuilding of the temple, and (you guessed it) the totals of the donations listed here don’t match what’s reported in Nehemiah. Epic failure for the authors and editors.
In verse 63, we again see the priests using the magic sacred lots, Urim and Thummin, to make important decisions. hmmmm
This is a description of how the ceremonies and sacrifices are resumed by the Jews in Jerusalem, and the laying of the foundation for the new temple. It remarks that those who were old enough to have remembered the original temple were moved to tears, which made me wonder how old they would have to be given a 70 year exile. Now that I know that it wasn’t really 70 years, this isn’t quite so unreasonable.