This demonstrates how little human nature has changed in the past two or more millennia. When the Jews start rebuilding the temple, the locals initially offer to help, but they are rebuffed since they are not among Yahweh’s chosen people. Outsiders aren’t welcome.
Pissed right off, the locals (mainly Samaritans, apparently) try to thwart the plans for the temple. In the time-honored tradition of NIMBY, they write a letter to King Artaxerxes of Persia (v 7), accusing the Jews of a history of violence, disloyalty to the crown, and insurrection, and asserting that if they are allowed to rebuild the temple, they will rebel and cease paying taxes (v 12). The king accedes to their complaints and issues a ‘stop work’ order, which remains in place until the ascension of King Darius.
Here’s where it gets weird. King Cyrus II, who in 538 told the Jews that they could rebuild the temple, reigned between about 550-530 BCE. King Darius I, who said in 521 that they could resume construction, reigned between 522 and 486. (In between was a king names Cambyses, who is not mentioned in the book of Ezra.) So who is this Artaxerxes who issued the ‘stop work’ order? Well he reigned between 465-424 BCE – long after the temple was rebuilt. Don’t even try to make sense of this. Wikipedia can’t.
A new governor moves into the region and asks questions about the abandoned temple foundation (it was probably becoming an eyesore). He asks who started rebuilding the temple and why the work was halted. He then reports to King Darius, asking that the palace archives be searched for the original decree by Cyrus. This guy sounds like an exemplary manager to me.
Cyrus’ scroll is found in the fortress in the province of Medes, or Media (see map). So Darius sends a proclamation ordering that the temple construction is to proceed, with all expenses, including provisions for the workers, paid by the royal treasury. Sweet deal! And the penalty for interfering with the construction – well, isn’t this a creative punishment: “Those who violate this decree in any way will have a beam pulled from their house. Then they will be lifted up and impaled on it, and their house will be reduced to a pile of rubble.” (v 11-12). So without further ado, the temple was completed and dedicated. End of Part 1.
This chapter begins ‘Part 2’ of the book of Ezra. Ezra (a temple scribe/scholar and supposedly the author of this eponymous book) enters the picture. His mission is to ‘purify’ the Jews (think ‘ethnic cleansing’ and you’ll get the idea). His genealogy is listed to prove he’s a Levite, descended directly from Aaron. But there are only 15 generations listed between him and Aaron. Does this compute? The SAB doesn’t remark on it, but that doesn’t seem like enough to me – all those centuries, all those dozens of Judges and Kings??? (There were 15 judges in Judges and more than 20 kings in Kings, although of course some didn’t reign long).
So King Artaxerxes authorizes Ezra to return to Jerusalem and to take valuables and supplies and a group of people with him to re-establish Jewish law there. This would of course make no sense at all if he were the same Artaxerxes who supposedly issued the stop work order on the temple reconstruction. But the return of Ezra supposedly takes place much later, during the ACTUAL reign of Artaxerxes, around 458 BCE. Although this date also depends on which Artaxerxes we’re talking about; the bible isn’t clear, and there were 3, but the others were even later. This is giving me a headache… Anyway, the king’s decree authorizes Ezra to obtain supplies from the provincial officers as needed, and to appoint judges and teach the Hebrew laws. And don’t ya love this added perk: “no priest, Levite, singer, gatekeeper, Temple servant, or other worker in this Temple of God will be required to pay tribute, customs, or tolls of any kind.” (v 24) This verse is still used by justify tax exemptions for churches.