Ezra & Nehemiah

Those who returned from Babylonia sought to reclaim Judah's former glory, despite major challenges.

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2) The attempt to turn the laws of the Torah into the laws of the society.  The  expression "It shall be done as in the Torah" appears for the first time in the Bible in Ezra 10:3, and it is during this period that we find the first narration of a public reading of the Torah, in Nehemiah chapter 8. Some have argued that the Torah was promulgated by Ezra, but it is clear that at least most of the text of the Torah existed during the first Temple period.

The First Wave: Zerubbabel

The first wave of returnees, whose story is told in Ezra chapters 1-6, consisted of about 40,000 individuals (Ezra 2:64), led by Zerubabbel, a descendant of King David, and Joshua son of Jozadak the high priest. Fired by the vision of restoring the glory of the age of David and Solomon, the returnees sought to re-establish the Temple, and to run the community in a way that would elicit divine approval.

As the first Sukkot festival in the land of Israel approached, the returnees reinstated the sacrificial offerings at the site of the Temple, and then began rebuilding the Temple itself (Ezra chapter 3).  But the returnees were not the only group to see themselves as heirs of ancient Israel. When the returnees came back to the land of Israel, they found another group already living there, viz. the inhabitants of Samaria and central Transjordan (ancient Ammon).

These Samaritans were, in the view of leadership of those returning from Babylonia, merely the descendants of people brought to the Land of Israel by the Assyrian kings at the end of the eighth century in place of the Israelites they deported.  The Samaritans, on the other hand, had Israelite names in some cases, and saw themselves as heirs of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They objected to the returnees' building the Temple on their own and demanded a part in the project.

The returnees did not see the Samaritans as legitimate heirs of ancient Israel, and felt they should take no part in the rebuilding, especially since the Samaritans had no connection with Jerusalem. Angered by the returnees' refusal to include them in building the Temple, the Samaritans lobbied the Persian empire to stop the project; the story of their correspondence with the Persian administration is recorded in Ezra 4. This episode illustrates another aspect of the recurring problem of defining the boundaries of Israelite identity.

The Second Stage: Ezra

The second stage of the return was headed by Ezra, a scribe from a priestly family. Defining who was a member of the community was also an important issue under Ezra. The first problem that confronted Ezra, when he arrived in Jerusalem, was that "the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the land…they have taken from their daughters for themselves and for their sons, and mixed the holy seed with the peoples of the land" (Ezra 9:1-2). 

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.