Ezra 8: The journey to Jerusalem

18 Apr

Ezra took more people from Babylon back to Jerusalem. The genealogy vaguely lists some people without numbers and some with numbers. Considering about 45,000 had returned with the earlier group of exiles, it seems that the new people were not more than 5% more than that. I wonder why some had waited till now to return. Had their fathers been waiting to see what happened with the Temple first? This was a new generation and more wished to return with Ezra.

Ezra assembled the group at a place outside Bablyon called the Ahava Canal. He checked the group and discovered there were no Levites included in the number (apart from himself of course). He sent word to Casiphia which was north of Babylon to a group of Jews living there. He asked their chief, Iddo, to send priests and Levites to join the group. The sent over 240 men who could prove their lineage to Levi including descendants of those allocated to work as temple servants by David. I don’t know why this was so important to Ezra since there were Levites and priests in Jersualem already, men who had consecrated themselves for the tasks in the Temple. Perhaps he felt that more Levites and priests would be good as the focus of this return was the Temple.

My favourite part of the chapter is verses 21 to 22. Ezra admits that he had been too ashamed to ask the king for soldiers to protect them on the journey because he had told the king that God would look after them. But he was still worried about his relatively small group of people travelling with children and treasure. Therefore Ezra declared they would fast and ask for God’s protection.

Before leaving Ezra divided the treasure destined for the Temple between 12 leading priests. It was weighed and each parcel was recorded. Once they reached Jerusalem they counted the treasure back into the hands of the priests there. All the treasure and all the people arrived safely in Jerusalem having received God’s protection all the way. The newly returned exiles made burnt offerings to God on their arrival.

The last verse includes a short note that the people also gave the king’s orders to the governors of the region who gave them their assistance. Ezra is a man who records each detail from his own fears to the last bureaucratic note.

Ezra 7: The man arrives

17 Apr

It seems a little late at Chapter 7 for the key man and author of the book to arrive, but Ezra chose to give background to his work in Jerusalem. It is certainly useful to have the context of the previous chapters to know see Ataxerxes’ sponsorship of Ezra and the project as part of a story of support from the kings of Babylon and of opposition from the locals.

This time Ataxerxes sends Ezra with a letter that:

  • gives Ezra permission to go to Jerusalem
  • with as many Jews as wish to accompany him,
  • the right to be supplied (to a limit) by the royal treasuries
  • the job to appoint and teach judges and magistrates across the region (to implement the law of God and of Ataxerxes)
  • and the task to carry gifts of gold and silver from the king and others in Babylon to the temple.

Like his predecessors Ataxerxes wants the God of Israel to be worshiped and to look with favour upon him and his house. Ataxerxes stipulates that as many sacrifices as Ezra decides are required should be made using his money. I wonder whether this was a policy across the empire of Ataxerxes – did they choose to honour local gods in an area in order to create a stable society that accepted their rule alongside worshiping their own gods? But then again, if this were the case why choose the god of a small remnant of a nation? Why not Molech or Asherah or Baal? There is a miracle here – the favour granted to Ezra and the exiles about the Temple was a blessing from God.

Who was Ezra? He gives his lineage in detail in the first 5 verses of the chapter. He is descended from Aaron by at least seventeen generations. (I say at least because I have not checked that one of the “son of”s did not really mean “grandson of” skipping someone which I have noticed does happen in the Old Testament). He has been well trained in the Law of Moses as he should have been according to his lineage. This is the man God chose to take on the next stage of rehabilitating the nation of Israel. The Temple was built and the people needed guidance on how to live as people of God.

Ezra’s job was not a small one but he ends this chapter with the following verses to show his commitment to the plan:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me.” (verses 27 and 28)

Ezra 6: Tattenai’s little plot backfired

16 Apr

I cannot think that Tattenai imagined the Jews were telling the truth, although as a good bureaucrat he did check. King Darius’ reply contained a confirmation of Cyrus’ original decree which had been found. But Darius also gave Tattenai some instructions too:

  • he was to leave the rebuilding alone and not interfere
  • he was to use the revenues from his province to pay for anything they needed from building materials to sacrificial offerings
  • this was in order that the Jews might praise and worship God and pray for the well being of the king and his sons
  • if anyone tried to interfere they were to be impaled on a beam from their own house and the house destroyed.

Tattenai had actually caused the building work to increase in pace because it no longer depended on the few Jews to support the work financially but his own revenue as governor of the region!

It is recorded that the work continued under Zechariah and Haggai’s prophesying and the Temple was finished in the 6th year of the reign of Darius. Again ignoring the mixing up of dates and kings – Ataxerxes is mentioned in this stage and he ruled after Darius – I think this shows some planning on Tattenai’s part. He must have written to Darius fairly early in his reign to complain, perhaps he waited till Cyrus had died to challenge the ruling. Perhaps he thought Cyrus’ decree (if there had been one) would have got lost? Or was he concerned that even if Cyrus had not made the ruling Cyrus would say he did if confronted with this story? Especially since we know that Cyrus’ son succeeded him, he then died and only then did Darius become king – that could easily have created bureaucratic confusion and records could have been lost. Also since Darius was not directly related to Cyrus, perhaps Tattenai was betting that Darius would simply dismiss the Jewish claim and say his own decree replaced anything they said?

But we know from history that Darius was ruling the Persian Empire at its height and he had instituted clear process of governance. He made Aramaic the official language of the Empire and decreed that a new single monetary system. Darius had created order and insisted his decrees were followed, he looked for Cyrus’ decree because he showed reverence for previous kings, establishing his own authority for future generations. Tattenai lost his game. The Temple was not only finished but regular sacrificial offerings were instituted and the Passover was celebrated according to the Law of Moses.

Ezra 5: Tattenai the Tattle Tale

15 Apr

Ignoring the strange weaving back and forth in time from the previous chapter, we are now dealing with King Darius who is Cyrus’s successor after less than a year of his brother in law’s reign.

What an amazing time to live – both the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were in Jerusalem prophesying to the people there. Zerubbabel and Jeshua were leading the work on the Temple and they were doing well. Tattenai was governor of the Trans-Euphrates and he challenged them asking who authorised the rebuilding of Temple. Their answers did not please him so he sent a long “report” to Darius.

In his “report” he told Darius that work on the Temple was going well and when he asked why they were doing this they replied that they were rebuilding the Temple according to a decree of King Cyrus. Both Tattenai and the Jews building the Temple made this a rather longer epistle than my simple summary. But Tattenai’s last paragraph oozes malevolence and sucking up to Darius with a little bit of bossiness too : “Now if it please the king, let a search be made in the royal archives of Babylon to see if King Cyrus did in fact issue a decree to rebuild this house of God in Jerusalem. Then let the king send us his decision in this matter.” (Verse 17)

What I find interesting is how bureaucratic the process is. Tattenai is governor of the Trans-Euphrates so should have power over anything in his realm. He tries lobbying through his “counselors” and tries to wheedle his way into the building program too, before challenging them via a letter to the king. Yes God has given the Jews His favour and protection, but He is using the Persian Empire’s systems and processes to protect them too. Who cares what a dead king said this rabble could do? Tattenai is very careful not to counter a king’s command – dead or alive. The kings of Persian extended their control through bureaucracy in an effective manner.

Ezra 4: Lobbying against the Temple

14 Apr

Reading this chapter I am reminding of the current lobbyist culture in politics. There were people who had been moved to live in Samaria and the rest of the area this translation calls the Trans-Euphrates. These people were not happy that the Jews were rebuilding the Temple. They probably did not want to be displaced. They also saw that the Jews had the king’s ear and support, which would have made them uncomfortable too.

Whether out of guile or a true attempt for peace, the enemies first asked Zerubbabel, Jeshua and the other leaders of the Jews whether they could help with the rebuilding. The reply was a clear “No” with a reminder that they were building as commanded by Cyrus the King of Persia.

The opponents responded by doing two things: firstly they worked to discourage the people doing the work and supporting the work and secondly they hired counselors to work against them. At first I could not understand the role of these counselors but now I realise they were simply lobbyists. The opponents and their lobbyists worked against the Temple throughout the reign of Cyrus and into the reign of Darius who succeeded him.

But the building continued. Cyrus reigned from Babylon for ten years before he was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (not mentioned in Ezra) who reigned for 8 years. His son reigned for less than a year before Darius (who had married Cambyses’s daughter and was of a noble house) became king. Darius reigned for 35 years. Then Xerxes reigned for twenty years and Ataxerxes reigned for forty years. Throughout all these reigns the lobbyists were presenting complaints to the kings of Persia about the Temple being rebuilt in Jerusalem.

It is not clear when the works were first halted. In Chapter 4 verse 6 the lobbyists complained to Xerxes. In Verses 7 and 8 they complained to Ataxerxes and in verse 23 they get a reply from Ataxerxes which they use to stop the building work. However in verse 24 it is summarised that it was in Darius’s reign (before Xerxes and Ataxerxes) that the building was stopped through lobbying. The following chapter is a reply from Zerubbabel and Jeshua to Darius – it is very unlikely that these two men would have been alive to appeal to Ataxerxes. Furthermore if we read on, we see the Temple is dedicated during Darius’ reign – I guess it could have been dedicated whilst still incomplete as the whole Temple complex was large. The Sanctuary would have been ready sooner and could have been dedicated and used before the courtyards and surrounding rooms were created.

Perhaps the author is trying to show how the lobbyists did not stop lobbying throughout the various kings’ reigns. This particular letter from Ezra 4 highlighted the rebuilding of the Temple as a sign of the rebelliousness of the Jews but the lobbyists must have used various “stories” and reused them over the years. Lobbyists use apparent facts or precedents to argue their agendas. Different countries allow this kind of process to impact the creation of laws and election of governments to differing degrees. However I am sure we have all had people using these tactics against projects which we believe to come from God. Opposition to God’s plans is “business as usual”.

Ezra 3: Sounds of weeping and shouts of joy

13 Apr

We don’t have timing for the arrival of the people in Jerusalem but we do know that by the seventh month of the year, they had settled in their villages. At this time they all came up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles.

They started the celebrations building an altar to God and starting the morning and evening sacrifices according to the Law of Moses. Then they celebrated the Feast of the Tabernacles with the prescribed sacrifices. This began the cycle of regular sacrifices according the Moses, whether daily or for the New Moon or freewill offerings.

The people then began preparations to rebuild the Temple. The Levites were responsible for managing the building programme according to their ancestors’ allocations. The masons and carpenters, as well as loggers from Sidon and Tyre were paid. Finally, in the second month of the following year the foundations were laid. Descendants of Asaph lead the people and the Levites in praise and worship to God as prescribed by David. They sang with thanksgiving:

“He is good, His love to Israel endures forever.”(verse 11)

The people shouted with joy and praised God. The older priests, Levites and leaders who had seen the former Temple wept. Their weeping was lost in the shouts of joy.

These people had seen the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the return to rebuild under Cyrus. They could have been weeping for so many things: the wasted years in exile until the people turned back to God, the destruction that had been caused by the people and their kings ignoring God and his prophets, remembering those who died during the destruction of the Temple and the exile, remembering God’s faithfulness and the people’s faithlessness, wondering how long this Temple would last, how long the people’s dedication to God would last, weeping over the fickleness of man and the pain this causes everyone including God.

The picture reminds me of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. He knew the city had been ransacked many times and the Temple had been rebuilt, but that it would be destroyed again. He knew everything that the leaders and priests wept for and more. He was going to die for the faithlessness of man and the faithfulness of God. He was going to become the Temple.

Ezra 2: The return

12 Apr

There are loads of names in this chapter but the final summary is in verses 64 to 67:
“The whole company numbered 42,360, besides their 7,337 menservants and maidservants; and they also had 200 men and women singers. They had 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels and 6,720 donkeys.”

Although I checked by adding the numbers in the previous verses and I can only find 29,818 people listed. Looking at the list and the journey ahead of them, there were few animals to carry these people and they probably walked. The animals would have been needed for the gold for the Temple, carrying their possessions and the old and very young. This chapter whisks these people from Babylon to Jerusalem but it was not a quick journey.

Considering they would have arrived with very little, the Jews had carefully gathered possessions during the exile. The little group that arrived were able to give to the Temple in freewill offerings 61,000 drachmas of gold, 5,000 minas of silver and 100 priestly garments (verse 69). My Bible says that is about 500 kg of gold and 2.9 metric tons of silver. Whatever they had collected, they were giving a lot of it to God.

This little exodus made me wonder about the comparison with the journey from Egypt. Firstly there had been more than 600,000 people leaving Egypt for the promised land. Secondly there had been much more gold and silver because the supplies they brought had built the Ark and the Tabernacle decorations and furniture, as well as the precious textiles used in the Tabernacle creation.

Less than a tenth of the number of people who had left Egypt for Canaan, left Babylon for Jerusalem. They were weak as a nation, a remnant, with their greatest asset being the support of Cyrus. Maybe their greatest asset was knowing that God had instructed Cyrus to rebuild the Temple and God was saving them – their faith in God and wholeheartedly commitment to Him alone would see them through this enormous task.

How often are we confronted with a challenge which God has created for us to use as an opportunity for us to grow and for His glory? The book of Ezra documents how this remnant achieved their goal, perhaps it will help you to stick with yours?

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