Ezra and Nehemiah

These two reformers charted a course for the future of Judaism.

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Nehemiah: Rebuilding the Temple

In December of 445 B.C.E. Nehemiah, the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes, was informed by his brother Hanai, who had just arrived from Jerusalem, of the difficult situation in Judea. Nehemiah approached the king and succeeded in getting permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, obtaining the governor­ship of Judea and having it established as a province separate from Samaria. By 444 B.C.E. he had established his control over the newly created province. In a fifty‑two‑day stretch he man­aged to rebuild the city walls, although it is possible that this was a temporary fortification and that the permanent walls took another two years to complete.

Throughout the period of rebuilding, Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, aided by Tobiah, the ruler of Ammon, and Gashmu an Arab chieftain, constantly opposed Nehemiah. Nonetheless, Nehemiah persevered. In order to create a commercial center for the country, he brought people from the hinterland into Jerusalem. With the walls up and the new population base established, Jerusalem's role as the center of Jewish Palestine was guaranteed.

Combating Syncretism

In Nehemiah's time the population of Judea may be estimated at some fifty thousand souls, concentrated on the mountain ridge stretching from Beth Zur north to Bethel. The province had already been divided into districts when he came into office, probably remnants of the administrative system set up by the neo‑Babylonian rulers after the conquest and destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.E. He allied himself with those who wanted to restore pure monotheism while his aristocratic opponents continued the old syncretistic tendencies against which the prophets had constantly railed.

After twelve years, Nehemiah's term as governor came to an end. Soon after returning to the Persian court, he was reappointed to the post. Nehemiah returned to Judea to find that conditions had worsened. The syncretistic party had scored substantial gains, and he had to expel Tobiah the Ammonite from an office in the Temple. Indeed, a descendant of the high priest Eliashiv had married the daughter of the Samaritan Sanballat. Nehemiah began a vigorous religious reform, fighting against the rising tide of intermarriage, and insisting that levitical tithes be paid and that wood for the altar be properly furnished. He strengthened and encouraged the strict observance of the Sabbath.

Chronological Problems

Those who take the view that Ezra came after Nehemiah see him as arriving at this time, perhaps having been brought by Nehemiah to help restore the proper observance of the Torah. We do not know exactly when Nehemiah's second term ended. It may have been with the death of Artaxerxes I in 424 BCE. He was definitely out of office by 408 B.C.E., when a Persian named Bagoas was governor of Judea according to the Elephantine documents. [Many Aramaic documents have survived from Elephantine (Egypt) and these provide us with a window into the colony's culture and religion.]

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.