Ezra & Nehemiah

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

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The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the only completely historical books in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim (Writings). In English Bibles, they are usually split into two, with the book of Nehemiah appearing as a separate book from Ezra, but in the Hebrew tradition, they are one book, entitled "Ezra," and Nehemiah is simply the second part of Ezra. In this essay, the term "Ezra" is used to describe the complete book.

Parts of Ezra are written in Aramaic, which was the common language of the Middle East at the time (Ezra and Daniel, which is also partly in Aramaic, are the only books of the Hebrew Bible that are not completely in Hebrew). Ezra is chronologically the last historical book in the Hebrew Bible, covering the end of the sixth and the beginning of the fifth centuries B.C.E. It tells the narrative of the return to Zion.

What Was the Return to Zion?

At the end of the sixth century B.C.E., the kingdom of Judah was dismantled by the Babylonian empire. Jerusalem and the Temple (the Beit Hamikdash) were destroyed, and thousands of Judahites were exiled to Mesopotamia. Those who were exiled, however, did not see this as a final stage in Israel's history. They were aware that Jeremiah had prophesied that there would be an exile, but there would also be a return (chapter 32, especially vv. 26-44).

The opportunity for that return came about in 538 B.C.E. The Babylonian empire fell, and the Persian empire gained control of Mesopotamia and most of the Middle East. One of the first rulers of the empire, Cyrus, sought to show tolerance to all of the communities in Mesopotamia. Cyrus issued a famous edict, narrated at the very beginning of the book of Ezra, allowing Jews who wished to return to "Jerusalem that is in Judah” and build a “House for the God of Heaven” to do so.

Three Stages, Two Main Issues

The book of Ezra tells of the three distinct stages in the return, and of the challenges and practical difficulties that the returnees faced at each stage. Not all the Jews in Mesopotamia were interested in returning to Zion. Those who did were fired by the hope of building a society which would restore Israel's ancient glory.

The two central issues in building this society were:

1) The attempt to define the boundaries of the society's members. "Who was a (true) Israelite?" was an issue of great concern. This can be seen from the lengths to which several chapters in the book (Ezra chapter 7, Nehemiah chapter 7) go in listing the names of the returnees according to their ancestral families: Priests, Levites, members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

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