BiND: Day 34 and 35
Well, we’ve gotten ourselves into exile, which may or may not be a great time. It’s hard, of course, to live outside the land, without the Temple, away from what our ancestors worked so hard for. We’ll see in the psalms some of how people felt as they were led away to live in a foreign land, and we’ll see more in the prophets about how we got into exile and what to do now that we’re in it. But in the meantime, the people had to figure out how they could still be God’s chosen people without the land or the Temple, and how they could still worship God. This is when we get into the first real development of Judaism, and Ezra-Nehemiah is where we first see the people being referred to as “Jews” rather than “Hebrews” or “Israelites.” No longer are they primarily politically defined by their ancestor, now they are politically defined by their religion, which is of course tied up in their ethnicity.
Ezra-Nehemiah is a book about what happens when the people come home. The book (which we now have as two books) was likely written between 458 and 432 BC—from the time Ezra went to Jerusalem through the second governorship of Nehemiah. First we should remember that it’s historically unlikely that all the Israelites were taken into exile—probably it was mainly political and religious leaders, wealthy people, and a percentage of the peasants/regular people. Of course there are Samaritans, who didn’t go into exile but stayed and intermarried with the new settlers brought in by the Babylonians, and therefore became mixed and ritually impure and would later be despised by all “good Jews.” But still, when we see the numbers who come back with Ezra/Nehemiah, it’s by no means everyone. In 50 years you can bet the population continued to expand, but some people apparently decided not to come back. Which ultimately led Nehemiah (who was a Jew but also in the Persian government, and so became governor in Jerusalem) to resettle some of the rural population in the city to make sure there were enough people there to rebuild and defend.
So—after exile, some of the Jews (as they’re now called) are sent back by the Persian emperor to rebuild the Temple and then the city. Jerusalem was part of the Persian empire, not a separate or independent nation/kingdom/city-state. It’s pretty clear that the people are in Jerusalem at the pleasure and by the order of the emperor. But when the construction gets going, with the Temple and the city walls being the first things put up (houses came later), the neighbors start to get suspicious that revolution might be coming. Since Jerusalem was part of the empire, this is a big deal and these neighbors write off to accuse the Jews of treason. For a while it seems to work, but ultimately the Jews prevail.
These are not just any Jews—these are Jews serious about the covenant. Did you notice how many times they mentioned “the law of Moses”? These two books (which used to be just one book, made up primarily of what scholars call the “Ezra Memoir” along with some official documents and some history documented elsewhere as well) were clearly written by the hardliners, the fundamentalists. Ezra goes so far as to kick out foreign wives and “half-breed” children. These are literalists. Which makes it all the more interesting that animal sacrifice in the newly rebuilt Temple doesn’t play more of a role. There’s lots of liturgical information, but not a lot of sacrifice mentioned. It was almost certainly happening (otherwise why have the Temple?) but the other aspects of keeping covenant (no buying or selling food on the Sabbath, among other rules) have much more central place. It’s interesting to watch what’s happening to the community as they try to recover their sense of place along with the covenant that they’ve been trying to keep outside the land.
photo is of the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, taken by TCP.