One of my cousins recently graduated from divinity school and he recounted something one of his teachers told him that really stuck with him and now sticks with me: “when giving a sermon, hold the scriptures in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” Given the issues with racism and refugee problems I’ve been seeing in the news recently, this book is particularly on-topic, although not particularly helpful with its conclusions.
This book starts off with Cyrus, King of Persia, having an inspiration. In theory, the idea is god wants a house built for him in Jerusalem; in practice Cyrus bribes Israelite refugees to go over to Jerusalem rather than stay in Persia. And not even with his own funds, just telling the populace, they must give silver, gold, and other goods and livestock to any Israelite from Persia traveling to Jerusalem.
And then we get a massive list of who all the refugees were, where they were from, where they went, and how many they numbered. One thing about reading these books is a reminder of the sheer numbers being dealt with. We’re talking about people in the hundred and thousands and hundreds of thousands.
And then there was a bunch of celebration and prayer and burnt offerings.
Those were chapters 1, 2, and 3. In chapters 4, 5, and 6, however, we discover that bureaucracy is eternal and it turns out various other governing units are not particularly happy with Cyrus’ plan to shift refugees elsewhere, and did anyone actually have a copy of the authorizing letter Cyrus had sent out regarding building the temple? As it turns out, the answer to that last question is “yes,” and if you try to ignore it again King Darius of Persia will have your house torn down and you hung on the scaffold built in its place. So, you know, building that temple continued.
It isn’t until chapter 7 (out of just 10, in the Book of Ezra) that Ezra is introduced as a character. But he’s a scribe in the law of Moses, and under the ongoing patronage of Artaxerxes, kind of Persia.* He’s essentially sent to be a magistrate and enforce god’s law on the people of Jerusalem.
Now chapter 7 is also interesting for being written in the first person, due to most of it being a decree of Artaxerxes, kind of Persia. However, chapter 8 is also in first-person but I’m confused about who exactly it is. Is it safe to assume Ezra? Whoever it is, they gathered a bunch of people – listed in detail – to the river that runneth to Ahava and then contemplated the issue of all of them carrying a bunch of gold through a bandit heavy area. I really enjoyed Ezra 8:22, in which the narrator really doesn’t want to contact the King of Persia to ask for guards for the gold, after having spoken about how great and powerful their god is. Like, that’s just embarrassing. Hahahaha! Anyway, they split up and transport the gold in 12 packages and it all goes well.
In chapter 9, Ezra (I’m assuming) is deeply disturbed about how the Israelites continue to inter-marry and have children with the people who were already living in the lands.
In chapter 10, Ezra (we’re back to the more regular third-person narration) continues to be deeply disturbed by the Israelites having married foreigners, and gathers all the men to discuss the issue. Verses Ezra 10:18-43 list the various males who had taken foreign wives, and even had children by them. But they all promised to “put away their wives” in addition to offering a ram of the flock for their trespass. So… there’s that.
And thus ends the book of Ezra.
Summary: Bureaucracy, racism, and problems with refugees all have long and illustrious histories.
Moral: Yes, money can buy you out of troubles? (Especially other people’s money.) Don’t marry foreigners?
*I’m more than a bit confused by all the Kings of Persia (and/or Babylon – are they the same thing? Is one a subset of the other?), who I assume are ruling sequentially, but the book is a bit coy about the timeline for all of this, which is decidedly unusual, given how specific the books of Kings and the books of Chronicles were. But there are casual and mentions of King Cyrus of Persia and/or Babylon, King Darius of Persia and/or Babylon, and King Artaxerxes of Persia and/or Babylon.
Next up: Nehemiah