November 14, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The Jews return to Jerusalem

John F. Fink(Forty-fifth in a series of columns)

Six weeks ago in this series of columns, we left the Judeans in exile in Babylon. They were taken there in 587 B.C., after the destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple built by Solomon.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were one book until St. Jerome translated the Old Testament, tell the story of the return of some of the Jews after King Cyrus of Persia, which had defeated Babylon, issued an edict in 538 B.C. encouraging the Jews to return to the land of Judah.

Obviously, not all the Jews were enthused about returning, or moving to Jerusalem for the first time, since the place was in ruins and the Jews had built their lives in Babylon during those 48 years.

Although Ezra precedes Nehemiah in the Bible, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem well before Ezra. He was in a group led by Zerubbabel, and they were responsible for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and then the Temple.

The Book of Ezra shows the opposition to the rebuilding as the people of the land and the enemies of Judah tried to convince the Persians that the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple was an act of political disloyalty. Their efforts failed, though, and the Temple was rebuilt in 515 B.C. It was not nearly as ornate as the one built by Solomon. That would have to await King Herod the Great.

Ezra doesn’t appear in the Book of Ezra until Chapter 7. He was a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, a scribe who had become well versed in the law of Moses during the exile. When he arrived in Judah, it appears that the reconstruction of the city and its repopulation had already taken place.

Ezra focused on the establishment of the Torah as the constitution of the returnees. By their acceptance of the Torah, the people defined themselves as belonging to the Jewish community. In Nehemiah 8-10, Ezra read the law to the people, they confessed their failure to observe it in the past, and they agreed to live according to its precepts in the future.

Chapters 9 in both Ezra and Nehemiah contain the confession of the people. They are thought to be, originally, part of the same prayer. They recount the experience of the people from Abraham to the restoration, and are considered to be one of the important creedal statements in the Old Testament.

A large part of both books deals with the problem of mixed marriages, those who married outside their religious community. Ezra recited a long penitential prayer on their behalf, speaking of the Jews as a “holy race” and accusing the Judeans of desecrating themselves with “the peoples of the land” (Ezr 10:2). Many Jewish men apparently divorced their non-Jewish wives.

Ezra thought that forbidding mixed marriages was essential to preserve the Jewish people because assimilation was a major threat, especially considering the small number of people who repopulated Jerusalem. The more the Jews associated with Gentiles, the more was the likelihood that they would not remain ritually pure. †

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