On the Jewish priest Esdras (aka. Ezra, memorial day, the 13th of July)

July the 13th is the memorial day in the Church’s calendar for the Jewish priest Esdras (aka. Ezra), who was monumental in the restoration of the Hebrew religious rites after the debacle of the exile of the people in the sixth century BC. Here is Ezra’s entry in the Roman Martyrology:

“Commemoration of Saint Esdras, priest and scribe, who at the time of Artaxerxes king of the Persians, while returning from Babylon to Juda, gathered together the dispersed people and strove zealously to investigate the Law of God and to implement and teach it in Israel.”

Roman Martyrology, the 13th of July

The book of I Esdras (which in many modern Bibles is simply called Ezra, II Esdras being called Nehemias) brings us to the last half millenium of the history of the Hebrew people before the birth of Christ. It was during this period that the specific Jewish identity was fashioned and strengthened as the people fortified Jerusalem spiritually and carefully demarcated their communities from those of surrounding Semitic and half-Semitic tribes, such as of the Samaritans. In little sporadic bursts, but finally through the work of Nehemias, the Jews rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple (what is called the Second Temple, destroyed finally in AD 70 by the Romans) and with many ups and downs secured their homeland until the Roman period. The beginning of this restoration took place under the Persian king Cyrus II, who had permitted the Jews to return and had established the successor of David, Zorobabel, as the ethnic governor of the province across the river that had Jerusalem as its centre.

As we are told by Aggaeus and Zacharias son of Addo, this government was closely associated with the Temple high-priesthood, in the person of the first high-priest after the return, Josue son of Josedec. Two crowns, Zacharias had said. But where does Ezra come in? It seems clear that the return of Jewish groups from Babylonia to the Holy Land took place not all at once, but in multiple expeditions, every one of these authorised by the Persian authorities, whose documents were carefully carried over to function as securities for the rebuilding work. Often enough the Persian satraps who governed the territory ‘west of the river (Euphrates)’ reacted to these permissions and securities with anger and disbelief, probably dreading the reestablishment of a Jewish state, which would threaten the status quo of the time. So, Ezra would have led one expedition of people, some time after the arrival of Zorobabel and the high-priest Josue, who are not mentioned again in the Ezra narrative. Then, much later, Nehemiah would arrive to rebuild the defences of the Holy City. But that comes in a future post.

The book of Ezra, or I Esdras, begins with the command of the Persian emperor Cyrus (likely the one at the end of the book of Daniel) that the Jews may return and rebuild. Clan chieftains immediately prepare to leave, carrying with them priests and Levites, for the restoration of the Temple cult. By the command of the emperor, they also carried with them much gold and silver for the enrichment of the City and Temple and the old sacred vessels and appurtenances of the Temple which had been carried away into Babylonia seventy years earlier. All this was carefully recorded by the priests who received them into the Temple vault in Jerusalem:

“…now, at the orders of the Persian king Cyrus, Mithridates son of Gezabar must bring them out again, and give full account of them to Sassabasar, chief of the tribe of Juda. And this was the count made: gold trays thirty, and silver trays a thousand, knives twenty-nine, cups of gold thirty… baser cups of silver four hundred and ten… and a thousand other appurtenances; in all, of gold and silver appurtenances, five thousand four hundred. All these were taken back to Jerusalem by Sassabasar and the exiles who returned with him from Babylon.

I Esdras, 1: 8-11

The second chapter gives lengthy lists of the families and leading men who returned to Jerusalem, some of them wealthy enough to make further donations to the Temple cult of their own funds. They also travelled with herds of animals, some transport animals, other designated for the sacrificial offerings at the restored Temple. Chapter three now introduce the successor of David as a principal of the clan chiefs, and alongside him the high-priest Josue as a principal of the levitical families. And it mentions the hostility of the neighbouring nations, who initially prevented the rebuilding of the Temple, so that the regular sacrifices were made on an open-air altar, as before, but without the security of Temple and Temple precincts. At once, they re-established the religious cycle of seasons and the feast of Tabernacles.

No more they dared to do, with hostile nations threatening them all around, than erect God’s altar on its ruined base; here, morning and evening, burnt-sacrifice was offered, and with that daily offering, with the due observance of each day as it came, they held the feast of Tent-dwelling. After that, burnt-sacrifice went on uninterruptedly, on the feast days set apart for the Lord, and on other days, too, when gifts were brought to the Lord out of devotion.”

I Esdras, 3: 3-5

Even in the midst of the refounding of the Temple and the re-establishment of the sacred rites, we hear the laments of the older men, who remembered the Temple that had been destroyed eighty years ago – this new one was probably far smaller and certainly far poorer than the one Solomon had built at the height of the power, wealth and acclaim of the Israelite kingdoms. So, joy was mixed with misery:

Among the priests and Levites and chiefs of clans there were many older men who had seen the earlier temple when it stood built there. In their eyes, that was the Temple, and they cried aloud in lament, while these others shouted and huzza’d for joy. Shouts of folk rejoicing, and cries of folk lamenting, none could tell them apart; it was all a confused uproar of men’s voices, that echoed far away.”

I Esdras, 3: 12-13

All this was quickly brought to a halt by the Persian regional government who, as mentioned above, were surprised and annoyed with the attempt to restore Jerusalem. They were able to apply to a successor of Cyrus the Persian, Artaxerxes, and convince him that the Jews were a seditious people (chapter four) and that a new Jerusalem would create political problems. And so, the rebuilding programme was put on hold for several years, until a more favourable emperor, Darius, appeared. Then, the prophets Aggaeus and Zacharias, mentioned above, began to push again for the rebuilding of the Temple. Chapter five presents the suit that the Jews in Jerusalem made to the emperor Darius, who promptly (chapter six) discovered Cyrus’ archived permissions for the restoration of Jerusalem and renewed the order. And so, in about 520 BC, the second Temple appeared on Mount Moriah:

“As for the elders of the Jews, they built on, and all went favourably; true prophets were Aggaeus and Zacharias son of Addo; higher and higher the fabric rose, with the God of Israel for its speed, with Cyrus for its speed, and Darius, (and Artaxerxes), kings of Persia. It was on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of king Darius, that they finished God’s house; great joy had priest and Levite, great joy had all the returned exiles, as they consecrated God’s house together.”

I Esdras, 6: 14-16

Adar was the last month of the year (roughly February), so the Temple was finished in time for the Passover in the first month, as the sixth chapter documents finally. And that sets the scene for the Ezra (aka. Esdras) narrative, which begins by giving this respected priest and scribe (copier of the Torah) a genealogical line that establishes him as Levite and of the family of Aaron:

This Esdras was descended through Saraias, Helcias, Sellum, Sadoc, Achitob, Amarias, Azarias, Maraioth, Zarahias, Ozi, Bocci, Abisue, Phinees and Eleazar from Aaron, that was the first priest of all. He was a scribe, well versed in the law given to Israel by the Lord God through Moses; and now he came from Babylon armed, under God’s favour, with all the powers he had asked from the king. Some of the common folk made the journey to Jerusalem with him, as well as priests, Levites, singers, door-keepers and Nathinaeans. This was in the seventh year of king Artaxerxes;”

I Esdras, 7: 1-7

If this Artaxerxes is the one whose rule began in 465 BC, Ezra arrived when the second Temple had long been standing. He too carried papers from the Persian king, commanding that the Temple cult be supported by the regional Persian government in Juda – Ezra also carried substantial amounts of gold and silver for the Temple vault (chapter seven), such as caused him to fear for the security of his group. But he shied away from requesting an armed escort.

“There, by the Ahava river, I proclaimed a fast; we would do penance, and ask of the Lord our God a safe journey for ourselves, for the children who went with us, and for all that was ours. I would have asked the king for an escort of horsemen to defend us from attack, but shame withheld me; had we not boasted in the king’s presence that our God graciously protected all who had recourse to Him, that only faithless servants of his brought down on themselves the constraining power of his vengeance? So fast we did, to win the favour we asked of God, and all went well.”

I Esdras, 8: 21-23

The rest of chapter eight is about the arrival of this second group in Jerusalem and the carefully documented enrichment of the Temple. The rest of this book is concerned with the purity of the returned Jewish community. As commanded by the Law of Moses, the Jews should not have contracted marriage with non-Jews, and Ezra as scribe was painfully aware not only of this law, but also of the quickly-discovered fact that many of the Jews had done just that in the decades since the first arrivals and the establishment of the Temple. Ezra was concerned that this would bring down renewed wrath upon the people:

“When all this was done, a complaint was brought to me by the chieftains, against priest and Levite and common folk alike. They had not kept themselves apart from the old inhabitants of the land, Chanaanite, Hethite, Pherezite, Jebusite, Ammonite, Moabite, Egyptian and Amorrhite, or from their detestable practices; foreign wives and daughters-in-law had contaminated the sacred stock of Israel, and the chief blame for this lay with the rulers and magistrates themselves. At this news I tore cloak and tunic both, plucked hair from head and beard, and sat there lamenting. Such as feared God’s warnings, defied by these restored exiles, rallied to my side; and still I sat lamenting until the time came for the evening sacrifice. Then, at the time of the evening sacrifice, I rose up from my posture of grief; cloak and tunic still torn about me, I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the Lord my God. And thus I prayed: ‘O my God, I am all confusion, I am ashamed to lift my eyes towards thee; so deep, head-deep, are we sunk in the flood of our wrong-doing, so high, heaven-high, mounts the tale of our transgressions…'”

I Esdras, 9: 3-6

Clearly, ‘purity of stock’ had been an all-consuming concern among the diminished and exiled population, fearful of vanishing away into the nations. Intermarriage always waters down social customs and causes a breakdown of particular communities, and this would have been observed by the exiled communities – what we would today call the Jewish diaspora. But for those who had returned to Juda, that had ceased to be important, and the newer arrivals from the exile, like Ezra, were shocked by the existence of multiple cases of intermarriage. Chapter nine continues Ezra’s fearful prayer that this situation of intermarriage not bring further destruction. The final chapter records his success at getting the Jews to put away their foreign wives and families. And that’s the end of the book.

“Meet together they did, all the men of Juda and Benjamin, within the three days prescribed (that is, on the twentieth day of the ninth month), at Jerusalem. There they sat, a whole people, in the open space before the house of God, their spirits cowed by guilt, and by the rain that was falling. And the priest Esdras rose up and spoke to them. ‘There is guilt among you,’ he said; ‘by mating with aliens you have made the reckoning against Israel heavier yet. Confess your fault to the Lord God of your fathers, and obey His will; separate yourselves from the peoples that live around you, from the foreign wives you have married.’ At that, the whole multitude gave a loud cry, ‘At thy bidding it shall be done!'”

I Esdras, 10: 9-12

Note that he commanded them not only to leave their Gentile wives but to separate themselves from the peoples that lived about them. And just here, we see the origin of the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans were an indigenous people who had come from intermarriage between Israelites and non-Israelites, and who worshipped the Eternal God in the way that this had been done before the destruction of the Israelite kingdoms. However, they were now judged, post-Ezra, as being not Jewish, and so to be treated as pariahs by the Jews, who could alone be the heirs of the promise made to Abraham. I note also that Our Lord Jesus Christ was particularly friendly to the Samaritans in the Gospel stories, when other Jews would have nothing to do with them.

“And when a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Give me some to drink.’ (His disciples were away in the city at this time, buying food.) Whereupon the Samaritan woman said to Him, ‘How is it that thou, who art a Jew, dost ask me, a Samaritan, to give thee drink?’ (The Jews, you must know, have no dealings with the Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If thou knewest what it is God gives, and Who this is that is saying to thee, Give me drink, it would have been for thee to ask Him instead, and He would have given thee living water.'”

Gospel of S. John, 4: 7-10