The second book of Esdras (aka. Nehemiah)

This is almost the last of the designated historical narratives in the Old Testament. Only two other such books remain – the two books of the Machabees – which end up leaving a gap of less than two centuries until the birth of Christ. I say ‘designated’ because there is much historical material in several of the books that tell old stories, such as EstherTobias and Judith. The second book of Esdras (aka. Nehemiah) was originally appended to the first book (aka. Ezra), and covers the time period from the initial return of the Jewish exiles from Babylonia under the successor of King David called Zorobabel (an ancestor of Christ) to a much later time, when Nehemiah (a Jewish cup-bearer to the Persian king in Babylonia) was appointed temporarily to be governor of Juda. As Zorobabel and the high-priest Josue had restored the Temple with resistance from the local government, although to a far poorer level than Solomon’s magnum opus (see Reading through I Esdras), Nehemias was able against much opposition to restore the walls of Jerusalem, which had lain in ruin for almost a century. With the walls restored, self-confidence returned to the people, and Nehemias ends with a great festival. Let’s run through the book…

Second Esdras begins and ends as a type of diary of the governor Nehemiah, with some later addition of long lists of names of the leading men of the time, both chieftains and tribal leaders, and priests and levites serving the Temple. Nehemias in time introduces himself and his deep pain at discovering, decades after the first Jews returned to Jerusalem and Juda, that they had fallen into dissipation, and the Law of Moses was once more being ignored. But, first and crucially, the Holy City still had no walls and so was defenceless to attack.

“I was visited by a kinsman of mine, Hanani, who brought with him certain travellers just come from Juda. So I asked them how it went with Jerusalem, and with the Jews still left there, survivors of the exiles who returned. Survivors there are, said they, in various parts of the province, left over from the days of the exile. But they are in great distress, and count for nothing; Jerusalem is but broken walls and charred gates. For a long time after hearing this news I kept my house, all tears and lament; I fasted, and sought audience with the God of heaven in prayer.

II Esdras, 1: 2-4

The atmosphere of insecurity resulting from the absence of walls around a city in those days, and likely frequent raids by wandering tribes, must have left the people in a constant state of fear and agitation. Nehemiah said his prayer and then used his position of influence with the Persian king to establish himself as governor of Juda, and so in a position to confound the enemies of the Jewish people, who had stopped them from rebuilding the City’s defences. 

“‘What wouldst thou have of me?’ the king asked. And I, first praying to the God of heaven, made answer thus, ‘Did I but stand so high in the royal favour, my request would be that thou wouldst send me to Judaea, to this city where my father lies buried, and give me leave to rebuild it.’ No question had the king to ask, or his consort that was there beside him, but how long my journey would last? When did I think to return? So the king was content to let me go, and it was for me to name the time of my absence. Then I said, ‘May it please the king’s grace to entrust me with letters for the governors of the country beyond Euphrates, bidding them see me safe on my way to Judaea; a letter, moreover, to Asaph, the ranger of the royal forest, bidding him supply me with timber for coping the gates of the temple palace and the city walls, and roofing my own house besides.’ All this, by God’s favour, the king granted me.

II Esdras, 2: 4-8

With such papers, Nehemiah had all the confidence he needed and would brook no further opposition. Having scouted the walls himself on his arrival, he mustered all the strength of the people to rebuild the walls in sections. Some of the enemies of the people are named here:

“When word came to Sanaballat the Horonite, and Tobias the Slave, that was of Ammon’s breed, and Gosem the Arabian, all was mockery and disdain; ‘Here are fine doings!’ they said. ‘Are you for rebelling against the king’s majesty?’ But I had my answer ready for them: ‘The Master we serve is the God of heaven; He will be our helper. Leave us to set about our task of building; for you there is no right of possession, no privilege, no citizenship here at Jerusalem.’

II Esdras, 2: 19-20

Nothing could be clearer: the Jews had returned to the land they belonged to. These others had no rights of possession and no privilege in Jerusalem – no claim at all. Chapter three is a description of the rebuilding of the walls. The reaction of the three mentioned above is first utter derision and then dismay at Nehemiah’s success (chapter four). Nehemiah himself, shaking off his exalted position of governor by royal right, joined in the work of labour, colourfully describing the state of alert that the builders were in, justly fearing an attack from their enemies in the midst of the building work.

“And so, when word came to our enemies that we had been forewarned, God threw all their plot into confusion. Back we went to our several posts at the wall; and thenceforward the warriors among us were divided into two companies; one of these remained at work, while behind them, under the clan chiefs of Juda, the rest stood arrayed for battle, with lance and shield, bow and breastplate. And even while they were at work, built they or loaded or carried loads, it was one hand to work with, and one closing still on a javelin; nor was there ever a workman but must build with his sword girt at his side. And the men that blew the trumpets were close beside me…”

II Esdras, 4: 15-18

In chapter five, Nehemiah deals with issues of justice and equity, for rich Jews were exploiting poor Jews in the new colonial setting (colonies of Jews living among the ‘people of the land’). For tasks like this, apparently condoned by the Jewish leaders and by the Temple priests, Nehemiah had to exercise all his authority as imperial governor, as well as his growing religious authority as ruler of the people. It makes me wonder what happened to Zorobabel and the Davidic succession. In chapter six, we hear of treacherous attempts on Nehemiah’s life by the above-mentioned enemies. Nehemiah provides us with a wonderful description of the origins of the Temple and  synagogue services that would quickly develop from this point and that would eventually form one part and another of Holy Mass in the liturgy of the Christian church. 

“And there in the open space before the Water-gate he proclaimed the law, before men and women and such younger folk as could take it in, from daybreak to noon, and all listened attentively while the reading went on. A wooden pulpit had been erected to carry the sound better, and at this the scribe Esdras stood; with him were Mathathias, Semeia, Ania, Uria, Helcia and Maasia on his right, Phadaia, Misael, Melchia, Hasum, Hasbadana, Zacharia and Mosollam on his left. Esdras was plainly seen, as he opened the book, by all the people underneath. When he had opened it, all rose; and when he blessed the name of the Lord, the great God, all lifted their hands and answered, Amen, amen; and with that they bowed down and worshipped with their faces close to the ground. Then the Levites came forward, Josue, Bani, Serebia, Jamin, Accub, Sebthai, Odia, Maasia, Celita, Azarias, Jozabed, Hanan and Phalaia; these enjoined silence on the people, as they stood there in their places for the reading of the law. And they read out the book of the law, clear and plain to give the sense of it, so that all could understand the reading. And now the governor, Nehemias, with Esdras, priest and scribe, and these Levites who interpreted to the people what was read, must needs remind them that it was a feast-day set apart to the Lord; there must be no lamenting and weeping; already the whole multitude were in tears, as they listened to the words of the law. ‘Go home,’ said Nehemias, ‘and regale yourselves with rich meat and honeyed wine, sharing your good things with those who have none. There must be no sadness on this day, the Lord’s feast-day. To rejoice in the Lord, there lies our strength.’ The Levites, too, called for silence everywhere; ‘Peace there,’ no lamenting, ‘they said, this is a day of rejoicing.’ So all the throng dispersed, to eat and drink and share their good things with glad hearts, the message of the law made plain to them.”

II Esdras, 8: 3-12

In this extract, the priest-scribe Esdras (aka. Ezra) emerges again. He must be the same Esdras as in the book of first Esdras, the priest who fought for the execution of the Law of Moses in the new circumstances of the returned exiles. Here he continues this work, with the support of the governor. In the early centuries, deacons had similar roles of crowd control and creative exposition of the Law to the Levites in this picture. Deacons even today value the explanation of Scripture to the people as primary to their vocation and mission. The ceremony described above is associated with the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, as given at the top of the chapter, which mentions the ‘seventh month.’ Chapter eight ends with the practice of living in tents, associated with the feast of Tabernacles, also held during the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar (September time). Chapter nine presents a long account of the history of the salvation of the people, starting with their liberation from Egypt, all this forming part of a new covenant that the people make with God, promising to keep faithful to the Law in all its many observances, including especially not associating with non-Jews. Chapter ten lists the signatories of the covenant document Nehemiah had had prepared (with the assistance of scribe Esdras), and describes the restoration of the several liturgical offices of the Temple cult, instituted by King David and King Solomon, and the remuneration of the Levites and Aaronites, whose liturgical role prevented them from earning their living elsewise. 

One of the problems given by this book is the insufficient numbers of returning Jews. Either a small number only had been permitted to return to Juda by the Persians or, which is more likely, the Jews who had been for decades exiled from Juda had become comfortable in their exile and did not wish to return when the opportunity had arrived. And here, with the original extent of the walls rebuilt and the City of Jerusalem thus enclosed, it became more obvious that the small number of Jews could not populate the City easily. Nehemiah sought to get more people into the City and the ‘common folk,’ who may have preferred the countryside, had to be pulled in.

The rulers must needs have their dwelling in Jerusalem; the common folk had their residence assigned by lot, every tenth man going to live in the holy city, while the other nine remained in the country parts; whoever offered of his own free will to be a Jerusalem-dweller earned the blessings of his fellow-citizens. And these were the leading men of the colony that lived at Jerusalem, leaving the rest, the people at large, the priests, the Levites, the Nathinaeans, and the line of Solomon’s servants, to occupy the country parts, each in the cities allotted to them.”

II Esdras, 11: 1-3

So, this book is about the restoration of the City walls, and that city defences, which gave the Jews a better chance to defend themselves. This and the recommitment to the Law in the great liturgical service of chapter eight and the covenant of chapter nine, were designed to bring prosperity back to the people, and we may assume that the community grew in strength after these events. But the leadership of the people in this period of restoration was always wanting. After the establishment of the twin responsibilities of governor and high-priest given by, for example, Zacharias, we hear of Nehemiah’s discovery of the unremedied security problems at the beginning of this book and then his trouble with restoring social justice in chapter five, and now the end of the book describes how, despite the attempts of the priest-scribe Esdras, given at the end of I Esdras, there was still intermarriage and mixed marriages in existence among the Jews. Chapter thirteen is all about controlling and eliminating the association of the Jews with the tribes surrounding them; this is the same way I Esdras also ended. This began with the prohibitions of the Law of Moses, but continued on to the illogic of the growing dispute with the Samaritans and the opposition of Jew and Gentile that marks even the New Testament, and still persists today. Nehemiah, for his several efforts, expects to be rewarded by God.

Thus it was mine to rid Israel of the alien-born, to marshal priests and Levites for their due service, to plan the offering of wood at appointed times, and of the first-fruits. Not unremembered, my God, be all this, not unrewarded.

II Esdras, 13: 30-31
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