As the Second Book of Kings ended, you thought it was all over for God and Israel. God had totally given up on his people after the Babylonian conquest in circa 587 BCE, allowing the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and his temple, just like the prophets predicted. You thought God was just going to retire into the sky and binge-watch celestial Netflix all day or something while the House of Israel languished in Babylon living on black-market figs and hummus smuggled in from what was left of Jerusalem. Well, guess what? You thought wrong. God's back and so are the Judeans
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah take place in the time period following the Persian conquest of Babylon. The Persian King Cyrus has conquered Babylon and has inherited the Judean exiles as subjects. But he's not the villain Nebuchadnezzar was, scattering the Judeans in far-off lands and turning the land into a major rockpile. In fact, Cyrus is a pretty righteous guy. In an unusual move for a foreign king, he announces that the God of Israel has instructed him to let the exiles return to Judea to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. So back they go, loaded with money, supplies, and bling, all provided at the "request" of Cyrus by the Persians and by the Jews who stayed behind.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah (which are really one book, taken together) are the story of this period of return and rebuilding from the 6th to the 5th century BCE. They appeared in their earliest form around 400 BCE and were gradually added to and revised in the following few centuries. We don't really know who wrote these accounts; they're apparently a composite, but a historical Ezra and Nehemiah may have both been involved.
After being sacked and carried off by a series of Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors, the Judeans are elated to be allowed to return home to salvage Jerusalem and what's left (not much) of the temple. At any rate, Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah, the Jewish butler of the Persian king, show up and have to deal with a world of problems. These dudes are downing Red Bull all day trying to get things in order. The place is an absolute mess and their neighbors aren't exactly thrilled to have the exiles back. The book demonstrates the obstacles Israel was facing in trying to keep its culture and religion intact: intermarriage, hostile locals, corrupt officials, ignorance of Jewish law, and the impossibility of finding a decent bowl of baba gannoush.
Intermarriage is the real enemy in these books. We guess Ezra and Nehemiah didn't think you could keep worshipping the God of Israel if you had a bunch of kids who were all sacrificing to Baal and dancing on hilltop shrines and couldn't even speak Hebrew. Of course, he could've stipulated that all children with at least one Israelite parent should be raised as Jews, regardless of parentage—but maybe people weren't innovative enough to think of that back then. Desperate times may have called for desperate measures.
So, in a nutshell, that's Ezra and Nehemiah: the long-prophesied return to the promised land, getting the temple back up and running, purifying the population, and putting together a mandatory crash course in Jewish law. Everything old is new again.
So remember in 9th grade when you founded your school's first Red Sox Fan Club? You had officers, a rulebook, a website, and seventeen rabid fans who knew the batting averages and on-base percentages of every player. You all swore to hate the Yankees and never utter the words "Mariano Rivera." Everyone agreed to wear red t-shirts on game days and black the next day if the Sox lost. You walked the halls knowing what you stand for.
Then you got mono and were out of school for the month of June. You come back in September to find the club in total disarray. People haven't been watching the games; traded players are still listed on the website as being on the team. No one's wearing the right shirts anymore. Someone even suggests that David Ortiz is way past his prime and shouldn't have had his contract renewed. Most shocking of all, you hear that your vice-president is thinking about allowing Yankee fans to join the club. He's even dating a Yankees fan, resulting in exposure to the insane idea that Derek Jeter might be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The horror! The horror!
Is your first reaction to get back to basics, make everyone take a loyalty oath and a pop quiz on RBIs and fielding percentages? To force your vice-president to watch tapes of Nomar Garciaparra? To hint that your buddy's date is cheating on him and even worse, probably doesn't even know that Fenway Park is the oldest ballpark in the country? To throw him out of the club altogether? What is everyone thinking??
Now it might be true that if these abominations continue, your fan club could cease to exist. It might devolve into a boring general baseball discussion group. No more sense of pride, no real commitment to the Sox, al kinds of t-shirts allowed. But are all those rules really necessary to make you feel like you're part of Red Sox Nation?
With apologies to rabid sports fans everywhere, this is obviously a hugely trivial example of the issues of identity and exclusion that form the central theme of Ezra and Nehemiah. There's no national survival at stake and God hasn't made the rules. But it's an important question in many aspects of our lives. What does it mean to be a loyal member of a group? Can diversity and multiculturalism be enhancing rather than threatening? To be a good Republican or Democrat do you have to completely buy the party line or can you reach across the aisle and still be committed to your beliefs? Are you interested in your friends' different religious practices and sports obsessions or threatened by them?
We face these issues all the time in trying to figure out who we are and what we stand for. We can get a sense of identity from many things: our political party, what kind of music we listen to, what religion we follow, how we dress, whether we're a Mac or a PC, where we look for online literature guides (Shmoop Rules!), what foods we eat, where we were born, and of course, Red Sox vs. Yankees. We live in a pluralistic society, much like Ezra and Nehemiah, and we need to figure out how to follow our personal values in a world with many different choices. It only takes a quick look at the headlines to see that this stuff can get pretty serious when you're talking about religious issues. The question raised in these books is whether you can keep your identity if you associate with people different from you. Will you get influenced or even "corrupted"? Or can you learn from other cultures and still feel a sense of identity with your own group?
And Derek Jeter? Well, we think he's really…oh, never mind.
Want to read the Bible in Tagalog? Check this website out. It has tons of different translations in English, and in other languages. It's a great resource.
Chabad on Ezra
The Hasidic Jewish organization Chabad offers a traditional Jewish take on Ezra.
"Islam Basics" on Ezra
This webpage records the various conflicting opinions of different Islamic scholars on Ezra and Islam. Was he a prophet? Was he the same as "Uzair," who is mentioned in the Qur'an? Discover the debate.
My Jewish Learning: Ezra and Nehemiah
An interesting and thorough analysis from a Jewish perspective, this article views Ezra and Nehemiah as presenting a somewhat frustrating, if ultimately positive period in the history of Israel. The Jews' hopes for their land are fulfilled but in a less glorious way than they expected. They'll have to wait for that.
A Guide for the Perplexed
What Nehemiah would have done if PowerPoint had been around in 445 BCE.
The Bible (TV Miniseries)
To be fair, this miniseries doesn't cover Ezra and Nehemiah in too much detail—they're just not really thrilling narratives, and aren't meant to be. But it technically does cover the bare facts of the return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile, so we're gonna go ahead and assume that counts.
Matthew Henry's Bible Commentary
This 18th-century Bible commentary offers a really in-depth look at every book in the Bible—including Ezra and Nehemiah.
John Wesley's Bible Commentary
Wesley, the founder of Methodism, provides another, super-extensive commentary on the Bible.
Extremely Old and Incredibly Historical
Commentary on fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Book of Nehemiah will be published in 2015. Until a few years ago, scholars thought that Nehemiah was one of the few books not found in the Scrolls. We're glad they were wrong—he worked so hard on those walls. He'd be happy people thought to write all that down.
Ezra and the Second Temple, from "A Biblical History of the Jews"
Chabad Rabbi Mendel Dubov gives a little talk on the meaning of Ezra, speaking from a Hasidic Jewish point-of-view.
Yale University Lecture on Ezra and Nehemiah (and 1 and 2 Chronicles)
Professor Christine Hayes explains it all: Ezra and Nehemiah in the context of a broader exploration of the Bible. (This is from a free, awesome Yale lecture series and you don't even have to take the exam.)
Exiles Returning to Jerusalem, by Julius Schnorr von Carosfeld
The German artist von Carosfeld made this 19th-century wood-cut, depicting exiles—some of them wounded and bandaged and ill, but all of them apparently happy—making their way back home.
"Ezra," Guillaume Rouille
This 16th-century depiction shows Ezra as another bearded, Biblical-looking kind of guy.
Model of the Second Temple in the Israel Museum
After King Herod's renovations in the 1st century B.C.E., the Second Temple was looking pretty snazzy—much different from when Zerubbabel and Jeshua oversaw its construction as described in Ezra and Nehemiah.
"Nehemiah Viewing the Walls of Jerusalem," Gustave Dore
Dore, a great 19th-century French illustrator, gives us a sad and possibly penitent Nehemiah, lamenting the ruined state of Jerusalem's walls. He's gonna need a bigger truck.
The Tomb of Ezra in Iraq
And finally, here's Ezra's tomb (at least according to legend) near the banks of the Tigris in Iraq.