Study Guide

Ezra and Nehemiah Analysis

  • Genre

    Ancient Biblical History

    The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah aren't really history books in the modernday sense of the term. Rather, they express a people's sense of its own history. They show Israel fulfilling its story—returning from exile, triumphing over obstacles posed from without and within, in order to re-dedicate itself to God. It depicts Israel as a people with a destiny: creating a community that lives in obedience to God. So, the books interpret their history through that lens, as fulfillment of the prophecies of return from exile.

    Ezra and Nehemiah describe the most chronologically recent events in the Hebrew Bible. (The Book of Maccabees isn't in the Hebrew scriptures even though it describes later events involving Jewish heroes. It's in the Catholic version. Go figure.)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The titles of these two books are the names of Ezra and Nehemiah, the books' supposed authors. However, it's actually pretty tough to say how much of each book was written by the actual historical figures.

    People who believe the Bible is historical truth accept that the both books were actually written by their attributed authors. On the other hand, scholars see Ezra as being a composite, composed of different pieces that had been edited together. Nehemiah, however, seems more like a first-person memoir written by Nehemiah, though it may have also undergone editing and alterations. Some commentators believe that Ezra wrote Nehemiah as well. Both books were originally one book, until the early Christian Church Father, Origen, divided them into two separate works (source).

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The Book of Ezra ends with another long list. But right before that, Ezra wages his successful war against mixed marriages. In the eyes of the books' authors, this is totally necessary because they want to see Israel purged of foreign influence, free to obey God's laws without the threat of falling back into idolatry. It has something to do with the religious-revolutionary message of the book, its attempt to create an ideal society comprised of a perfectly obedient citizenry.

    Nehemiah ends on a very similar note. Nehemiah, after going through various reforms he helped promote, describes how he also helped break up mixed marriages with foreign women after the people started backsliding again. This solidifies the book's central idea that it's crucial for the Israelites to maintain their identity in order to remain faithful to their God. They can't make compromises with the society surrounding them, since those societies remain committed to the idolatry that got them into trouble with God in the first place. The Israelites have had a nasty habit of worshipping the gods of the nations that surround them, so the endings of these books essentially say that this is so over.

  • Setting

    Ancient Judah and The Persian Empire, c. 600-450 B.C.E.

    The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are both set in Judah while it's ruled by the Persian Empire, the most powerful empire in the known world at the time. Unlike Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian rulers, the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great is a pretty reasonable guy who gives the House of Israel the authorization to return to Jerusalem and Judah and rebuild.

    Most of the action takes place in Jerusalem and some surrounding towns, much of which were reduced to rubble by the Babylonians. The temple's destroyed and the city's walls are gone, leaving it vulnerable to attack. The area's populated by foreigners from Assyria who were brought in when the inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom were sent into exile. There are also many of the lower classes of Judeans who were left behind by the Babylonians. They don't like the fact that these returnees seem to think they can just come in and take over again. They try to convince the Persian king that the Israelites are secretly planning rebellion once they get settled. The text suggests that even after the first exiles return, there's more destruction of the city by the enemy tribes. So there's a great deal of social unrest.

    So it's not exactly a situation of bliss and contentment. Judah isn't an independent political entity anymore. Foreigners reside in the holy city. This is still a somewhat humiliating state of affairs in the eyes of Ezra and Nehemiah. But the Persian kings—including Artaxerxes, even though he stops the construction on the Second Temple for a little while—are benevolent and helpful. All the building and repair takes place with their complete encouragement and approval and largely at their expense. A modest version of the temple gets built and the city walls are reinforced.

    Judah's getting a trial run, essentially—a safe zone, under responsible rulers, in which they can try to be obedient to God and Empire. The Persian Empire might not be the ideal, but it's functional, economically prosperous, and well-governed.

    One of the problems reflected in these books is that the original exiles to Babylon were the upper classes, skilled workers, and officials; there were many people left behind and they were mostly poorer farmers who were allowed to stay to keep the land productive. That probably wasn't easy, since the war had depopulated the land, destroyed infrastructure, and ruined the crops. So when the descendants of the exiles began to return to Judah expecting to take back their property, this didn't sit well with the people who had remained there all along, struggling to keep going. This could have been why the Persian kings were anxious to get stable governance in the area and were willing to pay for it.

  • The Exodus

    When Ezra leads the people in publicly confessing their sins, the Israelites refer to the Exodus as a symbol of God's love and mercy toward his people, and also as an example of the people's tendency toward disobedience (dancing around that golden calf, etc.) He says:

    And you saw the distress of our ancestors in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea. You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of his land, for you knew that they acted insolently against our ancestors. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. And you divided the sea before them, so that they passed through the sea on dry land, but you threw their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. Moreover, you led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go. (NRSV Nehemiah 9:9-12)

    Ezra wants God to do the same thing today—to lead his people out of slavery. He believes that they still are slaves dominated by foreign powers, even if those are relatively benevolent foreign powers like the Persian Emperors. The Exodus becomes a symbol for their current situation.

    This symbolism becomes most clear when the people celebrate the Passover for the first time since being freed from exile (Ezra 6:19-22). They've escaped from Babylon like they escaped from Egypt, so they celebrate the same way.

  • Urim and Thummim

    In Ezra 2:62-63, the people who couldn't prove their descent from Israel need to wait for a priest to determine their true ancestry using the Urim and Thummim. These were (apparently) stones used to perceive the truth clairvoyantly—a form of divination sanctioned by God. They were originally worn on the breastplate of the high priest back in the days of the Tabernacle, a kind of mobile temple, after the Exodus from Egypt.

    So here the Israelites are relying on an ancient method (or a version of it) to try to make these decisions, connecting themselves with their traditions and practices at the same time that they're trying to determine whether they should or can let these people in.

    Fun fact: the words urim and thummim in Hebrew are part of the crest of Yale University. Evidently, the admissions committee uses this same technique for predicting who won't make it through organic chemistry even though they claim to want to be pre-med.

  • The Festival of Booths (Sukkot)

    The people suddenly realize that there's a holiday they should be celebrating in the seventh month, and conveniently it just happens to be the seventh month (Nehemiah 8:13-18). The holiday is Sukkot or The Festival of Booths, and it lasts seven days.

    Sukkot is a festival honoring the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness during their journey to the Promised Land, dwelling in fragile booths. To the present day, observant Jews still build booths in their backyards, where they eat meals and sometimes sleep for the duration of the holiday. In this case, it's fitting that the returned exiles should suddenly rediscover Sukkot. They're coming out of an exodus of their own, an escape from Babylon. So there's a definite symbolic symmetry present in celebrating this festival for the first time since the days of Joshua.

  • A New Covenant

    When the people swear to a new covenant in Nehemiah 10, they're recommitting themselves to the same values that they'd earlier failed to uphold. They agree to abide by the Law of Moses, to avoid marrying foreign women, to observe the Sabbath, and to fulfill their duties toward maintaining the Temple and the priests. It's not quite as ambitious as Isaiah's vision of a new covenant or Ezekiel's; there's no world of universal peace and love, free from death and violence. Rather, it's a fresh start—a chance to pick up the pieces and give it another shot.

    The new covenant is also a symbol of their re-constituting themselves as a people, of reassuming their identity as one nation. This time, however, the people seem more competent. True, there's some backsliding, but the prophets and people like Ezra and Nehemiah seem fairly capable of handling it and setting things straight.

  • Fasting for Protection

    As Ezra leads a group of exiles out of Babylon and back to Jerusalem, he organizes a fast to obtain God's protection from ambushes:

    Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. (NRSV Ezra 8:21-23)

    The logic behind this fast seems to be the same as the logic behind sacrifice: if you give up something important to you, you can receive a boon or a benediction from God. In this case, Ezra and his people require security.

    • Sex Drugs And Violence Rating

      G

      Ezra and Nehemiah aren't really kids' stories; not with all those lists. But at the same time, there's nothing objectionable about them. Maybe it has "mature themes," but definitely not the sexy kind; more of the "we're trying to organize temple rituals properly" kind. There's no graphic violence, no sexuality, no profanity, no innuendo. Nehemiah beating the daylights out of some guys is as bad as it gets.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      Esdras 1
      Esdras 1 is really just a Greek version of the Book of Ezra with some changes and additions. It was pretty popular with Christians back in the day (as in 1700 years ago or thereabouts).

      Esdras 2
      Esdras 2 is an apocalyptic book—a mash-up of Christian and Jewish apocalyptic visions It's attributed to Ezra even though he certainly didn't write it, relegating it to the apocrypha.

      The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra
      This isn't even in the apocrypha—it's a super-deep cut, buried in the pseudepigraphia (falsely attributed works). It's another apocalyptic work, like 2 Esdras, containing visions of heaven, hell, and the like.

      Protestant Martyrs, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley
      Latimer and Ridley were Protestant martyrs killed by the Catholic Queen, Mary Tudor of England, for their convictions. Before being burned at the stake, Latimer said to Ridley (alluding to lines from 2 Esdras): "Be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God's grace, shall never be put out."

      Pop Culture References

      "Twelve Gates to the City," Reverend Gary Davis
      Blues legend Gary Davis sings a classic original—describing the twelve gates of the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, though Davis might be talking about the New Jerusalem. Since Nehemiah describes the rebuilding of the gates, we'll give him the credit.

      "Twelve Gates to the City," Robert Plant
      Here's a version of the same track by former Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant.