Lesson 5 of5
In Progress

Theological Themes in Ezra

Fulfillment of prophecy

Jeremiah had prophesied a seventy-year exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11-12; 29:10). Ezra 1:1 announces the fulfillment of that prophetic word. Since only sixty years have elapsed since the first deportation in 597 B.C.E. (2 Kings 24:12), we must assume this is an approximation.

God’s providential hand

Ezra (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31) and Nehemiah (1:10; 2:8, 18) both claim that “the hand of our God” was upon them, directing their missions. This also becomes a fruitful way to speak of God’s grace since “God’s hand” is usually nudging those around the Jewish community to provide for them in caring ways. In five of the above references the Hebrew wording (“according to the hand of”) is a technical expression for royal benevolence in each of its other canonical occurrences (1 Kings 10:13; Esther 1:7; 2:18). This may be a covert way of claiming that God is still king, despite the Persian rule of Yehud, and that it is God’s grace and beneficence that sustains them.

Opposition

Both Ezra and Nehemiah encounter strong opposition to their work from the neighboring peoples. In Ezra, this is introduced in Ezra 3:3 with stronger opposition in 4:1-24. Ezra himself experienced opposition in the form of enemy attacks upon his caravan (8:31) and on his policy on mixed marriages (10:14-15).

Prayer

Both Ezra (9:6-15) and Nehemiah (1:5-11) pray. The long prayer in Nehemiah 9:6-37 is attributed to Ezra in the Septuagint and the NRSV, but more likely it is a prayer of the Levites. All three are prayers of confession. The Ezra and Nehemiah prayers begin with “I” statements that quickly move to “we” statements, showing how closely they identify with their people. The Levites’ prayer is, obviously, the prayer of a group.

Return depicted as a second exodus

The exodus is recalled when the Babylonians provide the returnees with silver, gold, and other gifts (Ezra 1:4, 6), much as the Egyptians had done (Exodus 3:21-22; 11:2; 12:35-36); the “freewill offering” of materials for the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra 2:68-69 recalls a similar response for the erection of the tent of meeting in Exodus 35:21-29. The use of the passive verb (a technical term for “the exodus”) in the phrase “when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:11b, emphasis added) recalls God’s words to Moses at the first exodus: “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 33:1a, emphasis added). Ezra’s decision to leave on the “first day of the first month” (Ezra 7:9) is another allusion to the exodus. Second Isaiah also spoke of the return as a second exodus with similar vocabulary (43:14-21; 48:20-21; 51:10-11; 52:12).

Depicting the return as a second exodus also encourages comparison and lifts up several contrasts between the two events. For example, though all the Israelites left in the exodus, this time only those who responded to God’s “stirring” returned (Ezra 1:5). In the exodus, the people left for a promised land where they would establish their own government; those returning from Babylon went to a ravaged land under Persian control. The “plundering” of the Egyptian jewelry in Exodus 12:36 contrasts with the “gifts” from the exiles’ neighbors that are offered to help them (Ezra 1:6).

Separation

Ezra-Nehemiah sees the community as a holy people situated in a holy city (Ezra 8:28; 9:8). Ezra 7-10 emphasize that the true people of God were those Judeans who had returned from Babylonian exile and their descendants. Thus, the people are called to separate themselves from the other nations (6:21; 9:1; 10:11) or they will be separated (NRSV, “banned from,” but the same Hebrew verb) from the congregation of the exiles (Ezra 10:8). This call for separation already appears in Ezra 1-6 when the overtures of foreign worshipers of Yahweh are rejected (4:1-3). Noteworthy for its apparent lessening of such strictures is the welcoming of other Judeans who were willing to adopt the beliefs of the returnees in 6:21. The most graphic example of separation occurs in the matter of mixed marriages.

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