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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Exiles' return


  1. Who was Cyrus?
  2. Who was Darius?
  3. Who was Antaxerxes?
  4. What’s the connection between the books of Ezra and Chronicles?
  5. Who wrote “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit”?
  6. Why was Daniel thrown to the lions?
  7. Who got tax-free status under Artaxerxes?
  8. Who ordered the removal of pagan wives?
  9. Who oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls?
  10. Which Jewish leader threatened to “lay my hands on” anyone who broke the Sabbath?

After Babylon falls, Cyrus (the Mede, the conqueror) believes the gods will honor him for returning their peoples to their lands, including returning Jews to Jerusalem (Ezra 1). The book of Ezra continues the story from the end of the book of Chronicles, keeping the same priestly emphasis and suggesting the same person may have compiled both. Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel lead the captives home (though many, including Daniel and Esther, and presumably Ezra at this time, choose to stay). Returnees rebuild the altar and start work on the temple, though they meet opposition from people now living in the Jerusalem area (Ezra 4). Meanwhile the prophet Haggai reminds them that God’s house should be built before leaders’ mansions (Hag 1), and Zechariah writes down his visions. 16 years after work on the temple slowed down, Zechariah sees colored horses (Zec 2, 6, seen again in Revelation), horns symbolize=ing scattered authority, measuring lines recalling Ezekiel’s temple (Zec 2), and the high priest given new garments (like the white robes of Revelation or the wedding feast, Zec 3). Other Biblical passages, prophecy and history, are brought to mind by images of seven lamps (menorah at the entrance to the Holy of Holies?), olive trees (the two trees of Genesis, the king and priest, the law and the prophets? Zechariah asks what they mean and is given the famous “Not by might, not by power” reply, Zec 4), a sacred scroll (God’s plan, Zec 5), a woman (whore of Babylon?), and chariots (Ezekiel).

Jews in Samaria instituted fasts to commemorate the destruction of the Temple 70 years ago. When they ask if the fasts should continue, Zechariah replies that behavior matters more than ritual (Zec 7). Meanwhile others send letters to Darius (Cyrus’ successor) to try to stop the rebuilding, perhaps in fear that a re-established Jewish state will be a threat to the status quo (Ez 5). But the temple is completed and Passover celebrated. Daniel, now an old man, has become a governor, inspiring Persian envy and hatred (Dan 6). His refusal to stop praying to God lands him in the lion’s den, but God saves him. Another Jew, Esther, becomes a queen and saves her people from anti-Semitic sentiments in the Persian court. (Sometimes it’s hard to know which ancient stories are real and which were meant as educational fiction: Job may well have been fiction created by Jews in Babylon. Stories of Daniel and a dragon (in the apocrypha) were probably fictional. But Esther’s story, and the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, have details that ring true historically. In particular, leaders were supposed to be infallible, so a leader’s word could not be changed once uttered (Dan 6:8, Esth 8:8).

In Jerusalem, the prophet Malachi reiterates Zechariah’s call for values before ritual. His prophecy of a coming Messenger (Mal 3) is often taken to mean the Messiah. At this point the priest-prophet Ezra is finally sent to Israel by Antaxerxes (Darius’ successor) to personally oversee problems and is promised tax-free status for temple servants (Ez 7:24). The problem of the Jewish faith being mixed with local gods continues, as before the exile, and Ezra attempts to solve it by reinstituting laws against mixed marriages, presumably meaning those where the spouse failed to convert to Judaism (Ez 9). While Ezra acts as religious leader, another prophet, Nehemiah, feels himself called to go back to Jerusalem and provide secular leadership (Neh 1). The city walls are finally rebuilt (Neh 3,4,6), Ezra reads the law to the people (Neh 8), feasts are celebrated and the covenant renewed (Neh 10), Nehemiah insists that sabbaths be kept holy (Neh 13:21), and more psalms are written (e.g. Ps 126).

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