(46) The Scribe and the Cupbearer (Ezra and Nehemiah)
Ezra and Nehemiah both write about the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. Both feel the Spirit of the Lord calling them. And both write in the first person (eventually). Which people usually write in first person in the Old Testament? How might first-person writing affect the message?
1. Read Ezra 4:21-22 What is the status of the Jews, the city and the Temple?
2. Read Ezra 7:1-8, 11 What is Ezra’s status? (Why does he list his lineage so carefully.)
3. Nehemiah arrives later. Read Nehemiah 1:1-4, 2:1-2 What is Nehemiah’s status—more religious or more social?
4. Before reading on, what might be the different emphases of Ezra and Nehemiah in the rebuilding process?
5. Is there a king in Israel? And if not, who is in charge? How do we decide who is in charge of our world?
Ezra goes to Jerusalem in 458BC, Nehemiah in 445BC. The Temple had already been rebuilt and rededicated. What do you think might change between Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s arrival? What might the returning exiles have expected to achieve in ten years or more? How do you react when you don’t seem to achieve what you think God called you to do?
1. Read Ezra 7:24-28 (from the royal letter). Antaxerxes gives Ezra free passage and makes Jerusalem a tax-free state. Is this human generosity, human wisdom, or inspired action on his part? Do these have to be different?
2. Ezra lists the names of heads of families who traveled with him? Why does he list them? Why are they preserved in the Bible? If God enjoys or values lists of names, how does that make you feel?
3. Read Ezra 8:15-19 The journey from Babylon to Israel took around 4 months. How do you imagine the scene in the camp when Ezra realized they don’t have the right sort of priests and sends for reserves?
4. Read Ezra 8:21-23 How do you imagine this scene? Why doesn’t Ezra want to ask for human aid? How might we decide if it’s right or wrong to ask the government for help?
5. Read Ezra 8:31-36 Why is everything weighed and measured? How important do we view caring for God’s property?
Ezra starts reinstituting the law from scriptures – after all, he’s one of the few people who can read scriptures. But straight away he hits a problem. If Jews are married to non-Jewish wives, can he really ban all non-Jewish religious practices?
1. Read Ezra 9:1-3 We know Jews married non-Jews in the past (Moses, most famously; David; then Solomon whose marriages led him away from God – Read 1 Kings 11:3-4). Before reading on, why might it be viewed as such a problem (see verse1)?
2. Read Ezra 9:6-7 Remembering what we’ve read in earlier studies, what sin provoked the exile? How would that relate to marrying non-Jews? (In particular, how might it relate to powerful leaders marrying powerful non-Jews?)
3. Read Ezra 9:14. Is there a difference between marrying people who commit evil acts, and marrying people who used to commit evil acts?
4. Read Ezra 10:9-12. How do you imagine the scene? How common do you imagine interfaith marriages must have been?
5. Read Ezra 10:16-17. How long did all this take? What do you imagine went on in the questioning? Is a wife still a “pagan wife” if she converts?
6. The rest of Ezra 10 lists those who still had “pagan wives.” Is this list longer or shorter than you’d expect? (And was Ruth a pagan wife?)
Nehemiah arrives to find a city with no walls, and a people governed in spiritual matters but ungoverned in the secular.
1. Read Nehemiah 2:11-16 How do you imagine his ride? Does it seem real?
2. Nehemiah 3 lists each person or group of people involved in the repairs. What heavenly list do you imagine might have your name on it?
3. Nehemiah 4 describes how they both built and defended the wall. Can you retell the story? What makes it sound true?
4. Read Nehemiah 5:1-7 Should it surprise us how quickly well-meaning religious people fall into temptation?
5. How does this story compare with the story of Ezra evicting the pagan wives?
6. Read Nehemiah 5:14-16, 19. What kind of person was Nehemiah? And what was his position in society? (In the prevailing culture, it would be a sign of weakness for a ruler not to have enough food to feed the crowds at his table.)
The wall is rebuilt, despite frequent attacks and opposition especially from Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem (Nehemiah 2:10,19, 4:1,3,7, 6:1-3). They try to lure Nehemiah into a trap with a suggestion that he is building a kingdom in opposition to the Persian rulers. Then they send a traitor to act like a prophet, but Nehemiah sees through the ruse. Read Nehemiah 6:2-14. How should Nehemiah or anyone else recognize a real prophet vs a false one?
Nehemiah lists the returning families, just as Ezra did, but the spellings aren’t always the same. Read Nehemiah 7:7, Ezra 2:2. In fact, lots of historical documents include names spelled in different ways. Why do you think that is?
With the walls and the Temple rebuilt, it’s time to be sure about rebuilding the nation. Ezra and Nehemiah work together on this.
1. Read Nehemiah 8:1-3,9. What does “reading the Law” mean? Is this about lists of commandments, or reminders of history, or both? What do we think of when we think of God’s law?
2. Read Nehemiah 8:13-18. What was different about this celebration, compared with how they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles before? (Read Leviticus 23:42, Ezra 3:4)
3. Read Nehemiah 9:1-3. The people of God separate themselves from the foreigners in their city. They read the Law (again), pray, confess the guilts of history, and profess their faith, emboldened by God’s faithfulness through history. How do we strike a balance between professing God’s faithfulness and confessing our faithlessness?
4. A new covenant is written and the leaders put their seal on it. Read Nehemiah 10:28-31. How does this fit with Ezra’s kicking out the foreign wives?
Read Nehemiah 11:1-2, 13:6. The people spread back over the land, but come back to Jerusalem for festivals. Meanwhile Nehemiah returns to Antaxerxes’ court. But all is not well. How easily do we assume that things will continue to function well once we’ve got them on track – especially things that concern our faith?
1. Remember Tobiah who wanted to tear down the walls? Read Nehemiah 13:4-9. Could this have a symbolic lesson for our lives? Read Luke 11:24-26
2. Read Nehemiah 13:10-14,15,21. Why does he keep asking God to remember him? Why do we hope to be spared?
3. Read Nehemiah 13:1,23-27. Is this the same thing as Ezra worked against? Do we ever stop sinning?
Greek city-states are rising now and fighting against the Persian empire. Israel enjoys a fragile peace, politically and socially. They’re governed by priests. And plagues of locusts swarm. It must be time to read the prophecies of Joel.