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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading the Book of Ezra

The book of Ezra falls into two parts covering the two periods of postexilic history. Chapters 1 through 6 cover the themes of the return from exile and the rebuilding the Temple. Chapters 7 through 10 describe the mission of Ezra to reconstitute Judah as a community living in accord with the Torah.

The Return from Exile and Rebuilding of the Temple (Ezr 1, 1–6, 22 )


The most striking feature of this section is not apparent to those who read it in translation. While the rest of the book of Ezra is in Hebrew 4, 7–6, 18 , is in Aramaic. The author cites a few official Persian documents relating to the restoration of Judah. These documents were written in Aramaic, the common language of the diverse peoples that made up the empire and the official language of the imperial administration. The alternation between Hebrew and Aramaic shows that the people for whom the author wrote were bilingual.

Originally Aramaic was the language of the Arameans. It is a Semitic language that is akin to Hebrew. Because the Arameans were active in commercial affairs in the ancient Near East, the language became widely known. Aramaic came to be the language of diplomacy. According to 2 Kings 18, 26 , both the Assyrian and Judahite officers understood the language, while the common people did not. By the sixth century BC, however, it became the most commonly used Semitic language. It was in general use in Palestine until Greek became the language of commerce, government, and literary culture after the conquests of Alexander in the fourth century BC. Aramaic, however, remained the language of the common people until the seventh century AD when Arabic replaced it. Aramaic was the language in which Jesus conversed, although he may have known Greek as well. Hebrew was not a language of everyday conversation. Rabbinic traditions, however, continued to be transmitted in Hebrew. The Mishnah, a collection of legal traditions, and the Midrashim, homiletic texts, were composed and transmitted in Hebrew. Because people did not regularly converse in Hebrew, however, it became necessary for Jews to make Aramaic versions (Targums) of the Old Testament. Aramaic is also the language of the Talmud (the compendium of Jewish law dating from the sixth century AD). It was not until the twentieth century that the Hebrew language was reborn and once again became a language of ordinary discourse in the modern state of Israel.

The Return of the Exiles

Chapters 1 through 3 cover the return from exile. First there is a proclamation made by Cyrus, king of Persia, that every exile from Judah who was ready to return to Jerusalem to rebuild its Temple should do so ( 1, 1–4 ). Then the following verses describe the return itself ( 1, 5–11 ). Chapter 2 gives a list of the returnees. At the top of the list is Zerubbabel, a member of the Davidic family, and Jeshua, a member of a prominent priestly family. In chapter 3 , these two play important roles in the revival of worship in Jerusalem. Sacrifices begin on a provisional altar ( 3, 1–3 ). The people observe the Feast of Booths ( 3, 4 ) and they initiate the regular sacrifices ( 3, 5 ). Most important of all, they prepare for the rebuilding of the Temple ( 3, 6–13 ).

There were problems with the rebuilding. The author lists these in 4, 1–6, 13 . Opposition to the project came from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” ( 4, 1 ) and “the people of the land” ( 4, 4 ). Both groups tried to convince the Persians that the restoration of Jerusalem was an act of political disloyalty. In 4, 7–23 there is opposition to rebuilding the walls of the city. In the end all opposition failed, and the people of Judah successfully completed their project with the full support of the Persian imperial authorities ( 6, 14.22 ).

Ezra's Mission (Ezr 7, 1–10, 44 )

Ezra's Commission from the Persian Emperor

The account of Ezra's activity begins with chapter 7 and concludes with chapter 10 although Nehemiah 8 also mentions Ezra. Ezra 7–8 provide an account of Ezra's journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. The genealogy in 7, 1–5 shows that Ezra was a Zadokite priest. (The Zadokite priests were those associated with the Jerusalem Temple in the preexilic period. Zadok was the priest who served David and Solomon.) Ezra was an expert in the Torah ( 7, 6 ) which the priests who were in exile developed while in Babylon. Another Aramaic document (the credentials that Artaxerxes gave to Ezra) takes up 7, 12–26 . This imperial commission includes information about contributions to the Temple in Jerusalem (vv. 13–25 ) and the order to reestablish Judahite society based on the “law of God” (vv. 13–15.25 ). It was Persian policy to restore and support the worship of national deities throughout their empire. Additionally, the Persians usually charged the priests of temple cities with codifying local customs into a legal corpus to maintain the ethnic identity and local traditions. By their acceptance or rejection of the Torah, the Judahites defined themselves as belonging to or rejecting membership in the Jewish community. The emperor granted Ezra power to establish an executive structure for the governance of the Jewish community. This means that in the view of the Persian government the priestly version of ancient Israel's ancestral faith was the “official” religion of Judah.

The account of Ezra's journey to Jerusalem begins with a list of those returning with him ( 8, 1–14 ) and Ezra's persuading of the Levites who had been unwilling to make the journey (vv. 15–20 ). The author seems to have modeled the rest of the chapter on the description of the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 14 ) and the crossing of the Jordan and the occupation of the land (Jos 3–4 ).

The Problem of Mixed Marriages

The remaining two chapters deal with Jews who have married outside their religious community ( 9, 1 ). Ezra finds their behavior unacceptable and recites a long penitential prayer on their behalf ( 9, 5–15 ). The people decide to set matters straight ( 10, 1–3 ), and they ask Ezra for help ( 10, 4–6 ). After a public assembly takes place, a special commission begins work ( 10, 7–17 ). It produces a list of those who married Gentiles ( 10, 18–44 ). The text of 10, 44 does not makense in Hebrew (“and there were from them wives and they put sons”). The translators based their rendering of this text on the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament. The Hebrew text is unclear about the action taken in this matter, but some Jewish men probably divorced their non‐Jewish wives in response to Ezra's urging.

Exclusivism in Ezra

In denouncing mixed marriages, Ezra speaks of the Jews as a “holy race” (Ezr 9, 2 ). He accuses the people of Judah of desecrating themselves with “the peoples of the land.” The Jewish community of the fifth century BC faced the same types of threats to its existence as did the Israelite tribes centuries before the establishment of the Israelite national state (thirteenth to the eleventh centuries BC). At that time the Israelites faced hostile neighbors. They were unable to defend themselves adequately. There was little unity or even cooperation among the tribes. In the eleventh century BC, the prophet Samuel, responding to these problems, complied with popular sentiment and established the monarchy. The king provided order and stability to the foundering Israelite tribes. The Davidic dynasty, which that lasted from the eleventh to the sixth centuries BC, furnished a sense of continuity. In the fifth century BC, Persian hegemony made the reestablishment of Judah's native dynasty impossible. Ezra provided the community with another source of stability and continuity.

Ezra offered the Jewish community the Torah, which the Jews came to see as encompassing an eternal order given by God to Israel alone. This notion of Torah had some profound effects in the social order. It made the Jewish community exclusive. It led to the idea of a “holy race” (Ezr 9, 2 ), which was to remain unsullied by contact with the nations. Ezra believed that the Jews were in danger of being absorbed by the non‐Jewish culture that surrounded them and therefore becoming extinct. In response to this threat, he taught that there was a very specific criterion for membership in the Jewish community. A principle of heredity supplied the Jewish self‐definition. It was a definition that was clear to every member of the community. Earlier traditions also attempted to deal with the loss of identity through assimilation by intermarriage with Gentiles (Ex 34, 16; Dt 7, 3; 23, 3–5 ). Such marriages were acceptable in some traditions (Gn 41, 45; Ru 1 ). Even Moses himself married a non‐Israelite (Nm 12, 1 ). With Ezra this all changed, and mixed marriages were no longer permissible. Under Ezra, the Jewish community was not open to outsiders.

The elevation of heredity to the position of defining the people of God is understandable, yet it compromised Israel's role as a source of blessing for the nations (Gn 12, 2f ) and as God's servant bringing the Torah and its peace to the nations (Is 49, 1–7 ). The Samaritans whom Ezra's decrees excluded from the people of God considered him their archenemy. Samaritan writings are full of derogatory comments about Ezra. In contrast, the Talmud considers Ezra to be a second Moses (Sanhedrin 2 ib) because he restored observance of the Torah when the people had forgotten about it (Sukkah 20a). Early Christianity also had to deal with Ezra's legacy as it faced the consequences of its highly successful mission to the Gentiles (Acts 10, 1–15, 35 ). The early Church abandoned the views of Ezra on membership in the people of God.

The Achievement of Ezra

Without the efforts of Ezra, though, the Jewish community may very well not have survived the threats to its identity that were so serious in the Persian period. It is also important to remember that, along with Ezra, the Bible has included the stories of Jonah and Ruth, both of which offer voices of dissent against the exclusivism of this book.

We need to see Ezra's notion of a holy race against the backdrop of the cultural assumptions of ancient Near Eastern people. The key word here is holy. The solution to Judah's problems according to Ezra was the determination of the Jews to observe the Torah. Part of this observance revolved around the notion of separation from all that was not ritually pure. “Holy” here is a cultic term rather than a moral one. Ezra did not imply that the Jews were morally superior to the other nations. He did believe that they were in a unique position to offer the God of their ancestors the type of worship that this God required. Unfortunately, the more the Jews associated with Gentiles the more difficult it was for them to remain ritually pure. Both Ezra and Nehemiah demanded that the Jews remove this danger to their religious observance. Books such as Jonah and Ruth reminded their readers that the Jews could not claim moral superiority. The Gentiles too could please God.

The Call to Inclusion

The book of Ezra speaks to a beleaguered religious community on the brink of extinction. It sees assimilation as one of the main threats to that existence. It fosters an attitude of separation and exclusion. Today the threat to human existence comes precisely from the ignorance, prejudice, and hatred that keep the peoples of the world apart. The Second Vatican Council recognized this when it decided to issue a separate document dealing with non‐Christian religions. Originally Nostra Aetate (1965) was to be just a chapter in the schema on ecumenism. The bishops of the Council became aware of the importance of this topic and developed this full‐scale document.

The basic assumption of Nostra Aetate is that all peoples comprise a single human community. All members of this community have the same final goal: God. The religions of the world result from the universal human attempt to probe the mystery of the divine. The Council encouraged Catholics to speak and work with followers of other religions. They are to acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral values found in non‐Christian religions.

Singled out for special attention in the Council's declaration are the two other monotheistic faiths: Judaism and Islam. In particular, the Council repudiated any form of persecution and hatred that existed between the Christians and Jews at any time and from any source (Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non‐Christian Religions, 4). The Church also rejected any type of discrimination directed at people because of their religion. The bishops called upon all Catholics to maintain “good fellowship” with all peoples by living with them in peace.

The circumstances faced by the Christian communities of the Holy Land today are similar to those faced by the Jews in Ezra's day. The adverse political, social, and economic situation faced by Christians in the Holy Land makes their continued presence in the land Jesus called home very difficult. Many have chosen to leave. There is the very real danger that the Christian presence in the Holy Land will be reduced those who care for its shrines. The very place where the Church began may be left without a living, local church. The book of Ezra stands as an object lesson in the kind of decisive action that is necessary to respond to critical circumstances. Christians cannot make use of the specific way that Ezra responded to the problems faced by the Jewish community of his day, but they can emulate his passionate commitment to the survival of his people. Christians certainly ought to commit themselves to the survival of the Christian community in the Holy Land.

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