The Complete Book of Ezra
Lots of you asked me why I neglected to mention the "fourth man" in the fiery furnace back in Daniel, Chapter 3. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego emerge unscathed from the furnace, Nebuchadnezzar sees a fourth man in the fire with them. The man looks like "a God"—or, in the King James version, "the son of God." This angel/Jesus figure is important in Christian tradition, and readers wondered why I skipped it.
My unsatisfactory answer: I skipped it for no good reason. I read the book very late at night. My notes from the chapter are in a falling-asleep scrawl that's incomprehensible even to me. I just blew it.
The Book of Ezra
Ezra is half of a twin set. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah really belong together. They recount much the same event—the repopulating of Jerusalem—from slightly different angles. The first book is the story as told by holy man Ezra. The second is the story as told by Gov. Nehemiah. One is religious; one is political. One is more concerned with God and faith; the other with men and deeds.
Ezra and Nehemiah aren't hugely interesting—though at this late stage in my Bible reading, I must confess, Ezra would have to invent cold fusion, conjure up a magical army of Penelope Cruz look-alikes, and build a camel-powered Dance Dance Revolution machine in downtown Jerusalem to get me really excited. That said, the contrast between the two books is thought-provoking.
Chapter 1 through Chapter 3
A year after Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylon, he orders the rebuilding of the Temple and invites all Jews to return home to Jerusalem. He also gives back the Lord's flatware and china—all the gold and silver knives, bowls, and cups that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple (and that Belshazzar had used foolishly for his banquet).
There's a census of the returning Jews, who number 42,360. As soon as they arrive in Jerusalem, they raise 61,000 "darics" of gold—no one seems sure what a daric is—for Temple restoration. Top priest Jeshua is the architect and general contractor. When they've laid the Temple's new foundation, they hold a buoyant, song-filled celebration. The oldest Jews, the ones who could still remember worshipping at the original Temple before Neb sacked it, weep with joy when they see the new foundation. The younger Jews, meanwhile, shout with joy, which leads to this wonderful verse: "[T]he people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouts from the sound of the people's weeping." Isn't it wonderful the way memory, sorrow, joy, and the passage of time are all rolled up in that single sentence?
There were no historic preservation review boards or neighborhood planning committees back in the day, but there sure was NIMBY ism. The tribes near Jerusalem first ask the Jews if they can help rebuild the Temple. Jeshua tells them to buzz off. This is not an unreasonable stance. The Jews are building the holy of holies for God's one true people, not a community center. But the rebuff irks the neighboring tribes, who write letters to Persia demanding a stop-work order on the Temple. They say that if the Jews get the Temple and the city walls rebuilt, they will rebel and stop paying imperial taxes. (Among the several Persian monarchs who are petitioned is Ahasuerus, of Esther fame.) The letters succeed. Anxious about a possible rebellion, the Persian king Artaxerxes reverses Cyrus' order. The Temple project is put on hold.
Chapter 5 and Chapter 6
A new provincial governor, Tattenai, shows up. (Check out the lovely name of the Persian province that includes Jerusalem: "Beyond the River.") Like a developer who's stuck with a half-finished office building, Tattenai wants to find a way to get a deal done. At the urging of the Jews, he writes to King Darius, who has succeeded Artaxerxes, and asks him to check the royal archives to see if there is an older law authorizing the Temple reconstruction. In an episode that should hearten librarians everywhere, Darius searches his archives and discovers Cyrus' original instructions, which supercede Artaxerxes' ban. Darius reissues the construction permits then and mandates the death penalty for anyone who tries to stop the project. (A provocative idea! I'm surprised Phoenix or some other pro-growth city hasn't experimented with capital punishment for enviros and other bulldozer blockers.) The Jews finish building the Temple and celebrate the first Israeli Passover in a long time.
(An aside: Ezra is a very unusual book in structure. It is a pastiche that includes prose, songs, ancient letters, official government decrees, census records, imperial orders, and personal prayers. It switches between Hebrew and Aramaic. It's not so much a book as a scrapbook.)
At last, Ezra appears. He's a Torah scholar. Oddly, the anti-Temple Artaxerxes actually dispatches him to return God's law to the Holy Land. There's little explanation why Artaxerxes would be hard on the Temple but soft on Ezra, except to say that Ezra generally gets what he wants from everyone, because "the hand of the Lord his God was upon him." The king issues him an official writ authorizing him to immigrate to Israel, appoint judges there, and collect whatever taxes he sees fit, up to a specified large amount. The king also declares that the Torah is the law of the land. It's a great moment in bureaucracy, the first official establishment of the Jewish faith outside of a Jewish kingdom.
The book now switches to Ezra's voice. He sets out for Jerusalem with a caravan of 1,500 people. Ezra agonizes about whether to accept protection from the Persian army. If God really favors the immigrants, then they shouldn't need the Persian guard. The Jews fast and pray, decide that God is on their side, and proceed without the Persians. Brave move! They arrive in Jerusalem and settle down.
Chapter 9 and Chapter 10
But not for long, because immediately there is a mixed-marriage crisis! Ezra learns that the earlier Jewish settlers—even the priests—have abominated themselves by marrying the local Canaanite chicks, Jebusite Janes, and Moabite misses. The "holy seed" has been contaminated. Having read the Torah's teachings on mixed marriage, Ezra is beside himself. He tears his hair and beard out, apologizes to God for abandoning His commandments and polluting His land, and begs Him to have mercy, despite the sin.
What follows is an extraordinary (though appalling, for reasons we will discuss) act of collective responsibility. While Ezra is weeping and "throwing himself down before the house of God," all the Israelites gather to discuss their sin. They agree that they've wronged God with intermarriage but decide that there's still hope for Israel. In an astonishing consensus, they agree to banish all the alien wives and all the children of intermarriage. This will restore the Jews' blood purity and mollify God. In the pouring rain, all the Israelite men swear an oath to ditch their foreign wives. Then there is a long, long list of men, followed by this verse, the final line in the book: "All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children."
Wow! There is something impressive about this scene. This is one of the very few times in the Bible that the Israelites accept responsibility for their sin and take strong, difficult measures to appease God. Yet it's also horrifying. I don't want to get too self-righteous here. I took enough anthropology and history classes in college to know that group solidarity and blood purity are staples of almost all cultures in almost all times. Only a few, rare societies—like ours!—welcome mixing and difference. So, I know I'm imposing my patchwork-quilt idealism on my ancient ancestors when I say that it's sickening to imagine the wives and children—children!—expelled from Jerusalem for an accident of birth. (These days, many synagogues eagerly sign up those gentile wives to bring the bagels for post-Shabbat brunch and gladly enroll those mixed kids in Hebrew school.) This is yet another reminder of the Bible's radical morality. God does not put families first. He will let them be destroyed to preserve the faith.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.