Ezra and Nehemiah

Ronald L. Ecker

Illustrations from the works
of Gustave Doré

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah have the distinction of being perhaps the most confusing books in the Bible. Not only were they originally one book (a continuation of Chronicles), but parts of each book are chronologically out of place. The result is the only known jigsaw puzzle ever to be inspired by God. We must put the two books back together, unscrambling the parts, to follow the story. It takes place during and after the return of Jews from Babylonian captivity. But it remains unclear whether Ezra and Nehemiah ever knew each other. They may have been contemporaries (as implied in the text as finally edited), or they may have been decades apart.

The stage for the story is set in II Kings and (in briefer form) II Chronicles. When the kingdom of Judah falls to the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzer (biblical form of Nebuchadrezzer) in 597 B.C., the Jewish king Jehoiachin and his family are taken captive to Babylon, along with "all the treasures of the house of the Lord" and all of the people except "the poorest sort" in the land (II Kgs. 24:10-14). Nebuchadnezzer makes Jehoiachin's uncle Mattaniah, renamed Zedekiah, king of Judah. Zedekiah, in league with other nations, rebels against Babylon, prompting Nebuchadnezzer to return with his army and lay siege to Jerusalem. Severe famine ensues in the city, till Zedekiah is captured. His sons are slain before his eyes, his eyes are put out, and he is taken in fetters to Babylon. The Babylonian army burns down the temple and all the houses in Jerusalem, and breaks down the city walls. More people are deported to Babylon, again leaving only "the poor of the land" (II Kgs 24:17-25:12). Gedaliah is appointed governor, only to be assassinated by a member of the deposed royal family, leaving Judah in disorder and desolation (II Kgs. 25:22-26).

According to II Kings, all this is God's punishment for the idolatrous ways of Manasseh, a king of Judah who reigned for 55 years (21:1-18). Not even a subsequent religious reform under King Josiah (22:1-23:27) could assuage God's wrath. Just as God earlier destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel for her sins (17:1-23), the destruction of the southern kingdom of Judah is by "the commandment of God" (24:3): "And the Lord said, I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and will cast off this city Jerusalem which I have chosen, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there" (23:27).

Though some Jewish exiles manage to prosper in Babylon, the exile is poignantly described in the book of Psalms (137:1): "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." But in 539 B.C., the Babylonians are conquered by the Persians. This brings new hope for the Jews who long for their homeland. "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people," the prophet Isaiah quotes God as saying, for "(Jerusalem's) iniquity is pardoned," she has paid "double for all her sins" (Is. 40:1-2). Isaiah refers to the Persian king Cyrus II as the Lord's "anointed" (Hebrew messiah), of whom God says, "He is my shepherd, and shall perform my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid" (Is. 44:28-45:1).

Sure enough, as the book of Ezra opens, the tolerant Cyrus in 538 B.C. issues a decree by which over 40,000 Jewish exiles are allowed to return to Judah. The king delivers to Sheshbazzar, named governor of Judah, the vessels that Nebuchadnezzer had carried away from the temple in Jerusalem. The returned exiles under Sheshbazzar start rebuilding the temple. But they become discouraged and cease work due to pressure from neighboring groups, and the temple lies unfinished "even until the reign of Darius king of Persia" (Ezra 4:4-5). Then the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Jeshua, encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, see that the work is resumed. ("Is it a time," Haggai asks Zerubbabel and Jeshua [Haggai 1:4 RSV], "for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?") The rebuilding of the temple is completed in 515 B.C., the sixth year of King Darius (Ezra 6:15). But when the Jews later start rebuilding the city and its walls, Persia's king Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.) gets word of this and orders that the rebuilding be stopped (Ezra 4:7-23).

Nehemiah, as his book opens, is one of the Jews who has prospered during the Babylonian captivity. He holds the honorable position of cupbearer to the king in Artaxerxes' court in Susa, Persia. (Nehemiah may also be a eunuch, for as cupbearer to the king he is also at the service of the queen.) When Nehemiah asks visitors from Judah about the Jews who escaped exile and about Jerusalem, he is told that the survivors in Judah "are in great affliction and reproach," and "the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire." On hearing this, Nehemiah weeps. He mourns for days, fasting and praying (Neh. 1:1-11). When Artaxerxes asks him why he looks so sad, Nehemiah tells him, and asks if the king might send him to Judah to rebuild "the city of my fathers' sepulchres." The king agrees to let Nehemiah go for a certain time, supplying him with letters of safe passage, and a letter to the keeper of the king's forest, for timber to make beams for the gate of the temple fortress and for the wall of the city. The king also sends soldiers to accompany Nehemiah (Neh. 2:1-10).

Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem (444 B.C.), and after three days he takes a few men and makes a secret night inspection of the broken-down walls and burnt gates of the city. He is secretive at first so as not to stir up Judah's neighbors, such as Sanballat the Horonite, governor of Samaria (formerly the kingdom of Israel, destroyed by Assyria, and its people deported, in 722 B.C.). When Nehemiah tells the Jewish priests, nobles, and others, "Come, let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach," and they all agree to the work, Sanballat, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab scorn and despise them, suspecting them of planning rebellion against the Persian king (Neh. 2:11-20).

Nehemiah and the Judahites begin rebuilding the wall, for the people have "a mind to work" (Neh. 4:6). Because of threats of violence from the angry Sanballat and the Ammonite and Arab leaders, half of Nehemiah's work force labors on construction while the other half guards the work with spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail (5:16). Workers labor with one hand and carry a weapon in the other. Several times Sanballat and his cohorts try to lure Nehemiah to a meeting, where, he suspects, they would do him harm. They threaten to report him to the king for planning rebellion, and they hire a prophet to tell him to hide in the temple because, the prophet claims, "They are coming to kill you" (6:10-13). To enter the house of the Lord would be breaking the Mosaic law if, as suggested earlier, Nehemiah is a eunuch (thus being physically blemished; see Deuteronomy 23:1). This would explain why Nehemiah sees this as an attempt to get him to sin, "so they could give me an evil name" (6:13).

Despite the efforts of these enemies, the rebuilding is completed in 52 days. Nehemiah presides over a dedication of the wall at which the people celebrate "with gladness, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres" (12:27 RSV).

In a second term as governor (following a return to Persia) sometime after 433 B.C., Nehemiah carries out religious reforms. He puts an end to incidents of sabbath breaking (13:15-18), kicks Tobiah the Ammonite out of a chamber in the temple that the high priest had provided for Tobiah (13:4-9), restores the tithes that had supported the Levites of the temple (13:10-12), and angrily opposes Jewish men marrying "women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab" (13:23-31). But here enters Ezra, for a chief concern in Ezra's story are these marriages to foreign wives, whether in Nehemiah's time (under Artaxerxes I) or (as some scholars argue) a much later one (under Artaxerxes II).

Ezra is a Jewish priest and scribe in Babylon who "had set in his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel" (Ezra 7:10 RSV). King Artaxerxes accordingly sends Ezra to Judah with the book of the law, and with authority to appoint "magistrates and judges" to administer that law, and decrees that "all the people of Israel" go with Ezra who "are minded of their own freewill to go up to Jerusalem" (Ezra 7:11-26). Ezra and his returning group of exiles journey to Judah "in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king" (Ezra 7:7). This means 458 B.C., several years before Nehemiah's first governorship, under Artaxerxes I, or 397 B.C., long after Nehemiah, under Artaxerxes II.

At some point after Ezra's arrival, the people all gather at Jerusalem's Water Gate before a wooden pulpit, from which Ezra reads to them the book of the law of Moses, "and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law" (Neh. 8:1-8). One result of Ezra's teaching of the law is a joyous revival of the seven-day feast of tabernacles or booths that God had commanded by Moses (Neh. 8:13-18; Leviticus 23:33-43).

But Ezra has found in Judah something that appalls him. The returned exiles have been marrying foreign women, daughters of Gentiles living in Palestine. Did not Moses say, "Neither shalt thou make marriages with (the inhabitants of the land)" (Deut. 7:3)? Yet here are Jews--even priests and other leaders of God's chosen people--marrying and having children, mingling the "holy seed" (Ezra 9:2), with the non-Jewish population. This so upsets Ezra that he literally tears out his hair (Ezra 9:3). "O my God, I am ashamed and blush," Ezra prays, "to lift up my face to thee" (Ezra 9:6). The governor Nehemiah (whether earlier or during the same period of time as Ezra) is also upset by this, but he tears out other people's hair instead of his own (Neh. 13:25). Nehemiah curses and beats them, angrily asking them, "Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?" Now half the children running around town, Nehemiah complains, can't even speak Hebrew (Neh. 13:24).

A group of repentant Jews comes to Ezra while he is weeping and "casting himself down" in front of the temple. "We have trespassed against our God," group spokesman Shechaniah tells Ezra, "and have taken strange wives of the people of the land." But still "there is hope in Israel," says Shechaniah: "let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them." He tells Ezra to get up and take charge of the matter: "be of good courage, and do it."

Ezra gets up, and a proclamation goes out for all Jewish men to gather at Jerusalem. All the men come and sit in the street by the temple, where they tremble "because of this matter," and because it is pouring down rain where they sit.

"Ye have transgressed, and have taken strange wives," Ezra tells them, "to increase the trespass of Israel." He tells them to separate themselves "from the people of the land, and from the strange wives," and in one voice the congregation replies, "As thou hast said, so must we do." The men ask, however, that they not have to stand in line to get their divorces, "for we are many that have transgressed in this thing," and "it is a time of much rain."

Ezra obligingly selects some heads of families to handle the procedure, by which the men get their divorces by appointment, with a ram from each man as a guilt offering.

As for Nehemiah, he congratulates himself for resolving as governor this same issue of foreign wives: "Thus cleansed I them of all strangers" (Neh. 13:30). Nehemiah pridefully says (for the third time, slightly varying the phrasing, in the book that bears his name), "Remember me, O my God, for good." (13:31).

But the exclusionary efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah to end foreign marriages, to keep the Hebrew stock pure, were not to be successful or agreeable among all Jews. This is exemplified in the books of Ruth and Jonah. In the book of Ruth, set in the time of the judges but of post-exilic composition, a rich man of Bethlehem in Judah named Boaz marries Ruth, a Moabite who becomes the great-grandmother of Israel's King David. (See At His Feet Until Morning.) And in the book of Jonah, God decides not to destroy the Gentile city of Nineveh for its wicked ways, when its king and people, heeding the prophet Jonah, believe and repent. "And shall I not spare Nineveh, that great city," God says mercifully (Jonah 4:11 RSV), "in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"


Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

Clines, David J.A. "Ezra" in The HarperCollins Study Bible, ed. by Wayne A. Meeks. New York: HarperCollins, 1993, pp. 699-701.

Ecker, Ronald L. "Ezra" in And Adam Knew Eve: A Dictionary of Sex in the Bible. Palatka, FL: Hodge & Braddock, 1995, pp. 59-60.

Fensham, F. Charles. "The Book of Ezra" and "The Book of Nehemiah" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 219-221, 553-555.

Hirsch, Emil G. "Ezra the Scribe" in the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906 (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com).

Jacobs, Joseph. "The Book of Ezra" in the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-1906 (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com).

Metzger, Bruce M., and Murphy, Roland E., eds. "The Book of Ezra," "The Book of Nehemiah," "The Book of Ruth," and "The Book of Jonah" in The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 333-337.

Weisberg, David B. "Cyrus II" in Harper's Bible Dictionary. San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1985, p. 200.

Copyright 2007 by Ronald L. Ecker

hobrad at outlook dot com

Nehemiah Rebuilding the Wall
Unknown illustrator

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