Prophets Of The Return
Posted by foryourfaith on May 24, 2011
The edict of King Cyrus of Persia in 538 BC allowing the Jews to return to Judah did not guarantee the success of the new community there. It took more than 20 years for the Jews to complete rebuilding their Temple in Jerusalem, and even then, economic troubles, internal squabbles, and the ambitions of neighboring peoples kept the Jewish community small and insignificant.
Ezra and Nehemiah were two Persian Jews who came to Judah in the 5th century BC and breathed new life into the fledgling colony. Their mission was to ensure that Judah would neither fade away nor lose its Jewish character. As a priest and a “scribe of the Law,” Ezra had practical experience in matters of ritual, along with knowledge of the mosaic traditions. The Persian King gave him authority to enforce “the Law of the God of Heaven” in Judah along with the right to punish transgressors.
Upon his arrival in Judah, Ezra was appalled at the degree to which the Jewish returnees from Persia had intermingled with other nations. Of special concern was a group that came to be known as Samaritans. They claimed descent from the ten northern tribes of Israel which had been defeated by the Assyrians more than two centuries earlier. Since the Samaritans worshipped the God of Israel and claimed equal rights with the Jews in the Temple worship of Yahweh, many of the Jews returning from Persia viewed them as coreligionists and probably intermarried with them. Ezra, however, suspected that their religion was a mix of idolatry and Israelite modes of worship – precisely the kind of practice that had brought the downfall of the first Judean state. He took drastic measures to preserve spiritual purity. He compile lists of all the men who had married alien wives (from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab), announced that they had transgressed, and issued the drastic order that these wives be sent away.
Ezra read the Torah (the five books of Moses) to the entire community. Through this process of education, he impressed upon the people how often God has saved them from danger in the past, and yet how far Jews had strayed from God’s laws. The destruction of the First Temple, he stressed, was punishment for sin, as was the fact that even now, with its Second Temple functioning, Judah remained under Persian rule. As a direct consequence of Ezra’s preaching, the Bible tells us, the people solemnly swore “to follow the Teaching of god, given through Moses, the servant of God, and to observe carefully all the commandments of the Lord.”
Nehemiah was Persian Jew, a courtier, who rose to the important position of cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes I. He was deeply grieved to hear about the troubles of his fellow Jews in Judah, and was especially concerned about the fact that Jerusalem’s walls were in disrepair, exposing the city to attack at any time. Nehemiah convinced the king to appoint him governor of Judah with specific authority to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. Soon after arriving in Judah, Nehemiah succeeded in getting the walls up, despite the opposition of Samaritan, Ammonite, and Arab chieftains who tried to sabotage the effort with the claim that the walls were part of a plan for Jewish revolt against their Persian overlords.
As governor, Nehemiah had to deal with other pressing matters as well. Poor Jews complained that inability to repay their debts had enabled the wealthy to seize their land and even to take their children as slaves. Alert to the danger of increasing social polarization, Nehemiah told the rich, “What you are doing is not right.” At the same time, he forced a return of all assets taken from the debtors.
Nehemiah issued several regulations to strengthen the community. Ten percent of all Judeans were required to live in Jerusalem so that the capital would not become depopulated. All citizens had to pay a tithe for the upkeep of the Temple. And, to safeguard the Jewish Sabbath, Nehemiah had the gates of Jerusalem shut from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, ensuring that no business would be transacted on the biblical day of rest.
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