Later Prophecies and History
Posted by foryourfaith on August 2, 2016
First the northern kingdom of Israel and then the southern kingdom of Judah had been conquered, and the Israelites were being held captive by the Babylonians, far from their homeland. But conquerors can be conquered too. In 539 BC Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians, and much of the near East came under Persian rule. Soon after this conquest, Cyrus allowed some of the Israelites to return to Jerusalem, and rebuild their city and temple.
The book of Isaiah contains predictions of Cyrus’s saving action. These predictions and the rest of chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah were probably written by an anonymous prophet, using the name of the earlier prophet Isaiah, shortly before Cyrus’s victory. Later, when Jerusalem, either the same prophet – sometimes referred to as Deutero (Second) Isaiah – or an entirely different prophet wrote the passages contained in chapters 56 to 66 of the book of Isaiah. This “Third Isaiah” encouraged the Israelites to rebuild Jerusalem, telling them that God’s salvation would come not only to them but to all the world.
In addition, five other prophets made their voices heard during the period following the return from exile. Obadiah condemned the Edomites, a neighboring people, for not having helped the Israelites when the Babylonians had invaded and taken them into exile. Haggai and Zechariah urged the returning Israelites to rebuild the temple. A little later, Joel described a plague of locusts as a punishment from God and urged repentance, and Malachi told the people that God loved them and pointed to the coming of the Messiah. The prophecies of each of these men are preserved in individual books of the Bible.
Not all of the exiled Israelites returned home during Cyrus’s rule. Some never returned. Daniel, the prophet, and Esther, who married a later king of Persia, were among those who stayed. And the many who did return did so slowly, over a period of about a century. Among the most important of the later returnees were Ezra, a priest and scribe, and Nehemiah saw to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. Ezra instituted religious reforms and promoted the book of the law, which many scholars believe to have been the Pentateuch in its present form. Accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah are found in the biblical books that bear their names – a single volume called Ezra-Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible.
During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, a new history of the Jewish people appeared, known in the Bible as Chronicles. In the Hebrew Bible this is a single book, but in Christian Bibles it is divided into two parts. 1 Corinthians traces the history of the Israelites from the creation of the world to the death of King David. Most of this history is given briefly in the form of genealogies and lists of priests, military leaders and officials. The reign of David, however, is given in more detail, but David’s blemishes are ignored. For example, even though vast portions of the books of Samuel and Kings are repeated in Chronicles, often verbatim, the story found in 2 Samuel 11-12, of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and its consequences, is missing from 1 Chronicles. In fact, David is not presented realistically at all but merely as a model against which all future kings can be measured.
Second Chronicles begins with an idealized history of Solomon’s reign. The account of the divided kingdom that follows pays scant attention to the northern kingdom of Israel, which is seen as totally false to God. The kings of the southern kingdom of Judah, on the other hand, are judged by whether or not they follow God’s law. Judah finally falls to the Babylonians because so many of its kings fail in their duty. The book ends with an account of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people but it offers some hope. Prompted by God, Cyrus decrees that the Jews may return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.
Many scholars believe that the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah were created as a single work by a single author, who is generally referred to as the Chronicler. Certainly, the texts of Ezra-Nehemiah complete Chronicles by adding the history of Judah after the return from exile, and Ezra begins where 2 Chronicles ends – with Cyrus’s decree. No one knows who the Chronicler was, but many believe it was Ezra himself. If not, it was probably some other temple official writing around 400 BC.
Ezra, The Second Lawgiver
A direct descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron, Ezra was given a commission by King Artaxerxes of Persia to return to Jerusalem and teach the people the laws of Moses. He travelled to Jerusalem with a large group of other Israelite exiles, and when he arrived he immediately began his work of reestablishing the Jewish religion there. When he discovered that many of the Israelites had taken pagan wives, he was horrified and convinced most of them to divorce these idol worshippers. Then he read from the book of Moses (the Pentateuch) in Hebrew, while an interpreter translated into Akkadian, the language the exiles had begun speaking in Babylon. The people of Jerusalem had never heard, or had forgotten, much of what they heard in these readings, but quickly adopted it. From that time to this the law of Moses has been the focal point of Jewish worship. Moses had been the Jewish people’s first lawgiver. Ezra, by restoring the Mosaic law to them, is considered their second lawgiver.