We have not checked in with Lawrence Boadt for a while. Now that we are beginning a brief study of our next book of the Bible, Ezra, let us see what Boadt offers as an introduction….
Ezra can be divided into two major parts: chapters 1-6 and 7-10. Ezra 1-6 gives us some valuable information about the first two groups of returning exiles—those under Sheshbazzar, and those under Zerubbabel…. This first part of the Book of Ezra reaches a climax in the rebuilding of the temple in 516.
The scene shifts to many years later in chapters 7-10. Under the Persian king Artaxerxes, Ezra, a priest of the highest rank, a descendant of Aaron and Zadok, is sent from Persia to restore the practice of Israelite faith according to the instructions in the “law of God” (see Ezr 7:10, 14, 25-26). Ezra faces two major problems. Many Israelites have married Gentiles, and this prevents them from keeping the law. Secondly, there was a general disregard for the regulations about sacrifice, worship, purity and special Jewish customs. He tackled both of these head-on. First, he acted forcefully to invalidate all marriages to pagans. This was not an easy task, for no doubt most of these marriages had been made in good faith and there were children to think of. Ezra called a great assembly of the people and they made public confession of their sins and faults. As a result, the men agreed to give up their foreign wives. They also agreed to observe the weekly Sabbath day of rest and to support the temple with a yearly tax.
Ezra followed this policy because any religious reform, especially one which demanded that the people practice the unique requirements of their covenant law at home, would have been impossible if a large part of the people had different faiths and practices in their homes. There was the special stress not only on Israel’s election by God as a chosen people, but on the need to be holy and set apart as a community to give witness to other nations. Unity of faith and practice was essential to achieve this goal.
The second problem was to re-establish the whole range of practices that most characterized Israel’s special way of life. To this end, Ezra brought out the book of the law of God and had it read to the people in a second great assembly. Once again they celebrated a penance service and a renewal of the promise to obey the covenant in everything. As Ezra read the words, the people wept. At the same time, levites and priests helped to explain the meaning of each passage to the people. And Ezra himself took the priests and leaders aside and instructed them in the central points of the law. At the conclusion of this ceremony, the people celebrated the seven-day feast of Tabernacles in its pure form as the law had prescribed.
This whole scene is told not in the Book of Ezra but in chapters 8-9 of Nehemiah. It was put there to link Ezra’s renewal of the covenant with Nehemiah’s completion of the city walls to make Jerusalem a safe home for the temple. It seems almost certain that the law of God that Ezra read was an early version of the present five books of the Torah/Pentateuch. The events described in Nehemiah 8-9 fit very closely the Priestly source regulations on the priests, the feast-day observances, and the manner of accepting a covenant found in the Pentateuch, even though Ezra-Nehemiah never quote it directly.
Ezra’s role was decisive. Every audience we have seen up to this time showed a Judah with little cohesion, having trouble getting itself together and with dashed hopes of a glorious new day after the exile. Ezra was able to restore the spirit of the people and set the underpinnings for the ideals of holiness, sense of election, and a worship-centered community of faith. He gave a new charter for a new Israel—the authentic traditions of the past were now written down forever in the Pentateuch as a normative guidebook for the future. And most important of all, the final priestly character of the Pentateuch showed a concrete way to put these traditions into daily practice for ordinary believers.