The books of Samuel and Kings related five centuries of Israel’s history without interruption, from David to the Babylonian exile.
Then came the seventy years of “Captivity,” or Exile. Not all the people were de ported. Most of the people who remained on the land were small farmers. They had neither political nor spiritual leaders and did little to put the nation back on its feet.
In the year 538 B.C. a decree of Cyrus, conqueror of the Chaldeans, authorized the return to their homeland of all the Jews deported to Babylon. This gesture of Cyrus was above all political, but the Bible sees in it the fulfillment of God’s promises to the prophets (especially to Jeremiah and Ezekiel). The decree of Cyrus marked the beginning of the return of the deportees: they were to revive the nation. The first came back with Zorobabel, a descendant of the kings. After a difficult start, they re organized themselves under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah in the following century.
The decree of Cyrus did not modify the political situation of Palestine which had become a province of the Empire. Jerusalem remained under the authority of Samaria with regard to administration and the aristocracy of Samaria had no desire to be surpassed by the notables of Judah returning to their homeland after fifty years of exile. This accounts for the conflict between Jews and Samaritans which was to remain irreconcilable.
Not all the Jews returned to their land. Many of them had emigrated abroad before the exile and remained in the countries where they were living: Egypt, Assyria, Persia. Others, who had been deported, did not come back from Babylon, for they had succeeded in overcoming their miserable situation with one another’s help, and now held good positions there. Those who returned arrived as families and organized groups; they were the Jews who had best assimilated the prophets’ message, urging them to rebuild a purified and holy Israel.
For them a first danger was that, by settling in their homeland among foreigners and Jews not too attuned to their mission, they might lose their enthusiasm. That is why the work of Ezra and Nehemiah was very important in keeping the Jews united among themselves and apart from everyone else. See especially the problem of mixed marriages (Ezra 9-10; Ne 9:2 and 13:10-30).
Later, in his biblical work, Ezra played a decisive role by collecting the books and putting them together for the first time, and making the Sacred Book the basis of their religion. Until that time, the existing books of the Bible were kept only in the hands of the priests, and it was enough for the people to attend the traditional Temple ceremonies. It was Ezra who started a new form of worship through which the communal reading of the Bible would become the basis of the people’s religious life, bringing them to a more grounded and responsible faith. See Nehemiah 8. Ezra’s role in the formation of the Bible is remembered in 2 Maccabees 2:13-14.
Ezra’s reform gave the Jewish community of the post-Babylonian exile its unique features. the people of God became a holy people, consecrated to God and separated from others by the many barriers of their Law. Their reason for being was to maintain the worship of the only God and, since they did not have national independence, their priests held both civil and religious power, in the name of God.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemia
At first, these two books formed only one book. They provide us with some information concerning the work accomplished by these two men. The following steps toward the restoration of the Jewish community can be seen:
– Beginning with the decree of Cyrus in 538 B.C., several groups of exiles come back to Jerusalem and Zerubbabel rebuilds THE TEMPLE: see Ezra 1:1 to 4:5 and 4:24 to 6:2.
– Then, the enemies of the Jews try to prevent the reconstruction of THE CITY (see Ezra 4:7-23).
– In 458 perhaps, Ezra comes to organize the community, imposing the Law of Moses as a rule (see Ezra 7 to 10).
– In 445 Nehemiah comes from Persia and he rebuilds THE WALLS. Then he administers Jerusalem for twelve years (see Ne 1 to 7).
– Finally, there is Nehemiah’s second mission in 425 (see Ne 13).