Ezra and the exiles: Teaching them—and us—to put God first
When it comes to recounting the post-exilic period in Jewish history—the period during which the temple was restored and worship began again in Jerusalem—there is endless confusion over the naming of the various books that cover it. Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, 4 Esdras, 5 Esdras, and 6 Esdras. Of these variant editions of the extant historical works, only two have been judged canonical by the Church: Ezra and Nehemiah (called 1 and 2 Esdras in the Vulgate, with 2 Esdras also called Nehemias).
These canonical books recount what two key figures did to organize the Jews in the task of re-establishing Jerusalem. The style, including the listings of families and the roles they played, suggests the books are essentially a continuation of Chronicles. In any case, Ezra was a priest who, with the approval of the King of Persia, exercised a priest’s authority, for he was “learned in matters of the commandments of the LORD and his statutes for Israel” (Ez 7:11). Some years after Ezra’s arrival, Nehemiah, a layman, was appointed governor of Jerusalem by the King of Persia. This established a strong political authority in the city—another instance, if you will, of separation of Church and State in a properly Divine context—and the two men worked together for the same ends.
Throughout this period, the returned exiles often lost heart or fell into habits of life that were not conducive to the resurgence of a strong, religious people. For example, the nobles among them tended to keep ordinary families in their debt, which was contrary to the Mosaic Law. Moreover, as we shall see, too many of the returned exiles took foreign wives, thereby calling into question their commitment to the God of Israel, who had strictly forbidden this practice—for foreigners all worshiped their own gods. The people could also be quite lackadaisical about rebuilding both the temple and the city walls.
Moreover, there was a great deal of opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple and the strengthening of the walls among those who had inhabited the territory during the Jews’ absence. On the one hand, these “neighbors” tended to regard the returned exiles as troublemakers who must undoubtedly wish to create a stronghold from which to resist the King. On the other, when they tried to cooperate with the Jews (often in order to win their trust so they could undermine their efforts from within), they were told that they could have no part in the Jewish heritage.
Conflict, bad reports to the King, constant maneuvering, plotting and even surprise attacks were inevitable. The reader cannot be surprised that the post-exilic community needed strong leaders to keep them on task…and on alert. Thus Artaxerxes of Persia sent Ezra, stipulating in writing:
And you, Ezra, according to the wisdom of your God, which is in your hand, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God; and those who do not know them, you shall teach. Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment by strictly executed upon him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment. [Ez 7:25-26]
Trust in God
What I find most inspiring about the Book of Ezra is the priest’s focus on serving and trusting God. At least two examples of this service and trust can (and should) be applied to our own situations today—but the required commitment is often as foreign to us as it was to the Jews.
The first example is the way in which Ezra travelled to Jerusalem, once given permission by the King of Persia to do so. Because of the great likelihood that political enemies and/or brigands would waylay Ezra and his party on the long journey, many thought the pilgrims should have a royal escort. But Ezra brought the exiles to the river and proclaimed a fast, “that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a straight way for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (8:21).
The reason was simple:
For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way; since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good upon all that seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all that forsake him.” So we fasted and besought our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. [Ez 8:22-23]
In the light of Ezra’s trust in God, I cannot help but observe something very odd about Catholic apostolic work throughout the West today. We might say that there are two kinds of apostles in the world: Those that seek to help others by administering the largess made available by government programs and grants; and those who trust that if they plant and labor, then God will give the increase (1 Cor 3:6-7). There are, for example, the failed communities of aging women religious who run after political grants, doing little or nothing without government approval; and there are the Saint Mother Teresas of the world, who rely on God to act both directly and through others to provide all that is needed for the work.
My second example is Ezra’s response when he arrived at Jerusalem and found that:
[T]he sons of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations…. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves…. And in this faithlessness the hands of the officials and chief men has been foremost. [Ez 9:1-2)]
In utter shame, Ezra prostrated himself in sorrow and prayer: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (9:6).
Ezra remained all but paralyzed in prayer, fasting and mourning for a long time: “[W]e are left a remnant that has escaped,” he said. “Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this” (9:15). But a horrified crowd gathered, and they begged Ezra: “[L]et it be done according to the law. Arise for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it” (10:3-4). And so Ezra led the whole people to put away their foreign wives, and their attachment to the foreign gods they served.
Here again, do not our thoughts turn to the present? How many Catholics today choose their spouses with little or no reflection on whether they will be spiritual supports, partners in welcoming the graces of matrimony that will enable them to grow into union with God, so that their fruitfulness will be blessed by children raised up for the LORD? How many Catholic parents prostrate themselves in prayer, fasting and tears when they see their children dating with no thought to their future in Christ?
We too must be willing to “put off our foreign wives”, refusing whatever temptations they offer and becoming a lamp to them if we have married foolishly. (Of course, we are not speaking about separation here, but a delicate and complex process of contagious commitment to holiness. This must be firmly rooted in prayer.) But if we have not yet married, must we not seek the spouse God Himself desires for us—the spouse who will eagerly join in growing into that spiritual union of two souls with the God of heaven and earth, which is what matrimony is supposed to be?
The Book of Ezra offers us good counsel. When properly understood and applied within the fuller Revelation of Christ, Ezra’s courageous wisdom is exactly what we need today. It can transform a family, a culture, a nation—and, yes, even a Church.
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Next: Nehemiah’s rightly ordered government
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