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WHY READ EZRA-NEHEMIAH? I never have before, plus it’s not in the lectionary!
The books we call Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the return of the Israelites from captivity, fear cultural genocide and religious oppression, in far off Babylon. They are sent back by the new imperial power (Persia) to rebuild their homeland, city, temple and way of life. But how do you reclaim your identity when you’re a cultural minority? How do you live a life of faith when you often feel alone and opposed? How do you reclaim the promises of God in the past for the present day? Those are some of the main questions of these two books, as well as ones that we ask ourselves today in 2013.
A BRIEF INTRO TO THESE BOOKS THAT TELL one larger STORY
These introductions are taken from Eugene Peterson in the Message
As told in the Book of Ezra, a group of about 50,000 returned to Judah in the first year of Cyrus (538 B.C.). The temple at Jerusalem was rebuilt by this group. Ezra himself led about 1,500 more back some 80 years later (458 B.C.). The events recorded by Nehemiah took place some 12 years later (446 B.C.).
Scholars date the redaction of the book-memoirs in 440-430 BCE. They’re written in Hebrew, except for a few chapters of Ezra that recopy word for word government letters composed in Aramaic (the imperial language).
History had not treated the People of Israel well and they were in decline. A superpower military machine, Babylon, had battered them and then, leaving their city and temple a mound of rubble, hauled them off into exile. Now, 128 years later, a few Jews back in Jerusalem had been trying to put the pieces back together decade after weary decade. But it was not going well at all. They were hanging on by their fingernails. And then Ezra arrived.
This is an extreme case of a familiar story, repeated with variations in most centuries and in most places in the world. Men and women who find their basic identity in God, as God reveals himself in Israel and Messiah, don’t find an easy time of it. They never have. They never will. Their identity is under constant challenge and threat ─ sometimes by hostile assault, at other times by subtle and smiling seductions. Whether by assault or seduction, the People of God have come perilously close to obliteration several times. We are never out of danger.
Because of Ezra, Israel made it through. God didn’t leave Ezra to do this single-handedly; he gave him substantial and critical help in the rescue operation in the person of Nehemiah, whose work providentially converged with his. The People-of-God identity was recovered and preserved. Ezra used worship and text to do it. Ezra engaged them in the worship of God, the most all-absorbing, comprehensive act in which men and women can engage. This is how our God-formed identities become most deeply embedded in us. And Ezra led them into an obedient listening to the text of Scripture. Listening and following God’s revelation are the primary ways in which we keep attentively obedient to the living presence of God among us.
Separating life into distinct categories of “sacred” and “secular” damages, sometimes irreparably, any attempt to live a whole and satisfying life, a coherent life with meaning and purpose, a life lived to the glory of God. Nevertheless, the practice is widespread. But where did all these people come up with the habit of separating themselves and the world around them into these two camps? It surely wasn’t from the Bible. The Holy Scriptures, from beginning to end, strenuously resist such a separation.
The damage to life is most obvious when the separation is applied to daily work. It is common for us to refer to the work of pastors, priests, and missionaries as “sacred,” and that of lawyers, farmers, and engineers as “secular.” It is also wrong. Work, by its very nature, is holy. The biblical story is dominated by people who have jobs in gardening, shepherding, the military, politics, carpentry, tent making, homemaking, fishing, and more.
Nehemiah is one of these. He started out as a government worker in the employ of a foreign king. Then he became ─ and this is the work he tells us of in these memoirs ─ a building contractor, called in to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. His co-worker Ezra was a scholar and teacher, working with the Scriptures. Nehemiah worked with stones and mortar. The stories of the two men are interwoven in a seamless fabric of vocational holiness. Neither job was more or less important or holy than the other. Nehemiah needed Ezra; Ezra needed Nehemiah. God’s people needed the work of both of them. We still do.
A READING STRATEGY for home
Summary and Structure as a reading help
This outline comes from Wikipedia.org, and can be used as a way to help you work your way individually through the larger story of Ezra-Nehmiah as we won’t cover all of it on Sunday mornings in our preaching series.
Ezra–Nehemiah is made up of three stories: (1) the account of the initial return and rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1-6); (2) the story of Ezra’s mission (Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah 8); (3) and the story of Nehemiah, interrupted by a collection of miscellaneous lists and part of the story of Ezra.
Ezra Chapters 1-6
God moves the heart of Cyrus to commission Sheshbazzar “the prince of Judah”, to rebuild the Temple; 40,000 exiles return to Jerusalem led by Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest. There they overcome the opposition of their enemies to rebuild the altar and lay the foundations of the Temple. The Samaritans, who are their enemies, force work to be suspended, but in the reign of Darius the decree of Cyrus is rediscovered, the Temple is completed, and the people celebrate the feast of Passover.
Ezra Chapters 7-10
God moves king Artaxerxes to commission Ezra the priest and scribe to return to Jerusalem and teach the laws of God to any who do not know them. Ezra leads a large body of exiles back to the holy city, where he discovers that Jewish men have been marrying non-Jewish women. He tears his garments in despair and confesses the sins of Israel before God, then braves the opposition of some of his own countrymen to purify the community by dissolving the sinful marriages.
Nehemiah Chapters 1-6
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes, is informed that Jerusalem remains without walls. He prays to God, recalling the sins of Israel and God’s promise of restoration in the land. Artaxerxes commissions him to return to Jerusalem as governor, where he defies the opposition of Judah’s enemies on all sides – Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines – to rebuild the walls. He enforces the cancellation of debts among the Jews, and rules with justice and righteousness.
Nehemiah Chapters 7-10
The list of those who returned with Zerubbabel is discovered. Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people and the people celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days; on the eighth they assemble in sackcloth and penitence to recall the past sins which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the Jews, and enter into a covenant to keep the law and separate themselves from all other peoples.
Nehemiah Chapters 11-13
Nehemiah takes measures to repopulate the city and returns to Susa after 12 years in Jerusalem. After some time in Susa he returns, only to find that the people have broken the covenant. He enforces the covenant and prays to God for his favor.
QUESTIONS TO PONDER AS YOU READ & LISTEN
Who are you in Christ? Who are we as a church?
How do you | we | struggle to be that?
How do you see God at work in our church, city, world?