Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Initial Return to Zion

Preamble: I entitled this article as such, and NOT as “Return to Zion”, as the return to Zion is as believed by many, still on-going. Some refer to the “Return to Zion” as “Aliyah to Israel” or “Immigration of Jews to the land of Israel”. Here, I just want to touch on the initial return of the Jews to Israel, post the Babylonian exile.

The Babylonian exile was a period in the Jewish history during which the Jews living in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, were exiled to Babylon.

According to Scripture, there were possibly 3 deportations of Jews to Babylon: in 597 BC, involving King Jehoiachin (aka Jeconiah) and his court and many others; in 587/6 BC, of King Zedekiah (Installed by Babylonians to succeed King Jehoiachin) and the rest of the people; and a possible deportation after the assassination of Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judah province, possibly in 582 BC.

The exile is commonly considered to have ended in 538 BC, with the proclamation by King Cyrus of the Persian Empire, who then was in control of Babylon.

The main books of the Bible on this initial return to Zion are the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, there were also many references connected to the subject, found in several other books, including the Book of Daniel, Kings, Chronicles, Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (the last 3 being the postexilic prophets) etc.

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, before it was first split up into 2 books around AD 3. We will be concentrating on these 2 books, in this exposition.

Why this article?
First, my pastor, new pastor, in church has started preaching on “Nehemiah” and has told us that it would be a series, and has given us a compressed history outline, from King David to King Zedekiah (pka Mattaniah, the last king of Judah). So, some members of the church have started reading up on the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. I do not know the precise reasons for his wanting to preach on “Nehemiah”; it could be that the church has embarked on a building extension, and so, he was trying to tie into the “building/rebuilding” theme.

But I do wonder why pastors like to preach on “Nehemiah”; my outgoing senior pastor (“retiring”) also did a series on “Nehemiah” not too long ago. Actually, I cannot remember, for sure, now, what the Senior Pastor was emphasizing then. It did NOT mean I have NOT absorbed the teachings from that series; it probably was that I, and others too, absorbed and internalized some specific truths and lessons, without us, really in any way, thinking that we would ever be found in that kind rebuilding/building project; we probably thought that perhaps, we could apply this and that, in our business, in our workplace, in building of our career or company, and even family, etc. If I have NOT mistaken, perhaps, the Senior Pastor then was using the series to teach on how we should conduct our affairs in our work life. Perhaps, since heavy-weight pastors (well, the current pastor is expected to take over from the outgoing senior pastor), emphasized “Nehemiah”, more members of church were “curious” enough to read up! One brother attempted and called me up, and talked to me, saying that the 2 books are rather confusing, and he was wondering about questions such these:

1. The 2 Books were so similar in what were being recorded there; are the 2 books on the same one thing; one project, reported on by different people?
2. Could it be that some of the key characters there, were one and the same person?
3. There appears to be duplications or overlaps in the accounts of the 2 books. Are they really duplications or overlaps?
4. If we are NOT sure “who were who” and “who were doing what”, how are we to learn something from it all?

Synopsis of main events of the 2 books
Here is my synopsis:

End of exile: I will begin from the end of the Babylonian exile, and this was recorded for us in Ezra 1:1-4.

In 1st year of King Cyrus of Persia, who had gained control of Babylon, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by prophet Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of King Cyrus to make a proclamation throughout his realm (which included more than Babylon) and to put it in writing:

Proclamation of King Cyrus: The proclamation stated these:

That the LORD God had given him (King Cyrus) all the kingdoms of the earth and He had appointed him (King Cyrus) to build a temple for Him at Jerusalem in Judah;

That any of God’s people in the Persian Empire be allowed to go up to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God in Jerusalem;

That the people of any place where the Jews were exiled to, were to provide those going back to build the temple, with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with free-will offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.

The key thing to note: It is a proclamation for the Jews to go back to rebuild the Temple (only the Temple).

The response (Ezra 1:5-6): In response to the proclamation, the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites {this should be in relation to the exiles from Judah, residing in Babylon}, everyone whose heart God had moved, prepared to go up and build the LORD’s temple in Jerusalem.

In accordance to the proclamation, all the neighbors of the returning Jews assisted them with gold and silver, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the free-will offerings for the building of the temple.

First wave, headed by Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:7-11): King Cyrus, on his part, returned the articles belonging to the temple of the LORD which the previous King of Babylon (King Nebuchadnezzar) had carried away from Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:13). Now all the articles (5,400 articles of gold and silver) were counted out to Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah then; who brought all of them along with the returning exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:11).

Key thing to note: So, from the above, we can say that as far as the exiles from Babylon going back to Jerusalem, they were headed by the prince of Judah then, one called Sheshbazzar. In Ezra 5:14-16, it was again mentioned that articles of the temple were entrusted by King Cyrus to Sheshbazzar. Additionally, it was said there, that Sheshbazzar was appointed Governor of Judah, and was tasked by King Cyrus to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem.

Another key thing to note: There is a question of whether or NOT Sheshbazzar was Zerubbabel. Who was Zerubbabel? Zerubbabel was the grandson of Jehoiachin, the penultimate King of Judah, and so he qualified as a prince of Judah. He was also listed first in the list of Jews returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, as in Ezra 2:2. In Ezra 3:8, he was again mentioned first, with Jeshua, among those who started work on the Temple. In Ezra 4:3, he again headed the Jews in telling off the Gentiles inhabitants who wanted part in rebuilding the Temple. Then, we also read in Zechariah 4:9 that it was Zerubbabel who laid the foundation of the Temple, whereas Ezra 5:16 recorded for us it was Sheshbazzar. Also, we read in Haggai 1:1 that Zerubbabel was the Governor of Judah. Notice the time specified in Haggai 1:1; it was shortly after the first wave of return (return was in 1st year, Haggai's mention was in 2nd year). Could they be the same person? One claim said precisely that; there are still other claims: one being Sheshbazzar was in fact Shenazzar, Zerubabbel's uncle (mentioned in the Books of Chronicles) and another, Sheshbazzar began the work and Zerubbabel finished it.

One thing for sure, it was NOT Ezra who headed this first works on the Temple building in Jerusalem, following the proclamation of King Cyrus. Ezra came into the picture afterwards, which we shall see later on Ezra 7:1-10.

Ezra came into the picture afterwards: Ezra was NOT involved in the Temple building at all! The party that went up to Jerusalem from Babylon, headed by Sheshbazzar (given in Ezra 2), and that headed by Ezra (given in Ezra 8, a small party) are different. It is a mistake to say that the company of 42,000 (Ezra 2:64) was headed by Ezra, as was sometimes said when the exposition of the Book of Nehemiah (Neh 7) was done; the company of 42,000 was referring the very first batch, and it was headed by Sheshbazzar, prince of Judah (or if you accept it, Zerubbabel).

Second wave, headed by Ezra (Ezra 7): By this time, the Temple was already completed and dedication had been done (Ezra 6). The “these things” in Ezra 7:1 was referring to such completion, dedication and installation of priests and Levites to run the Temple. It is after these things that Ezra, a scribe coming from the priestly line traceable all the way back to Aaron, came up to Jerusalem, from Babylon.

Who was Ezra?: Ezra was a scribe, an official chronicler. He is also a priest since he came from the line of Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5, 11). He was also a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses. The King, King Artaxerxes, granted him everything he asked, for the hand of God was on Ezra. Ezra went to Jerusalem with some Israelites, including priests, Levites, singers (temple singers), gatekeepers and temple servants. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 5th month of 7th year of King Artaxerxes’ reign. Ezra and his team successfully reach Jerusalem from Babylon in 4 months, for the hand of God was on him.

What was Ezra tasked to do?: Since the Temple had already been built (Ezra 6:15), why was Ezra sent to Jerusalem? Ezra 7:10 recorded for us what Ezra did, having returned to Israel: He devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of God and he taught the Law in Israel. We also know from later verses (Ezra 7:25-26), pertaining to the content of the commissioning letter the King gave to Ezra, the latter was to appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates. The King had wanted both the law of God and the law of King to be adopted. It has always been in the olden days in the Jewish community, certain Levites were sent out to be judges and magistrates in the land (1 Chr 26:29); here, the King was tasking Ezra to ensure the Law of God was applied in the land. In the later chapters, we would read of Ezra getting involved in matters pertaining to intermarriages forbidden under the Law of God.

Some regard the sending back of Ezra to Zion marked the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. I can only say that, it was a putting back of the “software” of the city, but NOT the physical rebuilding or the “hardware”. Another way of viewing Ezra’s work was that he was into the spiritual rebuilding of the Jews in the city of God, even as the Temple of God had been put in place (rebuilt).

Key point to note: Ezra was sent to establish once again the Law of God for Jerusalem which once again was with the Temple of God, newly built. Ezra was NOT involved in the rebuilding of the Temple, and he was NOT directly responsible for the physical rebuilding of the city, especially the city walls.

Nehemiah who?: What about Nehemiah? Where did he fit in? He too, went from Babylon, sanctioned by the King, to Jerusalem. What did he do there, if it was NOT the rebuilding of the Temple? For this we have to look into the Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was King Artaxerxes’ cupbearer. Basically, when sent over to Jerusalem, he supervised the rebuilding of the city walls, subsequent to the rebuilding of Temple in Jerusalem.

Nehemiah revealed what he was tasked to do (Neh 2:17-18): Now, addressing the people at Jerusalem (the Jews), he told them that they could see the trouble that the people in the city were in; that the city was in ruins, and its gates had been burned with fire. Nehemiah called to the people to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that they would no longer be in disgrace; as it was indeed a disgrace the great city of God lied forlorn. Nehemiah told the people about the gracious hand of God upon him (that the King of Babylon would send him to rebuild the city) and what the King had said to him. The Jews at Jerusalem were in agreement, and replied that they would start rebuilding; and so they began that good work.

If we consider Ezra was the one who started putting back the “software” for Zion, then Nehemiah was the one who started putting back the “hardware” for Zion. With the Temple rebuilt, and the city once again secure, the Initial Return of Zion had happened.

Key point to note: Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem after the Temple was rebuilt and that was after Ezra was sent over to reinstitute the Law of God, and he, Nehemiah, was made Governor (Neh 8:9) of Judah.

Neh 7:4 – city wall completed: By this time, the wall of the city had been successfully rebuilt, and Nehemiah had set the doors in place, and had appointed gatekeepers to be on duty; in other words, the city was once again secure. According to Neh 6:15, it only took the Jews 52 days to complete the entire wall, finishing it on the 25th of 6th month.

The walled-in city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had NOT yet been rebuilt.

Wall finished, time to do a census (Neh 7:5): Once the wall was completed, the Jews were to return to their own towns (or villages), and God impressed upon Nehemiah to do a census (to register everyone) (Neh 7:5); and this most probably took place at the end of the 6th month (wall finished on the 25th of 6th month {Neh 6:15}) since after census, they assembled as one people to remember the covenant God made with the Jews (their forefathers), and renew their own commitment to God on 7th month (Neh 7:73). It was likely they gathered right from the 1st day of the month (7th month), for Neh 8:13 mentioned that the Jews re-gathered again on the 2nd day of the month after one day (you shall see that the 1st and 2nd days of the 7th month were significant, in the last item discussed in this article).

Time to re-gather and renew (Neh 7:73b – Neh 10): What better time to re-gather, to remember the covenant God made with the Jews (their forefathers) and to renew their own commitment to God, than immediately after the city wall was completed!

Ezra and Nehemiah together!: Some people are a little puzzled with the mentioning of Ezra’s role in Nehemiah 8-10, when arrival of Nehemiah was subsequent to Ezra. Some even wondered if Ezra, Sheshbazzar, Zerubbabel and Nehemiah are one and the same person! Apart from the possibility of Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel were the same person, Ezra, “Sheshbazzar/Zerubbabel” and Nehemiah were different persons, for sure. I know, in Neh 8:9, Nehemiah was also said to be the Governor; but it was entirely possible Sheshbazzar/Zerubbabel was governor and subsequently Nehemiah took over (in any case, Haggai 1:1 stated for us that Zerubbabel was governor in the 2nd year of King Darius, years before Nehemiah reached Jerusalem). In Neh 8:9, Nehemiah and Ezra were named together, and so, it could NOT be that they were one and the same person. When one understood the sequences of events as expounded above, there was nothing unusual about the Book of Nehemiah mentioning Ezra’s role, when in fact he was still alive and kicking, so to speak, and was performing what he was tasked by King Artaxerxes, the same king who send Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the 7th year of the King (‘s reign), and Nehemiah, 20th year.

According to Ezra 6:15, the Temple in Jerusalem was completed in 6th year of reign of King Darius. Now, there are disagreements, even among scholars, on the reigns of various Persian Kings, but generally there is no dispute in this chronological order: Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes. Whether or NOT Darius and Artaxerxes are the same king (and that would make Xerxes was also Darius/Artaxerxes) is NOT pertinent to the sequences of events here (perhaps, pertinent for those trying to account for “time period of Daniel” in the Book of Daniel), except on the age of Ezra. Plain reading gives us 3 kings listed in Ezra 6:14b (Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes). What is important is the same king name, Artaxerxes, was linked to the sending out of both Ezra and Nehemiah. We only need to believe that Ezra did live for another 13 years more after he reached Jerusalem, to account for he being recorded in Nehemiah 8-10, together with Nehemiah; for me, I just believe that.

Key point to note: Arguably after the wall was completed, Nehemiah and Ezra worked together on the ongoing rebuilding of the both the people of God and the city of God, Jerusalem, physically and spiritually (Neh 8-13).

As the synopsis of the main events of the 2 books, Ezra and Nehemiah, the above, I believe, is quite adequate; and it helps to answer some of the issues confusing people trying to unravel the books.

What are perhaps missing from the above are the followings:
1. I did NOT mention that Nehemiah did go back to King Artaxerxes, for a time and then he came back to Jerusalem. This was mentioned in the last chapter of Nehemiah, Neh 13:6-7.

2. Also, I have NOT touched on the oppositions the Jews faced in the initial return to Zion, covered in both books. In fact, this fact of oppositions, could stumble some to treat the projects in the 2 books as one. But of course, we know now, clearly, the separate projects included these: rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem (under Sheshbazzar/Zerubbabel), re-instituting Law of God in Jerusalem (under Ezra), and rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (under Nehemiah). All these projects, they collectively was attempting to re-establish Jewish presence and dominance back to the land of Israel, and the key city being, the city of God, Jerusalem; and so, under whichever phase, oppositions were expected and indeed they occurred, and so, we read of them in both the books.

Rather than doing an exposition of the relevant verses in both the books, and the number of verses involved are many, I will attempt to give some background information, instead, for readers to understand how come there would be oppositions:

Before the Southern Kingdom, Judah, fell to the Babylonians, with the consequent exile of the Jews living in Judah to Babylon, the Northern Kingdom had fallen first, and it fell to the Assyrians. Generally, Judah was occupied by 2 of the 12 Tribes of Israel, Judah and Benjamin tribes. The Northern Kingdom, also known as Samaria (sometimes also called land of the Ephraim, because her 1st King was an Ephraimite, the half-tribe of the House of Joseph). The other 10 Tribes of Israel were living in the Northern Kingdom. The real culprit why the United Monarchy of Israel, broke into 2 was King Solomon (King David’s son who succeeded him). Despite the wisdom God granted him, Solomon, in his old age, sinned greatly against God; on the instigation of his wives or concubines, he set up high places (of worship) for pagan gods, causing many to worship other gods. God then decreed the punishment against King Solomon, but for the sake of His promise to King David, he relented to NOT breaking up the Kingdom in the time of King Solomon, but He said that it would come to pass in the time of the reign of the son of King Solomon, King Rehoboam. And it happened as said by the LORD; an Ephraimite, Jeroboam, tore 10 tribes away, leaving only the small tribe of Benjamin to remain loyal to the Judah tribe which was the Tribe King David belonged to. The Northern and Southern kingdoms then became enemies. The Northern Kingdom sinned greatly against God; King Jeroboam instituted the temples for the golden calves, and misled the people to bypass the Temple in the south, in Judah, to worship “God” in the 2 temples of the golden calves put up. Subsequent kings also went for other pagan god worship, and misled the people. Eventually, before the fall of Judah, God gave Samaria over to the Assyrians. The Assyrians had a strategy of hollowing out the land they conquered and replacing the residents with people from other lands they conquered, and so, the 10 Tribes of Israel staying in the North were exiled all over the places, and Samaria was then populated with peoples from other lands. With the fall of the South, Judah, the whole Promised Land was left with few Jews, probably only some in the south, in Judah, for the Babylonians still appointed governor over the remnant in Judah {Only the poorest were left behind – 2 Kings 24:14}. Over time of course, the peoples, non-Jews, from other lands, as well as the original inhabitants of the Promised Land, they just moved about in the land, including going down south, into Judah and Jerusalem. That was why it was NOT surprising that the 2 books made mention of Canaanite tribes (original inhabitants of the Promised Land) and other people groups like Ammonites, etc, opposing the coming back of the Jews to Zion. Of course, the returning Jews did NOT want the non-Jews inhabitants of the land to have part in building the Temple, for if they had done so, pagan gods would be insisted by the non-Jews to have place in the Temple, which of course, would NOT do. And you can easily understand the rebuilding of the city wall was NOT welcomed. Sanballat (Neh 4), a Horonite, an inhabitant of Horonaim in Moab, for example, with his alliances in Samaria would NOT want the wall. Tobiah, an Ammonite, was sided with him (Sanballat) {By the way, the Moab and Ammonites were descendants from Lot, Abraham’s nephew; and the Israelites crossed with them in their exodus into the Promised Land}. Even the Arabs and the men of Ashdod were there, and they objected to rebuilding of the wall, for they all wanted NOT to see the power of the Jews return {Who are the men of Ashdod? Maybe this helps: “The first documented settlement in Ashdod dates to the Canaanite culture of 17 BC, making the city one of the oldest in the world. Ashdod is mentioned 13 times in the Bible. During its history the city was settled by Philistines, Israelites, Byzantines, Crusaders and Arabs.” Today it is the 6th largest city in Israel.}. The Trans-Euphrates region’s habitants did NOT want the Jews to regain their glory, and the various officials (for the region) under the Persian Empire tried to stall the return of the Jews (they sent letters to the King to instigate the King to abort the return of the Jews). Nehemiah was well aware of that (he was the cup-bearer of the King, and he was close enough to know), so he asked for letters from the King for safe-passage as well as letters from the King directing the officials to support and supply resource for the rebuilding of the wall. All those talk of oppositions were NOT duplicates, rather they were ongoing oppositions against the Jews regaining foothold in Israel.

3. The 2nd last issue I will address is concerning the near exact duplication of Ezra 2 in Neh 7 (more specifically, Neh 7:6-73a). Ezra 2 was indeed “plucked in” to complete what was said concerning Nehemiah’s finding of the genealogical records of those who had been the FIRST to return. This actually was referring to those who came back in the first wave, under Sheshbazzar, NOT Ezra. Those who came back with Ezra were recorded for us, in Ezra 8. You should just read the text as a “pluck-in”, there are no mixing of separate events.

4. The last issue I will address here, is in a way connected to the confusion in point 3 above, but it is an understanding that one is to have, so that the verses saying, “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man…” (Ezra 3:1) and “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man…” (Neh 7:73b-Neh 8:1) are NOT treated as one and the same verse attached to Ezra 2. In other words, the Book of Nehemiah’s “7th month came” was NOT the same “7th month came” of the Book of Ezra; they were 7th months, alright, but belonging to different years or times. In the book of Ezra, it was referring to the time after the Temple was completed and dedicated and Ezra came to Jerusalem (he arrived in 5th month) and then in the 7th month of the year, he gathered all the people. In the Book of Nehemiah, the 7th month was the 7th month of the year in which the wall of Jerusalem had been finished building (finished on 25th of 6th month). But why big events on both 7th months? It is because the 7th month is the year the Jewish Calendar year increases by one, in other words, the first day of the 7th month was the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) {just like our present day Gregorian Calendar’s 1st Jan is the New Year Day}! Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of Tishri (7th month). In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, literally, "head of the year" or "first of the year." Many of us use the New Year (Gregorian New Year) as a time to plan a better life, making "resolutions." Likewise, the Jewish New Year is a time to begin introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the New Year. That was what happened in both occasions of the New Year, in book of Ezra and in the book of Nehemiah. In fact, Neh 8-10 showed that the Jews NOT only looked back at the mistakes of yesteryear, but yesteryears!

Anthony Chia, high.expressions – Lord, perhaps, now with such revelations as above, readers can then move pass the confusion stage; and with understanding of events, begin to learn valuable guides you embedded in these historical recordings in Scripture, to apply in their lives, be it their work life, personal life or in service to you. Lord, I have learned much myself. Thank you, Lord. Amen.

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