Day 137: Ezra 8-10; Sins of the Exiles

Upon arriving back in Jerusalem, Ezra doesn’t find everything perfect among the people.  I imagine him arriving and there being a lot of celebration or that kind of glassy-eyed look that one gets when they start a new job.  We often call it the “honeymoon phase.”  Everything seems ok, nothing really going on to upset anyone.  Everyone is happy that you’re there, no one is looking for problems.  Ignorance is bliss… but not for Ezra.  When he arrives in Jerusalem, he gets right to work.  We read about him being set by Artaxerxes, the king Persia, who allows Ezra to return to his own land with any that want to go, and gives Ezra a blessing for his journey.  Ezra rounds up the people, which are listed in chapter 8 and beings his long journey to Judah.

Esdras-Ezra was a Jewish priestly scribe who l...

Esdras-Ezra was a Jewish priestly scribe who led about 5,000 Israelite exiles living in Babylon to their home city of Jerusalem in 459 BCE. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, when he arrives, it would be understandable for him to take a few days break before he gets to work… but not Ezra.  No, he jumps in with both feet.  No sooner has he arrived in Jerusalem than an official approaches him and lets him know what the situation is.  Some of the people of God, the returned exiles have intermarried.  This is a major violation of the Law of Moses.  The people of Israel were God’s people, set apart by God Himself to be a holy nation, a “royal priesthood.”  They were supposed to be the representatives of God to the world; a community blessed to be a blessing.  Part of the Law that they were to follow was that they were not to intermarry with other nations.  It was forbidden because of the nature of the people of God being set apart.  It was also forbidden because God knew that the people would be drawn away from him and to the idols of the spouses of other nations.  Its just asking for trouble really and God wanted to make sure that they weren’t exposing themselves to that kind of temptation.

Ezra Prays for the People Photo Credit:

Ezra Prays for the People
Photo Credit:

The prayer of Ezra is a beautiful prayer recognizing the sinful state that they are found in and the true fact that they are unable to do anything about it.  He recounts the people’s current predicament and God’s amazing wonders, abundant faithfulness, and unconditional love.  It kind of reminds me of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Sadly, this particular passage of Scripture has been misquoted many times as a reason to Scripturally oppose inter-racial marriage.  These people take the verses of Ezra completely out of context and think that it is ok to judge people because the person that they love is of a different race or ethnic background.  That is simply not what is being said here.  The Law of Moses was very clear on the reasons for not intermarrying with these certain culture.  It had to do with the sin that they committed before the Lord and the overwhelming temptation that it would have brought on the people of Israel (not that they really needed it).  God had chosen this people and set up the Law that He did so that the people of God would fulfill the purpose that God called them to, being a light and blessing to the nations.  In any case, taking Scripture out of context and using it as proof texting for one’s own personal agenda or to further one’s own beliefs that do not jive with the rest of the Bible is wrong, and it proves nothing except ignorance.  We have to remember that these things are written in a place and context in which we are not familiar.

Besides, today’s reading isn’t about the law that was broken and the sin that was done as much as it is about repentance that takes place and the forgiveness that is given.  The people don’t simply discover the sin and say “oh well” as their fathers would have done before the exile.  Instead, they repent and turn back to God and the Lord honors their repentance.  Sadly though, Ezra ends here on a note of dissonance, pointing out that some of these inter-marriages have produced offspring.  Now these families are broken… and that is where the book ends.  Why do you think this is?  Perhaps pointing out the difficulties in following God?  Perhaps being a cliff hanger for Nehemiah?  Maybe its just something to leave you thinking, and perhaps in some uncomfortable place as we try to figure out how God is at work here to.  What do you think?

Day 136: Ezra 5-7; Rebuilding the Temple

Yesterday we read that there was some trouble in Jerusalem as the process of rebuilding the temple continued.  Some of the people from the land, possibly people from the Northern Kingdom who we would now know as Samaritans, wanted to have a part in building the Temple.  When the people of Judah say no, there is trouble and the building is suspended for a while.  However, when we pick up the story today, it seems that the building has been restarted and is well under way.  The people are diligently at work building the walls of the Temple and all the many things that go into it.

Dedication of the Temple Photo Credit:

Dedication of the Temple
Photo Credit:

Remember a while back, we talked about how we should always be looking for God in the narratives and stories that we read in the Bible?  I think that this is a really good place to be doing that.  Not only has God allowed for His people to travel back to Jerusalem, something that didn’t happen in these old empires, He has again provided a way for them to continue working on the Temple.  And whats more, He continually provides a way for all this to happen just as He said he would.  God is continuing to be faithful to His people even after exile just as He said he would in Leveticus 26.  There is a lot about the curses that God would bring upon His people for their disobedience, yet even at the end God says that He will be faithful to them even in their exile and if the people would turn to them, He would hear them and forgive them and continue to be faithful to them.

After a great deal of hard work we read that the Temple is finished and dedicated.  What an awesome sight this must have been.  Though, even as we read yesterday, I’m sure it was a drop in the bucket compared to the 1st Temple, yet even in this we see that the people have been faithful to God and God has intern blessed them with all the resources and funding that they need, as well as the support of the most powerful ruler of the known world at that time.

What we are seeing here, in many ways, is a fundamental re-identification of the people of God.  Like we talked about in books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, what the returned exiles need here is a way of re-identifying themselves with who they are and whose they are.  In many ways they were “dismembered” in the exile, sent back into the wilderness to be stripped of what they had become, and have now returned to the land that was a part of their identity.  Through the book of Chronicles we see that they have looked back into the past to identify themselves with God through the story that is their Story, the ancestors that are their people.  The re-dedication of the Temple followed by the celebration of the Passover is a fundamental part of their “re-identification,” or their being “re-membered” as the people of God.

Celebration of the Passover Photo Credit:

Celebration of the Passover
Photo Credit:

This also helps us to draw a parallel, one that is evident in the Bible throughout history, the parallel between water and blood.  We draw this parallel when we celebrate… you guessed it… Baptism!  In all the other wilderness experiences that we have seen Judah go through there was one thing that was in common, the passing through of the waters, which we related to Baptism.  Think of the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, and the crossing of the Jordan, all of these times were points at which Israel was being re-identified some how.  First from a group of slaves into a people of God.  Then from a group of nomads to a nation of God.  They were re-identified through the waters, and each time they either celebrated or had just celebrated the Passover or the rehashing of the covenant.  When the people returned from exile, a 70 year wilderness experience, they may have had to cross the Jordan… the Bible doesn’t say, but they immediately begin the work of recovering their identity.  They start sacrificing to God again, the rebuild the Temple (their spiritual center in the whole world), and they celebrate the Passover, the one feast that sets them apart.

What of the parallel between blood and water then?  In Baptism, we claim that a person is sealed as a covenant member of the people of God.  In circumcision (which is bloody) this was also true of the people of Israel.  When the people of Israel crossed through the Red Sea or the Jordan they were also making a statement that they were God’s people following His command by His power.  In Baptism, at least in infant baptism, we make vows saying that we will raise our children in the ways of God and we will do it by the power of God.  The Passover then, a holiday of remembrance that celebrates that passing over of a household that has blood on its doorpost, a sign that they are indeed the people of God.  Interesting, this is why John refers to Jesus at “the Lamb of God.”  What reference do you think John is making when he refers to Jesus in this way?

Day 135: Ezra 1-4; The Exiles Return

The book of Ezra is written by Ezra himself.  He also wrote the book of Nehemiah and is considered by many to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles.  Ezra was a writer, obviously, and one of the priests that returned to Jerusalem when the exiles returned.  We pick up the story of Ezra and the exiles basically where we left off yesterday.  The end of the book of 2 Chronicles, as you read, spoke of the people of Judah being allowed to return to Jerusalem.  Today we encounter that narrative and many of the names of the people who embarked on this journey.

Exiles Return to Jerusalem Photo Credit:

Exiles Return to Jerusalem
Photo Credit:

However, before we really get in to the book of Ezra, we need to get some background.  In the first paragraph of the first chapter we see that this is happening so that the Word of the Lord that was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah would be fulfilled.  This right here should clue us in to the fact that we might have missed some of the story in all of this.  Who is Jeremiah?  When did he say this?  Why was this not recorded?  Well… actually it was.  The problem that we run into with the cannon of Scripture is the way that it is divided up.  The Bible is divided up into different sections that are not necessarily in chronological order.  As we saw going into the book of Chronicles, we took a step back in time and rehashed the whole of the story of the kings.  Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are all books that fall into this same category, the category of historical books.  Genesis through Deuteronomy are considered to be the Torah (which means law or teaching in Hebrew).  The books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles and the three that we will be engaging over the next week are considered to be history books.  From there we will go on to the wisdom books of Job – Song of Solomon, and then get into the prophets, of which Jeremiah is one.

In any case, the background that we are looking for here comes from Jeremiah 25 and Jeremiah 29 and concerns the length of the exile that will take place and also how the people will return.  Today’s text and all that follow in Ezra and Nehemiah speak to the nature of the return of the exiles of Judah.  So we have passed over 70 years worth of happenings of God’s people in exile.  Much of this will be filled in with people like Jeremiah, Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others.

Rebuilding the Temple Photo Credit:

Rebuilding the Temple
Photo Credit:

In the mean time, as we look here, the people have returned and start to rebuild the Temple of God.  The first thing they do is set up an alter and begin sacrificing to the Lord.  Interestingly, before they do anything to even protect themselves, the people of God worship Him.  What a testament to their life of faith, something that would have done them well 70 years ago.  From there they go on to start the building process by laying the foundation of the Temple.  This is, no doubt, a momentous undertaking, but one that they do joyfully.  Ezra records the reaction of the people when they finish laying the foundation, a mixed bag to be sure.  Many rejoice, the young people that have known nothing but captivity and had heard only stories of the glory of the Temple of God.  Others weep, the elderly who had seen the glory of the original temple and see the horrid state that it is in now.  These mixed emotions though, are blended together, a community of the people of God lifting up their voices to God.

I wonder if we feel free to lift our voice to God in whatever way we feel led on any given day, much less a Sunday.  Would it be ok in your congregation to cry?  Weep?  Shout for joy?  While I’m not sure that this is the take home message of today’s reading, it does make me think about our worship on Sundays (I am a worship leader after all).  These people were able to react in whatever way seems right to them, whether it be a shout or a cry… no one looked down on them, no one judged them, and ultimately the people, who were being faithful to God, lifted up one voice to God.  I wonder what that looks like in our churches today?