You are hereNot The Law, Not The Temple, Not The Race
Not The Law, Not The Temple, Not The Race
In 538 B.C – in order to fulfill the word of YHWH through the prophet Jeremiah – Cyrus, King of Persia, made a decree saying: “YHWH the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build him a Temple in Jerusalem in Judah. Whoever among you belongs to the full tally of his people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and build the Temple of YHWH, God of Israel, who is the God in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, wherever he lives, be helped by the people of his locality with silver, gold, equipment, and riding beasts as well as voluntary offerings for the Temple of God which is in Jerusalem.”This declaration came some 70 years after King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered the city of Jerusalem and taken the inhabitants of Judah into exile throughout the Babylonian empire. The prophet Jeremiah had – under the inspiration of God – declared that the captivity would last for 70 years and that then the Babylonian empire would be destroyed and that the Israelite people would return to their homeland. Accordingly, in 539 B.C the Persian Empire led by Cyrus defeated the Babylonian Empire. And it was Cyrus’ policy to maintain respect for the local cultures and traditions of the peoples within his empire so he allowed the Jews to return to their native land and to rebuild the temple of their God. In addition, he also returned the sacred temple vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen and placed in the temple of his god.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are chronicles of the returning Jews and their efforts to rebuild the Temple, and the walls of Jerusalem as well as their efforts to rebuild the Jewish society based on the laws of the Torah. In these two books – each named after their respective protagonists – we have two very different types of leaders, each working towards this same goals and having much the same emphasis in their work.
Ezra was a man of study and scholarly pursuits. “He was a scribe versed in the Law of Moses, which YHWH, God of Israel, had given. (7:6) It appears that he was a kind of minister for Jewish affairs in the Persian court – but beyond that he was a man who read, and translated and expounded the word of the Lord to the people. He devoted his life to the study of the Holy Scriptures, in order that he might be in a condition to interpret them for the instruction and edification of others. It’s interesting to note that the first mention of the pulpit (as for preaching) occurs in the history of Ezra's ministry (Neh. 8:4) He was also a member of the priesthood – as he was a descendant of Aaron.
Nehemiah was a man of action, a risk-taker, and one who didn’t shy away from confrontations. He resembled Ezra in his fiery zeal, and in the piety of his life: but he was of a fiercer mood; he had less patience with those he considered to be transgressors. He was a man of action rather than a man of thought, and was more inclined to use force than persuasion.
Both men were consumed by a passion to live wholly for God, and to bring others into a complete devotion to God. Their prayers, and fasts, and confessions are recorded for us throughout the two books. Everything that they did, everything that they accomplished was a part of their effort to live holy lives for God.
These two men had three main concerns (over and beyond the building projects and the administrative duties).
1) They were devoted to the Law as revealed to Moses by YHWH on Mt. Sinai. Ezra’s purpose for going to Jerusalem was to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel.(Ezra 7:10) Nehemiah also assisted with the instruction (Nehemiah 8: 9 – 11) . Jerusalem needed the law of God. The permanence of the Jews was threatened by opposition from non-Jews and by the Jews’ careless disregard for the things of God. Ezra’s teaching was needed to give solidity and strength to the Jewish community struggling against pressures to surrender its theological identity as people of the covenant.
2) They were devoted to the Temple. Cyrus’ decree had allowed the Jews to return to their native land and to rebuild the temple. To the returning Jews, this was more than just a building project. This was a re-establishment of the presence of YHWH in Israel. The importance of the new Temple was that it became a symbol of the Lord’s holiness and the religious center of life for the new community. It was completed in 515 B.C. and dedicated with great joy (Ezra 6:14-16). Along with the rebuilding of the temple there was a reinstatement of the temple sacrifices and the sacrificial liturgies.
3) They were devoted to the purity of the Jewish race. Before Judah (the southern kingdom) was conquered by the Babylonians, Israel (the northern kingdom) had been conquered by the Assyrian army. When Nebuchadnezzar had taken the Jews from Judah in captivity he left the land basically empty. But when Shalmaneser V of Assyria conquered Israel he replaced the Jewish exiles with exiles from other parts of his empire. These people brought with them their own culture and religion.
2 Kings 17 tells us that over time these colonists from other parts of the Assyrian empire intermarried with the Jewish people who had survived and been left in the land. The descendants of these intermarriages would come to be known as the Samaritans. The Samaritans continued to practice a form of Judaism. They believed in one God – YHWH, they accepted the Torah (the books of the law) as the word of God given through Moses, and they offered sacrifices - though not at the temple in Jerusalem, but at Mount Gerizim. Despite the obvious similarities – there was no acceptance of the Samaritans or their religion by the Jews.
When Ezra and Nehemiah returned to their homeland, they found that their fellow returnees had proceeded to intermarry with the Samaritans. Their reactions were harsh.
Ezra tore his clothes and cloak, pulled the hair from his head and beard, and fell down in horror when he heard that the “holy race” had been “contaminated” by foreigners (Ezra 9: 1 – 4). He then wept and prayed in front of the temple of God. Afterwards he demanded that all those who had married a Canaanite, a Hittite, a Perizzite, a Jebusite, a Moabite, an Egyptian, or an Amorite – should divorce them immediately and send them away along with any children born of that union. He even posted a list of all those who were “guilty” of intermarriage.
When Nehemiah heard children speaking a foreign dialect (or with an accent) because of these intermarriages he reprimanded the people, and cursed them. He struck several of them and tore out their hair and demanded that they not allow their sons or daughters to marry a foreigner. (Nehemiah 13: 23 – 31)
Now Torah didn’t forbid marriage to one outside of the Hebrew culture and tribe – several of the biblical heroes had foreign wives ( Joseph married an Egyptian woman, Moses married a Midianite woman and a Cushite woman, etc…) but it had been discouraged. Reference is made to King Solomon who had numerous foreign wives and concubines and the trouble that they brought him. Because of his foreign brides and concubines he allowed himself to slide into a religious syncretism.
But it wasn’t discouraged on racial grounds as Ezra and Nehemiah implied. Their horror was that the “holy race” or the "holy seed" had been contaminated – and when you start talking about a “holy race” being contaminated by miscegenation you start sounding like a member of the Nazi party or the Ku Klux Klan. The actions and attitudes of Ezra and Nehemiah are uncomfortably similar to the doctrines of the Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan according to which the Nordic peoples, as so-called pure Aryans, or the white race in general, were the carriers of a superior morality and culture.
I don’t mean to say that Ezra and Nehemiah were nazi’s or Klansmen but all three groups held some distinct racial purity ideals and were willing to use violence to enforce them.
The footnotes in my bible are fairly forgiving of Ezra and Nehemiah …“If their reforming measures seem severe and their isolationism narrow, it is because their zeal was great and the need to safeguard the infant community urgent.” (New Jerusalem Bible notes…) But I’m not comfortable allowing the end to justify the means. Was it okay for Ezra and Nehemiah to demand the divorce, and exile of foreigners; to break up families and to use violence against the people in order to achieve this racial purity; especially when this wasn’t required or even desired by God? I’m not exactly convinced that it was.
The ill feelings that separated Jew from Samaritan continued on through into Jesus’ day, and it’s from that nasty brew of racism, and segregation that he was able to tell the story of the “good” Samaritan – a contradiction in terms as far as any good Jew was concerned. We also find Jesus stopping to talk with the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4.
There at the well the woman says to Jesus, “I see you are a prophet, sir. Our fathers worshipped here on this mountain, though you say that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship…”
Jesus cut through all of the racial hatred and the segregation and said that it wasn’t worship at Mt. Gerizim or worship at the Temple in Jerusalem that God wanted but worship in spirit and in truth. And while Jesus proclaimed that salvation came from the Jews – that salvation was not to be limited to the Jews. Before leaving that area two days later, many of those that heard Jesus said, “…we know that he is indeed the Savior of the whole world.”
He wasn’t to be just the king of the Jews or just the Savior of the Jews. But the Savior of the whole world. (kosmos)
Jesus’ life and mission as savior of the whole world stands in contrast to the mission of Ezra and Nehemiah. Where Ezra and Nehemiah held the Law up to be the source of life in God – Jesus said that he was the source of life in God, the Living Waters, welling up for eternal life. Where Ezra and Nehemiah held the Temple to be the center of worship – Jesus spoke of the Temple’s destruction and of the ability of believers to worship anywhere and everywhere. And where Ezra and Nehemiah held the Jewish race to be the “Holy Race” Jesus proclaimed that all are welcome into the Kingdom; Jews and Samaritans, and Gentiles in general.
The Law has been completed and put away in Christ. The Temple (which was only a copy of the heavenly realities) has been destroyed and we are welcomed into the sanctuary through the curtain that is his flesh (Hebrews 10: 19-20). The Children of Abraham – a category once highly exclusive – has become all inclusive so that everyone of every tribe and tongue can come to God through Christ Jesus.