Exile: Good Friday, April 15 – Ezra-Nehemiah

Read:

Nehemiah’s chest was still heaving, spittle still stuck in his beard. He had chased the half-breed infidels off. Bits of their hair were still stuck between his knuckles. For the third time, as he watches his life’s work unraveling before his eyes, Nehemiah lifts his head to the roof with tears in his eyes and yells, “Remember me, O God! Remember me for the good I tried to do!” 

This is how the return from exile ends. When a dream dies, it kills part of us with it. The collective story of Ezra-Nehemiah (originally one story written on one scroll) reminds us of the limits of reform. Three leaders, political, religious, and private sector, respectively, set out to lead their people out of exile and, by sheer force of will and religious zeal, bring God back to their nation. It doesn’t work. 

Exile had always been “a death to make way for a rebirth” (1). Whether Adam and Eve stumbling away from Eden, or the Hebrews crying for rescue in Egypt, the story of exile has always been learning hard lessons while hoping for a new future. Yet now, a group of God’s people are allowed to return to their Promised Land, fewer in number than ever. 

The stories of Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah started off great. As prophesied by Jeremiah (2 Chron 36:22), the kings in power were now legislating and even funding Israel’s return to Jerusalem. To control their empire and promote peace through a kind of religious liberty, the Persians allowed conquered nations like Egypt, Greece, and Israel to restore their religious practices (2). It is hard to imagine the relief and excitement they must have felt. Finally, God was back on their side!

Zerubabbel leads the people back and rebuilds the temple. Ezra teaches the people God’s word and sees fruit. Nehemiah rebuilds the wall. Yet, despite God’s promises that all nations would worship him in Jerusalem, outsiders are chased off (Ezra 4:1-5; Neh 13:8), families are split apart (Ezra 10:10-11:44; Neh 13:23-25), and, unlike before, God’s Spirit does not return to dwell in the rebuilt temple (Ezra 3:11-13). In fact, one of these interracial, Samaritan families built their own temple to worship Yahweh (John 4:20-22) in this period after they were marginalized by Nehemiah and company. This is their new normal. 

Even after all the foretold blessings and curses had come. Even after they had been returned to their Promised Land. Nothing had changed the condition of the human heart. Still, they were waiting on something no legislation, no amount of funding, not even limitless moral effort could provide . . . a heart not bent on self-centeredness and self-destruction, a heart able to follow God. 


Footnotes:

  1. Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 15.
  2. Kidner, 21.

Watch: Bible Project video on Ezra-Nehemiah

Listen: Nehemiah 9-10, 13

2 thoughts on “Exile: Good Friday, April 15 – Ezra-Nehemiah

  1. So in Ezra 4:1 were they truly enemies of Judah and Benjamin or were they just people that they looked down upon? I’ve never thought of it this way before. In Ezra 10-11 it’s clear they had disobeyed God by intermarrying with the local women. Should they have just said “It’s no biggie. God loves everybody”? Seems like a no-win situation to me. I appreciate your thoughts. Brian

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  2. It’s interesting. I think they were really enemies, as seen in their reaction of immediately sabotaging the Jews’ work when their offer is spurned. But the Jews definitely looked down on the Samaritans as neither ethnically or religiously pure enough to join in the work. Personally, I would take this all to be a descriptive, not prescriptive, account of the messiness involved when God keeps his covenant promises to broken people. Kidner makes an interesting observation that Nehemiah’s wall operates as a metaphor for the Mosaic Law, “potentially a means either of preservation or else, if it should loom too large, of constriction.” He means that “for better or for worse” this is the story of how the Jews grow from a scattered minority, concerned with not losing the Promised Land again, into the Jews we meet in the NT. Obviously that’s not all bad, but the seeds for racial prejudice against the Samaritans, a misuse of purity as a means of excluding people, and a disregard for women are certainly in this story, even if they were a sincere pursuit of avoiding compromise and doing what pleases God. In some ways, we could understand the Pharisees’ sins as the sort of hardened outcome of these seeds–the emphasis on purity and law above all else . . . to the point that they actually miss the Savior and instead kill Him, and another exile ensues when Jerusalem is sacked a few years later.

    Thinking about these stories and trying to narrate and modernize them over the last few months, I’ve been trying to explore where our context is similar to the Israelites’ and where it diverges. It’s easy for me to imagine myself as the Jews in this story, but I’m not. I’m not a persecuted minority with a minority religion. They were. They made some hard calls to protect their cultural identity, trying to avoid the mistakes of their ancestors. It seems like they created new problems by overcorrecting. I think that’s just life. What I love is how Jesus finally pulls everything together in a story like the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He never says, “It’s no biggie.” But he does engage with her, her broken marriages and even restores her to true fellowship with Jews and worship of the God of Israel! He’s the real deal.

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