Ezra Part 4…

At long last, Ezra arrives on the scene. In the interim after chapter 6, the events of Esther occurred; strangely, however, GOD does not observably speak/move, as though He is giving an opportunity for growth. We are always looking for the next big step in faith, yet forget that GOD moves not by clocks but by the condition of our hearts. Like a crop, we need time to grow and mature; GOD moves again once we are ready for Him. With the Temple rebuilt, the Jews now need to reestablish a working knowledge of the Law, and Ezra will take a leadership role in teaching it. His name means “helper,” and thus is an human example to us of the Holy Spirit’s work. The reconstruction continues, but now the site is in the hearts of the people.

June 8, 2012

Today’s Scripture was Ezra 7; this is the chapter in which Ezra actually appears in the book. He was sent to Judah by the king of Persia to re-teach the Jews the Law of Moses. He traces his lineage back to Aaron, the first high priest of Israel; furthermore, he was an expert on the Law, and was given authority to appoint officials who will assist him in executing judgment according to the Law. In effect, he is rebuilding what Moses started in Exodus, following a visit from Jethro: a way for GOD’s word to be spread and applied throughout the nation without one man having to shoulder the burden alone. This is, I believe, yet another sign of GOD’s provision; the king of Persia gives Ezra the command to do so, and yet I would ask why the Persian king would take such an interest in one of his subject peoples? It can only be because GOD put the thought in his heart; he recognized that GOD had given him the kingdom, and that it was the best course of action to obey his divine Suzerain (superior).

A point of intellectual interest for me is the fact that Artaxerxes gives the Jewish religious leaders immunity from taxation of any kind. It should be noted that these were from the tribe of Levi, who did not possess any land inheritance like the other tribes. It was a point of grace that GOD caused their provision from the offerings and gifts of their brethren, and perhaps in recognition of this fact, the king protects them from the greed of corrupt political officials in his edict to Ezra. This custom must have been a tradition passed on to the Church, as the Medieval church in Europe enjoyed many of the same privileges as the Levitical priesthood.

Although he is a scribe, Ezra’s lineage goes all the way back to Aaron, who was Israel’s first high priest. The rebuilding of the Temple therefore had great significance for him; he was coming home to minister to the nation and reconnecting with his family legacy. In a way, Ezra puts me in mind of the Hasidim, a group of scholars formed during the Exile; their task was to ensure that the people would not break the Law again, resulting in another Babylonian Exile, by studying the Law to its minute details and applying it in the most appropriate way. While their goal was very noble, their practice eventually led to the rise of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.

Chapter 7 concludes with a little prelude for chapter 8. Ezra enters the book in a first-person narrative. He begins by praising GOD for His mercy in using Artaxerxes to bring Ezra home to the Holy Land, with such a task of faith. Peeking ahead, I find that, apart from this prologue/epilogue, Ezra only gets to speak like this for two more chapters out of the entire ten of the whole book. Despite this, however, his name is credited as the book’s title; he overshadows both Zerubabbel and the high priest. That, I conclude, can only be a reflection of how pivotal a role he will play in what will happen next in Judah’s history. He will be instrumental in returning Israel to a proper relationship with GOD, not just teaching them the Word, but convincing them to live it out.

June 9, 2012

In my Scripture reading today, I perused through the text of Ezra 8. It continues Ezra’s personal account of his journey to Jerusalem, focusing on who traveled with him and the consequences of their journey.

Surprisingly, of all the people who are going up to Jerusalem, Ezra is the only Levite among them until verses 15 to 20. The Levites were essential to worshipping the LORD, yet they had to be drafted into service because so many had become comfortable and did not desire to return to the Promised Land. GOD wants us to be ready when He calls, and doesn’t call us to come at our convenience; we should be ready at any time, ready to go at a moment’s notice, as was symbolized by the Passover tradition in Judaism.

Once again, I see the intent of bringing multiple leaders of the people with Ezra; they are to spread out according to their allotments among the people and be the local “rabbis” (I think), teaching/re-teaching the people the laws and statutes of GOD. This seems to be based off the old system of governance from Moses’ time, and also serves as part of the foundation for traditional Rabbinical Judaism. Having lost the land, the kings, and the Temple, the one identifying mark for the Jews in exile was the Law – and having lived through the consequences of their fathers’ failure to keep it, it was imperative to learn it all the better.

Something else strikes me just now – just as with Chronicles, the Jews make a careful note of their genealogy. To those of us not from the culture, it may seem a tedious task, but for the Jews this was essential, especially having just returned from 70 years in exile. Having undergone relocation time and again in their history, lineage was essential to tracking the identity of the nation and the people who comprised it. It was, after a fashion, a reflection of GOD, whom they served and lived for as His chosen people. To mingle with other nations was to become embroiled in their idol worship – and to lose that identity.

A key point Ezra takes care to record is the fasting prayer he and his companions underwent prior to their journey. They had declined military escort from Artaxerxes, saying that GOD would protect those who sought Him, and Ezra was ashamed to renege on his word. Having placed their faith in GOD’s protection, Ezra wanted to be sure that GOD would guide them along the right path to avoid disaster, which seems oddly reminiscent of the Wilderness Wanderings with Moses. As I continue through the book, it seems that reliving the past, as well as renewal, seem to remain the constant theme.

Also before setting out, Ezra takes a careful tally of everything that they are taking to the Temple, making certain to charge everyone with responsibility over their share of the load. In this way, every member of the journey is held accountable, because another tally will be taken at journey’s end to confirm that everything made it. Ezra makes it clear that this is more than an accounting matter; it is a religious honor/duty, since everything and everyone present is dedicated to serving GOD. This passage also serves as an example for us; at the end of life, we will give an account to GOD for all we have and have done, and when that time comes we should be able to give a favorable account, saying “Yes, GOD, I have wisely used the gifts You gave to me.”

After the journey is completed, a large sacrifice is made as a sign of Israel’s restored communion with GOD; this seems a fitting end to the journey, and yet Ezra’s work has only just begun, as we will see next time.