Click here for a print-friendly version
Ezra and the Law
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 3: Justice and Adversity
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 13, 2022
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Ezra 7:1-26
Key Scripture (NIV):
“Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and so teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.” Ezra 7:10
Type of Book and Theme
- To learn the historical background of post-exilic Israel.
- To learn the importance of the Mosaic Law to Israel as a people.
- To learn the historical background of Ezra’s ministry as a scribe.
- To realize God’s faithfulness to God’s people.
- To realize the importance of renewing one’s faith.
Ezra is overall a book of “interpreted history.” Pure historians are concerned with objective facts. They attempt to disallow any personal input from the historian. However, the biblical writers were spiritually and theologically invested in their writing. They understood people and events as they related to God, God’s Covenant, and the Mosaic Law. A pattern exists in the Old Testament from Genesis through Malachi. The pattern is presented as first a blessing from God, followed by the falling away of Israel, then there are the consequences of that falling. It is vitally important to realize there always exists one more step in this pattern. The consequences are always followed by God’s blessing and renewal. The writers of the Old Testament are always addressing Israel at some point in this pattern. Ezra was written during the period of renewal following the return to Judah of Israel’s exiled people.
This book reveals the events related to the return of the exiles and the ensuing period when Israel engaged in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, its walls, and its temple. Thus, Nehemiah and Ezra are linked. Nehemiah was concerned with the rebuilding and Ezra with the renewal. This renewal was a call to return to obedience to God and God’s Mosaic Law. Prior to the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, Israel was forsaking and neglecting the Mosaic Law and their covenant responsibility. This is the stated reason for their fall to the Babylonian Empire. During the following exile period, Israel was dispersed and obedience to the Law and God’s covenant continued to suffer. When Israel is allowed to return and rebuild, Ezra is given the mission of calling God’s people back to obedience to the Law and to remember they are God’s covenant people. For us, Ezra reads as a harsh, legalistic call to obedience. However, we must understand how far Israel wandered from their faith and relationship with God.
The Historical Background Leading to the Exiles
After Israel became a nation through their inhabiting the promised land of Canaan, they faced both internal and external threats to their existence. For purposes of our lesson we will note the role of the empires in the near-eastern world as they relate to Israel. After the nation of Israel divided under the warring sons of Solomon creating the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria (both names are used to identify the northern kingdom), and the southern kingdom of Judah, they were militarily weakened. Sadly, they were also spiritually weakened as the north worshiped God in their capital of Bethel while the south worshiped in the Jerusalem temple. This weakening opened the door to foreign invasion.
Initially, the north fell to the mighty empire of Assyria, whose capital was the violent city of Nineveh. This fall led to the first exile around 733 B.C. Thousands of Israelites were relocated by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The tribes of Israel that were forced to resettle in Assyria became known as the “Ten Lost Tribes.”
A new more powerful empire later emerged known as the Babylonian Empire. All that remained of Israel following the fall to Assyria was the small area of Judah, with its capital of Jerusalem. The Babylonian army enacted a siege upon the city of Jerusalem; that is, they surrounded the city, cutting off its food supply, and simply waited for Jerusalem to surrender. The army of Babylon was constantly resupplied with food and water. Jerusalem possessed underground springs which provided a continuous supply of water. However, Jerusalem’s only food was stored in their granaries. These were large holes in the ground where wheat and corn were stored. These granaries diminished daily until finally Jerusalem faced starvation. This siege lasted one year, six months and 27 days. The people within Jerusalem suffered the fear of starvation. They also suffered from an emotional and social claustrophobia. Their entire world was defined by Jerusalem’s walls.
When Jerusalem surrendered, the Babylonian army destroyed and burned the city walls and the sacred temple. Many often wonder how stone and brick could burn. Remember, their bricks were created from mud and straw. As the mud hardened, the straw dried. Once fire touched the brick the straw burned. As the straw burned, the bricks crumbled. Thus, only rubble remained of the once stalwart walls of the city and Jerusalem’s holy temple.
A second and final exile followed the fall of Judah. Many were relocated, especially the brightest and noblest of the Israelites, as recorded in the book of Daniel. For our lesson, it is vitally important to note not every Israelite was relocated. In both exiles, Israelites were allowed to remain in Israel or Judah. However, they lived beneath the rule of Assyria and later Babylon. Many Assyrians and Babylonians also resettled into both Israel and Judah.
As the differing tribes lived together, assimilation occurred. One of the consequences of assimilation was the intermarriage of the Jewish people with Assyrians and Babylonians. The offspring of such intermarriage became known as the “Samaritans.” These Samaritans are not to be confused with the Israelites who lived in the northern kingdom. The Samaritans to which we refer are the Samaritans Jesus encountered in the New Testament. They were the offspring of intermarriage and thus, looked upon with derision and condescension by the Jewish people. They were perceived as mix-raced, whereas the remaining Jews attempted to remain “pure” in terms of bloodline. This condescension led to the mistreatment of the Samaritans, and little interaction was allowed between the pure-blood Jews and those of mixed-race. If a Jewish person was traveling from one area to another and had to cross Samaria in their travels, they would alter their route so as not to set foot in that “defiled area,” even if it meant elongating their journey. Remember the reaction of the disciples when Jesus chose to walk into Samaria and dared to talk to a Samaritan woman at the well. They were stunned and upset! Jesus was letting them know that God did not recognize their destructive distinctions, divisions, and ethnic walls.
Israel understood the prohibition against intermarriage biologically. However, it is clear that the prohibition was related to the worship of foreign gods. As intermarriage occurred, the non-Jewish spouse often established idols into their household. As a new nation, still in its moral infancy, Israel struggled to resist the infiltration of idols into its religious life.
The Historical Background of the Returns
Eventually, a kinder ruler of the Persian Kingdom arose. King Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return home from their exile. This kind permission was so dear and meaningful to the Jewish people that many thought Cyrus was their long-awaited messiah. As the exiles returned under Cyrus they were allowed to rebuild the temple. After the temple was rebuilt, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt. The book of Nehemiah records these events. It is also important to note that during this period of leniency toward the Jewish people, synagogues came into existence. Though never a substitute for the temple in Jerusalem, the synagogues provided places for Jewish education, worship and fellowship.
A second wave of exiles, allowed to return under King Artaxerxes, were to experience the rebuilding of Israel’s spiritual life. It is in this second return that we encounter Ezra. He appears in Jewish history around 458 BC, about 130 years after the fall of Jerusalem. The rebuilding of the temple was completed in 515 BC, around 71-72 years after its destruction by Babylon in 586/87 BC. Thus, Ezra’s renewal occurred approximately 57 years after the restoration of the temple.
Since the return of the exiles to rebuild the temple, the walls of Jerusalem, and their spiritual life are so closely related, the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah were initially bound together as one book. Later, for the purpose of rabbinical study, they were read separately. It is very important to understand the two books are not strictly structured chronologically. They are structured theologically. Still, the books offer us two important perspectives. First, we realize the importance of our sacred structures. It wasn’t the structures themselves that were so highly valued, it was what those structures meant that was to be most valued by God’s people. Thus, we read of the building of the “outer” symbols of our faith (Jerusalem’s walls and temple), and the “inner” principles of our faith (renewal through obedience to the Mosaic Law).
Do you think we can separate our Christian structures and symbols from the inner Christian life? If not, why not? How can we ensure the two are bound together in our thinking, worship, and living? What can be the consequences when they are separated? What are the blessings of the two being bound together?
Who was Ezra?
Ezra was a scribe, and also referred to as a priest. His title of “scribe” certainly provides a rationale and appreciation for his writings. Scribes copied the sacred texts. A scribe would first pronounce the word to be written, write it, and pronounce it again. Then, he moves to the next word. Can you imagine the patience needed to perform such a task? The personality of a scribe most likely was that of a “cut and dry,” or “black and white” person. They were not allowed to alter a single word of the sacred text. For a scribe the issues were most often clear. Many of us cannot perform such extremely detailed work. A scribe wrote one word at a time! Ezra would have intimately known the Law, every word of it, simply from the repetitious process of copying the text. The Law was not something to be debated; instead, it was to be obeyed. It isn’t surprising that many believe Ezra wrote the Chronicles. Unlike the narrative-sated books of the Kings, the Chronicles are far more matter of fact, cut and dry.
What does the process by which the scribes copied the texts say to us about the accuracy of the biblical texts passed to us through the years?
Through repetitious writing alone, the scribes knew the Mosaic Law. In the New Testament era, scribes are included in the list of religious leaders along with Pharisees, Sadducees, and priests. Consequently, scribes possessed religious authority. Ezra certainly had to possess authority and respect in order to call Israel to renewal.
Ezra’s lineage also provided him with respect and validated his calling. He was a scribe from the priestly line of Aaron, Moses brother. Undoubtedly, Ezra was well respected by the Persian king Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes was benevolent toward the Jewish people. He commissioned Ezra to return to Judah as governor to oversee the reconstruction. Artaxerxes was not always kind to the Jewish people. Initially, he stopped the reconstruction. However, he later changed his mind. It appears Artaxerxes grew to respect the religion of the Jews and especially Ezra. He provided Ezra with everything he needed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. He even contributed from his wealth for the project.
Ezra’s Ministry of Renewal
It is obvious that Ezra understood the events that unfolded in his life were the result of the “gracious hand of the Lord.” This most likely not only applied to the events in Ezra’s own life, but also in the life of King Artaxerxes. Again, the king experienced a great change of heart. The letter he provided for Ezra’s mission empowered Ezra to do far more than ensure the city was rebuilt. He wanted to ensure that the people of Ezra obeyed their God! We do not have enough information to know if the king believed in Ezra’s God. However, it is obvious he did possess a respect and reverence for the God of Israel.
Artaxerxes refers to Ezra’s God as the “God of heaven.” This phrase implies that the king realized Ezra’s God was far greater than idols, gods of wood, stone, or some facet of nature. It also implies the king understood the God of Israel as greater than himself. There is some indication that the king might have supported Ezra out of fear. Since he believed Ezra’s God was great and mighty, he certainly did not want to incur the wrath of Israel’s God. Artaxerxes commanded that the Jews obey Ezra’s requirements with diligence and even threatened punishment for those who resisted.
How do we understand God and God’s relationship with the historical events occurring in the world? Do we believe God still speaks and moves within the affairs of the world? In what way do you think God works in the course of human affairs? Since we believe God is Lord of all, how are we to interpret the events of the world? What comfort is found in knowing God is over all? Can we find empowerment to endure the difficult moments in history? How do you think we can become instruments of renewal in difficult times?
The text reads that Ezra was personally devoted to studying and obeying the Law of the Lord. Ezra was not asking Israel to engage in a faith from which he was disconnected. Ezra possessed a personal faith in God and asked nothing of God’s people that he would not require of himself. The term “devoted” implies far more than simply being acquainted with the Law of the Lord. For a person to be devoted to someone or something they must first highly esteem and reverence that someone, something, or both. Ezra had to believe the Law was utterly important in order for him to devote his life to studying it. More importantly, he had to believe in the “God of the Law.” Therefore, when Ezra demanded obedience from Israel, he possessed a “moral authority.” Again, people knew that what he asked of them, he required of himself. Ezra’s mission would prove difficult. He would require the Jewish people in Judah to change their lives in ways that would prove painful. One of the most painful requirements was his command that mixed marriages be eradicated. Only his personal devotion and reverence of God could empower him to command such an act.
When we proclaim the necessity and value of the moral life embodied and taught by Jesus, how important do you think it is for us to personally follow Jesus? How important is it for others to see the moral life we proclaim existing in our own life? What do you believe would be the consequence of asking of others what we fail to embrace? How effective do you believe Ezra would have been had he not been devoted to God and the Law? Can you recall the influence of one who positively challenged your life? From where did their spiritual and moral authority emerge? Were they committed to their message and the “Lord of their message?” How devoted are you to what you believe? How devoted are you to the Lord from whom your beliefs arise? How can we engage in greater devotion to Christ that we might be more influential in our community and world? Calling a people to renewal is rarely comfortable. From where can we gain the courage to ask that which is difficult of others?
Though some of the actions Ezra required of Israel are difficult for us to understand, we can recognize the importance of his ministry. Israel had grown lax in their moral life. A lax moral life is always the consequence of a weakened relationship with God. We are grateful God never forsakes His people. Ezra is God’s gift to Israel at a pivotal time in their life. The Jewish people had suffered great loss. Their homeland no longer existed. The land was still there, but another ruled over them. Their need for hope was great. Ezra’s ministry reminded them of who they were and called them to return to their spiritual identity.
Each of us can be an instrument of God’s renewal. The world is still in need of hope and in need of Christ. Our personal devotion to Christ and his law is vital. His law was the Shema: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, soul, mind, and strength; and thy neighbor as thyself. All moral authority must be “loving authority.”
Almighty God, you are Lord of all. You are Lord of heaven and earth and seek to be Lord in every life. Call us to personal renewal. Reveal to us the importance of the Law of Love. Ignite within us the desire to embrace and enact the Law of Jesus in community and the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org