Mennonite World Review—June 24, 2013
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell a fascinating part of the story of ancient Israel. The big drama comes earlier—exodus, conquest, settling in the promised land, crises, catastrophe, and exile. Now the people of the promise are back in the land, but things will never be the same.
The narrative falters. Many of the characters are only presented in cryptic fashion. The story kind of fades out as the Old Testament comes to an end. But the people struggle on. They somehow keep the faith alive, if barely. Through worship, through Torah observance, through retelling their story of God’s gifts, they sustain an identity.
The contrast between the first and second temples
To get a sense of this story in Ezra three of the restoration of worship among the Israelites, we might want to note how different this story is than the earlier account of the completion of the first temple under King Solomon in 1 Kings 5–8. When we read the stories together we will be struck by the self-confidence (even arrogance?) in the king-centered, nation-ascending dynamics the first time. For example, Solomon took twice as long to build his palace than to build the temple (1 Kings 7).
However, if we read closely in 1 Kings 1–9, the bigger story of Solomon’s kingship, we already see the seeds of the destruction to come. Really, the story is about Solomon’s greatness. What’s missing, among other things, is a sense of deference to God and a sense of loyalty to Torah. The seeds come to fruition in the generations of corrupt kings that follow.
After destruction at the hands of Babylon (said by the prophets to fulfill the warning to Joshua at the beginning that the land would spit the Israelites out if they proved to be unfaithful to Torah), Israel’s merciful God brings the people back and they are given a new opportunity.
The tone in Ezra three is chastened and tentative as the people begin to reconstruct their community centered on worship and Torah observance. It’s a bottom-up movement; there is no king, no king’s palace, no nation-state buttressed by official religion.
All we know about the leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua, are their names (Ezra 3:8). They have no stated pedigree, no sword-backed authority. They are equals with the others, all working to reestablish the community’s bearings as people of the promise.
In contrast with the cosmopolitanism of the first temple—the greatness of Solomon confirmed by the support of neighboring nations, the beginning of the construction of the second temple happens in the context of vulnerability, “dread of the neighboring peoples” (3:3).
Sorrow mixed with joy
The end of the chapter contains a poignant image. As they laid the “foundation of the house of the Lord,” the people raised a “great shout” (13:11). But mixed with the cries of celebration was weeping from “old people who had seen the first house on its foundations” (13:12). “The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (13:13).
Their history had seen grief, loss, regret. The people had been given so much—and lost so much. They had found clarity, though. The promise was based on faithfulness to Torah, not the might of kings and generals and armies. The way forward was uncertain, but they were resolved. God had kept the spark of the promise alive and through right worship and faithful living, the people would proceed.
In the end, which approach actually provided for the sustenance of a peoplehood? The powerful, king centered state religion of the first temple or the vulnerable, bottom-up, Torah centered faith of the second temple? With all its ebbs and flows, the latter still goes on.