Mennonite World Review—July 8, 2013
The book of Ezra emphasizes the struggle and commitment of the people of Israel. They struggled to put together a viable and sustainable faith following the disaster of the Babylonian conquest of their kingdom and a generation of their leadership class living in exile.
Ultimately the story centers on Ezra’s accomplishment in re-establishing Torah as the operational source for the community’s faith and practice. We do well to gain inspiration from the perseverance of the people—and to notice important changes they make in how their faith works.
They are committed to rebuilding the temple. But this time, the purpose of the institution is to provide an anchor for the communal life of a people maintaining their identity as God’s people in the midst of an empire (Persia) that they do not run.
Ezra six tells of the astonishing generosity of the people of Persia who provide funding to helped the people build the new temple. In 6:13-22, the Persian kings are mentioned by name (6:14) and, unexpectedly, the king of Assyria is said to have aided them (6:22—this reference surely has some cryptic symbolic significance since by this time Assyria no longer existed).
On the one hand, we might wonder at the cost to Israel’s autonomy of being so dependent upon the Persian Empire—there surely was some kind of quid pro quo expected by the kings. This second temple throughout its existence played an ambiguous role in the life of the community. In the end when the Romans destroyed it for good, the community sustained its identity centered on Torah (as was intended from the start by God).
Still, the Temple was crucial at this time. And under Ezra, it is presented as being validated by prophetic witness (5:2 and 6:14 bracket the construction)—in contrast to King Solomon who wanted nothing to do with prophets.
And worship in the temple is linked with the liberation of the Exodus and the remembrance of that liberation in the Passover celebration (6:19)—in contrast to the practical amnesia toward the radical implications of God’s liberation of slaves in Israel’s years under the kings who practiced injustice not justice toward the vulnerable.
Just as the temple itself has a mixed legacy, so too does the practice of sacrifice. We might be struck with how bloody the second temple’s opening was; 712 animals were killed. However, this contrasts to Solomon’s sacrifices the opened the first temple: 142,000 killed animals (1 Kings 8:5,63)!
This is much smaller scale and it is not about impressing the world with the great might of Israel. The focus is on making concrete the commitment to return to God. Also in contrast with Solomon, this time the worship is egalitarian. The temple is not built with slave labor but the voluntary work of all the people in the community who wanted to help.
To symbolize the priorities Ezra meant to reinforce, we are told of the trip he led that brought the donated wealth from the Persians that allowed the completion of the temple. Rather than accepting an armed guard, Ezra insisted that God would be their source of protection (8:21-23). This incident provides our key for understanding the role of the empire in this work.
Because the rebuilding of the Temple was so crucial, and because Israel now had no aspirations to become a kingdom like the nations, they could accept help from the Empire for this necessary construction. But to make clear the purpose of the Temple, it still is a gift from God more so than the Empire. God alone is the one who provides the security that allows the work to continue. And it is to God’s glory alone that the community devotes its best energies.