Monday of week 25 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Ezra 1:1-6

We go back to the Old Testament today and begin the first of just three readings from the Book of Ezra.  And, indeed, for the next three weeks – up to the end of Week 27 – we will be having selected readings from eight books, some historical and some prophetical, of the period after the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon.  This followed the defeat of the Babylonians by the Persians, who had become the latest ‘super-power’ in the region.

In order to put the readings in context, we begin with an extract from an introduction given by the Jerusalem Bible:

Ezra is part of a second group of historical books which in large measure reduplicate but ultimately extend the ‘Deuteronomic’ history beginning with Joshua and ending with Kings.  These are the two Books of Chronicles, then the Book of Ezra, and the Book of Nehemiah.  Originally, the two books of Chronicles were one book and those of Ezra and Nehemiah were part of the same collection, the whole being the work of one author, known as “the Chronicler”.

The Book of Ezra is a continuation of Chronicles story.  After the 50 years of Exile, on which he is silent, the author resumes his history with the edict of the Persian King Cyrus, 538 BC, permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.  The return begins forthwith, but the work of rebuilding is halted by the hostility of the Samaritans and does not resume until the reign of King Darius I.  The Temple is finished in 515 BC.

Under King Artaxerxes, the scribe Ezra, representative for Jewish affairs at the Persian court, arrives in Jerusalem with a new contingent of returning exiles, bringing with him an official authorisation to impose the Mosaic Law, now approved by the king.  He has to take severe measures against those Jews already married to foreigners, Ezra 7-10.  The story continues with the Book of Nehemiah, which we will be reading from in the coming weeks.

These books are important for the history of the Jewish Restoration after the Exile.  The first chapters of Ezra complement the information supplied by prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (all of whom we will be looking at during these three weeks).

Taking advantage of the liberal religious policy that the Achmenids (Persian dynasty) applied in their empire, the Jews return to their Promised Land, restore the ancient worship, rebuild the Temple and the city walls, and live as a community governed by men of their own race and regulated by the Law of Moses.  All that the imperial power requires is loyalty, no great price to pay when that power shows such respect for Jewish customs.  This is an event of great importance – nothing less than the birth of Judaism, prepared by long meditation in Exile and assisted by the actions of leaders raised up by God…

The real father of Judaism is Ezra with his three dominant conceptions: the chosen race, the Temple, the Law.  If his reforming measures seem severe and his isolationism narrow, it is because his zeal was great and the need to safeguard the infant community urgent.  He is the pattern of all scribes, the great and growing hero of Judaic tradition…

In today’s reading, which comes from its opening lines, we see Cyrus, King of Persia, authorising the return of the Jews to Jerusalem.

We are told that it was in the first year of the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and in fulfilment of a prophecy of Jeremiah, that Yahweh inspired the king to issue a solemn proclamation which was displayed throughout his kingdom.

Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, reigned over the Persians from autumn of 559 until 530 BC.  He is one of the great kings of ancient times but what is most significant here is that he is depicted as being merely an instrument of God to serve his people.  Isaiah speaks of him as the Lord’s “shepherd” and his “anointed”. Compared to the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers, Cyrus was looked on very favourably by the Israelites, first, for overthrowing the Babylonian rule and, more importantly, allowing them to return to their homeland.

The “first year” here refers to Cyrus’ rule over Babylon, which began in March-April (Nisan) 538 BC, after he captured the city in October 539, 20 years after he came to the Persian throne.

Jeremiah, writing during the years of exile, had prophesied a 70-year Babylonian captivity (Jer 25:11-12; 29:10).  The first deportation to Babylon began in 605, in the third year of King Jehoiakim, and, in 538, approximately 70 years later, the people began their return.

Cyrus then makes a solemn proclamation authorising the Hebrews to return to their homeland.

In the proclamation Cyrus declares that Yahweh, “the God of heaven”, has given him all the kingdoms of the earth and appointed him to build a Temple in Jerusalem, in Judah.  This oral proclamation of Cyrus’ decree was written in Hebrew, the language of the Israelite captives.

‘God of heaven’ is a phrase which occurs 22 times in the Old Testament, 17 of which are in Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel.  Notice, too, the emphatic emphasis on Jerusalem and the Temple with nothing else mentioned about the homeland.  We find this in both Ezra and Nehemiah.  The restoration of the Temple and the Law was synonymous with national restoration.

Unlike the preceding imperial regimes, the Persian kings were on the whole extremely sympathetic towards the religions of their subjected peoples; they reinstated and actively supported them while keeping a measure of control.  Their attitude towards the Jewish religion was no exception.  It is possible that Judaism further benefited because of the Persians’ special devotion to ‘the gods of heaven’. Yahweh, who in the official documents is always referred to as ‘the God of heaven’ may have been thought of as the supreme god acknowledged by the Persian kings.  (Not unlike Jews, Christians and Muslims acknowledging the one and the same God.)

He then addresses each Israelite: “Whoever among you belongs to the full tally of his people, may his God be with him!”  He should go up to Jerusalem and build the “Temple of Yahweh, God of Israel, who is the God in Jerusalem”.

‘May his God be with him’ – Cyrus instituted the policy of placating the gods of his subject peoples instead of carrying off their cult images as the Assyrians and the Babylonians had done earlier.  We should note too that his generosity to the Jews was paralleled by his benevolence to the conquered Babylonians.

The ‘full tally of his people’ seems to exclude exiles from the Northern Kingdom; those going back to Jerusalem all belong to the Southern Kingdom (Judah)

Furthermore, each Hebrew survivor, wherever he may live, is to be helped by the local people with silver, gold, equipment, riding beasts and valuable gifts and, in addition, with voluntary offerings for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.  These voluntary offerings would be vital in the restoration of the ruined Temple and its services.  (And they included, by order of the king, the restoration of Temple treasures looted by Nebuchadnezzar.)

This edict appears in the form of a proclamation, in Hebrew, by public heralds to the exiled Jews and was no doubt drawn up by Jews employed in the Persian chancellery.

Then the heads of all the families from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with the priests and Levites – and all those “whose spirit had been roused by God” – made preparations to go and rebuild the Temple.  ‘Families’ here means extended families, more like the whole clan whose authority figure was the patriarch, as ‘family head’.  The tribes of Judah and Benjamin were the main tribes from the Kingdom of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, in which Jerusalem was situated.

And finally, in conformity with the king’s decree, all the Israelites’ neighbours rallied round with all kinds of material help and gifts, as well as with voluntary donations.

Cyrus and his successors represent a period of enlightened tolerance when people like the Jews and other religions were able to maintain or restore their religious practices and traditions.

While, on the one hand, we should not see God as a kind of puppet master who manipulates people at will, we also need to realise that all of us are called to carry out God’s plan for the world and that there is no way we can frustrate that plan.

We will pray today for a clear picture of God’s will in our lives and the strength to accept it and carry it out.  Our own greatest benefit is in making God’s will ours.

We might also remember today all peoples who are prevented from the practice of their religion in peace with their neighbours and, even more, people who have had to flee their homeland because of religious persecution.

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