Tuesday of Week 25 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ezra 6:7-8, 12, 14-20

In spite of the proclamation which King Cyrus had made about the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple, they met with many difficulties, especially from the Samaritans who were living there.

Today we find ourselves in chapter 6. Cyrus has been replaced by another great Persian king, Darius. He orders a search for a document deposited in the treasuries of Babylon which confirms an order that had been given by Cyrus for work to begin on the Temple.

It includes some instructions on the design of the Temple building; the cost of building is to come from the royal treasury; and the gold and silver articles which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had taken were to be returned. Then the governor of Transeuphrates (that is, the part of the Persian Empire to the west of the River Euphrates) and his assistants are told to stay away from the site and (our reading begins at this point).

King Darius ordered:

…let the work on this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site.

The Jews have full permission to rebuild the Temple on its original site. But the central government will provide help. In fact, the cost of the construction is to be paid in full from the royal revenue, from taxes collected in Transeuphrates and without interruption.

It was a consistent policy of Persian kings to help restore sanctuaries in their empire. For example, a memorandum concerning the rebuilding of the Jewish temple at Elephantine was written by the Persian governors of Judah and Samaria. Also from non-Biblical sources we learn that Cyrus repaired temples at Uruk (Erech) and Ur. Cambyses, successor to Cyrus, gave funds for the temple at Sais in Egypt. The temple of Amun in the Khargah Oasis was rebuilt by order of Darius.

Darius then pledges in the name of the God who lives in Jerusalem (not his god) that he will overthrow the king of any people who dares to defy this decree and destroy that Temple of God in Jerusalem.

The Transeuphrates governor followed the king’s instructions to the letter and:

…the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia…

In fact, work on the temple had made little progress, not only because of opposition from people like the neighbouring Samaritans, but also because of the preoccupation of the returnees with building their own homes. Because they were placing their own interests first, God sent them famine as a judgment. However, spurred on by the preaching of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, and under the leadership of Zerubbabel, governor of Jerusalem, and Joshua, the high priest, a new effort was begun.

The reference to Artaxerxes seems out of place, because he did not contribute to the rebuilding of the temple at this time. He may have been inserted here since he contributed to the work of the temple at a later date under Ezra (7:21-24).

The Temple was finally completed on the 23rd day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. By our calendar that would be April 1, 515 BC. This Temple, remodelled by Herod the Great (see John 2:20), was in use for 585 years and was destroyed by the Romans under the rule of Titus in 70 AD, never again to be rebuilt.

The New International Version Study Bible makes the following observation about the ‘new’ Temple:

“Almost 70 years after its destruction, the renewed work on the temple had begun on Sept 21, 520 (Hag 1:15), and sustained effort had continued for almost three and a half years. According to Haggai (2:3), the older members who could remember the splendour of Solomon’s temple were disappointed when they saw the smaller size of Zerubbabel’s temple (see Ezr 3:12). Yet in the long run the second temple, though not as grand as the first, enjoyed a much longer life. The general plan of the second temple was similar to that of Solomon’s, but the Most Holy Place was left empty because the Ark of the Covenant had been lost through the Babylonian conquest. According to Josephus, on the Day of Atonement the high priest placed his censer on the slab of stone that marked the former location of the ark. The Holy Place was furnished with a table for the bread of the Presence, the incense altar, and one [seven-branched] lampstand (see 1 Macc 1:21-22; 4:49-51) instead of Solomon’s ten [lampstands] (1 Kings 7:49).”

After the construction was complete:

The people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy.

The ‘rest of the returned exiles’ is the Remnant spared by God and now returned from exile. It was the leaders of those who had returned from exile that were responsible for the completion of the temple. “Dedication” translates the Aramaic word hanukkah. The Jewish holiday in December that celebrates the recapture of the temple from the Seleucid kings and its re-dedication (165 BC) is also known as ‘Hanukkah’, but is the celebration of a different dedication from Ezra’s.

The dedication of the Temple was celebrated with a spectacular sacrifice of animals:

They offered at the dedication of this house of God one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel.

The numbers seem huge yet pale in comparison with services in the reign of Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah, when the animals were numbered in thousands rather than hundreds.

The priests were then installed in their orders and the Levites in their positions for ministry in the Temple, following the instructions of Moses (e.g. Exod 9; Lev 8). The priests were divided into 24 divisions, each of which served at the Temple for a week at a time (see also in Luke 1:8, how the angel spoke to Zechariah in the Temple announcing the birth of John the Baptist, when it was the turn of his ‘order’ to function). In 1962 fragments of a synagogue inscription listing the 24 divisions were found at Caesarea.

The returned exiles also celebrated their first Passover after 70 years on the traditional date, 14th day of the first month (Nisan). It would have been about April 21, 516 BC. And, in preparation for this celebration, the Levites had all purified themselves so that they could make the Passover sacrifice for their brothers, the priests, and for themselves. This also explains why the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). They were on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem and their ritual purity took priority over their helping a brother lying injured (and bleeding) on the roadside. For Jesus the needs of the brother are the first priority. That is why the stranger and outsider, the Samaritan, is the ‘neighbour’. He is “the one who showed him mercy”.

The Levites are also represented as slaughtering the paschal victims, because for a long time this had been done by ‘laymen’ (see Deut 16:2; Exod 12:6). The urge to ‘clericalism’ is very strong!

Reading this passage we realise it is very difficult to put a permanent end to God’s work. Our churches, too, have experienced and still experience persecution, exile and the destruction of places of worship again and again, only to see them restored. The truth, wherever it is, will always prevail. It is the foundation of our faith and our hope.

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