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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Ezra

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EZRA (perhaps an abbreviation of Azariah = ‘Jahweh helps’), 1 . A Jewish exile in Babylon in the reign of Artaxerxes I. Longimanns (b.c. 464 424), who played, as is well known, a prominent part in Jerusalem during the critical period of reform associated with the governorship of Nehemiah. Our sources of information regarding him are (1) the autobiographical narratives embodied in Ezra 7:1-28 ; Ezra 8:1-36 ; Ezra 9:1-15 ; Ezra 10:1-44 , and Nehemiah 8:1-18 ; Nehemiah 9:1-38 ; Nehemiah 10:1-39 ; and (2) later tradition as embodied in the narrative of the compiler of Ezr.-Neh., and the accounts in the apocryphal books.

According to Ezra 7:1-5 , Ezra was of priestly descent, and in fact a member of the high-priestly family (a ‘Zadokite’). But the Seraiah there mentioned cannot be his father, as this Seraiah had been executed by Nebuchadnezzar in b.c. 586 (133 years before Ezra’s appearance). The genealogy may only intend to assert that Ezra belonged to the high-priestly family (cf. also 1Es 4:40 ; 1Es 4:49 ). But his priestly descent has been called in question. His work and achievements rather suggest the character of the ‘scribe’ ( sôphçr ) par excellence . * [Note: He is described as ‘Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven,’ in Ezra 7:11-21 ; as ‘Ezra the priest, the scribe,’ in Nehemiah 8:9 ; Nehemiah 12:26 ; and as ‘the priest’ alone in Ezra 10:10 ; Ezra 10:16 , Nehemiah 8:2 . In all these places ‘the priest’ may easily be due to a redactor’s hand.] In the apocalyptic work known as 2 (4) Esdras he is represented as a ‘prophet’ ( 2E Esther 1:1 ).

In order to form a just estimate of Ezra’s work and aims, we must picture him as a diligent student of the Law. He doubtless stood at the head or, at any rate, was a leading figure of a new order which had grown up in the Exile among the Jews of the ‘Golah’ or captivity in Babylonia. Among these exiles great literary activity apparently prevailed during the later years of the Exile and onwards. The so-called ‘Priestly Code’ which must be regarded as the work of a whole school of writers was formed, or at least the principal part of it, probably between the closing years of the Exile and the arrival of Ezra in Jerusalem (b.c. 536 458), and was doubtless the ‘law of God’ which Ezra brought with him to Jerusalem. The centre of Jewish culture, wealth, and leisure was at this time and for some time continued to be Babylonia, where external circumstances had become (since the Persian supremacy) comparatively favourable for the Jews. In this respect the position of the Jerusalem community, during these years, afforded a painful contrast. The tiny community in Judæa had to wage as a whole a long and sordid struggle against poverty and adverse surroundings. Its religious condition was much inferior to that of the ‘Golah.’ Moved by religious zeal, and also, it would seem, with the statesman-like view of making Jerusalem once more the real spiritual metropolis of Judaism, Ezra conceived the idea of Infusing new life and new ideals into the Judæan community, by leading a fresh hand of zealously religious exiles from Babylonia back to Judæa on a mission of reform. With the aid, possibly, of Jews at court, he enlisted the goodwill of Artaxerxes, and secured an Imperial firman investing him with all the authority necessary for his purpose. This edict has been preserved in an essentially trustworthy form in Ezra 7:12-26 . All Jews who so wished could depart from Babylon; offerings were to be carried to the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Law of God was to be enforced. In the 7th year of Artaxerxes (b.c. 458) Ezra collected a hand of 1496 men ( Ezra 8:1-14 ; in 1Es 8:28-41 the number is given as 1690), besides women and children, and started on his journey across the desert. In four months they reached their destination.

Here, after the sacred gifts had been offered in the Temple, Ezra soon learned of the lax state of affairs that prevailed in the holy city, and among the Judæan villages. The ‘holy seed’ (including even priests and Levites) had ‘mingled themselves with the peoples of the lands,’ and ‘the hand of the princes and deputies’ had ‘been first in this trespass’ (Ezra 9:2 ). Ezra’s consequent prayer and confession, in the presence of a large assemblage of the people, lead to drastic measures of reform. A general congregation of the community authorizes the establishment of a divorce court, presided over by Ezra, which finishes its labours after three months’ work:’ and they made an end with the whole business’ (10:17 [corrected text]), many innocent women and children being made to suffer in the process.

In the present form of the narrative Ezra does not emerge again till after an interval of 13 years, after Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem and re-erected and dedicated the city walls. Shortly after these events (according to the usual chronology, in b.c. 444) the Book of the Law was read by Ezra before the people in solemn assembly, who pledged themselves to obey it. Within the same month ( i.e . Tishri, the seventh month) the first of its injunctions to be carried out was the due celebration of the Feast of Booths ( Nehemiah 8:13-18 ).

The sequence of events as described above is not without difficulties. How is the long interval between Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem (b.c. 458) and the promulgation of the Law (b.c. 444) to be explained? It may be, as Stade has suggested, that the compulsory divorce proceedings alienated a considerable body of the people, and that the opportune moment for introducing the code was in consequence postponed. Or and there is some probability in this view the chronology may have become dislocated in the present composite narrative, and Ezra may really have accomplished the bulk of his work before Nehemiah’s arrival. Perhaps with even greater plausibility a case may be made out for placing Ezra’s work subsequent to Nehemiah’s governorship. Cheyne ( JRL p. 54 f.) places it between the two visits (445 and 432). See, further, Nehemiah [Book Of], § 3 . It is certainly remarkable that in their respective memoirs Ezra and Nehemiah mention each other but once.

Ezra’s is an austere and commanding figure, which has left a lasting impress upon the religions life of the Jewish people. Ezra is the true founder of Judaism. By investing the Law with a sanctity and influence that it had never before possessed, and making it the possession of the entire community, he endowed the Jewish people with a cohesive power which was proof against all attacks from without.

G. H. Box.

2 . Eponym of a family which returned with Zerub. ( Nehemiah 12:1 ; Nehemiah 12:13 ; Nehemiah 12:33 ).


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ezra'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/e/ezra.html. 1909.

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