Skip to main content

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete ruins the book of Ezra by examining the themes, characters, issues, and connections found within the text; diving into the Moses-like leadership of Ezra, the historical context of the Persian empire, and Ezra’s seemingly strange opinions on intermarriage. Join him as he explores the following questions:

  • Who wrote the book of Ezra?
  • Where do we find Ezra located within the Jewish canon?
  • Who is Ezra? What do we know about him?
  • What is the big picture of Ezra?
  • What kind of historical context do we have for the time in which the book of Ezra takes place?
  • How do scholars see different aspects of the authorship of Ezra?
  • How is Ezra connected to other books of the Bible?
  • When was Ezra written?
  • How does Ezra relate to the period of time after the exile, and why is that time so important?
  • What are some of the main themes and issues found in the text?
  • Which characters do we meet in the book of Ezra?
  • What’s the deal with the Aramaic in Ezra?
  • What’s the deal with Ezra’s ranting about intermarriage?


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • In the Jewish canon, Ezra is grouped in a third category of Jewish tradition called the Writings. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • The book’s action takes us from the return of the exiles from Babylon in 539 BCE and ends with the return of Ezra about 80 years later in 458. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • There is strong historical footing for this book. Even though the story told here is not an objective account of things, it still reads more like history. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • All tellings of history have a slant, which happens anytime anyone—ancient or modern—recounts the past. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • The idea to separate Ezra and Nehemiah is a Christian move, and that move was not adopted in Hebrew Bibles until the 15th century. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • One thing we can say for certain is [Ezra] was written after 458, since this is when the action of the book stops. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • The story of Israel did not come to a grinding halt with the exile. It continued, and ancient Jewish writers kept telling the story well into the Second Temple period after 515 when the Second Temple was built and then into the centuries that followed. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • There was no Bible until well after the exile ended. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • For this writer, this is all one big story. This is all God’s faithfulness to the returnees, and this is a story that has been going on now for decades…He’s just lumping it all together. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • The diversity within Scripture models for us the wisdom of our own re-engagement of Scripture, in fact, the need to do so as our human circumstances change. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP
  • The multivocality of scripture—the fact that it speaks with different and even conflicting voices on the same topic, like, say, intermarriage—that’s part of the genius of the Bible. — @PeteEnns @theB4NP

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas. 

[Intro music plays]

Pete: Hey folks, welcome to this next installment in the Pete Ruins series, and I’m happy to keep ruining things any way that I can. So, with that, we’re moving on in the order of the Old Testament books according to the English Bible.

Ezra comes after Chronicles, so here we are. 

[Music plays over clip of Pete speaking] “The so-called intertestamental period is not a theological dark age where Jews were sitting around waiting for Jesus to show up. It was rather a vibrant time of literary output and theological reflection on what it meant for Jews at the time to be connected to this story of old. It’s during this period, the period after the exile, that the Bible as we know it came into shape.”

[Ad break]

Pete: Now in the Jewish canon, Ezra is grouped in that third category of Jewish tradition called The Writings. The first two being Torah, aka Pentateuch or Law of Moses, and then the prophets. Now, the prophets in the Jewish Bible include the former and latter prophets, as they’re called. In Christian Bibles, the former prophets are the so-called historical books of Joshua through 2 Kings, and the latter prophets are the Christian prophetic books, Isaiah and the rest. 

You’ve probably heard this before in other episodes, but one more wrinkle, the Jewish canon places Lamentations and Daniel—both are prophetic books in the Christian canon, well, it places them among the Writings as well. But our focus today, folks, is on the book of Ezra, named after its main character.

Now Ezra, according to chapter 7 verse 3, where we first meet him, is a scribe “skilled in the law of Moses.” Chapter 7 goes on to describe him as someone who had “set his heart to study the law of Moses and to do it,” very important, “and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel,” all of which we’re going to see in this book.

And he’s presented to us very much as a Moses like figure who presented Israel with the law in Mount Sinai. Right? Remember that? So Ezra is a leader of not freed slaves like Moses was, but of the other release from captivity story, the return from Babylonian exile. And so he’s something of a Moses figure.

Now, let’s get into this. Let’s begin with the big picture of the book. The book’s action takes us from the return of the exiles from Babylon in 539 BCE and ends with the return of Ezra about 80 years later in 458. And by the way, I’m not going to keep saying BCE because all these dates are going to be BCE.

So the return from Babylon was made possible, you may remember, by the Persian conquest of the Babylonian Empire. You may remember that the Assyrians and the Babylonians deported their captives to other parts of their empire. The Persians, however, had a different political philosophy. They let the exiles return home and rebuild their lives just as long as they remember who is really in charge.

And speaking of Persians while we’re on the topic, we will meet here in the Book of Ezra some of the Persian kings. The first is Cyrus, who reigned from 539 to 530, and he’s also mentioned in that portion of Isaiah that deals with the end of the Babylonian exile, namely 2nd Isaiah, and you can listen to that episode—178 if you’d like.

The next king in line after Cyrus is a guy called Cambyses, but he’s not mentioned in the Book of Ezra. And he reigned from 530 to 522. Not sure why he wasn’t mentioned, but he’s just not. The next king is Darius, who figures prominently in Ezra, and he reigned from 522 to 486, so we’re getting into the 5th century here.

And then two more kings are mentioned in Ezra. In order, Xerxes, who reigned from 486 to 465 and then Artaxerxes, who reigned from 465 to 424. And Artaxerxes, he’s the last monarch relevant to Ezra since the book ends seven years into Artaxerxes’s reign, which is 458, which is when Ezra arrived in Jerusalem.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that the book of Ezra overlaps a lot with historical data we have from our knowledge of the Persian period, which extended from 539 all the way down to 332 when the Greeks took over the world. Which means that there is strong historical footing for this book. It reads more like history, even though the story told here is not an objective account of things. It still reads more like history. 

And all tellings of history have a slant though, which happens anytime anyone, ancient or modern, recounts the past. But still, in my opinion, there is no reason to doubt the basic historical outline and credibility of the Book of Ezra. 

So, let’s talk next a bit about the authorship of the book. First of all, this is not an easy question to answer. It’s hard to talk about the authorship of Ezra, for example, without bringing up a very complicating factor—Chronicles and Nehemiah. These are the books that come before and after Ezra in the Christian canon. Now, a common view of past scholarship was to see these three books: Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah; as one big work, collectively referred to as “the Chronicler’s history.”

It’s sort of like, and we’ve seen this in recent episodes, Joshua through 2nd Kings are seen as sort of a box set and called the Deuteronomistic history. So, the theory of a Chronicler’s history was introduced in the early 19th century by a German scholar, Leopold Zunz, and that theory makes some sense, especially given the fact that the opening verses of Ezra overlap with the closing verses of 2 Chronicles.

And that is the announcement of King Cyrus’s decree to let the Judahites return, and to see that as a fulfillment of the words of Jeremiah 25, which refers to a 70 year Babylonian captivity. In other words, this is an exile, but it has an end date, and it’s coming. So 2 Chronicles ends, and Ezra begins with this proclamation, which could suggest that they were written as sort of a part one and part two. That makes some sense because we see something like this even in the Christian Bible in the New Testament at the end of Luke, and then at the beginning of Acts, which the same author is responsible for both. And both have an account of Jesus’s ascension. In Luke, it’s at the end, and at the book of Acts, it’s at the beginning. So, there’s precedent for this sort of thing, suggesting that there is one author. 

Anyway, folks, before we continue, if I may, here is a slight side issue to consider. The exile, the Babylonian exile lasted more like 47 years and not 70 years as Jeremiah has it, right? So 47 years from 586 to 539. But there’s no reason to take Jeremiah’s 70 years literally. The use of round numbers such as 70 or 40 were likely meant to convey a divinely appointed, proper, and complete span of time. Things are going according to God’s design. But having said that, on the other hand, the period of time from the exile, 586, to the rebuilding of the temple, 515, is almost spot on 70 years.

So it’s tempting to think that the Babylonian captivity is not fully over simply by returning to the land in 539. It’s not over until the temple is up and running again in 515. You’re not back in the land, really, until God is back in the temple. Now, I wouldn’t push that thought too much, and this little factoid is really beside the point anyway. I’m just pointing out the math problem that a 70 year captivity lasted 47 years in case you’re doing the math and you’re concerned about that. 

Anyway, back to authorship. I admit it would be nice if there was such a thing as the Chronicler’s history to parallel the Deuteronomistic history. But more current scholarship has gone in a different direction. That is, separating the authorship of Chronicles from Ezra and Nehemiah. Why? Well, in large part, because Chronicles has a markedly different theological perspective than Ezra and Nehemiah, and also uses different vocabulary. Now, an editor may have forged a connection, forged not in the sense of forgery, but forged more in the sense of metal, right?

So, an editor may have forged a connection between Ezra and Chronicles, by repeating Cyrus’s decree, the way I mentioned before. But they’re likely not produced by the same author. It’s an editorial connection, not an authorial connection. Now, Ezra’s relationship to the book of Nehemiah, however, that’s another matter.

These books were considered one unified work simply called Ezra, from as early as we can tell. Early Hebrew manuscripts treat them as one, as does the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which is also called the Septuagint, and this is a pre-Christian Jewish translation. So it looks like, way back, these two books started out as one book. The earliest evidence we have of separating them is from the time of the early Christian theologians Origen, early 3rd century of the Common Era, and a bit later, Jerome, the late 4th and early 5th centuries. So the idea to separate the two, Ezra and Nehemiah, is a Christian move, and that move was not adopted in Hebrew Bibles until the 15th century.

So because of this historical connection between the two books, it might have been reasonable to have a podcast episode on Ezra-Nehemiah, just make one big podcast out of it. But I’m not going to do that, because despite the antiquity of their unity, more recent scholarship is calling that into question. There are enough linguistic differences between these books to suggest they are separate books. Also, and here’s an interesting point, just ponder it for a second, think about the implications here. Both of these books include genealogies that overlap. They cover the same territory, but they are inconsistent with each other, right?

If one person wrote both, why would he have a genealogy repeated in both, but with differences? See, that fact and the linguistic differences I mentioned before, they suggest, I think, reasonably, that more than one author is involved. But I have to be honest, I do not lose any sleep over this. You know, we are treating these books as separate books in part due to the state of current scholarship, but also because that’s how they appear in our Bibles. Plus it keeps this episode from being far, far too long. 

So let’s get into when Ezra was written. A good question. One thing we can say for certain is it was written after 458, since this is when the action of the book stops. For various reasons, most scholars today date both Ezra and Nehemiah, at least the versions of these books that we have in the Bible today, but these are dated to the 4th century, maybe the early 4th century.

Why would scholars say that? Well, because despite the idea that Ezra and Nehemiah were not written as one book, they have still been edited in such a way that suggests they play off of each other. I just want to give one quick example here. Ezra 7-10, and we’ll get to that in a second, this section seems to have been repurposed in Nehemiah chapters 8-10.

And since, hang with me folks, and since Nehemiah mentions the Persian king Darius II, who died in 405, a date creeping into the 4th century seems reasonable for when this whole editing process took place that involved both Ezra and Nehemiah. So in other words, Ezra as we know it today is likely a fourth century product.

And you know, if anything, folks, just another aside, this is like a personal soapbox and I feel very strongly about this, but this is a reminder to us that some of the books of the Hebrew Bible were being written long after the end of the exile itself. And these include, along with Ezra and Nehemiah, Chronicles, Esther, Daniel, not to mention the clear evidence we have from the Bible itself that older books were edited and/or added to during and long after the exile. A good example of that, again, is the book of Isaiah. 

Now I know some might balk at this idea, but I see it very differently. The story of Israel did not come to a grinding halt with the exile. It continued, and ancient Jewish writers kept telling the story, which was seen as a story that continued after the exile, well into the Second Temple period, after 515 when the Second Temple was built and then into the centuries that followed.

In other words, the so-called intertestamental period, as Christians have tended to call it, It’s not a theological dark age where Jews were sitting around waiting for Jesus to show up. It was rather a vibrant, sometimes sad, but also a vibrant time of literary output and theological reflection on what it meant for Jews at the time to be connected to this story of old.

In fact, it’s during this period, the period after the exile, that the Bible as we know it came into shape. There was no Bible until well after the exile ended. See, in a sense for Jews and Christians, the centuries after the exile are the most important period. They gave us the Bible. And that’s why I never use the term intertestamental period anymore. It just doesn’t do justice to these formative centuries.

[Ad break]

Here is an outline of the book before we get into some of the specifics. All this is sort of a backdrop up to this point. It’s a two part outline, very simple. Chapters one through six deal with the return from Babylon and the efforts to rebuild the temple. And these chapters cover the years 539 to 515.

Again, notice how we can give dates to this stuff. This is why it has more of a historical feel. It’s very hard to date things in, say, the reign of David or Solomon or even some of the early kings of the divided monarchy. But here, in this period, in the 6th century, we can just speak with more confidence about these dates that I’m just throwing around here. So, dates may, it may be too much math for some of you, and I get that, but these dates are hard won. And it’s nice to have them, and it’s nice to have some sort of historical anchor for this story. 

So anyway, these chapters, chapters 1 through 6, cover the years 539 to 515, when the temple was completed and dedicated.

The second part, chapters 7 through 10, leaps forward 58 years to when Ezra returned in 458, which is the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. These chapters recount the circumstances of Ezra’s return and the steps he takes to address the faithlessness of the people. Why? Because they intermarried with, quote, the people of the land, Gentiles. And this is a big and somewhat disturbing issue, which we’ll look at in a bit. 

Okay, let’s focus first on part one, which is chapters one to six. This begins in chapter one with Cyrus’s decree, which I mentioned earlier. And verse five mentions that only those, quote, whose spirit God had stirred made the trip. That means, of course, that not all decided to return. Only those whose spirit God had stirred made the return trip. Many others stayed and continued the tradition of Judaism on foreign soil, which is, I mean, if you look at the big picture of the Hebrew Bible, that is sort of an unexpected move in a sense, given how Israel’s identity has so closely been defined by the land.

But after two generations of captivity, apparently some of the exiles decided to stay and continue their new life. But without rejecting their tradition. In fact, Babylon would become a thriving spiritual and intellectual center of Judaism for the next millennium. And if you’re familiar with the Talmud, which is so central to Judaism, you should know that the Talmud of Judaism is a product of Babylonia.

At any rate, Cyrus made sure that those who did return did not return empty handed but with, among other things, those vessels and such that Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had taken back in 586 when he sacked the temple. And we meet here in chapter 1 also Shesh bazar, the prince of Judah. And Shesh bazar, by the way, is, he’s Jewish, but his name is Babylonian. And either that name was given to him by his captors, we’ve seen that before in previous episodes, or it’s an example of the exiles assimilating with the local culture. And he’s called governor in chapter five and is otherwise unknown and we never hear of him again. 

All right, one more thought about chapter one, that the exiles left Babylon with a lot of stuff and under the direction of the king reminds me of how the Israelites left Egypt under Moses. Exodus calls it plundering the Egyptians. And I mentioned earlier that Ezra is something of a Moses figure, and this episode is one hint that supports the notion that the return from Babylonian captivity was seen as something of an exodus revisited. Now, chapter two, not the most scintillating reading for the most part, but this is a list of the returned exiles, and this list includes lay people, priests and Levites, and temple servants.

Most of these could establish their genealogy, though others who returned could not. The total number of returnees is listed as 42,360. You can see that in verse 64. The problem, though, is that when you add up the individual numbers in the list, it only comes to 29,818. You know, roughly, what, 13,000 difference.

Well, the large number probably includes families of the individuals mentioned. I don’t think it’s a mistake. It’s just one accounts for all the families, the other just accounts for the males. I’m not sure about that, but that’s how I sort of see these numbers. And you know, they appear so close to each other in the story, I don’t think it’s just an oversight or error on the part of the writer. I think they’re significant, we’re just not being told exactly what the difference entails. 

So, the point is that things are moving along swimmingly here. The Judahites have returned and are ready to bring back the good old days, at least that part that involves temple worship. But when we get to chapter three, we begin to see that a storm is brewing.

A certain priest, a high priest named Yeshua, yes, that’s sort of connected to Jesus, but this isn’t Jesus, it’s a high priest. This Yeshua, along with other priests and the governor now, Zerubbabel, they set up an altar where the temple will later be rebuilt. And they intend to offer sacrifices there. Burnt offerings, which are free will offerings. They’re not mandatory. It’s not like somebody sinned and you have to make a sacrifice. It’s just for praise or for thanksgiving or things like that. 

They also here celebrate the festival of booths, Sukkot in Hebrew, which commemorates the Exodus. See, another Exodus connection here in this story. And they celebrated this festival because it was the seventh month, the month of Tishri, and the law of Moses prescribes this practice.

So, you see, everything happening here is in accordance with the law. The point being, this new temple is seen as a faithful continuation of the old days, as the Judahites are just reestablishing their connection with the pre-exilic past. But here’s the thing, these people who are, you know, building the altar and offering sacrifices and want to get things going with the temple, they are very worried about what the neighbors will think and do. We don’t yet know why exactly, but this alerts us to what is to come in the book of Ezra. 

Anyway, moving ahead a few months, what we find is the foundation of the temple is laid, and Levite men 20 years or older are appointed to have oversight. Now, a little bit of a difference here, because in the book of Numbers, the age for Levites is 30 and up, but likely the issue here is that there aren’t enough Levites. We’re actually going to read that later on in the book. But there aren’t enough Levites 30 and over, so you have to bend the rules a little bit to get enough Levites there to actually do the temple work. Actually, as uninteresting and minor a point that might appear to be, it does illustrate something I think powerful and that we see, I think, throughout the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible as a whole. It illustrates the need sometimes to massage Torah, to massage the law when circumstances call for it. We know the law says 30 and up, but we’re going to do 20 and up because we have to. 

At any rate, this is a good day. All things being equal, but it’s also, for some, a sad day. Though many shouted for joy at this celebration, others, who had seen the former temple, wept at the foundations of the new one. See, the grandeur of the first temple was but a memory, and the second temple is nothing like the first. But at least we’re moving in the right direction. That is, until there was a forced work stoppage. And we’re probably now in the year like 537. 

Work stopped because powerful people did not want to see the temple rebuilt. They offered to lend a hand, but Zerubbabel and others saw right through that ruse. Now, the neighbors are called people of the land, and they pushed back. And let me pause for a second here just to say a few words about these people of the land. The term refers to the population of the area, which consisted of, well, among others, those Gentiles who had been resettled there by the Assyrians in the late 8th century.

Why? Well, This is just what the Assyrians did. They did it to dilute the population, and thus discourage people teaming up and trying to rebel. They saw, these people, these people of the land, they saw the possible resurgence of the Judeans as a threat to themselves, probably to their own existence, and so they made life miserable for the returnees.

Throughout the rest of the reign of Cyrus, remember, he’s the one who gave the decree to go back and rebuild the temple. During the rest of his reign, little progress was made on the temple. And it didn’t pick up again until 520, which is two years after Darius became king. 

Now, as we proceed here, let’s just get reoriented a little bit. There’s a lot going on here, a lot of math. At this point in the action, we are now in the year 520. The exiles have been back for 19 years, at least some of them were, and we’re at chapter 4 verse 5. So far things have been pretty clear, even if there’s a lot of math. But beginning in verse 6, things get a little bit more complicated.

See, out of nowhere, all of a sudden, we are reading about things that happened in the future during the reigns of Xerxes, who here is called Ahasuerus, and his successor, Artaxerxes. Now, these two kings, again, reigned back to back from 486 to 424. So, at chapter four verse six, we’re just skipping over 520 to 486.

What the heck? Well, the writer of Ezra is indeed skipping over the reign of Darius, but we’ll return to him soon enough. He’s just taking a break to describe later opposition to what? And I’m quoting here chapter 4 verse 12, later opposition “to the finishing of the walls and repairing the foundations.”

Xerxes and Artaxerxes did not resist the building of the temple. The temple will be completed, actually, 30 years before Artaxerxes’s reign. This is, you know, back in 512. The opposition we’re reading about now concerns the walls of Jerusalem, not the temple. So yeah, this section is absolutely and definitely a leap forward in time, sort of like a parenthetical comment.

Ezra is going to resume the present day action around 520 when he gets to verse 24 of chapter 4, but he’s got about, you know, 15, 16, 17 verses there. He wants to describe the future, and it seems that the writer is jumping ahead to give a fuller picture of the tenacity of the opposition that the Judeans faced for decades. Remember, he’s writing long after this time. For him, he’s looking backwards in time, right? And he’s just including all the opposition just in one succinct section of chapter 4. 

Now, one other point to make here is that in chapter 4, the book of Ezra reproduces the letter sent to Artaxerxes by the opponents to complain about the Judahites. This letter claims that the Israelites have a long track record of being a rebellious people. and thus urging Artaxerxes to make the building of the walls stop. And the letter did the trick. All building ceased. It’s also worth noting concerning this letter that it’s written not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic.

Now, Aramaic is a close language to Hebrew. They’re very similar. A modern analogy might be something like German or Dutch. You know one, you can figure out the other or Portuguese and Spanish. But why Aramaic? Why do we have a portion of this book in the Hebrew Bible written in Aramaic? Well, because Aramaic was the international language of discourse at the time.

And in fact, it had been since the resurgence of the Assyrians around the very, very late ninth century, beginning of the eighth century. And it’s a language the Judahites encountered during the exile as well. So they were very familiar with this language. Aramaic, in fact, began to be baked into Judaism, and it would come to have a tremendous influence on Judaism.

Eventually, their own sacred scripture would need to be translated into Aramaic. Those translations are called Targums. And Aramaic was also the dominant language of Judaism during the time of Jesus. Jesus himself spoke Aramaic. So, the presence of an Aramaic section in Ezra, it makes sense. 

Moving to Chapter 5, now we return to the present action. Now we’re back now to the Temple Project, all that later stuff with the walls and Artaxerxes, that’s no longer in the picture here. We’re back to the Temple Project and the beginning of Darius’s reign. Here we meet, briefly, Haggai and Zechariah, two of the Minor Prophets who motivated the people to begin rebuilding because Cyrus said so back in 539. So let’s get our acts together and go ahead with it. But of course, this was met with further opposition. Now, there is a certain guy named Tatanai, a Persian governor, a satrap as they’re called. He was in charge of that part of the Persian empire. And he complained to Darius in the form of a not complimentary letter to Darius, urging him to search their archives to see whether Cyrus had indeed given the order to let the Judahites rebuild the temple.

Which Darius did. And this brings us to Chapter 6 and Darius’s response to the letter, which is more or less the following: Hey man, they’re good to go, let the building commence, and on top of that, give them everything they need. And thus, in 515, it might have been March or April, or seven years into Darius’s reign, the temple was completed and dedicated with much celebration.

And then, with great fanfare, the Passover was celebrated, and you can see this in chapter 6 verse 19. And it was celebrated on the 14th day of the first month to commemorate the return from exile, clearly meant to evoke images of the first Passover, which celebrated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. Now, if I may, two quick historical side notes.

We’re in chapter 6 now, and verse 14 says that the temple was completed by the decree of Cyrus, okay, Darius, okay, and Artaxerxes. But if you’ve managed to keep these dates in your head, Artaxerxes doesn’t begin his reign until 50 years after the completion of the Temple. So why insert his name? Well, because as we’ll see, Artaxerxes will later, during the time of Ezra, also provide financial support for the temple upon Ezra’s return.

So, it’s a nice way of acknowledging what Artaxerxes will do in a different era at a different time. Okay? So, it’s playing with the history. It’s not a historical mistake. He’s just lumping it all together because for this writer, this is all one big story. This is all God’s faithfulness to the returnees, and this is a story that has been going on now for decades from the point of view of the writer. He’s just lumping it all together. 

The second historical point refers to verse 22. Similar to what I just made, but the wording’s a little bit different, and I think it’s really worth pointing out. Verse 22 says, with joy they celebrated the festival of unleavened bread seven days, for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.

So you caught that, I hope. I slowed down. Why are we talking about Assyria again? These kings are Persian. But again, I don’t think this is a mistake. I think it is more of a poetic way of saying that all of Israel’s hardships, which began in earnest with the Assyrian invasions of the late 8th century, and that continued throughout the Babylonian Empire, are now finally being set right. This is a big moment, folks. Israel is being restored after roughly 220 years of trouble on the international scene. This is the day of triumph. And by referring to the kings of Assyria, this moment now in their time is being connected to their deep and troubled past. All right, thus ends part one.

And so now we move on to part two, which again, jumps ahead 58 years to the arrival of Ezra, who will be the dominant character for the rest of the book.

[Ad break]

Okay. So Ezra the scribe returns to Jerusalem during the seventh year of Artaxerxes’s reign. And accompanying him are “some of the lay people,” some of the priests and Levites, some of the singers and gatekeepers, some of the temple servants, again, emphasizing some, not all were itching to come back.

They arrive after a four month journey, which is a pace of like 10 miles a day, apparently. And they were armed with a letter of support from none other than King Artaxerxes. And the letter, and you can see this for yourself in chapter 7 verses 12 to 26, is also written in Aramaic, and its focus is on Ezra’s role in promulgating and supporting and defending the law of Moses in Jerusalem.

And this is how the letter ends. Again, this is Artaxerxes talking here. “And you, Ezra, according to the God given wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province beyond the river who know the laws of your God, and you shall teach those who do not know them, all who will not obey the law of your God…” This is important, folks. “All who will not obey the law of your God, and the law of the king,” that’s Artaxerxes, “let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death, or for banishment, or for confiscation of their goods, or for imprisonment.” 

I’d say Ezra was given a lot of authority, almost equal to that of the king. He was given authority to make sure the Judahites obeyed the law of Moses. And things are looking up again, folks. But we will see shortly a consequence of this virtually rubber stamping of Ezra’s authority. 

Okay, next in chapter 8 is a list of those who returned with Ezra, which comes to 1513 men. Now these men and their families, Ezra gathered together by a river that runs to a place called Ahava, location unknown. And he saw that, you know, there are no Levites among them, which is a problem. Once again, we have a problem with the Levites, right? Not enough of them. And, you know, you need Levites to work the temple. So what to do? Well, thankfully, the town of Kasophia sent 38 Levites and 220 temple servants to join the group. 

And next they had a time of fasting and prayer for protection. You know, after all, think about it, they were traveling with a lot of gold and other precious items for the temple, and they were rightly concerned they might get attacked along the way. So they prayed and fasted for protection rather than asking the king, because Ezra had been going on and on about how the people were under God’s care.

But it all worked out. After they arrived, they rested for three days, and on the fourth day, they got all the silver golden vessels weighed and counted, along with herding together all the sacrificial animals, the bulls, the rams, the lambs. And this was an encouraging time. See, it’s like it’s all coming together. Opposition had ceased. The temple is rebuilt and it’s looking like everything is happening as it should and a good time was had by all, except those in mixed marriages and that will occupy the rest of the book. 

All right, before we get to the intermarrying with non Israelites business, let’s just take a quick break and back up to chapter 7. This is where Ezra comes on the scene. Chapters 7 through 10 are presented as Ezra speaking. Everything is in the first person. And this is referred to in biblical scholarship, the section is referred to as the Ezra memoir. And Nehemiah, in his book, will have his own memoir. And it makes sense to me to see Ezra actually writing his own account of his return in the first person. Which, you know, we may have here in the book of Ezra in whole, or at least in part. So Ezra wrote this in the first person, why not, right? And then the first part, chapters one through six, see, if you put all this together, you can look at those six chapters as a historical prelude setting up the Ezra story, setting up the Ezra memoir written by someone else.

Okay. Now, I don’t know that, so take it with a grain of salt, but I’m just trying to, you know, logically, reasonably understand why we move from third person to first person. It’s like two separate works of being stitched together, and maybe that’s what’s happening. And also remember, we covered this before, in part one, we have that momentary leap forward in chapter 4 to talking about Persian kings of the 5th century, Xerxes and Artaxerxes, right?

That suggests to me that the author of chapters 1 through 6, is writing from a post Ezra perspective. I see him coming on the scene, this writer after Ezra, and composing his book as a whole, combining words of Ezra with his own historical preamble. Like I said, that’s just my opinion and all this can be debated, but it makes sense to me. And that’s, that’s how I sort of look at this book on a grand scale from an authorial point of view. 

All right, folks, moving on now to the end of the book and the end of the podcast are chapters 9 and 10, which are all about the problem of intermarriage: Israelite men marrying Gentile women. This is a huge no-no for Ezra, and he will spearhead a drastic measure to eradicate the problem by decreeing that the men separate themselves from their wives and children. And I mentioned before, one can only imagine the economic hardship this would have caused to mother and child, but this is the solution decided upon. 

See, the thing is, what complicates this whole discussion, there’s several things, but one of them is that we see in the Hebrew Bible a number of examples where marrying outside of Israel is just fine. Moses’s wife was Zipporah, a Midianite. Moses’s wife. The Law of Moses, that Moses, his wife was a Midianite. Joseph, before him, had an Egyptian wife. Ruth, made famous from the book named after her, was a Moabite, yet married the Israelite Boaz, which becomes the honored line of King David, no less. 

On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible is a mixed bag when it comes to foreign wives. Isaac, for example, charges Jacob to marry only within his clan. And when an Israelite man brought home a Midianite wife, Numbers 25, the priest Phineas, well, he runs his spear through the both of them. In Deuteronomy chapter 17, an explicit command is given not to enter into marriage with foreign wives lest they influence you to follow other gods.

So it’s a little bit back and forth here in the Hebrew Bible in terms of foreign wives. And, you know, in isolation. It’s hard to maybe see the sense of Ezra’s uncompromising position, given that, you know, biblically speaking, he didn’t seem to absolutely need to go there. But I do think that this move makes sense in the logic of the story, and I want to suggest that Ezra here is in a Solomon like moment.

Let me explain that. In 1 Kings chapter 6, Solomon was in charge of building the temple, but by chapter 11, we read that he “loved many women from the surrounding nations.” In direct violation to Deuteronomy chapter 17. And this act of Solomon’s is said to be the cause for the division and eventual downfall of the monarchy.

So now we have Ezra coming back to a rebuilt temple, and the last thing he wants to see is a redo of Solomon’s sin that led to calamity. That may be why the matter of intermarriage was addressed with such urgency and without compromise. Now of course, Ezra comes to his position with much prayer and hand wringing, having been terribly upset at what he sees.

And after he finds out that there’s been intermarrying going on—remember, he just got back—after he finds out, this is what he says, “When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle and pulled my hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me, and I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.”

It’s chapter 9, verses 3 and 4. After offering the evening sacrifices and fasting, well then, Ezra prays a prayer of confession to God. And then, afterwards, here’s what happened. A certain layperson named Shekiniah, son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, offered the following solution to the problem, “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land. But even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my Lord,” that’s Lord here means Ezra, not God, “according to the counsel of my Lord, and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the law.”

Take action. He’s saying this to Ezra, remember. “Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you. Be strong and do it. Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore. So word now was sent out that all should assemble in Jerusalem in three days time, which they did. And amid a heavy rain, the proclamation was read.” And this is dated to March 457. Ezra issued the decree and the people answered in a loud affirmative. Next were selected men to sort of dot the i’s and cross the t’s to make sure all such illegal unions were accounted for and terminated. And the book ends with the list of those who sent their wives and children away.

Now, it doesn’t seem to have been a complete cleansing of all foreign wives. Only 110 men obeyed the decree. And based on the numbers we have from Chapter 2, this is probably just only a part, a fraction of the population, and some have estimated, like, maybe about half. But I suppose, you know, half’s better than nothing, but nothing is said about these relatively low numbers and why they’re like that. It just seems to be, okay, that’s enough, let’s move ahead with the story. 

So, let me end this episode by saying a few words on all this business with intermarrying and Ezra’s behavior, and this can’t help but come up, folks. This is, this is a very difficult story to read for many people, including for myself.

What’s the deal with Ezra? See, on the one hand, Ezra did not go looking for a cause to champion. Rather, he was zealous to keep the law, which is, you know, that’s great, actually. And he was informed of the problem of intermarriage by the Judahite officials. That happens at the beginning of chapter 9. When Ezra heard this, you know, having been a new arrival to Jerusalem, he was grieved and immediately showed official, like, standard cultural signs of mourning, like tearing his robe, pulling his hair out, fasting, and then praying.

And his prayer, if you read that in chapter nine, it starts in verse five—was not a prayer of vengeance against the sinners, but one of mourning and shame and contrition. His prayer seems to be more about his surprise that the people had not yet been punished as they deserve. And his prayer ends not with a call for God to, you know, Hulk smash these people and punish them, but it ends by a confession of sin.

In other words, it would be a caricature to see Ezra as a rabid religious zealot looking to exact punitive measures. He’s doing what he thought was right. And as I mentioned, the whole idea of separating the men from their foreign wives and children wasn’t instigated by Ezra, but by the layperson Shekeniah.

On the other hand, can we really let Ezra completely off the hook? I mean, Ezra’s actions were not altogether innocent, and I realize even just asking the question that way exposes my bias. I just don’t think maintaining religious purity at the expense of real lives is right, ever. That’s my opinion. 

But, anyway, what did Ezra do? How did he contribute to the situation? What makes him less than an innocent party? Well, for one thing, he quickly agreed to Shekinah’s counsel. When I read chapter 9, this is just my feeling, but it almost feels as if Ezra is just waiting for someone to say the silent part out loud. And I’d like to know, why wasn’t it worth exploring perhaps another solution? One where the wives and children would at least be cared for economically. You know, sort of like the common biblical command in Torah to care for the widows and orphans. Maybe that was the case, but the book doesn’t say what happened to them or that they were cared for or anything like that. Moreover, Ezra was involved to some extent by actually selecting the men who would oversee the divorces.

So, he’s just, he’s not an innocent bystander. Now, I’m mentioning all this here at the end of the podcast because of the key role that Ezra has played in the emergence of later Judaism, namely Rabbinic Judaism. 

And I want to say, folks, from the bottom of my heart, I respect the role that Ezra came to play in that tradition. And, you know, for example, according to—this is a book from the Apocrypha called 2 Esdras in chapter 8—Ezra is portrayed as a champion of God’s mercy, which is a little more than what the book of Ezra itself says. Esdras is a second, Ezra is just like, like a commentary and expansion on, on Ezra. But Ezra becomes a champion of God’s mercy.

And, you know, after I think about it, Ezra did have a limited role in his decision, not to mention he had this posture of grief and mourning for the sins of the people. And it might be that in Jewish tradition, moments like this in the story of Ezra might have been exploited and teased out of the book of Ezra to make Ezra less ambiguous a figure morally and more upstanding.

And I say that knowing that this is not the only time this sort of thing happened in Second Temple Judaism, to assign sort of black and white characteristics to characters who are more ambiguous in the Bible itself. So, this is part of the Jewish midrashic creative interpretive tradition, which I never grow tired of saying—the New Testament takes part in as well.

But again, that’s another episode, another podcast. Personally, I can continue to respect the Ezra tradition in Judaism and its way of adapting the Ezra story, while at the same time, personally also taking issue with how Ezra interprets the law of Moses in his own time and place. 

As I never grow tired of saying, the multivocality of scripture, right? The fact that it speaks with different and even conflicting voices on the same topic, like, say, intermarriage. That’s part of the genius of the Bible. The diversity within Scripture models for us the wisdom of our own re-engagement of Scripture, in fact, the need to do so as our human circumstances change.

But now we’re on to another topic and one that I’ve written a whole book about called How the Bible Actually Works. So we’re just going to leave that aside. So let’s bring this episode to a close and we’ll pick it up again with really, as part two of the whole story, the book of Nehemiah.

[Outro music plays]

Jared: Well, thanks to everyone who supports the show. If you want to support what we do, there are three ways you can do it. One, if you just want to give a little money, go to 

Pete: And if you want to support us and want a community, classes, and other great resources, go to 

Jared: And lastly, it always goes a long way if you just wanted to rate the podcast, leave a review, and tell others about our show. In addition, you can let us know what you thought about the episode by emailing us at 

Outro: You’ve just made it through another episode of the Bible for Normal People! Don’t forget you can catch our other show, Faith for Normal People, in the same feed wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People team: Brittany Hodge, Stephen Henning, Wesley Duckworth, Savannah Locke, Tessa Stultz, Danny Wong, Natalie Weyand, Lauren O’Connell, Jessica Shao, and Naiomi Gonzalez.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.