Old Testament Survey - Lesson 24

Ezra and Nehemiah

Through this lesson, gain understanding of the historical and theological contexts of the post-exilic period in Jerusalem through the lens of Ezra and Nehemiah, originally a unified text in the Masoretic tradition. Explore their significant role in rebuilding the Jewish community spiritually and physically after their exile. The lesson discusses the linkage of these books with the Chronicles, suggesting shared authorship and themes such as temple worship and a focused nationalism. Key historical timelines, like the fall of Jerusalem and the issuing of decrees by Persian rulers that facilitated the Jews' return, are detailed, providing a chronological framework for understanding these events. 

Daniel Block
Old Testament Survey
Lesson 24
Watching Now
Ezra and Nehemiah

I. Overview of Ezra and Nehemiah

A. Historical Context

1. Post-exilic period focus

2. Transition from Persia to Jerusalem

B. Significance of Ezra and Nehemiah

1. Unified originally as one book

2. Division under Christian influence

C. Relationship with Chronicles

1. Common elements with Chronicles

2. Theories on authorship and composition

II. Historical Events and Chronology

A. Key Dates and Events

1. Jerusalem's fall and the Babylonian exile

2. Cyrus' decree and the return to Jerusalem

3. Rebuilding efforts and opposition

III. Theological and Literary Analysis

A. Themes and Theology

1. Focus on temple and worship

2. Nationalism and priestly interests

B. Source Material

1. Official and unofficial sources

2. Incorporation of memoirs and lists

IV. Ezra and Nehemiah's Contributions

A. Rebuilding and Reform Efforts

1. Ezra's spiritual reforms

2. Nehemiah's physical and administrative reforms

B. Impact on Community and Worship

1. Influence of Ezekiel's teachings

2. Restoration of the festival of booths and community worship

V. Conclusion

A. Summary of Key Points

1. Historical significance of the post-exilic period

2. Ezra and Nehemiah's role in religious and national identity

B. Implications for Understanding First Testament Writings

1. The historiographic nature of Ezra-Nehemiah

2. The theological focus beyond mere historical reconstruction

  • Learning about the First Testament's language, geographical, and cultural contexts, and how these factors contribute to its frequent misinterpretation and underappreciation in modern times.
  • Gain insights into the literary and cosmic foundations of grace and glory in the Torah, understanding its role as more than law.
  • Learn that to be made in God's image entails embodying divine qualities and functioning as His representative on Earth, which extends a universal dignity upon all humans and shapes a theological ethic that influences how you treat others.
  • Genesis 1-3 frames human response to divine creation, emphasizing human dignity, work's moral role, free will's consequences, and the persistent grace amid sin.
  • This lesson reviews the Israelite covenant, understanding its stages, implications, and its role in God's redemptive plan.
  • Gain insights into Abraham's covenant with God, exploring his faith and God's promises.
  • Learn how the Exodus from Egypt marked Israel's transformation from a family to a nation under Yahweh.
  • Understand how the covenant at Sinai transforms Israel from slaves into a treasured nation destined for a divine mission, fulfilling God's ancient promises.
  • This lesson covers the covenantal expectations at Sinai. The covenantal agreement provided a constitutional and ethical framework for societal living, focusing on community rights and responsibilities.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into how the tabernacle was both a physical manifestation of God's presence and a profound symbol of His grace, emphasizing the holiness and detailed guidance He provided to the Israelites for worship and daily life.
  • Gain insights into Deuteronomy, recognizing its focus on teaching rather than legislation, and understanding Moses' role as an instructor of Yahweh's will.
  • In this lesson, you explore how to interpret the First Testament's historiographic writings, emphasizing the divine inspiration and literary artistry that guide the selective storytelling and theological themes.
  • Learn how the books of Joshua and Judges illustrate the fulfillment and failure of Israel's covenant with Yahweh, highlighting divine promise, cultural assimilation, and the cyclical nature of faith and apostasy.
  • The Book of Ruth, highlights divine providence, social justice, and personal righteousness while exploring the role of Boaz as a pivotal figure in maintaining the lineage of King David.
  • Samuel had a significant yet complex role in Israel's history; judge, priest, prophet, and crucial figure in establishing monarchy.
  • Learn of David's central role in the Bible, understanding his unique portrayal and the extensive attention he receives compared to other figures.
  • Learn about the Davidic covenant's role in shaping biblical history and theology, emphasizing its eternal impact on Israel and beyond.
  • The books of Kings and Chronicles use historical events to underline theological themes, highlighting the role of scribes in documenting Israel’s history.
  • In this lesson on 1 and 2 Kings, review the downfall of Israel through kings' forgetfulness of God's covenants.
  • Learn about Solomon's temple's historical and theological significance, its divine design and purpose, and its role in Israelite worship and communal life.
  • Gain insights into the transformation and resilience of the Judean people during their exile in Babylon from 586-539 BC, exploring their struggles and adaptations in a new socio-political and religious context.
  • Learn about Daniel's exemplary life in Babylon, his integrity, and his prophetic visions, which highlight divine sovereignty and the vindication of the faithful amidst calamities.
  • Review the Persian period's impact on the Jewish diaspora, analyze the Book of Esther's literary and theological significance, and reflect on divine providence and cultural identity.
  • Explore the crucial roles of Ezra and Nehemiah in reconstructing the Jewish community and faith post-exile, understanding their historical significance, source materials, and theological insights.
  • Gain insight into the roles and significance of prophets in ancient Israel, learning about their historical context, and their critical function in guiding and correcting the nation through direct communication from Yahweh.
  • Learn about the lives and ministries of prophets Amos and Hosea, their calls for justice and return to divine covenant amidst Israel's political and spiritual turmoil, through prophetic books that blend personal biography with national prophecy.
  • This lesson reviews Jonah's struggle with divine grace and Micah's advocacy for justice and the messianic hope.
  • In this lesson, you learn how Isaiah's vision portrays the Messiah as king, servant, and conqueror, emphasizing his divine roles and global mission.
  • Learn of the political and social contexts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel's exile, including Babylon's rise, Jerusalem's fall, and the crisis of faith portrayed in Lamentations, emphasizing hope amid despair through God's faithfulness.
  • Learn about Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry, navigating challenges with kings, themes in the Book of Jeremiah, and profound passages on true religion and a future covenant, offering lessons on prophetic burdens, God's faithfulness, and spiritual transformation.
  • Explore Ezekiel's life as a priest in exile, his bizarre actions, and profound messages revealing Yahweh's passion and eternal promises of judgment and restoration.
  • Learn about Nahum and Joel's prophecies on judgment, hope, and Yahweh's character. Explore the day of the Lord and the expansion of the covenant community.
  • Explore Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah's prophecies. Discover themes of judgment, faith, and restoration in God's plan.
  • Gain insight into Haggai's role in motivating temple rebuilding during the Persian rule. His brief yet impactful ministry fosters hope and action amid community disillusionment, recoginizing God's presence and reign.
  • Gain deep insight into Hebrew poetry: its forms, parallelism, acrostics, and emotional depth. Explore its celebration and lamentation of Yahweh's glory.
  • Gain insight into Psalms which reflect diverse emotions and experiences. Structured into five divisions, attributed to various authors, their interpretation involves understanding Torah context, literary devices, and applying timeless principles to life.
  • Explore biblical wisdom's depth: from practical skill to moral insight, rooted in the fear of Yahweh. It contrasts with secular knowledge, emphasizing God's order and universal application.
  • Engage with Proverbs to unravel its diverse wisdom, from aphorisms to discourses. Understand its practical guidance for righteous living and leadership.
  • Discover the Song of Songs, a rich exploration of love's nature. From its allegorical interpretations to its celebration of covenantal love, it examines human relationships with wisdom and depth.
  • The book of Job offers insights into faith and suffering, exploring theological themes and character dynamics. It emphasizes trust in God amid life's most difficult trials.
  • Uncover Ecclesiastes' profound journey from despair to hope. Koheleth's existential ponderings contrast with the narrator's faith, urging a shift from worldly pursuits to finding fulfillment in God's sovereignty.

This Old Testament Survey course offers a deep exploration of the Old Testament's literary structure, divine covenants, and historical context. Lessons cover the Pentateuch, emphasizing its narrative over legalistic interpretations, and extend through key biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. Topics such as the covenant at Sinai, the concept of imago Dei, and the tabernacle rituals highlight the continuity of God's grace and the ethical implications of divine laws. The course critically addresses common misconceptions, the role of the Torah as instruction, and the portrayal of God’s plan, underscoring the relevance and complexity of these ancient texts.

Dr. Daniel Block 
Old Testament Survey
Ezra and Nehemiah
Lesson Transcript


We're continuing our discussion of evidences of Yahweh's glory and grace in the Persian period, that is the post-exilic period, but this time we are moving back to Jerusalem. The previous lesson was on Esther and it took place in Persia. Now we're going to Jerusalem where we will look at the work of Ezra and Nehemiah.

What can we say about these two books? Actually, probably only one. The post-exilic community in Jerusalem produced two historiographic documents, I and II Chronicles and Ezra and Nehemiah. Esther was written in this period as well, but the author's place of residence is unknown.

In any case, those events happened, took place in the diaspora, not in Jerusalem and its environs. The names of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah derive from the principal characters in the respective documents. Originally, these books were composed as a unity, one book.

In the Masoretic text, in the Benasher tradition, the books run together, and the word count at the end includes both books, so they treated it as a single volume. The earliest attested division in the Hebrew canon comes from the 15th century AD from these manuscripts, undoubtedly under Christian influence. The division seems to have been the invention of origin, AD 185 to 253.

It's continued in Jerome's Vulgate of the 4th century. But we need to begin by talking about the relationship of Ezra and Nehemiah to Chronicles. Ezra and Nehemiah is often lumped together with those books, as I mentioned earlier, and treated as the Chronistic history as opposed to the Deuteronomistic history.

We may summarize the arguments for this approach as follows. One, Ezra begins by quoting the last two verses of 2 Chronicles 36, so these are stitched together with that identical quotation. Second, the apocryphal work 1 Esdras, a Greek work, includes 2 Chronicles 35 to 36, all of Ezra and Nehemiah 7, 73 to 8, 12, all as a single document.

Third, these books share a common vocabulary. Fourth, they share a common outlook and theology, interest in the temple and cultic religious affairs, the post-exilic community as the people of God, a narrowing nationalism, priestly interests in genealogies and religious rituals, cultic affairs. And fifth, together these two books represent the last narrative writings of the first testament.

If not the last writings overall, it depends on where we date the book of Malachi. Scholars have proposed three different conclusions regarding the relationships between Chronicles and Ezra and Nehemiah. First, they were written by a common author, and some people have argued Ezra was that person.

Second, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah were written by three different authors. These are possibilities on their relationship, so that not even Ezra and Nehemiah are together. And the third option, Ezra and Nehemiah were written by a common author, but he was not the author of Chronicles.

So, these are the possibilities. As we've mentioned before, biblical books, first testament books, are never signed by the author. Apparently, that was not as important as the message of the book.

It's interesting that in the ancient Near Eastern world, scribes would regularly sign the documents that they had copied as they were copying literary texts, but the authors didn't often give their names. When were these books written? To date the composition of Ezra and Nehemiah, it is necessary to summarize the historical events described in the books as we have it in a chronology like this. In 586 BC, Jerusalem fell to Babylon.

The exiles were taken away. In 539, Babylon fell to Cyrus II. In 538, Cyrus II issued the decree recorded in Ezra 1. In 538 to 37, the Jews returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel and rebuilt the altar for the temple.

In 536, they laid the foundation for the temple. In 536 to 20, the building of the temple was disrupted. The people were so discouraged that they didn't have the heart and the spirit and the energy to keep building.

520 to 515, the temple was completed, largely under the inspiration of the prophetic preaching of the prophets in the Bible, Haggai and Zechariah, who are mentioned in these books. In 485 to 60 approximately, opposition arose against the Jews in Jerusalem and in the empire. In 458, Ezra came to Jerusalem.

In 445, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem. And then 433 BC, Nehemiah traveled to Babylon for a short visit, presumably to consult and report back to the authorities, and then he came back to Jerusalem. The last date, 433, provides the terminus a quo for the composition of the book, the earliest possible date.

400 BC is therefore a reasonable date for compiling the sources incorporated in the book, though some would date the book in its final form as late as 300 BC. What's the purpose of these books? What's the point? Well, on the one hand, we could say the purpose of Ezra-Nehemiah is to complete the history of Israel and to prove that the returned exiles represented a continuation of the people of God that existed before the exile. In the process, the book reflects the opposition of the returnees to non-exilic residence.

The Jews who hadn't gone into Babylon and those who came back from Babylon were not friendly toward each other. One group was viewed as native and the other as foreign. But it also demonstrates the effectiveness of Ezekiel's preaching.

And you say, what has Ezekiel got to do with this? Isn't he long gone? The last dated prophecy of Ezekiel is about 560, somewhere in there. What has Ezekiel got to do with 538 and beyond? Well, it's interesting that when Ezekiel and the 10,000 people from Jerusalem are schlepped into exile in Babylon in 597, they went there as a thoroughly paganized and syncretistic people. They were the problem.

They were not spared the judgment that was coming on the city in 586 because they were more righteous. They were not. They were exactly of the same ilk.

And the audience that Ezekiel faced in his book was a hard, hard audience, and he's preaching only to his Jewish countrymen and country folk. In fact, God tells him, if I wanted you to have a lot of response to your preaching, I'd make a foreign missionary of you, but I'm sending you to your own people who have foreheads harder than flint. And there's no hint anywhere in the book of Ezekiel that anybody ever responded favorably to the prophet's mission and his preaching, despite all the crazy antics he performed.

And sometimes awful oracles that he proclaimed with his radical rhetoric, very offensive in many places. But within the book of Ezekiel, three or four times you hear the phrase, when these things happen, and they surely will, then they will know that a prophet has been in their midst. Well, I have a feeling that when the exiles woke up after Ezekiel was gone, it dawned on some of them that the Lord, Yahweh, was in fact behind all the events that they had experienced.

They recognized the justice of their judgment. They confessed their sins. They cast themselves upon Yahweh for his mercy, and they were spiritually revived.

There must have been a whole group of these who by 538, when the decree is issued, you can go home and rebuild the temple and start a new community. 40,000 people went home, and they went home with their hearts in the right place, determined to create another community true that was structured as a true theocracy. This is reflected in Ezra's reforms later on and in Nehemiah's methods as governor.

They are working with a community that on paper at least is orthodox. There must have been a revival in Babylon already so that when the decree came to go home and rebuild the city, there were thousands of them that went and heeded not only the call of Cyrus to go back if you want, but also the call of God to rebuild this community. What else can we say about the books of Ezra and Nehemiah? Well, it's evident that the author of Ezra and Nehemiah used a great variety of sources.

Some of them are official. Some are unofficial. We can classify these, first of all, identifying early sources like letters.

In Ezra 1-7, the author incorporates numerous letters and official correspondence which represent authentic historic documents from the Persian period. So those letters are quoted in the text. Second, in 1-4, we have a version of Cyrus' decree.

This looks like a version of a written record, and of course, decrees were always, by this stage in political history and administrative history, decrees would always be composed in writing and then sent to the population and read to the people. We have other documents like this. In 4-11-16, it looks like we have Rehom's accusation, a written copy of it.

In 4-17-22, we have Artaxerxes' reply, a written version. In 5-7-17, we have Tetoni's report. In 6-2-5, we have a memorandum of Cyrus' decree.

And then in chapter 6-6-7, we have Darius' reply to Tetoni. Now those are older sources, sources that were older than Ezra, who lived a long time, decades, if not a century or more, after this decree had been issued. But then there are also some contemporary sources.

We have, for instance, Artaxerxes' authorization for Ezra in 7-12-26. Again, a quoted text. Also, we have lists.

To some people, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are boring because there are so many lists. We have lists of temple vessels, 1-9-11. You have a census list of the returnees in 5-38.

It's in Ezra 2 and repeated in Nehemiah 7. We have Ezra's lineage, a list of his predecessors, ancestors. In 1-14, we have the returnees' census a second time. In chapter 10, we have a list of marital offenders, that is Nehemiah 10, 18-43, people who had committed offenses in their marriages.

We also have, in Nehemiah 3, lists of builders of the walls, in 10-1-27, lists of the sealers of the covenant, 11-3-36, a list of the settlers in Jerusalem, and then in 12-1-26, a list of priests and Levites. Who's keeping all these lists, and for what reason are they all incorporated into this historiographic document? Obviously, the author of this book wants his readers to know that these are real events happening in real time to real people. We're not making this up.

This narrative, the skeleton of this narrative, consists of the lists of all sorts of things that are happening, entries and details that the people have to deal with. But there are other sources. A third class of source are the memoirs.

By a memoir, we mean a first-person autobiographical form. Whoever writing this is saying, I, the good hand of the Lord was upon me. Well, who is that? Well, when it's Ezra saying that, then it looks like he must have been the author of this document.

Much of Ezra and Nehemiah is quite exceptional within the First Testament historical narrative. You don't have much of this elsewhere. The author seems to have had access to, if the author isn't Ezra or Nehemiah, the author had access to the diaries of Ezra and Nehemiah, and he edited them and integrated them with the other sources.

Concerning Ezra's diary, it's preserved in two parts. In Ezra 710, he recounts his return to Jerusalem in first person. There are a few places where the third person is used, which suggests that the editor is tinkering with his diaries a little bit.

In Nehemiah 8-10, Ezra is prominent. In chapter 8 especially, where he reads the Torah before all the people. In chapters 9 and 10, his involvement is not so clear.

How about Nehemiah, the other guy in this pair of leaders? Nehemiah's diary is also preserved in two parts. Nehemiah 1-7, this is an account of Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem, which was separate from Ezra's. In Nehemiah 11-13, we have Nehemiah's reforms in first person.

Now, the author has not neutralized the differences in tone. Nehemiah is more personal, Ezra is more official. Ezra's memoirs were probably edited more severely.

The time of composition editing is reflected in Ezra 4. Verses 1-5 describe the opposition during the rebuilding of the temple under Cyrus and Darius. Verses 6, the opposition under Ahasuerus, that is Xerxes and then Artaxerxes, and then verse 24 reverts back to Cyrus. Compare that with verse 5. There's a fourth category of sources here, and that is the prose historical review.

The first six chapters of Ezra do not involve Ezra. These accounts are needed to link the two main characters at the end of Chronicles. Except for 5-4, they were written in third person.

The exception in 5-4 may point to perhaps a prophetic source. And then a fifth kind of text, this is Nehemiah 9, 5-38, a poetic historical review. We have here beautiful poetry remembering God's grace in Israel's history.

It's actually cast as a prayer, a corporate prayer. Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Heshab, Benaiah, Sherabiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, Petahiah said, Arise, bless the Lord your God forever and ever. And then you have this magnificent prayer and blessing, and it's a beautiful composition, and it was incorporated in this document as well.

Well, let's end this discussion by just briefly outlining the book of Ezra-Nehemiah. I'm counting this as one book. The big outline would involve five sections.

First, reconstituting the people of Yahweh, that's Ezra 1, 1 to 6, 22. This is that prose part, prose historical recollection of how the people came back from exile in 538 B.C. The second part, the mission of Ezra, rebuilding the spiritual walls of Jerusalem, 7-1 to 1044. Four.

The third part, the mission of Nehemiah, rebuilding the physical walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah 1 to 7. Fourth, the climax of Ezra's work, the magnificent renewal of worship. The people come to Ezra, and they say, won't you please read us the Torah? I love this chapter because it highlights, to me at least, it highlights to me the hunger these people had for the Word of God. And when this text talks about the Torah, there are some people who think that this was the first time the entire Pentateuch, which was later called the Torah, was read for the first time.

Well, a major problem with this is that the Pentateuch, you couldn't read the Pentateuch in three hours, you know, from 9 o'clock in the morning till noon. You couldn't read the Pentateuch in that time. But there are a couple of other problems.

When it talks about the Torah, I think we should interpret the expression, the Torah, in the sense that this word with the article in the front generally had in the Psalms, in the Pentateuch, and in some of the prophets, at this point or to this point, that phrase, the Torah, as a written document, referred primarily to the book of Deuteronomy, the speeches of Moses in Deuteronomy. When the psalmist talks about how I love your Torah, O Lord, he's generally talking about that. The other reason for going this way is you can read Deuteronomy in three hours quite easily.

It makes good sense. But as you read on, you discover that in the context of this, they found written in the Torah how the Lord had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the of the seventh month. What? Really? The festival of booths? In Deuteronomy 31, verses 9 to 13, Moses, or the narrator says, then Moses wrote down all the words of this Torah, and he handed it to the elders and to the Levitical priests, and then he instructed the Levitical priests to read this to the people, the whole thing, every seven years at the festival of booths.

Well, it dawns on these people, it's time for the festival of booths. That's what we heard, and so the people celebrate the festival of booths in response to what they hear. This link to the festival of booths clinches it for me, in my mind, that what Ezra was reading that day was the original Torah, the book, well, the speeches of Moses in Deuteronomy, probably by now, as a single scroll.

This was a scroll that Josiah's men had discovered in the temple. This was the scroll that David had in mind when he told Solomon, don't forget to live according to all that is written in the Torah of Moses. That is what I think is involved in this one.

This is the my favorite part of these two books, to see how the worship is renewed, and it is worship that is centered in the hearing of the word. The scriptures were written to be heard in community, and at this moment, all the people gather, men, women, children, anybody who could understand, and to be sure they understood, Ezra also engaged a bunch of Levites to help him interpret it, because this text was written in Hebrew, but these people had come from Babylon, where Aramaic had become the language of the street, and so it had to be interpreted and translated into that language. In chapters 773 to 1027, you have the climax of Ezra's work, and then this book, Ezra Nehemiah, ends in 111 to 1331 with a description of further reforms of Nehemiah.

These are fascinating compositions for many reasons, not only for exploring how biblical authors wrote, but also for exploring how to revive a community, and in this case, we see it revived based on the hearing of the living and life-giving word of God. In the Torah of Moses, he had said in chapters 31, 9 to 13 especially, but he had reminded the people of this in several other places. He had instructed the Levites to read the Torah, that they may hear, that they may learn, that they may fear, that they may obey, that they may live.

The Torah is the key to life, and that's what these people experienced at this moment. Dr. Block, could I ask two quick questions? Yeah. One is, you use a phrase, historiographic.

Historiography and historiographic. What does that second one mean? Historiographic. That means that when you read this material, you read it not only for the facts of history, but for the point of the writing of this historical document.

Okay. They are historical documents, but it's not history for history's sake. Yeah.

Okay. The point of none of these texts is simply that you can reconstruct events. It's like the gospels.

The point is always theological, and on that count, in German, we have the distinction between historie, i.e., and Geschichte. Historie is the facts of history. Geschichte is the facts of history, along with interpretations of causation and significance and analysis.

The author is interacting, using the text for a purpose that is more than historical. That's how I use those words. All right.

The other question I had was, I'm wondering about the relationship between Ezra and Nehemiah. They seem to have slightly different functions, and do they come at different times? Do they overlap? Do they work together? It's not clear. They seem to have overlapped some, but they're involved in different kinds of issues.

Ezra is the priest. Nehemiah is, well, is he the governor? It's hard to tell. Nehemiah is an official and appointee from Persia.

So, he goes back to Persia at one point, apparently to give account. We never hear that of Ezra. Ezra is functioning as a priest in this community, and I think he is, there are those people who say that this is the first instance of synagogue worship, though they do later on bring their sacrifices according to the festival of Sukkoth, because by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the temple is there.

It's a small puny thing, but it is the temple. Thank you.