If it wasn’t for the names of the biblical books, the title of this piece could look awfully like a contemporary headline. Yet in many other respects, neither Ezra nor Nehemiah feel particularly relevant for the contemporary world. Perhaps that’s why only one reading from these books crops up in the Sunday lectionary.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are heavily edited stories relating various aspects of how things went when people began returning from exile to the land they still saw as the focus of God’s promises. Although the books have been written together on a single scroll, and are therefore often treated together, it remains a matter of much speculation among historians and biblical scholars how they (and their different parts) interrelate.1
These books are concerned with the restructuring of society, in particular how Ezra’s edition of the ancestral laws of Moses is going to shape the life of community now it has returned from exile. There is also a focus on literal rebuilding: particularly the walls of Jerusalem, but also the restoration of the temple. They share something of the emphasis of Chronicles on priests and Levites as essential to the right ordering of both society and its worship of the one true God.
They reveal something of an ongoing crisis and controversy about religious identity after the exile. Those who return to the land see themselves as faithful, and those who were never exiled as hopelessly compromised and no longer properly Israelite. The faith that comes back from Babylon comes back as a more intense one, with a greater attachment to Law, and a desire to be clearer about maintaining the boundaries of identity and holiness.
Ezra is particularly keen to ban mixed marriages between returnees and the people living in the land. Controversies over boundaries, identity and inclusion will persist over the next few centuries: they remain live at the time of Jesus, and shape both his ministry and the eventual split between church and synagogue.
Who are we, and what does it take to belong to our group, are questions that crop up in every society. There are always arguments about borders: who makes them, who patrols them, and where do we draw them. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah represent a fairly exclusive voice. Other Old Testament books like Ruth and Jonah represent a much more inclusive one. This is a debate that crops up in both testaments, and at regular and repeated intervals in the life of the church, particularly at times of social upheaval and rapid change, such as the one we’re living in now. It is important when reading one side of the biblical argument to remember that other books put another side of the case.
As I have already mentioned, only one reading occurs from these books, a section of Nehemiah 8. It is read in Year C on the Third Sunday of Epiphany (the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Roman Calendar), and may also be read on Bible Sunday in churches where that is observed. I have already looked at this reading in some detail when I was exploring the importance of public reading, and you can read that post here.
- These speculations need not concern us here. Nor do those of us who read them in church have to worry about who wrote them. There is considerable debate about how, if at all, they relate to the work of the Chronicler and his history, beyond sharing an interest in priests and Levites. Nehemiah seems to include some kind of personal memoir – although that could just be vivid writing.