Ezra 1

Ezra Chapter 1

The People Return to Rebuild the Temple (1:1 – 6:22)

God Brings Back the Exiles (1:1 – 2:70)

        • ESV Study Bible writes, “With the eye of faith, Ezra describes monumental political changes in the world as God’s special favor for his people.”

The Proclamation of Cyrus

      • In the first year of Persia’s King Cyrus, in order to fulfill the word of Yahweh spoken through Jeremiah, Yahweh stirred the spirit of Persia’s King Cyrus to make a proclamation throughout his land and also to put it in writing. It read:

        • This is what Cyrus, the king of Persia, says, ‘Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build Him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of His people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the house of Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people of that region are to provide them with silver, gold, goods, livestock, and freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible includes a couple of very helpful clarifying notes:

          • When Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 BC and established Persian rule in the ancient world, he set in motion a series of events important for the Jews. His proclamation recorded in vv. 2-4 and 2 Ch 36:23 gave permission for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, which resulted in a series of returns from exile by deportees and the descendants of deportees. Although the Jews regarded Cyrus as a benefactor, as well they might, it should be noted that his ‘beneficence’ was not directed solely toward the Jews, but formed part of a wider foreign policy. The Cyrus Cylinder, in which Cyrus decrees that some exiled populations can return, mentions a number of deities and peoples whom he restored to their own places. The thinking behind this, no doubt, was to foster goodwill among the subjects of his kingdom. This was especially desirable in the case of the province of Yehud [Judah], since it lay on the fringe of the empire and acted as a buffer between an Egypt that had not yet been subjugated and the rest of the realm. Through the decree of Cyrus…those exiled to Babylonia were given the opportunity to return home and rebuild what was left of Judah (Ezra 2:1-35; Ne 7:5-73).”

          • On Cyrus’ reference to Yahweh as “the God of heaven,” “This title ascribed to Yahweh does not necessarily reflect Cyrus’s personal beliefs. In the Cyrus Cylinder, he attributes his conquest of Babylon to the city’s patron, Marduk. Marduk, Yahweh and any other gods would have been seen by Cyrus as members of the forces of light under the head of Ahura Mazda, the god of Persian Zoroastrian religion. Similar deference is made to other gods in decrees pertaining to the restoration of their shrines.”

        • Does the fact that Cyrus’s decree was part of a wider foreign policy rather than directed to Jews alone mean that it wasn’t a divinely inspired fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy? Some skeptics made that argument. Two sources counter:

          • HCSB: “It was a typical policy toward displaced people under his rule. This is undeniable, but this fact of history does not diminish the significance of the return of Jews from exile. After all, the return was a fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah prophesied the rise of Cyrus and his benevolence toward Israel 150 years earlier (see Is 44:28-45:7). Furthermore, the timing was impeccable. Cyrus’s decree coincided with Jeremiah’s prophecy that the Babylonian captivity in Babylon would last 70 years (see Jr 25:11).”

          • NLT Illustrated Study Bible: “In a similar statement to the Babylonians, Cyrus claimed to worship their chief god, Marduk. However, his words here reflect that God had appointed him to build him a temple at Jerusalem (see Isa 44:28; 45:1, 13). He might have learned of such prophesies from Daniel, who served in his court as a high government official (Cyrus is apparently referred to by his Median name, Darius, in Dan 6:1-28; 9:1). God had long planned to raise up Cyrus and give him a vision to restore worship at Jerusalem (Isa 44:28; 45:13; 48:14-15).”

        • Some skeptics question the authenticity of Cyrus’ decree as it appears in Ezra. ESV Archaeology Study Bible includes the following notes which led considerable reliability to the decree as it appears in Ezra:

          • This proclamation of Cyrus seems to have been issued in the former Median capital of Ecbatana (one of the residences of the Persian kings), where it was found some years later (Ezra 6:2). Evidence for Cyrus’s presence there includes a reference in the contemporary archives of ‘Egibi and Sons,’ a Babylonian banking family. Cyrus’s edict was both proclaimed across the empire and deposited in written form in the archives (see Ezra 6:1-2). Archaeological evidence shows that Persian records were indeed kept from Cyrus’s time on. For instance, the Behistun inscription was recorded in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. A copy has also been found in Aramaic.”

          • This proclamation in Hebrew can be compared to the Aramaic memorandum in 6:3-5. This is an official formula for introducing royal proclamation in diplomatic language typical of the time, similar to those used in other royal decrees, such as the Behistun inscription. A document has been found in which Cyrus addresses himself to the Babylonians, speaking of their god Marduk in the same terms he here uses of the God of the Jews. The Lord, the God of heaven is the exact title used in an Aramiac petition made by contemporary Jews in Elephantine to the Persian governor…Herodotus wrote that Persian kings such as Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes attended to Egyptian and Greek oracles.”

        • ESV Archaeology Study Bible includes these fascinating details about Behistun Rock and Elephantine:

          • Behistun Rock: “Behistun (sometimes Bisitun) is a site near Kermanshah-Bakhtaran in modern-day Iran associated with rock-cut reliefs and inscriptions of the Achaemenid king Darius I (522-486 BC) on the southeast face of Mount Behistun, on the road between Baghdad and Tehran. The relief is about 10 feet high and 18 feet wide, bordered on three sides by a trilingual inscription (Old Persian, Akkadian, and Elamite). It is an account of Darius’s rise to power and suppression of various revolts, dated to around 520-518 BC. Copies of the text have been found in Babylon and Elephantine. The significance was established by the daring work of Henry Rawlinson, who between 1835 and 1847 first copied the inscription, which led to its decipherment. It is still the longest and most informative extant text from the Persian period.”

Photo: Behistun Rock relief via Wikimedia Commons

            • Elephantine: “Elephantine is an Egyptian island in the Nile River just north of its first cataract, at Aswan. The Persians garrisoned a military contingent at Elephantine in the fifth century BC to secure Egypt’s southern border and ensure the peaceful northward flow of goods from Africa. Among the troops stationed there was a group of Jewish soldiers and their families, who had built a temple to Yahweh. Apparently, the Egyptians destroyed it around 411 BC. In 407 BC the Jewish leaders of the community wrote to Bigvai, Persian governor of Yehud (Judea), and Johanan, the high priest (called ‘Jehohanan’ in Ezra 10:6), as well as to the sons of Sanballat, the Persian governor of Samaria, headquarters of the ‘Beyond the River’ satrapy. They sought the rebuilding of their temple. The response of Bigvai is preserved. These documents are a valuable historical witness to the contemporary situation faced by Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem. In addition to these letters, archaeologists and others have found archives of other letters, contracts, and administrative records written in Aramaic on both papyrus and pottery sherds (ostraca)- all of which shed important light on this Jewish community in the Persian period.”

Photo: Papyrus letter regarding Jewish temple at Elephantine via the Center for Online Judaic Studies

The Exiles Prepare to Return to Jerusalem

      • Then the family leaders of Judah and Benjamin, along with the priests and the Levites- everyone whose spirit God had stirred- prepared to go up and rebuild Yahweh’s house in Jerusalem. All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible points out that the phrase in v. 5 (everyone whose spirit God had stirred) is the exact same phrase used in Ezra 1:1 to refer to what “he had done with the heart of Cyrus.” It’s also the same phrase used in 2 Chron 36:22 [NLT renders “spirit” as “heart.”]

        • NET Bible has this to say about the phrase, “Heb ‘stirred the spirit of.’ The Hebrew noun…(ruakh, ‘spirit’) has a broad range of meanings (see BDB 924-26 s.v.). Here, it probably refers to (1) ‘mind’ as the seat of mental acts (e.g., Exod 28:3; Deut 34:9; Isa 29:24; 40:13; Ezek 11:5; 20:32; 1 Chr 28:12; cf. BDB 925 s.v. 6) or (2) ‘will’ as the seat of volitional decisions (e.g., Exod 35:5, 22; Pss 51:12, 14; 57:8; 2 Chr 29:31; cf. BDB 925 s.v. 7). So also in v. 5. The entire phrase ‘stirred the spirit’ has been rendered as ‘motivated’ to better reflect normal English.”

        • Guzik writes, “It is quite possible that the Prophet Daniel was instrumental in this stirring of Cyrus. He may have showed the king the prophecies of Jeremiah 25:8-13 and Jeremiah 29:10-14, which refer to the punishment of Babylon and the end of Israel’s exile. And if he showed Cyrus such prophecies, he almost certainly would have included Isaiah 44:28-45:5, which mentions Cyrus by name some 150 years before he was born.”

        • Guzik also cites:

          • Clarke: “Josephus accounts for his partiality to the Jews from this circumstance; that he was shown the places in Isaiah the prophet where he is mentioned by name, and his exploits and conquests foretold.”

          • Yamauchi: “We know that Persian kings paid close heed to prophecies: Cambyses to Egyptian oracles, Darius and Xerxes to Greek oracles (Herodotus 8.133; 9.42, 151).”

          • Maclaren: “The difference between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ history is not that one is under His direct control, and the other is not. What was true of Cyrus and his policy is as true of England. Would that politicians and all men recognized the fact as clearly as this historian did!”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible adds, “God stirred the hearts of Israel’s leaders. Very few priests and Levites actually responded (see 2:36-42). Most of the people who did respond were from two tribes, Judah and Benjamin. Persian documents show that many Jews stayed in Babylon, where they had homes, businesses, and relatives. A dangerous four-month trip back to the desolate city of Jerusalem, now inhabited by foreigners, was not an inviting choice compared to their comfortable life in Babylon. It was much easier to give many valuable gifts and voluntary offerings to those who did return.”

        • ESV Study Bible remarks, “The response is spearheaded by the leadership of the people, namely, the heads of the fathers’ houses (extended families). It is not haphazard, but an action of the exiled community as a whole. The three tribes- Judah, Benjamin, and the Levites (Levi)- are those that had constituted the former kingdom of Judah, and had thus been taken off to Babylon in 586 BC. No mention is made here or elsewhere of any large-scale return of the other tribes, though a few people from other tribes are sometimes mentioned or implied (see 1 Chron 9:3; 2 Chron 11:16; cf Luke 2:36). The OT gives no further information on the fate of the other ‘lost tribes.’”

        • There are a lot of theories (some completely ridiculous) regarding the “lost tribes” of Israel. I recommend the following resources to those who are interested in the topic:

        • For those who prefer to watch a video: “Who Are the Lost Tribes of Israel” in which Dr. Michael Brown interviews Rabbi Harry Rozenberg about possible identities on some of the ‘lost tribes of Israel.’”

      • King Cyrus also brought out the vessels from Yahweh’s house which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them brought out under the supervision of Mithredath, the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar, who was the leader of the Judahite exiles.

        • ESV Archaeological Study Bible notes, “In the Cyrus Cylinder we learn that it may have been typical to return cult objects looted by the Babylonians to their original temples…In this case they are handed over to Sheshbazzar (v. 8), one of the early leaders of the returning exiles. The title prince of Judah (v. 8 [ESV rendering]) simply means that he was a leading member of the exiled community. In 5:14-16 the initiation of the temple’s reconstruction is attributed to Sheshbazzar, where he is called ‘governor.’ Mithredath is a Persian name that appears as ‘Mitradati’ in a cuneiform source from the time of Artaxerxes I.” On “treasurer,” the same source continues, “This Persian loanword (Hb gizbar – see 7:21) is also found in its Babylonian form, ganzabaru. Such use of Persian words in Ezra lends credence to its authenticity and date in the Persian period.”

        • On Sheshbazzar, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible says, “This little known individual should not be confused with the Davidic descendant Shenazzar (1 Chr 3:18), despite scholarly attempts to make that identification.” On the title “prince of Judah,” the same source continues, “This title could refer to a position as custodian of the exiles until control is passed to the local governor, Zerubbabel. Archaeologists have uncovered seals naming three governors of Judah who are otherwise unknown even in the text of Ezra-Nehemiah.”

      • The inventory of these items was as follows:

        • 30 gold basins, 1,000 silver basins, 29 silver utensils, 30 gold bowls, 410 matching silver bowls, and 1,000 other vessels.

      • All these gold and silver articles totaled 5,400. Sheshbazzar brought them all along with the exiles when they came up from Babylon to Jerusalem.

        • There is dispute regarding what the item is that numbers 29 in v. 9. NET Bible explains, “Heb ‘knives.’ The Hebrew noun…(makhalafim, ‘knives’) is found only here in the OT. While the basic meaning of the term is fairly clear, what it refers to here is unclear. The verb II… (khalaf) means ‘to pass through’ (BDB 322 s.v…) or ‘to cut through’ (HALOT 321 s.v. II…; see also Judg 5:26; Job 20:24); thus, the lexicons suggest…means ‘knives’ (BDB 322 s.v…; HALOT 569 s.v…). The related noun…(khalafot, ‘knife’) is used in Mishnaic Hebrew (HALOT 321 s.v. II …), and … (khalifot, ‘knives’) appears in the Talmud. The noun appears in the cognate languages: Ugaritic khlpnm ‘(‘knives’; UT 19) and Syriac khalofta (‘shearing knife’; HALOT 321 s.v…). The Vulgate translated it as ‘knives,’ while the LXX understood it as referring to replacement pieces for the offering basins. The English translations render it variously; some following the Vulgate and others adopting the approach of the LXX: ‘knives’ (KJV, NKJV, NRSV), ‘censers’ (RSV), ‘duplicates’ (NASB), ‘silver pans’ (NIV), ‘bowls’ (TEV), ‘other dishes’ (CEV). Verse 11 lists these twenty-nine objects among the ‘gold and silver vessels’ brought back to Jerusalem for temple worship. The translation above offers the intentionally ambiguous ‘silver utensils’ (the term…[‘knives’] would hardly refer to ‘gold’ items, but could refer to ‘silver items’).”

        • NET Bible also points out that there is an issue with the total number listed in v. 11, “The total number as given in the MT does not match the numbers given for the various items in v. 9. It is not clear whether the difference is due to error in textual transmission or whether the constituent items mentioned are only a selection from a longer list, in which case the total from that longer list may have been retained. The numbers provided in 1 Esdras come much closer to agreeing with the number in Ezra 1:9-11, but this does not necessarily mean that 1 Esdras has been better preserved here than Ezra. 1 Esdras 2:13-15 (RSV) says, ‘The number of these was: a thousand gold cups, a thousand silver cups, twenty-nine silver censers, thirty gold bowls, two thousand four hundred and ten silver bowls, and a thousand other vessels. All the vessels were handed over, gold and silver, five thousand four hundred and sixty-nine, and they were carried back by Shesbazzar with the returning exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem.’”

        • Guzik mentions, “What is conspicuously missing from the list is any mention of the more significant articles of the temple – the altar of incense, the table of showbread, the brazen altar, the golden lampstand, and especially the ark of the covenant. These articles were presumably lost to history at the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians.”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible offers these interesting remarks, “The inventory of plunder taken was carefully tabulated by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and no doubt by the Persians as well, though we lack similar records from them. As there was no idol in the Jewish temple, the closest substitute would have been the ark of the covenant. But this was evidently destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, as we no longer hear of it. Based on the legendary Kebra Negast tradition that the Queen of Sheba’s son Menelik stole the ark from Solomon, Ethiopian Christians claim that they possess the ark in their cathedral in Aksum.”

***ESV Archaeological Study Bible includes this very educational section on Persia which is very valuable for historical context***

    • Persia was an ancient name for the region north of the Persian Gulf, roughly corresponding to modern-day Iran. Small tribes from Eurasia populated the area during the second millennium BC, but they came under the control of the Assyrian Empire during the early centuries of the first millennium BC.

    • Cyrus II (r. 559-530 BC), also known as Cyrus the Great, assumed leadership of Persia in 559 and in less than a decade conquered his overlords, the Medes, and proceeded to overtake the kingdoms of Lydia (546) and Babylon (539). He imposed benevolent policies on those whom he conquered, including religious tolerance. An example of this was his immediate release of the exiled Jews from their captivity in Babylon and his sponsorship of the rebuilding of their temple in Jerusalem. Ezra 1-6 recounts the return of the first wave of approximately 50,000 exiles who resettled in Jerusalem. Under Persian rule, the lands of Israel (known to the Persians as ‘Samaria’) and Judah (known to the Persians as ‘Yehud’ or ‘Judea,’ and much smaller in size) were minor provinces within the satrapy (administrative division) called ‘Beyond the River.’ According to 1:2, Cyrus himself declared that ‘the Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem.’ Cyrus is also known from various inscriptions from the Near East, including his own, especially the Cyrus Cylinder…The consolidation of Cyrus’s government began what is known as the Persian, or Achaemenid Empire.

    • Cyrus’ son Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BC) carried on the military success of his father, conquering Egypt in 525. He died shortly thereafter but was succeeded by Darius I (r. 522-486 BC), also known as Darius the Great, the second cousin once-removed of Cyrus II. Darius was a general who rose in power and claimed the throne- his exact means of doing so is disputed among historical sources. Darius I was a gifted administrator who reorganized the vast empire into 20 satrapies (administrative districts). He reigned from Egypt to Asia Minor to India, consolidating legislation, taxation, military service, and commerce. Standardization of a monetary system of minted gold and silver coins, as well as the construction of roads and canals, particularly helped with the latter. Darius even established an empire-wide postal service. He is known today from various inscriptions from the Near East, including his own, especially the famous trilingual cliff inscription on the Behistun Rock and one at his tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam.

    • It is estimated that the population of the empire was 50 million people during the reign of Darius. He continued Cyrus’s policy of tolerance toward local religious and cultural traditions (see Ezra 6). In 516 BC the temple in Jerusalem was completed by the returned exiles. Opposition from local governors impeded the completion of the temple for more than 20 years, but the ministry of the biblical prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged them to complete the task.

    • Xerxes I (r. 486-464 BC) succeeded his father Darius to the throne. He spent much of his time quelling rebellions from the four corners of the empire. Xerxes (known in the Hebrew Bible as Ahasuerus) plays a major role in the story of Esther (Est 1:1). The vastness of the empire during his reign meant that Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews, had it been successful, could have annihilated the entire Jewish race.

    • Artaxerxes I (r. 465-423 BC) came to the throne by killing two of his own brothers. Like his father, Darius, he faced rebellion, particularly from Egypt early in his reign. Because of threats to the empire, he responded to a letter from enemies of the Jews and issued a decree forbidding the rebuilding of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7-16). However, eventually he conceded and allowed Ezra and a group of 5,000 Jews to return there in 458 BC to reestablish proper worship at the temple (7:1-6). Nehemiah was granted permission to rebuild Jerusalem’s ruined walls around 445 BC.

    • The Persian Empire lost control of Egypt in 404 BC, at the beginning of Artaxerxes II’s reign. This signaled the beginning of the slow diminishment of its former glory, although Persia did reconquer Egypt in 343 BC under Artaxerxes III (358-337 BC). Darius III became king in 336 BC, but Alexander the Great was already beginning a victorious march that traced a path from Greece to India. He overcame the Persian army at Issus (at the far northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea) in 333, and Darius fled eastward. Alexander continued to Gaza and Egypt. In 331 BC Alexander conquered Babylon and made sacrifices to Marduk. When Darius was assassinated by his own men in 330 BC, the Persian Empire came to an end. The region known as Persia soon became part of the Seleucid Empire after the death of Alexander.

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