Ezra 4


Adversaries Oppose the Rebuilding

      • The adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the former exiles were rebuilding a temple for Yahweh, the God of Israel. They approached Zerubbabel and the family leaders and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to Him ever since the time of Assyria’s King Esarhaddon, who brought us here. But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the family leaders answered, “You have no part with us in building a house for our God. We alone will build it for Yahweh, the God of Israel, just as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” Then the local people tried to discourage and frighten the people of Judah to keep them from building. They also bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans throughout the entire reign of Persia’s King Cyrus and down to the reign of Persia’s King Darius.

        • ESV Study Bible writes, “The returned exiles found themselves in a Persian province [satrapy], called Beyond the River (v. 11; i.e., beyond the Euphrates from the perspective of the Persian power centers). Its administrative center was in Samaria, the capital of the former northern kingdom of Israel. Its population was composed largely of the descendants of peoples settled there by Esarhaddon king of Assryia (reigned c 681-669 BC) in c 671-670 (see 2 Kings 17:24-33; Isa 7:8), long after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom in 722 and began to resettle the land with exiles from other lands. Apparently, Samaria was a hotbed of unrest for decades. Indeed, these peoples’ ancestors had been taught the religion of Yahweh by a priest sent there for that purpose (2 Kings 17:24-28), though the same account tells that they worshiped other gods as well (2 Kings 17:29-41), and they are identified as ‘adversaries’ (Ezra 4:1). Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses present a united answer declining the offer of help (vv. 1-2)…Their stated ground for declining the help is that the decree of Cyrus applied only to the returning exiles. No doubt they understood that the actual intent behind the request was to frustrate the project. The real attitude of these residents, now called the people of the land, emerges. They showed their determined opposition all the days of Cyrus (from the time the opposition began in 538 or 537 BC; Cyrus died in 530) even until the reign of Darius (reigned 522-486). Therefore, the opposition continued over a period of about 20 years, up to the completion of the temple in 516 BC. The discouragement apparently involved turning local officials against the project. Even though the project actually had the full authority of King Cyrus behind it, local enemies would exploit the distance of Jerusalem from the imperial center to their own advantage.”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds the following context, “The people who proffered their help were evidently from the area of Samaria, though they are not explicitly described as such. After the fall of Samaria in 722 BC, the Assyrian kings kept importing inhabitants from Mesopotamia and Syria who ‘worshiped the Lord, but…also served their own gods’ (2 Ki 17:33). The newcomers’ influence doubtless diluted further the faith of the northerners, who had already apostasized from the sole worship of the Lord in the tenth century BC. Even after the destruction of the temple, worshipers from Shiloh and Shechem in the north came to offer cereals and incense at the site of the ruined temple (Jer 41:5). Moreover, the northerners did not abandon faith in Yahweh, as we see from the Yahwistic names given to Sanballat’s sons (Delaiah and Shelemiah) in the Elephantine papyri. Nevertheless, they retained Yahweh not as the sole God, but as one among many gods. Sanballat’s name honors the moon-god Sin. Though Ezra-Nehemiah does not explicitly mention the syncretistic character of the northerners, evidence suggests that the inhabitants of Samaria were syncretists.”

        • Guzik remarks, “The Samaritans continued as a people into New Testament times. Because the Samaritans had some historical connection to the people of Israel, their faith was a combination of law and ritual from the Law of Moses and various superstitions. Most Jews in Jesus’ time despised the Samaritans, even more than Gentiles – because they were, religiously speaking, “half-breeds” who had an eclectic, mongrel faith. This context is essential in understanding the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible offers this perspective:

          • One of Ezra’s main purposes in writing was to remind the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem of their need to remain pure in their beliefs and commitments. When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found that the people had intermarried with pagan foreigners, even though doing so was not permitted in God’s law…As a result, their identity as God’s holy nation was in danger of disintegrating (Ezra 9:1-2).”

        • To impress on his readers the need for separation from these foreigners, Ezra recounts how those who first returned to Jerusalem refused to cooperate with the pagan people living around them (4:1-5). These people claimed to worship the same God, but they actually worshiped several gods in addition to Israel’s God. If the Jews had joined with these people, they soon would have compromised their beliefs and become ungodly, just as Israel had done before the Exile (see Exod 34:15-16; 1 Kgs 11:1-5; 2 Kgs 16:3). Those early leaders of the Jews in Judea understood the danger of accommodating these foreigners. They learned from their ancestors’ experience and refused to compromise the purity of their faith for the sake of peace. They carefully followed God’s instructions in everything they did…If they were going to identify themselves as ‘the servants of the God of heaven and earth’…they would need to please and serve him and no other gods.”

        • God is holy, and he made a covenant with Israel to establish a holy nation…Israel’s identity as God’s people required purity in worship and in social relationships…Similarly, believers today are identified as God’s holy people (1 Pet 2:9), a title that speaks of theological purity. Paul admonished the Corinthians to refrain from marrying unbelievers- for Christ and Satan have no fellowship. Righteousness and unrighteousness do not mix (2 Cor 6:14-15). The people of God must be separate by not touching unclean things and not marrying unbelievers (2 Cor 6:16-18).”

Later Opposition Under Xerxes and Artaxerxes

      • The following sources offers up preliminary discussion of the difficulties surrounding verses 6-23:

          • ESV Study Bible: “This section interrupts the historical narrative (1:1-4:5) and mentions two later examples of hostility from the people of the land (4:6 and 4:7-23), showing the persistent and recurring hostility to the returning Jews occurred for a century or more after Cyrus’s decree. The narrative resumes at v. 24. The technique employed was a familiar practice in ancient history writing. Its purpose here is to show that the problems faced by the new community were not isolated but were deeply rooted in its situation.”

          • NET Bible: “The chronological problems of Ezra 4:6-24 are well known and have been the subject of extensive discussion since ancient times. Both v. 5 and v. 24 describe the reign of Darius I Hystaspes, who ruled Persia ca. 522-486 b.c. and in whose time the rebuilt temple was finished. The material in between is from later times (v. 16 describes the rebuilding of the walls, not the temple), and so appear to be a digression. Even recognizing this, there are still questions, such as why Cambyses (530-522 b.c.) is not mentioned at all, and why events from the time of Xerxes (486-465 b.c.) and Artaxerxes (464-423 b.c.) are included here if the author was discussing opposition to the building of the temple, which was finished in 516 b.c. Theories to explain these difficulties are too numerous to mention here, but have existed since ancient times: Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, rearranged the account to put Cambyses before Xerxes and replacing Artaxerxes with Xerxes (for further discussion of Josephus’ rearrangement see L. L. Grabbe, “Josephus and the Reconstruction of the Judean Restoration” JBL 106 [1987]: 231-46). In brief, it seems best to view the author’s primary concern here as thematic (the theme of opposition to the Jewish resettlement in Jerusalem, including the rebuilding of the temple and restoration of Jerusalem’s walls) rather than purely chronological. In the previous verses the author had shown how the Jews had rejected an offer of assistance from surrounding peoples and how these people in turn harassed them. The inserted account shows how, in light of the unremitting opposition the Jews experienced (even extending down to more recent times), this refusal of help had been fully justified. Some of the documents the author employed show how this opposition continued even after the temple was rebuilt. (The failure to mention Cambyses may simply mean the author had no documents available from that period.) For detailed discussion of the difficulties presented by the passage and the various theories advanced to explain them, see H. G. M. Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah (WBC), 56-60.

      • At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes, the people who were already in the land filed an accusation against the residents of Judah and Jerusalem. And during the reign of Artaxerxes, the following men wrote a letter to Persia’s King Artaxerxes: Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their associates. This letter was first written in Aramaic but then translated.

        • I’ve sided with the translations that refer to the king in v. 6 as “Xerxes” rather than the Hebrew “Ahasuerus.” ESV Study Bible explains, “…Ahasuerus (reigned 486-464 BC), otherwise known as Xerxes, who appears in the book of Esther (cf Est 1:1).”

        • NET Bible points out the following additional option for understanding the text of v. 7: “The LXX understands this word as a prepositional phrase (‘in peace’) rather than as a proper name (‘Bishlam’). Taken this way it would suggest that Mithredath was ‘in agreement with’ the contents of Tabeel’s letter. Some scholars regard the word in the MT to be a textual variation of an original ‘in Jerusalem’ (i.e., ‘in the matter of Jerusalem’) or ‘in the name of Jerusalem.’ The translation adopted above follows the traditional understanding of the word as a name.”

      • Guzik adds, “Starting at Ezra 4:8 and continuing all the way until 6:18, everything is written in Aramaic (instead of Hebrew); Ezra 7:12-26 is also in Aramaic.”

        • ESV Study Bible writes, “The letter form follows known practice in the Persian period: formal address, greetings, information, and request. The precise occasion of this action against the community is not known, but it presupposed that the people had made an attempt to rebuild the city walls sometime before the mission of Nehemiah, who arrived in 445 BC (still in the reign of Artaxerxes) and completed the rebuilding of the walls despite strenuous attempts to stop the work at that time too (Nehemiah 4; 6). The present letter was written in Aramaic, which had been the official imperial language under the Babylonians and was still used in diplomacy. The letter might have been translated into Persian (for the benefit of the king), or into Hebrew (therefore implying that the author knew of a Hebrew copy). But when the letter is introduced in the book of Ezra…the language changes from Hebrew to Aramaic, and continues in Aramaic until 6:18, returning to Hebrew from 6:19 to the end. Citing the letters in Aramaic gives authenticity to Ezra’s account (cf also 7:12-26); it is not entirely clear, however, why Ezra’s own narrative in this section also uses Aramaic (e.g., 4:23-5:5; 6:13-18). Perhaps it was natural, given that the letters were in Aramaic. In any case, the reader comes away confident that the author was fluent enough in Aramaic to understand royal letters.”

        • ESV Archaeology Study Bible includes this interesting note on Aramaic, “The term ‘Aramaic’ comes from the people of Aram (an ancient region of upper Mesopotamia)- known as Arameans- whom Old Akkadian writings mention as early as the third millennium BC. During the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the Assyrian Empire controlled much of the ancient Near East, and Aramaic spread in usage as an international language until the Persian Empire of the sixth century BC established it as the official language. The few Aramaic sections of the OT (Gen 31:47; Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jer 10:11; Dan 2:4-7:28) fit clearly within the category of Imperial Aramaic, the language of Persian administration. Eventually, especially during the exile, the Jews came to think of Hebrew (a related Semitic language) as a literary or classical language, while Aramaic came into daily use with the Jews of the Dispersion and especially those in Galilee. That is how it became the mother language of Jesus- there are even a few Aramaic words in the NT.”

      • Rehum, who was the commanding officer, and Shimshai, who was the secretary, wrote a letter to King Artaxerxes concerning Jerusalem as follows:

            • From Rehum the commanding officer, Shimshai the secretary, together with the rest of their associates- the judges, the governors, the officials, the people of Tarpel, the Persians, the Babylonians, and the people of Erech and Susa (that is, the Elamites), and the rest of the nations whom the great and honorable Ashurbanipal deported and settled in the cities of Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River.

              • ESV Study Bible explains, “The officials give their credentials as leaders and also stress their rights in the land have imperial warrant because of the older Assyrian resettlements.”

            • NLT Illustrated Study Bible adds,”Adding greetings from an assortment of key political figures and local ethnic leaders would give credibility to the letter’s accusations and ensure that the message would have maximum political weight. Judges were trusted court officials who knew the Persian laws. Having the support of people from the Mesopotamian cities of Babylon and Erech and the Persian city of Susa would make the case against the Jews more persuasive.”

        • NET Bible notes, “Like Rehum, Shimshai was apparently a fairly high-ranking official charged with overseeing Persian interests in this part of the empire. His title was ‘scribe’ or ‘secretary,’ but in a more elevated political sense than that word sometimes has elsewhere. American governmental titles such as ‘Secretary of State’ perhaps provide an analogy in that the word ‘secretary’ can have a broad range of meaning.”

        • I’ve opted for the rendering of Ashurbanipal rather than the Aramaic “Osnappar.” ESV Archaeology Study Bible says, “Osnappar is a corrupt form of the name of Assyrian king Assurbanipal, whose bloody wars against Babylon and Susa are well attested from Assyrian records.”

        • On “Beyond the River,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible writes, “This place name first appears in the reign of Sargon II. Those living west of the Euphrates River, who looked east across the Euphrates, defined the land ‘across the River’ as Mesopotamia (Jos 24:2-3, 14-15; 2 Sa 10:16). Mesopotamians, who looked west across the Euphrates, saw this region as including Syria, Phoenicia and Israel- the area today referred to by historians of the ancient world as the Levant (cf 1 Ki 4:24).”

      • This is the text of the letter they sent him:

        • To King Artaxerxes, from your servants, the men of the province Beyond the River: Now let the king be aware that the Jews who came from you have returned to us at Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and evil city. They are completing its walls and repairing its foundations. Let the king also be aware that if this city is built and its walls completed, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will suffer loss. Since we have taken an oath of loyalty to the king, and it is not right for us to see the king dishonored, we are sending this message to the king so that he may initiate a search of his predecessors’ archives. You will discover and verify in those records that this city is rebellious and injurious to both kings and provinces, with a long history of revolts. It is for this very reason that this city was destroyed. Therefore we are informing the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls completed, you will not retain control of the province Beyond the River.

          • On tribute, custom, and toll, ESV Archaeology Study Bible says, “These are three Akkadian loanwords. The first refers to revenue paid in currency, the second to tribute paid in kind or with produce, and the third to feudal fees rendered in exchange for certain grants.” (Some translations, HCSB for example, render the latter (toll) as “land tax.”)

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains the rendering I’ve opted for above in v. 14 over “we eat the salt of the palace,” “The Aramaic phrase we eat the salt of the palace was a metaphor for taking an oath of loyalty to the king. The letter’s authors claimed that their only interest was to honor the king, but they were actually grasping for power and political advantage over the Jews.”

        • The same source continues, “The Persians had access to to Babylonian records, which described Jerusalem’s revolts against Nebuchadnezzar (see 2 Kgs 24:1-7). The claim that the Persians would lose the whole province west of the Euphrates was an exaggeration: The Jews actually comprised a small minority in that province.”

      • The king sent the following reply:

        • To Rehum the commanding officer, Shimshai the secretary, and the rest of their associates living in Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River: Greetings. The letter you sent to us has been translated and read in my presence. I issued an order and a search was made. It has been discovered that this city has had a long history of revolt against kings. It has continually engaged in rebellion and revolt. Powerful kings have ruled over Jerusalem and exercised authority over the whole province of Beyond the River, and tribute, custom, and toll were paid to them. Therefore, issue a decree that these men stop their work, and that this city is not to be rebuilt until such time that I so instruct. See that you do not neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow to the detriment of the king’s interests?”

          • Guzik writes, “Artaxerxes I also noted that in times past there were in fact powerful kings of Judah, who had the power to tax and impose tribute on their neighbors. In his mind, it meant that Judah had the potential to return to this powerful past.”

        • HCSB adds, “Some scholars doubt the Bible’s depiction of a once-powerful kingdom of Israel. However, the enemies used Israel’s glorious past as a principal argument to convince Artaxerxes to stop the rebuilding project. Artaxerxes’ principal motivation for complying with their request was his discovery in Persia’s historical archives that this was indeed part of Israel’s past.”

      • As soon as King Artaxerxes’ letter was read to Rehum, Shimshai the secretary, and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them to stop with the threat of armed force.

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “After provincial authorities had intervened, the Persian king ordered a halt to the Jewish attempt to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Most scholars date the episode of vv. 7-23 to just before 445 BC. The forcible destruction of these recently rebuilt walls rather than the destruction by Nebuchadnezzar is the basis of the report made to Nehemiah (Ne 1).”

God Overcomes Opposition (4:24 – 6:22)

The Rebuilding Resumes

      • Then the construction on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a halt. It remained at a standstill until the 2nd year of the reign of Persia’s King Darius.

        • Readers are thrown for a bit of a loop as v. 24 is actually a continuation of the narrative from v. 5, and not a part of the parenthetical section of text which extends from v. 6-23. The following sources explain:

          • Guzik: “Through the kinds of tactics of the Samaritans mentioned in the broad survey of Ezra 4:4-23, these adversaries succeeded in stopping the building work for some 15 years.” He then cites Kidner, “The word ‘Then’ would at first point us to the verse immediately before this; but it only makes sense if it is picking up the thread of verse 5 which was dropped for the long parenthesis (6-23). The time is again that of Zerubbabel.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible: “Ezra now returns to telling about the building of the Temple in 520-515 BC.”

        • ESV Archaeological Study Bible: The word then picks up the story from v. 5, going back to the period soon after the first return. It is implied that the temple rebuilding had ceased soon after it began, within about two years. It resumed in the second year of the reign of Darius I (c. 520 BC), about 15 years later. During his first to years, according to his famous Behistun inscription, he fought battles against nine rebels.”

        • ESV Study Bible includes this graph as a visual:

Adversaries Hinder Work

Ezra 4:5

The people of the land hired counselors to work against the Israelites from the reigns of Cyrus (539-530 BC) to Darius (522-486 BC)

Ezra 4:6

Accusations arose during the reign of Xerxes (Ahasuerus) (486-464)

Ezra 4:7-23

Accusations arose during the reign of Artaxerxes (464-423):

* First threat: they will withhold money (v. 13)

*Second threat: the king is dishonored (v. 14)

*Third threat: they have rebelled before (v. 15)

*Fourth threat: they will take over the whole area (v. 16)

Ezra 4:24-6:12

Work on the temple stopped from 536-520; Darius finally gives order to rebuild it

Detailed Chronology via Bible Chronology Timeline

***NLT Illustrated Study Bible includes this informative section on the Medes, Persians, and Scripture along with the timeline pictured***

Image via NLT Illustrated Study Bible p. 846

Image via NLT Illustrated Study Bible p. 847

The Medes and Persians

Usually Benevolent Dictators

below from NLT Illustrated Study Bible pp. 846-847

The Medes (about 850-549 BC)

    • The early Medes left no written records. According to an inscription from Shalmaneser III of Assyria (858-824 BC), the Medes had settled around Ecbatana, their capital (modern Hamadan, Iran), by the mid-800s BC. The Medes were renowned horse breeders, so Shalmaneser raided their territory to steal large herds of fine horses. The Medes were subject to the Assyrians until late 600s, when they gained their independence as Assyria weakened.

The Persians (about 700-549 BC)

    • Around 700 BC, a small kingdom of Persia was established under Achaemenes (about 700-675 BC). His son Teispes (675-640 BC) was under the domination of the Medes, who were gathering to overthrow Assyria, but trouble for the Medes later freed Teispes from their control. Cambyses (600-559 BC), son of Cyrus I and grandson of Teispes, married the daughter of the Median king Astyages; their son was Cyrus II (559-530 BC), who ascended the throne of Persia in 559 BC.

The Medo-Persian Empire (549-331 BC)

    • Cyrus II fought and defeated his grandfather, Astyages of Media, in 549 BC. He made Ecbatana in Media his capital and set up his archives there (see Ezra 6:1-5). With a Persian father and Median mother, Cyrus II embodied the joining of Media and Persia.

    • Cyrus exhibited an attitude of benevolence and generosity toward defeated enemies. A capable military leader, Cyrus invaded Asia Minor and defeated Croesus, king of Lydia, and brought the Greek cities of the area into subjection. In 539 BC, he captured Babylon with virtually no resistance and decreed that exiled peoples could return to their homelands to rebuild their temples (see Ezra 1:1-4).

    • The son of Cyrus, Cambyses II (529-522 BC), conquered Egypt, but the empire nearly disintegrated when he committed suicide. Cambyses was succeeded by Darius I (521-486 BC), the son of Hystaspes, satrap of Parthia. Darius, an energetic and efficient administrator, put down internal revolts and consolidated the empire into 20 provinces, each under a satrap or “protector of the kingdom,” with inspectors (“the ears of the king”) to check on the activities of the satraps. Darius changed the principal capital of Persia to Persepolis, where his and later kings’ building activities made a tremendous palace complex. Darius was a follower of Zoroaster (500s BC?) and a worshiper of Ahura Mazda, as were Xerxes and Artaxerxes after him.

    • The early victory of Darius over the rebels is commemorated on the famous Behistun Inscription. This memorial took the form of reliefs and a long cuneiform inscription in three languages: Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. A copy of these records was made by Henry C. Rawlinson in 1855 at considerable risk (the monument is some 500 feet above the plain). This accomplishment played a large part in the deciphering of languages in the cuneiform script.

    • During the latter part of Darius’s reign, he suffered defeat and the hands of the Greeks at Marathon (491 BC).

    • Darius was succeeded by his son Khshayarsha, better known in Greek as Xerxes or in Hebrew as Ahasuerus (486-465 BC). During his rule, the Persian fleet was defeated by the Greeks at Salamis (480 BC).

    • The loss of the empire has been attributed to the cowardice of Darius III (336-330 BC), whose armies were defeated by Alexander the Great at Issus in 333 BC and ultimately at Guagamela, near modern Erbil (Arbela) in 331 BC.

Persia and the Bible

    • The earliest mention of Persia in Israel’s history is in Isaiah 44:28-45:1, a predictive prophecy that was given to Isaiah more than 150 years before Cyrus captured Babylon and decreed the return of the exiled Jews to Jerusalem. The rest of the biblical references to Persia occur in the later period of OT history (Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther) and in the writings of the exilic and postexilic prophets (Daniel, Zephaniah, Haggai). Persia is portrayed in Scripture as a stern but usually benevolent master that generally let the Jews govern themselves and worship their own way. Nevertheless, the fact that the postexilic community of Judea was under foreign rule was never far from their minds.

Frieze of Archers, circa 510 B.C. Palace of Darius the Great, Susa. Detail from the glazed brick, Louvre Museum, Paris, France.” via Bible Odyssey

Meeting Between Cambyses II and Psammetichus III” by Adrien Guignet via Wikimedia Commons

Click here to go to chapter 5