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Nothing of the kind is attempted in this narrative. In considerable portions of it the primitive records are simply copied word for word, without the least pretence at original writing on the part of the historian. Elsewhere he has evidently kept as near as possible to the form of his materials, even when the plan of his work has necessitated some condensation or readjustment. The crudity of this procedure must be annoying to literary epicures who prefer flavour to substance, but it should be an occasion of thankfulness on the part of those of us who wish to trace the revelation of God in the life of Israel, because it shows that we are brought as nearly as possible face to face with the facts in which that revelation was clothed.
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In the first place, we have some of the very writings of Ezra and Nehemiah, the leading actors in the great drama of real life that is here set forth. We cannot doubt the genuineness of these writings. They are each of them composed in the first person singular, and they may be sharply distinguished from the remainder of the narrative, inasmuch as that is in the third person — not to mention other and finer marks of difference.
Of course this implies that the whole of Ezra and Nehemiah should not be ascribed to the two men whose names the books bear in our English Bibles. The books themselves do not make any claim to be written throughout by these great men. On the contrary, they clearly hint the opposite, by the transition to the third person in those sections which are not extracted verbatim from one or other of the two authorities.
It is most probable that the Scripture books now known as Ezra and Nehemiah were compiled by one and the same person, that, in fact, they originally constituted a single work. This view was held by the scribes who arranged the Hebrew Canon, for there they appear as one book. In the Talmud they are treated as one. So they are among the early Christian writers. As late as the fifth century of our era Jerome gives the name of "Esdras" to both, describing "Nehemiah" as "The Second Book of Esdras. Further, there seem to be good reasons for believing that the compiler of our Ezra-Nehemiah was no other than the author of Chronicles.
The repetition of the concluding passage of 2 Chronicles as the introduction to Ezra is an indication that the latter was intended to be a continuation of the Chronicler's version of the History of Israel.
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When we compare the two works together, we come across many indications of their agreement in spirit and style. In both we discover a disposition to hurry over secular affairs in order to dilate on the religious aspects of history. In both we meet with the same exalted estimation of The Law, the same unwearied interest in the details of temple ritual and especially in the musical arrangements of the Levites, and the same singular fascination for long lists of names, which are inserted wherever an opportunity for letting them in can be found.
Now, there are several things in our narrative that tend to show that the Chronicler belongs to a comparatively late period. Thus in Nehemiah xii. Then the title "the Persian" suggests the conclusion that the dynasty of Persia had passed away; so does the phrase "king of Persia," which we meet with in the Chronicler's portion of the narrative. The simple expression "the king," without any descriptive addition, would be sufficient on the lips of a contemporary.
Accordingly we find that it is used in the first-person sections of Ezra-Nehemiah, and in those royal edicts that are cited in full. Again, Nehemiah xii. But Jaddua lived as late as the time of Alexander; his date must be about B.
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Lastly, the references to "the days of Nehemiah" 2 clearly point to a writer in some subsequent age. Though it is justly urged that it was quite in accordance with custom for later scribes to work over an old book, inserting a phrase here and there to bring it up to date, the indications of the later date are too closely interwoven with the main structure of the composition to admit this hypothesis here.
Nevertheless, though we seem to be shut up to the view that the Grecian era had been reached before our book was put together, this is really only a matter of literary interest, seeing that it is agreed on all sides that the history is authentic, and that the constituent parts of it are contemporary with the events they record. The function of the compiler of such a book as this is not much more than that of an editor.
It must be admitted that the date of the final editor is as late as the Macedonian Empire.
The only question is whether this man was the sole editor and compiler of the narrative. We may let that point of purely literary criticism be settled in favour of the later date for the original compilation, and yet rest satisfied that we have all we want — a thoroughly genuine history in which to study the ways of God with man during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. This narrative is occupied with the Persian period of the History of Israel. It shows us points of contact between the Jews and a great Oriental Empire; but, unlike the history in the dismal Babylonian age, the course of events now moves forward among scenes of hopeful progress.
The new dominion is of an Aryan stock — intelligent, appreciative, generous. Like the Christians in the time of the Apostles, the Jews now find the supreme government friendly to them, even ready to protect them from the assaults of their hostile neighbours. It is in this political relationship, and scarcely, if at all, by means of the intercommunication of ideas affecting religion, that the Persians take an important place in the story of Ezra and Nehemiah. We shall see much of their official action; we can but grope about vaguely in search of the few hints of their influence on the theology of Israel that may be looked for on the pages of the sacred narrative.
Still a remarkable characteristic of the leading religious movement of this time is the Oriental and foreign locality of its source. It springs up in the breasts of Jews who are most stern in their racial exclusiveness, most relentless in their scornful rejection of any Gentile alliance. But this is on a foreign soil. It comes from Babylon, not Jerusalem. Again and again fresh impulses and new resources are brought up to the sacred city, and always from the far-off colony in the land of exile. Here the money for the cost of the rebuilding of the temple was collected; here The Law was studied and edited; here means were found for restoring the fortifications of Jerusalem.
Not only did the first company of pilgrims go up from Babylon to begin a new life among the tombs of their fathers; but one after another fresh bands of emigrants, borne on new waves of enthusiasm, swept up from the apparently inexhaustible centres of Judaism in the East to rally the flagging energies of the citizens of Jerusalem. For a long while this city was only maintained with the greatest difficulty as a sort of outpost from Babylon: it was little better than a pilgrim's camp; often it was in danger of destruction from the uncongenial character of its surroundings. Therefore it is Babylonian Judaism that here claims our attention.
The mission of this great religious movement is to found and cultivate an offshoot of itself in the old country. Its beginning is at Babylon; its end is to shape the destinies of Jerusalem. Three successive embassies from the living heart of Judaism in Babylon go up to Jerusalem, each with its own distinctive function in the promotion of the purposes of the mission. The first is led by Zerubbabel and Jeshua in the year B. The third follows shortly after this with Nehemiah as its central figure. Each of the two first-named expeditions is a great popular migration of men, women, and children returning home from exile; Nehemiah's journey is more personal — the travelling of an officer of state with his escort.
The principal events of the history spring out of these three expeditions. Zerubbabel and Jeshua are commissioned to restore the sacrifices and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Ezra sets forth with the visible object of further ministering to the resources of the sacred shrine; but the real end that he is inwardly aiming at is the introduction of The Law to the people of Jerusalem. Nehemiah's main purpose is to rebuild the city walls, and so restore the civic character of Jerusalem and enable her to maintain her independence in spite of the opposition of neighbouring foes. In all three cases a strong religious motive lies at the root of the public action.
To Ezra the priest and scribe religion was everything. He might almost have taken as his motto, "Perish the State, if the Church may be saved. The conflict which was brought about by this clash of opposing principles was the great battle of his life. Nehemiah was a statesman, a practical man, a courtier who knew the world.
Outwardly his aims and methods were very different from those of the unpractical scholar.
Yet the two men thoroughly understood one another. Nehemiah caught the spirit of Ezra's ideas; and Ezra, whose work came to a standstill while he was left to his own resources, was afterwards able to carry through his great religious reformation on the basis of the younger man's military and political renovation of Jerusalem. In all this the central figure is Ezra. We are able to see the most marked results in the improved condition of the city after his capable and vigorous colleague has taken up the reins of government.
But though the hand is then the hand of Nehemiah, the voice is still the voice of Ezra. Later times have exalted the figure of the famous scribe into gigantic proportions. Even as he appears on the page of history he is sufficiently great to stand out as the maker of his age. For the Jews in all ages, and for the world at large, the great event of this period is the adoption of The Law by the citizens of Jerusalem.
Recent investigations and discussions have directed renewed attention to the publication of The Law by Ezra, and the acceptance of it on the part of Israel. It will be especially important, therefore, for us to study these things in the calm and ingenuous record of the ancient historian, where they are treated without the slightest anticipation of modern controversies. We shall have to see what hints this record affords concerning the history of The Law in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
One broad fact will grow upon us with increasing clearness as we proceed. Evidently we have here come to the watershed of Hebrew History.
The Expositor's Bible: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther by Walter F. Adeney - Free Ebook
Up to this point all the better teachers of Israel had been toiling painfully in their almost hopeless efforts to induce the Jews to accept the unique faith of Jehovah, with its lofty claims and its rigorous restraints. With the publication of The Law by Ezra the threefold condition ceased, and henceforth there was but one type of religion for the Jews. The question when The Law was moulded into its present shape introduces a delicate point of criticism. But the consideration of its popular reception is more within the reach of observation.
In the solemn sealing of the covenant the citizens of Jerusalem — laity as well as priests — men, women, and children — all deliberately pledged themselves to worship Jehovah according to The Law. There is no evidence to show that they had ever done so before. The narrative bears every indication of novelty.
The Law is received with curiosity; it is only understood after being carefully explained by experts; when its meaning is taken in, the effect is a shock of amazement bordering on despair. Clearly this is no collection of trite precepts known and practised by the people from antiquity.
It must be remembered, on the other hand, that an analogous effect was produced by the spread of the Scriptures at the Reformation. It does not fall within the scope of our present task to pursue the inquiry whether, like the Bible in Christendom, the entire law had been in existence in an earlier age, though then neglected and forgotten. Yet even our limited period contains evidence that The Law had its roots in the past.
The venerated name of Moses is repeatedly appealed to when The Law is to be enforced. Ezra never appears as a Solon legislating for his people.
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