OT History Part 11: Exile and Restoration -- 586-425 BC

Table of Contents

Chapter 11.1: Exile

Precious little of the Exile is given in Scripture. We know of it chiefly through the secular history of the Babylonian and Medo-Persian Empires, along with some Jewish traditional stories. Our focus will rest on the two Prophets of Exile, Ezekiel and Daniel.

Ezekiel -- Ezekiel was removed in 597 BC, in the deportation of the noble classes with King Jehoiachin. He was a member of the Zadokite Priests and clearly familiar with the Temple and Jerusalem. We can safely estimate his age at departure as 25 years. He dates all his work from the date of the exile of King Jehoiachin. Thus, in the fifth year of that exile, he is called as a prophet at age 30. His work is so very dramatic and unusual that he has been accused of varying forms of mental illness. While that may well have been the case, his prophetic writing is clearly consistent with God's revelation through Hebrew culture.

We saw where Jeremiah made a strong case for seeing Jehovah as the God of all Creation, not just the national God of the Nation of Israel. Ezekiel carried that claim further. A major theme behind all his writing is pressing the case for seeing the Lord as truly the One and Only God of all mankind. He was Lord over the Babylonians regardless of their recognition or lack of it. Human plans had no hold on God, who would surely see His people return to their home land. Meanwhile, there was plenty to condemn in the nations who dared lay hands on God's people. That the Lord cared for His People laid the ground for the lessons they must learn in captivity: they cannot disobey Him with impunity.

We know that Ezekiel had his own house on the canal known as Chebar. This places him in a region somewhat north of the Babylonian Imperial capital. Unlike the Assyrians, who virtually forced their subjects to intermarry and lose their national identities, Babylon was content to let subject nations live in their own areas near the seat of power and maintain their own habits of life and cultures. Those of Judah who took Jeremiah's advice to settle in for the long haul did rather well. They engaged in commerce, established synagogues to continue teaching the Law and lived a rather normal life. Indeed, most of them became too comfortable, making no attempt to return the Jerusalem when the chance was offered later. Instead, they became the eastern anchor of Jewish scholarship, building up the influential Babylonian School.

Additionally, this was the period where we believe the bar-Mitzvah arose. With the sure knowledge their exile was a result in part of not knowing the Law, it became the requirement of every male to learn to read and memorize a significant portion of the Pentateuch, as a rite of passage toward manhood and responsible citizenship. There arose a dominant middle-class view of life. Being faithful meant settling in and making oneself better off. In time, it was more about rising from peasantry and becoming respectable. Exiled Jewish men were "men" only if they could make a decent living, and obeyed the Law in detail.

While the details of all this are somewhat fuzzy, some sort of picture of daily life can be drawn with what we do know. It's hard for us today to picture the strong divisions in society based on birth into privilege. While they were permitted a modicum of self-government under Babylon, it was nothing like living under the Davidic Monarchy. In the old days, there was a fairly clear distinction between wealthy nobles and princes on one hand, and the priests and Levites on the other. While the latter might indeed rise to wealth and prestige, their power was limited to what they could leverage via the nobles and the Royal Court. In exile, this division appeared to fade. By the time of Christ, almost the entirety of the noble class seemed restricted to the priesthood, followed by the Levites in a slightly lower ranking. The old tribal nobility was forgotten. To rule in Jesus' day was to be active in Jewish religion. Thus, during the Exile it seems the whole of self-government, such as it was, passed into the hands of the religious leaders.

Some writings from or about that time indicate the priests rightly took over government of the Nation, seeing the nobles and princes had gotten them into trouble in the first place. This is lent some credence by observing how quickly the nobles of Judah, especially those based in Kiriath-jearim, turned to pagan practices when permitted. On the other hand, the demise of the clear separation between elders and priests violated the fundamental design of Covenant life. The priests didn't seem to understand their ancient role included helping the nobility get back on course. Instead, they took over.

Meanwhile, the peasants hardly rate notice. We see them seldom mentioned except in the abstract, with a few bit parts here and there in the main narrative of the Old Testament. We have a rather poor picture of their situation specifically in Israel and Judah, but a rather better picture for their class in that part of the world in general. It did not appear for Jews that they served in feudal misery, but remained rather free. Many did indeed depend on great land-holding nobles, but had their own homes and were somewhat protected by custom and by the Law. Many simply performed day-labor, as is seen by stories of hiring workers for the harvest. A primary difference between the classes was food supply. While everyone had access to grains and produce outside of droughts, and most had some limited access to dairy, it's doubtful eating meat was quite so democratic. Those born to wealth and power would naturally have access to superior nutrition. Noblemen and royalty were generally taller and heavier than peasants for this reason alone.

Along with that better nutrition came better education, simply because they had leisure to pursue it. While the peasants were born to labor early in life, the upper classes worked only as training for taking their place in leadership. More often, a young noble supervised peasants on behalf of some householder. They also had access to weapons training, not to mention an array of privately owned weapons. At times in Jewish history, everyman might have a small sword. Even after iron was available, swords were seldom as much as 18 inches (46cm) long. A peasant might have a sling for stones, maybe even a bow and some arrows, or perhaps a spear, but seldom all at once. Upper classes had plenty of weapons, along with armor and access to horses. They had plenty of time to learn the use of all these and the better skilled often served as full-time soldiers and commanders. Beyond this, all could read, a few could write; most knew geography, history, law, foreign languages, architecture and so forth.

There was also a class of skilled workmen and artisans whose abilities were too precious to waste on agriculture. These formed a relatively slender middle-class. They clustered in cities and towns for the obvious reason of the job market. Everyone else was just a peasant, one of "the people of the land." In common thinking, that whole classes of folks were bigger, tougher and smarter was assumed to be a matter of one's blood -- that is, a superiority of birth. Thus, big folks were presumed noble, smarter and more useful by virtue of birth. Aside from any moral evil they chose, they were thought of as simply "better."

We mentioned previously how wise monarchs retained a personal bodyguard of foreign-born men. Their loyalty would be to the person of the ruler, or at least his household, and would generally avoid the politics of the nation. They were not easy targets for political intrigue by ambitious claimants to the throne born locally. As royal courts grew in size and complexity, this same rule applied to the numerous royal servants. At the imperial level, rulers hardly knew half the people in their court and might expect all manner of political maneuvering. Having servants born elsewhere who were not subjects of the empire would serve to prevent full-scale uprisings within the palace, since everyone spied on everyone else. Bitter rivalries might be annoying, but were reassuring in terms of the ruler's personal safety. Fostering this internal competition was considered wise. No surprise, then, that Nebuchadnezzar chose some Jewish noble teenagers to serve in his court.

Daniel -- Daniel was carried off to Babylon in the first deportation when King Jehoikim was humbled by Nebuchadnezzar in 605 BC. We can't be certain of his age, but it seems he would be no more than 16. This would make him a couple of years younger than Ezekiel. At this point, the name "Israel" again is applied to all Jews; during the exile the term somewhat displaced the more precise term "Judah." Thus, Nebuchadnezzar followed previous policy in selecting court servants from the "Children of Israel" but left the task to the chief eunuch. While we cannot be certain whether the term "eunuch" is meant literally, it would not be out of the question Daniel and his friends were castrated as part of their induction into the imperial court. Ceremonially disqualified from the priesthood did not mean morally disqualified from serving as prophets.

It would seem from the boys available, only these four were chosen for court service after the final cut was made in Babylon. We can only imagine what sort of testing they went through to meet Babylonian requirements. Upon selection for the training, the fellows were given Babylonian names. Daniel, "God's Prince" became Belteshazzar, "Bel's Prince" -- a reference to a chief pagan god in Babylon. Hananiah, "Mercy of God" becomes Shadrach, "Voice of Aku," a pagan moon-god. Mishael, "Who is like God?" is given Meshach, "Who is like Aku?" while Azariah, "Whom Jehovah helps" is changed to Abed-nego, "Servant of Nebo," yet another pagan deity. Aside from the meanings of the names, they were a different language.

Language was among the many subjects these boys would learn in their new jobs. Three years for what is outlined is harder than any college education done today in four. Consider the boys probably knew some Aramaic already, the language of commerce and diplomacy. Babylonian scholars would surely have to learn it better, plus the ceremonial language of Akkadian (Abraham's native tongue), plus a few others. This was to enable learning the whole of Babylonian literature, which is now known to be quite extensive. It covered astronomy (the basis for the old Babylonian astrology), mathematics, Chaldean law, economics, and even some heathen ceremonial magic.

There's nothing in the text to indicate the royal table was inherently bad food. The entire imperial court consumed the same stuff produced by the imperial kitchen and most of it was quite delectable. However, it surely included meat forbidden by Moses. Whether any of it was produced under pagan ritual was a moot point by now, since the boys would perforce be immersed in pagan ritual for the rest of their lives. Much like the life of Joseph in Egypt, which required a great deal of pagan ritual, we can assume the Lord looked past that in favor of a plan of greater importance. We are left with Daniel and his friends simply doing what little is possible to show devotion to Jehovah. They were sure the Lord would see it turn out alright.

As we know, it did indeed, as they became prominent figures in the rather short-lived revival of the Babylonian Empire. Daniel served honorably until at least age 75, when the Medes and Persians marched in as the new rulers. They did this by stopping the canals flowing under the city walls, and then marching in via the muddy conduits in 539 BC. The new regime simply adopted the bureaucracy of the Babylonian courts at first, until there was time to reorganize things. Thus, a couple of years later, Daniel is one of three ministers to whom all the Medo-Persian satraps (regional rulers in the empire) must report. They surely knew of his prophecy of their victory over Babylon and regarded him a worthy servant, since he had a lifetime acquainted with the details of Babylonian government over her territories.

Daniel's prophecies are the earliest example of apocalypse, meaning dark and hidden things revealed. Obviously there's plenty of his work that cannot be taken literally, as he clearly meant it symbolically. Piercing the symbolism can make it seem mysterious enough, but the underlying assumptions about reality are truly alien to us today. While it's clear he prophesied to two imperial courts, he remained a prophet to his fellow Hebrews. His visions concern things far beyond his own time, but the point was to reinforce the doctrine Jehovah was God Almighty, the one real and universal deity. He was Lord of all events in Babylon and everything that happened in Medo-Persia. He would continue to be Lord over all the nations and empires to follow. At some point far distant to come, He would assert His rule over all mankind via a very different King. Inherent in his message was the idea one owed loyalty to Jehovah first, but simple compliance with whatever human government ruled.

Chapter 11.2: Exiles Return

The short-lived Babylonian Empire was finished by 539 BC. Conquered by Cyrus, ruler of Medo-Persian Empire, it was his policy to allow all captive nations to return to their homelands. With Daniel serving in the Imperial Court, you can be sure Cyrus looked with extra favor on the Jews. Our study will take Ezra and Nehemiah as the text. A word of warning: There is apparent confusion about the various rulers of the Medo-Persian Empire. We get the feeling names like Xerxes, Artaxerxes, Darius and Cyrus were titles, not proper personal names. All of them may well have been interchangeable in the imperial records. We make no attempt here to unravel the tangle, simply use what appears to be a reasonable translation of the names given in our text and stick with the narrative.

Ezra is given credit for a tremendous amount of work, but we should keep in mind he probably finished projects many others started. He is viewed as the quintessential Priestly Rabbi. For all we can tell, he may have been the final editor of the Chronicles, for his own book starts off with much the same tone. Indeed, it seems he and his servants were the final editors of the Ezra-Nehemiah scroll, as it appears a single book in most Hebrew collections. His work shows the new seriousness given to observing the Law of Moses.

Ezra 1 -- The decree from Cyrus includes permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The decree was published and willing Jews began gathering to make ready for the move. The Imperial Treasurer delivered all the Temple articles, taken by Nebuchadnezzar, into their custody. Quite likely all the larger furnishings, including the Ark of Covenant, were destroyed with the Temple. The appointed governor of the resettled Jews was named Sheshbazzar. This name was a holdover from the Babylonian language and the man probably held a similar position under Babylonian rule. As nearly as we can guess, he was the fourth son of Jehoiachin and uncle to the next governor, Zerubbabel. Most imperial rulers appointed members of their subject nations' indigenous royal families as governors. If these two men are thus related, we can safely assume their time in office would overlap, much as kings would grant co-regency to their successors. Thus, we read in the text both are referred to as having charge of the Returnees.

2 -- The actual departure took place roughly a year after the decree. Records indicate they arrived in the area of Jerusalem after two years of travel. The census in this chapter amounts to roughly 50,000 people. Obviously, this group is a minority of the Jews living in Babylon. Indeed, at one point it was alleged the soil of Mesopotamia was more holy than that of Jerusalem, since the greatest number of Mosaic scholars stayed behind. We also have indications some few families of the Northern Tribes managed to reconnect with their nation. However, there is great dispute as to whether it was a tiny trickle or a significant portion. Research seems to favor the former. While thousands of priests opted to return, a mere handful of Levites came willingly. There seems no explanation for their reluctance. The folks called Nethinim were most likely the Temple servants from the treaty with the old Gibeonite Confederacy (Joshua 9). They were grouped with Servants of Solomon, described as the combined contingent of his war captives and hostages, hereditary servants of the Royal Household. The families of undetermined lineage (v. 62) went along in hope of a priest arising who could settle the issue with the holy lots (Urim and Thummim); sadly it never came about. The Shekinah Glory departed for the last time from the Temple in 593 BC (Ezekiel 8) and there could be no such word from God.

3 -- When the Babylonian governor, Gedaliah, was murdered by the escaped nobles, their flight to Egypt included a number of the peasants left behind for agricultural work. Thus, quite a bit of Judah was simply vacant. We learn elsewhere there was a small community at Bethel. At some point, the Edomites and some other nations took up residence in some of the vacant cities in the south. However, there were still plenty of places for the Returnees to live. It was all but impossible to resettle them all in Jerusalem. The western ridge of the city was completely unsalvageable for quite some time, so the restored Jerusalem was only slightly larger than what Solomon had: Ophel, the old Jebusite city on the lower ridge; Zion, the upper ridge occupied by the Temple, palaces, fortress and court; and some of the upper area of the Central Valley. Most of the lower Central Valley was filled with rubble from the Babylonian destruction.

At the Feast of Trumpets (seventh month), the scene was a badly ravaged once-grand city. The Temple plaza and royal courts were piles of rubble at best. Tradition indicates parts of Ophel still stood, as did sections of the eastern wall. Tents would be visible over usable ruins and people were beginning to clear space for rebuilding. The court before the Temple had been cleared and the bronze altar had been replaced with a new one. Thus, when the nation appeared for the feast, a place stood ready for burnt offerings. It was at this point the sacrifices were restored to their proper cycle according to Moses. The collected free-will offerings were used to pay laborers to begin clearing and rebuilding the foundation of the Temple. Agricultural produce was sent to Tyre and Sidon in exchange for cedar beams, which would arrive sometime later. Folks stayed around the city a few weeks until the Feast of Tabernacles mid-month.

Just over two years after their return, in 535 BC the Temple foundation was laid. To celebrate, the Temple orchestra and choir put on a mass performance. The crowd drawn to see the foundation was torn. The eldest, who might remember the glory of Solomon's Temple, wept for the much smaller size of the new one. The rest of the crowd was joyful to see the progress. Observers could not tell which group was the loudest, only that the noise was deafening.

4:1-5 -- We recall Esarhaddon had brought in a large group of people from across the Assyrian Empire to replace the people of the Kingdom of Israel, sometime around 680 BC. In response to their appeal for priests of the local religion, Assyria found only a few backslidden priests. They produced a highly edited version of the Torah and revived the paganized worship at Bethel. Under several kings of Judah, there were attempts to correct some of the corruptions, but seldom for long. After some fifty years of Judean Exile, they had lapsed into a very impure worship of someone they claimed was Jehovah. Upon seeing the Temple reconstruction under way, these Samaritans sent a delegation to Jerusalem. They asked how they might get involved and observed they had been worshiping the same God all along. The biggest change in Jews during the Exile was taking the Law of Moses very seriously, completely reshaping the culture to emphasize the necessity of knowing the Law and obeying it in detail. Thus, they rejected the Samaritan overtures. The confrontation established a permanent wall of bitterness between the two nations. The Jews referred to Samaritans as filthy heathens, while Samaritans said Jews were arrogant snobs deserving contempt. Samaritans eventually built their own temple on Mount Gerizim. By this time, Daniel was gone and there was no strong protector of Jewish interests in the Imperial Court.

4:6-24 -- While not in keeping with the chronology of the story, we are given a sample of Samaritan behavior. The Samaritans learned to bribe the court officials to give them an edge in how to petition the Emperor to harass the Jews. During the next 15 years, under two more Emperors, they kept the Jews in check on the Temple. While things turned for the better under Darius the Great, his successor Xerxes I believed the Samaritan lies. The next Emperor, Artaxerxes I, also believed them. During his reign, the Jews made some effort to start work on the city walls, but were forcefully stopped by troops sent direct from the Imperial Court. The damage to the city from this attack is what brings tears to Nehemiah. This section closes by bringing us back to the main story line, noting the Temple rebuilding was stopped until the second year of Darius (520 BC).

While the text is silent on contemporary events, we note Cyrus is replaced by Cambyses (530-522 BC), who passed by on his way to conquer Egypt in 525 BC. On his death, a usurper named Gaumata tried to seize the throne, but was executed by Darius I ("the Great"). For the next two years, Darius is busy putting down a wide-spread revolt. His warfare brought the Medo-Persian Empire to its greatest size and most stable period. It was when things settled down that the Jews were able to get the Emperor's ear.

Chapter 11.3: Rebuilding the Temple

Having put down the pervasive rebellion, Darius I (the Great) set about raising the Medo-Persian Empire to it's greatest power and most extensive borders. Sensing their chance, the Jews begin anew to build their Temple. We are told in Ezra 5:1 it was primarily the stirring of the leaders by two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, that saw renewed activity. Note that Sheshbazzar has passed on and Zerubbabel is now fully in charge as governor.

Haggai -- The man's name denotes a birth during some unidentified festival and can be translated "Celebration." He was probably not yet a legal adult during the Return under Cyrus. Little else is known of him. His prophecy is divided into four messages, each precisely dated. On 29 August 520 BC, he noted the Jews had been suffering from poor harvests and a depressed economy. This was because they lacked the will to obey God's command to rebuild the Temple. They kept saying it was not yet time, though they had time to finish building sumptuous houses for themselves. About a month later the work on the Temple resumed.

During the next month there was a lot of grousing how this Second Temple was so poor compared to the First. On 17 October the same year, Haggai warned them the glory of either building compared poorly to that of Jehovah's presence. If they would apply themselves to the task and obey, they should expect His very presence to make it all worthwhile. In the process, Haggai tosses out something Messianic, a vision of something yet to come. It is altogether natural that the people should misunderstand. He speaks of events that will shake the Heavens -- that is, the Spirit Realm -- with repercussions on the earth. However, they miss the point and assume he refers to a worldly future kingdom.

This time was the birth of the Messianic Expectations regarding a great and mighty earthly Kingdom of Israel that would exceed the previous glories of David and Solomon. Under such thinking, the people began to assume their hands were made holy by handling the Temple stones during the construction. On 18 December that same year, Haggai makes a show of querying the priests in public on what the Law of Moses says about such things. The answer is clear: when it comes to ritual purity, holiness is not contagious, defilement is. In terms of Mosaic ritual purity, it was the sins of the people making the Temple defiled. Unspoken was the obvious reference to Samuel's words to Saul -- "The Lord has more regard for the sacrifice of obedience than the burnt flesh of animals." However, to show His mercy on their sins, He promised from that day forward, they should expect all future crops to yield abundance, especially if they obey the command to build the Temple.

On that same day, Haggai had a message to Zerubbabel. His message seems to nominate the Governor as the Messiah. In the context of other prophecy, we know this was not meant literally. While Zerubbabel did play a critical role, it was his royal bloodline to which Haggai was speaking. Zerubbabel was the symbol of the Lord's plans to redeem the whole world through the House of David. Nonetheless, there was a group of Jews in those days who regarded this prophecy literally.

We note here that the rise of sects within Judaism becomes most notable from this time. There is a large community of Jews in Egypt still; later they would rise to challenge the spiritual leadership of the Babylonian Synagogue. Within the small group of returnees, we find evidence that Messianic Judaism begins here, and then splits into several factions. People learn to see every major change in the political and economic situation through the various lenses of these sects.

Zechariah -- If Haggai stirred up a bit of mystery, Zechariah brought in a tsunami of it. First, we must note his name is rather common to that time and he is one of probably 37 fellows in Judah then by that name. Second, his prophetic material is rather unique among prophecies. He speaks of night visions and loads his messages with imagery that brings a wide variation in interpretation. So, too, his work did more to fan the fire of sectarian Messianic Judaism than almost all other Old Testament literature combined.

It is impossible to summarize the meaning of his writings here. The obvious point is the impact these messages had on the Jews during the second attempt to build the Temple. With beatific visions of how Jehovah was preparing to work through this very building, how could they delay? Until the Temple was finished, God was not going to address any other order of business. All the joys and wonders of what the Lord desired to pour out on them was waiting their obedience. That they took this all too literally is now clear, for we have drawn from this low rumble of excitement a great mass of literature describing all manner of material blessings for the Jews under the coming rule of the Messiah. Many books published during the next 400 years of Jewish history are loaded with the stuff. It's the primary reason they failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, because they were so certain they knew what His rule would be -- quite other than His teaching.

There is a great deal of criticism of this prophetic book because of this. Obvious to readers, there is a distinct break between the first eight chapters and the rest. Up through Chapter 8, the visions are dated. Beginning with Chapter 9, the writing seems to be from a different man. The simplest explanation is that Zechariah's book was published near or after his death. The first half was the result of his work during the years the Second Temple was being built, working alongside Haggai. The rest appears to come much later in his life, for the perspective is rather different, and not tied to any historical events. While various historical enemies of Israel are discussed, they are best seen as symbols of a larger message. Whatever view one takes, it is clear how this material, in the confused minds of the returnees, could lead to the birth of an industry in Messianic Expectations.

Ezra 5 -- Under constant prodding of these two prophets, the work on the Second Temple progressed rather quickly. The activity could not possibly go unnoticed. It's quite obvious the previous trouble-makers were no longer in power and the Samaritans had not yet found any new agents to bribe in the Imperial Court. Still, it's quite certain they reported this "rebellion" to the satrap. The satrap appointed over the Syrian Province, which included Judah, came down and asked Zerubbabel what was going on. Under the assumption such activity was probably illegal, this satrap, Tattenai, tried to stop the work. However, the Jews resisted his interference. The explanation the Jews gave him mentioned the decree of Cyrus, so he used no force to stop them. Instead, he sent a letter to Darius asking for confirmation of the decree, and instructions.

Ezra 6 -- The archives in Babylon held no clue, but the older library at Ecbatana, the ancient capital of the old Median Empire, produced an accurate record of the decree. Keep in mind that Medo-Persian law forbade countermanding any previous decree. Darius, a strong law-and-order ruler, was rather forceful in keeping this custom. Given his requirement to abide by the decree of Cyrus, he ordered the satrap and all others to stay away from Jerusalem and let the building proceed. Further, Darius ordered the satrap to provide from the Imperial treasury there anything the Jews requested for the Temple, including for the worship and sacrifices. Given the penchant Darius had for appointing incorruptible servants, the decree was obeyed in full. Tattenai acted as if it was his joy to support the project.

On 12 March 515 BC, the Temple was completed. There was a great celebration for the dedication service. Then the priests and Levites were assigned their service rotations in the Temple. The next month, on 21 April, Passover was celebrated. This time the priests were ready ahead of time and the sacrifices proceeded in good order. Though not Jewish, anyone who had begun seeking Jehovah was invited to join this and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

During the next few decades, we find Darius initiating the long contest with Greece. His attacks fail, but help to stir the growing power of the Greeks. Darius dies in 486 BC, leaving the contest to his successors.

Chapter 11.4: Esther

The Book of Esther bears a strong hint of Ezra's hand as the final editor. While widely condemned for mentioning neither God nor the Law, it was clearly regarded by Jews as part of their canon, preserved largely as the basis for the Feast of Purim. The feast has little spiritual significance, but is more of a civil-historical celebration filled with symbolism. For example, the feast ends with the admonition that celebrants drink themselves into a stupor, celebrating their continued existence as a people long after the Medo-Persian Empire faded away, against the drunken celebration of Xerxes that nearly ended their existence as a nation. Only the hand of God could explain the result of this tale. We have no reason to doubt it actually happened. It offers powerful enlightenment on what shaped the character of the Jewish nation.

Esther -- Xerxes came to power in 486 BC, rising from the ranks of the Persian half of the empire. From his predecessor, Darius the Mede, he inherited a desire to spread the empire into Greece. However, he was a weaker man in many ways. There were three imperial palaces: Ecbatana was the original capital in Media and Persepolis the newer capital farther south in modern Iran. While the old captured Babylon was used at times, the latter Medo-Persian Emperors favored Susa (or Shushan), in the old Elamite territory. It was this latter palace that Xerxes had decorated extravagantly, with jewels inlaid in the floor, gold and silver furniture, and so forth.

In his third year on the throne (483 BC), Xerxes was ready to try Greece again. He called for his officials to gather for 180 days of strategy meetings, which was climaxed by a wine party. Rather than the usual minimum requirement, everyone was permitted to drink as much or as little as they wished. As we might expect, most spent the seven days roaring drunk. Xerxes was a man more concerned with his reputation than with actual accomplishment. Already overly proud when sober, Xerxes in his inebriated state ordered his ranking consort, Vashti, to come prance before his drunken mob. Her physical perfection was legendary and he wished to show off his trophy woman as icing on the cake. No one would ever forget his greatness, at least during his lifetime. We note as an aside his official wife was some other woman, by whom his heir would be born. Wives were a matter of law and treaty; actual pleasure was taken via any number of consorts and concubines.

The seven eunuchs reported back Vashti's refusal. Vashti was taken with the same pride as her husband and feared losing her own reputation. It was fashionable at that time for women to push their own agenda and the ruling noblemen and princes resented it. There were probably some partisan politics involved, but the parties can't be easily identified. Xerxes consulted his advisers, who took advantage of the situation to stroke his ego and get him to enact some social legislation. They insisted he make Vashti's retirement an imperial decree, thus permanent. This meant she would remain with the harem, but in isolation, losing the very public status she sought to preserve in refusing to parade before the drunks. It would be also be irrevocable, insuring she would not be in a position to take revenge on the advisers. Delivering the decree throughout an empire that stretched from the Indus River to Ethiopia was pretty efficient by a sort of pony express. It was the translation into the hundreds of languages that would take up the most time. Thus, the primary focal point of this decree was the language spoken in any home -- it must be that of the man who owned it. In a world where men took multiple wives from various national backgrounds to show off, conspiring wives might resort to their native tongue to keep their husbands out of their competing agenda. The decree was fundamentally anti-feminist in its own context, and the author seems to approve.

Xerxes went off to war with Greece from 481-479 BC. While he beat the Spartans and occupied Athens, he lost a naval battle off Salamis and was driven out. It was during these bad times Xerxes began longing for the most beautiful of his harem, Vashti. This brought fear to his advisers. Not only would a restored Vashti threaten them, but any replacement normally taken from among the upper noble families would be in complete sympathy with her, seeking ways to nullify the edict that took away their social influence. They thus proposed a beauty pageant from the foreigners and lesser nobles of the empire. Once rounded up, the eunuchs proceeded making them ready. Every candidate spent a year in what amounted to a beauty spa in the harem facility. This harem was separate from the palace. The palace was a very public place, while the harem was isolated from the rest of the world.

We are introduced to Mordecai, a Benjamite of Saul's clan, Kish. This man had been employed in some capacity in the imperial court owing to his position as a nobleman of Judah (former royal family). He shrewdly sought means to influence events on behalf of his nation. He had raised a younger cousin as his own daughter, since she was orphaned. She is described as having not only a grand physical beauty, but a singular feminine grace that stole everyone's heart. The round-up had been indiscriminate of nationality, so Mordecai instructed Esther not to mention being Jewish. When her turn came to visit with Xerxes, she won his heart and was given the place of honor vacated by Vashti. Reading between the lines, we see the wisdom of Mordecai plotting an end to the long years of harassment from the enemies of Judah. His tactics and weapons were Esther's promotion to Queen-Consort.

In order to start things off with a bang, Mordecai took advantage of his inside knowledge of the palace. The disgrace of Vashti surely stirred considerable controversy, along with the decree of household languages. Quite likely, the two doorkeepers were related in some way to Vashti and took advantage of the parade of virgins to plot their revenge. The selection of Esther doomed any hope of Vashti's return to power. Overhearing this conspiracy to assassinate Xerxes, Mordecai passed word through the palace servants to Esther, who revealed it to her husband on Mordecai's behalf. An investigation confirmed the report and the assassins were executed in the favored method of hanging from a public gallows.

Mordecai's constant proximity to the palace set the stage for trouble. Some four years later (474 BC), a man named Haman had gained the Emperor's favor, and was promoted to Viceroy -- second in the Empire. He was even more vain than Xerxes and a slimy manipulator, too. It was common in that part of the world for subjects to bow before their rulers. There were degrees of bowing depending on the relative position of each. Persian rulers demanded all bow to them as to a deity. It was this sort of bowing Mordecai, along with all other Jews, refused to do. Their refusal had long been tolerated, as Jews were known to be peculiar in many ways. Mordecai probably bowed to Haman as to any mortal king, which infuriated the arrogant Viceroy. Indeed, he was too arrogant to summarily execute the older man, but decided to exterminate his kind. Upon learning it was a matter of Jewish ways, he convinced Xerxes to prepare a day to massacre the whole race. It was at the beginning of their year (April). Conferring with astrologers over the best day, along with casting of lots (pur in the old Persian tongue), Haman chose a time almost a full year later. The Samaritans, Edomites and many others in the land near Judah were salivating at the prospect. Haman lied about the extent of Jewish oddities and promised a huge windfall from confiscation of their property, easily worth ten times the annual tribute from the empire. This was probably accurate, given the Jews' newfound love of trade and banking. While banking and finance had been learned by Solomon from the Sidonians, it was never so prevalent among Jews as it was in Babylon. They had become quite wealthy as a nation.

Xerxes seemed indifferent to the fate of these people he hardly knew about and gave Haman his signet ring. He also offered to pay the initial expenses of expediting the messengers outside the routine imperial traffic, along with preparations for the slaughter. Such a major action would be carried out mostly by mercenaries, given a warrant to execute for a cut of the plunder. These would be mustered with an initial payment and/or delivery of weapons. Their commission would require they return a set percentage of the plunder back to the throne. The rest they could keep. Most of Judah's enemies needed no such enticement, however. Plenty of them simply despised Jewish arrogance. Meanwhile, the entire capital city was abuzz with such an unusual decree.

Throughout the Empire, Jews joined in fasting and praying, mourning in sackcloth and ashes. Mordecai managed to get a copy of the decree, plus details of the deal Haman made with Xerxes. It was forbidden to show unhappiness before the Emperor unless he wanted it that way. Thus, Mordecai could not enter the palace grounds, but stood at the gate demonstrating his distress. Esther sent Mordecai garments that would allow him to cover the sackcloth and enter the gates, probably to find out from him what was afoot, but he refused. Thus, their conversation was by way of an intermediary eunuch. Mordecai revealed the full details of the cause of his sorrow. Esther replied she would be of little help. Xerxes was not planning to see her for some time and simply going in to see him was forbidden by ancient custom. Everyone who came before the Emperor must be summoned first. Mordecai warned her it didn't matter; she had nothing to lose. She could risk dying by breaking the custom, or die for sure when the edict of extermination was carried out. Entering unbidden at least offered some hope of saving her people. Her final response was to request a covenant of fasting and praying with her three days for this specific issue, seeking God's favor, and then she would attempt to enter the throne room.

The one exception to this rule of entering the court unbidden was if the Emperor extended his scepter in a sign of pardon for disturbing him. In this Esther succeeded. Whatever had distracted him for the past month that he had not seen her was swept aside upon sight of her. Clearly, it was the wisdom of Jehovah guiding her, as she proposed a private banquet to honor Xerxes and Haman. This was quite the opposite of Vashti, who disdained merely being seen at his official banquet. Esther, at great risk, wanted to offer him a banquet she prepared to honor him and his viceroy. He jumped at the chance to take a break and ordered Haman to appear immediately.

At the banquet, Xerxes made an extravagant offer. Sensing she had not yet gained enough leverage, she repeated the offer of a banquet the next evening. Each time, Haman passed through the gate, with Mordecai's intransigence over bowing gnawing at him. It contrasted starkly with the Queen's signal honors. He called his wife and friends to advise him. When he recounted all his good fortune, yet incomplete with this one nagging imperfection of honor, they suggested he prepare a gallows 75 feet high (23 meters) in his own courtyard. This would be visible all over the city, even from the Imperial Palace. It could be finished overnight, and then he could ask the Emperor permission to hang Mordecai on it the next day.

Suffering a sleepless night by the hand of God, Xerxes ordered his official records read to him. It appears he was afflicted with a conscience. Perhaps he had forgotten to render proper honor somewhere? Indeed, there was Mordecai, who had saved the Emperor's life by revealing an assassination plot. Finding nothing had been done to reward the man, Xerxes needed to consult an adviser, according to custom, to rectify matters. By now it was morning and the only adviser present was the Viceroy. Haman had come quite early to request Mordecai's execution. Before he could present his request, Xerxes had a query about honoring someone. In his arrogance, Haman thought it merely a ploy to see what would make his day. So he told Xerxes what he wanted for himself, each a signal honor in itself by the standards of that day. He described these honors only to learn it was intended for his enemy, Mordecai. Worse, he had cut his own throat by suggesting this honor come at the hand of a high ranking prince. Haman was the only prince at hand to carry out his own public humiliation. It took most of the day. Mordecai resumed his place at the gate; it was Haman's turn to mourn.

Conferring afresh with his family at home, Haman was warned. If things had turned around so abruptly, it was the hand of the Jewish God. Jehovah was feared superstitiously. They presumed He acted rarely, but swiftly and completely, regardless of other gods. Before Haman could contemplate his doom, the imperial eunuchs arrived to hustle him off to Esther's banquet.

At the banquet, with the final course of wine served, Xerxes again pledged to answer any request she could make. By offering up to half his empire, we note it was all he could do. While he ruled the whole of the Medes and Persians, he couldn't obligate the Medes to just anything without consultation, only his own Persian people. Thus, he offered everything within his real power. Her response was clearly no small matter -- her entire nation had been sentenced to death. She explained it in terms of greed. In reality, this extermination would cost the Empire a great deal in economic terms. Jews were likely the most productive people in the Empire and their economic activity spilled over to bless everyone. Simply confiscating their property -- making them slaves -- would bring the imperial treasury a great deal of wealth and preserve their productive presence. Killing them would diminish the wealth of the Empire.

Xerxes still did not connect this to his decree against the Jews. When he asked who would do such a horrible thing, she fingered Haman. It hit Xerxes all at once how Haman had been manipulating him. It seemed almost as if Haman was a member of the party supporting Vashti, using the cover of this complaint about Jewish customs and wealth to get rid of Esther and pave the way for Vashti's return. Xerxes went out into the private garden, in the cool night air, to compose himself. Meanwhile, Haman begged Esther for his life. She had remained in a relaxed pose on a couch. So animated was Haman he prostrated himself on the end of her couch, at which moment Xerxes came back into the room. In his stormy mood, he took in the scene and assumed the worst -- Haman was attempting to assault Esther in Xerxes' very presence. Whatever came next, the exclamation from Xerxes was a death warrant for Haman, so the attending servants covered his face, according to custom for condemned men. One of the servants present was a eunuch who had been sent to fetch Haman for the banquet. He pointed out how appropriate it would be to hang Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. So it was ordered.

Further justice was to allow Esther, the potential victim, to dispose of the guilty man's assets. Upon revealing Mordecai, the man recently honored, was her next of kin, Xerxes had him replace Haman in court. With yet one piece of unfinished business, Esther again went through the risky process of gaining official audience with Xerxes, and tearfully pleaded for her nation's survival. While there was no means to rescind the decree against the Jews, there was one way they might survive. Xerxes told Esther to confer with her uncle, now the Viceroy with the signet ring, and they could do as they liked. Their plan was to decree the Jews should be allowed to muster for their own defense and could legally kill their enemies once fighting started. The message carried by the imperial mail riders two months after Haman's decree was a cause for celebration throughout the Empire.

When the fateful day arrived, 7 March 473 BC, things had completely reversed. Mordecai was more famous than Haman had dreamed. His influence was sufficient to find the Jews reinforced with imperial troops. Those who had harassed the Jews all this time were arrested and many were executed. The few who dared attempt going after the Jews were slaughtered. Xerxes was pleased and told Esther to make another request. She asked for a second day in Susa alone, since the decree could hardly be relayed across the Empire so quickly. It was granted, so the sons of Haman were killed and many more enemies were arrested. However, the Jews were careful not to plunder the property. This was to make clear there was no intent to profit from blood, but only to obtain justice for hostile acts against them.

The aftermath was a day of celebration, which they called Purim, the plural of the word for lots cast in fortune telling. Because the residents of Susa had a second day, there was some variance in celebration. Mordecai decreed both days would be celebrated. A few years later, he added a decree to observe the tense days before their victory with fasting and praying. It would be a long time before anyone rose to oppress the Jews again. Xerxes died in 465 BC. In just a few years, Ezra would lead another group returning to their home in Judah.

Chapter 11.5: Ezra Comes to Jerusalem

It had been 57 years since the Second Temple was finished. Aside from the story of Esther, and a brief mention of interference from the Samaritans and other old enemies of Israel, little is known of this period. However, it seems plain the Jews had become rather cozy with the locals. By the time Ezra arrives, the first issue he faces is the intermarriage with local heathens. While it appears Ezra wasn't aware of this specific problem before he arrived in Jerusalem, it's quite likely he knew something wasn't right and this unknown trouble required investigation. His commission from Artaxerxes makes mention of a need to appoint judges under the Law of Moses. He was a reformer from the start.

Ezra 7-8 -- Artaxerxes I ruled from 465-424 BC, a rather long 40-year reign. During his first six years or so on the throne, he struggled with rebellion in his empire, particularly Egypt. Rebellion in any empire is most common at the change of rulers. There was also the continuing warfare with Greece. After settling a treaty with these two, Artaxerxes turned back to internal matters. Part of this was the matter of Judah. In his seventh year, 458 BC, he issued a decree to the Syrian Province. We can be rather certain Ezra was in some position of influence with the Imperial Court and managed to obtain this decree backing the very work he was determined to do for Jehovah.

Ezra the man is identified as a priest, but not in the line of High Priestly descent. He refers to himself as a Scribe. In ancient times, reading alone was hardly as universal as in modern times. Writing was far more demanding and Ezra belonged to the class of priests who had dedicated themselves to this skill for the very purpose of making copies of the Law. After a decade or two of copying Moses, they were exceptionally well-versed in the minutiae of the Law; they were asked to teach, argue as a lawyer in court cases and eventually to serve as priestly judges. We note it is wholly in character for him to make much of genealogies. As the best candidate for final editor of the Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, we see this stamp of his work throughout them.

As part of his commission, Ezra was given a tremendous load of gold, silver and other precious materials for the sake of the Temple. He delivered this into the care of some priests and Levites who accompanied him. There was also a huge collection of mixed items sent as offerings from the community remaining in Babylon. After nine days of travel from Babylon, just a short distance up the Euphrates Valley, the entourage stopped outside a community of Levites and Nethinim -- the latter a class of servants attached to the Levites arising from the old treaty with the Gibeonites as "hewers of wood and carriers of water" for the Temple. While there, Ezra requested the community leadership find men of known lineage to go with him and serve in the Temple. While some 4,000 priests came back in the original return party with Zerubbabel, only a handful of Levites came, so Ezra was hoping to balance that workload. While there, Ezra also proclaimed a three-day fast and prayer asking God's protection. All that treasure and there was no armed escort. Roving bands of raiders were known to work the open portions of the road between cities. After all his boasting in his God, he felt it would diminish that testimony to ask the Emperor for soldiers.

Having received a good word from God on their request, the caravan set out on 8 April 457 BC. They arrived in Jerusalem on 24 July the same year, making 900 miles (1450 km) in four months at an average of seven miles (11 km) per day. This was fairly fast for large civilian groups with families, wagons and such. Ezra testifies the Lord protected and prospered their journey. They delivered the offerings and published the decree with the authorities throughout the Syrian Satrapy. For three days they camped near the city of Jerusalem and celebrated joyously the opportunity to stand in the Temple of Jehovah before His altar.

9 -- The mood of celebration was short-lived, however. No doubt Ezra spoke in terms of strict adherence to the Law of Moses. In the months that followed his arrival, it's hard to imagine he didn't begin to review compliance with the Law as he prepared to commission judges and teachers. In this context, the local rulers mentioned the intermarriage with pagans among the Jews. Were this a matter of Gentiles converting to be married, we'd not hear about it. Rather, the marriages involved the pagans bringing their idols and ritual items into Jewish homes with them. Jewish girls were married off to pagan householders. This was in December of that same year.

Fully knowing how unfaithfulness had led to the destruction of the Holy City and the exile of his people, Ezra made it clear this was no minor issue. Tearing the garment was bad enough, but to pull out hair signals wrath bearing destruction. He spent the rest of the day in stunned horror at how quickly the nation had returned to such a major violation. Jehovah was not just any old household deity. He had granted a new anchor for Jewish identity, but in just 80 years they had forsaken the Covenant. The rulers trembled at the thought of renewed wrath from God. After the evening sacrifice, Ezra went to the Temple and prayed with his face to the pavement; this is how leaders handle major moral failures. He was joined by everyone who cared in the least.

10 -- While Ezra and the others were praying thus, the leaders got to work and agreed to propose a renewal of the Covenant. They asked Ezra to take charge and do what seemed best to him as they were behind him completely. Ezra rose up and took counsel with them. First, he extracted an oath from them they would obey the Law, plain and simple. When that was done, he had them publish a decree that all Israel must assemble in Jerusalem within three days or risk severe punishment. During the wait, Ezra stayed in seclusion in the High Priest's chambers in the Temple, fasting and mourning.

It was 8 December 457 BC. The full assembly of Judah and Benjamin was more than the city could hold. While the leadership huddled in the Temple plaza, the masses were forced to stand outside the city in the Kidron Valley. It was the season for rain, but the cold was not their only reason for shivering; they feared the wrath of God. It was the turn of the elders from the outlying areas to speak, asking that the crowd be released on a declaration to obey in advance. It was noted this problem of pagan intermarriage was widespread and could not be resolved in short time. Having the full assembly continue standing in the open was cruel and unnecessary. They got the message already. They arranged to send their leaders by district, one at a time, allowing Ezra to investigate and rule on each case.

So it was done, and Ezra painstakingly listed each of the offending families. He also recorded the few who rejected the whole idea, including a couple of Levites. The narrative ends here, but we may safely assume similar efforts to recover holiness were maintained for quite some time.

Chapter 11.6: Nehemiah Comes to Help

Between the end of Ezra in 457 BC, and the beginning of Nehemiah in 445 BC, it's not as if nothing happened. For Ezra to break up marriages with pagan families could not have won the admiration of the local pagans. Just when they were beginning to get some leverage with the Jews, it's broken all at once. We can't forget, for these people, religion is politics and vice versa. The primary enemies of Judah in Samaria and Edom would be looking for a way to take revenge.

It appears Ezra gave it to them. Their renewed hostility called for defensive measures. Ezra probably felt sure his commission included protecting the City of Jerusalem as best he could, to include rebuilding the ancient walls. The Samaritans and Edomites had also seen a copy of the commission and were betting Ezra was wrong. As soon as the walls were started, they sent word to someone in the Imperial Court with a bribe. The result was soldiers dispatched to destroy the wall and burn the gates (Ezra 4:6-23). Apparently Artaxerxes didn't consider his decree to include a wall, either. The damage to the city and resulting despair were communicated to the Jewish community back in Babylon.

Nehemiah 1 -- When the news of this came to Nehemiah, he was residing at the palace in Susa, serving Artaxerxes as Wine Taster. Essentially, it is a ceremonial job of taking the first sip of every cup of wine the Emperor drinks. The idea being if it is poisoned, the wine taster will sicken and die first, while the ruler is spared. It was an ancient custom to have a wine taster, but hardly necessary in Artaxerxes' time, so was merely ceremonial. However, the position had gained tremendous power and prestige over the centuries before this. Nehemiah was a big shot. It's obvious he had influence in the Court of Heaven, as well. His prayer is very persuasive. The news came to him in December 445 BC. Over the next four months he prayed and fasted.

2:1-10 -- Servants of the Emperor were not permitted to display sadness or sorrow in his presence without specific orders. Four months of intense prayer had given him a dreary countenance and the Emperor noticed. He was rather patient with Nehemiah, sensing it was some deep sorrow of the heart, not something frivolous. It wasn't merely fear of offending Artaxerxes, but of making a request contrary to the emperor's previous actions regarding Jerusalem. He renewed his prayer silently, then spoke of his sadness over the city and his people. The Emperor's question was of the nature, "So, what do you want to do about it?"

Nehemiah's answer was that the latter decree regarding Jerusalem (Ezra 4:21) would include sending him to do just that: rebuild the wall of the city. When asked for a return time, Nehemiah provided an estimate. He also requested the decree include a letter of safe passage and an order of timber from the Imperial Forester. This was all granted. With an armed guard he arrived at the Satrap's office in Syria, announcing his intentions. The primary enemies are named: Sanballat of Beth Horon and Tobiah the Ammonite. Tobiah was an Ammonite nobleman serving the Satrap of Syria. Sanballat is known to have been the governor of Samaria.

2:11-20 -- Apparently the bulk of the soldiers who escorted Nehemiah had orders to return when he arrived at Jerusalem. Likely he kept only a small contingent of Persian bodyguard. The enemies had been tipped off, but were not fully aware of all the plans. Waiting three days, Nehemiah took a few trusted escorts with him to inspect the walls of the city during the night. Any spies within the city were unlikely to know what was up. His description is a little obscure. Our best guess is he went out of the Old City at a western gate, rode down along the wall to the Pool of Siloam, but could not pass further. Dropping down into the valley, he circled around and rode up the Kidron a bit. Then he turned and came back in the same gate where he started.

Next day, he revealed his plans to the leadership in the city. With an imperial decree behind him, they were ready to try again. The two enemies were joined by an Arab nobleman named Geshem. When these troublemakers ridiculed the idea, they subtly threatened to report the city was in revolt. Nehemiah warned them they really had no say in the matter.

3: -- The city by this time was probably rather broad across the northern half where the ridge is flatter, and narrowed down to the steep-sided hump of the old City of David. Nehemiah lists the households and the portion of wall they worked. His description starts with the gate nearest the northeast corner of the Temple Mount. From there, his list runs along the northern line to the west. There are two towers that guard the northern side, which is the easiest approach to the city. Near the northwest corner is mentioned the residence for the Satrap of Syria ("Region Beyond the River" from the perspective of the Mesopotamian Valley). Not that he would live there full time, it was his to use if he ever came. On the western wall was a long section leading to the Tower of Ovens, which was near the baker's district. This was near the Valley Gate, which was connected to the lower west wall running down past the Pool of Siloam to the Refuse or Dung Gate. This was the lowest point of the wall, letting down into the Hinnom Valley where it joined the Kidron. Running north up the east side was a double wall for a distance. The outer wall was down nearer the valley floor. Both walls were completely rebuilt, along with a couple more towers. We believe the double walls rejoined near the lower east corner of the newer city and Temple Plaza. From there up to the northeast corner again were priests, Levites, Nethinim and goldsmiths repairing the walls nearest their homes and shops.

This description locates the people and the areas they worked, but the job hardly progressed in a simple manner.

Chapter 11.7: The Wall Is Built

Nehemiah 4:1-5 -- Nehemiah's enemies expressed their opposition in several ways. First, they tried public ridicule. This would be a theatrical display of standing near the wall, discussing loudly in the hearing of the builders. In the process, they ridiculed Jehovah, asking rhetorically if sacrificing to Him was of any use. The wall was being built largely of the limestone rubble of previous walls and buildings torn down repeatedly, starting with Nebuchadnezzar. Part of Sanballat's criticism notes limestone blocks, when exposed to fire, are softened to the point of crumbling easily. Tobiah chimed in how easily the wall could be toppled if so much as a small animal should jump on top of it.

4:6-12 -- At this time, Arab tribes were living south of Jerusalem. The Ammonites held the southern end of Gilead, just over the northern end of the Dead Sea from Jerusalem. Ashdod was then the chief city of Philistia. The Samaritan troops were at Sanballat's call. Thus, we see the enemies of Judah were active on all sides. When the wall reached half its planned height, these forces counseled together secretly to attack without warning. This was no major military exercise they were planning, but a sizable raiding party from each group, large enough to threaten, but small enough to move quickly and without much notice. It was necessary to avoid official involvement due to Artaxerxes' decree. However, this was not a very well kept secret, for the cities across Judah called for their workmen to return so they might defend against the planned raid. This, on top of the monumental pile of rubble that must be removed from the city, was enough to discourage the wall building. It was exactly what the proposed raids were supposed to accomplish one way or another.

4:13-23 -- Rather than send defenders to the outlying towns, Nehemiah called the families in to camp in and around Jerusalem. Then guard pickets were set around the whole perimeter. Half of the able-bodied posted guard, fully armed and armored, while the other half built the wall. Further, the workmen wore a sword, with some of the exterior guards holding extra weapons. Thus, any attack would meet an instant and concerted defense of fully armed troops. Because of the distance involved between work parties, it was planned to reinforce any point of attack with workman from inside the wall, running quickly to face the threat. Professional soldiers (nobles and leaders) were scattered throughout the city. Scouts from the raiding parties saw this and canceled their attack. Nehemiah reports he did not enjoy any special comforts, but joined in the hardships. They slept fully dressed, disrobing only to wash quickly and change clothes. They also slept with weapons beside them.

5 -- A particular problem arose during this tense period, but was not fully addressed until later. Building the wall of Jerusalem was a sacrifice not only of labor, but labor that could not be given over to normal trade and harvest activities. The building took place during part of the summer fruit harvest and the olive harvest, not to mention the Jewish New Year. Food became scarce for those living close to the earth. The peasants and lower households were in a bind, for the habit of the wealthy was to charge high interest rates, contrary to the Law. The situation had gotten so bad many were already serving as bond-slaves. The seventh year release was not being honored (Exodus 21:2-11), or was not offered as an option, so some had been sold off to pagans.

As the food situation became tight, Nehemiah was presented with complaints of this bad business. In the mad rush to finish the wall, Nehemiah pondered how to deal with this mess. In the short term, he rebuked the guilty nobles and priests and the practices were suspended. Later on, he called a solemn assembly, something not possible during the wall building. This made the changes permanent. Further, Nehemiah set the example by refusing to live at the expense of the people. Instead of collecting the governor's tax, he and his bodyguard lived out of Nehemiah's own pockets. He would have also been required to feed any visiting dignitaries, yet did so at his own expense. This provided immense relief during his twelve years as governor. Previous men in that office were likely Persian appointees who weren't Jewish.

6:1-4 -- The wall itself was completed. While the gates had not yet been hung, the city was fairly secure from attack by raiding parties. The prior guard force could be greatly reduced to gate squads and a company or two in reserve inside the city. The only hope of the enemies was to draw Nehemiah out. Northwest of Jerusalem some 20 miles (32km), at the southern end of the Plain of Sharon, was the city of Ono. Sanballat and friends offered to host a conference in that area at the town of Nehemiah's choosing. Nehemiah was no fool. He wasn't lying when he said there was too much work to do; hanging gates was labor intensive and slow compared to stacking rocks already in abundance. The wood had to be brought in, trimmed and cut into posts and planks, then assembled in frames and doors. He rejected that message four times.

6:5-9 -- Failing that ploy, Sanballat made a public accusation. He had read in everyone's hearing a letter accusing Nehemiah of planning to declare himself King of Judah, in rebellion against Persia. Further, while there were surely prophets at this time speaking about the Messiah, the enemies twisted this to mean Nehemiah had hired false prophets to declare him this Anointed One of God. The objective was to compel Nehemiah's appearance before a court of his peers to face these charges. This, too, failed to impress Nehemiah.

6:10-14 -- The final trick was to hire a false prophet of their own. Sanballat commissioned Shemaiah to give Nehemiah "a word from God." The prophecy was that Shemaiah had learned from God Sanballat and friends had sent assassins. They would come that very night and the only hope was to hide in the Temple. The suggestion itself exposed its falsity. No layman was allowed in the Temple, so it was not a word from God. Besides, such cowardice was the last thing the people needed to see. Nehemiah's notes other prophets who had been used by Sanballat for similar chicanery.

6:15-19 -- The wall was begun 1 August 444 BC and finished 21 September the same year, 52 days. While we note the walls were not completely gone, but required closing breaches and adding gates, it was great task still. This feat was clearly nothing less than a miracle from Jehovah. As if external enemies weren't enough, Nehemiah reveals Tobiah was allied by marriage to a couple of powerful Jewish noble houses. Further, his name is Hebrew, suggesting he may have descended from one of the few northern Israelis left by the Assyrian deportation two hundred years earlier. Altogether, his influence far outweighed his legitimate power in Judah. There was constant verbal sparring between him and Nehemiah via numerous letters. Nehemiah also received countless letters from Jews supporting Tobiah.

7:1-4 -- Nehemiah passed rule over the city to his brother, Hanani, and security passed to Hananiah, commander of the fortress on the wall north of the Temple. This same building, in one form or another, was still used as a fort by Roman soldiers during Jesus' time. Most Returnees avoided the city, living in outlying towns and cities. Only during feasts, festivals and assemblies was the city fully populated. Thus, keeping it secure was hard work. Nehemiah arranged for in-depth defense of the city. He tasked the Levites to help guard the upper city. Gate policy was to use smaller doorways until the heat of day, when the main gates could be opened. At night, guards were posted atop the wall, as well as sector guards within the city posted before the gate of each major household. The city secured, Nehemiah was free to devote time to actually ruling Judah and instituting reforms.

Chapter 11.8: Final Covenant Renewal

We come to the end of our historical narrative from Scripture. The final passage of Nehemiah is loaded with the sort of minutiae and facts typical of Ezra. For this reason, scholars tend to support the notion Nehemiah's memoirs were incorporated into a final text edited by Ezra.

Nehemiah 7:5-73 -- Nehemiah made plans to repopulate the City of Jerusalem. After the last Persian destruction, folks were skittish about living in the city for both its lack of a protective wall and for the negative attention it had received. Before everyone was dismissed, Nehemiah dug out the scroll of returnees who came back with Zerubbabel almost a century before. The idea was to insure only pure Jews would be invited. The text includes a fresh copy of the census Ezra recorded early in his book. The final verse is a comment about the problem as Nehemiah saw it: Everyone lived outside the Holy City. There were only a few princes of Judah and some of the Temple staff.

8 -- The first day of the seventh month was 27 September 444 by modern reckoning, a week after the wall was finished. This was the Feast of Trumpets. While the celebrants crowded into the city for the celebration, the leaders built a wooden platform, asking Ezra to stand on it and read the Law. He read from the old Hebrew version, no longer spoken by the common folk. Thus, a dozen or so priests and Levites stood by to render the readings into the Aramaic now spoken by everyone. The common language of Babylon was the Semitic tongue similar to the Hebrew spoken by Aramaens (also called Chaldeans), and it had quickly displaced the more archaic Hebrew. While they would have understood some of the words and phrases, it would be approximately as hard to follow as the King's English today would be for a high school student. The practice of paraphrasing became common from that time, and the product was called targum. A written body of such paraphrasing bears that name today.

Reading in this fashion the first time took at least six hours and the congregation was probably quite shaken by the warnings in Deuteronomy regarding their sins. However, there was one day set aside for sorrow, the Day of Atonement, which was not for another week or so. While such sensitivity itself was a good thing, this particular holy day was for celebrating the joy of the Lord. This powerful fresh rendering of the Law had a lingering effect, prompting the leaders to gather the next day to study how they should celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, which came somewhat later. While this had been celebrated in the past, the point that all Jews should spend some time in a make-shift shelter had been neglected. Thus, it had not been faithfully observed since the time of Joshua just after the Conquest.

9 -- Most of the seventh month (latter September through early October) was a series of celebrations. On the first day was Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23f), sort of a start of the agricultural cycle. The last harvest (olives) was past, there was a break for holy days, and then plowing would start. Trumpets was treated as a Sabbath, regardless where it fell in the week. On the tenth day of that month was the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26ff). On the 15th through 21st of that same month was Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:33ff). During this time the reading of the Law was repeated over the whole week in shorter sessions.

On the 24th day of that month, while it was not a regular holy day, the nation assembled again in mourning. The repeated exposure to the Law was having its effect. After about a three-hour reading of the Law again (translators had time to practice on difficult passages), the Levites stood up and led the nation through a prolonged confession of their sins, as well as the mercy and patience of Jehovah. At the end, they all agreed to compose a binding ordinance to renew the Covenant.

10 -- The chapter begins with a list of those who affix their personal seal to this document renewing the Covenant. The points of emphasis are three: (1) no mixed marriages with pagans, (2) no trade on the Sabbath, and (3) reinforcement of the Sabbath Year of Release. There was also set in place an extensive organization of the offering system, to include reinstating the Temple Tax.

11-12 -- Finally, this extended stay around Jerusalem was topped off with a sort of tithe on the people to move into the Holy City. Lots were drawn and one family in ten was chosen to boost the population of pure Jewish inhabitants. The names of families are listed. The next chapter is a census of priests and Levites. It is noted under Darius II (423-404 BC) another census was done. Then the dedication ceremony for the city wall is described. Many Levites, particularly the singers, were brought into town. They and a large company of priests and nobles were divided into two large groups that paraded around opposite sides of the wall until they met at the Temple. Beginning with that period, Nehemiah began organizing the offices within the Temple to manage offerings and storage. It was established the Levites would receive tithes from the people, and then present a tithe of that to the priests. Performance of ritual purity became highly regulated.

13 -- In some places, the figures of speech for noting the timing of events are hard to follow. Near as we can figure, on the day the wall was dedicated, there was a rereading of the section of Law demanding a high degree of separation between the Jews and pagans. Those of the Moabite and Ammonite races who lived among the Jews must wait ten generations (Leviticus 23:3f) before they are treated as equals and allowed to worship as Jews. Their extreme efforts to block the Conquest were especially heinous. Meanwhile, Edomites and Egyptians must wait only three generations (Leviticus 23:7f). This is background material for what follows.

In 432 BC, Nehemiah returned to his duties at the Imperial Court. During his absence, the High Priest, Eliashib, had forged an alliance with Tobiah. This Ammonite was given a suite in the Temple complex for those times he visited the Jerusalem. This, not so long after having been warned: If ordinary Jewish laymen couldn't enter the Temple building, how much more wrong for a pagan, particularly an Ammonite! Upon his return sometime later, Nehemiah wasted no time tossing all Tobiah's stuff out on the street and having the rooms ritually cleansed. This was just a sample of how quickly things had gone downhill in Nehemiah's absence. The nation had so dropped off bringing offerings the Levites had to return to their private farms just to survive. None but the wealthiest were able to stay and serve in the Temple. This was forcefully rectified, too. Further, during a tour across Judah, Nehemiah noticed large numbers of people doing business on the Sabbath. He dealt severely with the nobles over this. It seemed worst in Jerusalem itself and Nehemiah himself shouted at the people crowding around the gates, after he personally saw to it the gates remained locked on the Sabbath.

Finally, adding insult to injury, he noticed on his tour how many Jewish men were still marrying heathen wives without any effort to convert them. Worse, they were letting their children grow up speaking the mother's native tongue. We note this was actually a violation of Imperial decrees (Xerxes in the story of Esther), as well as a violation of Mosaic Law. Nehemiah dealt with this sternly and harshly, mentioning how it destroyed King Solomon. Even priests were violating the Law regarding mixed marriages, so Nehemiah makes special mention of a son of the very High Priest who had accommodated Tobiah in the Temple. This priest was defrocked and banished from Judah.

The final Old Testament historical passage ends with Nehemiah's refrain asking Jehovah take note and not forget the zeal and work of Nehemiah in the cause of promoting His holiness. Thus, the final date is sometime during the reign of Darius II, which ended 404 BC.

Chapter 11.9: Malachi

The very name Malachi has long been a symbol of closure. However, it is not the closure of release, but of imprisonment. We find Malachi's writing difficult to date. It is clear the Second Temple is already old again, yet Judea is clearly still under Persian rule. Given a large number of factors, we would do well to place him publishing this prophecy around 425 BC. After him is a long period of silence from the prophets, and we can safely assume from God, as well.

Malachi -- We see the numerous streams of moral failure converging into a flood in Malachi's words. We have previously mentioned how banking and finance became a major occupation for Jews in Babylon. Under the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah, there was evidence of a hideous level of greed among the powerful and wealthy. Nehemiah struggled mightily with politics in the priesthood, but it was just getting started.

Malachi begins by reminding his readers they are deeply loved by Jehovah, quite unlike the descendants of Esau. Edom would eventually be forgotten in history, but not Israel. He then goes on to list how they have defied the commands of their God. A primary failing is in the priesthood. Under Persian rule, the returnees living in Judea were under a governor, but to our knowledge, the only Jewish governor they had was Nehemiah. He was rather independent of the regional governor appointed by the Syrian Satrap. Once gone, the priesthood gained the political upper hand. Primarily, it was the High Priest who served as the Persian proxy in Jerusalem and Judea. Politics raised their influence, but also opened the door to deep compromise and corruption.

So deeply enamored were they of their political power, the priests became more perfunctory in performance of their duties in the Temple. They came to see their calling as shepherding the Jews in a secular sense, jealously guarding their unique Jewish privileges. In the long run, they became so very good at pleasing their Persian masters, they forgot to please God. The Law was no longer obeyed, but mined for ways to maintain their power. The Law was clearly known, since Ezra had established the custom of public reading. However, the custom of targum became deeply corrupted. The Law was used as a club to keep the people in subjection.

The net result was a shallow ritual observance that offended Jehovah. People could see clearly the hypocrisy of the priesthood, making them cynical of observances. The stratification of society became rigid and the status quo became god. It seems obvious the warnings of Malachi went unheeded. His was the last word from God in the Old Testament. It's unlikely there were no other prophets following him, but we find evidence of very few, and then none.

Jewish prosperity in Babylon was already assured. It was the prosperity of Jews in Judea that weakened Babylonian spiritual and scholarly dominance over the faith. For a time, the center of learning for Jewish faith remained in Babylon. They could not be bothered to leave their power and comfort in Mesopotamia and return to the Promised Land. Instead, they declared the soil around Babylon more sanctified by the density of their scholars, by the massive synagogues, and the arrogance of having first declared as doctrine there was no God but Jehovah. The grated on Judean nerves, so they viewed with bitterness memories of Ezra and Nehemiah coming from Babylon to straighten them out. Judeans were seeking an excuse to break the sway of the blueblood Eastern Elders. It came a century later.


Ed Hurst
14 May 2005, revised 09 February 2016

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