These two books cover a fifty-year period after the Babylonian captivity. As we have seen, Cyrus, the king of Persia, in 538 B.C. issued an edict allowing the Jews to go back to Jerusalem. These two books are named after their main protagonists—Ezra, a priest, and Nehemiah, the king’s governor. The two books really form one, and the old Hebrew Bible grouped them both under the title of “The Book of Ezra.” The Vulgate established the division and Daniel Bomberg’s Hebrew edition of 1517 went along with this.
Although they are attributed to Ezra and Nehemiah, the final edition—that is, the edition we have, which is the canonical version—is of a later date. It may date from the time of Greek domination around the end of the fourth century B.C. The reason for saying this is that the list of high priests given in Nehemiah (12:11) ends with Joiada, who according to Flavius Josephus was contemporary with Darius II Codomannus (336-330).
These books cover the main historical events subsequent to Cyrus’ decree and Nehemiah’s second mission, particularly the religious restoration in Israel after the exile. Cyrus had authorized the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple, which was in ruins after Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. Flavius Josephus recounts how the Jews showed Cyrus the text of the prophecy of Isaiah (44:28; 45:1) where Cyrus’ name appeared and the king was so impressed that he immediately decreed the return of the exiles. In the last analysis the Jews owed their liberation to the special intervention of God, who guides all human events; but he certainly availed of the Persians’ preference for “the gods of heaven” in fact, even official Persian documents identified Yahweh with the supreme God, the God of heaven, whom the Persian kings adored and regarded as their own.
Although the Jews returned immediately after the king’s decree and started to rebuild the Temple, the building works were soon stopped due to fierce opposition from the Samaritans. What particularly rankled the Samaritans was that they were not allowed to join in the building. The work was not re-started until 520, under Darius I, and it was completed four years later thanks to the intervention of Zerubbabel and the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 6:14). However, although the Temple was finished, forty years passed without the walls of Jerusalem being rebuilt–again due to Samaritan opposition.
Meanwhile, Ezra, a scribe skilled in the Law, who was in charge of Jewish affairs at the Persian court, was authorized in 458 to undertake a journey to Jerusalem. He arrived there in the same year in a Jewish caravan. King Artaxerxes had empowered him to reestablish the Law of Moses in the new community at Jerusalem; from then on the Mosaic Law is the King’s Law. When they reached the river Ahava (which has not been positively identified) they decided to celebrate a feast to implore God’s help and protection. On entering Jerusalem Ezra visited the Jews but in applying the Mosaic Law he had to adopt severe measures to deal with marriages of Jews with foreign women. The erring Jews repented and promised to repudiate their wives. Judges were appointed to apply Ezra’s decree; the transgressors’ names are listed in the book.
Seven months after this arrival Ezra solemnly promulgated the Law to the people. They celebrated the feast of Tabernacles and a few days later did public penance and confessed their sins (8:1-9, 37). Finally Ezra established a covenant to which all the people subscribed (chap. 10).
Some years after these events—in 445—Nehemiah, King Artaxerxes’ governor, was aided by God to obtain royal permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the city itself. This was done despite the Samaritans’ opposition and the city was repopulated.
The king appointed Nehemiah governor of Jerusalem. Nehemiah took his role very seriously; he administered the city very well and maintained a high level of religious observance. Some years later, Nehemiah, on a second mission to Jerusalem, tried to get the Levites to agree to an equitable distribution of tithes and to ensure that the Jews kept the sabbath properly; he also upbraided those who had foreign wives. Nehemiah ends with this invitation: “Remember me, O my God, for good” (13:31).
When he comes to the end of his labors Nehemiah does not seek his own glory or any human reward; instead he lifts his gaze to heaven and entreats God to remember him and all he has done to promote the glory of God, in whom he places all his trust.
Ezra and Nehemiah played a key part in the religious restoration of the Jewish people after the exile. The land in which they lived was no longer politically dependent; it was part of the Persian empire. The chosen people, the remnant, could no longer say that they owned their country: The only property which was absolutely their own is the Law of Yahweh, their God. Prayer had taught them that they were the “faithful remnant,” called upon to bring about the religious restoration so vigorously fostered by the prophets. Haggai and Zechariah managed to overcome the sloth of some and the human respect of others and got them to take up the task again, but it was Ezra who most energetically reminded them of their Alliance with Yahweh and exhorted them to be totally faithful to it.
Thus, the people gradually began to adopt a new, more religious lifestyle. Even daily life became imbued with greater optimism and hope, through meditation on the Law, which Ezra recommended. They came to realize better what God’s election of them meant—holiness, an upright life, constant recourse to God; national sovereignty no longer seemed to be a priority.
Certain institutions developed in this spiritual climate, institutions which may have originated during the exile. The more important of these were the synagogue, where the Law was read out and commented on and where the scribes typically studied; and the Sanhedrin, which originally had a religious function but which soon took over civil affairs, such as the administration of justice, for which it became exclusively responsible.
Ezra and Nehemiah were the two men chosen by God to spearhead this religious restoration. Ezra, in his eagerness for holiness, infected those around him with his own optimism and brought the “remnant” of Israel to really commit itself to its religion.
Nehemiah had the same kind of zeal, also directed towards getting the returned exiles to aim at religious and moral purity. He put his trust fully in God and yet showed understanding towards the weaknesses of people. He spared no effort to improve the economic position of the Jews, who were very poor indeed in the period immediately after their repatriation—as Sirach describes: “The memory of Nehemiah also is lasting; he raised for us the walls that had fallen and set up the gates and rebuilt our ruined homes” (49:13).