The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally considered a single literary work called Ezra. Although this work was separated into two books by Origen (3d century Common Era) and Jerome (4th century C.E.), the division does not appear in Hebrew Bibles before the 15th century.
At the beginning (1:1–3) and end (6:22) of Ezra, the text asserts that Yahweh had brought about both the return of the exiles to Judah and Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple through the favorable actions of the Persian kings toward Israel. Cyrus’ own decree permitted the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of its vessels (6:5), and Darius reinforced these privileges and added to them a curse against any who would attempt to countermand them (6:6–12).
In the Ezra-Nehemiah chronicle, captives were released and sent back to their land with the looted treasures from Solomon’s Temple. The “Ezra Memoir” names Zerubbabel (called governor) and Jeshua the priest as the leaders of this initial effort of rebuilding.
The Persian authorization to rebuild includes not only the work on the Temple, fostered by Cyrus and Darius, but also, because of the mention of Artaxerxes in 6:14, the rebuilding of the walls as well (the term “house of God” in Ezra-Nehemiah may include both the temple and the refortification of the city).
According to the present text of Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.E. (Ezra 7:7–8, the 7th year of Artaxerxes) and Nehemiah in 445 B.C.E. (Neh 1:1, the 20th year of Artaxerxes). Nehemiah’s first stay in Jerusalem lasted 12 years, to 433 B.C.E. (Neh 5:14), with a second stay at an unknown time and of unknown duration (but before the end of Artaxerxes’ reign in 424). In 445 Ezra read the law at a public ceremony at which Nehemiah was also present (v 9). All of these dates assume that the Artaxerxes to whose reign the chronology of both Ezra and Nehemiah is correlated is Artaxerxes I (465–424).
the dedication of the Temple in 515 B.C.E.,
the return of Ezra in 458 B.C.E.,
the governorship of Nehemiah, 445–433 B.C.E.,
and his second visit to Jerusalem, no later than 424 B.C.E.
Nehemiah’s first-person story (The “Nehemiah Memoir”) says he was cup bearer for King Artaxerxes living in the capitol city of the Persian Empire. He received this word about his countrymen who had escaped captivity and remained in Jerusalem:
“The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”
“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…”
Nehemiah petitioned the king and was appointed governor of Judah with authority to rebuild the walls and bring order to the city. (The “cupbearer” attested throughout centuries of Persian history and legend was generally a favorite and trusted youthful official.)
The Ezra-Nehemiah story is filled with intrigues, plots, gradual successes and witness to the difficult work of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just a wall and a city but also restoring the religion and culture of a people who had lost their way over many generations.
Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews against the hardship and persecution that has characterized this people of God throughout many centuries.
On a day of re-dedication, when the priest Ezra read the Law to the assemble people, the story says:
Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
As I write this, sisters and brothers across the globe are faced with the deep challenges of rebuilding. In 2017 a trio of hurricanes devastated parts of Texas, much of Florida and all of Puerto Rico. Raging fires destroyed forests, homes and businesses all along the West Coast. Back to back earthquakes shook the foundations of Mexico. Wars and violence in Syria, Central America, across the Middle East and in Africa continue to force people from their homeland. Rebuilding a life takes a lifetime of work.
Jews to this day summarize their history with this clever saying:
They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.
May the joy of the Lord be our strength!
Several portions of this article are quoted from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. (Quotation noted with italics.)
Outline of Ezra-Nehemiah
I. Return from Exile and Rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1–6)
II. The Initial Work of Ezra in Seventh Year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7–10)
III. Return of Nehemiah and Rebuilding of Walls of Jerusalem (Neh 1:1–7:72)
IV. The Climax of the Work of Ezra and Liturgical Responses (Neh 7:72–10:40)
V. Further Acts of Nehemiah; Related Matters (Neh 11:1–13:31)
Image from Aleppo, Syria by The Independent, 2016.