Archive for February, 2011

Day 427: Esther 1

            The Book of Esther is shrouded in mystery. It does not seem to be intended as a serious historical account but rather a folk tale around which the Jewish people could rally after the Maccabean rebellion gave them a tenuous freedom in the second century B. C. It has numerous Babylonian elements, giving rise to speculation that it dates from that city during the period of the Exile, or perhaps a bit later. After Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, the only historical records that survived were those carried into exile to Babylon, or before the destruction of Jerusalem to Egypt by migrating Jews. That helps explain why Babylonian and Egyptian references are so plenteous throughout the Old Testament.

            1-4: Esther begins. The King, Ahasuerus, is mentioned only once in the Bible outside of Esther, and that is in Ezra 4:6, where he precedes Artaxerxes. The name is unknown elsewhere, and scholars generally think it is an alternate name for Xerxes I, who reigned over the Persian Empire from 486-465 B. C. prior to Artaxerxes. The third year of his reign would thus have been 484-483 B. C. It is therefore a time of the greatest expansion of the empire, although its decline is already beginning. Xerxes I is best known for his abortive attempt to conquer Greece.

By the way, verse 1 and 8:9 are the only places in the Bible that mention India.

The setting of the story as it begins is a tremendous party in Susa, a party that lasts six months.

            5-8: After the national bash another gala is thrown by the king for the people of Susa which lasts a full week. These verses could have been written by your local gossip columnist.

            9: We meet Queen Vashti, who is unknown outside the book of Esther. The first wife of Xerxes I was Amestris, according to the historian Herodotus. However, her name is well known in ancient literature: Vashti is the name of a Babylonian goddess.

            10-12: So, all the guys are drunk, and the king thinks it a good idea to tell his eunuchs to bring the beautiful Queen Vashti to the party wearing her royal crown. Some commentators think the text hints that she is to wear only the royal crown. Vashti, having a better sense of decorum than her husband, declines the invitation. Besides, she is having a roaring good time with the other ladies in another part of the palace (see verse 9). She has better things to do than parade herself around to be ogled by a bunch of inebriated party goers.

            13-20: The king is stunned and stumped. What can one do if the queen refuses the king’s invitation? Well, he is surrounded by seven lawyers (to provide some balance for the seven eunuchs, I suppose), and he puts the question to them. One of them, Memucan, points out that Queen Vashti hasn’t merely insulted the king, she has insulted husbands everywhere. Why, this could be the start of a regular feminist movement! He advises the king to issue a decree that Queen Vashti is to be deposed. That, he says, will send a message to all the women in the kingdom that such behavior will not be tolerated.

            21-22: King Ahasuerus likes the idea and sends the letter out immediately, declaring that a man’s house is his castle, and the crisis is averted.

Day 428: Esther 2

            1-4: The king is bereft of a queen, so the guys get together to decide what can be done. Somebody comes up with a brilliant idea: “Let’s have a beauty contest! Let’s bring in the prettiest girls from all over the empire and the king can pick the one he likes best!” The king likes the idea. They seem to have no doubt that the girls will all just love the opportunity to be in the king’s harem and get the chance to please the king, but make no mistake about it; this is a sexual contest to find the one who most pleases His Highness in the bedroom. A note: we know from ancient records that by law the king of Persia was limited in marriage to the seven noble families of Persia.

            5-11: We meet Mordecai and Esther. The name Mordecai is not Jewish, but is related to the name of the primary god in the Babylonian pantheon, Marduk. Mordecai himself, however, is decidedly Jewish, a Benjaminite descended from one Kish, who was among the initial exiles to Babylon during the time of Nebuchanezzar. He is “in the citadel,” which means that he is some sort of government official. He has raised his orphaned cousin Hadassah (her Jewish name, which means “myrtle”), a.k.a. Esther (a Persian name meaning “star,” but also related to the primary Babylonian goddess Ishtar). Esther is a real knockout, so she gets taken to the king’s harem and put under the supervision of Hegai, the royal hairdresser and cosmetologist. Hegai is a eunuch; you just can’t trust a regular fellow to be attending all the beautiful girls in the king’s harem. Hegai and Esther hit it off, and pretty soon she is his favorite, which puts her in a good position with regards to the contest. She has been instructed not to tell anybody she is Jewish, and Mordecai comes by every day on his way to work to ask how she’s doing.

            12-14: After a year of pampering the girls, the contest begins. It is arranged so that each girl is led to the king’s bedroom, does her best to please him, and the next morning is escorted to a second harem of concubines. There she will stay for the rest of her natural life unless the king summons her again by name. The eunuch in charge of the concubines is Shaashgaz, a strange name; it is perhaps what he exclaimed when they made him a eunuch.

            15-18: Finally Esther gets her turn, and that’s all it takes. The king is smitten and immediately declares the contest over. Esther is the one. He gives her Vashti’s crown – verse 17 is the last time Vashti will ever be mentioned – and throws a big banquet in Esther’s honor. Their wedding day is set aside as a national holiday, a day of amnesty in which taxes are remitted and the labor force can party.

            19-23: So it was that one day when Mordecai had dropped by as the girls were being rounded up at the gate to the palace grounds, he overheard two of the eunuchs plotting to do away with the king. Mordecai tells Esther. Esther tells King Ahasuerus. The eunuchs are arrested, tried, found guilty and hanged. The whole affair is recorded in the official court records. This is an important detail that will come up again later in the story.

Day 429: Esther 3

            1-6: A fellow named Haman is promoted to second-in-command of the Persian government. He is identified as an “Agagite,” which immediately signals trouble. Remember that Mordecai is a Benjaminite, of the tribe of King Saul of Israel. “Agagite” refers to King Agag of the Amalekites. The Amalekites are ancient enemies of the Jews (see Exodus 17:8-16, Numbers 24:20, Deuteronomy 25:17-19), and Agag specifically is the cause of Saul’s fall from grace (see 1 Samuel 15:8-33). The implication is that Mordecai and Haman are natural enemies to begin with. This would explain Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him like everybody else. There is no law that forbids Jews to bow to foreign authorities, so Mordecai’s refusal has to be a personal one. Perhaps it is also because, since he saved the king’s life in the last chapter, Mordecai thinks it unnecessary to bow to anyone else. In any case, when Haman is told that Mordecai the Jew refuses to do obeisance, he determines to destroy not only Mordecai, but the entire Jewish race.

            7-11: Esther has been Queen for about five years when Haman finally decides to act on his genocidal inclinations. Persian officials use diviners to advise them on courses of action. One method of divination is to cast “Pur.” We think this is a reference to stones that are cast to determine the will of the gods, in much the same way as the Hebrew high priests cast Urim and Thummim to determine God’s will. In this case the stones point to a certain day as having particular promise for action against the Jews; the casting takes place in the Persian month of Nisan which corresponds to the Jewish month of Abib and the Passover. Haman seizes on this as a sign that it is time to act against the Jews. He approaches the king and essentially offers 10,000 talents of silver for permission to commit genocide against an unnamed race of people who cause trouble in the land. Notice that he does not ask the king to personally issue the decree, but only that a decree be issued, thus absolving the king of any direct personal guilt. The king is frighteningly apathetic, asks no questions at all, and gives Haman his signet ring and permission to proceed.

            12-15: Royal secretaries are summoned to fashion the decree in all the languages of the vast empire. Haman uses the king’s signet ring to stamp the wax that seals each copy, and copies are carried by courier throughout the kingdom on the 13th day of the first month. The decree orders the extermination of the Jews on the 13th day of the twelfth month. The king and Haman are having a drink together when the decree arrives at the citadel of Susa where Mordecai’s office is located.

Day 430: Esther 4

            1-3: Mordecai is mortified, as are all the Jews all over the country.

            4-8: Esther hears that her cousin Mordecai is in sackcloth and ashes. Her response is to send him some descent clothes. When he refuses to wear them she sends her attendant Hathach to find out what’s going on. Mordecai gives Hathach a copy of the decree and asks him to deliver it to Esther that she might go to the king and try to set things right.

            9-17: Esther sends Hathach back to Mordecai to explain to him that she can’t just drop in on the king. Such arrogance is a capital crime unless the king pardons the trespass by holding out his scepter to prevent the guards from killing the intruder on the spot. Mordecai’s response is famous and historic. “If you keep silence at such a time as this,” he says, “deliverance will come from elsewhere, but you will perish.” Those words serve as a reminder to every generation that turning a deaf ear to injustice and oppression is itself as great a sin. He also suggests to Esther that her rise to royal status may have occurred “for such a time as this.” God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, but certainly stands behind the scenery looking on and directing the cast; or at least part of the cast. Esther is persuaded and offers to risk her life, asking only that the Jews undergird her mission with three days of fasting and prayer. Mordecai promises to get the word out to all the Jewish communities in the Persian Empire. This would normally take weeks to accomplish with runners carrying the letter to every corner of the empire, but to continue advancing the action as every story must, we’ll pretend he faxed it, and the fast begins right away.

Day 431: Esther 5

            1-8: The tense moment has arrived. Great stage directions are here: Esther nervously dressing in her royal gowns; making her appearance in the vestibule of the king’s hall; the king holding out the golden scepter; Esther approaching and touching the top of the scepter, a curious gesture that nevertheless seems to add an element of authenticity to the scene. The king graciously offers to grant her request before she makes it, and to our surprise her request is that the king and Haman come to her quarters for dinner. They do, and the king repeats his offer. To heighten our suspense, Esther puts him off until the morrow.

            9-14: Haman is thrilled to be in what he believes to be the Queen’s favor, but his mood is dashed when he sees that uppity Mordecai ignoring him as he passes the king’s gate. Haman decides to have a late night party, and calls his friends over to celebrate with him. That is to say, he calls them over to celebrate him, for he is after all such a marvelous fellow, rich and important and quite a stud to boot with lots of sons to prove it. Even the Queen has recognized how special he is by inviting him, and only him, to a banquet with the king in her private quarters that very day, and not only that, but the next day also. Still, seeing that blasted Mordecai, that Jew, sitting high and mighty at the king’s gate is enough to dampen all the successes he enjoys. His wife and friends have a great idea, though. They tell Haman that he ought to have a gallows erected, 75 feet high, on which to hang Mordecai. Just tell the king to have Mordecai hanged on it and then go to the Queen’s banquet in a happy mood, they say. Haman thinks it is a grand idea.

            We, the audience, are alarmed. Mordecai will be hanged before Esther can make her request!

Day 432: Esther 6

            1-11: Ahasuerus can’t sleep. What does a king do when he can’t sleep? Why, bring in some scribes to read from the book of records; that ought to knock him out pretty quickly. However, before he slips into subliminal bliss they get to the part about Mordecai saving the king’s life by uncovering an assassination plot, and he jerks wide awake. What has been done to honor Mordecai, he asks, and is told that Mordecai has so far gone unrewarded for the good deed – no surprise in an administration run by this Ahasuerus guy. Casting about for ideas on what to do, he is told that Haman has arrived in the outer court, so the king invites him in and asks him what the king should do to honor someone he wishes to honor. If anyone should know such a thing, you would think it would be the king. Nevertheless, Haman naturally thinks he is the one the king wants to honor, so he lays out an elaborate scenario of parading the lucky fellow around the city wearing some of the king’s hand-me-down garments. Ahasuerus tells Haman to make it so – for Mordecai the Jew! Haman has to lead Mordecai around the city shouting, “This is how the king honors a man!”

            You know, if I save the king’s life and in return the king dresses me up in some fancy old clothes of his, plants me on top of a horse and trots me around the city with some idiot hollering about how honored I am, I’m not at all sure I would feel all that honored. But how do you say “no” to a king?

            12-14: Haman goes home humiliated, and his wife and friends correctly see the event as a bad omen for Haman. With those concerns ringing in his ears, Haman is led away to the Queen’s private chambers – not knowing, by the way, that she is Jewish, too.

Day 433: Esther 7

            1-10: Zeresh (Haman’s wife) was right; the elevation of Mordecai in the king’s eyes could not be a good thing for Haman. He arrives at the queen’s banquet with the king, and after a suitable time of courtesy has passed the king presses Esther to say what’s on her mind. It is, of course, unthinkable that Ahasuerus would have married anyone without knowing as much about them and their background as can be known, so we must assume that he knows Esther is Jewish. The problem is that he didn’t bother to ask Haman what race of people Haman wanted to do away with. When Esther reveals that her people have been condemned to death, he asks her who would do such a thing, and Haman is surely devastated to learn that Queen Esther is a Jew. Ahasuerus is so enraged that he finds it necessary to leave the room, and when he returns he finds Haman on the couch with the queen. Haman, of course, is begging for his life, but Ahasuerus assumes he is trying to take advantage of her. Haman is taken into custody, and when the king hears that he has constructed a gallows on which to hang Mordecai, he orders his guards to hang Haman on it. So ends the mercurial career of Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite.

Day 434: Esther 8

            1-2: Esther reveals her relationship to Mordecai and the king promotes Mordecai to Haman’s vacated spot in his administration. Esther puts Mordecai in charge of Haman’s house.

            3-8: Esther asks Ahasuerus to revoke Haman’s earlier decree, and as he had done with Haman, the king himself refrains from doing so but gives his signet ring to Mordecai and tells him he can write anything he wants with regard to the Jews. Why the king simply doesn’t revoke Haman’s decree is not explained.

            9-14: Instead of revoking Haman’s decree Mordecai’s decree, carried all through the empire by couriers on horseback, gives the Jews permission to defend themselves on the 13th day of the 12th month of Adar. The description of the distribution of the decree is identical to the description of Haman’s decree, even down to the last line about it begin delivered to the citadel of Susa where Mordecai used to work.

            15-17: All of a sudden it is good to be a Jew in Persia. The Jews rejoice all over the empire and their celebration is joined by lots of Jewish wannabes.

Day 435: Esther 9

            1-10: By the time the 13th of Adar arrives the enemies of the Jews are at a distinct disadvantage. The Jews are now a favored race claiming both the queen and the top official in the capital city of Susa. Mordecai’s star has risen dramatically making the other state officials suddenly become fans of everything Jewish. The Jews slaughter their enemies on the assigned day. In particular they kill the ten sons of Haman.

            11-15: Ahasuerus is cheering from the sidelines, happily reporting the body count to Esther. She asks for the Jews in Susa to be allowed to continue their “defense” into the next day as well, and that the bodies of Haman’s sons be hung on the gallows (the gallows built by Haman, do you suppose?) and the king agrees.

            16-19: The total body count comes to 75,800. The Jews in the rest of the country celebrate on the 14th of Adar, but the Jews in Susa don’t celebrate until the         15th of Adar. The author explains that this is the reason rural Jews originally celebrated Purim on Adar 14 while city Jews celebrated it on Adar 15.

            20-23: Mordecai orders that the day of their deliverance be made an annual observance on the 14th and 15th of Adar (it is a different day each year in our calendar, but falls in February/March). It is to be a time of festival and the giving of food and presents to the poor. (Google “Judaism 101” to find a recipe for “hamentaschen” cookies, known as “Haman hats” or “Haman ears.”)

            24-32: And so the story has a happy ending – for the Jews, that is – and the Jewish people are encouraged to celebrate Purim every year in perpetuity, as commanded by Queen Esther herself.

Day 436: Esther 10

            1-3: Now, you might wonder if things happened just the way it is told in this tale, but take the author’s word for it, the story of Esther and Mordecai is well documented.

Day 414: Nehemiah 1

            1-3: The story of Nehemiah is set in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, or about 445 BC. Ezra had gone to Jerusalem from Babylon, a provincial capital in the Persian Empire, in the 7th year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:7). Nehemiah is in the Persian capital city of Susa, and serves in the royal household (2:1). He receives news from his brother who has visited Judah that Jerusalem is in dire straits.

            4-11: Nehemiah is grief-stricken over the state of Jerusalem, and enters a time of fasting and praying. He pours out his distress in a prayer that acknowledges that the current state of Jerusalem is a result of the people’s sinfulness. He confesses his own family’s part in not living up to the covenant, a touching admission. He recalls the promise God made through Moses (Deuteronomy 30:1-4) that if the people repent and return to the covenant and obey the Law of God, God will bring them back to the land and restore their fortunes. It is not clear exactly what success Nehemiah is asking for in the last verse of the chapter. That will unfold as the tale is told.

Day 415: Nehemiah 2

            1-8: Nehemiah is the cupbearer for Artaxerxes I. He has a close relationship with the king, and the king sees that he is distressed over something. Nehemiah shares the news he has heard about the state of Jerusalem. The king asks him what he wants to do, and Nehemiah takes a deep breath and asks for permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls and gates of the city. He is asked how long a leave he will need, and his request is granted. He then has the courage to ask further for orders to the keeper of the king’s forests to supply the necessary lumber, and that request is granted as well. We know from other sources that Egypt has recently made noises on Persia’s southern frontier, and Artaxerxes likely sees this as an opportunity to establish a stronghold near the Egyptian border.

            9-10: He heads toward Jerusalem with a cavalry escort (protection Ezra had declined – see Ezra 8:22) and official letters in hand. We meet two of the villains of the story, Sanballat and Tobiah. They are officials in the Province Beyond the River (the territories west of the Euphrates). They are not happy that Nehemiah intends to repair the walls of Jerusalem. This encounter with Nehemiah probably takes place in Damascus, the provincial capital. Sanballat, we learn later, has some important connections in Jerusalem (6:10-14), and his daughter is married into the high priest’s family (13:28). Tobiah is likely the governor of Ammon. The Ammonites are historically enemies of Israel.

            11-16: Having arrived in Jerusalem, Nehemiah takes a few days to get settled, and then one night rides out to inspect the walls and gates. The walls are in such a state that at one point he is not able to proceed and has to ride around the area of the King’s Pool. He has not yet reported to anyone in Jerusalem.

            17-20: Nehemiah finally presents his plans to the city’s officials, showing them the letter giving Artaxerxes’ permission. They give him their support. Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab accuse them of rebellion. Sanballat is the satrap of Samaria. “Horonite” may refer to his hometown, perhaps Beth-horon between Jerusalem and Samaria. Tobiah is an “Ammonite” and Geshem an “Arab.” They, too, may have been minor satraps, and those designations may be intended simply to show that they are not part of the LORD’s people.

Day 416: Nehemiah 3

            1-2: A list is given of who is responsible for repairing each gate and section of the walls. The priests repair the Sheep Gate (located in the northeast corner of the wall near the temple), and rebuild the walls that protect the northern approaches to the city.

            3-5: Another group repairs the Fish Gate on the northwestern corner, and a portion of the upper part of the western walls. The VIPs don’t lift a finger to help. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

            6-12: The Old Gate is unidentifiable, but if the list is in order counterclockwise around the city (as appears to be the case in most instances), it must have been part of a rather lengthy portion of the upper western wall.

            13: The Valley Gate is about halfway down the western side, and the Zanoahites repair it and the walls from there down to the southern tip of the walled city, about 500 yards (1000 cubits).

            14: The Dung Gate, located at the southern tip of the walled city, is repaired by somebody named Malchijah. Surely he had some other people helping him even though he is the only one whose name is given. On the other hand the gate’s name might indicate that it is the least popular place to be.

            15-27: Shallum and others repair the section of the walls and the gates near the Pool of Shelah. This pool, and the Lower Pool, were important sources of water for the whole city, and were located where the two valleys, Tyropean and Kidron, converge at the southern end of the walls. Another Nehemiah is in charge of a section along the southeastern wall beside the royal cemeteries. The Levites are responsible for repairs of the long section northward from there to the Horse Gate, about 100 yards from the northeastern corner of the walls.

            28-32: Finally, the priests repair the section that protects their little residential community between the temple compound and the city walls at the northeastern corner of the walled city.

            The list is tedious to read, and I suggest strongly that you have before you a map of Jerusalem from the time of Nehemiah. (One source is The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume III, page 760.) The extent of the work is impressive. Even more impressive is the condition of Jerusalem that makes such extensive repairs necessary.

Day 417: Nehemiah 4

            1-5: In chapter 4 we return to the first person perspective of the first 2 chapters. Nehemiah receives word that Sanballat and Tobiah are ridiculing their rebuilding efforts.

            6: Meanwhile they are making progress and the wall is rising.

            7-9: He receives word that Sanballat and the others are actually planning to intervene in their efforts, and he sets guards around the clock to protect them from a surprise attack.

            10-14: The work begins to falter as the laborers encounter more rubbish than they are able to clear. Meanwhile Nehemiah is getting regular reports from people coming in from the countryside that an attack is imminent. He tells the people to keep their weapons handy and to camp adjacent to the walls day and night.

            15-20: The attack is delayed when their enemies get word that Nehemiah has made preparations for the defense of the city. So Nehemiah orders the construction to continue, but only in shifts so that half the people will constantly be on guard duty. He sets up an alarm system so that they can respond quickly should any part of the wall come under attack.

            21-23: The whole city remains in a state of constant vigilance as the work to rebuild the walls slowly progresses.

Day 418: Nehemiah 5

            1-5: The common people are being woefully mistreated by the nobility. They are being forced to sell their lands and even their children. The oppression is so wicked that their daughters are even being assaulted and there is no justice for them.

            6-13: Nehemiah calls a public assembly and accuses the nobles and officials of violating the covenant Law. He demands that they correct their injustices against the common people, and they quite readily agree to do so. Nehemiah sets the penalty high – loss of home and property – and that may have something to do with their quick condescension.

            14-19: Nehemiah makes an accounting of his own behavior and treatment of the people over the twelve years of his governorship. He behaves admirably, of course. (He’s the one writing the account, after all.)

Day 419: Nehemiah 6

            1-9: Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem resume their efforts to thwart the rebuilding of Jerusalem. They invite Nehemiah to a powwow, but he smells a rat and refuses to go. After four abortive attempts to lure him out of the city they threaten him with a dangerous accusation of treason, but Nehemiah stands firm and refuses to go out to meet with them.

            10-14: Nehemiah is warned by one Shemaiah (who is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible) that his enemies are coming to kill him that very night and advises him to take refuge in the temple behind closed doors. Nehemiah sees that this is a plot to damage his integrity before the people: for a lay person like him to enter the temple in such a way is a violation of the holiness code which forbids all but the priests to enter the temple.

            15-19: We learn that Tobiah is married into a prominent priestly family in Jerusalem and thus has allies among the nobles of Jerusalem who have been keeping him informed of Nehemiah’s plans and actions. The plot becomes much more complicated.

Day 420: Nehemiah 7

            1-4: Nehemiah appoints his brother Hanani mayor of Jerusalem. Hanani, you remember, was the one who brought the initial report to Nehemiah that caused him to petition the emperor to let him come to Jerusalem (1:2). He orders that the gates be closed until well after sunrise each day and that they be guarded at all times. We learn in verse 4 that the city is sparsely populated and people are apparently living among the rubble in tents.

            5-7: Nehemiah finds the record of the first group that had returned to Jerusalem, the group that had come with Sheshbazzar (Zerubbabel) as recorded in Ezra 2.

            8-38: The list here is very like the one given in Ezra 2:3-35, but with slight differences in numbers and names. Someday I will take the time to add each list and see how well the totals match.

            39-42: Significantly, the priestly census matches exactly the record in Ezra 2:36-39.

            43-45: The Levites total 360 individuals, whereas the list in Ezra 2:40-42 has a total of 341.

            46-60: The temple servants, including the Solomonic additions, totals 392, the same as in Ezra 2:43-58. The names have a few slight differences.

            61-65: An additional listing is given of those who claim Israelite descent but cannot prove it. This list is nearly the same as Ezra 2: 59-63.

            66-69: The numbers included here match the totals in Ezra 2:64-67 reasonably well, including the great batch of donkeys.

            70-73: Nehemiah includes the notation of gifts provided by the nobles and other officials (Ezra 2:68-70).

Day 421: Nehemiah 8

            1-8: Ezra the scribe makes his first appearance in the book of Nehemiah. Ezra has probably been in Jerusalem for some years now, although the chronology given in Ezra 7 is hard to match with that given in Nehemiah 1. The seventh month is the big festival month in the Jewish calendar, with the Festival of Trumpets, Yom Kippur and Succoth all grouped closely together (see Leviticus 23). There is a huge gathering in Jerusalem on the first day of the month for the Festival of Trumpets. A large platform has been raised, and Ezra stands on it along with 13 other priests and 14 Levites. He and the other priests read from the Torah all morning long while the Levites interpret what they are reading to the people. The crowd, significantly, includes both men and women as well as children who are old enough to understand.

            9-12: The people are stung by the words they hear and have to be comforted by Nehemiah and Ezra, who encourage them to share the sacrificial meat and wine with those who have nothing.

            13-18: The next day the people gather and receive instructions about the observance of the Festival of Booths, or Succoth. The festival has apparently not been kept since the time of Joshua. They construct canopies all over the city and stay in them during the seven day festival, gathering each day to hear Ezra read from the Torah. It is a great gathering of national education.

Day 422: Nehemiah 9

            1-5: The Festival of Booths with Ezra’s daily reading of the Law has ended. It is now the 24th of the month, two days after the Festival, and the people have spontaneously begun to fast with sackcloth. This is a surprise, since the people were rejoicing during the festival (8:17). Apparently on the 8th day of the festival, a day of “solemn assembly,” the people’s attitude turned from joy to penitence, an attitude more appropriate to Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement. So the 24th is a sort of delayed Yom Kippur. The reading of the Law seems to have in the end hit them pretty hard. The Israelites separate themselves from all the foreigners in the city. They spend another 3 hours listening to the Law being read and then for 3 hours confess their sins. A spontaneous worship service erupts, led by Jeshua and the other priests.

            6-8: Ezra prays, recalling their history as the descendants of Abraham, and praising God for his faithfulness.

            9-15: Ezra continues reciting their history: their slavery in Egypt; the plagues God sent against Pharaoh; the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army; the pillars of cloud and fire that guided them; God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law to Moses; how God fed them with manna and miraculously brought water from the rock to quench their thirst.

            16-25: The recitation continues, remembering how the people rebelled and made a golden calf to worship; how God was faithful and did not forsake them but provided for them; their victory over Heshbon and Bashan; how their numbers grew; how they entered into and settled the land and took possession of a fertile and productive territory.

            26-31: Ezra continues, reminding them of how their ancestors turned away from God time and time again. He remembers the time of the judges and kings and how Israel alternately turned away from God and came back to God until God’s patience finally was exhausted and he “handed them over” to their enemies.

            32-37: Ezra ends his prayer by asking God to be merciful and consider all their suffering. It has all been because of their sins, he says, but now they have surely suffered enough. They are still slaves, he says, slaves in the very land that God has given them.

            38: A written statement has been devised renewing the people’s covenant with God, and Ezra invites them to sign the agreement.

Day 423: Nehemiah 10

            1-27: It is a curious thing to me that this covenant document is not reproduced, especially considering that both Ezra and Nehemiah have gone to such pains to preserve transcripts of several letters from Babylonian and Persian rulers. Instead, a list is given of the names of those who sign it, 74 in all, including representatives from the priests, the Levites and their servants, and the leaders of the people.

            28-31: All the people who are of Israelite descent and who have separated themselves from the mixed population enter into the covenant. Nehemiah is making an effort to resume the Law that Moses had given centuries before, including the bans on intermarrying with other peoples, buying and selling on the Sabbath, and observing the seventh year of rest for the fields.

            32-39: A tax is levied for the maintenance of the temple and the priests and for the things that are needed for worship.

Day 424: Nehemiah 11

            1-2: The country is organized so that one tenth of the population will reside in the capital city of Jerusalem.

            3-6: Before the exile, the nation of Judah consisted of the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin. Leaders of the tribe of Judah are named here.

            7-9: Leaders of the tribe of Benjamin are listed in these verses.

            10-14: The leaders of the priests are named in this paragraph.

            15-18: The names are given of the leaders of the Levites.

            19-21: The gatekeepers are listed next. The other 90% of the priests, Levites, etc. live in the towns and villages of Judah, according to their ancestral heritage. The temple servants live in a separate community within the walls of Jerusalem, Ophel, so that they can be readily available for service (see 3:26-27).

            22-24: Singing has become an essential part of the temple worship, and the Levites who are singers are particularly taken care of.

            25-36: A list of cities and their outlying villages is given.

Day 425: Nehemiah 12

            1-7: Nehemiah lists the priests who had returned with Zerubbabel. Many of the names in this chapter appear in earlier lists. It is the same with our own heritage; we are likely to know or to learn the names of our ancestors for generations past, but know little or nothing else about them, so that the names are all that is left of the history.

            8-11: The Levites who had returned with Zerubbabel are listed.

            12-21: Some of the names are traced back to the time of Joiakim, who was the son of Jeshua, who had returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel.

            22-26: Levites are also listed. It is obviously important for Nehemiah to go to great pains to establish the “pedigree” of all who are leaders in the religious establishment.

            27-30: When the wall is completed Nehemiah calls for a great gathering to dedicate the wall with lavish ceremonies. Levites and singers are summoned from all over the country to take part.

            31-37: Nehemiah brings the leaders and officials up onto the wall and divides them into two parties. A great procession around the wall is made, with the first group going clockwise on the wall around the city.

            38-43: The other party marches counterclockwise, with Nehemiah following them. The two parties process on the wall, singing and shouting as they go, until they meet at the temple compound where sacrifices are made and great rejoicing is heard far into the countryside from all the people, men, women and children.

            44-47: Nehemiah is careful to tell us that the priests and Levites, especially the singers and musicians, receive their just compensation from all the people.

Day 426: Nehemiah 13:

            1-3: Again they read from the Torah, and discover that Ammonites and Moabites are to be excluded from the religious assemblies of God’s people Israel, so they take steps – probably another census – to see to it that foreigners are left out. They are more concerned with holiness than with inclusiveness.

            4-9: Perhaps we learn in these verses what precipitated the purge recorded above. Nehemiah, having been in Jerusalem the allotted 12 years, had gone back to King Artaxerxes’ court. While there the priest Eliashib allowed Tobiah (remember him from 4:7-9?) to make an apartment among the storerooms in the temple compound. Upon his return, Nehemiah summarily evicts him and has the temple accoutrements brought back.

            10-14: Nehemiah also discovers that his instructions concerning compensation for the Levites have not been kept and the Levites have had to return to their fields to provide for themselves. He orders that the tithes be brought in, and appoints four men – a priest, a scribe, a Levite and an assistant – to be in charge of it all. Eliashib, needless to say, isn’t one of them.

            15-18: Nehemiah is incensed by the trade going on in the city on the Sabbath, and declares that that’s why God exiled them in the first place.

            19-22: He takes steps to return to the observance of the Sabbath requirements: the gates are closed at sundown on Friday and not reopened until after the Sabbath is passed. In verse 22 we are reminded again that Nehemiah is writing this record as an account of his faithfulness, and so he sprinkles it with prayers asking God to remember him for it.

            23-27: Nehemiah discovers that a number of Jews (by the way, the word “Jew” does not occur in the Bible until we get to the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah) have married women from Ammon and Moab as well as Ashdod (part of the Philistine nation). He avers that that is the reason Solomon strayed from the Lord and started Israel on the way to destruction, and commands the people not to allow their sons and daughters to intermarry with those people. Nothing is said about the existing marriages, although we strongly suspect they had to be dissolved as at the end of Ezra’s book.

            28-29: We meet Eliashib again, the priest who had allowed Tobiah to take up residence in the temple compound. It turns out that his son has married a daughter of Sanballat, Tobiah’s partner in opposing Ezra and Nehemiah in their efforts to revive Jerusalem. Nehemiah chases him (and his foreign wife, I’m sure) away from the city.

            30-31: His work complete, Nehemiah signs off with another prayer that God will remember his faithfulness.

            This effectively ends the history of the Jewish people in the Promised Land from the time of Abraham until the return of the exiles from Babylon and the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. A little more history is woven into the narratives and oracles of the prophets and we will be able to fill in a few gaps when we get to those writings.

Day 404: Ezra 1

            1-4: The first 4 verses of Ezra repeat the last 2 verses of 2 Chronicles with the added information that Cyrus’ decree also charges the neighbors of whoever wants to return to Judah with providing financial assistance for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.

            5-11: Many of the Jews prepare to return to Jerusalem, and those who are not returning provide them with gifts to help rebuild the city. The scene sort of reminds me of the scene in Egypt where the Egyptians give the Hebrews gifts to hurry them out of the country (Exodus 12:33-36). This time, however, the ruler of the country, Cyrus himself, participates in their endeavor by restoring to them all the things that have been taken from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The inventory is entrusted to Sheshbazzar, who is called “the prince of Judah.” The title indicates that he is of royal lineage. There is much disagreement among scholars as to his exact identity. Some evidence suggests that Sheshbazzar is the Babylonian name of Zerubbabel, who appears in the next chapter. Others believe Sheshbazzar is an uncle of Zerubabbabel. In any case, the name Sheshbazzar occurs only 4 times in Ezra (1:8, 1:11, 5:14, and 5:16), and nowhere else in the Bible, whereas Zerubbabel is much more frequently mentioned (in Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah) and is even named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:12 and 1:13, Luke 3:27).

Day 405: Ezra 2

            1-2: Interestingly enough given the name of the book we’re reading, Nehemiah is named in the first group of returnees, but Ezra is not. He’ll show up later. Zerubbabel is named here for the first time; see the note on the last paragraph.

            3-35: A list is given of the census of each clan that returns with Zerubbabel.

            36-39: The priests are counted separately.

            40-42: The Levites also are counted separately, some of whom are designated as singers and some as gatekeepers.

            43-54: Here is a list of other “temple servants,” but it is not explained why they are not among the Levites. Although they are named by clan they are not numbered, and it is possible that they belong in the group of Levites just listed in the previous verses.

            55-58: The descendants of Solomon’s servants get a special listing all by themselves. It is obvious that a great attempt was made while in exile to maintain as much of the lost culture as possible.

            59-63: A bunch of folks return with the Israelites although they can’t prove their lineage. They are excluded from the priesthood, and Zerubbabel decrees that they cannot partake of the most holy food (that is, they cannot eat the priests’ portion of the sacrifices with the families of the priests) until further investigation into their family pedigrees.

            64-67: Quite a group is gathering for the journey. There are lots of donkeys amongst them.

            68-69: When they get to Jerusalem, some of the family elders give a freewill offering of gold and silver, and 100 priestly robes (where’d they get priestly robes?) for the rebuilding of the temple.

            70: Not everybody settles in Jerusalem, of course, but they fan out through the land to resettle the towns their families had lived in before the exile.

Day 406: Ezra 3

            1-7: The returnees act quickly to restore the religious rituals in Jerusalem. The seventh month is a festival month for the Jews, beginning with the Festival of Trumpets on the first day of the month (Leviticus 23:23-25), then the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on the 10th day (Leviticus 23:26-32), and then the Festival of Booths (Succoth) for seven days beginning on the 15th of the month (Leviticus 23:33-36). So, on the 1st day of the seventh month all the returnees gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals. Jeshua the chief priest and Zerubbabel the governor build the great altar of burnt offerings. By the 15th of the month they are ready to observe the Festival of Booths (no mention is made of Trumpets or the Day of Atonement). Beginning with the seventh month in the year of their return they begin to observe the daily, Sabbath and new moon offerings. They also make arrangements with the governments in Sidon and Tyre to have cedars cut and brought down the coast to Joppa so that the rebuilding of the temple can commence. (See Haggai 1 for a different take on this.)

            8-9: In the second month of the second year after their return they begin to organize the work force to build the temple.

            10-13: When the foundation is laid the trumpets are sounded and the Levites sing a psalm and the people raise a great shout. However, the old ones who have lived long enough to remember the temple of Solomon respond not with cheers but with tears. Is it because they are overcome with emotion that the temple is being rebuilt, or are they weeping with bitter disappointment that the temple now being erected is nowhere near as magnificent as the one they remember? “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Haggai 2:3)

Day 407: Ezra 4

            1-3: An entourage from the northern territories comes to offer help to rebuild the temple, but is rebuffed by Jeshua and Zerubbabel. Years before, when Israel was conquered by Assyria, the Assyrians resettled the territory with people from other conquered areas. In order to please the “god of the land,” Esar-haddon, king of Assyria, ordered that one of the priests of Israel be sent there to teach them to worship the local god (2 Kings 17:24-28). However, the folks in the south do not recognize priests from the north because when the northern tribes seceded from the house of David and set up the kingdom of Israel with Jeroboam as king, Jeroboam appointed priests who were not even Levites, let alone descendants of Aaron (1 Kings 12:31), and they worshiped other gods besides the LORD. Zerubbabel and Jeshua do not want their efforts in building a house for the LORD to be thus contaminated.

            4-5: The “people of the land,” as they are called, begin to try to sabotage the building efforts of Zerubbabel and Jeshua.

            6: Ahasuerus succeeds Cyrus, and the enemies of the Jews, led by Rehum and Shimshai, write letters to him to discredit the leadership in Jerusalem.

            7-16: Artaxerxes succeeds Ahasuerus, and the folks in Samaria write him a letter in which they say all kinds of terrible things about Jerusalem. The funny thing is their charges are pretty much true.

            17-22: Artaxerxes has the royal archives searched and learns that, sure enough, Jerusalem has regularly refused to cooperate with its invaders and its conquerors. You just can’t depend on them to knuckle under. So, he tells Rehum and Shimshai to issue an order for Zerubbabel et al to cease and desist.

            23-24: The northerners, Rehum and Shimshai et al, hurry to Jerusalem and force them to stop working on the temple. But kings come and go, and soon a new Persian king, Darius, rises to power.

Day 408: Ezra 5

            1-2: The prophets Haggai and Zechariah stir up the people and the will is generated to ignore the order to stop working on the temple (see especially Haggai 1). The prophets are taking an active role in leading, side by side with the acknowledged political and religious leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua.

            3-5: The governor of the region, Tattenai, questions them about the authority to rebuild the temple. They even ask for names, but they don’t force them to stop. Instead, they send a letter to the new emperor, Darius, and await his reply.

            6-17: Here is the letter Tattenai sends to Darius. It is a fascinating study in oriental courtesy and court proceedings. Notice that Zerubbabel’s Persian name is used here, Sheshbazzar (see the note on 1:8), and notice also that the request is to search the archives for a decree issued by Cyrus, not Artaxerxes. In this they are being very clever.

Day 409: Ezra 6

            1-5: The Persian administrative organization is showcased here. Records from the reign of Cyrus are not found in Babylon, but in the capital of another province. Jeshua and Zerubbabel are upheld in their claim.

            6-12: The text moves immediately to record the letter Darius sends back to Tattenai. He tells them not only to not interfere with the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem but to assist the project by diverting funds from their annual tribute to Darius and give those funds directly to the building project. Not only that, they are to provide everything the priests need for making sacrifices so they can pray for Darius and his children to the “God of heaven.”

            13-15: Tattenai and his associates comply with Darius’ decree and the temple is completed.

            16-18: The temple is dedicated with modest sacrifices of only a few hundred animals, complete with sin offerings for the people. The priests and Levites are organized to run the Department of Religion.

            19-22: On the fourteenth day of the first month (Jewish calendar) they celebrate the Passover and the seven-day Festival of Unleavened Bread. All the people are happy that Darius is now their benefactor.

Day 410: Ezra 7

            1-6: The priest Ezra migrates to Jerusalem. The text is careful to register his pedigree as a direct descendant of Aaron. Some years have passed since Zerubbabel has returned, and another Artaxerxes is the Persian ruler – not the one mentioned earlier.

            7-10: Ezra brings an entourage of priests and Levites with him from Babylon, a journey of some 5 months.

            11-20: Ezra comes with a written document sealed with the seal of none other than the King of Persia, Artaxerxes. It places under his care gold and silver offerings from the Persian court and from the Jews living in Babylon.

            21-24: The letter goes on to order the surrounding provinces to provide silver, wheat, wine, oil and salt, and not to charge any of them a tax for passage through their territories.

            25-26: Moreover, Ezra is given judicial authority over the province “Beyond the River” (that is, the coastal territories beyond the Euphrates).

            27-28: The last sentence of the chapter is written in first person singular. Ezra has now become the narrator of the book that bears his name.

Day 411: Ezra 8

            1-14: A list is given of those who return with Ezra. Phinehas and Ithamar, in verse 2, are the sons of Aaron, so the list emphasizes that these are qualified priests, direct descendants of Aaron.

            15-20: Ahava is an unidentifiable location (in verses 24 and 31 it is called a river), but obviously not too far removed from Babylon. There Ezra gathers the people who are returning with him and discovers that although there are priests there are no Levites. The priests are themselves descendants of Levi, but the Levites are the ones who manage the temple affairs while the priests carry out the worship. He sends messengers to Casiphia to recruit Levites. Casiphia is also unidentifiable, but we speculate that it is a settlement of the Jews of the exile where a worshiping community is established. Iddo is the name of the leader of the Levites who live there. Several hundred Levites and temple servants are recruited and join Ezra at Ahava.

            21-23: Ezra has told the king that his God will protect them, and he therefore does not want to ask for a military escort. He calls for a time of prayer and fasting to ask God to protect them on the journey.

            24-30:  Ezra appoints 12 of the priests to serve as caretakers of the offerings they are taking for the temple in Jerusalem.

            31-34: Ezra and his group arrive in Jerusalem without incident. Once they have secured themselves they take the offerings to the temple. The temple has by now been completed, at least enough so to be used for worship. Jeshua the priest has apparently been succeeded by his son Jozabad.

            35-36: The returnees offer sin offerings and burnt offerings at the temple. Then they visit the political leaders of the province to deliver the king’s letter. The officials provide the support Artaxerxes’ letter demands of them.

Day 412: Ezra 9

            1-4: Ezra is informed that the leaders of the people have intermarried with the indigenous Canaanites as well as with foreigners. He is appalled. His reaction seems at first look to be overly dramatic, but remember that he is trying to resurrect a nation and a people who two generations before had all but disappeared from the face of the earth. The intermarriages represent a threat to their very existence as a unique people, and thus to their claim to be God’s chosen people.

            5-9: Ezra goes to the temple at the time of the evening sacrifices and prostrates himself before the altar. He confesses that the things Israel has suffered have been deserved because of their sin, and acknowledges that allowing them to return to Jerusalem is a special favor God has granted them.

            10-15: Their exile and punishment, he reasons, is largely because God’s people intermarried with other groups, resulting in their worship being corrupted by pagan practices. A remnant has been saved, he says, and allowed to return, but now they have fallen into the same errors that plagued their ancestors. Ezra is deeply, deeply ashamed.

Day 413: Ezra 10

            1-5: Ezra’s very public demonstration draws the attention of the people, who begin to gather before the temple. One Shecaniah speaks out and offers that they will send away their foreign wives and the children they have borne. He encourages Ezra to make a general decree and assures him that the people gathered there will stand behind him. Shecaniah is not listed among those who have married a foreign wife (10:18-44).

            6-8: Ezra retires to the house of Jehohanan, who is probably the high priest, where he continues prayer and fasting. They order the returned exiles to assemble in Jerusalem or forfeit their properties, so I suppose the attendance is pretty good that day. Note that the summons may only relate to those who are property owners, though, and might not include the common people.

            9-15: The people gather in Jerusalem on a day when it is raining heavily. Ezra levels the charge against them that many of them have married foreign women, and commands them to end those illegal marriages. They readily agree (it is raining heavily, after all), but offer a proposal by which the illegal marriages may be dealt with systematically. Ezra accepts the proposal and everybody is in agreement except for four men (who are probably the only ones with umbrellas). Interestingly enough, of the four only one, Meshullam, is included in the list (10:29) of those who are found to be in violation of the marriage laws.

            16-17: Ezra selects family heads to meet and address the matter, and six weeks later they do so. It takes them two full months but they finally arrive at an agreed upon list and process.

            18-22: The priests are treated first, and the ones who have married foreign wives agree to send them away, and they each make a guilt offering of a ram to atone for their transgression.

            23-24: The Levites, singers and gatekeepers are listed next.

            25-44: The remaining violators are listed. About half the family names are in the list in chapter 8 of those who returned with Ezra. The other half are names of those who had returned earlier with Zerubbabel, as listed in chapter 2. They all send away their foreign wives with their children. The list of violators contains only 110 men in all, which is surprisingly small, but some have suggested that only the leaders of the community, those who own property, are involved in the purge. We are not told what becomes of these women and children, but according to their own laws the Israelites have to provide for the needy, so perhaps they do not fare too poorly. It would be altogether too great a tragedy if they are simply sent away empty-handed. After all, their situation is not of their own doing.