Lesson 47: “Let us Rise Up and Build” #BCCSundaySchool2018

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Gustave Doré’s Ezra reading the Torah to his people

Lesson Objective: To talk about the complications of what it means to build Zion.

Scriptures: Ezra, Nehemiah

Introduction: Ezra and Nehemiah came from a single scroll in early Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible; Christianity would separate the text into two books later on. Before we go any further, please watch the 8-minute video from The Bible Project (a non-profit organization run by scholars in Biblical studies, theologians, and pastors—it’s a great project, and you should all subscribe) below that provides a helpful (and illustrated!) overview of the history and background of Ezra and Nehemiah. If you ever send your Sunday School students emails or study helps in advance of the Sunday lesson, this video would be an excellent recommended watch as part of the preparation for the Sunday discussion.

Cast of Characters
Cyrus—King of Persia (Cyrus the Great, first king of Persia) at the time Zerubbabel returns to Babylonia. He lets the exiled Jews return and lay the foundation of the Second Temple.
Zerubbabel—His name means “Planted in Babylon.” Zerubbabel was a governor of the Persian Province of Judah. He led 42,360 exiled Jews back home, sometime around 538–520 BC. Once home, Zerubbabel began work on restoring God’s temple, known to us as the Second Temple in Jerusalem. He comes from the line of David.
Jeshua—Also known as Joshua or Yeshua the High Priest. He helps with the reconstruction of the temple and becomes its first High Priest. His children would marry outside of their culture.
Haggai—His name means “my holiday.” He is a Hebrew prophet during the building of the Second Temple. He prophecies in 520 BC that if the people do not complete the temple, there would be poverty, famine, and drought.
Darius I—This is the fourth king of the Persian Empire, Darius the Great. He makes Aramaic the official language of the empire, which he rules at its peak. His name means, “he who holds firm the goodness.” He was a Zoroastrian. The Second Temple is completed during his reign.
Artaxerxes I—The sixth king of the Persian Empire, Darius I’s grandson. He asks Ezra to take over the ecclesiastical and civil affairs of the Jewish nation.
Ezra—Ezra the Scribe, Ezra the Priest. His name might mean “Yah helps.” He tells his people to follow the Torah and chastises them for intermarrying with other religions. Nehemiah is his contemporary.
Nehemiah—Governor of Persian Judea under Artaxerxes I. His name means “Yahweh comforts.” He had been a cup-bearer to the king, and it’s possible that he was also a eunuch. He helps to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.

A Rough Timeline
538 BC—The exiles have returned to Babylonia.
538 BC—Led by Sheshbazzar, the earliest homecomers start to build a new temple but then quit before it is finished.
515 BC—A second group of returned exiles, led by Zerubbabel, complete the temple reconstruction (this is during the reign of King Darius I)
458 BC—A third group of returned exiles, led by Ezra, reestablish the Law of Moses and make the Torah the authority of the Jews once again (this is during the reign of Artaxerxes I)
445 BC—A fourth group led by Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and repopulate the city.
400 BC—This is probably when Ezra-Nehemiah is composed in Judah. It’s hard to really trace the authorship. A lot of seems like first-person memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah, and there are parts of it that were written in Aramaic—the language of the Persian empire—but there are also big parts of it that seem to have been composed in Hebrew. Eventually, though, someone restructured the narrative to take the organized form laid out below.

A Breakdown of Ezra-Nehemiah
Ezra 1:1–4                   God’s promise
Ezra 1:5–Neh 7:73      Exiled Israel’s response
Ezra 3–6                      Stage One: Reconstruction of the Temple
Ezra 7–10                    Stage Two: Ezra’s mission and a return of the Torah
Neh 1:1–7:5                Stage Three: Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem
Neh 8–13                    Celebration of reconstruction

The Abrahamic Promises Expected Post-Homecoming

  • Future Messianic King (Isaiah 11, Hosea 3)
  • God’s presence in a new temple (Ezekiel 40–48, Zechariah 2)
  • God’s Kingdom over the nations (Isaiah 2, Zechariah 8)

Some Highlights:

I love this verse that captures the bittersweet joy of the returned exiles building the foundation of their new temple. The part about the joyful shouts being indistinguishable from the people’s weeping is so poignant to me. It’s important to remember the generational gap among this people: some were old enough to remember the First Temple and what was lost. They mourn the past while their children and grandchildren celebrate the future. My heart is caught in my throat thinking of the complicated emotions in this verse:

“When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:10, NRSV)

Ezra is known for problematic verses about intermarriage. The people of Israel were marrying Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. “Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2). When Ezra sees this, he tears up his clothes and starts yanking handfuls of hair from his head and his beard—he is super ticked and bothered and disgusted by all this. The scriptures say he just “sat appalled” with very few clothes on all evening while people occasionally checked up on him to see what was wrong. He finally gets up, kneels in his pile of ripped up clothes, and says this prayer:

“O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to life my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case. Bot now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stage in his holy place, in order that he may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance in our slavery. For we are slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to give us new life to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judea and Jerusalem.

And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever. After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you destroy us without remnant or survivor? O Lord, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this.” (Ezra 9:6–15, NRSV)

So, what was Ezra’s solution? He asked his people to make a new covenant with their God to send away all of their wives and children who were not Israelites. He gathers them all together, in the open square in front of the temple, in the pouring rain, and said, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:10–11). The book of Ezra ends with mothers and children forced to leave the city in order to keep the people of Israel pure.

It’s hard for me not to think about Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale while reading verses like these. Ezra has the Torah, this word from God, and he wants to follow it to the letter. The problem, though, is that forcing his people to divorce from their families is an interpretation of that law—there is nothing in the Pentateuch that requires dissolving mixed marriages. In fact, if intermarrying was discouraged by God’s law, so was divorce. In Atwood’s dystopian future, America is taken over by a theocracy that tries to apply Old Testament culture and law to modern Americans (for example, women from the servant class who are fertile become handmaids to wives who have not been able to successfully conceive children with their husbands). It’s in the Bible so it must be from God, right?

I feel for Ezra in this moment, too, though. So much of the Old Testament has been about the struggle of exile and the hope of the future, when the promises made to Abraham could finally be fulfilled and Zion could be created. All fictional utopias require insulation from outside corruptions (though most of these utopias turn out to be dystopian after all). Ezra thinks he is doing the right thing. He thinks that blessings will come from this sacrifice. He fears that the bloodlines and faithlines of Israel will be corrupted with the intermingling of other religious and cultural ideologies. And he’s probably right. Those mothers bring with them their own stories, heritage, and belief system. This is an anxiety that persists among Latter-day Saints today, which is why many young people are afraid to even go on a date with a “non-member.”

But perhaps this wasn’t a direction from God after all. Perhaps Ezra’s interpretation of scripture was not entirely accurate. Ezra can still be a man of God and make a mistake with good intentions.

All I know is that my heart feels heavy and somber when I imagine the hundreds of women and children who were forced to embark on their own, outside of the city walls, into uncertain futures—homeless, abandoned, sacrificed in the name of Zion.

It is fitting, then, that Nehemiah begins with the rebuilding of city walls, to further protect Jerusalem from the world without. The building of the wall is not without challenges—Nehemiah and his people are constantly being bullied by outsiders and told that their wall will never be any good, and that they will be killed before the wall is completed. Nehemiah plants families along the wall to protect their city and their wall, preaching, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your kind, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (Neh 4:14). The work continued, with the people laboring by day and guarding by night.

Building Zion is tricky work. I don’t know if it requires walls. I don’t know if it requires kicking out people who don’t fit in. I mean, this is the plot of every dystopian narrative.

Still, I can’t be too harsh on Ezra, Nehemiah, and these Israelites who are home at last, trying to be strictly obedient to what they think God is commanding them to do. They strike me as vulnerable and hopeful, worried about losing their homeland again because of sin or disobedience. There are moments of celebration, though, and even while I don’t agree with all of the decisions made in these chapters, I can’t help but rejoice with them in these moments when they relish their homeland, their people, their heritage, their religion, in all of its messiness and imperfection:

“And 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 [Ezra had been reading to them from the Torah]. 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.’ So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Neh 8:9–12, NRSV).

In the end of Nehemiah, we see Nehemiah irritated because people are selling merchandise in booths outside of Jerusalem’s walls, including on the Sabbath day. And people are still marrying outside of Israel. Nehemiah 13:23 reads, “In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples.” The book of Nehemiah ends without resolving any of this.

The story leaves me wondering: What are God’s expectations for Zion? Is it supposed to be surrounded by high walls with outsiders kept out? Or were these exclusionary measures the reasons why Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s Zion didn’t last? Is this book of scripture intended to be a tutorial for how to build Zion or an example of how not to build Zion?

While these scriptures leave me with more questions than answers, it certainly is a relevant narrative to America in 2018, when many of us believe a wall is the answer to our own anxieties about securing borders and maintaining a dominant culture. For those who read Ezra-Nehemiah and feel bolstered in their support of a border wall, all I can do is point out that it didn’t work for Ezra and Nehemiah after all. What it did do is break up a lot of families.

Stray Observations

  • This threat from Darius I in this decree, though: “Whatever is needed—young bulls, rams, or sheep for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, or oil, as the priests in Jerusalem require—let that be given to them day by day without fail, so that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his children. Furthermore I decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill” (Ezra 6:9–11, NRSV). That’s some serious Game of Thrones violence. Impaled by a beam from your own house!
  • Also, there are so many epic names in these chapters. The recording of peoples and genealogies are a bit of a slog to get through, but also, I sort of love this record of the people. Reading these lists of names remind me of reading names while doing temple work. I know nothing of these people—who they were, what they felt, what they loved, what they hated—but I feel like it means something to read their names, to say them aloud in my head. But, seriously, if LDS women are looking for new unique names for their children, they really ought to consider Ezra-Nehemiah for ideas. “Magpiash Zadok” is so much radder than “Brynler Taybree.”

From the BCC Archives

Sources Consulted

  • Tamara Cohn Eskenazi’s excellent introduction to Ezra-Nehemiah from the fourth edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha(NRSV)
  • Wikipedia entries on Cyrus, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Haggai, Darius, Artaxerxes, Ezra, and Nehemiah

Comments

  1. Kristin V Brown says:

    Excellent. Can’t thank you enough for the work you have done.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Very helpful; thanks.

  3. Michael Austin says:

    What a wonderful, detailed, exceptional post.

    Just a side not of interest: the recent book _As Iron Sharpens Iron_, which Julie Smith edited and which I and several other BCC-types contributed to, began when Julie read a dialogue in another book between Ruth and Ezra. The gist of the dialogue was Ruth pointing out to Ezra that she herself–a person of some importance in the Jewish tradition–was precisely the sort of “foreign wife” that Ezra forbade his people from marrying, The “children” of such a marriage, then, included King David and the entire Jewish royal line. I find the tension between these two stories to be a very productive one–as, I suspect, will a number of people in any average Gospel Doctrine class who joined the Church because their spouse was willing to date, and in many cases even marry, a person of another faith.

  4. Thanks for the OP. Excellent as a stand-alone and as preparation for an in-class discussion.
    Regarding the conflict presented, I’m inclined (“inclined” is a way of marking out the potential for confirmation bias) to see this aspect of religious history as an ongoing tension between a broadly inclusive plan (that I attribute to God) vs human leaders over and over deciding or believing that inclusiveness doesn’t work and the only way to build Zion is to raise the walls.

  5. Mike, As Iron Sharpens Iron sounds fascinating, and I’m adding it to my list. I thought briefly of Ruth as I was putting this together, but I wasn’t so productive as consider just how much these stories parallel and contradict one another. Imagining a dialogue between Ezra and Ruth is brilliant.

    Christian, your description of that tension between inclusivity and wall-building resonates with me. I’m thinking now, too, of how inclusive Christ was when he was on earth, to the point that he would associate with people who had actual contagious illnesses and warranted quarantine from the rest of society. Christ seems to have lived his mortal life unafraid of being corrupted by the outside, but instead constantly invited people to become clean and join him.

  6. I have enjoyed these posts so much. I have just been called as GD teacher so I really hope these will be continued next year!