- His Powers as a Royal Commissioner (§ 1).
- His Principal Acts and Methods (§ 2).
- His Joint Activity with Nehemiah (§ 3).
- Opposition and Final Success (§ 4).
1. His Powers as a Royal Commissioner.
Ezra, postexilic leader of the Jews and lawgiver, was through his ancestor Seraiah (I Kings xxv. 18) connected with the Aaronic line (Ezra vii. 5). Doubtless this relationship induced him to acquire that familiarity with the law of Moses by reason of which he is called "a ready scribe" (verse 6), which can mean only that he had so mastered its principles and provisions that he was able to give answers on points submitted for his decision. It was Ezra's purpose to bring this law into authoritative application to practical life, a thing which could be done only in the independent community in Judea. He therefore put himself diligently to the study of the law so as to set forth in Israel what belonged to duty and order. Evidently Ezra had gained in the senate of the Diaspora a position of authority as an expert in the written law like that which Zadok had gained under other conditions as a priest-prophet (I Sam. xv. 27). It was only through the authority thus gained as the one man acquainted with the law that he could urge the king (Artaxerxes I.) to grant him his mission, which had to do with political as well as religious conditions. So that he was commissioned to "inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem" (Ezra vii. 14), and "to appoint magistrates and judges" (verse 25) and to execute judgment upon all who were disobedient to the law of God and of the king (verse 26). He was also commissioned to carry the royal gifts and those of the nobility and to draw from the king's treasury other sums up to a specified limit for the reestablishment of the temple service. Such powers are conceivable only in case he was recognized as the trusted representative of the Jews regarded as a religious community apart from the state. This relation influenced the permission of the king for all Jews who wished to accompany Ezra on the return to Jerusalem. But the religious side of his mission most concerned Ezra, and by this he was so engaged that he refused to ask an escort from the king (viii. 22). When he arrived at Jerusalem (458 B.C.) he appeared not only as the king's representative; he was the leader of a reenforcement of the Jewish community amounting to 1,600 males and the means of bringing rich gifts. So that his coming meant the material strengthening of the Jewish commonwealth and the conveyance of the king's favor. The way in which he went to work demonstrated that he was concerned not to act according to arbitrary and selfish ends, but was there to follow the recognized order of procedure.
2. His Principal Acts and Methods.
The record of the doings of Ezra after his coming to Jerusalem given by himself possesses great accuracy and completeness, as even the mutilated Hebrew text indicates. He evidently delivered the gifts of the king to the appointed authorities, and the firman of permission to the Persian representatives in the land. There are traces also of a census of the Jews already settled there, for his next task was to investigate the condition of the Jews as a community. The first discovery was that the practise of intermarrying with the heathen round about had been so common that it had invaded even the priestly families. It is characteristic of the man that he did not deal with this matter as the representative of royal authority but as a religious leader, reminding them of their duty to the God who was recalling the nation from death to a renewed life. His pleadings were effectual, and the local leaders of the people were induced to join with him in the movement to purify the community from the evil into which it had fallen. A commission was created to look after the matter, and the business was completed within three months (Ezra ix. 1-x. 17).
3. His Joint Activity with Nehemiah.
It is a matter of regret that neither in the memoirs of Ezra nor in the words of the author is there any information concerning the twelve years between the event last narrated and the coming of Nehemiah. On the one side it is clear that the man whose mission was to restore to honor the house of God and who had brought with him a host of those expert in the direction of the services would not be a laggard in the matter of the organization of affairs so important to the community and in attempting to bring the practise of the people into accord with the religious ideals. In accordance with the commands given him, he found as a prime necessity the awakening in the community of the sense that the norms of conduct were expressed in the law. On the other hand it is admitted that it was after Nehemiah had come from the king as a prince and with military escort, had with strong hands seized the reins of direction and had overborne the opposition which developed, that the full achievement of the desires of Ezra was accomplished. The explanation of this doubtless is that Ezra purposely abstained from appealing to his own authority and from decreeing and ordaining the changes which he wished to bring about by awakening the popular conscience.
4. Opposition and Final Success.
Another side of the explanation is the opposition which was naturally aroused on the side of the heathen, and of a part of the community itself. The very rigor of the separation enforced between Jews and heathen did much to sharpen the opposition and even to strengthen the enemy. It is not improbable that the attempt to stop the building of the walls of Jerusalem which was denounced as the antecedent of political revolt had some connection with the reform in the marriage customs of the Jews. And the reports of Nehemiah have something to say about a secret agreement of priests and Levites with the opponents and of an antipathy which had been aroused. It is indeterminable whether under the stress of opposition and hindrance Ezra was temporarily absent from Jerusalem, or whether he definitely limited himself to the service of those whose allegiance came willingly until the arrival of Nehemiah, or whether these two men had come to an understanding as to the methods to be employed. At any rate, it is clearly stated that Ezra and Nehemiah were united in the work of the restoration of the law at the celebration referred to in Neh. viii. 8 sqq. It was only after repeated effort that the law-book was established (in 444 B.C.) as the authoritative guide of the people in the feast lasting seven days, which is recorded in Neh. viii.-x. The one thing which stands out is that Ezra's recourse was not to force and authority, but he awaited, as did Zerubbabel and Joshua, the voluntary submission of the community to the demands of the law itself. And in the institution of the law as the norm of action, he created a close bond between the home community and the Jewish diaspora. Whoever considers with unprejudiced mind the reports by Ezra and about him can not doubt that for him and his companions and for the circle to whom he came, the book of the law, considering its full effect, must have been an authority of long standing. The citations which appear in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the references in the prayers establish that what is there adduced is practically the Pentateuch. But even that the Pentateuch was not wholly in its present form in the time of Ezra is disclosed, according to some scholars, by the tax of the half shekel of Ex. xxx. 13 which must belong to a later time than the third of a shekel of Neh. ix. 33. It is to be noticed, however, that a difference should be made between the desires and the possibilities of an oppressed people, which may account for the earlier tax.
Out of the curiously embellished recollection of the epoch-making service of the real Ezra and from the fact that after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah the Jews and Samaritans remained strictly separate communities, and that the Samaritans possessed the law in the old character while the Jews had it in the square character, many of the statements concerning the traditional form of the books of the law have originated. Some of these attribute the newer form to Ezra, others to Ezra and the Great Synagogue, who affixed the punctuation (Neh. viii. 8), and others assert that since the law had been forgotten by the Jews Ezra had come from Babylon and reestablished it de novo.