The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are rather dull books, focusing mainly on administration. They are very short and not much really happens in them, but they are important milestones. The book of Kings ends with the destruction of Israel and the deportation of the Israelites, so it is natural that these books cover their return from exile. They also mark the end of the “historical” section of the Old Testament (even if it was riddled with inaccuracies) and the shift towards the speeches and poems of prophets.
The Book of Ezra begins with God suddenly remembering the Israelites and deciding to speak through the king of Persia and let them return home. There is no word of where God was during the decades of exile or what made him change his mind and low them to return. Not for the first time, the Bible looks at random historical events and invents a divine message to explain it.
There is a count of all the Jews who return and the tribes they come from, which is important from a historical point of view (if it was historical) but is still tedious reading. Even moments of great historical importance are undermined by the Bible’s boring style. There is one exception to this and that is the scene when the Temple foundations are re-laid. Old men weep with joy and the young shout with hope. It would have been a moving scene, but it is merely a paragraph buried among mundane details.
However, the locals are less pleased to see the Israelites return. It is unclear who they are, if they are new settlers who replaced the Jews or Jews who weren’t deported who dislike these blow-ins. Either way they are completely opposed to rebuilding the Temple, though as usual the Bible doesn’t give the villains any motives, just that they are villains. No attempt is made to win them over or seek a compromise with them, that’s not the Biblical way. The Biblical way is to do what you want and who cares about the rest. Or at least that’s the Old Testament way, the New Testament way is the opposite (but I’m getting ahead of myself).
So the locals (who aren’t even properly identified) claim that the Jews are plotting rebellion and if they rebuild Jerusalem it will be a hotbed of independence. They claim that if the walls are rebuilt, they will be used to keep the foreigners out. To be honest this is a reasonable fear as the Israelites have no love for their oppressors and enslavers and would probably wish to be free again. Either way, the work is halted and a lot of bureaucratic wrangling takes place. I warned you that this was a boring book. The core of the book is literally people squabbling over jurisdiction and who is better following regulations.
The problem is solved when a letter from the king is conveniently found that gives the Jews full rights to build the Temple. Not only is it to be under their command, but they will also receive royal funding and anyone who opposes them will be executed. If this letter had been written all along, why was there years of delay and bickering? How could they forget or misplace something of such importance? Why would the king be so favourable to the Israelites in the first place? As usual, no explanation is given to the bizarre things that occur in the Bible.
I apologise if this seems petty and boring, but the Book of Ezra really is little more than administration. The exception is at the end of the book where there is a vicious condemnation of intermarriage with other ethnic groups. Ezra is horrified to find that the Jews are intermarrying with the locals and immediately forbids it. He makes it clear that this is a horrible sin and God will destroy them for it (why is this the worst thing you can do? Why is love a sin while murder and slaughter receive no judgement?). He summons all of Israel to one place (if they refuse their property will be confiscated) and everyone agrees to not intermarry and divorce their non-Jewish wives. The book ends with a wall of shame, where Ezra lists the names of all those who married foreign wives.
Let’s be honest, this is disgusting bigotry. If some old priest told me to divorce the woman I loved just because it interfered with his notion of racial purity, I would have told him to piss off. The idea that you should only marry your own people is a stupid and ignorant belief that ought to be wiped away. The Bible reveals its true nature not as a moral guide and a source of love, but as a petty and malicious book that values its own fanaticism over the lives of people. Ezra and others would rather have miserable believers than happy and loving people even slightly open to other views. The Israelites are not seen as people with hopes, dreams and desires, but mere possessions whose only use is to increase their numbers and mindlessly obey.
The book of Nehemiah is the first book so far written in the first person and it is told from the point of view of Nehemiah himself. Unlike the Book of Ezra, (which despite being named after him, Ezra does very little in the book and doesn’t even appear until towards the end) the main actor of Nehemiah is much more active. In the beginning of the book, he is cupbearer to the king who inexplicably was made governor of Israel. The Bible makes this transition seem totally natural, but when it comes to trusting people to govern their empire, kings don’t usually pick their servants. So Nehemiah organises the rebuilding of the Temple and the book overlaps a lot with Ezra and isn’t much more interesting. Again we get listings of all the Jews who returned (although Nehemiah’s list is different to Ezra’s) and this time we even get the name of every construction worker and what they did. Maybe this is what they received instead of payment, instead their names were added to a wall of pride as corporate sponsors.
As in Ezra, the locals plot to attack and destroy the Temple so Nehemiah has to set guards. Interestingly, he tells them to remember God, but to fight for their family and friends. In fact God plays a relatively minor role in Ezra and Nehemiah, instead the sense is that the Jews have to look out for themselves. They are fighting as much for their home as for their religion. So during the construction half the people worked on actually building the Temple and the other half protected them from attack. The letter mentioned in Ezra giving full protection is strangely absent from Nehemiah and would have solved a lot of their problems. Was it an addition by later scholars?
There is more trouble when the people complain about all the extra mouths they have to feed and grumble they were already on hard times before the exiles returned and now things are even worse. Instead of massacring them all in typical Biblical fashion, Nehemiah launches a hearts and minds campaign to win them over. He demands an end to charging interest on loans and demands the return of property that was repossessed. To further ease the burden, he refuses the food allowance he is entitled to as governor. He goes to great pains to emphasise what a noble sacrifice this is and wants God to remember this. The thing about noble sacrifices is that they are only noble if they are done as a genuine sacrifice not because you’re trying to impress someone else or suck up to God.
In typical Biblical hyperbole, when the wall around Jerusalem was finally rebuilt, according to the Bible, all the nations around fell on their faces in fear. In reality there is no reason why the major nations would even know or care about a wall in a small city still under foreign control, but the Bible has an exaggerated sense of its own importance. There is another census and more administration recording which reminds me why Ezra and Nehemiah are such unknown Biblical books, pretty little happens in them.
As in Ezra, the people again must separate from their foreign wives, in fact Nehemiah is so adamant on the point that three distinct separations take place. Each time, Nehemiah is furious at this terrible sin and threatens judgement from God. Apparently, racial purity is extremely important and must be maintained. There are still ignorant people today who frown upon mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants or black and white, there are even plenty of people who would hesitate about marrying a Muslim. It is shameful that rather than correcting this ignorance, the Bible whole heartedly endorses and even commands it. The ugly face of bigotry is wrapped in divine glory and made holy.
See here for the rest of the posts in my series, An Atheist Reads The Bible