By Shelley Neese

Follow Bible Fiber on Youtube or wherever you listen to your podcasts!

The first six chapters of Ezra revolve around two missions: rebuilding the Jerusalem sanctuary and rebuilding the community. Admittedly, the first read of Ezra 2 is about as interesting as a roll-call. In case one extensive list was not enough, Nehemiah 7 repeats the same list of volunteers. As tedious as these genealogical registers are to read, they serve as permanent acknowledgements of the 42,360 exiles who bravely returned to Jerusalem, sacrificing the comforts of Babylon for rebuilding Judah. These were the heirs to the covenant promise.

Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel

The list starts with three recognizable names that spark interest: Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and Nehemiah (2:2). The Nehemiah in Chapter 2 cannot be the reformer, governor, and namesake of the biblical book. Almost a century separates the initial caravan of returning Judeans from Nehemiah’s journey to Jerusalem. Nehemiah, which in Hebrew means “God comforts,” was likely a common name among the Jewish exiles. The narrator introduces Zerubbabel and Jeshua alongside other family heads and clan leaders. They are two of the main characters in the story of the first wave of returnees, as covered in Ezra’s first six chapters.

Strangely, the name Sheshbazaar is missing from Ezra 2’s list. King Cyrus had appointed Sheshbazaar governor of the returning exiles (5:14). In Chapter 1, Cyrus gave him the title “the prince of Judah” and tasked him with managing the hordes of temple vessels (1:8, 11). Then, the author never mentions Sheshbazaar again and the text does not explain his disappearance. Instead, Zerubbabel assumes leadership. With no biblical clues as to Sheshbazzar’s death, disappearance, or the transition of his leadership, we can only guess when and how Zerubbabel superseded Sheshbazzar.

One assumption is that Sheshbazzar died in the interim between Cyrus’s initial edict and the actual commencement of the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. Another possibility is that Sheshbazzar fell out of favor with Cyrus, or the group of Jewish returnees, before they set out on their journey or even during the route. Sheshbazzar may never have been the exiles’ choice for leader, but only Cyrus’s appointee. As soon as the exiles gained relative independence, they recognized Zerubbabel as their popular leader. This theory also explains why the elders of Israel, only when speaking to Persian officials, named Sheshbazzar as the appointed leader (5:14, 16).

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, reconciled the issue by identifying Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel as the same person with two different names. That theory is the only one that reconciles Ezra’s claim that Sheshbazzar laid the temple foundations (5:16) with the prophet Zechariah’s declaration that Zerubbabel was the one to lay the foundations (Zech. 4:9). Granted, there might have been two distinct ceremonies to lay the foundations of the temple. There are other historical examples of the practice.

As grandson of King Jehoiachin, Zerubbabel was in the line of David and therefore had a legitimate claim to the position (1 Chron. 3:16-19). Jehoiachin was the last legitimate king of Judah, exiled by the Babylonians in 597 BCE after he and his royal household surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:8-17) As a province of the Persian empire, Judah was in no position to give Zerubbabel a royal title despite his bloodline. In their hearts, they recognized Zerubbabel as their rightful king, without a crown.

Jeshua was the third most important leader at the top of Ezra’s roll-call. Jeshua, also referred to as Joshua in Haggai and Zechariah, retained the highest rank among the community’s priests. He was a descendant of the last high priest before the Babylonian expulsion (1 Chr. 24:7).

Both Zerubbabel and Jeshua seem to have possessed equal authority and sway in the restoration movement. Even by the reign of King Darius, Zerubbabel and Jeshua remained as heads of the community. When the prophet Haggai received an oracle from the Lord, he first shared it with Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Hag.1:1). Haggai’s prioritization of Zerubbabel and Jeshua as the first recipients of prophecy showed their proper credentials as leaders. Through Haggai, God even referred to Zerubbabel as “my servant” (Hag. 2:23), a biblical term usually reserved for King David.

Zerubbabel and Jeshua were also key figures in the vision sequences of the prophet Zechariah. In his vision of two lamp stands with an eternal oil supply, an angelic interpreter told Zechariah, “these are the two anointed ones who stand by the Lord of the whole earth” (Zech. 4:14). Yahweh selected Zerubbabel and Jeshua to provide the leadership needed to finish temple rebuilding. Speaking through Zechariah, God endorsed Zerubbabel as his chosen leader. He pronounced, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it” (Zech. 4:8).

In another one of Zechariah’s visions, an accusing figure told Yahweh that Jeshua was unfit for the priesthood. Yahweh, in a moving scene, commanded angels to remove Jeshua’s filthy clothes and robe him with clean white priestly garments (Zech. 3:1-7). The angel of the Lord tells Jeshua, “If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (Zech. 3:7).

In the eyes of the Persian empire or Judah’s neighbors, however, neither Zerubbabel nor Jeshua had political or military power. Essentially, they were community organizers of a Persian province. In the eyes of the Judeans, however, they were legitimate successors to their ancestral positions of king and priest. God had appointed them to see the community through a tenuous period.

Genealogical Records

In the proclamation of Cyrus, the king decreed that “all survivors in whatever place they reside[d]” could return to Judah (1:4), putting no cap on the number of volunteers. The author named the “heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and the Levites” (1:5). They were the ones “stirred up” by God’s call and “got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (1:5). In this verse, the narrator used the Hebrew verb alah for “going up.” Alah is the verb still used for pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A believer “goes up” to the holy city, both spiritually and physically. In modern Israel, a new immigrant to Israel is called alah hadasha which literally means “a new one who ascends.”

Lay people (2:2-35)

The genealogical register begins with the lay people. Families of travelers are subdivided first by clan (2:3-21) and then by family land (2:20-35). The family clans are listed as “descendants of” and the land-based groups are listed as “men of.” Fifty years of captivity meant some exiles no longer had documentation of their ancestry or land claims. Still, there was a surprising number of travelers who apparently retained their tribal affiliations and property rights.

Temple servers (2:36-58)

Fifteen percent of the returnees were priests or temple personnel: 4,000 priests, 74 Levites, and 128 temple singers. Considering the principal task of the first wave of volunteers was to rebuild the sanctuary in Jerusalem, they needed as many temple workers as possible. The singers were all from one family. Although there was an abundance of priests, they represented only four of the original twenty-four priestly families from the First Temple period. The paltry number of Levites was the most concerning. In Chapter 8, when the reformer Ezra entered the story, his first priority was to recruit more Levites (8:15-20).

The Undocumented (2:59-63)

The list provides the names of those lay people and priests who were unable to prove their pedigree. The returnees wanted to make certain that the restored nation was a continuation of the previous nation. They made the journey without a record of their tribal affiliation or ancestral land. Without such proof, there was no way to verify their link with preexilic Judah. Three family groups did not have the proper documentation to qualify for priestly status. Interestingly, Judean leaders told them that they could not take part in the temple rituals until a priest could consult the Urim and Thummim to confirm their purity (2:63). However, we know that the mysterious Urim and Thummim used in the First Temple period never returned to the Second Temple.

Total population

According to Ezra, 42,360 exiles returned to Jerusalem which seems like a very high number compared to the records of Jerusalemites that were first deported to Babylon. Jeremiah estimated that around 4,600 Jerusalemites were deported in his day (Jer. 52:28). According to 2 Kings, the number of deportees from the city’s elite, warriors and craftsmen was closer to 10,000 (2 Kings 24:14). It is reasonable to wonder how the Ezra narrative counted the first wave of returnees at 42,360. One possibility is that it included the previously deported exiles from the Northern Kingdom. Somehow the thousands that were scattered by the Assyrian empire in the eighth century BCE may have joined the wave of returnees back to their homeland.

In addition, they brought with them 7,337 male and female servants and two hundred singers. Judging from the high number of servants and abundance of livestock, the volunteers were not making the journey out of desperation or poverty. They were zealous to take part in the restoration promise. They understood they were the living fulfillment of the prophetic goal. God stirred their hearts to accept the risk.

Though this must have been an extraordinary caravan to make the long journey, the number of returnees was a small fraction of the preexilic population. The rest of the exiles remaining in Babylon were hesitant to leave their flourishing city lives behind. The book of Esther reveals God did not abandon those Jews who stayed behind in Babylon, but they led a dicey existence in exile.

What was the purpose of including the exhaustive inventory of returning exiles in the book of Ezra? By storytelling standards, it would have better served the narrative if the narrator gave a general headcount of volunteers and moved on. One theory is that the inventory helped the returnees as they navigated future land claims to ancestral property. They relied on Ezra’s records when they confronted their enemies, who reoccupied their abandoned land and homes in their absence.

American historians estimate that ten million Americans today can trace their ancestry to a passenger or crew member on the Mayflower. What the Mayflower passenger list is to American history, Ezra 2 was to Israel’s history. The list forever cemented the charter members of the restoration movement.