By Shelley Neese

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After enduring the long roll-call, the narrator skipped the journey from Babylon to Judah and omitted details about the process of resettlement where the Israelites had to reclaim their long-abandoned property. The narrative picks up in their second year of being restored in the covenanted land, around 536 BCE.

When the returnees finally arrived in Jerusalem, they got to work and celebrated a series of victories. They rebuilt an altar to the Lord, resumed their religious calendar of worship, and commenced work on the temple foundations. While Chapter 2’s theme was continuity within the community, Chapter 3 stressed the continuity between the First and Second Temples.

The Altar is First Priority

Ezra 3 begins, “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem” (3:1). From the moment the community began working on the altar, they operated with unity of purpose. Their goal was “to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it” (3:1). The passage conveys the remnant’s feeling of urgency to restore temple worship. During the five decades in exile, they were unable to make sacrifices which, according to the laws of Moses, also meant they were deprived of atonement.

Resuming their traditional means of worship was their primary objective after returning to the land. Perhaps they were mirroring the actions of Abraham and Joshua who had also built altars to God as soon as they arrived in the covenanted land. Abraham set up an altar in Shechem where God first promised the land to his offspring (Gen. 12:7). Joshua built an altar, per Moses’s instructions, when the people miraculously crossed the Jordan (Deut. 27:6-7). A basic purpose to Israel’s calling is worshiping and glorifying the name of Yahweh. Building altars was an act of gratitude.

Granted, rebuilding an altar according to God’s standards was not difficult. The Torah required fieldstones, undefiled by cutting tools, for use on the altar to the Lord (Ex. 20:25). When the returnees arrived in Jerusalem, uncut stones were presumably easy to find in all the rubble and debris. According to the biblical instructions, the altar also did not need to be large, only five cubits by five cubits (around seven feet by seven feet). The only architectural flourish that the Torah required was a ramp to access the altar (Deut. 27:6).

Seventh Month

The narrator emphasized that work on the altar began on the seventh month. On the Jewish liturgical calendar, the seventh month is packed with three nearly back-to-back High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. It is safe to presume that the new arrivals were eager to resume their sacrificial system before the start of the High Holiday season.

First, they reinstituted the morning and evening sacrifices at the temple courtyard. This was known as the tamid, a twice daily sacrifice of a one-year-old lamb and a grain offering. The priest situated the lambs on the altar, ensuring that the altar fire continuously burned day and night. God promises the Israelites coming out of Egypt that if “this burnt offering is to be made regularly at the entrance to the tent of meeting,” God would meet them there and speak with them as “the place will be consecrated by my glory” (Exod. 29:42-43).

With the resumption of the daily burnt offerings and sacred fire, they also renewed freewill offerings on the altar (3:5). The burnt offerings represented the community’s corporate commitment to God. Freewill offerings reflected individual repentance and atonement.

For the first time in decades, the community observed the Festival of the Booths, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot (3:4). Sukkot is an annual reenactment of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The Israelites were supposed to build temporary living structures and stay in them for eight days, remembering their ancestors’ complete reliance on God for daily provision and protection. For the returnees, after going through their own Second Exodus, the message of deliverance from captivity surely felt poignant that first Sukkot.

Placement of Altar

The community made certain that they rebuilt the altar atop the former site of the altar in the First Temple. The returnees were paranoid about repeating the mistakes of their ancestors. At the top of their ancestors’ list of offenses was their erection of altars to God on whatever high place suited them.

Mount Moriah’s sanctity reached back to Abraham. This was the spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac before God intervened. Centuries later, atop Mount Moriah, Kind David bought “the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (2 Sam. 24:16). David built an altar to worship God there in gratitude for ending a deadly plague that swept the land. When Solomon built the First Temple, he incorporated his father’s threshing floor as the temple’s altar site (2 Chron. 3:1).

During the fifty years of exile in Babylon, the local population that remained in Judah may have appropriated the altar site as their own place of worship. Ezra’s narrator comments, “they set up the altar on its foundation because they were in dread of the people of the lands” (3:3). Perhaps in reclaiming the First Temple’s altar site, they had to tear down an altar used by the locals in their absence. If so, the brazen act did not ingratiate them with the neighbors.

When they built the altar, they were careful to do so “in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses” (3:2). Notably, the postexilic community possessed an authoritative written version of the laws of Moses, and they were determined to keep to the law’s proscriptions. Repeatedly in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, emphasis was placed on the community’s conformity with the written scriptures which they apparently had access to. Even at this early stage of return and restoration, the Jews were becoming the People of the Book.

Temple Foundation

Having an altar allowed the community to renew Yahweh worship and offer daily sacrifices. Rebuilding the temple was a long-range goal and much grander undertaking, requiring greater expertise and expense. They first had to start with reconstituting the temple’s foundations.

When describing the building process for the temple foundations, the narrator consciously included descriptive parallels that linked Solomon’s Temple to the Second Temple. Just as Solomon’s Temple project began in the second month of the year, so did the Second Temple (Ez. 3:8; 1 Kgs. 6:1). The returnees constructed the Second Temple using the same building method and materials as Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5:8-11; 1 Chron. 22). Solomon imported cedars from Lebanon, having them transported to Jerusalem by Phoenicians. The postexilic community followed the exact script of acquiring materials. Even the same skilled foreign workers were employed. Though five centuries divide the two temple projects, Tyre and Lebanon continued to provide a robust supply chain for labor and materials.

Zerubbabel and Jeshua operated as co-leaders for the temple project. The four priestly families and Levites listed in Ezra 2’s chronicle of returnees supervised the temple work, making certain that the building process and temple layout adhered to the stipulations of Moses (3:9-10).

Though the narrator’s description of the building process drew out the similarities between the First Temple and Second Temple, the major difference in the two projects was that King Solomon possessed endless riches while the returnees were operating on a grant from King Cyrus. The grant was charitable but limited. Solomon employed 153,000 laborers while the postexilic community had a workforce of 15,000.

Mixed emotions

After the community laid the temple’s foundations, they came together to worship in song and prayer. Since the time of David, music had been a key part of Jerusalem worship. The people dedicated the temple project to God. Priests blew trumpets, the Levites clanged cymbals, and the congregation sang, “for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel” (3:10).

Their song choice seems a conscious effort to reenact the dedication of the First Temple. When Solomon dedicated the First Temple, the people bowed down with their faces to the ground and sang the same hymn of thanksgiving (2 Chron. 7:1-3). The prophet Jeremiah foresaw a day after the end of exile that the people would repossess the desolate lands and bring offerings to Yahweh, singing this exact hymn (Jer. 33:10-11).

Although the people gathered as one at the foundation laying ceremony, their mixed emotions reflected a generational gap in their expectations. The elders retained a high standard based on memories of Solomon’s Temple that the Second Temple could not possibly meet. On the contrary, the younger generation had no expectations.

The younger generation spontaneously rejoiced with a “great shout of praise to the Lord” (3:11). Because those exiles were born in captivity, they had never witnessed a worship service dedicated to Yahweh. They had only imagined Jerusalem in their prayers but had never walked its mountains or witnessed its sunset. When the priests laid their hands on the sacrificial lamb, confessing community sins, the new generation experienced the immense relief of unatoned sin being lifted.

The older generation of priests, Levites, and family heads “wept aloud” at the gathering (3:12). Even though only the foundation of the temple was in view, they understood that the Second Temple paled in comparison to the former temple. Because the narrator of Ezra tried to keep the mood upbeat, he did not elaborate on the reason behind the elder’s dissatisfaction. The prophet Haggai, also present at the dedication, asks the older countrymen, “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Hag. 2:3).

Glory of God

Likely, the elders also perceived problems beyond the physical aspects of the Second Temple. A deep fear permeated the remnant that the spirit of God would not return to Jerusalem. A generation earlier, Ezekiel witnessed God’s throne chariot exiting the city of Jerusalem before it was attacked by the Babylonian army (Ezek. 11:22-24). The people awaited a sign that the glory of God had returned to dwell among them. At the ceremony for the temple foundations, the remnant must have anticipated a supernatural lighting of the altar. Afterall, at both the dedication of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple, the glory of God had appeared to everyone present and lit the altar fire (Lev. 9:24; 2 Chron. 7:1). However, Ezra did not record any such miracle. The postexilic community would suffer more disappointments over the next centuries, but this was their first wake-up call that even if their return to the land initiated God’s redemptive plan, they were far from achieving the fullness of restoration.