By Shelley Neese—

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The first three chapters of Ezra cover the two-year honeymoon period for the returning Judeans. King Cyrus, captor turned liberator, permitted their return to Jerusalem to rebuild their nation and temple. Not only that, but the Persians insisted on flooding them with gifts. The journey must have passed with little trouble, since the narrative did not mention any hardships. After their well-documented arrival, they settled back in their former homes and soon built an altar that allowed them to renew sacrificial worship and the ritual calendar. Only after they laid the foundation of the temple did they meet their first bump in the road: local opposition. Chapter 4 is the pin that pops the adversity-free balloon in the story of the return. Once introduced, conflict, intrigue, and drama become a continuous theme throughout the rest of Ezra and Nehemiah.

People of the Land

Once the temple preparations got underway, word spread among Judah’s neighbors. The locals made what seemed like a reasonable proposition to Zerubbabel and the Judean elders: “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esarhaddon of Assyria, who brought us here” (4:1).

The narrator introduced the locals as “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1). Only two years after returning to the land, they had already developed an adversarial relationship with the surrounding peoples. Without knowing exactly what stoked the fires of tension, historians rely on a few textual clues to fill the knowledge gap.

To be sure, the sudden arrival of a caravan of 50,000 newcomers would jar any local population. Plus, according to the genealogical records in Ezra 2, many of the returnees retained property claims to their ancestral lands. In the half century of their absence, local people surely moved into the evacuated homes and occupied the unclaimed land. It is probably safe to conjecture that Judeans started an eviction process soon after their arrival, kicking the squatters out.

Further, when the Judeans insisted on building their altar atop the site of the former altar in Solomon’s Temple, they likely had to tear down a local pagan altar. The locals may have even dedicated the altar to Yahweh as one deity within their pantheon. In the context of the altar project, the narrator had previously mentioned that the returnees were “in dread of the people of the lands” (3:3).

The Rejection

The Judean leaders plainly rejected the locals’ offer to help with the temple construction: “You shall have no part with us in building a house for our God, but we alone will build for the Lord, the God of Israel” (4:3). Without any background information, the Judeans’ refusal of what seems like friendly assistance is rude and off-putting. Why exclude anyone from worshiping the one true God if they so desire?

When the locals approached Zerubbabel to offer their help with the temple rebuild, they introduced themselves as the descendants of the deportees that King Esarhaddon (680-669 BCE) deposited in the land (4:2). This accords with what historians know of the Assyrian foreign policy of forced dispersions. When the Assyrians conquered new territories, they often uprooted populations and deposited them in other acquired lands. The evacuations were never quite total, which led to intermixing between natives and the returnees. The policy broke down national loyalties and reinforced submission to the empire.

In the eight century BCE, the Assyrians decimated the kingdom of Israel and its capital. The ten northern tribes were deported and scattered across the Assyrian empire. Rather than leaving the cities of Samaria depopulated, the King of Assyria imported other captured peoples from the east (2 Kings 17:24). The new arrivals did not worship the God of Abraham and they did not follow the ways of the covenant. According to an odd story in 2 Kings, God sent a roaming pack of lions to attack the newcomers for desecrating his covenant land (2 Kings 17:25). The Assyrian authorities heard about the outbreak of lion attacks and rightly interpreted the situation as a divine curse. Ancient near eastern peoples believed that local patron gods had to be appeased to maintain peace and prosperity.

In response, the king of Assyria sent an exiled Jewish priest back to Samaria to teach the outsiders the ways of Yahweh and how to worship him properly. At the very least, the Jewish priest was a good luck charm meant to stem the poor fortunes that had cursed the community. Amazingly, after the priest gave proper instructions, the lion attacks ceased. Though the foreigners added Yahweh to their pantheon, they never worshiped Yahweh solely. They blended Yahwism with their own ancestral religions and built shrines to their own national gods all over Samaria (2 Kings 17:29). Apparently, Zerubbabel did not want any part of that style of Yahweh worship and so he rejected their offers to help and their claim that they worshiped the God of Israel.

Because the “people of the land” had revered Yahweh for two centuries before the Judean caravan arrived, they felt justified in participating in the temple project. The returnees, however, were pure monotheists and they viewed the syncretism of the people of the land as threatening. For the remnant, Yahweh could not be one god among many. He must be the one and only god. Therefore, Zerubbabel rejected their offer of help because he wanted nothing to do with their form of Yahweh worship.

The remnant of Judah understood from the prophets that the reason God allowed Assyria to overthrow Israel and Babylon to conquer Judah was because their ancestors had violated the covenant. Repeatedly, previous generations had abandoned Yahweh in favor of the idolatry of the surrounding peoples. Their propensity was to worship pagan gods alongside Yahweh. Even though the prophets constantly warned them against the detestable practice, they never fully rejected idolatry.

When the penalty of captivity was over, God spoke through the postexilic prophet Zechariah to warn them “do not be like your ancestors” (Zech. 1:4). In response, the people repented for the sins of the past, committing themselves to return from their evil ways and deeds. With this commitment in mind, it makes sense why the community could not afford to compromise with the locals, even if the people of the land recognized Yahweh in some form. They knew from experience where that road led, and they did not want to risk God’s judgement again.

History of Temple Opposition

When the elders rebuffed the locals’ proposition, the locals went on the offensive and tried to make life miserable for the returnees. They took two aggressive tactics in their plans to stop the Judeans from rebuilding the temple and city. During the reigns of King Cyrus (550-530 BCE) and King Darius (522-486 BCE), they bribed Persian officials to hassle the exiles (4:5). During the reign of later kings, they initiated a letter-writing campaign.

The author of Ezra made an unusual literary choice to flash forward into the future and describe the letters of complaint that the locals sent to Persian kings (4:6-24). The letters feel misplaced in the text chronologically. Most of the other events of Ezra occurred in the sixth century BCE, but the letters date to the fifth century BCE. Ultimately, the letters illustrate the author’s intention to stay on the theme of local opposition to the restoration process. At least for this section of the story, the theme took priority over linear chronology, even if the insertion feels like a digression.

The local opposition addressed the first letter to King Ahasuerus (486-465 BCE). Ahasuerus, also known in Greek as Xerxes I, was the husband of Esther. Even without including the actual letter, it is reasonable to assume the locals complained about the Jews and asked the king to halt the construction in Jerusalem. The text does not include Ahasuerus’s reply, and it seems to have been of no consequence. Perhaps after the Haman incident, the king had grown tired of conspiracies against the Jews. The rest of the chapter provides the full correspondence from the local opposition to King Artaxerxes (465-424 BCE) and the King’s response.

Why did the author of Ezra include some copies of letters but not others? The author had some kind of access to community archives in Jerusalem. As a responsible historian, he shared firsthand evidence of the remnant’s history. One scholarly theory is that he used a letter from a later time than the events he was chronicling because he did not have archival material from the initial wave of volunteers. In place of those older records, he used letters written closer to his own time but reflecting the aggressive tactics of the local population.

In the letters, which are quite manipulative, the locals introduced themselves as loyal subjects of the empire who were merely guarding the king’s best interest. First, the letter stoked fears that the Jews would renege on their tributes and taxes: “Now may it be known to the king that, if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced” (4:13). Because the letter to Artaxerxes dates much later than the rest of Ezra, the temple had been standing for fifty years at the time of its composition. The process the locals wanted interrupted was not the temple but the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s city walls. They add, “it is not fitting for us to witness the king’s dishonor” (4:14). The king, according to Ezra, was an innocent victim of misinformation, vulnerable to any further weakening of the empire.

During the reign of Cyrus, the Persian empire was a sturdy bulwark, unchallenged and unrivaled. By the time of Artaxerxes, the political situation had changed. The Persian empire struggled to suppress Egyptian and Greek uprisings, and they were losing the imperial grip on the lands. The local opposition in Israel manipulated the king’s fears, purposefully wording the letter to trigger his concerns of sedition. They planted the idea that the Jews, under any occupation, had a predilection for rebellion. The letter exaggerated the threat even further, suggesting that if the Jews rebelled, they could bring the entire region into their seditious orbit.

The letter encouraged the king to perform a search himself of the archives so he could discover the Jewish people’s long history of rebellion (4:15). After an internal investigation, Artaxerxes uncovered evidence that Israel was a historically rebellious people and a consistent enemy of empires. Though his response did not state exactly what he found, he referred to the rebellions of Israel’s “mighty kings” (4:20). Presumably, Artaxerxes came across records of King Hezekiah’s resistance to the Assyrians (2 Kings 19) and further evidence of King Jehoiakim’s alliance with Egypt in revolt against Babylon (2 Kings 24:1-2).

Artaxerxes response to the locals was definitive. He issued an order “that these people [the Judean returnees] be made to cease and that this city not be rebuilt” (4:21). Later, the book of Nehemiah narrates the resolution to the crisis.


The chapter ends with the statement, “The work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia” (4:24). Ezra 4’s bracketed glimpse into the future is over. The author started with the building of the temple, made a long digression about a future event, and jumped right back to the temple project. Ezra 4 left off with the reign of Darius (4:5), moved through two other Persian kings, and returned to the reign of Darius (4:24).

The author’s storytelling technique underlined the seriousness of the ongoing obstacles the Judeans faced in rebuilding their temple and the city. By covering a grand sweep of history, the writer proved how the tension with neighbors persisted throughout the reigns of Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and Artaxerxes. The writer brought one extended period of harassment into a single narrative. Presenting the full scale of local opposition also reframed Zerubbabel’s flat refusal of local involvement with the temple project. Though the offer seems benign at first, the locals were never a group of people who had Israel’s best interest in mind. The letters make that clear.

There may have been an underlying motive for the author’s insertion of the response from Artaxerxes. In his response, Artaxerxes discovered that “Jerusalem has had mighty kings who ruled over the whole province Beyond the River, to whom tribute, custom, and toll were paid” (4:20). Knowing that glorious history, the king was justified in halting Israel’s revival. However, one possibility is that the author of Ezra was using reverse psychology on his Judean audience. He indirectly encouraged the weakened remnant by reminding them that even foreign leaders recalled the glory days of preexilic Israel.

The work stoppage had struck the people hard. They had been riding a high of prophetic fulfillment since the edict of Cyrus, certain they were part of God’s big restart plan. However, the local opposition threw cold water on their hopes. The author of Ezra reminded his audience that outside obstacles were not new in Israel’s story. God had delivered them before and would deliver them again. Telling and retelling the Israelite story was the greatest way to retrace the hand of God in their history.