By Shelley Neese

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Ezra is divided into two parts: Chapters 1-6 and Chapters 7-10. The first half recaps the initial return of the exiles to their national homeland under the leadership of Zerubbabel and other founding members. The narrator recounts the miracles that accompanied Cyrus’s edict, the rebuilding of the altar, and the laying of the temple’s foundation amidst opposition from neighboring peoples. This lookback portion concludes with the dedication of the Second Temple.

The last four chapters cover the next phase of the restoration process: the return of Ezra and his push for spiritual reform. The second literary unit differs from the first, both chronologically and stylistically. Yet, the plot of the second half follows the same pattern as the first. God, in his sovereignty, prompted a Persian king to allow a large group of Judean exiles to return to Jerusalem and restore their nation. Sound familiar? In round two of the story, the returnees were on a mission not to rebuild the temple but to renew Judah’s commitment to the laws of Moses. Themes of Persian favor, return, temple prioritization, and religious festivals connect Ezra’s first and second units.

A 58-year gap separates the closing of Chapter 6, marked by the completion of the Jerusalem temple in 516 BCE, from the opening of Chapter 7, which sees the return of Ezra in 458 BCE. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem 80 years after the first wave of returnees. The narrator swiftly bridges this decades-long narrative gap with the transitional phrase “now after this” (7:1).

Ezra: priest and scribe

One way to interpret the first six chapters is as a lengthy prologue, offering the historical backdrop to the life and work of the book’s central figure, Ezra. Ezra’s superscription is the lengthiest in the Hebrew Bible (7:1-5). According to the genealogical record, Ezra’s father was Seraiah, the high priest in Jerusalem, who was deported to Babylon and executed by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:18-21). Besides being the son of one of the last high priests before the exile, the introduction traces Ezra’s lineage all the way back to Aaron, the first high priest. Ezra also descended from Zadok, the prominent priestly group in Jerusalem since Solomon’s era. Ezra’s priestly lineage surely bolstered his authority in the community, an asset he needed to implement his challenging spiritual reforms.

Ezra, like the other priests living in exile, never had a temple to administer sacrifices or support ritual worship. As a priest without a temple, Ezra focused on the other priestly duties, particularly scribal activities like writing, copying, and studying the Torah. The Persian king even recognized Ezra as “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given” (7:6).

Revisionist historians, wanting to affix a late date to the five books of Moses, theorize that Ezra may have been the principal scribe to compile and edit the Torah. However, the narrator clearly described Ezra as an expert in the sacred text but not the author of the text. If he was a scribe “skilled in the law of Moses,” the wording implies he mastered a text that preexisted him, but he did not create it. In studying Ezra’s full array of teachings and quotations, Bible scholar Richard Friedman posits that “the book that Ezra brought from Babylon to Judah was the full Torah—the five books of Moses as we know it.”[1]

Granted, the role of Torah in the life of the community received a huge boost during the Babylonian exile. As a religious minority in benign captivity, Torah observance was the only thing the community had to retain their national and religious identity. The biblical stories from the Persian period describe exiles who grew stronger in their obedience to the laws of Moses.

Daniel refused unclean food from the king’s table because it violated the dietary stipulations of Judaism. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego accepted the death penalty over bowing down to an idol.

Ezra and the 5,000

Biblical stories like those of Daniel, Esther, and Nehemiah also demonstrate that it was not uncommon for exiled Jews to ascend the ranks within the Babylonian and Persian courts. Ezra too somehow held a prominent position in the royal court of King Artaxerxes, perhaps as an advisor on Jewish affairs. Taking advantage of his access, Ezra requested an audience with the king which remarkably, he readily granted. Ezra admitted that he had to gather his courage for the encounter and brought along a group of Israel’s leaders for moral support (7:28). While Ezra’s memoir doesn’t delve into the conversation’s specifics, the king readily permitted Ezra to lead a new wave of exiles back to Jerusalem with the intention of enforcing the laws of Moses. The narrator explains that the king “granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him” (7:6).

Embedded in Chapter 7’s narrative is the king’s letter of endorsement, commissioning Ezra to lead a caravan or returnees (7:12-26). Written in Aramaic, the king and his seven counselors granted Ezra permission to lead a group of priests and laity “who freely offers to go to Jerusalem” (7:13). Considering that the Judean exiles in Babylon could have migrated decades earlier, many of them were living comfortably and not overly eager to fulfill prophecy. Ezra had to lobby them, but he managed to recruit around 5,000—including priests, singers, gatekeepers, and temple servants (7:7).

The law of the Lord

Ezra possessed a “heart to study the law of the Lord and to do it and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (7:10). He was not interested in leading his people politically or militarily; he was on a spiritual mission. Yet, still, some political authority was placed in Ezra’s hands as a representative of the king. The king’s decree stated that Ezra must investigate the extent to which Judah was practicing the laws of Moses (7:14). The decree encouraged Ezra, as judge of the land, to delegate his task as needed by appointing teachers and judges to spread knowledge of their religious laws and build a proper judicial system to enforce the laws (7:25).

Ezra was not bringing the people a new law. Since the time of Moses, the people were familiar with the laws of Moses, even if they struggled with adherence. During the exile, many of the laws pertaining to the covenant land and temple worship did not apply to their lives in the diaspora. Naturally, they became less familiar with the law’s application. Ezra’s goal was not to institute a new law but to democratize the ancient law that was part of their mutual heritage as God’s chosen people.

Imperial motives

While it makes perfect sense why Ezra wanted the restored community in Jerusalem to adhere to the laws of Moses, it is not clear why Artaxerxes supported the endeavor. Archaeologists have discovered a plethora of documentation that illustrates the Persians’ endorsement of local law codes and tolerance for local religions throughout the empire.

Still, Artaxerxes’ sanctioning of Ezra was not entirely altruistic. The king’s decree gave Ezra the power to enforce both “the law of your God and the law of the king” (7:26). There was a punitive feature to the decree which aimed to punish breakers of the imperial laws, not just the laws of Moses. It stated, “all who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them” (7:26). The king wanted a check on the peripheral Judean province to see if they were upholding law and order by Persian standards.

At the time of Ezra’s journey, revolts in Egypt plagued Artaxerxes rule. An Egyptian Pharaoh named Inaros II rebelled against Artaxerxes, causing a bloody skirmish that Persia did not successfully put down until 454 BCE. The Bible does not layout the political motivations of the Persian king or provide the geopolitical tensions. However, Artaxerxes needed a loyal vassal like Judah to serve as a buffer between Egypt and the broader empire. Judah had potential to be the king’s stronghold in a land fertile for revolts. Sending someone he trusted, like Ezra, helped ensure that Judah would not ally with Egypt or follow Egypt’s rebellious example.

Artaxerxes and his seven advisors donated silver and gold to Ezra’s mission (7:16). Like with the first wave of returnees, the king also asked the Israelite exiles unwilling to return to at least donate to the pilgrimage. According to the letter, the travelers were to use the donations to purchase “bulls, rams, and lambs and their grain offerings and their drink offerings” once they arrived at the Jerusalem temple (7:17). Artaxerxes was surprisingly aware of Jewish ritual necessities for proper temple worship.

For a second time, the Persian treasury returned items stolen from the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar (7:19). The king’s letter closes with “whatever seems good to you and your colleagues to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do” (7:18). He essentially wrote Ezra a blank check to be used at his discretion. Overall, Artaxerxes’s provisions were even greater than the generosity of Cyrus to the first mission.

Affixed to the king’s decree was another letter addressing the treasury secretaries Ezra might encounter along the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. Ezra carried the letter of endorsement like a government-issued special visa. The king commanded the treasury secretaries, “whatever the priest Ezra, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, requires of you, let it be done with all diligence” (7:21). As they traveled through the imperial provinces, the royal letter asked others to contribute silver, wheat, wine, oil, and salt to Ezra’s caravan should they need extra supplies.

Artaxerxes further sweetened his deal promising that temple staff in Jerusalem would be exempt from the imperial taxes (7:24). Surely, a tax exemption for clergy was a great lobbying tool for Ezra to get more priests and Levites on his mission.


With the close of the king’s decree and the letter attached to the decree, the narrative switched into the first-person voice of Ezra: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors….who extended to me steadfast love before the king….I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel” (7:27-28). Until this point in the book, the narrator had written anonymously. Perhaps the narrator was always Ezra and he only let his own voice break in once his personal story merged with the narrative. Or, more likely, the anonymous narrator of the book had access to Ezra’s personal memoirs, which he included in the section without alteration.

Either way, Ezra reiterated God’s sovereignty over their history. God was the author of all the events that his generation witnessed in leading up to their return mission: the moving of the heart of Artaxerxes, the lavishness of the king’s provision, and the astonishing imperial political support. God used Artaxerxes, a pagan king, to be a positive influence on Judah’s spiritual redemption.

The book of Ezra, in its entirety, is the story of a two-step restoration process. The first mission, under the leadership of Sheshbazzar and then Zerubbabel, focused on restoring their nation physically with the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. The second phase required Ezra. Ezra’s vocation and calling was to bring spiritual restoration to the people. The remnant may have been worshiping God through the temple and sacrificial system, but Ezra had plenty more work to do!

[1] Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2019), 140.