By Shelley Neese

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

God called Ezra to institute the worship of Yahweh through their sacred texts and obedience to God’s laws. The covenant provided their code of living, the mysterious means by which they pursued individual holiness and communal harmony. Without being faithful to their covenant, Judah could never be in a right relationship with God. Per their calling, the restored community was to be a holy people dwelling in their Holy Land and living in obedience to their holy standards.

Chapter 8 is a memoir of Ezra and his caravan’s meticulous preparations for their journey. Ezra’s foremost task was the recruitment of volunteers, particularly Levites and temple servants, to accompany him. While the actual journey itself is omitted, the narrative describes their departure from Babylon and their orderly arrival in Jerusalem. Additionally, Ezra 8 details the issuance of royal decrees aimed at ensuring the secure transportation of the valuable offerings carried by Ezra and his companions from Babylon to Jerusalem, underscoring the significance of their mission and the divine providence guiding their path.

Who’s who in the caravan

Once again, the book incorporates a list into the narrative. This time, though, the list is written in first-person. Ezra introduces the record: “this is the genealogy of those who went up with me from Babylonia, in the reign of King Artaxerxes” (8:1). The first two names recorded are priests descended from Phinehas, the priest forever celebrated for his zealous defense of Israel’s purity in the wilderness wanderings. In Numbers, God promised Phineas a “covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites” (Num. 25:13). Even after decades in exile, the priestly line of Phineas remained intact.

Next on his list of volunteers, Ezra added Hattush, a descendant of King David, and possible successor to Zerubbabel. Like Ezra’s own impeccable ancestry, his leadership team included exiles with the proper credentials and prestige. Ezra’s returning party had the credibility of both priestly and royal status. However, Hattush must have died or been a disappointment because his name never came up again in the rest of Ezra or Nehemiah. The Bible never mentions him taking over any leadership roles after his arrival.

Ezra’s long genealogical record grouped the rest of the laity by their family name. According to the list, twelve extended families joined the pilgrimage. Possibly, there were more families who joined, but the editor wanted to highlight the number twelve. Twelve symbolized the full representation of all twelve of Israel’s tribes. The number of male travelers tallied up to 1,500 returnees. By most estimates, adding women and children brought the total to approximately 5,000 travelers. While the caravan was large enough for Ezra’s liking, the number hardly approached the 50,000 included in Zerubbabel’s initial party eight decades earlier.

With two priests, one descendant of David, and twelve clans, Ezra’s assembly looked to be in decent shape. For three days, all the travelers gathered by “the river that runs to Ahava” which was likely a canal near Babylon that ran off from the Tigris or Euphrates Rivers toward a town called Ahava (8:15).

The Levite problem

After conducting a roll-call, Ezra discovered that among the substantial number of priests in his party, there was not a single Levite (8:15). The Levites were no-shows. How is it that out of 1,500 men, none of them were descendants of Levi? The first caravan that had left fifty years before, with the permission of King Cyrus, suffered the same void. Though Zerubbabel’s group had 4,000 priests, only 74 of them were Levites (2:40). The narrator made clear in Ezra’s opening that all those who joined the first pilgrimage responded to God’s stirring up of their spirits to obey and return (1:5). That reality begged the question: why were so many Levites resisting God’s call? Where was their stirring?

God had set apart the Levites since the days of Moses on Mount Sinai. When Moses came down Mount Sinai and witnessed the tragedy of the golden calf, only the Levites volunteered to obey Yahweh and take down the offenders (Ex. 32:28-29). Since that moment, God upheld the Levites as the firstborn sons of Israel, commissioned as the religious leaders of the people and custodians of the temple. Levites were necessary for guarding the temple, keeping the gates, and playing music. The Kohanim, a subsect within the tribe of Levi, administered the sacrifices. Ezra’s journey was useless if he did not deliver additional Levites to serve in the Jerusalem temple. Even to make the journey, Ezra needed the Levites to transport the holy ritual vessels. Only Levites had permission to handle sacred worship items (Num. 4:4).

While the Levites’ role in the community was an honor and privilege, their vocation also denied them family land and private income. They depended on the generosity of the temple worshipers for their daily food and provisions. Of all the returnees, it would be the Levites whose lifestyle would change the most by leaving Babylon and returning to the land of Israel. At least the small group of Levites in the first wave of returnees remembered their work in the temple. By Ezra’s day, the generation of Levites were aware of their priestly heritage but had no experience with the reality of temple service.

Ezra surely knew that Jerusalem was already suffering from the lack of Levites to service the temple. In fact, an inadequate number of Levites plagued the Second Temple period all the way into the Roman era. Ezra’s own mission was to appoint magistrates and judges who could teach and interpret the laws of Yahweh. For that tall task, Ezra needed the Levites. Religious instruction was part of the Levites’ duties. He could not revive Torah adherence in the community all on his own.

Ezra sent a delegation of eleven hand-picked wise men on a recruiting mission. The delegation went to a place called Casiphia, which was apparently a mainstay for Levites and temple servants in Babylon (8:16-17). Casiphia is an unidentified historical location, but from the description in Ezra it almost sounds like an early version of the synagogue, a place where educated Jews gathered and studied Torah.

Ezra told the delegation exactly what to say and apparently, the speech was persuasive (8:17). After a two-week ordeal, they enlisted 38 Levites from two families and 220 additional temple servants.

Traveling mercies

Before they set out on their three-and-a-half-month journey, Ezra called for a fast. He said, “we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions” (8:21). Ezra declined the option of armed guards from the Persian courts to escort their caravan. However, he candidly admitted his reasoning: “I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and calvary to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him” (8:22). To Ezra, it would be hypocritical to ask for Persian escorts if he genuinely believed that no power on earth could stop the will of God. He wanted to prove to his followers, and to the king, that God was truly all they needed.

Ezra believed he was not putting his people at risk by forgoing the Persian guards. He had faith in the promises put forth in the prophets about the ingathering of the remnant in Jerusalem. The prophet Isaiah predicted that when the time came for the exiles to return to the land, God would watch over their every step. Isaiah prophesied, “the Lord will go before you; the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isa. 52:12).

The heavy load of silver and gold made the caravan vulnerable to bandits and corrupt provincial administrators. The king and his advisors donated to the cause, as did the Jews who stayed behind and brought parting gifts to the travelers. If the weight of a talent in Ezra’s time was the biblical standard of 75 pounds, the amount of precious metal in the caravan’s possession was upwards of 20 tons.

Ezra tasked twelve leading priests and Levites with transporting the temple’s returned sacred items (8:30). They approached the task in a businesslike manner, meticulously weighing and inventorying the valuables as they transferred them to the care of the priests. Before officially accepting responsibility for the treasures, Ezra reminded the priests of their sacred status, saying, “You are holy to the Lord, and the vessels are holy” (4:28). He trusted them to be honest stewards of the dedicated treasures, while also ensuring transparency and accountability in the process.

Destination: Jerusalem

The group reached Jerusalem in 458 BCE after a 900-mile journey that spanned three and a half months. Despite Ezra’s memoir praising God for delivering them “from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way” (8:31), it doesn’t offer specific details about their experiences. It’s unclear from Ezra’s account whether they encountered hostile attacks and overcame them, or if they were fortunate to avoid any incidents altogether.

Upon arrival in Jerusalem, the priests and Levites transferred the treasures and vessels to Meremoth, the temple treasurer. From the account, the process was orderly and professional (8:33-34). After enduring the burden of carrying such weight for three months, the priests must have felt a sense of relief depositing the offerings in the temple storage rooms. Remarkably, according to the inventory, not a single item was lost by the priests during the journey (8:34).

Like earlier climaxes in the book of Ezra, the new arrivals marked their achievement with celebrations and sacrificial worship at the temple. Utilizing a portion of the funds from their journey, they offered sin offerings to purify themselves from the contamination of a lifetime spent in exile, while burnt offerings served as a demonstration of their gratitude for God’s deliverance.

Once they deposited the temple treasures and purified themselves through sacrifice, the next matter of importance was “deliver[ing] the king’s commissions to the king’s satraps and to the governors of the province Beyond the River” (8:36). This is a reference to King Artaxerxes letters endorsing Ezra as the community’s new administrative leader tasked with teaching and enforcing Jewish law and the king’s laws. By order of the Persian king, Ezra had full permission to set up a religious judicial system.

Once the temple treasures had been securely deposited and the purification rituals completed through sacrifice, the next crucial task at hand was the delivery of the king’s commissions to his appointed satraps and provincial governors (8:36). By the decree of the Persian monarch, Ezra was granted full authority to establish a religious judicial system. As Judah’s newest administrative leaders, he was responsible for instructing and enforcing both Jewish and imperial laws.

Three times in his memoir, Ezra acknowledged the “good hand of God” for directing and leading his affairs and those of his fellow travelers. This guiding hand of God emerges as a prominent theological theme in Ezra’s firsthand accounts. Ezra found courage in the assurance that God had granted him favor with the king and his counselors (7:28). He recognized God’s guidance in the recruitment of volunteers and in his efforts to rally the Levites (8:18). Furthermore, he offered praise to God for the successful delivery of the treasures and the avoidance of danger (8:31). Throughout his pilgrimage, Ezra remained deeply appreciative of God’s provision at every step.