By Shelley Neese

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Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

This week we are studying Chapter 8 and believe it or not this is the section I have been looking forward to the entire study, Ezra’s public reading of the Torah.

Feast of Trumpets

The passage begins on the first day of the seventh month when “all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate” (8:1). On the Jewish calendar, the seventh month is jampacked with ceremonial holidays: the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. The builders finished the city wall just in time for the first holiday when the celebrants were heading to Jerusalem (6:15; 8:2). The Feast of Trumpets, also known as Rosh Hashanah, marks the beginning of the Jewish year and is associated with the blasting of shofars, reconciliation, and temple sacrifices (Lev. 23:25). Ezra and Nehemiah took advantage of the influx of Judeans for the High Holidays by calling for a national assembly.

According to the text, the people assembled as one to hear a public reading of Ezra’s scroll, just as they had unified as one to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. The gathering took place by the newly repaired Water Gate, instead of inside the temple courts.

At the gates, men and women could gather because the wall and the gates were the hub of secular life in the community. The temple precincts were the center of religious life and restricted the entry of women. With the adults were all “those who could understand” which biblical scholars interpret as children of a certain age (8:3).

Ezra’s emphasis on the presence of the entire community reflects the democratizing spirit of his efforts. The word of God was a gift for all, not just a privilege for the elite. As the cannon ended and the prophets’ age drew to an end, Ezra stood on the cusp of a new era of divine revelation.

The synagogue wasn’t yet an established institution in Israel, and neither were regular gatherings to read Torah, but they became more common after this scene. By the end of the Second Temple period, Jews saw Torah study as the activity of highest honor.

Ezra’s reappearance and the chapter placement

Nehemiah commissioned Ezra to read the Torah for the ceremonial gathering, rather than the high priest. As a priest, Ezra had access to the Temple library, and as a scribe he had the skills to read, translate, and interpret the Torah teachings. Everyone in the community knew that King Artaxerxes I ordered Ezra to return to Judah and teach the Torah and its commandments (Ez. 7:25). Nehemiah was God’s elect for physically restoring Jerusalem but when the need for spiritual restoration became clear, he called in reinforcements. Ezra was the man for the job.

Until this point in Nehemiah’s memoir, he had not mentioned Ezra even once. It seems a little odd that we had to go so far into the story for the governor and scribe to make an appearance together. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 458 BCE, during the seventh year of Artaxerxes I (Ez. 7:8). Nehemiah arrived thirteen years later in 445 BCE, during the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I (Neh. 2:1). Their ministries overlapped, but the chronology of events presented in the two books is difficult to outline.

The late appearance of Ezra in Nehemiah’s memoir strikes some biblical scholars as anachronistic. They argue that an editor moved the story of Ezra’s public reading from its original position after Ezra 8 to Nehemiah. The debate on the passage’s position arises from the notion that Ezra would have read the law publicly soon after arriving in Judah. They prefer the sequence of Ezra arriving in the fifth month with a wave of returnees (Ez. 7:8-9), holding a public reading of the Torah in the seventh month (Neh. 8:2); and enforcing Torah compliance in the tenth month (Ez. 10:9).

According to that view, later editors moved the public reading passage out of the Ezra timeline and to the middle of Nehemiah for thematic or literary purposes. They wanted to place a Torah-inspired spiritual revival between the completion of Jerusalem’s walls and Nehemiah’s repopulation project.

Whether the public reading happened right after Ezra’s arrival or thirteen years later does not impact the historicity of the biblical books. However, I disagree with the argument that editors moved it from its original spot for two reasons. First, even if an editor changed the placement of the passage, I do not believe they also would have taken the liberty to alter historical details in the account. The passage has Nehemiah in the crowd, agreeing with Ezra, an impossibility if the public reading happened before Nehemiah’s arrival (8:9). Rearranging the order of a book is one thing but changing an important historical detail requires a heavy editing hand.

The passage doesn’t indicate that Ezra’s public reading was his initial teaching to the people. Most likely, he spent the previous thirteen years teaching God’s word, making small local reforms like tackling the problem of intermarriage. The public reading was unique because God’s word finally broke through to the people’s hearts, not because it was Ezra’s first time to teach.

Any pastor understands that God’s written revelation has the power to pierce the human heart, but the human heart choses to embrace or resist that power. Just because someone hears a great sermon does not mean they respond to the sermon’s call to action. With the completion of the wall in 52 days, the people had experienced a miracle only explainable supernaturally. Therefore, they were prime to receive Ezra’s teaching in a new way. This was their Big Tent Revival.

The Torah

Ezra read from the scroll “from early morning until midday” which is the equivalent of six hours (8:3). Six hours was not enough time to read the entire Torah, but certainly it was enough time to read or summarize portions.

What version of the Torah did Ezra have access to at the time? Were the entire five books of the Torah codified? Did Ezra have the complete book of Deuteronomy, or did he focus on a collection of priestly legislations? We cannot know exactly what Ezra’s scroll contained. However, the memoir packed theological punch in one clarifying phrase about Ezra’s scroll. It was “the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (8:1). In that phrase, there is plenty of there there. The content of Ezra’s scroll dated back to the original revelation at Mount Sinai and contained the terms of the covenant between Yahweh and the descendants of Abraham.

Ezra stood on a platform constructed especially for the reading (8:4). Thirteen leaders of the community stood on the platform with Ezra. Most likely, they took turns relieving Ezra from the reading; six hours is a long time for any one person to talk. These thirteen men, representing their communities, were previously listed as wall builders in Chapter 3.

When Ezra unfurled the scroll, “all the people stood up” out of a spirit of reverence (8:5). The passage reads, “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands” (8:6).

What I love about this scene is that every denomination can read their own style of worship into the passage. Because the rituals described in Ezra’s public reading have carried over into today, nothing about the assembly feels ancient or strange.

Whether you are liturgical, charismatic, or evangelical, the celebrants’ response to the reading feels familiar. For lovers of liturgy, the people stood and took part in a benediction of call-and-response. For charismatics, every form of kinetic worship emerges in the moment. Uninhibited, the people lift their hands, bow their heads, and worship with their faces on the ground (8:6). For evangelicals, the congregation declares ‘Amen’ to acknowledge the hearing of truth. This shows a priority of God’s written word.

The description of Ezra’s reading from the platform is remarkably like modern synagogue services. In synagogues, the presentation of the Torah scroll is still the act that solicits Jewish worshippers to stand. Did the traditions start with Ezra or precede him? We cannot be sure, but Ezra is certainly the connecting link between biblical Judaism and the synagogue.

Interpretation and translation

According to the memoir, the reading of the Torah aloud did not automatically impart understanding. For Ezra, the goal of the assembly was not performative but instructive. He scattered thirteen Levites among the attendees. The listeners stood still while the Levites roamed (8:7). The Levites’ job was to give “the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8). Most likely, they provided the crowd with translations, answered questions, and offered interpretations.

The returnees spoke Aramaic, but the Torah was in Hebrew. Part of the Levites job was to walk among the crowd translating from Hebrew to Aramaic, the common language of the Persian empire.

When my husband and I lived in Beer Sheva, Israel, we attended a Messianic fellowship of about eighty people. It was the only Christian service in the city. Included among the congregation were Israelis, Arabs, overseas students, new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, and Romanian and Filipino laborers. Translators divided the congregation into common language groups and sat among them translating the sermon at a whisper. That is the image I have in my head of the Levites scattered among the crowd.

After Ezra finished his first day of teaching the higher ideals of the Torah to the assembly, Nehemiah chimed in practically instructing how the community should celebrate the holidays. Raise your hand if you are an Enneagram 3 personality type and you identify with Nehemiah’s tendency to address problems with a checklist. Nehemiah, the achiever, tells the people “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared” (8:10). Both Nehemiah and Ezra agreed that mourning on the Feast of Trumpets was forbidden. In the next chapter, after the holiday season, the community will do the work of repentance and reflection, but on the feast day, they were to celebrate God’s provision.

Nehemiah’s instruction reminded them that everyone should be able to enjoy the holiday, even those who could not afford the feast. The exhortation is reminiscent of Nehemiah’s focus in Chapter 5 when he reminded the rich Judeans that they were responsible in caring for their poorer brethren. He wanted the joy of the holiday to compel everyone to share their blessings with others. The Feast of Trumpets that followed the public reading was joyful, according to the text, “because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (8:12).


After the first round of celebrations, most Judeans returned home. However, a group of community leaders and elders asked Ezra if he could continue teaching them the Torah for another day. To institute reforms in their community, they needed extra instruction, and they understood that when they resumed their normal lives, they would lose access to the priests and Levites. Thankfully, Ezra had at least recruited Levites to accompany him on his journey to the Holy Land (Ez. 8). With no Gideon Bibles to take back to each family, it was up to the Levites to pass on the Torah’s understanding.

One impact of hearing the law of Moses was that the leaders learned about aspects of their religious holidays they had forgotten. The postexilic community had not ignored the feasts and festivals on the religious calendar, but they had neglected certain practices. With limited access to sacred scrolls, illiteracy led to reliance on traditions for celebrations without studying the Torah’s actual commands.

The Day of Atonement and the Festival of Booths were fast approaching. Nehemiah 8 omits the Day of Atonement. Instead, the Festival of Booths, or Sukkot, is the holiday in focus. Based on their study, the elders worried their communities had not complied with the Torah’s instructions. With Sukkot marking the height of the fall harvests, the postexilic community remembered to celebrate their bounty and bring sacrifices to the temple. However, they had not renewed the tradition of building special booths, or sukkot. As they pieced together the legislation about the Festival of Booths, they came across the Levitical instructions for gathering leafy branches to erect booths (Lev. 23:40-42). The Torah instructed every family to live in a temporary structure for seven days. The booths were not only to be built in the temple area but on roofs, in fields, by the city gates, and in open squares (8:16).

Apparently, they had not properly celebrated Sukkot since the days of Joshua (8:17). Not that they had ignored Sukkot since the conquest of Canaan. The book of Ezra described the returnees eagerly celebrating the holiday once they had an altar rebuilt for sacrifices (Ez. 3:4). Most likely, the reference to the days of Joshua means they had not fully embraced the true meaning of the holiday for a long time. One theory is that since the building of the First Temple, they had put the booths in the temple courts, but individual families did not participate with their own booths.

Throughout the seven-day celebration of Sukkot, “day by day,” Ezra read the “book of the law of God” to the people (8:18). As believers, we are called to live a life continually pursuing God’s truth through his written revelation and the Holy Spirit. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow” (Heb. 4:12). But while it convicts, it simultaneously serves as our sure foundation (2 Tim. 3:16) and as the lamp for our feet and light to our path (Ps. 119:105).


Throughout the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the two leaders have been the focus of the narrative, the primary change makers. However, Ezra’s public reading, and the people’s enthusiastic response, marks a permanent shift in the storyline. Ezra and Nehemiah until now focused on rebuilding the temple and the city. But they realized they also had to rebuild the people by centralizing the Torah in their hearts. What Martin Luther’s nailing up of the 95 Theses is to Protestantism, Ezra’s public reading of the Law of Moses is to Judaism.

This was Judaism’s Solo Scriptura moment, and it jumps off the page with historic importance!

Shabbat Shalom