Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ezra 4: "We worship your God as you do"

It still sometimes strikes me as odd that Ezra and Nehemiah are not the last books in either the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. Together, they make up the final movement of Biblical Israelite history and tell the tale of the people's return to the Holy Land in the years following the Babylonian Exile.

For many years, Ezra and Nehemiah were read as one complete whole, though significant stylistic trends seem to distinguish one from the other. However, both hold up the earlier book of Joshua as a template. Joshua, which we'll have the opportunity to discuss in a later post, tells of the Israelite people's first entrance into the promised land. It is an idealized history that imagines the people's conquest of the promised land as total--and totally successful. Yahweh aids the Israelites as they march through Canaan and commands their armies to annihilate the inhabitants of the land, or to "put them under the ban." They do so with a sometimes disturbing zeal.

However, like Batman Returns and Critters II, the Ezra/Nehemiah narrative proves to be an early instance of the sequel falling short of the original.

For the return to Israel is not so spectacular a trip as the initial invasion. To begin, though the Israelites are allowed to go back, they do so only at the behest of an imperial ruler (Cyrus), and as vassals of a Persian empire that now engulfs the promised land. Further, they have to contend with an unruly resident population who will not and cannot be wiped out--but instead must be dealt with. Finally, they relearn the disturbing truths they already knew: that Jerusalem is a shadow of its former self, that the temple has been destroyed, and that the defensive walls lie in ruins. (The plot of Ezra will be largely taken up with the rebuilding of the temple, and Nehemiah will concern itself with the re-fortification of the walls.)

However, I believe that both books make the tacit argument that during the difficult process of banishment and return, the notion of exile becomes part of the Israelite soul. And during both, we come to learn, ironically, that homelessness and instability might more accurately characterize Israelite cultural and religious practice than stability and rootedness. We get some evidence of these claims in Ezra 4.

Having successfully returned to Jerusalem, the Israelites undertake the reconstruction of the religious edifice that once anchored the city: the Temple. First, they build the altar and begin the messy work of sacrifice (Ezra 3: 1-7). Then, they restart the priesthood, naming those who will lead the renewed spiritual community (8-9). Then, they lay the foundations for the Temple itself (10). (By the by, I believe this order is important--the naming of the religious elite is secondary to the building of the alter, suggesting that the hierarchy of the grand poobahs takes a back seat to the actual processes of sacrifical devotion; more simply, the religious act is more important than the religious person who leads it.)

Nonetheless, no sooner than the foundations have been laid than the "adversaries of Judah and Benjamin" (4:1) come slinking around to get a piece of the action. (For after all, who can resist a good burnt offering?) They say, "Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him" (4:2). An interesting offer, and perhaps a tempting one given the scads of heavy brick-lifting that surely await the Israelites. But the returnees will have none of this Johnny-come-lately devotion: "You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel" (4:3). (I can imagine myself groaning at the extra work; on the other hand, maybe I would have stayed on my couch in Persia eating grapes and sheep-meat.)

The identity of these "adversaries" remains somewhat of a mystery throughout the Ezra text. Clearly, some of these are the old enemies: the Amorites, Amalekites, and Arabs (oh my!) who used to harass the people during their first stay in the land. And some, as the text indicates, are foreigners forced to dwell in the kingdom by the Assyrians years before.

However, there is every possibility--and many scholars concur--that some of the "adversaries" are just un-exiled Judahites. For when the Babylonians finally take over Judah and Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., they do not or cannot banish all of the inhabitants; some stay behind, and though we know little of their fate in the intervening years--because the Hebrew Bible focuses on the plight of the exiles--we know that they remain. And we also know, perhaps most clearly from the Ezra text, that they continue in their worship of God.

Thus there is a possibility that the Israelites who rebuild the temple in Ezra keep some of their brethren (and sistren) from helping. Now, perhaps this is just sour grapes, because who wants to share a good temple-building after a long trip from Persia--after all, haven't the Israelites earned it? But perhaps their is a deeper meaning in this exclusion ...

In keeping the un-exiled chosen from helping with the temple project, the Israelites may be suggesting that their own extended sojourn away from the promised land has become a part of the covenantal relationship with the divine. Indeed, the Biblical text is explicit in suggesting that the Israelites deserve the Babylonian Exile--it is divine punishment for their apostasy. Thus, maybe those who stay behind haven't taken their medicine; they aren't purged of the sins that exile expunges, and hence their relationship with God is fractured or even destroyed. Banishment from the Holy Land has become part of the relationship with God, and those who do not live it through miss out.

Thus Ezra confronts us with two more deep ironies: to be a true Israelite, perhaps one must suffer exile. And to get the temple back, perhaps we must fully lose it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We here at "Eat the Bible" love your comments--please share.