Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel’s return from Babylonian exile and resettlement in the land. Ezra focuses on the rebuilding of the temple, while Nehemiah focuses on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. It is fair to say that Ezra is focused more exclusively on religious reform and Nehemiah on political issues. However, these political issues are not at all devoid of some religious dimension—especially since it is impossible to divorce religion and state in ancient Israel. Judging by the names of the Persian rulers mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah, the events of these books likely took place between 458 BC and 445 BC, with Ezra coming first. Some scholars suggest that Ezra came second, which would move his date to about 398 BC. Either way, Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries.
These two books, along with Daniel, were written mainly in Hebrew but with a large amount of Aramaic as well. The composite nature of these books reflects the changing linguistic situation in that world (the time after the Persians ousted the Babylonians).
The exiles began to return under the edict of the Persian king, Cyrus (see also Isaiah 44:28). Unlike the Babylonians, Persian policy was to allow captives to return to their homes and rebuild their government and religious systems. Hence, a group of returnees came back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The way was not smooth, however, for there was much opposition from the land’s inhabitants, with letters going back and forth between the surrounding nations and the Persian kings. The goal of these letters was to stop the temple from being rebuilt, and at any cost. In the end, King Darius confirmed Cyrus’s original edict and the temple was rebuilt.
At this point Ezra enters the scene, armed with a letter from King Artaxerxes that gave him the authority to lead Israel in its religious observances. The book concludes with a strong injunction against Israelites intermarrying with Gentiles, since the influence of foreign religions is what landed the people in exile in the first place.
The book of Nehemiah begins with King Artaxerxes sending Nehemiah to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls. Nehemiah 3 gives a detailed description of the various gates of the walls, which is the earliest such description scholars have, thereby helping them to understand something of the topography of Jerusalem at the time. As with Ezra’s reforms, there was opposition to rebuilding the wall, for a fortified Jerusalem would surely make the surrounding nations nervous. Despite this, the wall was still completed.
Nehemiah also includes a number of lists that are of interest to historians: a list of those who returned from Babylon, of those who agreed to the religious reforms initiated by Ezra reading the Torah in the presence of all the people, a list of the new residents of Jerusalem, and a list of the priests and Levites.
Like Ezra, Nehemiah is concerned with foreign religious influence. Intermarriage was forbidden, as was admitting Ammonites or Moabites into Israel’s assembly (Nehemiah 13:1). This same view is also found in Deuteronomy 23:3-6 and is in some tension with the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman, who was the great-grandmother of David, Israel’s greatest king.
– Peter Enns