INTRODUCTION TO EZRA, NEHEMIAH & ZECHARIAH
EZRA & NEHEMIAH INTRODUCTION
(for ZECHARIAH: )
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The Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C. was preceded by earlier deportations beginning in the eighth century by the Assyrians from both Israel and Judah. Deportation began with Tiglath-pileser III, who attacked Damascus and Galilee in 732 (2 Kings 15:29), carrying off at least 13,520 people to Assyria (ANET, pp. 283-84). Then Shalmaneser V and Sargon II besieged Samaria in 722 (2 Kings 17:6; 18:10). Sargon boasted that he carried off 27,290 (or 27,280) persons from Israel, replacing them with various other peoples from Mesopotamia and Syria (ANET, pp. 284-87).
Individual Israelite names have been recorded in Assyrian texts,
particularly from Nimrud. A Hananu, the governor of Til-Barsip and the
eponym holder in 701, may have been an Israelite.
Whereas Israel's population in the late eighth century B.C. has been estimated at 500,000 to 700,000, Judah's population in the eighth-to-sixth centuries has been estimated at between 220,000 and 300,000. Population estimates for cities are made on the basis of 40 to 50 persons per dunam (1,000 square meters or 1,200 square yards). As there are 4 dunams per acre, this would be an estimate of 160 to 200 persons per acre. Broshi suggests that Jerusalem was swelled by refugees from the north when Samaria fell in 722 and expanded to 500 dunams or 25,000 persons. At the time of Nehemiah, the city had contracted to 120 dunams or 6,000 persons.
Judah had escaped the attacks of Tiglath-pileser III when Azariah (Uzziah) paid tribute to the king (ANET, p. 282), though Gezer was captured. But when Sennacherib attacked Judah in 701 B.C., he deported numerous Jews, especially from Lachish. His annals claim that he deported 200,150 from Judah (ANET, p. 22), but this may be an error for 2,150.
The biblical references to the numbers deported by the Babylonians
under Nebuchadnezzar are incomplete and somewhat confusing, giving rise
to conflicting interpretations as to the actual number of Judeans
deported. Until 1956 we had no extrabiblical evidence to confirm the
attack on Judah in Nebuchadnezzar's first year. Either in that year or
soon after, Daniel and his companions were carried off to Babylon.
In 597 Nebuchadnezzar carried off "all the officers and fighting men, and all the craftsmen and artisans—a total of ten thousand" (2 Kings 24:14). According to v.16, "the king of Babylon also deported to Babylon the entire force of seven thousand fighting men,... and a thousand craftsmen and artisans." If these figures represent only the heads of households, the total may have been closer to thirty thousand.
On the other hand, Jeremiah enumerates for 597 but 3,023 captives (Jer 52:28) and for 586 only 832 captives from Jerusalem (v.29). In 582, after the murder of Gedaliah, 745 were deported, for a grand total of 4,600 (v.30). The smaller figures of Jeremiah probably represent only men of the most important families.
Albright accepted only the figures of Jeremiah and explained the discrepancy with the larger figures as due to losses suffered in the course of the trek. He furthermore estimated the total population of Judah when the exiles returned at only 20,000 to 50,000. Such a radically minimalist view makes it impossible to accept the large number of returnees listed in Ezra 2-Nehemiah 7.
Other scholars assume that the numbers mentioned in 2 Kings and in Jeremiah are to be added, giving a total of about 15,000 deportees. Kreissig estimates a total of 15,600 deportees. Weinberg estimates that 10 percent of the population, or about 20,000, may have been deported.
Impressed by the descriptions of widespread devastation found in 2 Kings 25:11; 2 Chronicles 36:20; and Jeremiah 39:9-10, earlier scholars had proposed very high figures by multiplying the numbers in Jeremiah and 2 Kings by a factor as high as five to account for family members. Such scholars as R. Kittel, E. Meyer, E. Sellin, and G.A. Smith calculated as many as 40,000 to 70,000 deportees, or up to one-third of the population of Judah. A factor overlooked by most scholars is that no explicit figures are given for the deportation(s) before 597.
Depending on one's estimate of the numbers deported and the number of returning exiles we have widely varying estimates for the population of postexilic Judah: 20,000 to 50,000 by W.F. Albright, 60,000 by H. Kreissig, 50,000 to 80,000 by J. de Fraine, 85,000 by R. Kittel, 100,000 by S. Mowinckel, 150,000 by J. Weinberg, and 235,000 by A. Schultz. An estimate of 150,000 is more probably correct than Al bright's estimate.
An important difference between the deportations by the Babylonians and by the Assyrians is that the Babylonians did not replace the deportees with pagan newcomers. Thus Judah, though devastated, was not contaminated with polytheism to the same degree as was Israel (cf. McKay).
According to the biblical record, the Babylonian armies smashed Jerusalem's defenses (2 Kings 25:10), destroyed the temple and palaces (2 Kings 25:9, 13-17; Jer 52:13, 17-23), and devastated the countryside (Jer 32:43), killing many of the leaders and priests (2 Kings 25:18-21).
Though these biblical statements have been denied by skeptics such as C.C. Torrey, the severity of the Babylonian devastation has been amply confirmed by archaeology. Saul Weinberg concludes:
A rapid review of the archaeological evidence from Judah of the sixth century B.C.E. thus gives a picture wholly in keeping with the literary evidence: thorough destruction of all fortified towns and cities by Nebuchadnezzar's forces in 586, a great decrease in population due to slaughter, deportation, collapse of the economy, which continued, but at a very low ebb, through the efforts of those who remained behind and those who slowly drifted back, so rudimentary must this existence have been that it has proved extremely difficult to pick up its traces in material remains.
Evidences of the Babylonian attacks have been uncovered at Arad, Beth-Shemesh, Beth-Zur, Eglon, En Gedi, Gibeah, Jerusalem, Ramat Rahel, and Tell Beit-Mirsim. Thousands must have died in battle or of starvation (Lam 2:11-22; 4:9-10). After the deportations only the poor of the land—the vine-growers and farmers—were left (2 Kings 25:12; Jer 39:10; 40:7; 52:16). They occupied the vacant lands (Jer 6:12; see comment on Ezra 4:4). A few refugees who fled to different areas drifted back (Jer 40:11-12). For the next fifty years those left behind eked out a precarious existence under the Babylonian yoke (Lam 5:2-5), subjected to ill treatment and forced labor (vv.11-13).
The archaeological picture of this period has yet to be clarified by excavations, but the Israeli surveys of Judah of 1967-68 noted hundreds of new sites that date from this era. According to S. Weinberg:
Most of these are villages or small towns, largely nameless and therefore not the kind of site that has hitherto attracted the archaeologists interested in biblical places. Yet a number of these have yielded material from the sixth century and it now seems clear that it was in such places that most of the remaining inhabitants of Judah lived after the most important centers were destroyed by the Babylonians.
During this time some limited forms of worship were continued in the
ruined area of the temple (Jer 41:5). The Scriptures themselves pass
over developments in Palestine and stress the contribution of the
returning exiles from Babylonia. Some scholars question this emphasis.
M. Noth, for example, comments that though "very important developments
in life and thought took place among those deported to Babylon,...
nevertheless even the Babylonian group represented a mere outpost,
whereas Palestine was and remained the central arena of Israel's
In light of the fact that the intellectual and spiritual leaders were the ones who were deported, the Scriptures must reflect the historical situation. As Cowan comments, "There does not exist sufficient evidence or probability of an active, creative group in the land during the exile, although the continuance of some form of Yahwism is not to be doubted."
Most of those deported were from the upper classes and from cities. Judging from earlier Assyrian reliefs and texts, the men were probably marched in chains, with women and children bearing sacks of their bare possessions on wagons as they made their way to Mesopotamia. The exiled Judean king, Jehoiachin, was maintained at the Babylonian court and provided with rations (2 Kings 25:29-30), as a text from Babylonia explicitly confirms (ANET, p. 308).
After some years of initial hardship, the exiles made adjustments and even prospered (Jer 29:4-5). They were settled in various communities, for example, on the river Kebar near Nippur, sixty miles southeast of Babylon (Ezek 1:1-3; cf. Ezra 2:59-Neh 7:61). When the exiles returned they brought with them numerous servants and animals and were able to make contributions for the sacred services (Ezra 2:65-69; 8:26; Neh 7:67-72).
A fascinating light on the Jews in Mesopotamia is shed by the Murashu tablets. In 1893, 730 inscribed clay tablets were found at Nippur. W.R. Hilprecht and A.T. Clay published 480 of these texts in 1898. Additional texts were made available in 1974 by Stolper. The archive dates from the reigns of Artaxerxes I (464-424) and Darius II (423-404).
Murashu and sons were wealthy bankers and brokers who loaned out almost any thing for a price. Among their customers are listed about sixty Jewish names from the time of Artaxerxes I and forty from the time of Darius II. These appear as contracting parties, agents, witnesses, collectors of taxes, and royal officials. There seems to have been no social or commercial barriers between the Jews and the Babylonians. Their prosperous situation may explain why some chose to remain in Mesopotamia.
With the birth of a second and a third generation, many Jews established roots in Mesopotamia. Josephus (Antiq. XI, 8 [i.3]) declared that "many remained in Babylon, being unwilling to leave their possessions." In like manner, during World War II Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were deported from the West Coast and placed in relocation camps. Given the opportunity to return to Japan after the war, few of the older Japanese did because of the superior conditions of their new home.
The spiritual life of the Jewish community in Mesopotamia is documented by Ezekiel, who was in exile either after 597 or 586. Ezekiel 8:1 refers to the prophet "sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me" (cf. Ezek 3:15; 14:1; 20:1; 24:18; 33:30-33). Deprived of the temple, the exiles laid great stress on the observation of the Sabbath, on the laws of purity, and on prayer and fasting. It has often been suggested that the development of synagogues began in Mesopotamia during the Exile (but see comments on Neh 8:18).
The trials of the Exile purified and strengthened the faith of the Jews
and cured them of idolatry. As Baron comments (p. 105): "The external
grandeur of the 55 temples (of Babylon) devoted to the worship of the
great gods... doubtless infused many a Judean onlooker with a sense of
inferiority and shame. None the less, Jewish survival owes itself,
paradoxically enough, not to those who remained at home but to the
nationalistic vitality of those living so precariously in Exile."
The exiles who chose to return to Judah found their territory much diminished. According to Avi-Yonah (Holy Land, p. 19): "Its extent from north to south was about 25 miles, from east to west about 32 miles. The total area was about 800 square miles, of which about one third was an uncultivable desert."
The tiny enclave of Judah was surrounded by antagonistic neighbors. North of Bethel was the province of Samaria. South of Beth-Zur, Judean territory had been overrun by Idumaeans (cf. comments on Ezra 2:22-35). The eastern boundary followed the Jordan River, and the western boundary the Shephelah (low hills). The Philistine coast had been apportioned to Phoenician settlers.
The Persians did make Judah an autonomous province with the right to mint its own coins (see note on Neh 5:15). The archaeological evidence of coins and jar handles with YHD (for Yehud—Judah) comes from Jerusalem, Jericho, Gezer, Tell en-Nasbeh—all sites within the area demarcated as Jewish territory by Ezra -Nehemiah.
2. Reign of Artaxerxes I
Nehemiah served as the royal cupbearer of Artaxerxes I (Neh 1:1; 2:1), the Achaemenid king who ruled from 464 to 424, as an Elephantine papyrus (Cowley 30), dated to 407 B.C., mentions the sons of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria and adversary of Nehemiah (see ANET, p. 492). Though whether Ezra came in the seventh year (Ezra 7:7) of Artaxerxes I or of Artaxerxes II (403-359) is controversial the traditional view places Ezra before Nehemiah in the reign of Artaxerxes I (cf. below, The Order).
Artaxerxes I was nicknamed Longimanus. According to Plutarch (Artaxerxes 1.1): "The first Artaxerxes, among all the kings of Persia the most remarkable for a gentle and noble spirit, was surnamed the Long-handed, his right hand being longer than his left, and was the son of Xerxes."
Longimanus was the third son of Xerxes and Amestris. His older brothers
were named Darius and Hystaspes. Their father was assassinated in his
bedchamber, between August and December 465, by Artabanus, a powerful
courtier. In the ensuing months Artaxerxes, who was but eighteen years
old, managed to kill Artabanus and his brother Darius. Then Artaxerxes
defeated his brother Hystaspes in Bactria. His first regnal year is
reckoned from 13 April 464 B.C.
From 461 Artaxerxes lived at Susa (Yamauchi, "Achaemenid Capitals," pp. 5ff.). He used the palace of Darius I till it burned down near the end of his reign. He then moved to Persepolis, where he lived in the former palace of Darius I. He completed the Great Throne Hall begun by Xerxes, as a text in Old Persian and Akkadian indicates (Kent, no. A1 Pa, pp. 113, 115). The only other extant Old Persian inscription of this king is an identical one-line text found on four silver dishes.
When Artaxerxes I came to the throne, he was faced with a major revolt in Egypt that was to last a decade. This rebellion was led by Inarus, a Libyan, and Amyrtaeus of Sais. They defeated the Persian satrap Achaemenes, the brother of Xerxes, and gained control of much of the Delta region by 462.
The Athenians, who had been at war with the Persians since the latter had invaded Greece in 490, sent two hundred triremes to aid the rebels (Thucydides 1.104). In 459 they helped capture Memphis, the capital of Lower Egypt. This was the situation that may have led the Persians to support Ezra's return in 458 to secure a loyal buffer state in Palestine..
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In 456 Megabyzus, the satrap of Syria, advanced against Egypt with a huge fleet and army (Diodorus Siculus 11.77.1-5). During eighteen months he was able to suppress the revolt, capturing Inarus in 456. A fleet of forty Athenian ships with six thousand men sailed into a Persian trap. In spite of promises made by Megabyzus, Inarus was impaled in 454 at the instigation of Amestris, the mother of Artaxerxes I. Angered at this betrayal, Megabyzus revolted against the king from 449 to 446. If the events of Ezra 4:7-23 took place in this period, Artaxerxes I would have been suspicious of the building activities in Jerusalem. How then could the same king have commissioned Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of the city in 445? By then both the Egyptian revolt and the rebellion of Megabyzus had been resolved.
Artaxerxes I ended his long forty-year reign by dying from natural causes in the winter of 424 B.C.—a rarity in view of the frequent assassinations of Persian kings. He was buried in one of the four tombs, probably the second from the left, at Naqsh-i-Rustam, north of Persepolis.
Ezra 1:1 says that Cyrus issued a proclamation to the Jews in his first year. As Cyrus entered Babylon on 29 October 539 B.C., this was counted as his accession year. Babylonian and Persian scribes hold that his first regnal year over the Babylonians began on New Year's Day, 1 Nisan (24 Mar.) 538.
The Jews used both a religious and a civil calendar. The former began
the year with Nisan (Mar./Apr.). Many scholars assume that the calendar
of Judah was identical with the Babylonian calendar, which also began
in the spring.
Nehemiah 1:1 declares that Nehemiah was in Susa in the month of Kislev in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I. According to a Nisan calendar, this regnal year ran from 13 April 445 to 2 April 444; Kislev would be the ninth month from 5 December 445 to 3 January 444. But Nehemiah 2:1 mentions a mission to Jerusalem in the month of Nisan in the twentieth year. Scholars who assume a Nisan-to-Nisan calendar assume a scribal error here because in such a spring-to-spring year Nisan precedes rather than follows Kislev. As Nehemiah 5:14 sets Nehemiah's tenure as governor from the king's twentieth to his thirty-second year, many scholars propose that Nehemiah 1:1 must have originally read the nineteenth year—tesaesreh ("nineteen") instead of esrim ("twenty"). Brockington (p. 127), however, believes that Nehemiah 2:1 should read the "twenty-first" year.
The Israelite civil year began with the seventh month, Tishri, in the fall. Some scholars conclude from Nehemiah 1 and 2 that the Israelites in the postexilic period reverted to a fall-to-fall calendar, wherein the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I would have run from 7 October 445 to 25 September 444. No emendation would then be needed.
1. Historical Background of Zechariah
Zechariah's prophetic ministry took place in the time of Israel's restoration from the Babylonian captivity, i.e., in the postexilic period. Approximately seventy-five years had elapsed since Habakkuk and Jeremiah had predicted the invasion of Judah by the Neo-Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar. When their "hard service" (Isa 40:2) in Babylonia was completed, God influenced Cyrus, the Persian king, to allow the Hebrews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple (Isa 44:28).
The historical circumstances and conditions Zechariah ministered under were, in general, those of Haggai's time, since their labors were contemporary (cf. 1:1 with Hag 1:1). In 520 B.C. Haggai preached four sermons in four months. Zechariah began his ministry two months after Haggai had begun his. Thus the immediate historical background for Zechariah's ministry began with Cyrus's capture of Babylon and included the completion of the restoration, or second, temple.
Babylon fell to Cyrus in 539 B.C. Cyrus then signed the edict that permitted Israel to return and rebuild her temple (2 Chronicles 36:21-23; Ezra 1:1-4; 6:3, 5). According to Ezra 2, a large group (about fifty thousand) did return in 538-537 B.C. under the civil leadership of Zerubbabel (the governor) and the religious leadership of Joshua (the high priest). This group completed the foundation of the temple early in 536 B.C. (Ezra 3:8-13). But several obstacles arose that slowed and finally halted the construction (Ezra 4:1-5, 24). During the years of inactivity, Cyrus died in battle (529 B.C.); and his son Cambyses II, who was coregent with Cyrus for one year, reigned (530-522 B.C.).
rebellion ultimately brought Darius Hystaspes to the throne in 522 B.C.
(The Behistun Inscription pictures him putting down an insurrection.)
His wise administration and religious toleration created a favorable
climate for the Israelites to complete the rebuilding of their temple.
He confirmed the decree of Cyrus and authorized resumption of the work
(Ezra 6:6-12; Hag 1:1-2). The construction was resumed in 520 B.C., and
the temple was finished in 516 B.C. For additional events in the
history of the period, see the historical background of Ezra, Daniel,
The dates of Zechariah's recorded messages may be correlated with those of Haggai and with other historical events as follows:
1. Haggai's first message (Hag 1:1-11; Ezra 5:1)—29 August 520 B.C.
Resumption of the building of the temple (Hag 1:12-15; Ezra 5:2)—21
September 520 (The rebuilding seems to have been hindered from 536 to
about 530 [Ezra 4:1-5], and the work ceased altogether from about 530
to 520 [Ezra 4:24].)
3. Haggai's second message (Hag 2:1-9)—17 October 520
4. Beginning of Zechariah's preaching (Zech 1:1-6)—October/November 520
5. Haggai's third message (Hag 2:10-19)—18 December 520
6. Haggai's fourth message (Hag 2:20-23)—18 December 520
Tattenai's letter to Darius concerning the rebuilding of the temple
(Ezra 5:3-6:14)—519-518 (There must have been a lapse of time between
the resumption of the building and Tattenai's appearance.)
8. Zechariah's eight night visions (Zech 1:7-6:8)—15 February 519
9. Joshua's crowning (Zech 6:9-15)—16(?) February 519
10. Urging of repentance, promise of blessings (Zech 7-8)—7 December 518
11. Dedication of the temple (Ezra 6:15-18)—12 March 516
12. Zechariah's final prophecy (Zech 9-14)—after 480(?)
5. Place of Composition
At the time of his prophesying and writing, Zechariah was clearly back in Palestine; and his ministry was to the returned exiles (Zech 4:8-10; 6:10, 14; 7:2-3, 9; Neh 12:1, 12, 16).
6. Occasion and Purpose
occasion is the same as that of the Book of Haggai. Approximately fifty
thousand former exiles had arrived in Jerusalem and the nearby towns in
538-537 B.C., with high hopes of resettling the land and rebuilding the
temple (Ezra 2). Their original zeal was evident; immediately they set
up the altar of burnt offering (Ezra 3:1-6). They resumed worship and
restored the sacrificial ritual that had been suspended during the
seventy years of exile in Babylonia. The people then laid the
foundation of the temple in the second month of the second year (536
B.C.) of their return (Ezra 3:8-13). But their fervor and activity soon
met with opposition in various forms (Ezra 4:1-5; Hag 1:6-11). So the
reconstruction of the temple ground to a halt and did not begin again
till 520 B.C. (Ezra 4:24).
The chief purpose of Zechariah and Haggai was to rebuke the people and motivate and encourage them to complete the rebuilding of the temple (Zech 4:9-10, Hag 1-2), though Zechariah was clearly interested in spiritual renewal as well. Also, the purpose of the eight night visions is explained in Zechariah 1:3, 5-6: The Lord asked Israel to return to him; then he would return to them, and his word would continue to be fulfilled.
7. Theological Values
L. Robinson calls Zechariah "the most Messianic, the most truly
apocalyptic and eschatological, of all the writings of the OT."
predicted Christ's first coming in lowliness (6:12), his humanity
(6:12), his rejection and betrayal for thirty pieces of silver
(11:12-13), his being struck by the sword of the Lord (13:7), his deity
(3:4; 13:7), his priesthood (6:13), his kingship (6:13; 9:9; 14:9, 16),
his second coming in glory (14:4), his building of the Lord's temple
(6:12-13), his reign (9:10; 14), and his establishment of enduring
peace and prosperity (3:10; 9:9-10). These messianic passages give
added significance to Jesus' words in Luke 24:25-27, 44.
As for the apocalyptic and eschatological aspect, Zechariah predicted the final siege of Jerusalem (12:1-3; 14:1-2), the initial victory of Israel's enemies (14:2), the Lord's defense of Jerusalem (14:3-4), the judgment on the nations (12:9, 14:3), the topographical changes in Israel (14:4-5), the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in the messianic kingdom age (14:16-19), and the ultimate holiness of Jerusalem and her people (14:20-21).
The prophet's name itself has theological significance. It means "the LORD [Yahweh] remembers." "The LORD," the personal, covenant name of God, is a perpetual testimony to his faithfulness to his promises. He "remembers" his covenant promises and acts to fulfill them. In Zechariah, God's promised deliverance from Babylonian captivity, including a restored theocratic community and a functioning temple—the earthly seat of the divine sovereignty—leads into even grander pictures of the salvation and restoration to come through the Messiah.
Finally, the book as a whole teaches the sovereignty to God in history over men and nations—past, present, and future.
9. Structure and Themes
Zechariah may be divided into two parts (chs. 1-8 and chs. 9-14), it
likewise falls rather naturally into five major divisions: (1) 1:1-6,
introduction and call to repentance; (2) 1:7-6:8, eight night visions;
(3) 6:9-15, the symbolic crowning of Joshua the high priest; (4)
chapters 7-8, the question about fasting; and (5) chapters 9-14, two
prophetic oracles (9-11 and 12-14).
For an excellent visual representation of the unified, chiastic plan of chapters 9-14 (based on Lamarche), see Baldwin (Zechariah, pp. 78-79), who then goes on to delineate a similar chiastic arrangement in chapters 1-8, thus arguing on structural grounds the unity of the entire book. Elsewhere ("Pseudonymity," pp. 9-10) Baldwin concludes, "So closely knit is the fabric of the book that one mind must be responsible for its construction, and the simplest explanation is that the prophet Zechariah himself is the author of the total work that bears his name."
b. ThemesThe central theme of Zechariah is encouragement—primarily encouragement to complete the rebuilding of the temple. In fact, Laetseh (p. 403) Calls Zechariah "the prophet of hope and encouragement in troublous times." Various means are used to accomplish this end, and these function as subthemes. For example, great stress is laid on the coming of the Messiah and his overthrow of all antikingdom forces so that the theocracy can be finally and fully established on earth. The consideration of the current local scene thus becomes the basis for the eschatological, universal picture.