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Book of 2 Esdras

Book of 2 Esdras
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

We begin with a correction: 2 Esdras is the same as Ezra in the Septuagint, not the Latin Vulgate as incorrectly listed at the end of our last article on 1 Esdras. Mea culpa. For the book called 2 Esdras in the Vulgate and Douay-Rheims Bible, see Book of Nehemiah. For the book called 2 Esdras in the Septuagint, which is the focus of our discussion here, see the Book of Ezra and Book of Nehemiah. For the book called 2 Esdras in Russian Bibles, see 1 Esdras.

It is a record of events occurring at the close of the Babylonian captivity.

In describing the initial stages of the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem and Ezra's establishment of strict traditions of religious and racial purity, the book recounts the historic beginnings of Judaism—as distinguished from the ancient Israelite religion which preceded it.

The book covers a period of about 80 years, with a gap of approximately 60 years coming between chapters six and seven. It is thus divided into two principal parts:

The history of the first return of exiles, in the first year of Cyrus the Great (536 B.C.E.), till the completion and dedication of the new temple, in the sixth year of Darius (515 B.C.E.), chapters one to six. The history of the second return under Ezra, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanus, and of the events that took place at Jerusalem after Ezra's arrival there (seven to ten).

An outline would appear as thus:

  1. The history of the first return of exiles - Ezra 1-6
  2. The history of the second return under Ezra - Ezra 7-10

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The detailed outline of 2 Esdras is set out below.

In Chapter 1, Cyrus the Great of Persia, inspired by God, permits the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild its temple. He returns to them the golden vessels which had been carried off by Nebuchadnezzar.

In Chapter 2, a detailed list of returnees is provided, together with their possessions and wealth. The number of the captives who return from Babylon to Palestine with the governor Zerubbabel is stated as 42,360, besides 7,337 male and female slaves and 200 singers.

Chapter 3 has the returnees assemble in Jerusalem. Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua ben Jozadak supervise in building the altar. Sacrifices are offered and the Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated. In the second year the foundations of the temple are laid, and the dedication takes place with great rejoicing.

Chapter 4 begins with people already living in the land, possibly including some northern Israelites as well as mixed-race people near Jerusalem, and they offer to help the returning Jews build the temple. Zerubbabel and the other leaders harshly rebuff them, invoking Cyrus' decree. The insulted local inhabitants then attempt to frustrate the work. Later, after Cyrus' death, they lodge various complaints with Persian officials which succeed in procuring a prohibition against further construction of the temple. The work is interrupted untill the second year of Darius.

Through the exhortations of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, Zerubbabel and Jeshua ben Jozadak recommence the building of the temple in Chapter 5. Tatnai, the Persian governor west of the Euphrates, sends a report of these actions to Darius, a purported copy of which is preserved in the text. It recommends that a search be made in the royal archives to confirm Cyrus' supposed decree regarding the Temple of Jerusalem.

Darius confirms the decree of Cyrus authorizing the rebuilding of the temple in Chapter 6 and directs Tatnai not to disturb the Jews in their work. He also exempts them from tribute and supplies them with everything necessary for their offerings. The temple is finished in the month of Adar, in the sixth year of Darius, and is dedicated in a ceremony involving the sacrifice of hundreds of animals. Later, the Passover feast is celebrated with great joy.

In Chapter 7, Artaxerxes appoints Ezra to lead a new wave of returnees and to bring with him to the temple artifacts which still remain in Babylon. Ezra is described as "a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses." He is authorized by Ataxerxes to "appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates" of the Jewish faith. As God's agent—and the king's—he is empowered to punish those who disobey with "death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment."

In Chapter 8, a list is provided of the heads of families who returned with Ezra to Palestine. Ezra, writing in the first person, describes how he led his caravan safely to its destination and delivered the sacred vessels to the temple.

Chapter 9 recounts that certain Jewish leaders inform Ezra that many Jews—including other officials, priests, and Levites—have married non-Israelite women. Ezra, who follows a strict interpretation of the Law of Moses banning intermarriage and friendship with non-Israelites, is appalled at this, tears his clothes and beard, and prays at length to God.

Finally, in Chapter 10, a crowd gathers in support of Ezra. He issues a proclamation calling the returnees to assemble in Jerusalem. Ezra decrees that all who have taken foreign wives are compelled to divorce them. Opposing him are Jonathan son of Asahel, Jahzeiah son of Tikvah, Meshullam, and Shabbethai the Levite. The rest of the leaders agree to enforce the decree, and the book closes with a list of prominent men who had married non-Israelite women, including some who also had children by these wives.

We now direct our attention to the Book of Nehemiah.

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