Friday, March 15, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: Ezra & Nehemiah

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and RuthMore on Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and Kings and Chronicles.}

After Cyrus the Great overthrows Babylon in 539 BC, making it part of his enormous empire, he decrees that captives there may return to their native lands. This of course includes the Jews, and some of them make the trek back to Jerusalem and begin the process of rebuilding the temple there. There's a tender scene as the people gather to lay the foundation of the temple:
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD.
            "For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel."
Then, all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the father's houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (3:11-13, emphasis mine)
The process is halted until the reign of King Darius of Persia, and the rebuilding is resumed. Ezra is a priest and scribe living in Babylon under the reign of King Artaxerxes, and a direct descendant of Aaron (7:5) who returns to Jerusalem to oversee civil and religious matters there. We read that he has "prepared his heart to seek the Law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel" (7:10). He's there to clean house, so to speak. He urges the importance of exclusivity after learning that the "people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the people of the lands"; they've been intermarrying with them. Ezra is devastated (see 9:3-15), and wonders how Israel can be blessed when they've violated the LORD's specific instructions to remain separate. The people weep and confess, and then they make a covenant to "put away all these wives and those who have been born to them" (10:3). And so they do (I have to say, "those who had been born to them" sounds a bit more cold than "their children". Can you imagine?) This is how the book ends. It's sort of an in-between time for Israel, so it seems fitting that the book ends without any real resolution. 

Nehemiah is a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, and is also allowed to return to Jerusalem to help build the walls surrounding Jerusalem, after he tells the king about the state of things there. The temple had been rebuilt at this point, but the city's walls are in a state of ruin (Nehemiah 2:13) and the people can't defend themselves effectively from outside attackers.

Nehemiah reminds me a little of Joshua: he's charismatic and good at stirring up the people to action. He encourages the people as they rebuild the wall, even as they have to fight off attackers while building (see 4:18-22). Persevering against opposition is a recurring theme in the book; amazingly, they rebuild the walls in just 52 days.

The rebuilding of the wall is a motif, or backdrop, for Nehemiah's work of setting things to right. He works for justice and a return to the Law. Underneath all this work is the same idea and longing that's been present all along in the Old Testament: if we do right, if we return to the LORD, He will bless us again.

In chapter eight, Ezra reads to the people from the books of the Law, and they gain a better knowledge of it because it's explained to them by Ezra and others who understand it. The people weep, and Nehemiah tells them "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." (8:10)

After this celebration the people repent, perceiving their history a little differently in light of reading the books of the law and considering how they've strayed from it over time. There's a nostalgia to it, although our reading so far demonstrates that the glory days never really existed. Nevertheless, I get. It's what we humans do. We mess up and hope for better, and set up impossible standards to try and avoid ever messing up again.

I wonder why we're so stubborn about that. One of the reasons I can't look away from Jesus is that I don't think humans could have conceived of grace on our own. Law, consequence, punishment, cause-and-effect: we get those things. That's our default.

The people dedicate the wall, and "separate all the mixed multitude from Israel", and Nehemiah leaves for a season. When he returns, the people have begun to break the laws again: breaking the Sabbath, ignoring temple laws and intermingling with foreigners. As the book comes to a close, Nehemiah is once again setting things to right, reforming.

There's a great hopefulness to these books, and a great sadness. Both end without resolution. The ever-present question is echoed here too, into the void: can we ever be good enough? Energy, building up, loss, rubble, sackcloth, repentance, understanding, energy, building up, loss, rubble. 

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