This chapter covers the complex issues facing Israel in the years following the Exile. After returning from Babylon in the late sixth century, the Jews found Judah and Jerusalem itself in a sad state. There was no Temple, and infighting was rampant between the returnees and those who had stayed behind in Judah. In sum, Israel had a very long way to go before it could resemble the dramatic portrait painted by Second Isaiah.
Chapter 22 also discusses the historical events in Judah during the fifth century BCE and the wide range of literature composed during this period. The Bible records little information about the Persian rulers of this period. In fact, we know little about what transpired during this period in Judah or in the Diaspora since the biblical texts do not provide a complete history. However, in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we do get some discussion of life in fifth-century Judah.
Our only sources for this period are biblical texts, which include Ezra 3–10, Haggai, Zechariah, Isaiah 24–27 and 56–66, Joel, and Malachi. Since Judah was a minor province in the Persian empire (with a population perhaps as few as ten thousand), we do not have any additional records for this period. Moreover, the sources that we do have are often incomplete and inconsistent, making any definitive conclusions about the history of this period impossible.
The return described by Ezra was not a massive migration but a rather small group who immediately built an altar to Yahweh upon their arrival in Jerusalem. Soon after, the people began to lay the foundations for the Second Temple, but progress was slow. Reasons for these rather weak efforts are difficult to determine; however, it appears that individuals were more concerned with their own immediate needs than with the construction of a monumental building. In addition, it seems that there was a great deal of infighting and that some groups actually tried to block the construction of the Temple for reasons that are not entirely clear. In the end, the Persian king Darius lent both his political and financial backing to the project, and it was completed by 515 BCE.
Ezra 3–6 focus on the period from the return of the exiles from Babylon to the dedication of the Second Temple in 515. Unfortunately, this section of the text is highly complex and full of difficulties. Chronologically the text is highly confused, relating historical events out of order. Another unusual feature is found in Ezra 4.8–6.18, where the text inexplicably switches from Hebrew to Aramaic and then back to Hebrew in 6.19. The most important component of this block of text is the description of the reconstruction of the Temple and the reestablishment of proper worship. As mentioned earlier, the first official act of the returnees was the construction of the altar so that proper sacrifices could be offered. Then, under the supervision of the priests, the Temple was constructed and dedicated.
The book of Haggai is one of the shortest of the prophetic books; it contains four oracles that are all dated to 520 BCE during the second year of Darius I of Persia’s reign. The book tells us nothing else about Haggai, but the prophet is mentioned in Ezra. The book opens at a point when the Temple had not been rebuilt, but the houses of the leaders are complete and even luxurious. According to Haggai, the deity is angered by this neglect and the land is experiencing drought. Haggai’s prophecies prompt the construction of the Temple. Haggai also supports the reestablishment of the Davidic monarchy under Zerubbabel, a leader of the returnees who was also a descendant of David; however, he does not state whether or not he would actually become king.
The prophet Zechariah is also mentioned in the book of Ezra. The minor prophetic work of Zechariah can be divided into two sections, with chapters 1–8 covering events in the sixth century and chapters 9–14 coming from a later period. Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai; his career spanned from 520 BCE to at least 518 BCE. The text opens with an oracle that warns his listeners not to make the same rebellious mistakes as their ancestors. This is followed by eight visions that describe the destruction of Babylon, the restoration of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the divine election of leaders for Israel. Last, chapters 7–8 feature several oracles that discuss fasting and the restoration of the city of Jerusalem.
Like Second Isaiah, Third Isaiah discusses a period when the Temple has been destroyed and the exiles are about to return. However, the text also preserves passages indicating that the Temple has already been rebuilt and it is functioning. Therefore, Third Isaiah can be accurately dated to a period after the exilic period, when Second Isaiah was written. No specific historical facts are presented in the text to aid with dating, so it is most likely that the text dates to some time after the Temple was completed in 515 BCE. Third Isaiah is also difficult to date because it frequently alludes to and quotes earlier biblical texts such as Hosea, Jeremiah, and earlier portions of the book of Isaiah. In general, the text has the appearance of a collage of originally independent units that only later were sewn together to form a text that has no visible structure.
At times Third Isaiah gives a different viewpoint of this period than Haggai or Zechariah. Specifically, Third Isaiah seems to express opposition to the reconstruction of the Temple. This view is also inconsistent with other parts of the text that support the restoration of the Temple and regular sacrifice. Another difference between Third Isaiah and Haggai and Zechariah is that Third Isaiah does not support the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, nor does it even mention Zerubbabel. Last, Third Isaiah envisions a more inclusive community that even allows for foreigners. The only apparent exception is the Edomites, who are singled out for their participation in the destruction of the Temple in 586.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah
Although Ezra and Nehemiah are divided into two books in the Christian canon, most modern scholars think that these texts form one unit. The entire work was probably written in either the late fifth or early fourth century BCE and is a composite that sews together a number of sources. The work may contain some of the original writings of Ezra and Nehemiah, but this is impossible to authenticate. The overall text covers a large historical period from the second half of the sixth century into the fifth. As we have already seen with Ezra 3–6, chronology is a problem throughout this entire work, making it difficult to pin down the dating and historicity of the events described.
Ezra’s mission begins when he is sent to Jerusalem to impose certain religious directives. Of particular interest here is that religious authority was not situated among those who had already returned to Jerusalem but among those like Ezra who were still in Babylonia. Ezra shows concern for the observance of the law, but he is particularly focused on the issue of intermarriage since foreign women could lead to apostasy. Ezra also had an ally in his efforts for religious reform in the figure of Nehemiah, who had a twelve-year governorship. In addition to his support of religious reform, Nehemiah is an important figure who was able to personally arrange for the refortification of Jerusalem over the objections of many of Judah’s residents and those of neighboring states.
After the events of 586 BCE, many believed that religious and social reforms were necessary for the survival of Israel. One major concern was with intermarriage since marrying outside of one’s ethnic background could weaken a group’s identity. In essence the ban on intermarriage imposed by Ezra and Nehemiah was aimed at preventing assimilation. This controversial decision had precedents in earlier biblical literature, but it was certainly unpopular since foreigners were exiled or at least ostracized. Overall the issue of intermarriage demonstrates that the people remained deeply divided in this period on questions of identity and authority.
The genre of apocalyptic literature began to develop in this period, and while a few examples of this genre appear in the Old Testament, most apocalyptic literature was composed later in the postbiblical period. This genre has several common elements, although not all of them need appear in any given work. These themes include a revelation to a chosen individual, a description of end-time, and pronounced dualism contrasting good and evil. Many scholars think that apocalyptic literature developed out of prophecy, and in fact there is some incorporation of apocalyptic themes in several prophetic works. Links between prophetic and apocalyptic literature include similarities in expressing the concept of revelation (through heavenly messengers, visions, and dreams) and the incorporation of the concept of the “day of the Lord.”
The Isaiah Apocalypse
Within the final version of Isaiah is an early example of apocalyptic literature known as the Isaiah Apocalypse. This apocalypse is interpolated within First Isaiah and gives a vivid description of the end of time. In this text the entire world is under divine judgment and all of the scattered Israelites will return to Jerusalem to worship God. Although this passage shares many themes with apocalyptic literature, it is not a fully developed apocalypse. Rather, it is perhaps a composition that offers some variation on themes already found in Isaiah presented in apocalyptic style.
Most scholars date Zechariah 9–14 to the fifth century BCE, and it can be divided into two parts or oracles. Each of these oracles is loosely grouped around the theme of the day of the Lord. The first oracle relates how God will defeat Israel’s enemies, while the second describes the restoration of Israel and Jerusalem. Overall, the text is concerned with the future condition of Israel and has several apocalyptic elements. Above all, it anticipates a “new era” when Yahweh will defeat Israel’s enemies, restore Israel, and begin an age of peace and prosperity.
The book of Joel contains no direct evidence for dating, although most scholars place its composition in the fifth or fourth century BCE. The text itself can be divided into two parts, and there is no scholarly consensus on whether or not these two parts originally formed one unit. The first part of the book describes an invasion of locusts that was sent as a divine punishment that could be stopped by repentance. The second part of Joel is an apocalyptic account of the defeat of Israel’s enemies and the restoration of the land. Although the book of Joel is a minor work within the Old Testament, many of its themes, including the swarms of locusts, are influential in later Christian literature.
Malachi is the last of the twelve Minor Prophets and one of the latest, dating to the fifth century BCE. The entire book is one unit, although it shows some links to Zechariah. The book itself is a collection of divine accusations against the people and especially the priests of Israel. Much of the text defies analysis since it presents many obscurities and antitheses. Perhaps the most interesting component of the text is 1.11, which seems to imply that animal sacrifice was not necessary and that there will be a time when all people will worship Yahweh. The text ends on an apocalyptic note, describing the end of time when the righteous will be rewarded while the wicked are punished.
Implications for Our Study
From what little historical evidence we can gather from this period in Israel’s history, it appears that restoration was a slow and often painful process. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah suggest that religious authority was not in the hands of the people living in Jerusalem but remained among the Diaspora community in Babylonia instead. Moreover, we might imagine that the input of these “outsiders” was a cause of great turmoil among the residents of Judah, as evidenced by the radical laws on intermarriage and purity. At the same time, the tensions and uncertainty of this period gave rise to a new form of literature. For postexilic Judeans apocalyptic literature was a way to make sense of these circumstances and to envision a future world where the situation would improve.