Priests of the Bible 14 Ezra
We come now to the last of our mentioned in the Old Testament because they are significant priests – Ezra. He is by no means the last of Priests of the Bible, which continued as far as Judaism goes up to the destruction of the rebuilt under Herod dynasty Second Temple in AD 70. A lot could be said about changes in how priests operated after Ezra, notably in the Inter-testament period when priests continued to play a significant role, to our yet to be discussed significant New Testament priests: Zechariah and Caiaphas, more than 400 years later (watch this space) but for now our focus is Ezra.
Ezra is somewhat different in what he did compared with other priests, although he was certainly qualified by virtue of tracing his ancestry to Aaron. It is worth noting that in line with the observation that the Bible is primarily about God and His dealings with humankind, while Ezra is mentioned by name in the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) it is said he had written (with a third, the Book of Chronicles he may well have written), more important is God, how He related to the Exiles and how the Exiles responded to Him, who had returned home following the Babylonian captivity. He stands out, not because of his direct contribution to Temple worship but as a scribe, teacher, organiser and someone who was zealous that YHWH be honoured in the right way. Regarding the background to where Ezra fits into the Bible narrative, I include two extracts (above) from my “Prophets of the Bible” book (see here).
Chapters 1 to 6 of the Book of Ezra is an account of what took place starting from 80 years previously. While the Temple had been built, things were far from what they should have been. In chapter 7 onward, we read of Ezra and a small group of returnees, including priests and Levites and those who could assist in restoring the religious life of the Jews that had returned, entering our story. Ezra was granted favour by the Persian king. A lot of what needed to be done was done under Ezra’s enthusiastic leadership and with the king’s support. A serious issue though was the people were not following the Law of God, and this included inter-marriage with those resident in the land, who did not follow the God of Israel.
Ezra is again mentioned by name in Ezra 10 and it was to do with a show down involving the people who had married foreign wives, contrary to the Law. It was a time of prayer, confession and penitence and this was led by Ezra and resulted in those who had married outside of Judaism divorcing their wives.
Concerning Ezra’s dedication to studying the Law, his desire that others know and follow it, we see an example later in Nehemiah 10 when he opened the Book of the Law and read it to the people. This led to a mini revival and while all too short lived (evidence of which is found in the Book of Malachi, the final prophet of the Old Testament, revealing God’s displeasure) it showed what could and should have been as we enter the 400 year Inter-testament period.
Some commentators suggest Ezra wrote Psalm 119 (see above selection of verses pertinent to Ezra the man). While Judaism as practiced by the priests would become corrupted, as was evident when Jesus came onto the scene, Ezra showed how following the tenets of the Law could be practiced during this post Exile period, although a series of foreign rulers, led by the Greeks and Romans, provided a challenge that the inhabitants of Judah failed to rise to, albeit with notable exceptions. As for Ezra, he will be remembered as a man of prayer and the Word, and one who had a heart for God.