1902 Encyclopedia > Ezra


EZRA ____. i.e., help; "Eo-Spas; Esdras), the famous scribe, was a priest of the line of Zadok. According to the genealogy given in Ezra vii. 1-5, his father's name was Seraiah. If we identify this Seraiah with the person men-tioned in Ezra ii. 2, Neh. xii. 1, then the Ezra who is the subject of the present article may well be identified, as has been done by Michaelis and others, with the Ezra named in the last-quoted texts ; and in this case he must have been a very old man even at the beginning of that public work with which his name is chiefly associated. But a careful comparison of the genealogy in 1 Ch. vi. 4-15 with that in Ezra vii. leads rather to the conclusion that the latter has most probably been abridged, so far as the more immediate and less eminent ancestors of our Ezra are concerned. They are omitted probably because, though closely con-nected with Joshua, the son of Josadak, they did not avail themselves of the permission, granted by Cyrus, to : eturn to Jerusalem in 536. They do not seem on that account, however, to have lost much, if any, of the social influence to which their high rank in the priesthood entitled them. Josephus tells us, somewhat mysteriously, that Ezra himself was high-priest of the Jews who were left in Babylon. Be this as it may, we know that when he first appears in history, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes Longimanus (458 B.C.), he is already a man of great learning, zeal, and authority, enjoying the confidence, not only of his own compatriots, but also of the Persian king. It is to be regretted that we should so imperfectly know what was the true condition of the Jews in Babylon during the years that immediately followed the close of the " exile." We have various indications, however, that many of them devoted themselves to the study of the written law, kept up friendly intercourse with their compatriots in Jerusalem, regularly sent free-will offerings to the temple there (Philo, Ad Gaium, 1013), and made occasional pilgrimages thither (Zech. vi. 9). In Judea, on the other hand, the fifty-eight years between 516 and 458, which are passed over in silence in the history, do not seem to have been more prosperous than the twenty preceding years of which the record has been preserved. Whether influenced by un-favourable reports of the condition of affairs at Jeru-salem, or proceeding upon knowledge personally obtained in some previous visit, Ezra, who had " been directing his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments," asked and re-ceived in the above-mentioned year the royal authority to make an official visit to Judea. Erom the terms of his com-mission, which are given in Ezra vii. 12-26, we learn that very considerable powers and privileges were at that time conferred upon him. On the first day of the first month of the Jewish year he set out on his westward journey, carrying with him many valuable offerings, and accompanied by some 1500 of his fellow-countrymen. The first considerable halt was made at " the river of Ahava," a locality which has not been identified as yet (it is called Theras in 1 Esdras viii. 41) , and here it was found that no Levites had I joined the expedition. A message was accordingly sent to a place (now unknown) called Casiphia, where a large colony of them had settled, inviting their assistance. A considerable number of Levites were thus induced to join the party. A fast was thereafter appointed, the sacred treasures were solemnly entrusted to the keeping of twelve priests and twelve Levites (see Bertheau on Ezra viii. 24), and, deliber-ately dispensing with the usual military escort, the caravan set out on the twelfth day of the first month, arriving in Jerusalem on the first of the fifth. Here, in the course of the investigation which he had been commissioned to make, Ezra very soon found a field for his reforming acti-vities. He learned that the population generally, priests, Levites, and rulers not excepted, had been intermarrying with the surrounding peoples to an extent which seemed to threaten the subversion of the true religion, and the obliteration of the Jewish nationality. The unexpected discovery filled him with amazement and shame. Soon a large number of the inhabitants came to him, and, with Shechaniah for spokesman, assured him that the people at large were willing to dismiss their foreign wives with their children, if only he would take in hand the direction of the matter. With all convenient speed a solemn assembly of all Judah and Jerusalem was then convened, at which, after Ezra had pointed out to the people their transgressions, it was agreed, with only a few dissentient voices (Ezra x. 15, where for "were employed in;: read " stood up against "), to appoint a committee to inquire into and decide on all the cases of mixed marriage. This committee had finished its work by the beginning of the following year, when a complete list was drawn up of those who had " taken strange wives " and now pledged them-selves to put them away. Thus far the Scripture narrative has carried us; but at this point, after detailing the events of precisely one year of Ezra's public life, it abruptly breaks off: nor do we read of him again for the next thirteen years. Modern writers are by no means at one in the conjectures they make as to what occurred during the interval. Ewald thinks that he remained in Jerusalem during all the intervening time ; others (such as Kuenen) are of the opinion that he very soon left the city, and that during his absence occurred those relapses and disasters which were the occasion of his subsequent activities, and also of those of Nehemiah Hitzig thinks that he never re-appeared at all, and corrects Nehemiah accordingly. Ac-cording to the existing text, in the twentieth (twenty-first 1) year of Artaxerxes, on the first day of the seventh month, we find him " in the open space that was before the water-gate," solemnly reading, by public request, in the hearing of all the people, the " book of the law of Moses." One of the immediate effects of this fresh publication of the Mosaic law was that straightway the feast of tabernacles was observed as it had not been " since the days of Joshua the son of Nun;" and very soon afterwards a solemn fast was proclaimed, during which a written covenant was drawn up and confirmed by all the people, with Nehemiah at then-head, by which they became bound " to walk in God's law which was given by Moses the servant of God," special prominence being given to the following points,—separation from the people of the land, strict observance of the Sabbath day and the sabbatic year, punctual payment of the third part of a shekel for the service of the temple, of the first fruits for the priests, and of the tithes for the Levites. And now, once more, after a second period of .public activity, which in this case seems to have lasted for little more than a month, the name of Ezra abruptly disappears from the Scripture narrative. We have no authentic information from any source as to the events of his subsequent life, or as to the time, place, and manner of his death. According to Josephus, " he died an old man, and was buried in a magnificent manner at Jerusalem;" but several palpable blunders with reference to Ezra in other parts of this historian's narrative warn us to be cautious in receiving this statement. Other traditions relate that he died in Babylon, or at Zamzumu on the Tigris, while on a journey from Jerusalem to Susa. Ac-cording to the best texts of the Apocryphal work known to English readers as 2 Esdras, he did not die at all, but was translated (xiv. 49).

Tradition is somewhat inconsistent with itself also in the account it gives of Ezra's relation to the Pentateuch. At one time it speaks of him as a mere copyist or transcriber; at another time it speaks of him as a voluminous author, a prophet, an independent legislator. Modern criticism in like manner has not as yet reached a unanimous finding on the position occupied by him with reference to previous oral and written enactments. While Ewald, on the one hand, maintains that the last editor of the Pentateuch lived when the kingdom of Judah was still standing, Graf and Kuenen, on the other hand, assign to Ezra a very large share in the production of that law-book as we now have it. Between the two extremes there is room for an inter-mediate view, akin to that of ecclesiastical tradition, which, without determining the extent of Ezra's work, admits that, having before him an earlier work, he added and perhaps also altered some things in an editorial capacity.

It cannot be doubted that Ezra was successful in at least giving to the law as written a prominence and an influence which it had never before possessed. Under him it became the exclusive rule of public and private life in a way that had never before been known. The rise of the order of " scribes," that is, of those whose business it was to know the law, to interpret it, and " make a Mage " round it, can be traced directly to him. If he thus was i" a sense the founder of that pharisaism which in later ages degenerated into the well-known forms which were so abhorrent to Christ and to the spirit of Christianity, it ought to be remembered, on the other hand, that the synagogue services,-—those assemblies throughout the towns and villages of the land in which the written word was weekly read and expounded with praise and prayer,—are most probably to be traced to his influence. The synagogue worship passed directly over from Judaism into the Christian church; and in this way Ezra, so far as he originated it, has exercised an incalcul-able influence on the religious culture of the race.

For much valuable information on the life and times of Ezra, and also for references to the older authorities, the histories of Israel by Ewald, Hitzig, Jost, Herzfeld, Graetz, and Kuenen may be consulted. See also Stanley's Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church, vol. iii. (J. S. BL.)


Hit, anciently called Ihi or Ihi-da-Kira, "the well-known spot where caravans make their plunge into the desert," has been suggested. Stanley, Lectures on Jewish Church, in. 116. See p. 670 of the present volume (art. EUPHRATES).

Related Page:
Books of Ezra and Nehemiah

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