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2. The exiles who returned ch. 2
This chapter contains a record of the people who responded to Cyrus’ decree and returned to the Promised Land. It is a list of families rather than individuals, and the towns in Babylon from which they came. Almost all of these people could demonstrate their Jewish ancestry (Ezra 2:59-60). Nehemiah 7 contains a very similar list.
"The genealogies are a guarantee that Israel is not adrift in a vacuum of this present generation but has security and credentials. And as long as Israel can name names, utter their precious sounds, it has a belonging place which no hostile empire can deny." [Note: W. Brueggemann, The Land, pp. 145-46.]
The leaders 2:1-2a
The "province" referred to was probably Judah, [Note: Kidner, p. 37.] rather than Babylonia, [Note: F. Charles Fensham, "Medina in Ezra and Nehemiah," Vetus Testamentum 25:4 (October 1975):795-97.] in view of the context. Zerubbabel was the grandson of King Jehoiachin and the nephew of Sheshbazzar, the leader of this return (1 Chronicles 3:17-19). Zerubbabel assumed leadership later in Judah. Evidently Sheshbazzar was the official Persian governor and Zerubbabel the popular leader (cf. Ezra 3:8-11). [Note: Sara Japhet, "Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel-Against the Background of the Historical and Religious Tendencies of Ezra-Nehemiah," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 94 (1982):66-98.] Sheshbazzar may have been about 55 to 60 years old at this time and Zerubbabel about 40. [Note: Jacob M. Myers, Ezra-Nehemiah, p. 28.] Jeshua was the high priest (Zechariah 3:1) who later led in the re-establishment of temple worship. This Nehemiah must have been a different person from the Nehemiah in the book that bears that name. The second Nehemiah did not return to Judah until almost 100 years later, in 444 B.C. (Nehemiah 2:9). Likewise, this Mordecai was not Esther’s cousin (Esther 2:5), since the latter Mordecai remained in Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire, and lived about 50 years later than this Mordecai.
The general population 2:2-35
The designations "sons of" and "men of" in these verses point out the two ways whereby the exiles demonstrated their Jewish ancestry: by family genealogy or by residence in Palestine. Few of the returning exiles had personally lived in the Promised Land, but many could give evidence that their ancestors had lived in a particular town and or had owned property there.
"It was not considered a compromise of one’s Jewish identity to give a child a name which was not Yahwistic, nor even of Hebrew or Aramaic stock." [Note: Coogan, p. 11.]
Scholars have explained the many differences in numbers in this list compared with the one in Nehemiah 7:7-66 several ways. [Note: See Gleason L. Archer Jr., Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pp. 229-31.] Hebrew writers represented numbers by using certain words that had other meanings. This has resulted in some confusion in interpretation. [Note: See The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Number," by R. A. H. Gunner.] Perhaps the translators misunderstood the numbers the writer intended. [Note: J. Carl Laney, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 27.] Another explanation is that this list contains rough estimates and the later list in Nehemiah has the true figures. [Note: John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology, p. 33. For a detailed explanation of the differences between these lists, see H. L. Allrik, "The Lists of Zerubbabel (Nehemiah 7 and Ezra 2) and the Hebrew Numerical Notation," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 136 (December 1954):21-27.]
The priests 2:36-39
Only four of the 24 priestly families that David organized (1 Chronicles 24:7-18) had representatives among the returning exiles. Nevertheless, these would have been sufficient to serve the worship needs of the other Israelites who returned. The priests comprised about 8.6 percent of the total returnee population at this time (cf. Ezra 2:64-65).
The Levites 2:40-42
Few Levites, only 341, chose to leave the comforts of life in Babylon. They assisted the priests. There were fewer Levites than priests, the opposite of the situation that existed before the exile.
The temple servants 2:43-54
The "temple servants" were an order of Israelites that David had established to assist the Levites (Ezra 8:20). The biblical writers sometimes called them the Nethinim (lit. those given, i.e., dedicated, to God). They may have been the descendants of the Gibeonites whom Joshua had subjugated (Joshua 9:27), and or the descendants of other war captives. [Note: Myers, p. 19.]
The descendants of Solomon’s servants 2:55-58
These people seem to have been those who descended from the servants Solomon had appointed to serve in his temple during his administration. Other views are that they were the descendants of the Canaanites whom Solomon enslaved [Note: Yamauchi, "Ezra-Nehemiah," pp. 614, 615. Cf. Whitcomb, p. 425.] or the descendants of the royal officers who were merchants in Solomon’s service. [Note: B. A. Levine, "The Nethinim," Journal of Biblical Literature 82 (1963):209.] Since the grand total in Ezra 2:58 includes both the temple servants and this group, it appears that they cooperated closely in their work.
Israelites of doubtful origin 2:59-60
"We may infer from this pericope as it is clearly stated in 1 Chronicles 5:17 and Nehemiah 7:5 that Jewish families kept genealogies to prove their Jewish descent, and to ascertain that mixture with foreign groups was somehow excluded." [Note: Fensham, The Books . . ., p. 55.]
Even though these people could not establish their Jewish ancestry with certainty, the leaders of the restoration permitted them to return with those who could. It is understandable that some of the Jews born in Babylon, perhaps of mixed parentage, would have had trouble tracing their genealogies.
"Dr. Nelson Glueck, in commenting on the phenomenon of historical memory as evidenced in the Old Testament, relates an experience which Mr. A. S. Kirkbride had while serving with ’Lawrence of Arabia’ in 1917. ’He told me,’ writes Glueck, ’that on one occasion, while he was in an Arab encampment, an Arab got up and related the history of his forbearers back to forty generations, and that there were others in the assembly who obviously could have done the same, telling who married and who begat whom, and where they lived, and frequently what they had done, and where they wandered. Kirkbride said it sounded exactly like a chapter of genealogy out of the Bible’ (Newsletter of Nelson Glueck, Aug. 22, 1942)." [Note: David N. Freedman and G. Ernest Wright, eds., The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, p. 63.]
Priests of doubtful origin 2:61-63
These men returned but could not serve as priests until the high priest could determine that they were indeed descendants of Aaron (cf. Numbers 16:40; Numbers 18:9-10). Perhaps the high priest did this using the Urim and Thummim, if these were still in existence (Exodus 28:15-30; cf. 1 Samuel 23:9-12). Perhaps other records were available to him.
The totals 2:64-67
There is a discrepancy between the total number of exiles the writer gave here (49,897) and the sum of the various groups he just mentioned (29,818). Perhaps the women and children made up the difference, though if this was the case there were many more men than women and children. This may have been the case in view of the rigors that the people would have had to experience moving from Babylon to Jerusalem.
"More likely is the suggestion that since this is a composite list, some families simply were omitted; but the overall total remains correct." [Note: Breneman, p. 85.]
Another explanation follows.
"There is general agreement that the divergences are copying errors, arising from the special difficulty of understanding or reproducing numerical lists." [Note: Kidner, p. 43.]
Some of the Jews took their servants back to Judah with them (Ezra 2:65). The ratio was about one servant to every six Jews, which confirms the wealth of the Jews then (cf. Ezra 2:69). Twenty years later most of them were poor (cf. Haggai 1:6; Haggai 1:9; Haggai 2:17). These singers (Ezra 2:65) may have been entertainers, since they are distinct from the temple singers (Ezra 2:41). If they were, their presence would illustrate further the returning exiles’ prosperity.
"The [one-humped Arabian] camel [Ezra 2:67] can carry its rider and about four hundred pounds and can travel three or four days without drinking." [Note: Yamauchi, "Ezra-Nehemiah," p. 619.]
Arrival in Jerusalem 2:68-70
The Israelites contributed to the rebuilding of the temple as they had toward the construction of the Mosaic tabernacle (Exodus 25:3-7; Exodus 35:2-9). Probably the Greek gold drachma is in view and the Babylonian silver mina (Ezra 2:69). [Note: Fensham, The Books . . ., p. 57. However compare Yamauchi, "Ezra-Nehemiah," p. 620.] If this is so, one Greek drachma was equivalent to one Roman denarius. [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Money," by A. F. Walls.] In the ancient world, this was one day’s wage for a working man (cf. Matthew 20:1-16). Obviously the exiles made a substantial contribution to the rebuilding of the temple that supplemented what Cyrus and the friends of the immigrants had previously donated (Ezra 1:4; Ezra 1:6-11; cf. Exodus 25:4-7; Exodus 35:2-9; 2 Corinthians 8:3; 2 Corinthians 9:7).
When this group of Jews returned to the Promised Land in 537 B.C., they went first to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:68). Later they settled in the towns where their ancestors had lived and where some of them had property rights (Ezra 2:70; cf. Ezra 2:21-35).
The record of those who returned that God preserved in this chapter shows His faithfulness in bringing a remnant of His people back to Palestine as He had promised.
"One of the chief objectives of Ezra-Nehemiah was to show the Jews that they constituted the continuation of the preexilic Jewish community, the Israelite community that God had chosen." [Note: Breneman, p. 50.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ezra 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent