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Did the Law of Moses Spark a National Revival?

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

A Closer Look at Ezra

Nehemiah 8 is one of the most moving passages of Scripture. If the Hebrew Scriptures were a movie, that would be a beautiful ending. There is a reason that "Ezra, a priest and scribe who was skilled in the law of Moses, is best remembered for his reading of the Torah to the postexilic community and the consequent religious revival it inspired."[1]

It is the dramatic conclusion to the saga that began with Abraham. In Chapter 9, Ezra recounts the ups and downs of ancient Israel. He begins with creation (v. 6) and moves on to Abraham (v. 7). Next, he reminds the people (while speaking to God—praying and teaching at the same time) of the Exodus (vs. 9-12) and the giving of the Torah at Sinai (v. 13-14). He doesn't shy away from Israel's rebellion (vs. 18, 26) and credits God's great compassion as the reason for Israel's repentance (vs. 19, 27). After blaming his forefathers for their predicaments as "slaves in the land you gave our ancestors" (v. 36), he owns it with the people in v. 37, saying, "Because of our sins." The people agree:

"In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites, and our priests are affixing their seals to it." (Neh. 9:38)

"The Hebrew verb kārat, used many times in the Old Testament to 'make' or 'cut' a covenant (bĕrît), is used here with ʾămānâ ("agreement")"[2] And the word for agreement comes from amen. It is also where we get the word ne'aman—faithful. Was the writer thinking of God cutting covenant with his faithful friend Abraham?

This is a big deal. It is not merely the reading of the law; it is the reembracing of the Law, the renewing of their commitment to the covenant, and repenting for the sins of their ancestors. But it began 24 days earlier, "on the first day of the seventh month" (8:2). It is surprising that some commentaries that I looked at missed the significance of this day. It is what the Bible calls the Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teruah) and what traditional Judaism calls today Rosh Hashanah (New Year).

"The Lord said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites: "On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work but present a food offering to the Lord."'" (Le 23:23–25)

This was no random day. It's hard not to read Nehemiah 8 and not wonder why there was not a yearly holiday to commemorate this like there is with Esther's Purim. It was around this time that Rosh Hashanah supplanted the biblical feast of Yom Teruah.[3] Many have claimed that the new year, which is biblically on the first of Nissan in the spring, was moved to the fall to coincide with the Babylonian calendar. There may be some truth to that. But others claim that it is connected to this most joyous occasion of the reading of the Law and the renewing of the covenant.

"Ezra's first reading of the Torah was definitely [a joyous occasion]. The prophet instructs the Jerusalemites: 'Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength' (Nehemiah 8:10). Does that not sound like Ezra is establishing a holiday on that day?"[4]

It is interesting that the writer does not mention the biblical moed (appointed time) that was to take place with the blowing of trumpets. This causes some scholars to be skeptical that Moses even wrote of this moed, Yom Teruah. They think it may have been added in the Second Temple period, as it is not mentioned in Deuteronomy or Ezekiel.[5] I disagree.

1. If it was inserted later to remember the Nehemiah 8 event, then certainly a public reading of the Law would be part of the celebration activities, as was with the Ezra event.

2. The Ezra event doesn't mention blowing shofars. (Though technically, Teruah can mean shouting as well.)

3. Ezekiel leaves out Shavuot and all the other fall feasts. It was hardly a complete list.

4. It was during the reading that they discovered how to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (8:14). So, it is possible that the people did not understand the significance of the Yom Teruah. (Though, I would suspect that Ezra and the Levites with him, knew.)

The exile was consequential for the future of Jewish worship. "From this time on in Judaism, the Torah was more important than the Temple."[6] The Pharisee movement was birthed during the exile. There was a shift away from Temple worship to the local synagogue. The Temple was destroyed, and the people had been exiled. How could they worship? They constructed "Ba'tey Knesset" (synagogues) that served as meeting houses for worship.

Ironically, the same thing would happen after the 70 CE destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zachai was instrumental in seeing that pharisaical Judaism would survive the destruction of Jerusalem. With the permission of General Vespasian (soon to be emperor), he moved to the coast at Yavneh and started a school.[7] Again, with no Temple to offer sacrifices, the focus shifted back to local synagogues and good deeds, charity, prayer, and repentance. They were inspired by Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."[8]

It is interesting that the Ezra event does not take place in the Temple courts but in the public square. It would appear that the Temple does not hold the same weight as it once did. Although, Fensham says this is because women could not enter the Temple precincts, and they were present at this gathering.[9] The gathering itself has many elements of the new synagogal setting.

(1) the assembly of the people; (2) the request for reading of the Torah; (c) the opening of the scroll; (d) the people standing; (e) the praise (by Ezra); (f) the response of the people; (g) sermon instruction; (h) reading the law; (i) oral e