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."
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")" 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. 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?"
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. 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." 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. 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."
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. 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 explanation and exhortation; (j) departure for a fellowship meal (v. 10)
I will add to the list that Ezra is elevated, as he "stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion" (Neh. 8:4).
Everyone is gathered—and that is the focus. The phrase "the people" is mentioned 13 times in 8:1-12. And they request Ezra to read the Torah to them in public (v. 1). This is a revival. The people are hungry. They want to learn about their God.
Ezra does not disappoint. He makes sure everyone understands (v. 8) The verb in Hebrew is מפרש which can mean that he 1) made it clear, 2) interpreted the meaning of the text(s) or 3) translated it. All three may have come into play, as returnees are now speaking Aramaic and the Bible is in Hebrew. Loken presents two opposing views. First, that the Levites were translating from Hebrew to Aramaic. Second, that 12 years earlier, Nehemiah expressed outrage that people were not fluent in Hebrew. Surely now they were. I am not so sure.
As someone who has learned a second language as an adult, I can tell you that it is excruciating. It takes great intention. However, Aramaic and Hebrew are very close, being both Semitic languages. And if the whole community was intent on learning it together and speaking it, it would have been much easier. The main point here is that people understood what was being read to them.
Thirteen Levites were on hand (v. 7) to explain to them, even as Ezra read. If Ezra is reading, and they are explaining, it could mean that they were employing a memory device to help people recall later what they were hearing. They did not have Logos or even a Bible at home back then! I have heard that in some non-literary cultures, the people would stop the missionary from teaching several times during his message. Then they would break up into small groups, and they would retell what he was saying so that they could each memorize it. This is one way to keep an oral tradition accurate. I imagine the first believers did something like this regarding the stories of the Messiah. For, many decades passed before the books of the New Testament were written, and much longer after that, before they were widely available to all.
On the second day of reading, they discover the Feast of Tabernacles. If it is hard for the reader to understand the ignorance of the people regarding Judaism, one just needs to look to the example of the former Soviet Union. Ironically, it was also roughly 70 years in existence. By the time the Iron Curtain came down, most Russian-speaking Jews had no idea how to be Jewish. And that was in an era where books were readily available, and the Hebrew Bible had been translated into many languages. So, if the Russian-speaking population lost connection with Judaism in modern times, imagine the people of Judah in exile in 586 BCE. Like in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Jews of the former Soviet Union were very hungry to discover their roots. Messianic Jews took advantage of this opportunity to share the message of the Jewish Messiah, and Messianic congregations sprung up all over the former Soviet Union. We planted one in the city of Berdichev, Ukraine, which is still going strong 23 years later.
So, I can feel the excitement of the Jews listening to the reading of the Law. They begin to weep, recognizing their sin and the sin of their ancestors (Neh. 8:9). But Nehemiah and the Levites told them not to weep, but rejoice, (v. 9-10).
There are two reasons for the exhortation to rejoice: (1) the people had repented, and (2) this was the first day of the seventh month, the Feast of Trumpets, which was to be a day of rejoicing (Lev 23:23–25; Deut. 16:15).
This brings to mind a similar scene in the days of Josiah when the book of the Law was found and read (2 Kings 22:11ff). There was deep repentance in both stories as the people learned of their God. Now they were rejoicing and fellowshipping (Neh. 8:12). It is from this scene that we get the oft-quoted verse, "The joy of the Lord is your strength" (v. 10).
They could not wait to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. And they did it with great intention. "From the days of Joshua, son of Nun, until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great" (Neh. 8:17).
This is one of the most consequential passages in the entire Hebrew Bible. As stated earlier, if it had ended after chapter 10, after the renewing of the covenant, it would have been an "and they lived happily ever after" ending. The God who had been so patient over centuries with his stubborn people finally receives his reward. He now has his own possession, a people totally dedicated to him. But even though they listened to their own history, as Ezra taught, about how the Israelites continued the cycle of repentance and rebellion, it would not be long before they too would turn their back on their God and his covenant. Later in the book, after Nehemiah returns from Susa (Neh. 13:6-7), he finds the people backslidden. His reforms did not stick. The cycle continues.
I would love to say that this cycle would change with the death and resurrection of Yeshua. But even the Church would enter into years of apostasy, forbidding people to read the word of God and creating unbiblical traditions (like indulgences) that would fill their coffers. So, we continue to go through cycles of revival, rebellion, and repentance. But we know that one day this will end with the glorious appearing of our Messiah Yeshua. Where he, n