Shepherd, David J. and Christopher J. H. Wright. Ezra and Nehemiah. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 243 pp. Pb; $28. Link to Eerdmans
In his essay on reading the books theologically, Christopher Wright makes the remarkable observation that “community building is the heart of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah” (158). Aside from the prayers in Nehemiah, these books rarely find their way into the preaching of the contemporary church. But if Wright is correct, then these two neglected books offer an insight into a community redefining itself within the flow of God’s redemptive plan. They are indeed building a community and the process may be a model for community building in a contemporary context. The difficulty is finding a hermeneutical bridge between the obscure world of the post-exilic world and the modern church. Since this Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary is example using Theological Interpretation of Scripture approach, the authors work very hard to put Ezra and Nehemiah on the biblical theology map.
The authors do not concern themselves with the origin of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah other than to date the book sometime after 430 B.C. The introduction discusses sources such as proclamations, letters, lists, and prayers in addition to the persona recollections of Nehemiah and Ezra. An unknown editor wove these various sources into the two canonical books. This editor, who may or may not be the same as the editor of the books of Chronicles, adapted the sources for his own theological purposes. Since the work is a theological commentary, Shepherd and Wright want to give special attention to the editor’s theological interests before moving to the New Testament and Christian traditions (9).
Shepherd wrote the commentary which covers both Ezra and Nehemiah in about one hundred pages. Given the brevity of this section of the book, he moves through paragraphs rather than verses. Hebrew appears in the body of the commentary with transliteration so those without Hebrew can still make good use of the commentary. In fact, in only rarely does Shepherd cite than a Hebrew word or two. He does interact with contemporary scholarship on Ezra and Nehemiah in the footnotes. At the end of chapters he provides a brief summary of the section.
There are three essays which extend the exegesis into theological interpretation. First, Wright contributes fifty-four pages on “Reading Ezra-Nehemiah canonically. In this excellent essay Wright seeks to rescue Ezra-Nehemiah from Old Testament scholars who see Ezra as the source of the legalism of later Judaism. The essay has two main focal points, God and the People of God. That God is the creator, sovereign and the redeemer are something of a default theology for virtually the whole Hebrew Bible, but it is surprising to find that there are echoes of the exodus narrative throughout Ezra-Nehemiah. For Wright, the “historical-redemptive tradition is harnessed to the challenging situation the exiles faced on their return” (118).
This leads directly to a unique contribution of Ezra-Nehemiah, the idea that God reveals himself in Scripture. Ezra reads the Law and the people respond with obedience, gratitude and joy (121). Wright provides a preachable outline of the use of Scripture in Ezra-Nehemiah. There is reading and listening to the word of God followed by explanation and teaching of the word. Teaching implies properly trained priests who are able to explain the Law to the people. This intense encounter with the word of God touches the people deeply and there is weeping and rejoicing. The people do not intellectually study the Law, the Law exposes their sin and reminds them of the grace of God. But the response is not wholly emotional, the people find some way to do the word of God, demonstrating they have fully understood the Scriptures (122-3).
In Ezra-Nehemiah the people of God are rooted in a historic identity. This is the function of the genealogies in the books. They connect the present people of God to the people and places from before the destruction of Jerusalem. What is more, this connection to the past is used to build a hope for the future (135). The unified people of God are called to be different than the surrounding people. This leads Wright to one of the more difficult aspects of Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezra’s demand that men who married foreign women should divorce their wives. Wright points out the demand is based on religion, not race. The distinctiveness of the Israelite faith requires that any contamination of worship should be purged (146). This of course looks back to Solomon, but Wright examines the way Ezra and the leaders interpret the divorce laws to apply them to a new situation. The Law did not ban all foreign marriage and there are several examples of important Israelite leaders who did marry a foreign woman (Moses and Boaz, for example). The requirement to divorce the foreign women is not a prophetic statement, but an exegetical decision. Although Wright does not make this point, this observation helps with the application of Ezra-Nehemiah’s view of divorce in different circumstances.
Wright’s second essay in on “Reading Ezra-Nehemiah Theologically Today” (pp 158-187). In this section Wright works very hard to connect the “people of God” in Ezra-Nehemiah to the people of God in the New Testament, especially the Pauline epistles. The people of God know who they are and where they are in the overall story of redemption. At several points in this essay Wright bemoans the Church’s lack of interest in the Old Testament because this implies the present people of God are unaware of where they have come from as well as their place in the story of God’s redemption. Both of Wright’s theological chapters find traction in Ephesians especially the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:11-22.
Wright draws several practical applications for modern church life from Ezra-Nehemiah. First, the community in Ezra-Nehemiah exalted the Scriptures (169). Ezra is a model for pastors and theological educators in his commitment to the word of God and his preparation for doing ministry. Second, the community in Ezra-Nehemiah was committee to worship. The temple is the most obvious example of this, but the books describe the Israelites giving freewill offerings and participating in worship in many other contexts. Third, the community in Ezra-Nehemiah is committed to justice. Nehemiah stands on the foundation of the Old Testament by condemning the debilitating effects of poverty and exposing its root causes (178). Nehemiah’s passionate, public and practical response to social issues in the post-exilic community are a model for contemporary responses to injustice. Wright connects this engaged social action to the spiritual worship which characterized the community (180). Worship and social action should not be seen as two separate activities of the church.
David Shepherd concludes the volume with a shorter essay on “Leadership in Ezra-Nehemiah” (188-211). Most contemporary studies of Nehemiah are bland leadership books which illustrate some modern (corporate business) leadership models by cherry-picking verses in Nehemiah and ignoring the actual context of Ezra-Nehemiah. These books were not intended to be “leadership manuals” nor do they directly address modern leadership issues. But, without being too cynical, ignoring most of the content of Ezra-Nehemiah sells more books for publishers than a quality exegetical commentary on the books. Shepherd takes a different approach by examining Ezra, Nehemiah, and the other leaders as examples of charismatic leadership (following the work of Max Weber).
Conclusion. The three essays are worth the price of the commentary since they are based on a clear understanding of Ezra-Nehemiah and serious attention to the text. There are more detailed exegetical commentaries and more in-depth studies of the post-exilic period, but this Two Horizons commentary will serve pastors and teachers as they strive to communicate the important message of these two books.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.