Ulruch, Dean R. Now and Not Yet: Theology and Mission in Ezra-Nehemiah. NSBT 57; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2021. 184 pp. Pb; $28. Link to IVP Academic
Dean Ulrich has served both the church and academy. His North-West University (South Africa) PhD dissertation was published as The Antiochene Crisis and Jubilee Theology in Daniel’s Seventy Sevens (Oudtestamentische Studiën 66; Brill, 2016). He has also published a commentary on Ruth (P&R, 2007) and served as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Wexford, Pennsylvania. His experience in both church and academy is clear in his Now and Not Yet: Theology and Mission in Ezra–Nehemiah. In this new NSBT volume, Ulrich shows that participating in God’s mission for his world is a key message of Ezra and Nehemiah.
As Ulrich describes in his introduction, there are many reasons for academic and pastoral inattention to the books of Ezra-Nehemiah. For many, Ezra-Nehemiah is a legalistic jumble of sources, lacking a coherent theology and littered with obtuse lists. For others, Nehemiah stands as a model for leadership (usually by contemporary writers looking for proof texts for their leadership principles). Ulrich argues Ezra-Nehemiah is a literary unit with rich missional theology which illustrates how God’s people continue to experience his salvation in the post-exilic world.
After a chapter outlining what he means by biblical theology and Ezra-Nehemiah’s contribution to biblical theology, Ulrich works his way through the books thematically (although this follows the order of the books themselves). The first section of Ezra deals with the return from exile (ch. 3), the rebuilding of the temple (ch. 4), and the security of Jerusalem (ch. 6). Throughout these chapters, he integrates the prophets Haggai and Zechariah in order to offer a narrative of the rebuilding of the early community in Judea after the exile.
Most Bible readers associate Ezra-Nehemiah with rebuilding the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem, but Ulrich also points out that the books are interested in rebuilding the people of God (ch. 5). By the time Ezra arrives in Jerusalem, the people have been worshiping in the rebuilt Temple for many years. For most modern readers, the problem of foreign marriage seems strange, and Ezra’s solution seems drastic: divorce foreign wives and exclude them from the people of God! This is even more surprising since there is no evidence the Gentile women were encouraging their Judean husbands to worship idols, as with Solomon. Ulrich admits the measures “may seem harsh, gut the identify and mission of God’s people after the exile were at stake” (94). The new community must take steps to preserve its distinctiveness or it will “transmute into something quite different from the original vision of the founder” (94).
Perhaps another reason for scholarly and pastoral inattention to Ezra-Nehemiah is the books ends unsatisfactorily (156). We know that the post-exilic community continues to struggle, and the tensions present in these books continue through the Maccabean Revolt and into the first century. This is the “now, not yet” from the subtitle of the bool. Although the Temple is rebuilt and the walls of Jerusalem are complete, the people continued to struggle with certain practices such as tithing, Sabbath, and intermarriage. Ulrich draws Malachi into his discussion of the end of Nehemiah, since that late prophet deals with the apathy of the Judeans. The book of Daniel addresses some of these issues from the perspective of those still living in exile. There were faithful Jews living in the Diaspora, even if Judeans struggled with certain practices.
Conclusion. Ulrich’s Now and Not Yet will serve as a theological commentary for both pastors and academics teaching through Ezra-Nehemiah, two overlooked Old Testament books.
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Harrington, Hannah K. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 529 pp. Hb; $52.00 Link to Eerdmans
Hannah Harrington’s new commentary on Ezra and in the NICOT series replaces F. Charles Fensham’s 1983 commentary (now an Eerdmans Classic Commentary). Harrington was Professor of Old Testament at Patten University and currently serves as an instructor at Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. She has published extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls on topics relating to holiness and ritual purity in Second Temple Judaism. She contributed “Leviticus” in Women’s Bible Commentary (WJKP, 2012), Purity Texts, Companion to the Qumran Scrolls (Sheffield Academic Press, 2004) and Holiness: Rabbinic Judaism and the Graeco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 2001). Her interest in holiness and ritual purity serves her well in this excellent commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah.
Following a thirteen-page bibliography, Harrington’s ninety-eight-page introduction opens with an explicit statement of purpose: “This commentary seeks to bring into relief the Second Temple context into which Ezra-Nehemiah was written” (1). She views Ezra-Nehemiah as an early repository of information regarding key concepts for Second Temple Judaism, ideas which surface in the literature of other Jewish communities such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. Jews increasingly asked, “Who is a Jew?” Ezra-Nehemiah is an early narrative dealing with that issue. The books describe an ethnically pure Jewish community, legitimately connected with an Israelite past, guided by that or in the present, despite persecution and domination by a foreign regime (22). The book uses a wide range of literary techniques, in scholars often wonder whether Ezra-Nehemiah is fiction or polemic. She argues the book has historical concerns. There are many precise dates in the earliest audience would not be far removed from the events as they occurred. But the author’s goal was not a precise history, “the book has a theological agenda, presented carefully, using recognizable literary methods” (31).
Since Harrington argues Ezra began his ministry 458 BCE, Ezra’s work predates Nehemiah and the two overlap during the reign of Artaxerxes I. She thinks Chronicles was written later, probably not by the same author. As for the final compilation of Ezra-Nehemiah, if the Jaddua in Nehemiah 12:11 is the same as Josephus (Antiquities 11.302), then the final compilation cannot be before Darius (335-331 BCE). Ezra-Nehemiah claim that under Zerubbabel, about 60,000 lived in Yehud (Judea), but it is difficult to determine population archaeologically for the Persian period. For Jerusalem, some estimates are as low as 2000, others as large as 16,000.
Harrington uses insights drawn from social sciences to examine purity issues in Ezra-Nehemiah, especially intermarriage. For the first time, impurity is caused by certain types of people: gentiles. “The sinner, not just the sin, is impure” (33). This concern leads to a discussion of boundaries. Ezra defines boundaries and groups, which include some and exclude others. “This seems to be exactly the goal of Ezra-Nehemiah” (34).
She surveys Jewish life under Persian rule limited to Cyrus II, Darius I, and Artaxerxes I (35-57). One potential problem is that Ezra-Nehemiah is the primary source for Jewish experience under Persian rule. But there are several texts from the Achaemenid period which support its historical value (36). She says, “faithful readers of the book do not need to despair over discrepancies that exist in the text” and suggests the book was considered sacred, not because it was perfect (lacking error), but because “it was believed to carry divinely inspired traditions that could sustain the faith and life of the community” (37).
This section of the introduction also deals with internal Jewish leadership. What were the political and religious institutions that supported the community? In the absence of a monarch, the power of the priesthood and the Levites grew. But a new class developed, the scholar. Ezra the scribe is a scholar of the word of God. The voice of the prophet is muted in the period, although Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi are witness to the hope for a full restoration of Israel under a messianic figure.
Since the early Persian period is a turning point for Jewish faith and practice, Ezra-Nehemiah is a source for the development of both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity. She therefore surveys the contributions Ezra-Nehemiah make to this developing theology (57-88). In fact, “it is the goal of this commentary to highlight the seeds of later Judaism in Ezra-Nehemiah” (59).
“Four ‘pillars’ of Second Temple Judaism are emphasized in Ezra-Nehemiah, and they continued to undergird the faith and practice of Jews across sectors during this period: (1) Yahweh is the only true God of Israel; (2) Yahweh’s law, the Torah, is authoritative; (3) Jerusalem and its sanctuary is “the place of his holiness” (Ezra 9:8); and (4) the community of Israel is holy (Ezra 9:2). In all four of these areas, there are signs in Ezra-Nehemiah of both heritage and innovation” (59).
A major contribution is that the Torah is for everyone. Ezra reads the Torah and explains it to the people. But what was Ezra’s Torah? She argues it was some form of the Pentateuch (65), although she recognizes other scholars suggest it was as little as Deuteronomy (with some priestly material). In this section, she covers several practices mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah that become important in later Judaism. A table summarizes this material by collecting traditions reflected in the book and Second Temple literature not drawn from the Pentateuch (79-80). For each, she provides reference to later sources for the practice. Examples include fasting during a crisis, minimum age for Levites, and intermarriage with non-Jews.
The introduction concludes with a brief comment on the Christian application of Ezra-Nehemiah (88-91). Since the theme of Ezra-Nehemiah is how to maintain a holy community within a society that applies pressure according to a different value system, the books speak to the heart of Christian life in a wide range of cultures. Like many Christians in the modern world, the Jewish community shared their homeland with antagonistic neighbors and paid harsh taxes to a foreign emperor. How do you maintain a religious identity and reject harmful practices while advancing in this hostile, idolatrous culture? Ezra-Nehemiah address the dangers of pluralism and relativism by emphasizing worship as central to the community. Some Christian application appears in the commentary’s body. For example, in her excuses on the exile, she suggests “in some ways Christians, too, live in exile within societies that often hold contrary systems of value” (116).
She divides the Text and Commentary (101-477) into units based on the outline from the introduction. She begins with a new translation with notes on lexical, syntactical, and textual issues. All Hebrew and Aramaic appear in transliteration. The commentary itself is based on the English text with footnotes used for details and secondary literature. This makes the commentary a pleasure to read and will be accessible for those without extensive Hebrew knowledge. Some units only merit brief comment, such as the genealogical lists. She covers 2:2b-20 in little more than a page since most of this material does not require comment.
The commentary includes twenty-three substantial excurses on theological and historical issues. Harrington uses these asides to connect Ezra-Nehemiah to other Second Temple theology and practice, especially Qumran. For example, in the context of Ezra 9, she discusses The Sacrilege of Intermarriage (Excursus 9, 244-54). She begins by dealing with Ezra’s view of intermarriage, along with the relevant background from the Old Testament. Ezra sees Israel as a “holy seed” and the people are responsible for continuing the remnant of that holy seed. To marry outside of Israel endangers the survival of the remnant since such marriages produce illegitimate offspring (i.e., not holy seed). She then connects this view to other Second Temple literature, such as the Testament of Levi, Jubilees and 4QMMT. Written about 150 BCE, 4QMMT is a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls which outline the practices of the community. In contrast, early Christians allowed marriage without racial distinctions, although Paul warns about being “unequally yoked” to a non-believer (2 Cor 6:14). As observed above, the concern is determining boundaries and determining who is properly in the community (and excluding those who are not).
Conclusion. Hannah Harrington’s commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah is an excellent contribution to the study of these two books, but also an introduction to the theology and practice of Second Temple Judaism. Her focus on Ezra-Nehemiah as an early witness to developments in later Judaism and Christianity makes this an especially valuable book. The excurses are worth the price of the commentary alone!
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.