Hannah K. Harrington, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (NICOT)

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.

Harrington, Ezra and NehemiahFollowing 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!


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.