(4) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return
If you haven’t noticed, genealogy is super important to these Israelites! There are a few reasons for this, which will become apparent as we look at Ezra’s writing.
“1 Now these are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and that returned unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city; 2 who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, Baanah. 2 The number of the men of the people of Israel:” – Ezra 2:1-2
When Ezra records those in the first expedition, he starts with the leaders authorized to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Zerubbabel, who was a descendant of Jeconiah (a.k.a. Jehoaichin1). Jeconiah was the last king of Judah who was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar. Zerubbabel’s Persian name under Cyrus was Sheshbazzar, a prince of Judah (Ezra 1:8), and he was considered the authorized leader, or governor, of this first expedition. He answered to Cyrus for his actions. After Zerubbabel comes Jeshua (or Joshua), the high priest. Ezra records Jeshua’s father as Josedech (Jehozadak) (Ezra 3:2), who is also mentioned in 1 Chronicles 6:14-15 as being of the priestly line and taken away into captivity. Ezra shows that the two branches of Israel’s government, the royal bloodline and the priesthood bloodline, were still intact and able to pick up where they’d left off.
Zerubbabel’s name continues to be coupled with Jeshua’s because the earthly and spiritual governance of Israel was designed to be a unified system. These two leaders were responsible for the well-being of the people and the rebuilding of the temple. Zerubbabel answered to the Persian empire and to God, while Jeshua answered to God directly for the people (Malachi 2:7). Though Zerubbabel is of the kingly line, there is no longer a dynastic king over Israel. The distractions and difficulties that Zerubbabel confronts prevents Israel from establishing another earthly kingship. They must return fully to the commands and ways of God; He is their only King once more.
Nehemiah later confirms Ezra’s documentation when Nehemiah finds the registry after the city wall is rebuilt and the gates are closed (Nehemiah 7). To summarize Ezra 2, verses 4-39, he numbers the returning Israelites by their patriarchs, or heads of family. He separates out the Levite patriarchs, Jeshua and Kadmiel (Ezra 2:40), and the remaining numbers of the group deal with their position or occupation (Ezra 2:41-60).
“41 The singers: the children of Asaph, a hundred twenty and eight. 42 The children of the porters: the children of Shallum, the children of Ater, the children of Talmon, the children of Akkub, the children of Hatita, the children of Shobai, in all a hundred thirty and nine.
43The Nethinim: the children of Ziha, the children of Hasupha, the children of Tabbaoth,…(Ezra 2:41-43 ASV)”
The temple servants, known as the Nethinim, are descendants of the people of Gibeon, who tricked the Israelites into making peace with them when Israel was first conquering Canaan to settle (Joshua 9). They donned old clothes and items, saying they had come from a far country. The Israelites took their word for it, made the agreement to be allied with them, and three days later, found they lived in the neighboring cities. Regretting that he and the elders didn’t ask God what to do before making the agreement, Joshua kept the promise, decreeing, “Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God” (Joshua 9:23ESV). Ezra later records the Nethinim as having been appointed by David (Ezra 8:20), so the king of Israel later upheld Joshua’s curse. It’s interesting to notice that they were not of a bloodline of Jacob’s sons, but they remained servants to Israel’s officials while in captivity.
Along with the Nethinim, Ezra lists the children of Solomon’s servants. They had begun their service when Solomon was king, and they returned with Israel to serve as their fathers had done. This reveals that the Babylonian empire kept Israel’s castes intact after capturing the government leaders (the king, his sons, and the priests). The Nethinim and Solomon’s servants continued as life-servants from Babylonian through Persian rule.
Ezra also records those households that “could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel” (Ezra 2:59 ESV). Of this last group, Ezra mentions children of the priests who had not retained a pure bloodline.
“61 And of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Hakkoz, the children of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called after their name. 62 These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they deemed polluted and put from the priesthood – Ezra 2:61-62”
The tribe of Levite had a role of service to the house of God, and as such, Levites were held by a stricter set of laws. God stipulated that Levites who served as priests had to marry Israelites (Leviticus 21:14). Ezra explains that these children of priests had a “polluted” bloodline. They were not excluded from the nation; rather, they were excluded from officiating in the roles given to priests in the temple.
It is here in the last documents of Israel’s God-breathed history that we see people returning to Jerusalem who were separated out as unclean, either from the nation or the priestly order. They could not prove they had Hebrew blood, or they had mixed their bloodline with non-Hebrew nations. The Israelites were commanded not to marry outside their nation (Deuteronomy 7:1-4). This is a strange commandment to contemplate today, but it was looked on as a defilement, a pollution, that affected the nation as a whole.
There is a principle in this that applies to all relationships. The things we choose to do and the way we choose to live affects the people we care about. We don’t necessarily mean for our actions and choices to hurt others, but we can’t really know what will result from every action. It would be nice to be able to leap ahead in time and figure out what things work and what fails miserably in our relationships with others–and, then, avoid those things. But that’s not possible. The saying, “Do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone,” provides permission without considering the crucial question, How can I know if this will hurt someone or not? How can the human mind really perceive the chain of events that stem from one action? If the theory is true that we are all connected by a six-degree-of-separation network, then our influence as we make choices is much, much greater than we tend to want to believe. Just look at the spread of this virus right now and consider how its movement is directly related to the choices and actions, good and bad, that each person makes. It’s mind-blowing.
These people of mixed blood, or of no Israelite blood at all, have to suffer the consequences of a choice they never made, and it’s all because their parents disobeyed their nation’s law. This leads to the question, Why did God make this commandment and want it enforced during a time when so few people were returning home?
These rules about Israelite marriages were necessary for many reasons, but it really boiled down to trust. The command required God’s children to trust Him. Trust has to be present in all healthy relationships. When God’s children made life choices based on God’s judgments, instead of their own hearts, it taught them to lean on Him and let Him take the responsibility for the far-reaching consequences to come. A second reason relates to God’s promise to Abraham that through his seed all nations would be blessed. Jesus was to come through Abraham’s line. If Israel intermarried, those carefully kept genealogies would not have existed; there would have been no tracing Jesus’ lineage back to King David, as prophesied.
Ezra’s story leads us through the natural progression of relationship, from invitation to acceptance to trust. Trusting means letting go of the control in a relationship. It’s a choice to let go, and it’s a weighty one. Establishing trust becomes more challenging when you’ve never learned to trust someone who is truly dependable. No one on earth can be depended upon to be as faithful as God. It’s why better, healthier relationships develop from the strength of a trusting relationship with God.
- There is mention of Jehoiachin, king of the land of Judah, and his 5 sons on a Babylonian ration tablet (c. 595-570 BCE). Read about it here. (Accessed 2020/03/30)