For the Record

(3) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

Beginning, or re-beginning, a relationship requires both parties to accept certain guidelines. In essence, they are entering into an agreement. What that agreement entails is not necessarily explained at first, but that is part of the growth of all relationships–learning to work within someone’s boundaries and learning to draw your own lines.

“5 Then rose up the heads of fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, even all whose spirit God had stirred to go up to build the house of Jehovah which is in Jerusalem. 6 And all they that were round about them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered.” -Ezra 1:5-6ASV.

Two tribes of Israel accepted the invitation to return home and rebuild what they had lost. The area around Jerusalem was the territory of Judah and Benjamin, which might be why the heads of these two tribes were quick to accept. The priests and other Levites would be needed both to provide the specifications to build the temple and to reinstate the proper manner of worship.

We don’t always know what we want to get out of our relationships or how we will react to certain situations. God does know what He wants in a relationship. He laid out exactly what He wanted in His relationship with the Israelites. He described it the Israelites by setting up a covenant through Moses, establishing the Levite tribe to become his priests and temple servants. God’s design for Israel’s government had the priesthood and its order as the nation’s governing officials with God presiding as their king. The king’s throne, or mercy seat, was located inside the temple—in the holy of holies—on Jerusalem’s mountain. Long before Israel was carried away to Babylon, they expressed dissatisfaction with the agreement God made with them. Namely, they did not want God as their king. They yearned for a physical king. So, God granted them an earthly dynasty of kingship which threw them into a system that wrecked their way of life.

Why did He allow them to mess with His boundaries and deny Him as their king? Sometimes relationships have to go through a trial and error period to learn the value of the boundaries that are being set. This phase is especially evident in parent-child relationships. The parent disapproves of the child’s desire for something that won’t benefit him or her. Still, the parent allows the child to make the mistake and experience the consequences in hopes that the child will learn to value the boundaries of the relationship and trust that the parent is trying to give the child the very best. This is what God allowed to happened to Israel. They went through some devastating times when they became subjects of a human dictator. One of the negative effects of this earthly kingship was the legacy of Jeroboam, the king who set up new worship centers in Bethel and Dan to keep Northern Israel from journeying into Southern Israel to worship at God’s true temple at Jerusalem.

This division of Northern and Southern Israel led ten of the twelve tribes to reject God altogether. They did not worship in Jerusalem for many generations. They forgot where “home” really was and stopped wanting God in their lives. They chose to forget about Him. The Northern kingdom was invaded, and few souls survived from those ten tribes. Yet, Ezra says there were those “whose spirit God had stirred to go up.” God waited and watched. He looked for those few remaining souls who wanted a relationship with Him. They wanted to return home and start again.

“7 Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of Jehovah, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put in the house of his gods; 8 even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah.” – Ezra 1:7-8ASV

When the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, besieged Jerusalem, in 587BCE, he destroyed the temple Solomon built. He stole the gold and silver vessels from the temple, and, later, Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, used them when he hosted a gathering in honor of his gods (Daniel 5:2-6, 30). These stolen, holy containers were inherited by Cyrus, who commanded them to be returned to the temple.

It has been more than two millennia since any human has witnessed the splendor of the first temple at Jerusalem, the golden-covered structures and the gem-studded garments. In our age, we can’t really comprehend what the return of these temple items meant to an Israelite. Cyrus the Great was fully acknowledging Who owned the treasures of God, subsequently granting rights to the nation of Israel. Going into captivity had torn the people from their God-given land, their family lines, and their identities. Their God-centered government, meant to separate their way of life distinctly from the nations around them, lost its authority. For seventy years, they had to function with caution under a pagan system that threatened and constrained them from being who they were.

Ezra reports that the stolen items were catalogued, or “numbered.” This was a transaction between Cyrus and the Israelites, and it is a characteristic act of a scribe of that time to document historical evidence of the political reinstatement of Israel as a nation.

Ezra continues his documentation by recording the returning families, found in chapter two. This is distinctly characteristic of Israel itself. This nation kept meticulous genealogical records. Recording family lineage was not only a tradition but a necessity.  The law of Moses required each citizen to prove he/she was an Israelite—of a tribe descending from Jacob—to participate acceptably both in everyday life and in the worship of God. These lengthy genealogies were guarded and kept for centuries. It is believed that Ezra continued this record-keeping of the kingly line in 2 Chronicles before beginning his history. (The documents existed until 70 CE, when Jerusalem was beseiged during the Roman reign and the temple was destroyed.)

Along with requirements for temple worship, an Israelite’s tribal lineage defined his social standing and the ability to provide for himself and his family. Large families meant a better chance of continuing a tribe’s line. This explains God’s blessing of many children repeated throughout the Old Testament. Without descendants, a tribe would diminish, or, worse, cease to exist. (Naomi, from the book of Ruth, mourns this, and God blesses her by having Boaz father Ruth’s first child in the name of Naomi’s husband’s line. See Ruth 4:13-14.)

Ezra begins his count with the phrase, “the number of the men of the people of Israel” (Ezra 2:2). He doesn’t call them “the children of Judah,” as he does in other places in this history. While most of these people are from the southern tribes, there is no longer a divided kingdom of northern Israel and southern Judah. The remnant of God’s people become one Israel again as God accepts them back into His family.

God wants all people to accept His offer to be part of His family. Today, God’s chosen nation is made up of people from all nations. The bloodline of spiritual Israel continues when one is born into the kingdom by a spiritual birth, not a physical one (Colossians 1:13; Colossians 2:12-13). This is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). All are invited to enter the holy presence of Jehovah God. No one is left to stand outside; no one is barred from entering. God graciously grants all the choice of accepting this relationship agreement and entering His heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22). And God also keeps a record. Every person who chooses to return to Him—male and female, all nationalities and races—is written down in His book of life (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5).

 

Royal Favor

(2) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 1: The First Return

The book of Ezra was written in two languages: Hebrew and Chaldee, the Persian language. This tends to legitimize Ezra’s claim that his account was written during a time when the Persian Empire greatly influenced the culture and language of the nations under its rule. The events that occur in Ezra begin with a small group of people who want to return to their holy city, Jerusalem, and reestablish their nation and their faith in God. But they need power and protection to do this. God provides both through the decrees of world emperors, one being Cyrus II. Persian emperors were polytheistic kings. Yet, some of them showed respect for the gods of other nations as a political move. Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great, empowers the Israelites who wish to return to Jerusalem and provides them with the protection to cross the land and inhabit their holy city. This royal favor from an earthly “god” of nations gives us a glimpse of the methods Jehovah God uses to empower and protect His beloved sons and daughters of Abraham.

Ezra 1 begins:

“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of Jehovah by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, Jehovah stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” – Ezra 1:1-2

Cyrus reigned circa 539-530 BCE. In 539 BCE when the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Belshazzar fell, Cyrus controlled no less than four great kingdoms. The Babylonian method for recording a king’s reign, which carried over into Persian tradition, makes the timeline difficult to pin down. The Babylonians considered the point at which the king took the throne the accession year, and the year after was the king’s first year of reign. So, Cyrus made the decree in 539 or 538 BCE. That the decree was made in his first year as emperor is confirmed in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.

Ezra (c. 480-440) alludes to Jeremiah’s (c. 626-587) prophecy in which God told him the captives of Israel would return (Jeremiah 29:10-14) and the city would be rebuilt “on its mound” (Jeremiah 30:18). Like Ezra, many Israelites had waited for this day. To hear the Persian emperor Cyrus make this decree was to know their God had not forgotten His promises to them nor His covenant with them.

Cyrus II of Persia was known for being lenient toward the religious beliefs of the peoples ruled by his empire. The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum in London gives insight into his way of thinking.

“May all the gods whom I settled in their sacred centers ask daily…that my days be long and may they intercede for my welfare.” 1

Cyrus’ ruling strategy was to appease the gods of the lands he ruled in order to seek their blessing by returning the properties of these gods and their people to the land.2

The decree of Cyrus the Great to the children of Israel included the invitation to return to Jerusalem:

“2Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he hath charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3Whosoever there is among you of all his people, his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of Jehovah, the God of Israel (he is God), which is in Jerusalem. 4And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, besides the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:2-4).”

The call to build the temple was open to all Israelites, but it was not a mandatory command to go to Jerusalem. Cyrus gave the invitation to God’s people, and he provided financially for those who wanted to rebuild the governmental and spiritual hub of their culture and lives. Beyond the gifts that were given to aid them, the returning Hebrews were to be assisted by their local neighbors with the funds, tools, and livestock they needed to carry out the work. This was a massive construction project, and Cyrus opened a door for them with his decree. Through this emperor, God paved the way for those who longed to return home. Plus, He supplied the relief funds to restore their temple. And all this was accomplished before they had begun their journey.

Restoring relationship begins with an invitation. In a healthy relationship, no one is forced into it. God provides an invitation to all to come into His presence by supplying the relief fund when He set up the freewill offering of His Son, Jesus, to cover the massive cost of death. He does not force anyone to accept.

Just as God promised Israel that they would return, He promised that all nations would come into His house. Micah 1:2 prophesied, “And many nations shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths…”

The relationships we make in this life are fallible. We forget. We don’t always look for ways to bring us closer to those we love. Let’s face it; we’re a bit neglectful at times. God never forgets His promises. He will always keep His covenant with His people. Circumstances happen that cause us to think God has abandoned us. It isn’t true. His invitation is always open, and He will provide what you need to return home… to Him.

 

  1. English translation of the Cyrus Cylinder, Section 35 Cyrus’ Prayer, http://www.livius.org/ct-cz/cyrus_I/cyrus_cylinder2.html, Accessed 2020/03/30
  2. Ibid, Section 32 Religious Measures, Accessed 2020/03/30

Start Returning Home with Ezra

During this time of staying in our homes to stop the quick spread of COVID-19, it occurred to me that taking away all the busyness in our lives gives us a chance to focus on relationships. We get a chance to reconnect, reestablish,- and reconfirm who we are and what we mean to each other. This is a scary time, but it is also enlightening. Focusing on a relationship brings forward problems we have pushed aside, problems we could ignore before. Old wounds can be reopened; new issues come to light we didn’t know existed. It’s human nature to run from the past and hurry through the present, but that keeps the human spirit from reaping joy and peace in the future. One has to face the struggle to find harmony.

There is a family in the Bible that gives a detailed account of what it means to turn back and, courageously, take a look and accept the past. From this bold step, they learn to take on the challenge of what’s going on in the present and commit themselves to a better future. Ezra is a book that brings hope. It details the struggles of the children of God as they work through the phases of turning things back around in their lives to return to a relationship with their Creator and with each other.

In a psychological sense, everyone takes the same steps that these people of Ezra’s time took. Ezra’s account illustrates how to reconnect, reestablish, and reconfirm a relationship that is valued and important. Changes don’t happen immediately. Instead, one makes a series of decisions to develop strong attachments. Returning Home will be posted in four sections to break down the steps taken in relationship development and commitment. Starting with “The First Return,” Ezra will show us the breakaway from the old situation. “Reigniting” steps through the gradual change of the old way of thinking and doing. The third part, “Renewing,” follows the Israelite people as they implement a new way of thought and action.  The final part, “The Second Return,” follows the last chapters of Ezra, where a greater turning point occurs in a time when, after experiencing the new, changed state of life, God’s children have to ask the crucial question, “Will we stay committed to this relationship?”

Ezra begins his narrative when the Israelite captives are given permission to return from Babylonian capture after seventy years of captivity. The Babylonian empire has fallen, and Cyrus the Great of Persia is emperor of the nations. We’ll travel through the story using the American Standard Version of the Bible for reference. Historical references, some inspired by tidbits of information in the Zondervan Archaeological Study Bible KJV, will be accompanied by web links and excerpts from various encyclopedia and archaeology websites, as well as some information found on Wikipedia. My point is to use references that are, for the most part, well-established and, generally, uncontested in order to depict how Ezra’s account aligns with what we know in history. Below is my attempt at a timeline for context. It is my goal to post daily, so subscribe to be notified of new posts to the Returning Home series.

Israel's Captivity and Return Timeline

My View As a Stay-At-Home Mom

I read Being a Stay-At-Home Parent Is a Luxury…for Your Spouse, and I could relate to a few of Chaunie Brusie’s thoughts.

I’ve felt I had to bake pies so that the world would know I’m not a worthless member of society.

Apple Pie By Len Rizzi (photographer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Realm and I chuckled over this one. Occasionally, he requests homemade goodies to take to work. His top pick is apple pie. I gather his coworkers like it, too. I love the compliments, but I never thought of it as my means of giving to society. I just like to cook, and I know what it’s like to get a treat amidst the monotony of the workday.

Well, of course, it would be a luxury to the spouse who works out of the home to have a partner who stays at home with the children. Someone who is always there to take care of the inevitable days of sickness, arrange the doctor’s appointments, make sure the cupboards are stocked, and [hey], to ensure that no one steals the FedEx package off of the porch.

At my house, the kids are like security guards with their checkpoints, investigating the mailbox and the front porch throughout the day. They take the letters and packages somewhere and promptly forget about them. It’s a wonder we find our bills and get our packages at all!

I realized, in a rush of amazement, that I had spent all of our marriage feeling just a tad bit guilty for being the one who “gets” to stay home…I realized, for the first time ever, that I didn’t have anything to prove.

The Petrie family of the Dick Van Dyke Show By CBS Television [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a keeper at home, have I felt like I had to prove something? Definitely. Logically, I know there is nothing more important than nourishing my family’s mind, heart, and spirit. Emotionally, though, this society has made its jabs at me, and I’ve been brought low for what I do. The pressure is real. The pressure is toxic. It helped me that I realized the negativity is not inherent in me. It also helped me to make a conscious decision to refuse the notion that it is good for any society to be condescending to a wife and mother for choosing to stay at home to be…a wife and mother. I hold, instead, to the godly belief that my most noble and praiseworthy service is to my family (Titus 2:3-5). On the Last Day as I face my Creator, this is one thing over which I will have no regrets or guilt.

There are many things we sacrifice to live on one income. We don’t do family Disney World vacations. In fact, my son went to DW for the first time last year through the generosity of good friends. (The girls haven’t been there at all. It’s amazing how happy they are anyway.) My kids don’t wear what’s trendy, and I don’t, either. Eating out is a treat, not a habit.

That being said, we are so, so blessed by God that I don’t have to work for a paycheck to help provide a roof, food, and clothing for our family. We have all these things and many, many other luxuries. Yet, I think the greatest luxury is the time we have to be together.

Our Ray of Sunshine

Last week started out as a disappointment. My kids were supposed to spend the week with Realm’s parents while I went south and spent some time with my aunt and grandma. Due to sickness, we had to stay home. The kids and I stared at each other glumly until sunshine beamed down upon us in the form of a phone call from Realm’s mom, asking, “What if I come visit you for the week instead?”

I texted Realm the good news, and he responded, “She’s the best mother-in-law, isn’t she?”

Oh, she is!

A classic fairy with a wand
A classic fairy with a wand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I think I live in a fairytale world when I consider the fact that my mom-in-law is my best friend. It’s true!

When Realm and I were in college, he made plans to go to a football game with his dad. His mom wanted to visit with him, too, but didn’t care to go to the game. Realm asked me if I would hang out with her, and that’s when I met Mom O (that’s what I call her). I would not have had such an excellent opportunity to know what a jewel my future mom-in-law would be if she’d been an avid football fan. It was fate that brought us together! Or the fact that neither of us gets a thrill out of a pigskin tossing. We spent the whole afternoon talking. I thought she was the nicest person. Where I was opinionated and rash, she was conscientious and thoughtful…and she was funny. On the way back to school, I told Realm, “I’d marry you just for your mom.” Looking back, my statement was pretty telling because I was dating someone else at the time. Realm and I had broken up.

Mom O and I share our joy of reading. I grew up in a house with bookshelves filled with books. She has bookshelves all around her house, too. So I feel right at home. Anything she reads and thinks I’ll enjoy she sends my way. She’s opened new worlds up to me, especially in fantasy.

CassandraAusten-FannyKnight
CassandraAusten-FannyKnight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And she supports my craft. This isn’t an easy one because, as a writer, I’m always half-finished. Mom O will still read the first chapters with no ending and tell me what she thinks. She’s beta-ed many, many, many stories for me. She’s been my Cassandra, and I love her for the hours she’s spent on me and my scribbles.

She’s taught me a lot about cooking. I’ve watched over her shoulder many a time, asking all types of questions, trying to figure out what her secrets are for the best, fall-apart baked ham, the best cheese cookies, and the moistest pound cake. She says her secret is experience. She knows what she’s doing, and she’s good at it.

In the first years of our marriage, I was not shy about confrontation with Realm or with his family. There are many moms-in-law who feel it’s their duty to set an opinionated daughter-in-law straight from the beginning. There have been a ton of times that I’ve been set straight by my mom-in-law, but not by any harsh word of hers. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her middle name means “peace.” Every word of advice she’s ever given me has been with wisdom and with love. Her reproaches have come in the form of her own patience and gentleness with me. It’s humbling, and I look up to her more each time I realize how often she’s been proven right without saying a thing.

I get so much from her example. Her principles are formed by God’s word. And when she sees how her grandchildren are being raised, how Realm and I are trying to bring them up with God’s precepts, she lets me know she’s proud of both of us. It’s a God-given blessing we enjoy every day of our lives as a generational family.

This is why the kids and I spent last week sniffling, sneezing, but smiling. We had Mom O to cheer us up.

One Wednesday Night

Realm received a note the other day from a coworker who spent one Wednesday night with us months ago. This coworker—I’ll call him Alexander because I rarely get to call anyone Alexander, and I really like that name… What was I saying? Oh, yeah: So, Alexander doesn’t live here. He lives three states away. Realm, being the type of guy who doesn’t like to see another guy eating fried chicken from the grocery store deli or buying the very fresh and boring sandwich (call it a Panini or what you will, it’s still a sandwich), invited Alexander over to eat at our house.

I didn’t know very much about him when Realm invited him over but that he was from out-of-town and that he was on a diet similar to Realm’s: fresh veggies, low carbs, no sugar. He walked into the kitchen to greet me, and he was very polite. I was very nervous about what I was serving. It was my third week of making low carb dishes. I hoped the honey in my honey-mustard sauce drizzled over the baked ham wouldn’t be too bad of a diet no-no. Then I hoped my ham wasn’t a no-no! There are some religious groups, like Seventh-Day Adventists, who don’t do pork. Basically, I worried my way through the entire meal, even after he complimented me on the food.

That night, when we left the house for Bible study, Alexander rode with us. My kids fought over who would sit by him. I don’t know much about Alexander’s beliefs, but he told Realm afterward that he’d enjoyed the study.

In the weeks that followed, the kids asked repeatedly whether he’d be back to eat with us again. “He should come over on Sunday and eat, too. Then he could go to worship services with us two times!” my daughter said. I think she thought this was an offer that couldn’t be refused. But Alexander had to go back home, and he slipped out of our thoughts for a bit.

Recently, Realm learned Alexander was returning to town. He sent him a message that he should come over again for supper, that the kids had asked about him, and he hoped his work was going well. As it ended up, Alexander’s business trip was canceled. He messaged Realm, and this was one of the things he said about coming to our house that night:

“That will go down in history as one of the highlights in my life.”

Realm showed his message to me and had to explain it because I thought it was a strange joke when I read it. It completely flummoxed me. That night I’d been super nervous about whether my food worked with the diet, while Alexander wasn’t even looking at that. He was seeing our family gathered around a table, talking and laughing. He was watching us put away stuff quickly, grab our Bibles, and pile into the van. He was listening to us carry on various conversations on our way to the church building—little, insignificant thoughts and silly fights, I thought. But they were great big clues because they exposed our closeness, our regular communication, our peace.

THE WAYNE GIPSON FAMILY SAYS A PRAYER BEFORE T...
THE WAYNE GIPSON FAMILY SAYS A PRAYER BEFORE THEIR EVENING MEAL IN THE KITCHEN OF THEIR MODERN HOME NEAR GRUETLI… – NARA – 556611 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t realize sometimes what I have. I didn’t realize it when I was growing up around our family table, where my father sat at the head and we bowed our heads in prayer. The blessing of family comes from God. It is a blessing that is distorted when God is taken out of the center of it. It is a quiet haven that is destroyed when God’s words of kindness, real love, and commitment are ignored.

Alexander is divorced. His kids are almost grown, and he doesn’t get to see them often. There’s a part of him that craves the haven of home. We only have one life. That’s it. Don’t miss the haven. Even if you’ve missed it here, don’t miss the eternal haven with God. Seek Him. Pray to Him. He invites you to His table. Accept His invitation, and He will take you home with Him forever.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
– Luke 15:17-26a

The Romance of the Past

My mom and dad are going to Ireland for their anniversary. I’m so excited for them! It’s always been my mom’s dream to visit Ireland. Her mom’s father left Ireland to come to America. He never wanted to go back. My grandmother never wanted to visit Ireland. In fact, when she found out my mom was going on this trip, she asked, “Why?”

[Cave Hill. Belfast. County Antrim, Ireland] (LOC)
[Cave Hill. Belfast. County Antrim, Ireland] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
My grandmother moved in with my parents over a year ago; so when I went home in June, I sat down beside her and asked her to tell me what it was like when she was growing up. Her childhood was influenced by the Great Depression. She found ways to save money and get by, like learning to sew stockings with the same colored thread so that no one could tell where the tear had been.

My grandmother’s recollections have been softened over the years. I think that’s why my mom and I have romanticized the prospect of Mom’s return to the place her grandfather gave up. “Just to see it,” she says. I hope she won’t be disappointed. I don’t think she will. She’s a down-to-earth type, really.

When I was a teen, I sent this poem to my grandmother because I’ve always enjoyed curling up beside her and requesting:

Tell me a story, Grandma, dear
About your youthful past;
About the wisdom you have learned
From beginning to last.

Tell me a story, Grandma, dear;
That happened years before;
When one man left his heritage
In hopes of something more.

Tell me a story, Grandma, dear;
Please let it all be true;
So I can tell my own young ones
My stories about you.

P.S. It is my grandma’s fervent prayer that my mom and dad won’t get killed for not being Catholic.