(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).