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Introduction to the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

The Persian Empire Post-exilic chronology
Introduction to Haggai Introduction to Zechariah
Introduction to Malachi


The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were a single book in the Hebrew Scriptures. They were not separated until the second or third century AD.

The opening verses of Ezra (1:1-3) repeat the closing verses of 2 Chronicles (36:22-23). This suggests that Ezra and Nehemiah form the conclusion of the history compiled by the person known as The Chronicler. Jewish tradition says Ezra is the author of Ezra and 1 and 2 Chronicles, and Nehemiah was the author of Nehemiah.


The list of high priests in Neh 12:10-11,22 continues to the High Priest Jaddua. According to Josephus (Ant 11:8:4), someone called Jaddua was High Priest during the time of Alexander the Great, around 330 BC. If these were the same person, the date would be as late as 330 BC. However the traditional date for these books is during the time of Ezra, after which the Jews considered the canon to be closed.


The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are a compilation of material from different sources, rather than a single narrative. These include memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah, written in first person (Ezra 7-9, Neh 1:1 - 7:73a, 11:1-2, 12:31 - 13:31), incidents in the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah, written in third person. The books also include letters to Persian kings from the opposition, and replies from the king. There is a letter from Rehum and Shimshai to Artaxerxes (4:7-16), a reply from Artaxerxes (4:17-22), and a letter from Tattenai to Darius (5:6-17). They also include official decrees from Persian kings (1:2-4, 6:3-12 from Cyrus). There are also genealogies, a list of returning exiles (Ezra 2, Neh 7), and prayers.

Two sections of Ezra are in Aramaic (4:8 - 6:18, 7:12-26), which are mostly official letters to Persia and decrees. Aramaic was the language of the Arameans (Syrians) which became the diplomatic language of the Ancient Near East up until the time of Christ. The compiler probably had access to copies of these decrees and letters.

1 Esdras

1 Esdras, one of the books in the Apocrypha, is a Greek version of 2 Chr 35-36, Ezra, and Neh 8:1-12, with substantial additions and alterations. Some of its history is confused. This is a different book from the Greek translation of Ezra/Nehemiah found in the LXX, which normally known as 1 and 2 Esdras. The apocryphal version is known as Esdras, and called 3 Esdras in the Latin Vulgate.


There are two distinct periods covered in the two books: The first is from 539 to 516 BC. This describes the first return from exile, led by Sheshbazzar, the rebuilding the temple under Zerubbabel andJeshua, and the ministry of the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah. The second period of history is from 458 to 432 BC, which covers the second return led by Ezra, the third return led by Nehemiah, the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, and the ministry of the prophet Malachi. The book of Ezra covers both periods (Ezra 1-6, 7-10), the book of Nehemiah covers the second period only, and the book of Esther comes between the two (478 BC)

The dates of Ezra and Nehemiah are still debated. Some date Ezra after Nehemiah, saying he returned under the reign of Artaxerxes II, in 398 BC.

Contemporary Documents

The Cyrus Cylinder describes how Cyrus captured Babylon and returned the captive peoples to their own lands, together with their gods. To see a photograph of the Cyrus Cylinder and for further information, see the Persian Gallery in the British Museum.

The Elephantine Papyri include copies of letters written in Aramaic sent to and from a Jewish colony in Upper Egypt, at the end of the fifth century. Elephantine is a group of islands in the Nile, looking rather like an elephant! This colony were descendants of those Jews who escaped to Egypt after the murder of Gedaliah, taking Jeremiah with them. They built a temple to Anat-Yahweh, the wife of Yahweh. In them, there are references to several people who are prominent in Ezra and Nehemiah: One is Sanballat and his sons, during reign of Artaxerxes I (465 - 424 BC); Bigvai (Bagoas), governor of Jerusalem, received a letter fom Elephantine in 400 BC; Enia as governor of Samaria is also mentioned. This indicates the beginning of the political division between Judea and Samaria. Johanan son of Eliashib as high priest (Ezra 10:6, Neh 12:22-23) received a Elephantine in 408 BC.

The hand of God

A recurring expression in the narrative about Ezra (7:6,9, 8:18,22,31) and in the narrative of Nehemiah (Neh 2:8,18), during the reign of Artaxerxes. It is probably a allusion to Artaxerxes's title, 'Longimanus', which he chose for himself, meaning 'of the long hand'. He chose this title to show that his hand was on many distant nations. Ezra used this expression to show that the Israelites were under the greater and more powerful outstretched hand of God, in contrast to Artaxerxes.

Life-situation of Exiles in Babylon (Heb: 'Golah' - Ezek 1:1, 3:15)

Two sides are seen in OT. One is the sadness and suffering expressed in Ps 137, by those longing for place of worship in Jerusalem (Zion). However they had a good life in Babylon, if people were not interested in worshipping God. Many stayed behind, enjoying the good life. Some had political influence, like Nehemiah being cup-bearer to king, and there were opportunities to prosper in business.

Some of the exiles became rich, so they could give gold and silver to those returning to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:6). The building fund grew to 61,000 darics of gold, 5000 minas of silver (Persian coins) (2:68). The exiles brought back 7337 servants / slaves from Babylon, as well as many singers and animals (2:65). Earlier Jeremiah had written a letter to the exiles, telling them to settle in Babylon (Jer 29). Josephus wrote: "yet did many of them stay at Babylon, as not willing to leave their possessions" (Ant 11:3:8). Out of the two to three million Jews in Persia, only about 50,000 returned with Zerubbabel. Those who returned from exile were those whose spirit God had stirred (1:5).

Location of exiles

Some of the leading exiles were in the city of Babylon, including King Jehoiachin (2 Kg 24:15, 25:27), and Daniel, who was first prominent in the Babylonian court, then in the Persian court. Others were settled in different colonies near to Babylon. Ezekiel was among the exiles at Tel-Abib, by the river Chebar, a canal near Babylon (Ezek 1:1, 3:15). Nippur was a major trading centre, was the location of the first known bank in human history, started by the Murashu family, mentioned on clay tablets. These tablets list sixty Jewish names from the time of Artaxerxes I, and forty from the time of Darius II, who were trading partners with Murashu, royal officials, or collectors of taxes. There seems to have been no social or commercial barriers between the Jews and the Babylonians. There were other Jewish colonies in Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, Immer (Ezra 2:59, Neh 7:61), and Casiphia (Ezra 8:17).

Jeremiah wrote to the exiles (who he refers to as the good figs) to settle down (Jer 29). His letter was addressed to remaining elders, priests, prophets and all people (v1). This indicates that the cultural and social identity of the exiles was maintained, as well as the leadership and organisation of their society and nation. The elders of Judah are also mentioned (Ezek 8:1, 14:1, 20:1)

The genealogies of the returning exiles show that the family lines were kept distinct (Ezra 3, Neh 7). Most people could still prove their genealogy (Ezra 2:1-58, Neh 7:6-60), only a minority were not able to (Ezra 2:59-62) so were excluded from serving in the priesthood (Neh 7:61-65).

Jewish religious developments in Babylon

Babylon was considered unclean. However there may have been a limited substitute worship of Yahweh carried out in Babylon, but it could not be the real thing. The only place to worship Yahweh was in Zion, which meant that desire to worship Yahweh was the only incentive to return to Jerusalem. Ezra found some priests in Casiphia (Ezra 8:15-20). Perhaps the professional religious people had congregated at one site, as there were no Levitical priests among the group of exiles with Ezra (v15).

In the absence of the central sanctuary, the outward religious signs would have become very important. Circumcision was not part of Babylonian religion, so would have become a distinguishing mark of the Jews. Ezekiel emphasises the keeping of the Sabbath (Ezek 20:12, 22:26, 33:28). The exilic prophets would have been most important to the Jews, in keeping their faith alive, bringing the word of the Lord to the people, especially Ezekiel, who saw a vision of the glory of God in Babylon.

The popular view of the ancient near east was that if an empire conquers you, their god must be stronger than your god. See the Holy War page. But through the teaching of the prophets, the God of Israel was shown not to be weaker, but the exile was a result of the disobedience of God's people. This is demonstrated particularly in Ezek 16,20,23, where Ezekiel gives a history of the people's attitude to the Lord.

The prophets had also predicted a seventy year exile, followed by restoration, calling the people to repentance and promising salvation to those who repent. Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones, which was given to the exiles in Babylon (Ezek 37). The interpretation is that the bones are the whole house of Israel (37:11-14). This gave hope for the whole nation, not just Judah. (also 34:17ff, 37:15ff, 40-48). Isaiah also addressed the people in exile (Is 40 - 55), predicting a highway to return - a second exodus. He also describes the procession of returning exiles across the desert (43:14-20, 49:8-13, 52:7-12). The return from exile is linked with the coming of the anointed one (Messiah), Cyrus. He was also described as an eagle (Is 46:11), the victor from east (41:2), and the shepherd (44:28).

Situation in Palestine

The situation for those left in the land was very difficult, with many hardships: high taxes, forced labour (Lam 5:4-5), child labour (5:13), raids by nomadic tribes and no protection by Babylonians (5:9).

Persians' policy of religious tolerance

The Persians integrated a great diversity of peoples into a single administrative system, while being able to maintain respect for the local customs and beliefs. The Persians allowed the political and religious identity of captured peoples to be maintained. They allowed people to worship their own gods and observe the proper forms of their own religions. We should not think that Cyrus had become a real believer in the One True God. Cyrus identified himself with the people he had conquered by claiming allegiance to Marduk and the other Babylonian gods.

These are his words recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder
"I returned to these sacred cities ... the sanctuaries of which have been in ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and return to them their habitations ...

May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities asked daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me ..., to Marduk my lord, may they say this, "Cyrus the king who worships you ..."

In the Decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4) in 538 BC, he made recognition of Yahweh (1:2), and permitted the house of the God of Israel in Jerusalem to be rebuilt (1:3). The full text of the decree is in Ezra 6:3-5, recorded in in Aramaic, the official language for government and trade in Persian empire.

Reaction to rebuilding in Jerusalem

With the return of the exiles (golah) Jerusalem again becomes a religious centre. The people of the land (Am Ha-aretz) resist the building project (Ezra 4:4). These were particularly those left in Samaria, those brought in by the Assyrians (4:2), but these were of mixed religion, who later became identified as Samaritans. These people offered to help, but probably from the wrong motives. They did not have a desire to worship Yahweh, but wanted to gain influence. This was the beginning of the rift between the Jews and Samaritans, which grew into hatred by N.T. times. The opposition continued through the reigns of Cyrus, Cambyses to Darius (520 BC). There was opposition in reign of Xerxes (485 BC) (4:6), and in the reign of Artaxerxes (about 460 BC) (4:7-23). Also left in the land were the poor of Judah, who had been left behind after the Babylonian exile.

Tattenai, the governor of the Province beyond the River questioned what was happening in Jerusalem and wrote the King Darius (Ezra 5). They obviously didn't have a copy of Cyrus' decree in Jerusalem (Ezra 5:3).

Leadership of returning exiles


He was given the temple vessels by Cyrus and brought them back in 538 BC (Ezra 1:8). He was appointed governor by Cyrus (Ezra 5:14), and laid foundations of temple in 536 BC (Ezra 5:16). Sheshbazzar is not mentioned after 536 BC. Either he died, or possibly returned to Persia. He is not mentioned in the list of returning exiles in Ezra chapter two, who were led by Zerubbabel.

Some people identify Sheshbazzar with Shenazzar (1 Chr 3:18), one of the sons of Jeconiah (Jehoiachin), therefore the uncle of Zerubbabel. It is also suggested that Sheshbazzar may be the same person as Zerubbabel. However Jewish tradition would indicate that they are two different people. The temple vessels delivered to Zerubbabel and Sheshbazzar (1 Esdras 6:18) , where both are mentioned together. Both were sent by Cyrus and Persian government. Possibly Sheshbazzar was the official leader to the Persians, and Zerubbabel was the unofficial Jewish leader.


Zerubbabel is described as governor (Hag 1:1,14, 2:2,21). He was the grandson of Jehoiachin, the last Davidic king (Matt 1:13), and in the Messianic line. There was a dual leadership. The political leader was Zerubbabel and the high priest was Jeshua (Joshua). Zechariah has a vision of these two as two olive trees empowered by God’s Spirit (Zech 4:11-14).

Opposition to Nehemiah

Sanballat the Horonite

Sanballat was probably from Upper or Lower Beth Horon, 12 miles (20 km) north-west of Jerusalem. He became the chief political opponent of Nehemiah (2:10,19, 4:1,7, 6:1-2,5,12,14, 13:28). According to the Elephantine Letters he was the governor of Samaria. He brought the army of Samaria (Neh 4:2). One of the sons of Jehoiada, son of the High Priest Eliashib was son-in-law of Sanballat (13:28).

Tobiah the Ammonite

Tobiah had an official position in the Persian empire, probably as governor of Ammon. However he had a Jewish name, meaning "Yahweh is good". He too was related to the High Priest Eliashib (13:4), so was able to keep his furniture in the temple. His influence was such that, "many in Judah were bound by oath to him" (6:18). Both Sanballat and Tobiah were related in some way to Eliashib the High Priest (13:4,28)

Geshem the Arab

Geshem is found in other documents as the king of Kedar

Why did they oppose Nehemiah

Nehemiah was a threat to them politically. They would have seen his wall building as a declaration of revolt against Persian rule (2:19-20).

Role of the prophets

Because of the opposition, the rebuilding work on the temple stopped. God sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage them to rebuild. The attitude of the people was to look after the personal needs first. They were not willing to invest in the house of God. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to Jews in Jerusalem (Ezra 5:1), urging them to build the temple. In response, the elders built and prospered through prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah (6:14). The prophet Zechariah, was son of Iddo, and was of priestly descent (Neh 12:16).


The earlier prophets promised a great return from exile, which led to high expectations. The hardships they found when they returned to the land led to frustration. Their zeal and enthusiasm was lost, to be replaced with disillusionment and despair.

The prophet Haggai shows them that they were experiencing hardship because the temple was neglected (1:9), not the other way round. He also shows that the great expectations of all nations coming to Zion will not immediately be fulfilled, but is still in the future (2:7-9). He predicts that Zerubbabel shall be like the Lord's signet ring (2:23). This sounds almost like a Messianic prophecy, which could perhaps cause some to wonder whether Zerubbabel the one hoped for?

The high expectation of the returning exiles led to frustration. The prophet Haggai stirred up the hope, but explained that the fulfilment will not be in the immediate future.


The prophet Zechariah also urges them to rebuild, saying that the house will be rebuilt, and the city will overflow with prosperity, bringing a hope for a better life (1:16). He predicts that the mountain will be made a plain before Zerubbabel (4:6-7), again perhaps raising the expectation that Zerubbabel will fulfil the expectations. The two leaders (Zerubbabel and Joshua) are the two anointed ones (4:13-14). Following the exile, there was no king, so the priests gained more power, particularly the role of the High Priest. Jerusalem became a spiritual and religious centre, rather than political.


Haggai and Zechariah prophesied from 520 BC. There was then silence until Malachi prophesied in 450 BC. The prophet Malachi addressed the situation that the high hopes remained unfulfilled, which led the people to become disillusioned with Yahweh, so they returned to the same sins as before the exile. Malachi addresses the same sins as Nehemiah 13. The priests are not doing their duty, offering blemished sacrifices (1:6-14), and failing to instruct the people in the law (2:1-9). The ordinary people not taking their religious activities seriously. They are questioning whether it is worth serving God (2:17). They are not paying tithes, which Levites depend on (3:6-10), and asking what the benefits are of obeying the law (3:13-18). There are also problems of adultery and divorce (2:4-16, 3:5), and marriage to foreign women (2:11).


Nehemiah was an official in the Persian government, as cup-bearer to the king (1:11). This showed that he was the most trusted person by the king, as his job was to ensure that the king was not poisoned. The Persians had a representative of the Hebrews high in the Persian government. This was a good policy to keep the minorities happy. He had a commission from Artaxerxes (2:1-8), with letter (v8), knowing that the governors in the land would oppose him (v7,10). Nehemiah later became the governor in Jerusalem (445 - 432 BC) (5:14). He would not accept a salary, setting a good example to the people. He also gave a banquet for the poor, at a time when social tensions were rising between rich and poor (5:5).

Related articles

The Persian Empire Post-exilic chronology
Introduction to Haggai Introduction to Zechariah
Introduction to Malachi

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