Sunday, 17 June 2012

Ezra - breaking barriers down

It has to be one of the finest treasures in the British Museum.  But when I put it into a Google search trying to track down a good picture I was surprised where google took me.

II Chronicles finishes and Ezra opens with a quotation from a Decree of King Cyrus of Persia.  When the Babylonian world power crumbled and Persia and Cyrus were in the ascendancy Cyrus took the decision to allow all those peoples who had been taken away from their homeland and cast into exile by the Babylonians to return home.   What’s more throughout the Persian empire returning exiles would be permitted to rebuild their temples and places of worship.

For the people of Israel that meant a return from exile and the re-building of the temple.  And that’s what the books of  Ezra and Nehemiah are all about.

What’s remarkable is that in the British Museum is a very small cylinder with a tightly packed text inscribed on it – and it is one of presumably many edicts written by Cyrus and sent out throughout the empire setting out this decree.  It is so close to the edict recorded in the Bible - it’s a thrill to see it and to see from the Persian side a record of this very same edict.

When I googled it what surprised me was that the search engine did not take me to the British Museum as I had expected but to many exiled Persian groups around the world and in particular to a presentation American groups had arranged when they presented the then General Secretary of the United Nations, Kofi Anan, with a replica of the Cyrus Cylinder.  It was the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Universal Human Rights – and those groups were celebrating what they considered to be the earliest known declaration of human rights in the Cyrus Cylinder.

We are entering the last lap of our read through the Old Testament.  I and II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah are grouped with the other historical books in our English Bible Old Testament.  They re-tell the history of the other books and push it beyond the exile to the return.  And the inspiration of the Greek translators of the Hebrew Scriptures was to put them into chronological order.

It’s intriguing that in the Hebrew Scriptures these four books are placed at the very end of the third section of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Writings.  Ezra and Nehemiah come first, and then the Hebrew Scriptures come to a climax with a re-telling of the story of the people of Israel in I and II Chronicles.

If II Chronicles finishes with the Cyrus edict and Ezra begins with it, the way of arranging the books in the Hebrew Sctipures is telling.  This last set of books opens and closes with the Cyrus edict.    What frames the final set of books we are going to look at is the edict that enables the people to return from exile and once again be a nation with a land, a temple and a faith to share.

The first six chapters of the book of Ezra set the scene for the second half of the book that describes the work Ezra himself did.

After listing the returning exiles Ezra tells of the way worship is restored in Jerusalem and the foundations of the temple are laid.  The book ties in with the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah and tells of the way the building of the temple is delayed until finally the temple is re-built and dedicated to the glory of God – and the Passover is celebrated.

As that celebration is described two things emerge that are to play a really important part in the thinking of the people as they return from exile, build their temple and establish themselves once again as the People of God.

As the returned exiles keep the Passover we read that ‘both the Priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were clean.”  As the Passover lambs are killed the Passover is eaten by the people who had returned from exile and also by all wh9o had joined them and, [and this is the key phrase] separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the Lord the God of Israel.
What’s of paramount importance for the returning exiles is to establish their identity.  That’s done in two ways – they are true to the God of Israel and they are different from all other peoples around them.

Into this situation comes Ezra.  He comes from a family that traces its roots back through the family of High Priests.  It was one of his ancestors, Hilkiah who had been High Priest when in the reign of the young King Josiah the book of the Law had been discovered during a refurbishment of the Temple in Jerusalem just before the rise of the Babylonian power that had resulted in exile.  It was a family that traced its roots back to Aaron.

Ezra had been exiled in Babylon.  He is described as ‘a scribe skilled in the law of Moses (7;6)’

I think that’s  a very telling sentence.  It was in the period of the exile that scribes and experts in the law had pored over all the law codes, and documents that had been rescued from the ruins of the Temple and in all likelihood they had assembled them into the kind of shape that we would recognise in the Pentateuch.  They ensured that the Law, the  Torah, could be contained on scrolls that could be easily copied out so that there was no longer any danger they would be lost in some cataclysmic event.

The hand of the Lord was upon Ezra.

Ezra has the support of King Artaxarxes to restore the people and to lead a group of people who will be servants of the temple and play a key role in the restoration of Jerusalem, the Temple and the people of God.

It’s moving to read in chapter 8 of the trust Ezra has in God as he makes his return.

When he arrives in Jerusalem one thing in particular disturbs Ezra.  And that is the way so many people priests included have inter-married with women of other nations.

Ezra takes his stand on the need for purity of race.  And so in 9 and 10 is an account of the removal of all foreign wives and their children.

This is a theme that emerges as the Hebrew Scriptures come to an end.  It is a very powerful theme in these books.  And it is one that we have to address.

It is something that you can trace through among the Jewish people.  The identity of the Jewish people is preserved by avoiding marriage outside the Jewish people.  Purity of race is tied up with identify of faith.

That notion comes across into Christianity.  The importance of keeping personal identity – not mixing with others is instinctively there … and often made explicit.  It is taken to extreme in the closed brethren community whose meeting house is being demolished opposite the manse – it’s not just inter-marriage that is not allowed, but you must not mix with others.  You must keep yourself separate.

It’s there in some measure in all sorts of settings – you see it played out in all sorts of different contexts.  It ties in with a very basic kind of human instinct that wants us to stay with our own.

What do we make of this?  Should we be building up our own identity to the exclusion of others?  Or is there another way/

But there is even within the Hebrew Scriptures a conversation going on.  Is this the only way?  It is not without significance that the book of Ruth is in the way the Hebrew Scriptures are arranged in the same section of the Writings as Ezra and Nehemiah – if you are steeped in the approach of Ezra and you read the story of Ruth it comes as a great shock when at the end of the Book you discover that Ruth, the Moabitess Woman, is the Great Grandmother of none other than King David.  David the product of a mixed marriage.  That’s shock and horror to the reader of the book of Ezra.

By the time Jesus comes on the scene this conversation is very much to the fore.  There are a whole range of responses to this question evident at the time of Jesus.  There were two schools of thought among the Pharisees – one very much more hardline in separation and purity than the other.  But at every turn inside the Jewishness of Jesus’ day is a commitment to identity of race.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the way the Samaritans were treated.   The Samaritans trace their roots to the people who stayed behind in and around Judea when most were exiled. They kept their own Torah – but they didn’t include the prophets or the writings in their Scriptures.  They worshipped on their own mountain at their own shrine.

Take seriously Ezra and you will reject the Samaritans.

It is not insignificant that when we arrive at John 4 the narrative begins in the middle of the controversies there are in different ways of being Jewish.  The Pharisees, some of whom are more hard-line than others, are concerned that Jesus has taken on the mantle of John the Baptist who has positioned himself in the line of the prophets who speak truth to power … and they are scandalised that Jesus has gained more popularity than John in the number of baptisms his disciples have been carrying out.

So it is that Jesus leaves Judea in the south to head for Galilee in the north – But, John tells us, he had to go through Samaria

He arrives at Sychar, near Jacob’s well, and it’s about noon when a Samaritan woman came to draw water and Jesus said to her, Give me a drink.

That elicits a shocked response from the Samaritan woman.

How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?

Then comes the explanation in brackets (Jewis do not share things in common with Samaritans).  That explanation is a direct allusion to all that Ezra stands for in chapters 9 and 10 of Ezra.

There then follows a conversation about living water … the subject moves on to the question of the woman’s five husbands and the man she is with now.

Then the Samaritan woman it is who recognises that Jesus is ‘a prophet’.

She sums up the theological divide.

Verse 20

Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.

That is the classic position spelled out in Ezra.

As Jesus responds he is convinced that the days the prophets spoke of, not least in the final chapters of Isaiah were breaking in – when Gentiles would stream into the kingdom as well.

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

Jesus locates himself within the Jewish traditions.  He affirms the tradition that includes Ezra  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know; for salvation  is from the Jews.

But then he goes on to suggest that ‘the hour is coming … and what is more ‘is now here’ when something else comes into play.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

That’s it – something new has broken in.  A new way of being.

How we worship is important – but its identity is preserved in how we worship and how we live our lives – it is not in the exclusion of some.  There is a move towards embrace and inclusion in what Jesus stands for that is worked out in his relationship with the Samaritans.

There is much that we can treasure in Ezra … but much from which we must move on.  If we don’t we are in great danger of the kind of exclusivity that in Bosnia, in Rwanda and in so many places leads to ethnic cleansing and even to genocide.

Out of the maelstrom of the Bosnian conflicts Miroslav Volf wrote a powerful book called Exclusion and Embrace.  In it he explores the challenge we have as Christians to keep our identity and in some way learn from Ezra, while at the same time being true to Jesus in reaching out and embracing ‘the other’.

“If we, the communal selves, are called into eternal communion with the triune God, then true justice will always be on the way to embrace- to a place where we will belong together with our personal and cultural identities both preserved and transformed, but certainly enriched by the other.”[1]

[1] Volf, 225

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