Accessing the Theology in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther through Historical Background

by Douglas J. E. Nykolaishen

n attentive, careful reader of biblical narratives is usually able to understand a lot of the theological teaching the narrator intended to communicate. But some of what is taught can only be recognized if the reader grasps the assumptions shared by the author and the original audience.

A powerful example of this is found in Ezra 1. The first four verses of the chapter report that a decree was issued by the Persian king known in our history books as Cyrus II. The decree authorizes any Israelite who chooses to do so to travel from the place where he is living to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple of Yahweh (vv. 3–4). The explanation Cyrus gives for bestowing this authorization is that he has been instructed by Yahweh to build him a temple in Jerusalem (v. 2). Bible readers don’t expect a pagan king to say such a thing. And it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the original readers’ understanding of this event without knowing the relevant historical background.

Rebuilding Temples and the Right to Rule

In the ancient Near East, only kings could legitimately initiate the building of temples because a king was understood to be the regent of the god or gods, appointed to enact the divine will on earth. Moreover, ancient Near Eastern peoples were typically polytheistic and believed that particular deities were associated with particular people groups or particular geographic regions. Thus, Marduk was the god of Babylon, Baal was a Canaanite deity, Yahweh was the god of Israel, and so on. Thus, since the king had been chosen to carry out the god’s will on earth, and since the god’s will was most directly concerned with the people he was associated with, it followed that when a god commanded a specific king to build him a temple, he had chosen that king to rule over his people. For example, when King Esarhaddon of Assyria claimed that the gods of Babylon had chosen him to rebuild their places of worship, he also claimed that they had chosen him to be the ruler and protector of Babylon.[1]

Understanding this cultural mindset provides an essential key for correctly interpreting Ezra 1. Cyrus claimed in other texts to have been chosen by various gods to restore their ruined places of worship (Cyrus Cylinder, Foundation Stone at Uruk). Along with those claims he asserted that these gods had given him rule over the nations who worshiped them. The book of Ezra was originally written to Israelites, who were familiar with the cultural connection between rebuilding temples and the right to rule, but who were also monotheists, unlike their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. The Israelite, therefore, recognized that Cyrus was using the accepted temple-building ideology in those texts as a way to validate his rule over the peoples in the Babylonian empire he had recently conquered. So when they read in Ezra 1:2 that Cyrus claimed to have been charged by Yahweh to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, they would have seen it as another example of the familiar ancient Near Eastern rhetoric of a king seeking to legitimate his rule. When readers of our day understand these ancient assumptions, they understand why a pagan king would want to rebuild the Jerusalem temple for Yahweh.

But there’s more…

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Accessing the Theology in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther through Historical Background