2:1 The list of returnees probably reflects not the return from Babylon led by Sheshbazzar, but multiple waves of exiles over several decades. While it is possible that the people of the province refers to the region in Babylon where the exiles had lived, it more likely refers to the province of Judah to which they returned. The province, called Yehud by the Persians, was probably much smaller than the hereditary territory of Judah (see note at 10:7-8). Nebuchadnezzar’s series of deportations (605-582 BC) were now being reversed by God’s power. Each returnee came back to his own town, emphasizing the continuity between the preexilic nation and the postexilic nation.
2:2 The names of the Jewish leaders who returned reflect the history of their nation. One name is Persian (Bigvai) while three others are Babylonian (Zerubbabel . . . Mordecai, and Bilshan). Zerubbabel probably served as the second governor of Yehud (Judah) after Sheshbazzar. As a grandson of King Jehoiachin, he was a crucial link with the Davidic dynasty. In the biblical books from the postexilic era, Zerubbabel is nearly always mentioned along with Jeshua, a grandson of Jozadak, Israel’s last high priest before the destruction of the temple in 586 BC. Thus Zerubbabel and Jeshua together link the reborn community in Yehud with the royal and priestly lines of preexilic Israel.
Nehemiah in this verse does not refer to the central figure in the book of Nehemiah, who arrived in Jerusalem almost eighty years later. Another person named Nehemiah is also mentioned in Neh 3:16, referring to a ruler over the region of Beth-Zur. Neither does the name Mordecai refer to the Mordecai in the book of Esther, who appeared a half-century after the Mordecai in Ezr 2.
2:3-60 These lists appear to be based on the nearly identical version in Neh 7:8-60. The divergences between the two are mostly inconsequential, consisting of alternative spellings of proper names and minor textual corruptions of the numbers. Because numbers were written in this era with small lines or marks, they were particularly prone to errors in copying. The primary purpose of these lists was to ensure that those who returned to Judah were authentic Israelites. In both Ezra and Nehemiah, the purity of the people is emphasized.
2:3-35 The first list consists of Israelite laymen. In vv. 3-20 they are listed by the names of their family patriarchs and in vv. 21-35 according to locality of origin. In vv. 3-21 the returnees are referred to as the descendants of these family leaders (lit “sons”; Hb beney). In vv. 22-35 they are more commonly called the men (Hb anshey) of the family leader. The variation is probably only stylistic.
2:20 The parallel list of Gibbar’s descendants (Neh 7:25) reads “Gibeon(’s),” the town northwest of Jerusalem. It is difficult to decide which is original since the names that precede the verse are personal names while those that follow are place names.
2:21-35 All these places are in the immediate area surrounding Jerusalem. It reflects the greatly reduced size of Judah in the years before 586 BC. Many of the towns were from the tribal area of Benjamin, north of Jerusalem. The only towns mentioned south of Jerusalem are Bethlehem and Netophah.
2:36-39 Priests make up about 10 percent of the returnees. Other priests returned later, because 8:2 mentions priestly families of Phinehas (Ex 6:23; Nm 25:1-11) and Ithamar, Aaron’s fourth son (Ex 6:23).
2:40 Compared to the priests, the return of only seventy-four Levites seems very low. Possibly the nature of their work and their lowly status either kept them from being captured and deported in the first place, or it did not motivate many of them to return home. Many years later when Ezra was preparing to return (8:15), his recruitment efforts resulted in only thirty-eight Levite volunteers.
2:41 The presence of singers was important in establishing the continuity of worship as it existed before the exile. The term translated “singers” (Hb meshorrim) may be too narrow, as 1 Ch 15:16-20 suggests that it included instrumentalists and worship leaders. Perhaps “musicians” better fits the context. Asaph was from the tribe of Levi.
2:42 Like the singers, the gatekeeper’s position was established by King David (1Ch 9:18-27) and was regarded as part of the tribe of Levi (1Ch 6), although these gatekeepers are mentioned separately.
2:43-58 The temple servants were the fifth group of temple personnel (priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers), and they had the lowest status. The Hebrew term for “temple servants” is nethinim, from the Hebrew verb ntn, “to give.” They are the “given” ones, or “devoted” ones, designated to serve in the temple and its worship. Solomon’s servants were part of this same group. A majority of the names are either foreign or are nicknames, reflecting their lowly status.
2:59-63 The final groups are of questionable status: three clans of laymen who could not verify their genealogy (vv. 59-60) and three clans of priestly families who could not prove their priestly lineage (vv. 61-64). The laymen, identified according to their former residences in Babylon, presumably were allowed to remain in the Jewish community. The situation of the priests was more difficult. Because the purity of the priesthood and the temple was at stake, priests who could not prove their lineage were disqualified from their posts. This was not only a loss of status but of livelihood as well since priests were not allotted land and were dependent on the gifts given to the temple.
No mention of the use of the mysterious Urim and Thummim is found in the postexilic era. The term governor is an uncommon word for this position, appearing only five times in the OT, all in Ezra-Nehemiah. The word is tirshat’a, probably derived from the Old Persian language meaning “excellency.” The term is later used to describe “Nehemiah the governor” (Neh 8:9). Here it probably refers to Zerubbabel, although some scholars prefer Sheshbazzar.
2:64-65 The assembly (Hb qahal) described the entire worshiping community, including both men and women. The sum of the returnees in the above list is only 29,818; probably the discrepancy reflects the number of women who also returned. While some commentators regard the presence of only 12,542 women as unlikely, it may suggest that most of those who returned were unattached, single men. The 42,360 returnees did not include the slaves who were regarded as property. The singers listed here are not those who participated in the temple worship but entertainers employed by wealthy families.
2:66-67 Since horses were more expensive than donkeys, it is not surprising that far more donkeys (6,720) than horses (736) were involved in the return to the land.
2:68-70 Just as Israelites gave gold and silver toward the construction of the tabernacle in Moses’s time (Ex 35:21-29), so once again some of the people gave freewill offerings for the reconstruction of the temple. These coins (Hb darkemonim) probably refer to the Greek drachma. Verse 70 is awkward, as reflected in the Septuagint and in 1 Esdras, but its essential point is clear: both temple personnel and laymen had now returned to their cities and towns from which they or their forefathers had been exiled.