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Ezra 4 Study Notes


4:1-2 The author’s description of those who offered to help with the construction as enemies shows that their offer was not what it seemed. Their identity is clarified in that they had been brought . . . here by King Esar-haddon of Assyria. Second Kg 17 describes the policy of the Assyrian kings who deported many of the people in the northern kingdom of Israel and replaced them with people from Babylon and beyond. These events (2Kg 17) occurred half a century before Esar-haddon, and no report is given of deportations or resettlements during his reign (681-669 BC). But as the present verse indicates, he carried on the practice of resettlement.

The claim of these enemies that they also worshiped your God was probably true. The problem was that they worshiped the God of Israel along with the false gods of their homeland (2Kg 17:3-22). If Zerubbabel allowed these people to help in the construction, it would be impossible to prevent them from worshiping there as well. Zerubbabel and the other returnees knew well the terrible price their nation had paid for their syncretistic practices and could never allow such a practice again.

4:3 In refusing their help, Zerubbabel did not cite their religious syncretism as the issue but focused on the legal decree of Cyrus that they were to build the temple (1:2-3). You may have no part with us is a variation on a Hebrew idiom that means “we have no common interests.”

4:4-5 These verses highlight one aspect of the opposition from the people who were already in the land (lit “the peoples of the land,” see note at 3:3): they . . . bribed officials to act against them (lit “they hired counselors against them”). In the vast Persian Empire, bribery of government officials was commonplace.

4:6-23 This unusual passage has confused and challenged interpreters. It is bracketed by statements (vv. 4-5,24) describing the cessation of building until the time of Darius. Chapter 5 continues with the renewed work in building the temple during the time of Darius. Yet in 4:6-23 the events described take place during the reigns of Ahasuerus (Xerxes) and Artaxerxes, successive kings in Darius’s dynasty. Some critical scholars have charged that the author of Ezra-Nehemiah was chronologically confused. Such an assertion is unwarranted and unnecessary when one realizes that the author is not writing a chronological but a thematic account. Authors in the ancient world commonly ordered their material thematically rather than chronologically.

4:6 While earlier scholars identified Ahasuerus with various individuals, nearly all today identify him as Xerxes (486-465 BC), the son of Darius. Ahasuerus (Xerxes) is mentioned nowhere else in the OT except for the book of Esther where he plays a central role.

4:7 Another letter was written to thwart the plans of the returned exiles, this time to Artaxerxes, who took the throne following the death of his father Xerxes. His reign lasted over forty years (465-425 BC). The ministry of Ezra and Nehemiah occurred during his reign, as well as that of the last writing prophet, Malachi. The Persian name Mithredath suggests he may have been a Persian official. The Hebrew name Tabeel (“God is Good”) finds its equivalent in the Aramaic name Tobiah, but it is unlikely the Tabeel mentioned in this verse is Tobiah, the Ammonite official who opposed Nehemiah (Neh 2:10,19).

4:8-6:18 With this verse begins the first of two sections written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26). Aramaic, like Hebrew, is a Semitic language. It originated in Syria in the second millennium BC. The Aramaic sections in the OT (here and in Dn 2:4-7:28) are written in “Official Aramaic” (or “Royal Aramaic”), a standardized language of government and diplomacy used throughout the Persian Empire. By the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the “mother tongue” of the Jewish people in Palestine. The Gospel of Mark records several quotes in Aramaic by Jesus. The first occurred as Jesus brought Jairus’s daughter back to life (Mk 5:41) with the command Talitha koum (“Little girl, I say to you, get up”). Jesus later opened the ears of a deaf man (Mk 7:34) with the command Ephphatha (“Be opened”). Several Aramaic words and phrases are preserved in Paul’s writings, such as Abba (“father,” Rm 8:15) and Marana tha (“Our Lord, come,” 1Co 16:22).

4:8 The title chief deputy is literally “master of orders” (Aramaic be‘el-te‘em), a high-ranking official. Some scholars translate his title as “chancellor” or “high commissioner.”

4:9-10 The difficult Aramaic in v. 9b prohibits certainty in translation. After the mention of judges and magistrates, it is not clear whether the next two terms refer to other officials or other locations. Erech, Babylon, and Susa are the homelands from which their forefathers had been deported by Ashurbanipal (a rendering borrowed from extra-biblical sources; the Hb text calls him Osnappar), who followed Esar-haddon (see note at vv. 1-2) as king of Assyria (668-627 BC).

4:11 The authors of the letter specified their residences as the region west of the Euphrates River (lit “Beyond [the] River”), which became the standard administrative and political designation in the Persian Empire for the vast area from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea. This region is also referred to as the “Trans-Euphrates.”

4:12 This is the first occurrence of the word Jews in Ezra-Nehemiah. “Jew” (Aramaic yehuday; Hb yehudi) was derived from the word “Judah” (Hb yehudah). The Hebrew word yehudi appears in 2Kg 16:6 where it is translated “Judahites,” referring to those who lived in the kingdom of Judah. During the postexilic era the term became the standard designation of the entire religious community of Israel, whether located in the land of Israel or elsewhere.

4:13 Xerxes’s battles with the Greeks were a financial drain on the empire. Later, Artaxerxes’s suppression of the revolt in Egypt was an additional financial burden. Rehum knew that Artaxerxes could not afford the loss of tribute, duty, or land tax.

4:14-17 We have taken an oath of loyalty to the king translates an obscure Aramaic phrase (lit “We have salted the salt of the king”). On the suspicion that a scribal error has altered the original sentence, some scholars note that a minor change of the Aramaic verb would yield a more understandable rendering: “We have eaten the salt of the king.” In the OT there are several references that associate salt with a covenant (Lv 2:13; Nm 18:19; 2Ch 13:5), suggesting that salt, a valuable commodity in the ancient world, was used in the ritual of making a covenant. In a letter (Ezr 4:11-16) marked by exaggeration aimed at inciting suppression of the Jews, the concluding warning (v. 16) reached its crescendo: failure to stop the Jews from rebuilding would cause Artaxerxes to lose “Beyond the River”—the region west of the Euphrates River.

4:18-19 The form of this letter matches the form of letters discovered from that period. Due to the efficiency of the Persian administration, letters would have traveled between Samaria and the Persian king in about a week.

4:20 Powerful kings may be a reference to foreign kings, such as Assyrian and Babylonian kings who once controlled the region west of the Euphrates River and collected tribute. However, the context gives no indication of a change in subject. This most naturally suggests that Israelite kings were these “powerful kings.” If this is correct, it is possibly another aspect of exaggerating the threat posed by the Jews and Jerusalem.

4:21-22 Until a further decree has been pronounced by me was a providential loophole. Such a decree was issued in about 446 BC.

4:23 Literally this text reads, “they made them cease by force and might.” This must have been a painful and humiliating experience for the Jewish people.

4:24 The verse begins with an Aramaic preposition, be’dayin, that is usually translated “then,” which suggests that v. 24 temporally follows v. 23. But as pointed out above, vv. 6-23 form a parenthesis in which letters written to the Persian kings illustrate opposition to the Jews. Thus v. 5 and v. 24 serve as parallel bookends that bracket the lengthy parenthesis of vv. 6-23.