Monday, August 4, 2014

Ezra: Racist D-Baggery

Ezra is kind of a weird book. It starts out in third person, then in the middle starts being told in first person as though it were the personal account of this Ezra person, and then it switches back to third person. There’s no reason given for the transitions at all. So… yeah.

Anyway, the book starts off in the first year of the reign of King Cyrus of Persia (which by this point was in command of Babylon, where the captive Israelites had been carted off to after Judah fell to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar). This is about 70 years after the fall of Judah, and as supposedly prophesied by Jeremiah the Israelites are about to be released from captivity.

So the Book of Ezra starts out with Cyrus’ declaration that the Jews are to be released and allowed to return to their homeland to rebuild the temple of God. This apparently was part of his overall policy of allowing all the Babylonian captives to return to their homes and return their religious icons that Babylon had been in the habit of looting, but that policy gets no mention of the Bible. It talks only of the Jewish people, as if they and their god were specially singled out. It also claims that in his proclamation Cyrus credits Yahweh for giving him his kingdom and calling on him to rebuild the temple. Thing is, there’s this thing called the Cyrus Cylinder which is an original declaration by Cyrus, and it explicitly credits the Persian god Marduk for his victories and for the order to restore all the other gods to their various homes. So the Bible may have a… creative interpretation of the proclamation.

There’s also a funny bit where the book gives an inventory of the vessels being returned to the Jewish people from the original temple.

Ezr 1:8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, wo counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 10 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; 11 all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought from Babylonia to Jerusalem.”

See the problem? Hint: the Bible is bad at math. 30+1000+29+30+410+1000 = 2,499. Not 5,400.

All of Chapter 2 is spent on listing everybody who returned (I think by town), and they’re all listed as “the sons of X…” followed by a number. So presumably this dull recitation doesn’t include any of the women, as usual.

Anyway, the exiles return to Judah and start rebuilding their temple. They get as far as building an altar for sacrifices and laying the foundations of the temple before they are approached by some of the people who’d been living in the area since the Jews were spirited away. As you may recall, after conquering Israel and Judah, the kings of Babylon sent some Israelites back to teach the people who were living there in the Israelites’ place how to follow God’s laws in the hopes that it would make life easier in that land. Anyway, these people approach the newly returned Jews and say “Hey, we’ve been worshipping your god here while you were away, and we’d like to help you build his temple.” And the Jewish people told them to fuck off.

After that, the locals start interfering with the building, intimidating laborers and bribing officials to slow down construction. Eventually Cyrus is succeeded by other kings, and the folks who are interfering with the construction write a letter to the new king Ataxerxes complaining that the Jews plan to rebel once they finish rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. So Ataxerxes issues orders to stop the construction, and authorizes the governors in Judah to use force if necessary to prevent it.

This stops construction for a bit, until Ataxerxes is eventually succeeded by Darius. The under the urging of a pair of so-called prophets named Haggai and Zechariah, the Jews just start building again. When the new governor asks who authorized it, they say that king Cyrus had commanded them to rebuild. This is technically true, it just ignores the fact that king Ataxerxes had countermanded the order. But the governor writes to king Darius, whose scribes find Cyrus original proclamation, and so Darius orders the governor to allow the construction to continue. So the temple gets finished, and is dedicated with the usual bloodlettings and burnt sacrifices.

At this point, seven chapters into the ten-chapter Book of Ezra, we finally get introduced to Ezra. He’s this scribe who’s studied the law of Moses, who was also apparently somewhat in favor with king Ataxerxes (since this portion of the story explicitly takes place after the completion of the temple during the reign of Darius, this can’t be the same Ataxerxes who ordered the construction to stop before Darius was king. The Bible, in its usual clarity of writing, makes no effort to distinguish between the two). Ezra is also apparently a direct descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron, and therefore eligible for priesthood.

Anyway, for some reason Ataxerxes sends Ezra to Jerusalem to teach the people God’s laws, even going so far as to authorize him to appoint judges to enforce those laws (which, frankly, seems like a really weird thing to do. Most kings send governors to enforce their own laws, not the laws of some foreign god). The Chapter starts out speaking of Ezra in third person, then provides a supposed transcript of the letter in which Ataxerxes orders him to Jerusalem, and then immediately after the letter the chapter finishes out with talking in first person as though Ezra himself were writing.

Another fucking geneology of people who went with him.

So anyway, Ezra makes the journey safely, and presents all the wealth and offerings and shit the king had sent with him to the priests at the temple. And afterwards…

9:1 After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, ‘The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites the Jebusites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the people of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.’ 3 As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled fair from my head and bears and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.”

Racist much?

The book goes on to cover the lengthy and histrionic prayer Ezra sends up to god recounting his deep shame for how disgracefully his people have behaved and how thoroughly they deserve to be punished for their evil deeds in marrying whom they chose.

And then, suddenly, we’re back into third person for the final chapter. And in this chapter, Ezra and the priests basically round up all the Jewish men who had married outside their race, and force them to divorce their wives and disown any children they had by them. Because Ezra and the priests were fuckers. Religiously motivated racist douchebaggery is still racist douchebaggery.

And that brings us to the end of Ezra. There’s really no overt participation in the story by any god, just people acting like tools on the basis of their past pronouncements. Next up is the Book of Nehemiah, who I’m sure we’ll find is just a swell guy. Can’t wait!


  1. Ezra's racism is appalling. Interestingly, scholars believe that the book of Ruth was written as a reaction, since it tells the story of a Gentile woman who married into Israel and became an ancestress of King David.

  2. I've also heard it theorized that the story of Jonah was intended to counter some of the racist strains found in other books. I haven't gotten that far yet, though. Still slogging through Isaiah.