TH6317 The Interpretation of the History of Israel

Persian Period, Ezra-Nehemiah


Plan to have a draft structure by February 28.


Buster, Praying History in the Wilderness

  1. Performance as Form
  2. Memory’s “Participatory Stucture”
  3. Construcing a Community in the Wilderness: Provision, Pedagogy, Petition
    1. Narrative Frame
    2. Form-Critical Studies
    3. Intertextual Studies
    4. Telescoping: A Function of Selectivity
    5. Wilderness as an Ideal Space of Access to the Divine
    6. Wilderness as a Space of Instruction
    7. Wilderness as a Space for Successful Petition
    8. Is Solomon’s Temple Prayer the Inspiration for Neh 9:5b-37?
  4. Nehemiah 8-9, the Festival of Booths, and the Education of the People
  5. Conclusion: History, Participation, and Form in Nehemiah 9

Ezra and Nehemiah by modern standards of history

Reinterpretation of the Davidic covenant under Persian rule

Reconfiguring other roles


As above, expectation of a literal king did not last long and even the memory of the role of the king was rewritten.

High priest

Before the exile the priests were primarily there for sacrificing animals and running shrines. It has been argued that priest as a profession in Israel started with paying someone to guard your idol from theft (especially if it was gold). Levites (so the argument goes) were dispossessed and poor with social status somewhere in the range comparable to migrant workers or even pan handlers. You would pay them to pray for you or kill and butcher your animal partly out of sympathy. Priests at prestigious shrines, such as the Zadokites in Jerusalem may have maintained their own internal traditions, but had little force or relevance externally on the king or broader society. If the title “high priest” even existed it entailed little authority more than internal organization. That changed radically under Persian rule when the high priest became highest-ranking authority within the community.


No prophets are named after Haggai and Zechariah (Malachi is a title, not a name), and their role is primarily publicity and support for Zerubbabel and Joshua/Jeshua as temple builders. It is often claimed that prophecy ceased after Haggai and Zechariah, but “transformed” would be a much better word than “ceased.” Those who most claim that prophecy no longer occurs are the ones that are most secure in their power and reluctant to accept critique “because God told me so.” What most changed is that the title “prophet” became nearly synonymous with “false prophet.” Visionaries attributed their revelation to ancient authorities such as Enoch (what moderns call Pseudepigraphy). New revelations were distrusted, but inspired interpretation of old authorities flourished. Positive portrayals of the prophets of old make them sound much less like social critics and much more like scribes and historians (1 Chron 25:1-3; 29:29; 2 Chron 13:22; 26:22).


We do see scribes like Baruch before the exile, and scribal schools attached to the royal court can be linked to wisdom traditions such as Proverbs and even Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History. Nevertheless, we can trace a development of the role of scribes in broader society. Before the exile the role of a scribe was often along the lines of how we would think of a secretary or stenographer. After the exile, certainly by the time of Ben Sira around 200 BCE, scribes would be more like what we would call lawyers, consultants, scholars, sages, and experts in just about everything, especially interpreting the law.

The Torah itself as supreme authority

Deuteronomy certainly paved the way for the idea that the book of the Law (originally Deuteronomy) was the supreme law to which everyone, including the king, is subject. That should not be taken for granted two thousand years before the Magna Carta and Constitution of the United States. In the Persian period, the Torah (Law) expanded in size with the Priestly source and redaction. It also expanded in social significance. Certainly in Rabbinic Judaism the Torah is the supreme central concept from which all else derives. The development in that direction may be mixed and gradual, but it is certainly distinctive. It can be seen in the modification and rephrasing of idioms such as obedience to God becoming obedience to the Law of God. The concept of Torah in the Persian period is an interesting alliance of authorities. The Persian authorities recognized (maybe even commissioned) it. The Aaronide priests were validated by it. The scribes interpreted it.

The Priestly Source of the Pentateuch as Persian period rewriting of history

The (aptly named) Priestly source of the Pentateuch adapted and constructed a history that placed priests at the center. It is remarkable that they kept as much as they did, including Exodus 32 which portrays Aaron very negatively, and Genesis which essentially curses the Levites and makes no mention of their cultic function. There is no need to deny that some of the stories could be very old in some form, but it is clear that the final form of the extended narrative reflects priestly concerns of the Persian period. We can see from prophetic literature of the Persian period (Zechariah, Malachi, Third Isaiah) deep arguments about who gets to be a priest and how to do it. Much of Leviticus and Numbers reflects the same debates. For example, Numbers 16 tells a story that most makes sense in the historical context of the rise of priestly authority and disputes about who can claim it:

Numbers 16:3 Holding an assembly against Moses and Aaron, they said, “You go too far! The whole community, all of them, are holy; the LORD is in their midst. Why then should you set yourselves over the LORD’s assembly?”

The story goes on to make clear that Aaron is the “holy one” whom God sets over everyone else as high priest. When I say “clear” I mean those who advocate for equality are either burned alive by fire from God or the earth opened up and swallowed them and their families. It is easy to imagine Judeans having such a reaction to the rise of priestly authority, the Aaronide priesthood in particular, and the Persian acceptance of the Priestly Pentateuch as the law of the land. (It’s also easy to see parallels to the Protestant Reformation. Some Protestant scholars see the Priestly Source and Catholicism as two manifestations of the same heresy that tainted salvation history.)

It can be argued that much of the basic content of the Priestly Source could have existed before the Exile and started to be codified as soon as it became reasonable to fear that it would be forgotten if not in continuous practice (that is, as soon as the temple was destroyed). If we are looking to the finalization of the Torah as a fairly fixed and unified document we have to go later, well into the Persian period. We know that at least in the case of Egypt the Persians mandated that local provinces codify their laws. They didn’t necessarily try to influence or veto the contents of those laws, they just thought the law of the land should be fixed and public, not just the whim of personalities. (This reminds me of university accreditation, which often is concerned that universities articulate their mission and policies, without real concern for the content of the mission and policies.) If we imagine that Persians had that perspective consistently throughout the empire, it can be imagined that the codification of the Torah was mandated by the Persian central authority. (Of course it could also be imagined that the Persian mandate was not necessary in Judea because the Torah had already been codified.)

Ezra as priest, scribe, and interpreter of the Torah

The book of Ezra may imply that the Torah itself is very old, but it is very clear that it was news to the people. Major holidays described in the Torah were not observed from the time of Joshua (Moses’ successor) until the time of Ezra (Neh 8:17), so even if some of the traditions existed, the Torah as a significant authority in society did not exist. One may easily imagine that before Ezra brought the Torah to Jerusalem and read it to the people he first had to write the Torah, or at least wrap up the process of composing, editing, and writing. Ezra is a distinctive hero unlike any who came before. He makes no claim to prophecy or miracles. He makes no claim to military power or heroism like the judges and David. If anything his conformity to Persian authority is emphasized. It is certainly significant that he is a priest, but more significant that he is a scribe, “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). With no power from sling, sword, or miracle, Ezra holds tremendous authority over people, and all that authority is derived from the Torah with himself as the interpreter. Think about it, what would it take for someone to convince you to divorce your spouse and send away your children? (It might be better not to answer that.)

If Ezra marks a milestone in the codification of the Torah, he also marks a milestone in the history of interpretation. Biblical interpretation began as soon as there was a bible to be interpreted, or in this case a Torah.

Nehemiah 8:8 Ezra read clearly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read.

The role of interpretation is significant. If people believe the Torah is the will of God and I can influence their understanding of the Torah, then I have tremendous power. Ezra does not seem to have to deal with competing schools of interpretation, as is certainly the case later. Along with the priesthood, the role and power of the scribes as interpreters of the Torah rose and became contested in the Persian period.

Group identity formation

Exclusion of non-exiles

Mass divorce

For reference (don’t try to memorize)

Regnal years of Persian kings used to give dates, correlated with BCE

Further Reading on Ezra Nehemiah

Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah. Old Testament Library, 1988.

Joseph Blenkinsopp, Judaism. The First Phase. The Place of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Origins of Judaism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Further Reading on the Priestly Narrative

Liane M. Feldman, The Story of Sacrifice: Ritual and Narrative in the Priestly Source. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020.