Lesson for the week of July 21
Scripture: Ezra 7:6-10; 8:21-23
By Kim Reindl
Opening questions: In your experience, how do you recognize someone to be a Christian? (i.e., Are you able to identify followers of Christ? How?)
The people of God were transformed by the period of exile. What began with the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722 BCE and continued through the Babylonian destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 587/586 BCE, forever changed the identity of God’s people, Israel. Many of the people of Yahweh, known as the Israelites, were deported to foreign lands, while others remained in the land under the constant threat of foreign assimilation. The people of God lived in areas such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and Crete. Due to this dispersal, various forms of their religion developed. As witnessed to in the book of Ezekiel, those in exile learned that the worship of Yahweh was possible beyond the borders of the promised land. Yet, an overarching question of identity remained: “Who belongs to the people of God when such is no longer defined by nation state and geographical region?” From this question what developed is what is known as Judaism. Judaism emerged as a new form of Yahwism that insisted on the worship of God alone, but allowed for that worship to take place in diverse geographical and social settings.*
The move from Yahwism to Judaism is evident in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Although communities of Jews returned to Jerusalem in these accounts of post-exilic life, they could not return to the previous Israelite way of life built upon a connection between kingship and priesthood. The temple was no longer a symbol of the Davidic dynasty and, as evidenced in Isaiah 56:7, it was coming to be known as a “house of prayer.” In this environment of transition, Ezra emerges as a leader of the people. Ezra’s understanding was that the people of God were to be defined in large part by their adherence to the law of God.
Ezra is described by the scripture as “a scribe skilled in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). Similar to his predecessors who dedicated the temple 58 years before, Ezra returned to Jerusalem and acted with the support of Persian rule. Under the royal decree of Artaxerxes, Ezra instituted what many scholars call the second phase of return and reconstruction, the building of community through devotion to Torah (the first phase being the reconstruction of the altar and the temple; the third phase being the reconstruction of the Jerusalem wall). Ezra’s main objective was “to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
Through Ezra’s reliance upon God, he is shown to be not only one who studied Torah, but also one who lived what the Torah proclaims. As Ezra gathered and prepared the group that was to journey with him to Jerusalem, he “took courage” because he knew that “the hand of the Lord [his] God was upon [him]” (Ezra 7:28). He did not ask for military assistance from the king of Persia to protect the traveling party from harm, for he knew that such would undermine his testimony of God’s divine providence. Therefore, as a doer and a teacher of the law, Ezra proclaimed a time of fasting and prayer, trusting in God’s graciousness for protection instead of relying on military might (Ezra 8:21-23). As a result, the hand of God was upon the returnees and they were delivered safely to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:31).
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons for us from these passages of Ezra is that God’s people should be known for their love of God’s word. Our Judeo-Christian tradition is strongly rooted in the primacy of scripture. The Jewish tradition of reading scripture in the temple and synagogue continued into the Christian tradition of reading scripture in the church. Yet both traditions acknowledge that our devotion is not merely to a “knowledge” of scripture, but rather to a living of scripture that is evident in the actions of everyday life. Reading and studying the scripture should always lead to a transformation of heart that takes form in the way that we live. It is for this reason that we are called to be not only hearers of the word, but also doers (Matt. 7:24; James 1:25). In all times and in all places, the people of God should be recognized as living manifestations of the teachings of God’s word.
*This explanation is offered in Bruce C. Birch, et. al. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 433-434.
Questions for further reflection:
• Ezra’s answer to the Jewish identity crisis was to build community around devotion to God through the study, doing, and teaching of scripture. (Keep in mind that we are all teachers of something through our personal life and witness.) How do the members of your congregation follow the example of Ezra? How do you follow this example?
• In your opinion, what is the difference between being a “hearer” of the word and being a “doer” of the word?
Kim Reindl chairs the Discipleship Ministry Team for the North Georgia Conference and is available to lead retreats, workshops, and seminars through Pomegranate Christian Education & Formation, www.pomegranatece.com. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.