Jerusalem Arises From the Ashes
(From The Lost 500 Years, p.17-27)
This chapter provides excellent background for the books of Nehemiah and Ezra in the Old Testament.
The full moon illumined the flimsy walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah sat on his donkey, feeling frustration that, since the people's return from Babylon almost a hundred years ago, they had not rebuilt the walls in such a way that they could resist their enemies. People in the city had responded only reluctantly to Haggai's prophetic threats that they must rebuild the temple. Even then they had not carried out the task very well. And although Nehemiah was himself a Jew and had arrived only three days ago with a commission from the Persian monarch to govern the city and its territories, some in the city had already resisted his initial suggestions to make life better for all citizens. Instead, the rich and powerful chose to protect their own interests and their personal fiefdoms. What was he to do to surmount these problems and bring unity to his people? He had a firm sense that the answer lay in the broken, unrestored city walls. If he could coax and cajole people into uniting to build these walls, that effort would leave a feeling of security and, with it, a residue of goodwill among people that would carry over into their daily interactions with one another. He tightened his right hand around the rope tied to his donkey's nose. He urged the beast forward. He needed to see the rest of the walls by moonlight. Tomorrow he would urge, no demand, that influential leaders in the city gather in a meeting and agree to rebuild the walls. The alternative, he knew, was to leave the city open to the pillaging of desert tribesmen and, worse, to an invading army.
Jerusalem became a city of safety and importance with the farsighted assistance of two Jews who neither were natives of the city nor had relatives living there. But they did not create a nation—a people united by a common purpose and a set of shared memories. That would not happen for another three centuries, beginning with the Maccabean War (167-164 B.C.). What we glimpse is a city whose spiritual life centered on its temple and whose economy literally grew out of the ground in the agriculture of the surrounding towns and villages.
Significantly, the two Jews came from the Jewish community residing in distant Babylon and bore royal commissions from the respective Persian kings who empowered them to engage in making Jerusalem a safe place where people could once again express fully their faith in God. These men were Nehemiah and Ezra. The first arrived with a mandate to bring security to the still largely ruined city. The second came with a charge to bring order and meaning into the city's religious life.
The most troublesome issue linked to the work of these two leaders concerns the dates of their arrival. A first reading of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah leads to the conclusion that Ezra preceded Nehemiah. But on that view, a host of insoluble problems arises, such as why the people of the city were still engaging in strange religious practices and marrying foreign spouses when Nehemiah arrived—features of religious and social life that Ezra's reforms had supposedly eradicated. The consensus among those who have studied this era—the latter part of the fifth century B.C.—is that Nehemiah arrived several years before Ezra did. We have adopted this view because it fits the evidence best, both inside and outside scripture (see Bright, 391-402, and the order of names in Nehemiah 12:26).
According to Josephus, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in 440 B.C. (Jewish Antiquities 9.5.7). When he reached the city, it was in abominable condition. Both the buildings and people's morale suffered terribly (Nehemiah 4:2, 10). To understand this situation, we look toward the broader world for the forces that affected the city and its citizens.
From the decree of King Cyrus in 538 B.C., permitting Jews to return to Jerusalem, until the coming of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., the fortunes of Jerusalem and its people were tied to the Persian empire, which ... stretched from southern Russia to a point halfway across the Mediterranean coastline of North Africa. On the one hand, this situation allowed people to move much more freely than they ever did when there were several kingdoms that covered these vast areas. As an added bonus, the enlightened Persian monarchs respected local customs of their subjects, including worship practices, which was a boon for Jews who worshiped in ways very different from their neighbors. On the other hand, incidents occurring hundreds of miles away could affect daily life in the land of Judah. For example, if people in Egypt rebelled, the Persian king would dispatch an army that would march through the Jews' territory demanding sustenance and other aid. On balance, however, the Persians' liberal policies offered opportunities that benefited their subjects' lives. So why were the lives of people in Jerusalem and the land of Judah in such difficult straits? Why did Nehemiah find a dispirited and broken people? The reasons are many.
The first was a lack of security, particularly in Jerusalem. Though our sources are meager, they indicate that after the days of Zerubbabel, the Persians had appointed no Jewish governor over the territory. Instead, the seat of the local governor was in Samaria among people who distrusted Jews and against whom some Jews held enmity. Moreover, evidence shows that the governor was himself a Samaritan and that the governorship was passed from father to son, meaning that a certain level of distrust was also passed on. Because the governor and people in Samaria did not want a strong, secure Jerusalem, citizens of the city were not allowed to undertake public works, such as building city walls, which would effectively make the city a rival to Samaria. According to correspondence preserved in the book of Ezra, this matter had arisen in 520-519 B.C. when, at the behest of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, people began in earnest to rebuild the temple while Zerubbabel was still governor of Judah (Ezra 5:6-6:12). On that occasion, or an earlier one, the people of Samaria had made the people of Jerusalem stop construction by force of arms, an act that underscores the Jews' unrelenting worries (Ezra 4:23).
A second reason has to do with the size of the population of Jerusalem and the land of Judah. Archaeological remains and other evidence indicate that the total population was no more than twenty thousand when Haggai and Zechariah came on the scene. Not many people had taken the opportunity to return from Babylon to Judah. And they seem to have come in small groups. There was no evident, organized effort to return. By the time of Nehemiah's arrival about eighty years later, the population had grown to an estimated fifty thousand, distributed in Jerusalem and throughout villages around the city. But that number was too small to provide an effective defense against marauders and invaders from nearby states. Further, the population was not sufficiently large to provide a substantial work force to raise the walls of the capital city without a superb, charismatic organizer like Nehemiah. For when he arrived, he found the city and countryside fractured into little fiefdoms run by the wealthy, for whom poor Jews, because of bad harvests, worked as servants (Nehemiah 5:1-5).
A third reason is related to the first and second. Because Jerusalem was not secure and because the population was too small to defend itself successfully, outsiders began to encroach into the land of Judah. From the north, the people of Samaria pushed their control of land almost as far south as the hills that overlook Jerusalem. On the south of Judah, people of Edom had crossed the Jordan Valley and taken control of the fine vineyards and lands north of Hebron, almost to Beth-zur. Arab tribes had forced the Edomites out of their homeland and, under the pressure, they came into southern Judah and took Jewish lands (see Malachi 1:2-4). What is more depressing, the violating presence of the usurping Edomites on Judah's southern border would also have reminded Jewish people about the horrible acts that the Edomites' ancestors committed against the citizens of Jerusalem when the city fell to Nebuchadnezzar 150 years before (see Obadiah 1:1-12).
The fourth reason is tied to the prior reasons. Because of a lack of security, a small population, and encroachments into Judah, people chose to live away from Judah. [There was] a large Jewish group that lived on the southern frontier of Egypt as a garrison force against invasion. The fact that these people had built a temple and adopted worship patterns consistent with both their former temple and their new Egyptian environment shows that they saw themselves as living permanently away from the land of Judah. In addition, a Lydian inscription shows that Jews had moved into Asia Minor by 455 B.C., evidently not wanting to go back to Jerusalem. Further, large numbers of Jewish people remained in Babylon, apparently preferring to reside there rather than move into an unsafe and dismal situation. Of course, it was the forced exodus from Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian warriors that had initially shattered the tie that people felt to the city and its environs. This, too, was a contributing factor to people's willingness to establish lives away from their beloved Jerusalem. Into this bleak and uninviting situation walked Nehemiah.
[T]he stories of Daniel and Nehemiah demonstrate that Jewish men could and did rise to positions of trust within both the Babylonian and Persian empires. Nehemiah became the cupbearer for King Artaxerxes I, a Persian king who enjoyed an exceptionally long reign (465-424 B.C.). Nehemiah's lofty position meant that fellow Jews could bring issues through him to the notice of the king. Moreover, because there was contact back and forth between Jews living in Judah and Babylon, news reached Nehemiah through his brother Hanani that things were bad in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1-3). Saddened by this news, Nehemiah appeared downcast before Artaxerxes, whereupon the king asked what was wrong. The upshot of their conversation was that Nehemiah was appointed governor of the province of Judah, complete with official letters that allowed him to draw upon the royal purse for needed supplies (2:1-8). It was an impressive beginning, but trouble lay ahead.
Trouble came from inside and outside the citizenry of Jerusalem. Naturally, no one was expecting Nehemiah's arrival, even though he had taken months, perhaps even a couple of years, to reach the city. Apparently, word did not travel ahead of him. According to his own record, he received his appointment in December 445 B.C., the twentieth year of Artaxerxes' reign (Nehemiah 2:1). According to Josephus, he did not arrive in the city until 440. The discrepancy largely evaporates when we note that work began on the city wall soon after Nehemiah's coming. Evidently, he had stopped to acquire and then to see to the transport of the needed timbers to support the gates and walls (2:8). We can also assume that he had gathered other Jews to accompany him before he started his journey. If they had decided to move permanently to Jerusalem, they would have needed time to settle their affairs before departing. From their numbers may have come the "few men" who attended him on his famous nighttime inspection of the city's "broken down" walls (2:12-13). In addition, we can safely assume that Nehemiah stopped and presented his credentials to the satrap who governed the entire region. How long he may have stayed with the satrap we can only guess. In any event, it seems that more than three years passed between his fateful conversation with Artaxerxes and his arrival in Jerusalem. Now he was ready to work.
Nehemiah probably guessed rightly that the governor in Samaria, a man named Sanballat, kept spies in Jerusalem, for almost as soon as Nehemiah arrived, the governor learned the news (Nehemiah 2:10). But there was nothing he could do. Nehemiah was carrying letters from the king, which established his position. Sanballat then tried undercutting Nehemiah's confidence in his task, but the attempt did not succeed (2:19-20). Sanballat next tried raising the anger of other local peoples against the project to rebuild the walls (4:7-8), but the resulting coalition army apparently did not attack the workers in the city. Unfortunately, in the towns away from Jerusalem, according to Josephus, some died at the hands of Sanballat's army (Jewish Antiquities 11.5.8). But Sanballat failed to disrupt the work in Jerusalem. Nehemiah had surmounted the trouble from outside.
Trouble just as serious lurked inside the city, but it would be of a different sort. In Nehemiah's effort to rebuild the city walls, he had recruited people from all around the land of Judah. In fact, the long list of participants tells us where the land of Judah reached in that era. It was not large. For instance, we learn that the land included Mizpah and Gibeon, towns in the north that had been part of the tribal area of Benjamin (Nehemiah 3:7). In addition, the territory reached eastward to Jericho and south to Beth-zur, past Bethlehem and Tekoa, the birthplace of the prophet Amos. On the west, the land took in Beth-haccerem, where the hills fall sharply toward the maritime plain, if this town is indeed the same as Ein Kerem, which lies just to the west of modern Jerusalem (3:2, 5, 14-16, 27). It is part of Nehemiah's charismatic genius that he rallied people from these distant places, as well as those in the city, to help build the walls. All of them, of course, knew the economic and political value of a secure Jerusalem to the entire society.
To the dismay of Sanballat and his allies, the work succeeded. People labored day and night for fifty-two days, apparently stopping only for Sabbaths. When Sanballat's coalition forces menacingly approached the walls, Nehemiah divided his people into two groups, half taking up weapons and the other half working feverishly without stopping. All the while, Nehemiah called out encouragement (Nehemiah 4:13-14). It was high drama. The work also unified the people as never before. Then trouble erupted inside the city, splintering the spirit of unity.
The labor through fifty-two days meant that people had not tended to their fields for almost two months. Besides, there had been a shortage of water, so crops were all the more fragile. To meet costs such as mortgages and taxes, some of the poorer people had borrowed money. They were now in deep debt to lenders in the city. To escape their debts, some had sold the services of their sons and daughters; others had sold their vineyards and homes. In effect, one part of the society held the other in bondage (Nehemiah 5:1-5). Perhaps significantly, this complaint, this "great cry" from the poor, brought out an aspect of Nehemiah's personality that we have not seen heretofore. In addition to his organizational skills and his evident charisma, he could become furious "I was very angry when I heard their cry" (5:6). But Nehemiah knew that anger carried only so far in relationships with people. After all, even though he possessed authority from the king, he had been in Jerusalem only three months or less. In a revealing note, we learn that he tried to wrestle down his jagged feelings before confronting "the nobles." From his account, we read, "I consulted with myself" (5:7). Bringing his feelings under control, he took up the labor of convincing the lenders to forgive the interest the "usury" of the loans and to restore properties and children to those in debt. In an extraordinary turnabout, the lenders agreed. Not leaving anything to chance, Nehemiah put everyone under solemn oath to do as they had said (5:7-13). The crisis passed. The oaths would secure the future.
We learn only a little about matters that concerned Nehemiah during the rest of his first term as governor, for he would come back to serve again. His first term lasted twelve years. It is perhaps notable that throughout these years, he and his fellow officers had "not eaten the bread of the governor" (Nehemiah 5:14). That is, he and they did not demand the perquisites that normally came with their offices. Like other honorable men, he did not ask for favors that would lift him unduly above others (see 5:15). In addition, because the wall was weak in many spots owing to the speed of construction "if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall" boasted Sanballat's assistant (4:3) one of Nehemiah's tasks was to strengthen the wall so that it would offer permanent, genuine security to the citizens within (5:16). An allied job was to convince people that it was in their interests to keep the gates shut at night and to guard the walls against intruders. To keep watch would have meant extra work for some (7:3). He also faced the challenge that the city held a rather small population: "The city was large and great: but the people were few" (7:4). To solve this apparent lack, he undertook the difficult task of convincing one person in ten to move into Jerusalem to buttress the numbers within the city. It would mean giving up life as rural people had known it (11:1-2).
All of these tasks dealt with the city's internal mechanisms. Outside the walls, enemies still sought to undo Nehemiah and his work. But he was shrewd enough that he refused invitations to meet such people outside the city, where he was vulnerable to foul play. Moreover, he resisted a false warning from outsiders that he should confine himself within the temple for safety from alleged enemies in the city, an action that would have discredited him both inside and outside Jerusalem (Nehemiah 6:1-4, 10-13). Finally, at the end of his term he departed, reaching Babylon "in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes" (13:6). It was 433 B.C. But he did not stay long in Babylon. He saw that his real service belonged to Jerusalem and its citizens.
We do not know when Nehemiah arrived back in the city, except that it appears to have been during the harvest season (see Nehemiah 13:12, 15). He writes simply, "I came to Jerusalem" (13:7). However, he was gone long enough that a host of problems faced him upon his return. Solving these problems seems to have taken up much of his second term as governor. Fortunately for the people in Judah, he was up to the test.
Immediately upon his return, he learned that the high priest himself, Eliashib, had prepared "a chamber in the courts of the house of God" for Nehemiah's most bitter adversary, a man named Tobiah, who enjoyed close ties to Sanballat, the governor of Samaria. Tobiah had even placed his "household stuff" in the chamber that was used as a storage area for "the vessels of the house of God." Offended at this desecration of the holy place, Nehemiah "cast forth all the household stuff" of Tobiah out of the temple and offered sacrifices for its cleansing (Nehemiah 13:7-9).
It soon became clear to Nehemiah that the priests, who should have been leading out in acts of devotion within the society, had slid into a state of laxness that affected the whole populace. For example, the priests had withheld "the portions" of the sacrifices and gifts that the Levites and the singers were to receive for their maintenance. As a result, these people had "fled every one to his field" to grow food for their families (Nehemiah 13:10-11). Moreover, none of the priests had taken responsibility for creating a system for storing and distributing the harvest donations that came to the temple for priesthood members and their families. So Nehemiah stepped forward and organized a system that saw these items distributed fairly and in a timely fashion (13:12-13). In addition, he observed people working on the Sabbath, "treading wine presses . . . and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses" with produce. What is worse, these people were bringing such items "into Jerusalem on the sabbath day" to sell in the market (13:15-16). Incidentally, the fact that he observed these actions in the countryside indicates that people of his era could travel farther on the Sabbath than the two thousand cubits allowed by later Jewish law.
What was Nehemiah's response to these Sabbath activities? He took up the issue with "the nobles of Judah," scolding them for their sin of allowing such enterprises and then ordered that the gates of the city be closed from before sundown on Friday afternoon until after the Sabbath had passed (Nehemiah 13:17-19). And when some of the more enterprising merchants and farmers brought their goods to a place outside the city wall to sell them on the Sabbath, Nehemiah threatened to arrest them. They left (13:20-21). Perhaps more disturbing to him were the mixed marriages with one Jewish spouse and the other of a different ethnic origin. He felt that somehow these marriages did not match God's will, so he put pressure on people not to continue the trend. Unlike Ezra after him, Nehemiah did not demand that the Jewish spouse divorce the non-Jewish spouse. But he "contended with them, and cursed them," and pulled the hairs of the beards of some men in a forceful effort to make his point. In one celebrated confrontation, he drove one of the grandsons of Eliashib the high priest out of the city because the grandson had married one of the daughters of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria (13:23-28).
In all of these cases, Nehemiah's exertions responded to varying situations that had arisen within the society. Strictly speaking, he did not attempt to introduce anything like a unified program of reforms, especially the kind that would touch the spiritual lives of people. That effort would come from Ezra. Significantly, Nehemiah's responses to these ad hoc situations would harmonize with Ezra's. For while the community in Jerusalem had taken the posture of reaching out to foreigners, even allowing one prominent outsider to take over a chamber on the temple grounds and permitting marriages between couples of different ethnic backgrounds, Nehemiah's position was to narrow the bases on which he and his people would involve themselves with outsiders. In that sense, he and Ezra stood on common ground.
In contrast to Nehemiah, whose official work covered parts of three decades and was centered chiefly on temporal matters, Ezra in a very short period introduced religious reforms that would outlast him by hundreds of years. Ezra probably arrived in Jerusalem about 428 B.C. Even though we read that he came in the seventh year of Artaxerxes' reign, 448 B.C., it seems unlikely that this notice is correct, as we have noted. The reforming effort of Ezra seems to have given religious ballast to the work of Nehemiah's second term as governor instead of introducing a covenant that people quickly ignored. In addition, the walls of the city were already up by Ezra's arrival (Ezra 9:9).
One further piece of evidence points to Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem as being later than that of Nehemiah. This evidence appears in the letter signed by King Artaxerxes, which empowered Ezra as his agent and concerns the provision that allowed Ezra to spend treasury money to meet the basic needs of running the temple (Ezra 7:18-20). We have already seen that, when Nehemiah returned for his second term of office, he found that the Levites and singers had left temple service so they could produce food for their families (Nehemiah 13:10-11). Such a situation appears to precede and lie behind the king's allowance of monies to Ezra for "whatsoever more shall be needful for the house of thy God" (Ezra 7:20).
We also presume that the two men knew each other. Nehemiah may even have involved himself in the arrangements to bring Ezra to Jerusalem, but we cannot say more than this. Unfortunately, our sources allow us only a glimpse of Ezra. However, they are full enough to preserve the tremendous impact that he had on Jewish society and its religious practices.
As in the case of Nehemiah, Ezra's mission apparently resulted from the influence of fellow Jews in the Persian court of Artaxerxes. Certainly, the letter setting out Ezra's commission reads as if a knowledgeable Jewish person drafted it (Ezra 7:11-26). And the letter's provisions are extraordinary in their sweep, giving Ezra authority from the crown to undertake religious reforms within his own community. Such should not surprise us, given the policy of the Persian kings to encourage subjects to exercise their religious faith and practices. In effect, Ezra went as the royal commissioner for religious affairs for his people. That is the basic meaning of the title that the king conferred on him at the beginning of his letter: "a scribe of the law of the God of heaven" (7:12), for the term scribe carried a broader meaning than simply a person who copies texts. In addition, that Ezra went as an official of the realm becomes visible in such expressions as "thou art sent of the king" and his charge "to carry the silver and gold, which the king and his counsellors have freely offered" (7:14, 15). On a different front, Ezra was a priest and thus carried authority to administer in temple matters (7:11). Hence, he stood in the worlds of both his Persian sovereign and his divine master.
Ezra left Babylon in April with an entourage and gifts for the temple and arrived four months later, in August (Ezra 7:8-9). Though he came with a royal commission, he did not come as the governor. Hence, if Nehemiah was still serving in this office, Ezra would have posed no threat. Instead, he would have brought a welcome program for regularizing religious life among their people. If Nehemiah chapter 8 follows chronologically the arrival of Ezra, he did not wait long. After all, Ezra carried the solemn charge to "teach" to his people "the laws of . . . God" (Ezra 7:25). According to the note in Nehemiah 8:1-2, people of the city, perhaps more curious than serious about what Ezra might do, invited him "to bring [out] the book of the law of Moses." It was October and the Feast of Tabernacles. Standing with friends and officials "upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose," Ezra read until time for the midday meal. These friends and officials translated the Hebrew of Ezra's copy of the law into Aramaic so that the audience could understand clearly the meaning, an indicator that people had begun to lose their abilities with Hebrew, the language of the country before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (8:4-8). This is the first occasion we know of when an interpretation of scripture was made in another language. This practice would eventually grow into a written tradition that became known as the targums, an aspect of scripture that we discuss in chapter 8, "What Is Scripture?" The response to Ezra's reading was touching: "All the people wept, when they heard the words of the law" (8:9).
Matters did not stop there. During each day of the feast, Ezra continued to read out of the Law (Nehemiah 8:13, 18), with an immediate impact. For example, when people learned they were to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles by dwelling "in booths" and by carrying "olive branches and pine branches" and the like, they gladly conformed (8:14-17). Clearly, it was a learning experience for them. Moreover, at the end of the month, separating themselves from others in their midst, the Jews "assembled with fasting" and entered "into an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses" (9:1; 10:29). Significantly, they pledged to live in accord with the stipulations of the Law, including keeping the Sabbath properly, making the required donations to the temple, and not intermarrying with outsiders (10:30-39). Everything was now in place. Or so it seemed.
The points at which threads of life began to unravel again had to do with people who continued to marry outside their ethnic group and pugnaciously retained their economic and other relationships with outsiders (Ezra 9:1-2). Ezra's first response was to pray fervently for God's forgiveness for his people (9:5-15). In light of Nebuchadnezzar's devastating blow 150 years before, he knew the enormity of turning against God, for God was their real protection. In December, he took action (10:9).
Ezra had brought the Law with him, carrying it in his hands (Ezra 7:14, 25). Most investigators conclude that this corpus of law consisted of the Pentateuch basically as we know it, the materials from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy. It was this law that he had read throughout the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles two months before. Although many had been thrilled to learn of God's requirements for their lives, even weeping as they listened, somehow they had not internalized what they heard. For the people to seriously come to grips with what Ezra had brought to them, he would have to drive a very large stake in the ground. But what would it be? The answer to his prayers came on the lips of one of the ranking officials in the city, a man named Shechaniah. Turning to Ezra, he said, "We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange [foreign] wives of the people of the land. . . . Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, . . . and let it be done according to the law" (10:2-3). Though such an action would be harsh and would raise opposition against him, Ezra courageously pushed the issue forward, asking through "the princes and the elders" that every Jewish male within the territory of Judah gather to the city three days hence or pay the penalty of forfeiting "all his substance." They came, in a heavy rainstorm (10:7-9).
In one of the most important scenes in Israelite history, within the temple grounds Ezra put these men under covenant to "separate [themselves] from the people of the land, and from the strange wives." In solemn response, those in the congregation "said with a loud voice, As thou hast said, so must we do" (Ezra 10:11-12). Within ten days, a great many had taken the fateful step. The offending priests led out, even offering sacrifices "for their trespass" (10:16-19). There was no turning back. The profound point about conforming to the law of God had finally burrowed its way into every soul. Life would never be as it was.
The same can be said about those on the receiving end of the radical action demanded by Ezra. We imagine that they were furious, as were doubtless many on the Jewish side. It was a day of severe tests for all. On his part, Ezra showed himself equal to the huge challenge. Perhaps oddly, we do not hear of him again. He had performed his work in just a few months. Even so, by turning the hearts of his people to the Law, he laid the foundation for religious life that has persisted to modern times. In addition, from that time forward, people associated themselves with God's purposes not so much by their lineage but by their conformity to the Law. The Law, rather than God's ancient covenant established with Abraham, became the measure of a person's relationship to Him.
Furthermore, the fact that, through Ezra, the Persian king had exempted temple workers from taxation established a precedent that would persist for the next hundred years in the Persian empire and then continue under the Greeks and Romans. By such action, the governments of these empires recognized the legitimacy of the priesthood and its functions both in and out of the temple. Moreover, this recognition meant noninterference generally in religious matters. Perhaps negatively, it also meant that substantial wealth could and would accrue to the leading priests.
There was a further negative dimension to this situation. Non-priests had to pay taxes to foreigners. This became an important political issue, especially in the era just before and during the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Those who violently opposed paying taxes to foreigners, even assassinating leaders who profited thereby, were the Zealots. The question posed to Jesus about whether to pay taxes to Caesar grew out of such opposition (see Matthew 22:15-22). In addition, it led to the generally low opinion about tax collectors "publicans" that we see in the New Testament.
When all was said and done, Nehemiah and Ezra had assisted their people immensely in and around Jerusalem. Perhaps significantly, they were both outsiders from Babylon. Through the forceful and charismatic efforts of Nehemiah, the wall of Jerusalem was erected, bringing security and strength to a crestfallen people. During his second term as governor, he began the process of regulating religious and social matters, such as the Sabbath day and marriages with non-Jewish spouses. But his regulations did not really influence the inner life of the people because, as we have seen, over a short time people grew lax about such matters. It was left to Ezra to seize and reform the deepest recesses of the souls of his people. Through his relentless toughness, within a few months he succeeded in demanding that certain people give up their most prized of human relationships—wives and, in some cases, children. The impact was both devastating and enlivening. The day could never be forgotten.