I have been looking again at the joint books in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), Ezra-Nehemiah. Scholars disagree about the chronology and order of the passages. Some even accuse the compiler/chronicler of creating a jumble. The text presents a challenge.
The books cover the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and the new order created – the laying down of the Law, and the rebuilding of the Temple and the city walls (6th and 5th centuries BCE).
Much emphasis is put upon the banning of mixed (Jewish-non-Jewish marriages). The fear of dilution of the Jewish family and its belief system is expressed, firmly and repeatedly. This tension is a common theme of the nations throughout the ages: it applies to Israel today, but not uniquely. Is there more benefit in multi-culturalism than in isolation? Myself, I try to embrace essential aspects of my native Wales and Britain with together with Europeanism and world citizenship.
By contrast, other books contained in the “Writings” – Ruth and Esther – convey a different view: Esther is married to the Persian emperor; Ruth (from Moab) marries Boaz. Mixed marriages, here, are tolerated or promoted.
According to the Bible text that has come down to us, the scribe/expert on the Law Ezra first arrived before the governor/organiser Nehemiah; but their periods of service overlapped.
An alternative view, based on a critical study of the text, is that Nehemiah preceded Ezra. Then, they may or not have overlapped.
The fun starts when one considers how to re-order the text to make sense – in chronological/historical terms and/or theological terms. Scholars disagree over how to do the re-ordering. A quick check on the World Wide Web re Ezra-Nehemiah will confirm this.
There is common agreement, though, that Ezra Chapter 4, verses 6-23 are misplaced, chronologically, and that verse 24 follows neatly on from verse 5. The surrounding text describes the rebuilding of the Temple, whereas the short section mentions the Jews’ attempt to rebuild the city walls (regarded as taking place at a later date).
In his own study (1982), the respected scholar F C Fensham wonders where Nehemiah Chapters 8-10 best fit – after Ezra 10? Or after Ezra 8? Or after Nehemiah 13? Should Nehemiah 9 be placed after Ezra 10? This provides a good example of the re-ordering challenge.
I have come to a tentative conclusion that it is best to take Ezra-Nehemiah as it stands, while reading the above-mentioned short passage at the end of Ezra. Nehemiah (the book) then commences with the concern of Nehemiah (the governor) about the dilapidated state of the city walls and his determination to go to the city and repair them.
Reading the Bible requires a critical attitude – critical, in the best sense of the word.