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A Resistant Model of Peoplehood

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

A Brief Overview of Ezra-Nehemiah

My fascination with Ezra-Nehemiah was initially sparked by my teacher, mentor, and friend Kent H. Richards, whose seminar on the subject I took in 1980, and who urged me then to read Sara Japhet’s 1977 book (in Hebrew) on Chronicles’ ideology (published in English in 1989 as i). Japhet’s book liberated the interpretation of Ezra-Nehemiah from Chronicles and made it possible and necessary to look at Ezra-Nehemiah with new eyes. My book In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (1988) was the consequence of my first encountering her work.

Ezra-Nehemiah, however, continued to hold my attention because its literary artistry, which combines so many voices, led me to new questions and to even greater appreciation of the book’s historical significance. In depicting the reestablishment of a small nation upon its land after a disaster that forecasted extinction, Ezra-Nehemiah does more than preserve a selective memory of a pivotal period. The book masterfully crafts a new, resilient model of “peoplehood” (as Wright 2020 puts it)—one that enabled a small community not only to survive military assault but also to thrive, even under foreign domination. I wanted to understand better how and why these new foundations that Ezra-Nehemiah sets forth successfully sustained Jewish continuity for millennia. The fact that Ezra-Nehemiah’s consolidation of society around scripture proved significant also for Christianity and Islam added to my fascination with the book.

As I continued to delve into the complex world that Ezra-Nehemiah describes, and from which it emerged, I became convinced that understanding Ezra-Nehemiah, and the ways it narrates the period’s history, can shed important light on understanding the rest of the Hebrew Bible. After all, the Hebrew Bible was decisively shaped during this period, most likely with values and agendas similar to those that Ezra-Nehemiah reflects. I therefore watched with delight the growing scholarly appreciation of the significance of Ezra-Nehemiah and the blossoming of Persian-period studies during the past three decades.

It is my hope that readers of this commentary and its continuation in my forthcoming commentary on Nehemiah will be able to see with greater clarity what Ezra-Nehemiah discloses and why it is important. I also hope that future studies will use this commentary for a wide array of new and different investigations in order to further illumine the literature and history of the Bible in the Persian period.

To those who survived the fall of Judah in 587/586 BCE, King Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE signaled the dawn of a new era and their own nation’s rebirth. Ezra-Nehemiah (EN) recounts this story of rebirth under Persian rule. The preceding Babylonian destruction and exile had irreversibly altered life in Judah. Secure structures were demolished (including the temple and the monarchy). Jerusalem was in ruins, countless people had died, and many, including leaders, were exiled. Survivors faced overwhelming challenges, having to rebuild not only their lives and homeland, but their very identity as a people.

The recovery of Judah during the Persian period remains one of history’s great surprises. One would have expected the very memory of the kingdom of Judah to vanish without a trace, its people absorbed among the nations. Such was the fate of numerous ANE kingdoms and peoples, many of which (e.g., the kingdom of Ebla) have been discovered thanks to modern archaeology. Yet Judah and the Judeans not only survived; they created enduring legacies that continue to shape Judaism and Christianity, and to some extent Islam. The Hebrew Bible is a product of this recovery.

EN is preserved in all ancient sources as a single, unified book. As a carefully structured collage, it resembles what the poet Adrienne Rich (1981, 22) in her poem “For Memory” calls “freedom,” describing it as “daily, prose-bound, routine remembering”— the gathering inch by inch of what has been lost. EN is a prose-bound book, even prosaic, gathering lost collections inch by inch and weaving them into a new model of community.

EN is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that expressly depicts the reconstruction of Judah and Jerusalem. It vividly traces communal recovery by describing the restoration of the temple, the people, and Jerusalem as a whole. Glimpses about this period can be culled from biblical books like Haggai and Zechariah, or Isaiah 56–66, but only EN gives a detailed account of what it construes as the defining events. The Hellenistic book of 1 Esdras, which parallels portions of EN, derives from it. No other ancient source describes these events.

From the Preface and Introduction of Ezra: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is the Effie Wise Ochs Professor Emerita of Biblical Literature and History at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She is a two-time National Jewish Book Award winner for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and The JPS Bible Commentary: Ruth. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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