The leap in sequence to Ezra and Nehemiah — a single book in the Hebrew Bible, but separate ones in the Christian editions, where it immediately follows Chronicles — comes as a jolt. We’re suddenly back in the land of Judah, roughly six decades after its leaders and many of its people have been marched off into captivity. Jerusalem is in ruins, and Ezra and Nehemiah are intent on rebuilding. (Many scholars, by the way, believe the history would have Nehemiah arriving first, perhaps never even meeting Ezra in the flesh.)

Ezra reads the law, as if he’s been caught in some clandestine activity and is trying to excuse himself.

Much of the text is dry detail that slides over a general reader — passages that Jay Neugeboren (“A Samaritan at Camp Winsoki” in Congregation) admits “might have been set down by an earnest CPA … lists and decrees and genealogies and catalogues and inventories and memoranda.” Only after revisiting the text at his urging do I find a deeper “voice that is individual and passionate and exacting … passages of the deepest personal feeling” that transform this into “a fascinating and compelling tale of exile and redemption,” mostly in the last two chapters of this short book of Scripture.

Up to this point of a straight-through reading of the Bible, one hears little or nothing of the utter angst of the Babylonian catastrophe or of the radical transformations occurring during the exile. For these insights we have to wait for the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, and Baruch to return us to those decades of anguish and reformulation. Would those books fit into the sequential presentation better if they were placed just before Ezra/Nehemiah? The overall story in this period would be difficult to present no matter how the various components were arrayed.

A general reader probably approaches Ezra/Nehemiah with an assumption that we’ve been following the Jewish people from Adam and Noah and Abraham and Moses — and no other peoples — all the way up to the events at hand. The division of the Promised Land into two kingdoms after the death of Solomon leads to confusion (What? Jerusalem isn’t in Israel but in Judah?), and the antipathy toward the mysterious Samaritans in the New Testament draws a Sunday school teacher’s response, “They were kind of like the Jews.” Except they’re not, and Christians are left wondering just why the blackballed Samaritans get the short end of the stick in the New Testament, at least before the Apostle Paul’s message finds a welcome among them.

In this more public rendering, Ezra proclaims the law, causing weeping and moaning and breaking up families.

The idea that Judaism itself isn’t established until Nehemiah 8 (sometime more recent than 444 BCE?) more than five centuries after King David feels incomprehensible. Just what have we been following up to this point? (Drawing on a little forewarning, I’ve been using “Hebrews,” including places before Solomon where “Israelites” would have fit.)

One thing that becomes clear is that Ezra and Nehemiah have set out to do something beyond rebuilding the temple and the walled city. Most dramatic in the text is the implication that leads to the dissolving of marriages to “foreign” wives. (Note, once more, the male fertility line here; Jewish women married to husbands of other faiths are apparently already considered beyond the pale, no matter how much they raise their children in the faith they know and practice.)

There’s no evading the cruelty of the decree, which implicitly acknowledges these marriages to be the source of the idol worship that has plagued the Hebrews throughout their troubled history. Would this be sufficient?

(I hear an echo from my own genealogical research into lines of intermarriage, “If you want to find out which way the family went, look to the wives,” that is, their denomination rather than their husband’s. Another echo arises in the Quaker insistence on having their sons and daughters marry only within the faith, a requirement that did more than anything else to diminish the denomination.)

In her reflections on Nehemiah (in Congregation), Anne Roiphe lifts the cry of anguish within this turn of events: “Beneath the text of Nehemiah we can hear the children of exiled wives calling for fathers who have disowned them. We can hear the women who brought the dowries, who disrobed and gave their bodies in trust, alone in the night, wandering in the no-man’s land between the nations, betrayed and abandoned because of an accident of birth. … We cannot shut our ears to the weeping.”

Rather than applauding their ex-husbands for their willingness to sacrifice their wives and children, we can ask why no effort was made to save them — to convert them, initiating them into the Covenant. Perhaps the men, or even the puritan Ezra, trusted that the women and children would be protected the way Hagar and Ishmael had been, but in this instance, the Holy One is silent. These men faced a choice, yet we can only guess what compelled them to comply. How, in fact, does their action differ from the abominable sword and flame human sacrifices Judaism rejects?

Even adolescent yearning can become tainted. Neugeboren’s essay opens with memories of summers spent at an Orthodox Jewish camp in the northern Catskill mountains of New York state where he discovered he wasn’t Jewish enough to gain the love of a girl who nevertheless shared his attraction. As he realized later, “I led a double life I resented deeply: I was the least Jewish of my friends during the summers, the most Jewish of my friends during the school year — a Samaritan among Jews for two months, a Jew among Samaritans for ten.”

He then tells of a summer job in which he “came, often, to hate many of these [strict] Jews for what I perceived as their bigotry, their narrow-mindedness, their arrogance, their mean-spiritedness, and — most of all — their hypocrisy.”

For the record, and for balance, let me admit feeling the same about many of my fellow Christians. (Do I hear an Amen?)

Along with Neugeboren’s continuation, “I sometimes screamed in the silence of my head, why weren’t they better and more moral human beings? Why did they cheat in business, and lie to their friends, and hate and exploit blacks and Puerto Ricans? If they were so close to God, where in their lives was His light, His generosity of spirit?” His narrative gets even more candid in its particulars, which ring true to what those of us in other faith disciplines have also observed and experienced. There’s plenty of guilt to go around.

Also lurking beneath the text of Ezra/Nehemiah is the shifting tension between the necessity for walls that allow a unique people to survive collectively and individually. We get little sense of the scope of the reformations at hand, although Neugeboren comments, “Not only did Ezra democratize Judaism from within by giving the Torah to the people, but he also laid out the specific ways that would allow the people to have that Torah, to study it, and to know it,” saying, “They must take individual responsibility for their acts and for the consequences of those acts … instilling within one another the will to change.” In establishing schools and rewriting the Bible “in an alphabet that more accessible and distinctively Jewish,” and abolishing priestly privileges, among other things, Ezra extends responsibility for the daily practice of the faith from the Levite caste to the full populace.

As Neugeboren perceives, “From an Orthodox point of view, there was no such thing as being a little bit Jewish.”

In that liberty, Roiphe sees an imperative to “keep reminding one another that individual destiny, particularly human suffering, is also a religious matter, a matter of state concern,” one that leads to its own paradox. “We live private lives, and each death and each life casts its own light. But simultaneously we belong to a larger group that can suffer and inflict suffering without regard to individual need or worth.” That, in turn, leads to the reminder, as Jews, “When we had no army listening to the radar at our borders and no airplanes patrolling above our homes, we were abandoned. We must find a way of being ourselves without insulting, excluding, inflicting unnecessary pain on any human being. We must do this to preserve ourselves.”

As she continues to relate, it’s a difficult task, especially against the realities of modern warfare and oppression.

The narrative of Ezra/Nehemiah opens with strenuous efforts at preservation from external contamination. Reconstruction of the temple, so central to the events of Ezra/Nehemiah, leads to the crucial decision to reject a Samaritan proposal to assist in the work. Any opportunity for reconciliation is dismissed outright. Opening with its prejudicial slur, “Now when the adversaries” or “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” make their appeal, the text turns our ears from the broader plea: “Let us build with you; for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assyria who brought us here” (Ezra 4:2, RSV). No wonder, then, that the Samaritans feel threatened by the developments unfolding in Jerusalem. “Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build” (Ezra 4:4, RSV) as well as raising political obstacles. The reply, “We shall build for Yahweh … on our own,” does nothing to engender commonality.

As Neugeboren comments: “Now the Samaritans, descended most probably from non-Jewish colonists and, perhaps, from those Israelites who escaped the captivity at the time of the exile in Bablyon, seem to have been more scrupulous about observing the ordinances of the Pentateuch than the Orthodox Jews of the time. They considered themselves to be Jews.”

“But they are not Jewish enough.” They may live in the Holy Land and worship the God of Israel, but as Neugeboren admits, they also serve graven images. “When they are first introduced to the story, Ezra will not even call them by their name; they are, simply, ‘adversaries.'”

We Quakers can tell similar stories about our own schisms, especially those of the 19th century in North America. Or Christians in general can look back to the tyrannical Roman Catholic Inquisition or the battles of the Protestant Reformation.

Quite simply, the decision to exclude Samaritans from the temple builds an excruciating wall between the two remaining factions of what had been the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And, within years, it sets the Jews on a course to make unfavorable, costly alliances with those far more foreign to their values.

More insidious in the long run is the internal contamination of the people of the Covenant. How do we stay faithful in our daily encounters, as individuals, families, and communities? It’s a fine line to walk, one that requires individual liberty of conscience from dictatorial impositions by heads of church or state, as we’ll see in Daniel, especially — and that requires safeguards, or walls, of some degree.

Roiphe advances these matters of meaningful identity, especially in regard to building walls. “The history of this small oasis in the Middle East is one of siege and casting out, of taking what has not been yours and defending it against all claims. … One group’s victory is another’s lamentation,” as she notes, before acknowledging that without the walls around Jerusalem, the moral advances and independent individualism of the Jewish teaching and community would have long ago been swallowed up in the shifting sands of the Middle East.

She tenderly acknowledges the fine line between political and even military structures to allow this survival and the very ways these can turn against the very values they’re intended to protect. She notes that Nehemiah “insists that one group should not exploit another. He himself does not use his governor’s allowance, meaning that his does not further tax the people for the upkeep of his own considerable allowance.” But then, as she also recognizes, progressive reformers like “the Nehemiahs of the world seem always to be passing through the world — twelve years here, a little time there. … We accept their leadership for a while and then we turn back to what we have always done best.”

Neugeboren devotes the final pages of his essay to the struggles of maintaining a meaningful identity within a community of shared faith, then and today. Particularly revealing are the events after his father’s death, when he realizes what was lost in leaving Orthodoxy to marry a more assimilated wife. Within the exclusivity of the stricter observances, he finds a familial warmth that contrasts sharply with the strife among his mother’s seemingly more progressive siblings and parents. Yet he himself cannot go back.

I know something similar, looking at the old orders of Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers of my own ancestry and acquaintance.

So how do we remain faithful and extend the faith to future generations? The brief pages of Ezra/Nehemiah are more explosive than what my gentile eyes first perceived.

Roiphe returns us to the “names of the families, the priests, the sons, and the list goes on, paragraph after paragraph. This listing … is without plot, it drones on and on, and one’s attention easily wanders.” We’ve been drenched in them all along, and will continue to encounter more. But she then turns the table, understanding that Nehemiah “pays his deepest respects to the people of his nation. They are not simply a mass folk, they are not a nameless remnant, they are individuals. And here he follows the tradition that makes of each life the whole, each birth a sacred matter, each son like a star in the heavens. Each has a name, and in recording that name before history, before God, Nehemiah gives recognition to each hand that worked, that bore arms, that offered tithes, that sang at the festival, that belonged.”

In noting, too, that “only rarely are Jewish women mentioned” in those patriarchal times, “we fleetingly see women and children as they celebrate the dedication of the walls and the reopening of the temple. … We assume that the mothers and the sisters of all the priests and the Levites and the singers and those who are mentioned in the census by name took credit for the role in building the nation — secret, silent credit, unheralded, uncelebrated credit” for all they did to feed and wash and clothe, birth and bury, tend and worry as they loved and lived to engender the general happiness.

In short, there’s far more to the events at hand than Ezra the scribe or Nehemiah the governor fully comprehend or even relate. When Neugeboren and Roiphe engage these texts personally, as they do in these essays, their prose covers more pages than the two books of Scriptures do, and it’s not just a matter of the typeface in theirs being bigger than that in the Bible.

In a way, Ezra/Nehemiah set up the great books of the Prophets as supporting material for what constellates in their joint reforms. We’ll see.

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