Ezra–Nehemiah is the combined biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah - the two were originally one, but were divided by Christians in the 3rd century AD, and in Jewish circles in the 15th century. Covering the period from the fall of Babylon in 539 BC to the second half of the 5th century BC, it tells of the successive missions to Jerusalem of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, and their efforts to restore the worship of the God of Israel and a purified Jewish community. The narrative is highly schematic, each stage of the restoration following the same pattern: God "stirs up" the Persian king, the king commissions a Jewish leader to undertake a task, the leader overcomes opposition and succeeds, and success is marked by a great assembly.
In the 19th century and for much of the 20th it was believed that Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah came from the same author or circle of authors, (similar to the traditional view which held Ezra to be the author of all three), but the usual view among modern scholars is that the differences between Chronicles and Ezra–Nehemiah are greater than the similarities, and that Ezra–Nehemiah itself had a long history of composition from many sources, stretching from the early 4th century down to the Hellenistic period.
Summary and structure
A page from the Leningrad Codex with the text of Ezra 10:24-Nehemiah 1:9a. The break between the books is designated by a single blank line.
Ezra–Nehemiah is made up of three stories: (1) the account of the initial return and rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1-6); (2) the story of Ezra's mission (Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah 8); (3) and the story of Nehemiah, interrupted by a collection of miscellaneous lists and part of the story of Ezra.
God moves the heart of Cyrus to commission Sheshbazzar "the prince of Judah", to rebuild the Temple; 40,000 exiles return to Jerusalem led by Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest. There they overcome the opposition of their enemies to rebuild the altar and lay the foundations of the Temple. The Samaritans, who are their enemies, force work to be suspended, but in the reign of Darius the decree of Cyrus is rediscovered, the Temple is completed, and the people celebrate the feast of Passover.
God moves king Artaxerxes to commission Ezra the priest and scribe to return to Jerusalem and teach the laws of God to any who do not know them. Ezra leads a large body of exiles back to the holy city, where he discovers that Jewish men have been marrying non-Jewish women. He tears his garments in despair and confesses the sins of Israel before God, then braves the opposition of some of his own countrymen to purify the community by dissolving the sinful marriages.
Nehemiah, cup-bearer to king Artaxerxes, is informed that Jerusalem remains without walls. He prays to God, recalling the sins of Israel and God's promise of restoration in the land. Artaxerxes commissions him to return to Jerusalem as governor, where he defies the opposition of Judah's enemies on all sides - Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines - to rebuild the walls. He enforces the cancellation of debts among the Jews, and rules with justice and righteousness.
The list of those who returned with Zerubbabel is discovered. Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people and the people celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days; on the eighth they assemble in sackcloth and penitence to recall the past sins which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the Jews, and enter into a covenant to keep the law and separate themselves from all other peoples.
Nehemiah takes measures to repopulate the city and returns to Susa after 12 years in Jerusalem. After some time in Susa he returns, only to find that the people have broken the covenant. He enforces the covenant and prays to God for his favour.
In the early 6th century Judah rebelled against Babylon and was destroyed (586 BC). The royal court and the priests, prophets and scribes were taken into captivity in Babylon. There the exiles blamed their fate on disobedience to God and looked forward to a future when a penitent and purified people would be allowed return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. (These ideas are expressed in the prophets Jeremiah, although he was not in Babylon, Isaiah, and, especially, Ezekiel). The same period saw the rapid rise of Persia, previously an unimportant kingdom in present-day southern Iran, and in 539 BCE Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, conquered Babylon.