Ruins to Restoration -Monday, 25th week in ordinary time Ezra 1: 1-6
Starting from today and spanning the next three weeks, our first readings on weekdays will cover a galaxy of eight prophets; Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, Baruch, Jonah, Malachi, and Joel. These prophets cover the period of what has come to be known as post exilic prophecy.
Let me explain this briefly. Israel consisted of two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom called Israel or Samaria and consisted of ten tribes and the Southern kingdom called Judah consisting of two. The Northern kingdom fell to the Assyrian invasion in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom of Judah survived for another 134 years and fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Significant, was the loss of the temple which was razed to the ground by the Babylonians. The Prophet Jeremiah had predicted that this exile would last for seventy years.
The Assyrian and Babylonian captivities meant that a whole nation was moved from their homeland and scattered across the lands of the conquerors so that they could not regroup. More than fifty thousand citizens of the Southern Kingdom were taken into captivity in Babylon. Only the very poorest people remained in Judah, hidden in the hills and they later fled to Egypt .
The Babylonian kingdom fell to the Persians in 539 BC and this signalled a new era for the Jews. The first group of Jewish people returned to Jerusalem in 538-539 B.C. by the decree of Persian King Cyrus and under the leadership of Zerubbabel. The second group were led by Ezra in 458 B.C. and Nehemiah led a group back in 444 B.C. The rebuilt Jerusalem was much smaller than the city before the fall.
The first reading of today begins by telling us of that decree made by King Cyrus of Persia. He is ‘fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah’ who prophesised the return of the Jews back to their homeland after seventy years of captivity and exile. Cyrus institutes an empire-wide policy of religious toleration, sending people groups back to their native lands and funding the reconstruction of their holy places.
The Jews returned to a devastated land and the ruins of Solomon’s once glorious temple. Without sacrifice, Jewish life held little meaning and so this band of returnees set about in seven months, to build the altar back. The book of Ezra is therefore the story of restoration.
The Jews first build an altar and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. When they lay the Temple foundation, other groups in the land want to join the effort. But Zerubbabel does not allow them to participate because they are not Jewish and they worship many gods. After this, the groups oppose the Temple’s reconstruction and for about 10 years, the Jews made no progress on the Temple. The book of Haggai takes us the story of the temples restoration.
The book of Ezra encourages the postexilic community toward pure worship and holy behaviour. Ezra calls the people back to covenant loyalty and obedience to the Mosaic Law.
Fr Warner D’Souza
Compiled from various sources.
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