Today and yesterday’s first readings are the only samplings we will get from the narratives in the Book of Nehemia and the Book of Ezra, so it will be worthwhile for us to reconstruct some of the history behind those books.
In 530 B.C. Persia, under Cyrus the Great, freed the Jews from their captivity in Babylon. His son Darius helped them build the temple in Jerusalem which was dedicated in 515 B.C. Everything seemed to be going well for the Jews, but over the next sixty years they let Jerusalem fall into decay. The morality of the people, along with the condition of the streets and city walls were deplorable.
Now, back when the Jews were returning to Jerusalem some prominent Jewish families had made homes for themselves behind in Persia. Ezra, a priest, and Nehemiah, a government official, came from those Jewish families that had stayed behind. In 450 B. C. those two men both became alarmed over the poor conditions in Jerusalem, and they received authorization from the Persian Emperor to make a fact-finding visit to Jerusalem to come up with a plan for repairing the city and for getting the people to behave properly.
After examining conditions, Ezra and Nehemia together recommended to the Persian emperor that he should allow the Jews to take their old Mosaic Law as the basis for a new constitution for Jerusalem. The emperor’s legal advisors agreed to the plan on two conditions. First, Ezra would need to read the old Mosaic Law to the people. Secondly, he and Nehemia needed to guide the people in making amendments to fit the old law to modern times.
Our reading today pictures Ezra on a platform at the Water Gate reading the old law, and gaining the people’s assents to follow it. The following chapter (which we skip in our Lectionary) tells of the first three amendments. The first was that they would not let their children marry foreigners. The second forbade purchasing food brought into the city on the Sabbath. The third had them donating a third of a silver shekel to the temple each year.
From that day, down to the time of Christ, the Jews added tens of thousands of new laws. Together they were known as the Mishna, meaning laws handed down orally. The Gospels refer to this body of the law as “The Traditions of the Elders”. People began saying that the Mishna had come from Moses, without being written down.