Ezra and Nehemiah have long been difficult for me to understand. Why so much text (and two books) to describe the return from exile when things seem so dismal at the end of both books? Why are they so detailed and, well, rather boring? What am I supposed to do with these books? I was excited to see that Gregory Goswell—academic dean and lecturer in Old Testament at Christ College—authored this volume. I reviewed his Unceasing Kindness, which had excellent canonical insights, and God’s Messiah in the Old Testament.
As with the NIVAC volume, I was excited to get this volume because 1) I don’t have many commentaries on Ezra-Nehemiah, and 2) I find it difficult to know the importance of much of what happens in Ezra-Nehemiah as well as how to apply these two books (which are actually only one book in the Hebrew Bible).
The introduction is 42 pages, almost twice as long as the NIVAC volume on these books. Goswell thinks that the title Ezra (or Ezra-Nehemiah) is a misnomer for Ezra doesn’t show up until Ezra 7. Instead, the main character is the people of God, and both their achievements and final failures are attributed to them. He believes that the author of Chronicles most likely did not write Ezra-Nehemiah, and that Ezra-Nehemiah must be allowed to speak with its own voice. He observes the canonical positioning of Ezra-Nehemiah in both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles. In the Hebrew Bible Ezra Nehemiah appears in the third section of the canon: the Writings and usually comes before Chronicles, while in the Greek it comes after.
Goswell looks at the ethics of Ezra-Nehemiah, the characters, the leadership and lay involvement, and finding Jesus Christ in these books. He shows some unifying features such as how there is one connected narrative, major narrative patterns, and three main themes: the people of God, the house of God, and the help of the kings of Persia. Concerning the ethics of Ezra-Nehemiah, many have labeled these books as xenophobic. Yet we see in Ezra 2 an “expressed concern for community continuity with pre-exilic Israel and… for priestly pedigree (2:59–63)” (29). Goswell makes a brief but good argument for how Ezra does not pit himself against the humane laws of Deuteronomy on how to treat the stranger (that is, the foreign person). This was a different matter altogether.
Also, just to show how long each section is:
- Introduction: 44 pgs
- Ezra: 145 pgs
- Nehemiah: 170 pgs
- Notes: 93 pgs
Ezra and Nehemiah are each divided into four chapters. Rather than placing all of the biblical text at the beginning of the chapter, Gos well looks at a few verses at a time and discusses them.
Ezra 1:2. Goswell notes how Cyrus, a politician, made a decree that appears to honor God, but it may also have been “used as a prop for Cyrus’ regime” (59). The “world of politics and diplomacy” is dark and “murky” (59).
Ezra 5:1–2. Here Ezra mentions the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. Haggai 1:5–11 blames the delay of building the temple on the people, yet Ezra 4 puts the issue on the adversaries. Goswell suggests that the tension might be resolved by “supposing that the Jews were at fault for allowing the foreign opposition to delay the project indefinitely” (111).
Ezra 9:1–2. Unlike in 6:21 where everyone had “separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord,” here we discover some, even priests and Levites, had not separated themselves. The problem had nothing to do with race; it had all to do with religion. Goswell sees a connection with Joshua when he writes, “The (purposely) archaic list of nations, which includes the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites, shows that the returnees viewed themselves as theologically recapitulating Joshua’s entry into and conquest of the promised land, with the resulting threat of contamination by the land’s pagan inhabitants” (167). Yet the “precise ethnicity of the peoples” is left unspecified. The concern here is that the people had “not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations.” That they are a “holy seed” looks back to Deuteronomy: “holy” (Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21) and Abraham’s “seed” (1:8; 4:37).
Nehemiah 6:17–19. Nehemiah 6:15–16 declare that the wall was finished in 52 days, and that the surrounding enemies were frightened because they saw the hand of God at work. This would seem like a proper way to finish this section, but verses 17–19 seem like a climactic letdown. Here we get information about Tobiah sending letters back and forth to Judah officials, family lines connected to him, and how he sent letters to frighten Nehemiah. What gives? Goswell writes that these verses”give important hints of the continuing internal threat to the nation and prepare for the placement of Nehemiah 13″ (266). The biblical author turns the readers’ expectations on their head. Instead of thinking that the returned community had reached it’s goal, they see that trouble remains.
The struggle is not merely external to the community, it is also internal. Some leaders in Judah were in cahoots with Tobiah, who was related to two Jewish families. Looking at Neh 13:4, “the high priest Eliashib was also related to Tobiah, and a son of Eliashib was the son-in-law of Sanballat (13:28)” (267). Both here and in Neh 13, “the foreign marriages contracted involve Jewish aristocracy and local provincial leadership and have political (and financial?) connotations that were not obvious in Ezra 9–10” (267). Amongst other things, Goswell argues that these verses “are deliberately anticlimactic” (267).
Nehemiah 13:3. Here it is the people who, upon hearing the law, separate themselves from those of foreign descent. It was not a decision from above, from those “with power.”
Goswell’s volume is careful and rather detailed throughout. It more technical at many points than the NIVAC or THOTC volumes. This is due to how he tries to understand a work or phrase and notes various Greek or Hebrew manuscripts (or translations) to get to the meaning. The commentary, like the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, can be rather detailed, though it depends on the text itself. I find it rather difficult to know how to think about this. Goswell is taking care to show what the details mean, and Ezra-Nehemiah are, quite detailed. Goswell does a good job of placing Ezra-Nehemiah into its canonical context(s), as well as pointing forward to New Testament teachings and applications. I don’t think Ezra-Nehemiah are easy to apply. Yet the applications throughout the book occur often and are quite helpful. Pair this with Shepherd and Wright’s THOTC volume and Donna and Thomas Petters’ NIVAC volume (review).
- Series: EP Study Commentary
- Authors: Gregory Goswell
- Paperback: 456 pages
- Publisher: Evangelical Press (January 17, 2014)
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Disclosure: I received this book free from Evangelical Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.