Day 261: Adversaries, Israelites, or Both? (Ezra 4:1-2)

Detail from the Bible Project’s video walkthrough of Ezra
4 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers' houses and said to them, “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 Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” (Ezra 4:1-2, ESV)

Through the Bible: Ezra 4-6

When you compare The Bible Project’s walkthrough of Ezra to today’s Bible Recap, you get two very different interpretations of the adversaries of Ezra 4.

Tim Mackie and the Bible Project guys believe the adversaries are Israelites who remained in the land after Assyria overthrew the northern kingdom of Israel in 722BC. They don’t assume any ulterior motives to their offer to help rebuild the Temple, and it wasn’t until after they were spurned by Zerubbabel that they became adversarial.

In Tara-Leigh’s podcast, however, she sees them as offering to help under false pretenses. Unlike Tim Mackie, she doesn’t consider the possibility that they are actual Israelites and that their offer to help can be taken at face value.

So who’s right?

There is scholarly support for the idea that the people who had been living in the land were at least half Jewish. Many scholars believe these were the descendants of Jews who were resettled in Israel after the Assyrian invasion, or who had never been taken in the first place. While Babylon’s strategy was to assimilate conquered people, Assyria scattered them. They would force them to intermarry with other peoples it conquered, and then drop them throughout the Assyrian empire. The result was a group of half breed Jews that still worshiped Yahweh, but were despised by the “pure” Jews that returned from Babylon. If you’ve ever wondered the source of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans that you see in Jesus’ day, it’s right here in Ezra 4.

On the other hand, Ezra 4:1 calls them “adversaries” right out of the gate. But notice, they are described as “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin.” That doesn’t preclude them from being Israelites. Remember that after the death of Solomon in 931 BC, Israel split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah (see 2 Chron. 11:1-12).

So if they were Israelites, was Zerubbabel right to send them away? Tara-Leigh says Zerubbabel’s argument was that Cyrus had specified only the exiles were to rebuild the temple, but I can’t find that in the text. In fact, I can’t find anywhere in Scripture where God prohibited Zerubbabel from accepting their help. Clearly they became enemies when the exiles snubbed their offer, but what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if they were sincere when they came to Zerubbabel and said, “We worship Yahweh too”? We don’t know because the text doesn’t make that explicit.

It’s  always risky to try to apply your presuppositions to scripture. That’s called eisegesis— reading meaning into a text, as opposed to exegesis— getting the meaning out of a text, and it’s generally not a good approach to Bible study. To some extent, I think both The Bible Project and The Bible Recap do that with this text. And whether the inhabitants of the land were sincere or not is really beside the point. Ezra is about how to respond to opposition, not about how to discern the motives of people who offer to help.

But if I had to choose one theory over the other, I would probably side with The Bible Project on this one (sorry, Tara-Leigh!). Two reasons:

  1. It helps explain the enmity between Jews and Samaritans that existed in first century Palestine. Jesus constantly encountered this in His ministry (see John 4)
  2. It seems to reflect God’s heart to bring Israel and Judah together. Remember Ezekiel’s performance art with the stick? In Ezekiel 37, God tells Ezekiel to take two sticks. He is to write “Israel” on one and “Judah” on the other. Then, he is to bind them together. The point is to show God’s plan for the two kingdoms:
 19 say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick of Judah,[e] and make them one stick, that they may be one in my hand. 20 When the sticks on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, 21 then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. 22 And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. 
Ezekiel 37:19-22

So, holding this with an open hand and being careful not to declare definitively when Scripture itself doesn’t, It seems to me that Ezra 4 is one of those descriptive-not-prescriptive passages.

I wonder how the rest of biblical history would have played out if Zerubbabel had not been on such a high horse. What would Jesus’ ministry look like if the Samaritans weren’t so despised by the Jews? Indeed, what would history itself look like if the Romans had found a unified people instead of a divided people? Could they have conquered so easily? Would they have destroyed Jerusalem in the first place? We will never know.

Ultimately, however, we know that God will unite the nation of Israel. His purposes will not be thwarted.

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One response to “Day 261: Adversaries, Israelites, or Both? (Ezra 4:1-2)”

  1. Cathy Avatar

    Thank you for explaining this. I appreciate the tie in with both Ezekiel and with your last two paragraphs regarding Jesus’ ministry.

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