Journey Through the Deuterocanonicals: 1-2 Esdras

apoc_esdras

Introduction

This is part of a series I am writing on my first reading of the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. As I said in the initial post, Catholic Bible includes those books and writings that are usually removed in Protestant Bibles (helpful comparison chart), and I figured it was about time to start reading them. I am recording my initial thoughts here (you can follow along at Apocrypha.org if you do not have your own copy).

Contrary to Wikipedia, 1 Esdras is indeed in the Catholic canon. The confusion is understandable, though, because some of the material in the Bible is categorized and / or named differently in different collections – and 1 Esdras is one of the most confusing. One issue is that “Esdras” is just the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name “Ezra” – the prophet associated with Nehemiah who authored the Old Testament books of those titles. There have been four books associated with Ezra: 1, 2, 3, and 4 Esdras. In older Bibles  1 and 2 Esdras were called 1 and 2 Esdras, but now these are commonly titled Ezra and Nehemiah with 3 and 4 Esdras renamed 1 and 2 Esdras.

Confused? It gets worse.

Heb.Prot.RC.EO_OT

The first two of the four Esdras’s (Ezra and Nehemiah) are canonical, but the second two of the four books (3/4 Esdras – or the renamed 1/2 Esdras) are apocryphal and are not included in Western Bibles (some Eastern Orthodox accept one or the other of them). So, in a modern Catholic Bible, one will see 1 and 2 Esdras only if they are using the old naming convention. This sort of thing happens a lot, as many of the books of the Bible lacked proper “titles” and / or divisions – and so were assigned them later (which also explains why OT canons often have different numbers of books).

Oh, and the verses are numbered differently too. Woo hoo!

The content of 1 Esdras chapters 3-4 is technically the only “deuterocanonical” material in either Esdras book, and that is all I will comment on.

Outline

  • The fall of Jerusalem (1)
  • Return from exile (2)
  • Debate on strength (3-4)
  • Rebuilding the temple (5-7)
  • Ezra returns (8-9)

Content Comments

As mentioned above, 1 Esdras is a historical book that parallels the material found in Ezra, 2 Chronicles 35-36,and Nehemiah 6-8. Thus, reading 1 Esdras is like reading the “Director’s Cut” of Ezra: you get all of Ezra plus a section that  begins just after Artaxerxes is convinced to go against Cyrus’s decree to allow the captive Jews return to Israel to rebuild their temple.

Note on Kings: Ezra and Esdras sometimes discuss different kings with the same names, and it can be very confusing. For example, Ezra 4:6 includes a reference to King Ahasuerus which might seem to indicate that he reigned between Cyrus and Artaxerxes, but Ahasuerus is thought to be the father of Darius the Mede who is the Darius mentioned in Daniel but not in Ezra (that’s the Ahasuerus from the book of Esther – the one who reigned between Artaxerxes and another Darius). In 1 Esdras, kings Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Darius alone are mentioned – but this Artaxerxes is not the Artaxerxes mentioned in Ezra 6:14 who came after Darius and approved the building of the Temple. The chronological order of these kings is a nightmare to figure out as many of them used multiple names, often borrowed from previous kings. This list seems reasonable (yellow highlight=Esdras, red underline=Ezra):

persian Kings

ANYWAY . . . We pick up the story at the point where the Jews had started rebuilding Jerusalem. Artaxerxes (I), convinced that the Jews would create problems if they got their city rebuilt, effectively halts their progress: “the building of the temple in Jerusalem ceased until the second year of the reign of Darius king of the Persians.” This verse (1 Esdras 2:29) we also know from Ezra 4:7-14, but the next section (1 Esd. 2:30-5:6) is not included.

Next, we are made privy to a debate challenge:

“Then the three young men of the bodyguard, who kept guard over the person of the king [Darius], said to one another, ‘Let each of us state what one thing is strongest; and to him whose statement seems wisest, Darius the king will give rich gifts and great honors of victory.’ . . .
The first wrote, ‘Wine is strongest.’
The second wrote, ‘The king is strongest.’
The third wrote, ‘Women are strongest, but truth is victor over all things.'”  (1 Esd. 3:4-5, 10-12)

How cool is that?!?!

OK, so they all gather before the king and a bunch of wise persons and start to argue their cases. This continues into chapter 4. Wine is said to be the strongest because it makes men do crazy things and then forget about them. The king is said to be strongest because men rule over all things, and the king rules over all men. Then Zerubbabel steps up and says,

“Gentlemen, is not the king great, and are not men many, and is not wine strong? Who then is their master, or who is their lord? Is it not women?” (1 Esd. 4:13-14)

Zerubbabel points out that women are the strongest because they give birth to men – even kings – and men end up giving everything they have to women. He then goes on at length about all the ways that women (for all practical purposes) actually rule over men. But just when it seems he’s made the case for women being stronger than anything, Zerubbabel drops this bomb:

Wine is unrighteous, the king is unrighteous, women are unrighteous, all the sons of men are unrighteous, all their works are unrighteous, and all such things. There is no truth in them and in their unrighteousness they will perish. But truth endures and is strong for ever, and lives and prevails for ever and ever. . . . To her belongs the strength and the kingship and the power and the majesty of all the ages. Blessed be the God of truth!” (1 Esd. 4:37-38, 40)

Boom! The people and the king are blown away and immediately agree that Zerubbabel won the debate. Darius is so impressed that he offers Zerubbabel anything he wants as a reward for his wisdom (maybe not the wisest offer to make a guy that is clearly smarter than you). And now we see why this section is here: Zerubbabel says he wants Darius to honor Cyrus’s decree regarding the Jews. Darius agrees and issues this amazing decree which not only allowed the Jews to keep rebuilding the city and the temple, but protected them and basically paid for it all as well.

In chapter 5 we have six verses on the return to Israel: first the names of those that Darius sent back, and “the men of Judea who came up out of their sojourn in captivity, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had carried away to Babylon.” They feast it up, and that is where Ezra picks up once more (2:15). It has been said that when this additional material is included, it forms a chiasm focusing on the Jews’ return to Jerusalem which would be missing otherwise:

1Esdras.cf.Ezra.Neh

Conclusion

This was not only a very interesting and lively story, it also explains in more detail how God used the decrees of kings to get the exiled Jews back from their Babylonian captivity.

“And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia” (Ezra 6:14)

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