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The Decree of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7) December 16

We return now to the book of Ezra. The events of Ezra 6 occurred during the reign of Darius the Great. Chapter 7 jumps forward to the reign of his grandson Artaxerxes I, also known as Longimanus (464-424 B.C.). It was between these two chapters that the events of the book of Esther took place—during the reign of Xerxes, the son of Darius and father of Artaxerxes. With the death of Xerxes in 465 B.C., "the reins of government should have been handed over to [another] Darius, the eldest son of Xerxes, but instead Artaxerxes his brother murdered him, with the encouragement of Artabanus, captain of the guard, and took his place as king" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, p. 499).

Artaxerxes' reign was beset by "widespread unrest and even revolt, particularly in the more remote provinces. By 460 Egypt refused to pay further tribute and solicited and received support from the [Greek] Delian League in this bold act of defiance. Persia undercut this arrangement by bribing [the western Asia Minor city of] Sardis to go to war with Athens, a move that neutralized the league and jeopardized not only Egypt but Athens.... The orator-statesman Pericles had begun to lead Athens to a position of dominance amongst all the Greek states by 458, a situation that the latter feared and resented. The [Greek] civil wars which then broke out freed Artaxerxes of further concern for his western Asia provinces, allowing him to attend to matters closer to home" (p. 499).

It was in this time frame, specifically in 457 B.C., the seventh year of Artaxerxes (see verses 7-8) that the king gave permission to Ezra to lead a band of exiles back to Jerusalem. "Most scholars assume that the seventh year of Artaxerxes I should be reckoned according to the Persian custom of dating regnal years from spring to spring (Nisan to Nisan, which was also the Jewish religious calendar). Thus Ezra would have begun his journey on the first day of Nisan (8 Apr. 458) and arrived on the first day of Ab (4 Aug. 458.... [Yet] during the monarchy the Israelites had adopted a civil fall-to-fall calendar (Tishri to Tishri) as well.... [And some] have argued that the Jews resumed such a calendar after the Exile partly on the basis of an Elephantine papyrus [of the Jewish community in Egypt at the time]. The seventh year of Artaxerxes I would have run from Tishri 458 to Tishri 457. Ezra would have left on 27 March 457 and arrived on 23 July 457" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 7-9). These latter dates appear to be the correct ones. For the fall-to-fall reckoning is confirmed by comparing Nehemiah 1:1 and 2:1—as the Hebrew month Kislev (corresponding to November-December) there precedes Nisan (corresponding to March-April) in the same 20th year of Artaxerxes (whereas Nisan would mark a new regnal year if a Nisan-to-Nisan reckoning were used).

Ezra 7 gives us our first introduction to Ezra himself. Introduced with a long genealogy showing his priestly descent from Aaron (verses 1-5), he is called the "son of Seraiah" (verse 1)—which actually refers not to his immediate father but to his line of descent, as Seraiah was the high priest at the time of Jerusalem's fall (see 2 Kings 25:18) and his son Jehozadak went into Babylonian captivity (see 1 Chronicles 6:15). The name Ezra (meaning "Help") is apparently a shortened form of Azariah ("Yhwh Has Helped"), a name that occurs twice in the list of his ancestors.

Besides being a priest, Ezra was also a "skilled scribe" (verse 6)—"one who copied and studied the Law. After the Exile, the office of scribe came into prominence, in some ways replacing the prophet in importance, and eventually eclipsing even the role of the priest" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 6). Verse 11 shows Ezra's deep spiritual commitment to studying God's law, living by it and teaching it to others. He is here called "Ezra the priest, the scribe, expert in the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of His statutes to Israel." Ezra became known in Jewish tradition "as 'the scribe's scribe' or the teacher of scribes" (note on verse 11)—considered founder of the scribal movement, which had a formative impact on the Jewish religion of Christ's day.

The king commits a remarkable degree of authority and wealth into Ezra's hand. There is no question but that God was involved in the giving of this decree, as that is explicitly stated in verses 27-28. Indeed it is from this decree that we are to date the commencement of the 483 years of the 70-weeks prophecy of Daniel 9 leading to the appearance of the Messiah (for more on this, see the Bible Reading Program comments on Daniel 9).

Nevertheless, God often works through typical human motivations of national leaders to bring about his intended results. Biblical historian Eugene Merrill comments: "It will be helpful to see if there were any political factors that motivated Artaxerxes [who had murdered his own brother to become king] to this beneficent policy [of helping the Jews], for, try as we might, it is difficult to believe that the king was operating out of purely charitable motives.

"We have already suggested that the neutralization of the [Greek] Delian League after 460 left Artaxerxes free to deal with matters closer to home. He instructed Megabyzus [his brother-in-law], an official who had bribed Sparta to attack Athens and had then been made governor of the satrapy of Syria, to lead Persian troops south from Cilicia [in what is now southern Turkey] to wage war on Egypt, the ally of Athens. After defeating Athenian troops at Prosopitus (an island in the Nile Delta), Megabyzus brought Egypt itself to submission in 456. Very possibly, then, in 458 [or 457] Artaxerxes viewed a loyal Judean province as an important asset for his anticipated disciplinary action against Egypt. And what better way to ensure Judean loyalty than to allow Ezra, no doubt a highly popular and powerful Jewish leader, to reestablish Jewish life and culture in that little land that was so crucial to Persian success?" (pp. 506-507). God was no doubt involved in the geopolitical circumstances that made such a decision appealing to Artaxerxes at this crucial time.

Ezra 7:7-9 briefly mentions the journey of Ezra and his company to the Promised Land—a journey that took four months, including an 11-day wait at the beginning as we will see in the next chapter, which gives more details about this second Jewish return from captivity (compare 8:31).

The decree itself, in 7:12-26, is written in Aramaic. In the decree, the Jews are referred to as "the people of Israel" (verse 13). While those represented were almost all from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi, they were nevertheless looked upon as the remnant of Israel, especially since Israel was the name of the nation in covenant with God—the God of Israel, a term also used in the decree. It might seem odd that Artaxerxes would himself use such terminology. More peculiar still is the phrase "priests and Levites" (same verse), as this seems a particularly Jewish distinction and not one the Persians would make. This wording has in fact aroused suspicion among scholars about the authenticity of the document. Yet it is likely that the king used Jewish officials—perhaps Ezra himself—to help draft the decree.

The "seven counselors" of verse 14 are parallel to those of Xerxes in Esther 1:14.

The support for local religions by the Persians is attested to in historical documents. "There are close parallels to the directive of vv. 15-16 [about specifics regarding offerings] in the Elephantine letters, i.e., in the so-called Passover Papyrus, in which [a later Persian emperor] Darius II ordered the Jews [of Elephantine Island in what is now the city of Aswan in southern Egypt] to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread...and also in the temple reconstruction authorization [for the Jews of Elephantine to build their own temple]: 'Let meal-offering, incense and burnt-offering be offered upon the altar of the God Yahu in your name'" (Expositor's, note on verses 15-16).

There might have been some superstition on the part of the Persian rulers in their policy of promoting local religions. Perhaps they genuinely wanted to win the favor and avoid the wrath of the gods worshiped throughout their realm. Yet at the same time, it just may have seemed rather practical to them—to win the favor of subject peoples and keep order among them.

With the conclusion of the decree in verse 26, the text of verses 27-28 returns to Hebrew. These two verses, written by Ezra in the first person, begin a section that continues to the end of chapter 9 known as the Ezra Memoirs.

Ezra is greatly encouraged by the evident intervention of God to once again bless His people.

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