Resolving the Differences in the Return Lists (Ezra 2; Nehemiah 7:5-72) April 16-18
Ezra 2 lists those Jews enrolled in the return to the Promised Land under the Davidic prince Zerubbabel (apparently the Persian-appointed governor referred to in Ezra 1 as Sheshbazzar) and Jeshua or Joshua, the high priest (see Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 3:1). Nearly a century later, Nehemiah finds a register of those in the first return. While the lists are nearly the same, they are not exactly the same. How do we account for the discrepancies?
The Nelson Study Bible comments: "The people of the province [Ezra 2:1] refers to the Jewish people of Judah (see 5:8; Neh. 1:2, 3; 11:3). The use of this phrase probably indicates that the register of ch[apter] 2 was compiled in Babylon. Nehemiah's list in Neh. 7:4-73 would have been compiled after he arrived in Jerusalem, which could account for some of the differences between the two registers."
Ezra's list gives the number of the family of Arah as 775 (2:5). The list in Nehemiah says the number was 652. Jamiesson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary states in its note on Ezra 2:5: "It is probable that all mentioned as belonging to this family repaired to the general place of rendezvous, or had enrolled their names at first as intending to go; but in the interval of preparation, some died, others were prevented by some sickness or insurmountable obstacles, so that ultimately no more than 652 came to Jerusalem."
The same commentary later notes on the variations in general: "The discrepancy is sufficiently accounted for from the different circumstances in which the two registers were taken: that of Ezra having been made up at Babylon, while that of Nehemiah was drawn out in Judea, after the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt. The lapse of so many years might well be expected to make a difference appear in the catalogue, through death or other causes" (note on Nehemiah 7:5).
"To be sure," says Gleason Archer in his New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, "regardless of the date when Nehemiah recorded this list (ca. 445 B.C.), his express purpose was to give the exact number of those who actually arrived at Jerusalem under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua back in 537 or 536 (Neh. 7:7). So also Ezra (in the 450s, apparently) recorded their numbers (2:1-2). But it may well be that Ezra used the earlier list of those who originally announced their intention to join the caravan of returning colonists back in Babylonia, whereas Nehemiah's list reproduces the tally of those who actually arrived in Judea at the end of the long trek from Mesopotamia.
"In some cases there may well have been some individual families who at first determined to go with the rest and actually left their marshaling field (at Tel Abib, or wherever it may have been in Babylonia) under Zerubbabel and proceeded to the outskirts of that province before new factors arose to change their mind. They may have fallen into disagreement as to the advisability of all of them going at once with the initial group; others may have discovered business reasons to delay their departure until later. In some cases there may have been illness or death....
"In other cases there may have been some last-minute recruits from those who at first decided to remain in Babylonia. Perhaps they were caught up in the excitement of the return movement and joined the company of emigrants after the official tally had been taken at the marshaling grounds. Nevertheless, they made it safely back to Jerusalem, or wherever their ancestral town in Judea was, and were counted in the final list made up at the completion of the journey.
"Only four clans or city-groups came in with shrunken numbers (Arah, Zattu, the men of Bethel and Ai, and the men of Lod, Hadid, and Ono). All the rest picked up last minute recruits, varying from 1 (in the case of Azgad). It would be fascinating to know what special, emotional, or economic factors led to these last-minute decisions. At any rate, the differences in totals that do appear in these two tallies should occasion no surprise whatever. The same sort of augmentation and attrition has featured in every large migration in human history" (1982, pp. 229-230).
Archer also offers the possibility of copyist errors, but that consideration is unnecessary—and in fact unlikely given the number of variations. Indeed, one would think that scribes would have been scrupulous to check these figures given that there are two separate listings. It is more likely that there were legitimate differences in the original documents. Consider that Ezra is probably the one who compiled the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as one book. Why would he not have corrected any obvious errors? Ironically, the fact that there are differences in the lists is actually a proof of authenticity. No one fabricating the lists would have introduced such apparent discrepancies. These, then, obviously represent genuine historical documentation.
Details of the Returning Captives (Ezra 2; Nehemiah 7:5-72)
Looking at some of the details of the lists, it should be noted that the Nehemiah of Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7 is not the same as the Nehemiah after whom the book of Nehemiah is named. Mordecai in the same verses was not the later Mordecai of the book of Esther. Nehemiah 7:7 lists an extra leader named Nahamani. Some maintain that the description "people of Israel" in these verses means all 12 tribes are indicated. Yet we have already seen that those returning were of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi (Ezra 1:5). Among the small remnant that returned to Judea from Babylon in this and subsequent returns, there were a few people whose ancestors had migrated to Judah from the northern 10 tribes. Yet the vast majority of the people of the northern tribes remained scattered throughout this period—and they have not returned to the Promised Land to this day. The Jews, as the remnant of Israel, were appropriately designated as people of Israel. All Jews are Israelites. Yet, as has been amply demonstrated in past readings and comments, not all Israelites are Jews.
The total number of returning priests was 4,289 (see 2:36-39; Nehemiah 7:39-42). This was around 10 percent of the total of those returning (see Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66). "The relatively high proportion of priests amongst those who returned was doubtless due to the prospect of a new Temple, with its opportunities of service" (New Bible Commentary: Revised, 1970, note on Ezra 2:36-39). On the other hand, the total number of returning Levites is surprisingly listed as just 341 or 380 (see Ezra 2:40-42; Nehemiah 7:43-45)—much less than the 24,000 Levites involved in the worship of God in David's time (see 1 Chronicles 23:4). Why did so few come, particularly as compared with the priests? We don't know, but perhaps it is significant that priests had leadership positions with a certain glory, whereas the temple duties of the other Levites may have been viewed with comparatively little excitement or prestige.
We then see a listing of the Nethinim and the sons of Solomon's servants (Ezra 2:43-58; Nehemiah 7:46-60). "Nethinim means 'Given Ones' or 'Dedicated Ones.' In 1 Chr. 9:2, the Nethinim are distinguished from the priests and the Levites. Jewish tradition identifies the Nethinim with the Gibeonites who had been assigned by Joshua to assist the Levites in more menial tasks (see Josh. 9:27).... The sons of Solomon's servants are linked with the Nethinim ([Ezra 2] v. 43). The numbers of the two groups are totaled together (see v. 58; Neh. 7:60)" (Nelson Study Bible, notes on Ezra 2:43-50, 55). The latter, according to The Expositor's Bible Commentary's note on Ezra 2:55, "may be the descendants of the Canaanites whom Solomon enslaved (1 Kings 9:20-21). But [another commentator]... argues that they were instead the descendants of the royal officers who were merchants in the service of Solomon (1 Kings 9:22, 27)."
It is interesting to observe the care with which the priesthood was guarded. People had to prove their genealogy to serve in it. Even those reckoned as priests yet without the documentary evidence were excluded from priestly service and entitlement until the Urim and Thummim could be consulted (see Ezra 2:59-63; Nehemiah 7:61-65). However, "the rabbis held that 'since the destruction of the first temple the Urim and the Thummim ceased' (Tosefta Sota 13.1). They held that Ezra 2:63 expressed, not a historical possibility, but an eschatological [end-time] hope (b. Sotah 48a-b). Elsewhere in the Talmud (b. Shebuoth 16a), we read that Ezra had to reconsecrate the temple without benefit of the Urim and Thummim" (Expositor's, note on verse 63).
The word translated "governor" in verse 63 is transliterated as Tirshatha in the King James Version. This is "a Persian title, 'the One to Be Feared,' which approximates to 'His Excellency'" (New Bible Commentary, note on verse 63).
The whole assembly totaled 42,360 (Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66). Yet the individual numbers listed in Ezra 2 add up to just 29,818. In Nehemiah 7 they add up to 31,089. "It is possible that the larger total [42,360] includes women, who are not named in the lists" (Nelson, note on verse 64). "Some believe the [unaccounted-for] 12,000 were women and/or children. If so, this may account for the many marriages to pagan women which [later] took place (cf. Ezra 8-10)" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Ezra 2:64).
Accompanying the 42,360 Jews were 7,337 slaves (verse 64; Nehemiah 7:67). "The ratio of slaves—one to six—is relatively high; that so many would return with their masters speaks highly of the relatively benevolent treatment of slaves by the Jews" (Expositor's, note on verse 65). "The singers listed here were not the temple choir of [Ezra 2] v. 41. These were professional singers employed for banquets, feasts, and funerals (see 2 Chr. 35:25; Eccl. 2:7, 8). Their presence could be an indication of luxury (see 2 Sam. 19:35). It appears that many of the Jewish people had achieved some prosperity while living in Babylon.... The large number of horses listed here also suggests affluence among those who returned to Jerusalem. Prior to this time, horses in Israel had been used only for war and ceremonies. Only the very rich and well-armed owned horses. The rich also rode mules, for they were scarce in Israel.... The beasts of burden were camels and donkeys. Camels were expensive; the poorer classes rode donkeys" (Nelson, notes on Ezra 2:65, 66, 67).
On arriving in Judea, the people contribute gold, silver and garments for the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 2:68-69; Nehemiah 7:70-72). Yet the figures given in Ezra and Nehemiah don't match. "Apparently Ezra's list rounds off the figures, while Nehemiah's list presents them in more precise detail. It is also possible that the two lists give totals from different times of collection—perhaps in Babylon and then later in Jerusalem" (Nelson, note on Ezra 2:69). Or perhaps Ezra's list, having larger numbers, presents the total from both times. As before, an apparent discrepancy is a mark not of made-up storytelling by a forger of later centuries who would make sure to iron out such problems. Rather, this again is a mark of genuineness.
Finally, we should notice the money described here. As Expositor's explains in its note on Ezra 2:69: "'Drachmas' translates the Hebrew darkemonim (cf. Neh 7:70-72). Another Hebrew word— adarkonim—is used for coins in Ezra 8:27 and 1 Chronicles 29:7. The 'drachma' was the Greek silver coin worth a day's wage in the late fifth century B.C. More probably the coin intended here was the Persian daric, which was a gold coin, named either after Darius I, who began minting it, or after the Old Persian word for gold, dari. The coin was famed for its purity, which was guaranteed by the king. It was 98 percent gold with a 2 percent alloy for hardness. It was 3/4 of an inch in diameter and weighed 8.42 grams, or a little less than 1/3 of an ounce. Its value equaled the price of an ox or a month's wages for a soldier. Since the coin was not in use until the time of Darius I (522-486 B.C.), its occurrence here in 537 B.C. has been labeled anachronistic. Its use is better viewed as a modernization by terms current at the time of the book's composition of earlier values, perhaps the Median shekel. The total of 61,000 darics equals some 1,133 pounds of gold (about the same if the term represented the Greek drachma)."
Archaeology has recently lent support to the Jewish return from Babylon in the 6th centuries B.C. On February 20, 2004, an Associated Press article titled "Archaeologists find 2,500-year-old jewelry collection, makeup kit," reported: "Israeli archaeologists excavating caves near the Dead Sea have discovered a rare find—a woman's 2,500-year-old fashion accessories. The hoard of jewelry, a makeup kit and a small mirror apparently belonged to Jews who had returned from exile in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., said Tsvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. 'This find is very rare. Both for the richness of the find and for that period, it is almost unheard of,' Tsuk said on Friday. Hidden under a stone-like accumulation of sediment thrown up by a nearby spring, archaeologists using metal detectors found a necklace made of 130 beads of semiprecious stones and gold, a scarab, an agate medallion of Babylonian origin and a silver pendant with an engraved crescent moon and pomegranates. They also found what appears to be a makeup kit containing an alabaster bowl for powders, a stick to apply the makeup and a bronze mirror. Tsuk said they also discovered a pagan stamp showing a Babylonian priest bowing to the moon. 'These finds confirm the (biblical) accounts of Jews returning from exile in Babylon,' Tsuk said.... Tsuk said the find shows that there was a wealthy and flourishing community of returnees living in the area at the time. 'These are not the belongings of a simple person,' he said."