Ezra: A Man Devoted
BY Wesley Biblical Seminary
June 29, 2017
by Dr. David B. Schreiner
When Cyrus the Great rode into Babylon on October 30, 539 BCE, he ended the Neo-Babylonian Empire and solidified the foundation for one of the largest empires the world has ever known. For God’s people, Persia meant the end of the Exile and the inauguration of a new dispensation. Employing a policy of controlled autonomy, Persia permitted God’s people to return and rebuild their social and religious institutions—all with their approval, of course.
Predictably, such a geographic reach invited turmoil. By the middle of the fifth century BCE, Persia faced increased pressure from the Greeks and the Egyptians. Thus, it was forced to tighten its imperial policies, which meant a more rigid control over Judah and its surrounding regions. All of this eventually produced a serious threat for the identity of God’s people.
Nehemiah and Ezra ministered in the middle of this tumultuous context. Both enjoyed the sanction of the Persian Empire, and each was tasked with providing stability in Judah through a variety of reforms. Nehemiah’s chief concern was the walls of Jerusalem, but social issues (Neh 5) and religious reforms (Neh 13) also came into play. Ezra is remembered for his fierce religious reforms, most famously the denouncement and rejection of mixed marriages. To our modern sensibilities, Ezra’s reforms are, at least, difficult, perhaps even offensive. How can one demand such extreme action like forced divorce (Ezra 10)? Doesn’t God’s community transcend ethnic boundaries, to be inclusive to all? Indeed, these are hard but legitimate questions. To try and answer them, let’s begin by taking a deeper look at Ezra’s pedigree.
We are formally introduced to Ezra in the seventh chapter, where it reveals that he was “a scribe skilled (סֹפֵר מָהִיר) in the law of Moses” (7:6; NRSV) . In v. 10, we find that “Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances of Israel” (NRSV). So, we see that Ezra was a scholar, a highly-trained intellectual who has spent years honing his interpretive skills. However, Ezra was not an ivory tower academic. Verse 10 reveals that his devotion to the Scriptures (i.e. the law of the Lord) was no mere intellectual pursuit. His pursuits sought to produce action as well as the edification and education of God’s people. He set his heart to the law…to do it…to teach it. These convictions fostered boldness and purpose, qualities that would eventually serve him well.
According to the letter from Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:11–26), Ezra was dispatched to make “inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem” (v. 14), fortify the daily activities at the temple (vv. 15–20), and organize the community in general (vv. 25–26). In other words, he was to provide social stability with the law of the Lord as his inspiration. Yet as he implemented his plan of action, other issues bubbled to the surface. Ezra 9:1 says that “after these things” the officials approached Ezra to discuss issues of intermarriage. Immediately, Ezra descended into a period of intense prayer and fasting to discern the next course of action. Realizing the gravity of the situation—that such a course of action left unchecked would result in the same egregious errors that caused the Exile in the first place (9:5–15)—Ezra instituted a drastic course of action that sought to purge the community of its source of pollution.
You see, Ezra understood that the identity of God’s people existed on a knife’s edge during the Second Temple period, and a lax commitment to God’s social vision would eventually result in the evaporation of their identity. All they had was their Scriptures and their temple. To ignore them, or to undermine them, would virtually ensure they would be forgotten. So, before we wrinkle our noses at this man, let’s try and understand the urgency of his context and ministry… and let us certainly not question his devotion.
The theme of this volume is, “Why Seminary? Why WBS?” The story of Ezra answers such questions nicely. In a time when pressures constantly seek to relegate the role of Scripture, people who are “skilled” in understanding Scripture and committed to defending and proclaiming it are at a premium. A quality seminary not only realizes this but is committed to providing a context where this need can be met. A quality seminary is a place to study linguistics, history, philosophy, culture, and theology—all of which are critical to orthodoxy but are not necessarily commonplace. Perhaps more importantly, a quality seminary must also emphasize that a devotion to Scripture cannot be purely cerebral or academic. It must foster an engagement with our communities and edify the Church. With Ezra, we read how his devotion to Scripture allowed him to understand the urgency of his context and fortify him to lead his community through a dramatic but necessary course of action.
A good seminary, like WBS, is committed to these ideals. It seeks to develop the next generation of Church leaders, to help the faithful discern and achieve their place in the Kingdom of God, to equip the faithful with the tools necessary for the proper interpretation of Scripture, and to nourish a commitment to social transformation in light of God’s holiness. To that, I say, “Amen!”
 סֹפֵר (sōphēr) is a participle from the root ספר. When used as a participle it refers to a scribe, a distinct social institution within Israelite society. (For a discussion on scribal society in Ancient Israel, see Christopher Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel [Archaeology and Biblical Studies; Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta, 2010]). מָהִיר (māhīr) is an adjective, appears 4 times in the Old Testament (Is 16:5; Ps 45:2; Prov 22:29; Ezra 7:6), and refers to the skilled or efficient execution of an action. In Ps 45:2 it appears with סֹפֵר.
WBS is excited to announce that Dr. David Schreiner is transitioning from adjunct professor to Assistant Professor of Old Testament.
Dr. David Schreiner obtained his bachelor’s from Indiana Wesleyan University and his Master’s and Ph.D. from Asbury Theological Seminary. He has published on a variety of subjects, including biblical archaeology, the history of biblical interpretation, and the exegesis of a number of Old Testament passages. He has also contributed to a variety of lay publications, including Bible Study Magazine. In addition, he is an active reviewer for a number of scholastic journals, is active in the Society of Biblical Literature and the Institute for Biblical Research, and is the co-chair of the Old Testament Study Group for the Society of Biblical Literature’s Southeast Region. His current research interests include 1 and 2 Kings and the synthesis between archaeological research and biblical studies.
David and his wife, Ginny, have two daughters, Maddie (6) and Bailey (3). They currently live outside of Lexington, Kentucky. His hobbies include camping and being active. A son of a United Methodist minister, Dr. Schreiner is a member of the Free Methodist Church of America.