I remember walking home from dinner in March of 2003. Along the way, I passed a bar, on whose TV President Bush was addressing the nation. I rushed home. Although I’d missed the beginning, I got the gist: we were going to war with Iraq (just as the weeks prior had suggested, with the administration doing everything it could to make Iraq look like it was cultivating weapons of mass destruction). The UN Security Council (and perhaps a lot of US citizens) had been swayed. The evidence seemed to be scant, but that didn’t stop the war machine from gearing up. On that night, a declaration was made, and I was among a minority of people who felt this was all wrong. I’d felt that the case against this country (and its horrible dictator) was not made well enough. The sentiment against the Middle East was too high post-9/11, and so many people were looking for revenge. Soon, the news would broadcast the bombs falling.
In the years since that declaration of war against Iraq, people have picked apart the Bush administration’s case for war. Common informed opinions discuss how the level of fear mongering swayed popular sentiment in favor of the president. As The Book of Ezra demonstrates, this type of fear mongering has been around for quite some time.
Not everyone is happy with Cyrus, former King of Persia, removing the shackles from the Israelites, and they go out of their way to change the new king’s mind—in a subtle way, of course, for who wants to be the one to tell the king he’s wrong?
A minority voice approaches Xerxes (who’s taken over for Cyrus) and warns of Israel’s progress rebuilding Jerusalem. Since these people want nothing more than to hold Israel down, they convince the king that these people will strengthen, and before you know it, they’ll stop paying taxes (4:13). Since nothing gets people attention quite like the thought of losing money, work on Jerusalem is halted (4:24).
During Darius’ rule (who leads after Xerxes), Israeli prophets push for work to resume on Jerusalem. This draws attention from the local governor, who wants to know who these people think they are, resuming work without permission. They let him know that God said so, as did former king Cyrus. This governor, Tattenai, writes to the king, asking if the records can be verified. He figured this was the official way to show how wrong these upstart Israelis were.
King Darius finds Cyrus’ records and he orders the work to resume unimpeded, with the result of non-compliance being death (6:11). The restoration of the Temple is finished (6:15).
Always nice to see the means with which people try and thwart progress backfire on those who would try and keep others down.
But the fledging recently-restored Israel, is not free from the use of fear as a means to control. Led by Ezra, who was dispatched in good faith by king Artaxerxes (who also respects religious differences, telling Ezra and his people to follow their own God (7:25-26)), The Israelites need to get their house in order. This means they need to crack down on some of the long-standing rules. One of which being not inter-marrying.
In fact, Ezra is so troubled by so much inter-marriage when he arrives in Jerusalem that he calls and assembly, at which he chastises the people for this, and they grasp the problem. But how to fix this, given their families, including the children? Expel the foreigners (10:11). Again, fear is used to make things happen. Instead of finding a way to bring former outsiders into the religious fold, they are forced to obey the ancient law for fear of what will happen if not.
This tricky process takes about two months to resolve (10:16-17), but not without some people disagreeing (10:15). Seems a harsh way to rebuild a community—expelling family. For a people who were granted a return to their land and way of life based on religious tolerance, they sure find a quick way to flex their own intolerance. Sure, their past suggests that they ALWAYS get into trouble when they intermarry (or otherwise tolerate other cultures), but how about giving things a chance? Looks like they were too scared to try. The sad part is so few of them showed any sadness over extricating themselves from their families. Or at least, so few admitted to it. Perhaps if they had they would have been able to keep families together and find a way to work things out.
Next up: Nehemiah, “a man of action.” Or so my Bible edition calls him.