This is the first post of a short series exploring how the Jews who returned from exile in Babylon to their homeland dealt with the non-Jews who surrounded them as depicted in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. We'll see similar themes throughout, but because I have to start somewhere I'm going to proceed through chronologically beginning with Ezra 4:1-5.
Ezra 1-6 (except for a "flashforward" in 4:6-23) describes the first return of Jews to what would be called Judea and the beginning of rebuilding the temple during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus (Kurush) and then the completion of the building during the reign of Darius (Darayavahush) I. When they settled in Judea, the returned exiles reestablished the temple site as the place of worship and built an altar there (3:1-6). The following year they started the reconstruction by acquiring materials and organizing themselves (3:7-9) and by laying the foundation of the temple (3:10-13). When other inhabitants of the area saw what the Jews were doing, they wanted to participate, so they talked to the two chief leaders of the project, Jeshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, who later succeeded Sheshbazzar as the local governor of the Jews under the authority of the governor of the province "beyond the River [Euphrates]" (which comprised the territory extending eastward from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean).
The Jews' neighbors phrased their request, "Let us help you build, for like you we seek your God and we have been sacrificing to him from the time of King Esarhaddon of Assyria, who brought us here" (4:2). Apparently these folks had a lot in common with the Jews, right? Zerubbabel and Jeshua didn't think so; they replied, "You have no right to help us [or, 'We have nothing to do with each other to'] build the temple of our God. We will build it by ourselves for the LORD God of Israel, just as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, has commanded us" (v. 3).
Why so harsh? What was the problem? Well, the Jews' neighbors had indeed been making sacrifices to Yahweh, but not exclusively. They were worshiping Yahweh as part of a whole pantheon of gods. After the kingdom of Israel (the northern half of the entire Israelite people in contrast to the southern kingdom called Judah) was annihilated and many of its people were deported by the Assyrian Empire, the Assyrian King Esarhaddon eventually relocated other people from elsewhere in his empire to Israel. These immigrants were being eaten by lions sent by Yahweh, so to appease "the god of the land" the new arrivals started to worship him too (2 Kings 17:24-41). So though their descendants 150 years later were indeed worshiping Yahweh, their worship and probably even knowledge of him was not in accord with the laws God had given Israel through Moses, most notably in that they were worshiping other gods right alongside them.
Jeshua, Zerubbabel, and the rest of the leaders were rightly wary of allowing these folks to join them in building the temple. Israel's relentless tendency since meeting God in the Exodus was to worship Yahweh while worshiping other gods in idol form at the same time. Their persistence in this practice was what led God to exile them in the first place as he had first warned centuries before. They knew that serving shoulder to shoulder with these worshipers of other gods would lead them right back down that road.
And yet I can't help but suspect that Jeshua and Zerubbabel's response was overkill. Because even though God was crystal clear in his Word about the danger of fraternizing with worshipers of other gods, he also told Israel to expect that other nations would come to them asking to worship the True God with them (e.g., Isa. 2:1-4). That looks like what the Jews' neighbors, at least some of them, may have been doing here. This may have been a pregnant opportunity to teach the ignorant nations the truth about Yahweh that the Jews wasted out of a legitimate but disproportionate concern for the purity of their worship.
Ironically, the Jews' ability to worship Yahweh in purity was impaired as a result of them spurning their neighbors. Jealous and enraged, the non-Jews intimidated the Jews and bribed officials close to the successive kings of Persia to withdraw and withhold their support for the Jews' project, and construction of the temple lapsed for 14 years. The hostility escalated from there. About three quarters of a century after Ezra 4:1-5 took place, the Jewish scribe Ezra led Jewish men to divorce their Gentile wives and disown their children from those marriages (which I'll discuss in my next post). One can only imagine the seething resentment those children had toward Jews once they grew up. In the days of Nehemiah there was the threat of physical violence from the Jews' neighbors, some of whom were the descendants of those rejected by Jeshua and Zerubbabel. Back in Ezra 4:1 we see the original party in the dispute introduced as "the enemies of Judah and Benjamin." Without a doubt they were enemies after they heard Jeshua and Zerubbabel's response, not to mention when Ezra recorded the history a few generations after it happened, but I wonder if they were enemies from the start and if they had to be.
Four centuries later, the descendants of those who had been relocated to the old northern kingdom of Israel were known as Samaritans, and the enmity between them and the Jews had continued to simmer through all that time. By then the Samaritans' religion was much closer to Judaism, but it still had some of its own quirks. This hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans frames the ministry of a second High Priest Yeshua who appeared on the scene. ("Jeshua" and "Jesus" are different transliterations of the same name, "Yeshua.") Jesus took an entirely different approach from Jeshua and Zerubbabel. He responds with grace when a Samaritan town refuses him hospitality. He tells a story to a Jewish legal scholar in which a Samaritan is the model of adherence to the Law. He converses with a Samaritan woman whose sexual promiscuity recalls her ancestors' spiritual promiscuity, asserting that though the Jews have the facts from God, a day had already begun in which pure worship would be defined by Spirit and truth and could be entered into by anyone. And because he considers the residents of this woman's town part of the harvest that the Father gave him to reap, he stays there and many more believe in him. So it isn't surprising that some time after Jesus' ascension to the Father unholy, heterodox Samaritans would hear the gospel and believe and receive the Holy Spirit with power.
The contrast between the two Yeshuas' responses to the Samaritans seems to me to be a sort of parable of the tension between purity and mercy, two essential but paradoxical virtues that God wants us to exhibit. Jeshua and his contemporaries leaned all the way towards protecting their purity and made scant attempt to show mercy to seekers ignorant of the truth (the indication of an exception perhaps being Ezra 6:21). By contrast, Jesus was able to show mercy to Samaritans without his purity being tainted in the slightest. We'll look at how Jesus was able to do this along with the nature of purity and holiness next time.