Ezra and Nehemiah Reading the Torah

Less than fifty years later, the great Babylonian empire fell as suddenly as it had arisen, overwhelmed by Cyrus, founder of a new Persian empire.


Babylon, the capital, was taken at the end of they year 539 BC, and by 538 the entire empire came under Persian control, right up to the frontier of Egypt. Jerusalem and Judah were thus brought within Cyrus’ rule.

In the first year of his reign, Cyrus, in accordance with the liberal aims which he applied to all his communities, issued a decree about the Jews which was to have a momentous impact on history. He proclaimed himself in favor of the restoration of the Jewish community and religion in their own land. All Jews in Babylonian exile who wished to return to Judah would be permitted to do so. They could rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem, and his royal treasury would contribute towards the building expenses. The holy Temple vessels taken away by Nebuchadnezzar would be restored. Jews who remained in Babylon would be encouraged to aid the returnees and contribute to the rebuilding of their Jerusalem sanctuary.


As large as the First, though less ornate, the Second Temple may yet have seemed more impressive to the people at the time. For it was now the sole great edifice in a city whose walls were still in ruins. Solomon’s Temple had risen amid a formidable complex of royal buildings, the king’s palace, the judgment hall, the barracks, the arsenal, all enclosed within a single large compound. None had been rebuilt. The Second Temple thus stood alone upon the high ground, set in its own courts and surrounded by its own wall. As George Adam Smith points out, it was a kind of “religious Capital…without civic or political rival;” and this could not be without its impact on the spiritual mood of the people.

For the next seventy years, the history of Jerusalem is obscure, though from the prophetic writings it is apparent that the community failed to live up toe the high hopes of the first and second waves of returnees from Babylon.

Only with the coming of Nehemiah and Ezra do the tides turn and the mists lift upon the chronicles of the period. The detailed record of activities in Jerusalem and the development of the city and the community under their leadership appears in the Bible, in the books bearing their names.


Nehemiah, after reporting this to the king and expressing his anxiety to go to Jerusalem to rebuild it, was sent there as Governor.

On arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah lost no time in tackling the city’s problems, the most urgent of which was the safety of the community. After only “three days…I arose in the night, I and some few men with me,” and made a secret survey of the city walls to see what needed to be done. He details (Nehemiah II, 13-15) his inspection tour, leaving through “the gate of the valley,” going to the “dung port,” “the gate of the fountain,” the “king’s pool,” then up “by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back.” He then assembled the Jewish leaders, called to mind “the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste,” shook them out of their apathy, told them “the king’s words that he had spoken unto me”—the implications of which could not have been lost on them—and roused them with “come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem.” Their response was- “Let us rise up and build.”

Labor for the work of reconstruction was provided by contingents from the city and village communities in Judah, each being assigned a specific part of the wall. Such heart and spirit did the Jews put into their work that the wall was erected “in fifty and two days.” (The first-century historian Josephus writes that the final wall, complete with battlements and gates, took about two and a half years.)

While the wall was going up, the kingdoms bordering on Judah tried to hinder the work, subjecting the Jews to frequent harassment. Nehemiah’s answer to their raids was to organize his people into two formations. All were armed, but one maintained the defenses while the other continued with the work. As soon as the raiders appeared, a trumpet was sounded at the point of danger and all rushed to stave off attack. Nehemiah was with them all the time, tireless, resourceful, encouraging them, overseeing their labors, checking the defenses, moving from post to post with the trumpeter at his side so that he could personally give the alarm at the last feasible moment before attack so as not to waste any working time. As Nehemiah writes-

“…half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons [coats of mail]…They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.”
Nehemiah ends this episode with the following human touch- “So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing.

Nehemiah’s details of the wall’s construction—and the speed of the accomplishment—show that his men followed the line of the old Jerusalem ramparts, those destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Destruction had been heaviest along the eastern and northern walls; the gates and wall here had to be built from the foundations. The work on other sections was largely reconstruction. All gates were fitted with new beams, boors, locks and bars.

The site enclosed by Nehemiah’s walls again included from south to north, the pool of Siloam, the City of David, Ophel, and the Temple Mount. There were eight gates- the Dung Gate in the extreme south; the Fountain Gate a littler higher up, in the southeast corner; the Water Gate in the east, just above the Gihon Spring; the Horse Gate in the northeast, just above Ophel and southeast of the Temple; the Sheep Gate in the north; the Fish Gate in the northwest corner; the Corner Gate in the northwest, opposite the Horse Gate; and the Valley Gate in the west.


Nehemiah had come to a Jerusalem that was largely in ruins and to a community that was disillusioned and lax, at the mercy of corrupt officials, and on the verge of disintegration. Nehemiah revived the community, gave it dignity and uncorrupt rule, cohesion and political status.

But there was one area of communal life which had become equally lax and which Nehemiah felt himself unqualified to reform—religion and religious practice. The man who was—and who did—was the man whose name ever after was to be linked to that of Nehemiah, and who shares with Nehemiah the credit for the total reorganization of the Jewish community, setting it on the course it was to follow in the succeeding centuries. That man was Ezra the Scribe.

Ezra had secured permission from the Persian monarch to lead a great company of priests and Levites to Jerusalem in order to instruct the Jewish community in the Torah, to reform worship and customs which had been abused, and to introduce honesty and order into their religious life.

With the political stability and sound administration provided by Nehemiah, Ezra set about establishing a firm spiritual basis for the Jewish community, one that would hold not only for the Jews of Jerusalem and Judah, but for Jewish communities wherever they lived. That basis was the law, the Torah, in the form in which it had evolved in Babylonia since the exile and governed the community there. What Ezra did, in fact, was to establish Judaism, Judaism as practiced ever after, in its basic form, by orthodox Jews throughout the world.