Friday, October 06, 2006

The Joy of Ezra 2

Currently, my lectio divina is concerned with the book of Ezra, and I am attempting to read it entirely in Hebrew. The second chapter provides exquisite practice in Hebrew numbers; it is the sort of chapter that we usually skip over, like lists of genealogies or ritual laws. For some reason, these sorts of sections attract me, and so I am reading it word-for-word.

An early impression generated by this second chapter is that while a brave face is being put onto the catalogue of returning exiles, trying in some sense to equate them with the triumphant lists of Israelite tribes and clans in Numbers and Joshua, the truth of the matter is that it is pretty difficult to determine who belongs where. Some indications of this confusion in the text itself include:
1) The varying formulas listing sometimes 'the sons of' and other times 'the men of''; this corresponds to what seems to be variations between clans and those with a connection to a certain city or region, but not necessarily blood relations of those living there
2) Even where clans are listed, they are not the traditional tribes (except the Levites), but simply people connected to powerful men like Hezekiah, Joshua (the high priest), Zerubbabel, and so on. In one sense, this makes sense because only Judah, Benjamin and Levi were left as tribes, but there is little or no correspondence here to earlier clan designations such as are found in Joshua.
3) The highly placed persons have really amazingly 'Eastern' names; also the place names are often not the cities in Judah, but cities or regions in the old Babylonian empire: Elam, Nebo (also the name of a god in Babylon--see Isaiah 46: 1). Until I read this in Hebrew, I had forgotten that the very name "Zerubbabel" (the heir of David, listed as an ancestor of Jesus in Mt 1: 12 and Luke 3: 27) means something like "seed of Babylon!"
4) Finally, there is the moving detail in Ezra 2: 59-63 about those who wanted to go to Jerusalem but were 'refused passports' because the priests couldn't determine their ancestry.

This was one of the gravest issues in the restoration of Jerusalem: we see strong statements about who is eligible to be included in the covenant in Ezekiel, (Deutero-) Isaiah, Zechariah and Haggai. The opinions are conflicting, and indeed continued to be so until the time of Christ.

We live in a time when the question, "Who is a Catholic?" or even "Who is a Christian" receives different answers, even from authorities (one thinks of the varied policies of bishops dealing with pro-abortion politicians). This can make it appear that God has given up His Church. Perhaps, by contrast, we are on the beginning of a new 'restoration' analogous to that which took place in Jerusalem around 500 B.C. The People of God came as close to extinction as one can imagine in the years of exile, but God never abandoned them. Rather He came as a man to join in the plight of His people. Take heart!
Yours in Christ,
Prior Peter

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