We have finished reading about all the kings of the northern and southern kingdoms…at least for now. We will see them in a different light once we begin to read the books of the prophets. With the Book of Ezra we entered what is known as the postexilic period in Israel’s history. In 538 B.C. Cyrus, king of Persia decreed the Israelites who had been held captive for 70 years, could return to Judah and Jerusalem. The altar was rebuilt right away but it took much longer for the temple to be rebuilt. That construction happened in 516 B.C. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem from Persia to help the city put itself back together. The city walls were repaired in 445 B.C. As the exiles made their way back to Jerusalem and Judah their numbers included some 7,289 priests who would serve at the altar and eventually in the temple. But the Levites who worked in the temple were not as anxious to return. About 360 Levites returned plus some other temple servants. So, let’s take a look at just who came back to Jerusalem and Judah. There are lists and numbers of returnees in both Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. Ezra lists 29,818 people and most mentioned were from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. A grand total of 42,360 people returned along with 7,337 servants who were most likely not Israelites. Just over half of the people who returned were lay people from Jerusalem. Not quite 30% were lay people from other cities and then there were the priests, Levites, temple servants and a handful of priests who could not prove their ancestry.
As we have read, there have been long lists of names. Many of us have skimmed the lists. The names are similar and most of them we cannot pronounce. But we see now, the importance of those lists, especially for the Levites and priestly families. In order to be able to serve in the Lord’s temple you had to prove you were a descendant of Aaron and from a Levitical family. Based on your lineage you were assigned tasks and responsibilities in temple service. Those tasks ranged from the high priest who was the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies all the way down to the servants responsible for cleaning up all the blood from the base of the altar. In doing some quick research I found that in modern times Levites are integrated in Jewish communities, but keep a distinct status. There are an estimated 300,000 Levites among Ashkenazi Jewish communities and a similar number among Shepardic and Mizrahi Jews combined. Their population is somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 worldwide. Those Jews who are identified as Ashkenazi refers to Jewish settlers who established communities along the Rhine River in western Germany and northern France dating to the Middle Ages. Their traditional language is Yiddish which is a Germanic language with elements of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic languages. Shepardic Jews hail mostly from the Iberian peninsula of Spain and Portugal. And for trivia’s sake, Frank Gehry and Norman Lear are modern day Levites.
So we have seen what happened to the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi but what about the other nine? The tribe of Simeon settled in Judah much earlier, when Israel entered into the promised land. Little is known about what happened to the tribes the Assyrians sent into exile in 722 B.C. (2Kings 15:8-17:23) However we read in 2 Chronicles 30 that some members of the tribes of Asher, Manasseh, Zebulun, Ephraim, and Issachar attended the Passover at Jerusalem in 715 B.C. They may have mingled with the southern tribes and so preserved their heritage in Israel. Many other members of the northern tribes intermarried with foreigners and became Samaritans. The apocryphal book of Tobit mentions a member of the tribe of Naphtali living in exile but otherwise, there is little other information. Some of the people of the northern kingdom scattered and settled all over the world, from as far away as Rome all the way south into what we know as Ethiopia today. For these reasons the northern tribes are often called the lost tribes.
As we have read first Ezra and now into Nehemiah we see a couple of things. God’s people are tenacious. It wasn’t just the young and fit who traveled the nearly 1,000 miles from exile back to Jerusalem and Judah. It was a cross section of Jews, young and old, male and female. Some were returning home and others going to Jerusalem for the first time, having been born in captivity. It would have been easy to return to Persia when they saw the mess Jerusalem was in, but they stayed. They built an altar and began to worship the Lord. Their leaders trusted in the Lord’s provision and the people did too. We see that the people were faithful, giving of what they had to begin collecting the materials necessary to rebuild the temple. They trusted in the Lord’s protection and provision. God watched over them and used several pagan authorities to help them along the way. In fact, it was the pagan king Cyrus who allowed them to return home and he, along with king Darius later, commanded others to help the Israelites rebuild.
One of the words we will see more of is remnant. To be a remnant means to remain, or be leftover. A remnant is what survives after a catastrophe. In Ezra and other books the word frequently refers to those Israelites who survived the Exile and returned to resettle the promised land. The prophets use the word to speak not only of a group of Israelites who survive a particular calamity but to those Israelites who remained faithful to God. The concept is central to Isaiah, who prophesies that the Root of Jesse, the Messiah, would one day gather the remnant of Israel from all the nations, even attracting some gentiles to Himself. The remnant therefore becomes a powerful Old Testament theme of covenant faithfulness and salvation, for in sparing His people God maintained a nation through whom all the world would be blessed. All through time there has been a remnant of faithful people. As we move toward the New Testament we see that during the time between the prophet Malachi and John the Baptist, a span of some 400 years, the people did not hear the prophetic voice of God. But there remained a remnant and that eventually included Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist’s parents. We have seen faithful remnants of believers underground in communist China, Russia, and countless other places. God will always leave some to make his name known and to keep the faith alive.
Here is an interesting word. This is found in Nehemiah 1:6. It is Yadah, the word confess. This Hebrew verb has two very distinct meanings. The first is related to the offering of thanksgiving or praise to God. The second is that of confession, such as the confession of God’s greatness and the confession of sin before the lord. The basic meaning of this word, Yadah, Is to throw off or cast off. In one sense, confession is the casting off of sin by acknowledging our transgressions of God’s commandments for holy living. In another sense, confession of sin is thanksgiving because it recognizes that forgiveness of sin is accomplished only by the grace and goodness of God.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W