The person known to Jews and Christians as “Ezra the priest” or “Ezra the scribe” was also a political actor. He served as a shuttle diplomat for King Artaxerxes of Persia toward the end a long period of Israelite change and reorganization under Persian rule. Although Ezra’s role as a diplomat is often ignored, it is a fairly prominent role in the book of Ezra.
The book is complicated, controversial at points, and cannot be separated from the book of Nehemiah. Reasons such as these may help to explain why Ezra’s diplomatic narrative has not stood out to theologians and historians. Nevertheless, as with Daniel, what has interested me about Ezra is his diplomatic role and trying to puzzle out questions related to that role. Because much remains unknown about the regional political history that bears upon Ezra’s diplomatic mission, insights into that role run far short of the insights that were available to us about Daniel’s role as a diplomat. Yet let’s begin with what seems pretty certain about the regional history of the time.
The Israelites were living in exile in Babylonia, which was now largely ruled by the Medes and the Persians. Just before Ezra’s time, the Persian king Cyrus the Great had favored the Jews by issuing a royal decree authorizing the rebuilding of their Jerusalem temple and freeing any Jews who wished to return to Jerusalem to help in that rebuilding project. For the Jews of the shattered nation of Israel it was a turning-point foreign policy.
A foreign policy, however, can be resisted by powerful domestic constituencies and lobbies, and this occurred in Jerusalem when the returning exiles began settling in and implementing Cyrus’s policy to rebuild the temple. Strong, sometimes violent, opposition groups from Persian nationals and others arose against the exiles’ reconstruction efforts. Those efforts would then grind to a halt until Cyrus’s Persian administration, or subsequent ones, would intervene.
The book of Ezra makes clear Cyrus’s religious motivation for setting up the Jews back in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4), but it does not indicate how that cohered with the king’s foreign policy interests. It may have been something as pragmatic as strengthening Persia’s presence in Palestine as a buffer against Egypt, which Cyrus’s eldest son, Cambyses II, later invaded and partly conquered for Persia.
At any rate it is clear that, following Cyrus’s death, political, religious, and racial turmoil arose in Jerusalem over rebuilding the temple. The reconstruction project entered a long period of halts and resumptions, during which many missions of shuttle diplomacy took place between Jerusalem and the Persian capital to resolve the crisis. Those missions spanned the reign of several Persian kings and involved three key groups of actors: the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, the opposition groups, and various Persian kings and their administrations in Babylon.
The preservation of a number of detailed diplomatic letters in chapters 4-7 of Ezra, which were exchanged between Jerusalem and the Persian capital, offer rare insight into the shuttle diplomacy that was instrumental in resolving the long crisis. These diplomatic initiatives:
- voice the concerns of the opposition groups and of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem;
- reveal what the opposition groups wanted clarified as to the original policy or subsequent amendments;
- include royal edicts from Persian kings to the opposition groups and to the Jewish leadership;
- detail the precise policies, explain the desires of a current Persian ruler, and charge the opposition groups not to obstruct the reconstruction project;
- show that the diplomatic initiatives had varying effects in Jerusalem, including temporary reversals of policy.
In the next post we will see how Ezra fits into this regional religious-political situation as a skilled diplomatic figure.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by Irish Dominican Foundation (permission via Creative Commons)