wisdom traditionEzra, a priest-scribe with a pedigree in the line of Aaron, was a prominent Jewish religious figure in Babylon, but he also functioned as a shuttle diplomat for king Artaxerxes of Persia. Previously, we discussed the ongoing religious and political crisis in Jerusalem that arose over the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. This necessitated many and varied diplomatic missions and letters between Jerusalem and the Persian capital.

We are introduced to Ezra the shuttle diplomat in chapter seven of the book of Ezra, in which a detailed letter that Ezra has carried from the Persian capital to Jerusalem explains his royal commission. The letter is from king Artexerses himself. And, apparently, this was one of the last, if not the last, of the diplomatic missions necessary for resolving the crisis surrounding the temple’s reconstruction.

Just as a U.S. president will appoint special envoys to foreign nations to try to resolve troubled situations, this seems to have been the case with Artexerses’s appointment of Ezra. Ezra appears to have been serving in Artaxerxes’s Persian government (in conquered Babylonia). It is not clear what his duties were, but he seems to have held a distinguished position under the rather cumbersome title: “scribe of the law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7:12, 21; King James translation). Ezra may have received his title from Artaxerxes himself.

In his diplomatic role, Ezra may have been something like Artaxerxes’s “Secretary of State for Jewish affairs,” given his religious pedigree, scholarship, and distinguished reputation. This would have been a crucial and sensitive political post at the time, for Artaxerxes and his cabinet (the seven counselors of the realm in 7:14-15) had inherited an imperial Persia that, having conquered and ruled many lands over many generations, was now experiencing political and social destabilization in various parts of the realm, including in Jerusalem. So it seems likely that Ezra had high-level connections with the cabinet, who looked upon him favorably and trusted him.

By the time of Artaxerxes’s reign, the temple had finally been reconstructed and Ezra, commissioned by the king, is dispatched from the Persian capital to Jerusalem with extensive political powers and a royal decree explaining his commission and detailing further Persian policy concerning the returned Jewish exiles. Although the text states that it was “the Lord God” who put it into the mind of the king to do this, we may assume that it was also a good foreign policy decision by Artexerses that would help strengthen Persian national interests in the region.

ancient JerusalemFor instance, Ezra’s commission as a diplomat to that highly religious city was aptly suited to his role as a distinguished Jewish priest-scribe, and the Jewish population in Jerusalem would have been glad to have been sent such a figure. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with economic aid (a shipment of silver and gold) from the king in support of further work to be done, which would have further strengthened those international ties. Ezra also had been given carte blanche by the king to raise whatever further funds he needed and to solicit whatever help he needed to fulfill his commission.

It was also a fact-finding mission. Ezra is to make a detailed inquiry into life of the Jews in and around Jerusalem, including their religious health, and to take whatever steps he deems necessary to ensure the peaceableness of that community under Persian rule. Having concluded that inquiry, he is to “appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates” (Ezra 7:25). And the policy is backed by force. Those who fight against it can be legally prosecuted within the bounds of various penalties.

Much remains unknown about this tumultuous, decades’-long crisis in Jerusalem. Ezra’s diplomatic history is but a thin slice of imperial Persia’s complicated international politics. There may have been long periods when this diplomatic channel was not a priority or went silent.

My focus on Ezra the shuttle diplomat is meant to suggest that Artaxerxes could have imposed a military solution in Jerusalem. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his Persian predecessors, beginning with Cyrus, and relied on diplomacy. Through diplomatic initiatives, the Jews in Palestine reestablished their religious identity and thereby regained a sense of cohesion as a people in Jerusalem, even though they remained under Persia’s rule.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


rebuilding the templeThe 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)