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Accessing the Theology in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther through Historical Background

An attentive, careful reader of biblical narratives is usually able to understand a lot of the theological teaching the narrator intended to communicate. But some of what is taught can only be recognized if the reader grasps the assumptions shared by the author and the original audience.

A powerful example of this is found in Ezra 1. The first four verses of the chapter report that a decree was issued by the Persian king known in our history books as Cyrus II. The decree authorizes any Israelite who chooses to do so to travel from the place where he is living to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple of Yahweh (vv. 3–4). The explanation Cyrus gives for bestowing this authorization is that he has been instructed by Yahweh to build him a temple in Jerusalem (v. 2). Bible readers don’t expect a pagan king to say such a thing. And it’s nearly impossible to appreciate the original readers’ understanding of this event without knowing the relevant historical background.

Rebuilding Temples and the Right to Rule

In the ancient Near East, only kings could legitimately initiate the building of temples because a king was understood to be the regent of the god or gods, appointed to enact the divine will on earth. Moreover, ancient Near Eastern peoples were typically polytheistic and believed that particular deities were associated with particular people groups or particular geographic regions. Thus, Marduk was the god of Babylon, Baal was a Canaanite deity, Yahweh was the god of Israel, and so on. Thus, since the king had been chosen to carry out the god’s will on earth, and since the god’s will was most directly concerned with the people he was associated with, it followed that when a god commanded a specific king to build him a temple, he had chosen that king to rule over his people. For example, when King Esarhaddon of Assyria claimed that the gods of Babylon had chosen him to rebuild their places of worship, he also claimed that they had chosen him to be the ruler and protector of Babylon.[1] In the ancient Near East, only kings could legitimately initiate the building of temples because a king was understood to be the regent of the god or gods, appointed to enact the divine will on earth. Click To Tweet

Understanding this cultural mindset provides an essential key for correctly interpreting Ezra 1. Cyrus claimed in other texts to have been chosen by various gods to restore their ruined places of worship (Cyrus Cylinder, Foundation Stone at Uruk). Along with those claims he asserted that these gods had given him rule over the nations who worshipped them. The book of Ezra was originally written to Israelites, who were familiar with the cultural connection between rebuilding temples and the right to rule, but who were also monotheists, unlike their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. The Israelite, therefore, recognized that Cyrus was using the accepted temple-building ideology in those texts as a way to validate his rule over the peoples in the Babylonian empire he had recently conquered. So when they read in Ezra 1:2 that Cyrus claimed to have been charged by Yahweh to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, they would have seen it as another example of the familiar ancient Near Eastern rhetoric of a king seeking to legitimate his rule. When readers of our day understand these ancient assumptions, they understand why a pagan king would want to rebuild the Jerusalem temple for Yahweh.

But there’s more. The narrator informs readers that Cyrus made his declaration only because Yahweh “stirred” him to do so (v. 1). The same Hebrew verb (`wr, Hiphil) is used in 1 Chron. 5:26, when Yahweh stirs the king of Assyria to take the trans-Jordanian tribes into exile, and in 2 Chron. 21:16, when Yahweh stirs the Philistines and Arabs to attack Judah. In each of these cases, Yahweh’s influence on the decision-making process was not something the people involved were aware of. Cyrus, then, is correct in stating that Yahweh has chosen him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but not in the way that he thinks. As the narrator points out in v. 1, Yahweh is not validating Cyrus’s rule so much as he is using him to fulfill his promise through Jeremiah that at the end of Babylon’s domination over Israel he will restore the fortunes of his people, including their reestablishment in the land of promise (e.g., Jer. 29:10–14; 30:3, 18; 31:23). In the rest of Ezra-Nehemiah (a single book in the oldest manuscripts) the emphasis is on how Yahweh’s promises of restoration are fulfilled, not on the rule of Cyrus or any Persian king. When the writer mentions further actions of the Persian kings that contribute to Israel’s restoration, he consistently reveals that Yahweh is working behind the scenes to have the kings act as they do (e.g., Ezra 6:22; 7:27; Neh. 2:8, 18). The original readers, then, would have understood the irony that the narrator perceives in the events that took place. Modern readers likely will struggle to hear the point of these stories unless they become aware of the knowledge and assumptions the original author and his intended audience shared about royal temple-building.

Once the modern reader understands, however, that Yahweh is using the most powerful rulers of the day, the Persian Kings, on his own terms to fulfill his gracious promises to Israel, the breathtaking sovereignty of God begins to come into clearer focus. Time and again, in Ezra-Nehemiah and also Esther, the politically powerless descendants of Israel receive blessing, protection, and restoration from God without the kinds of miracles familiar from the Pentateuch. Instead, Yahweh shows his mighty power by working behind the scenes to bring his good plans for his people to fruition.

God’s Judgment Upon Attackers

The book of Esther provides a different kind of example. Many readers are troubled that such a large number of people are killed by the Jews in chapter 9. Seventy-five thousand of their enemies are slain in the country and eight hundred more in the city of Susa. On one level this may seem an understandable response on the part of the Jews; they had been marked for destruction once Haman hoodwinked Ahasuerus to order it nine months earlier (3:8–15), and with the new permission given them to defend themselves, they were fighting for survival. But there is more to it than that.

Haman is first introduced in 3:1, as an Agagite. Agag was an Amalekite king (1 Sam. 15:8). The Amalekites first appear in Exod. 17:8–16, where they attack the traveling Israelites at Rephidim. They reappear in 1 Samuel 15, where Saul is instructed by God to destroy them completely, including livestock and goods, because they had opposed Israel as they came up from Egypt (vv. 2–3). Saul and his army kill most of the Amalekites, but they spare Agag the king, and they take the best of their animals as plunder (v. 9). Other Amalekites were apparently spared as well (cf. 1 Sam. 30:1; 1 Chron. 4:43). Because of his disobedience, Saul is ultimately rejected by God as king over Israel (v. 23).

In Esther, then, the Agagite label designates Haman as one of the Jews’ perpetual enemies (cf. 3:10). It is no surprise to the informed reader that he plots to annihilate the Jews. Furthermore, all those who plan to participate in the Jews’ demise at Haman’s instigation are also labeled the Jews’ enemies (8:13; 9:1, 5, 16, 22). It is as if the Israelites are about to be attacked by the “Amalekites” once again and on a grand scale.

However, the introduction of Mordecai in 2:5 is also significant. He is identified as a descendant of Kish, which makes him a member of the same family as Saul (1 Sam. 9:1–2). In the king’s name, he instructs the Jews to defend themselves against their aggressors (Est. 8:10–11). In effect, it is Saul vs. Agag, round two.

Against this background, the heavy casualties inflicted by the Jews have theological significance. They are seizing the opportunity to carry out God’s judgment against their attackers. This also explains why they are careful to avoid taking plunder (9:10, 15, 16). They are following the pattern laid out by God in 1 Samuel 15. The teaching that emerges from the text is that when God’s people faithfully obey him, they participate in the process of putting an end to ongoing evil.

Some of the message of the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther lies on the surface, but some of it can only be accessed with the help of historical background.


[1] The Stone Monument of Esarhaddon, in Daniel D. Luckenbill, Historical Records of Assyria from Sargon to the End, Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 242-44.

Douglas J. E. Nykolaishen

Doug Nykolaishen is Professor of Biblical Studies at Ouachita Baptist University. He earned his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2007. He is the co-author of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther in Teach the Text Commentary Series.

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