I. 3:1-6 Sacrifices to God: the foundation of worship
3:1 When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem.
The seventh month in the Jewish calendar is the month of Tishri (September/October). This reference probably refers to the seventh month that the Jews have been returned from exile. Most scholars agree that the year is 537 BC (Fensham, Ezra and Nehemiah, 59; Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah, 74; Rudolph, Esra und Nehemia, 29). It took the Jews about seven months to settle back into the land and now they are ready to reinstitute the sacrificial system. The fact that they come “as one man”points to their unity of heart and purpose.
The Jewish Calendar
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3:2 Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God.
Jeshua the son of Jozadak (Jozadak means “Yahweh has acted rightly”) is mentioned along with Zerubbabel by the prophet Haggai (1:1), but by this time he has become high priest (In Haggai and Zechariah the high priest’s name is spelled [;vuAhy>, while in Ezra-Nehemiah it is spelled [:WvyE). Jeshua and Zerubbabel appear together throughout Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 2:2, 3:2; 3:8; 4:3; 5:2; Nehemiah 7:7; 12:1) and in the book of Haggai (1:1; 1:12; 1:14; 2:2; 2:4) (Zechariah 3 has Joshua as a key character while Zerubbabel plays an important role in Zechariah 4).
The returnees understand the importance of worship through sacrifices, and this leads them to build the altar as their first priority. Indeed, God spoke through Moses regarding the importance of bringing burnt offerings (In Leviticus 14:18-20 the Law was clear that the priest must bring a burnt offering in order to make atonement for the person healed of a skin disease. The verb “to atone for” can mean “to wipe away,” “to purge,” “to purify, or “to make atonement.” As a result, he will be pronounced clean and thus forgiven, ready to confidently enter God’s presence. The concept is important to the sacrificial theology of Leviticus because atonement will cleanse a person from all sins, known and unknown. The language employed affirms that physical impurity is purified while moral impurity must be forgiven. Sometimes, the expression burnt offering (Num 15:3; Deut 12:6; 1 Sam 15:22; 2 Kgs 5:17; Isa 43:23) is a figure of speech called merism, and points to all sacrifices. The law’s intent was to ban all sacrifices offered to anyone else but Yahweh). Bernhard W. Anderson notes that “one of the most important items in the baggage that Ezra brought from Babylonia was a copy of the book of the Law of Moses” (Quoted in H.L. Ellison, “The Importance of Ezra,” in EQ 53/1 (1981), 49). The fact that a written Law of Moses existed at this time contradicts Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis (JEDP) which suggests that a redactor combined all the sources together in the late 5th century. It was the people’s departure from the Law of Moses that resulted in their exile. Now, their desire to obey the Law to the smallest detail indicates their understanding of the correlation between disobedience and judgment, obedience and blessing.
3:3 They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening.
During the exilic period non-Jews settled in the land, and their presence now instills fear in the people of God. Later in Ezra and Nehemiah we see that these fears were justified because the Jews encounter much opposition from foreigners. These could include people from surrounding nations such as Ammon, Moab, Edom, Samaria, and Egypt. Ibn Ezra suggests that the people built the altar so that God “would aid them against their adversaries" (Rosenberg, 126). The altar is necessary for the people to bring burnt offerings both morning and evening. This daily morning and evening sacrifice consisted of a lamb prepared in flour and oil, with wine as the drink offering (Exodus 29:38-42; Num 28:3-8).
3:4-6 And they kept the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the rule, as each day required, and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the appointed feasts of the LORD, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the LORD. From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD. But the foundation of the temple of the LORD was not yet laid.
Along with the Passover and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles was one of the three most important religious celebrations for the Jews. The Festival of Booths began on Tishri 15 (September/October), and it was primarily a thanksgiving festival showing gratitude for God’s provision (Exodus 34:22). It also commemorated the wilderness wandering, the booths (Succoth) being a reminder that the Israelites lived in tents during the 40-year commute from Egypt to the Promised Land (23:42-43). It was to Succoth that the Israelites first came after leaving Rameses (Exodus 12:7). The Feast of Booths was observed during the post-exilic period (2 Chron. 8:13; Ezra 3:4; Zech 14:16, 18, 19) and during the early church period. This is the only festival wherein the Israelites were commanded to rejoice before the Lord (Lev 23:40).
Ross explains that the freewill offering “was an offering that could be made any time. The soul of the worshipper might simply be overflowing with joy over God and his benefits. Such freewill offerings were (and are) the essence of a living faith" (Ross, Holiness to the LORD, 182). It is easy to see how the returnees’ feelings of gratitude translated into freewill offerings to the LORD. However, since the foundation of the Temple has not yet been laid, much more work remains to be done. After all, the temple had been central to Israel’s worship and their understanding of God since Solomon first built it in 967 BC.
II. 3:7 Bringing the very best: the materials for the Temple
3:7 So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from Cyrus king of Persia.
The preparation for rebuilding of the temple parallels the building of the original temple during the Solomonic era. Masons or stonecutters are employed (1 Chron. 22:2) along with carpenters (1 Chron. 22:15), and payment is made in quantities of food, drink, and oil (2 Chron. 2:10). Meyers correctly points out that “no permission from Sidon and Tyre was required since it belonged to the king of Persia" (Myers, Ezra-Nehemiah, 27). The wood from Lebanon has special meaning, always being used in special building projects and portrayed as superior in value (1 Kings 4:33; 5:6, 14; Psalm 92:12; Song of Songs 3:9; Isaiah 60:13; Ezekiel 31:16; Hosea 14:5). Cyrus is credited not only with giving the edict which allowed the return of the Jews, but also with paying part of the expenses necessary for the temple’s reconstruction.