Ezra 2: The Return of God’s People

I. The leaders of the restoration (2:1-2a)

2:1 Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town.

The list of returnees is very well ordered: heading (v.1-2), lists of people (v. 3-35), list of priests (v. 36-39), list of Levites (v. 40), list of singers (v. 41), list of gatekeepers (v. 42), list of various temple servants (v. 43-58), list of those with unknown genealogy (v. 59-63), list of totals (v. 64-67), list of temple gifts (v. 68-69), and conclusion (v. 70).

Verse one implies that some Jews never did return to their homeland, and we are not given their motives. The references to Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, Jerusalem, and Judah could emphasize the absence of returnees from the Northern Kingdom. The geography of their return moves from specific (Jerusalem), to general (Judah, and back to specific (each to his own town).

2:2a They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah.

The lists of names present in Ezra and Nehemiah are neither accidental or coincidental, but rather they give “the feeling of national unity in response to Cyrus’ decree, it ascribing importance to each individual,” and “giving the people a more central role than their leaders or the Temple” (Hayyim Angel, “The Literary Significance of the Name List in Ezra-Nehemiah,” 146). Zerubbabel is mentioned first because he was the governor of Judah after Sheshbazzar (Haggai 1:1), and God calls him “my servant” (Haggai 2:23). He is listed among the descendants of David (1 Chron. 3:19),and most importantly, he appears in Jesus’ genealogy (Matt 1:12-13; Luke 3:27). Although not given the title of governor in Ezra or Nehemiah, he could be identified with either one of the unnamed governors mentioned in Ezra 2:63 or 6:7.

Jeshua the son of Jozadak “was the grandson of the last officiating high priest before the exile” (Williamson, 33). He is the Joshua of Haggai and Zechariah who was given the high priesthood after the return (Zech 3:1-10). Seraiah is Ezra’s father (7:1) and he appears with Nehemiah’s list of priests (Neh 12:1). Reelaiah appears as Raamiah in Nehemiah 7:7 and as Resaiah in the apocryphal book of Esdras (1 Esd 5:8). Mordecai is a name associated with the Babylonian god Marduk, but he is not the Mordecai associated with the book of Esther. Nothing is known about Bilshan, Mispar (Mispereth in Nehemiah’s list), Bigvai, Rehum

(Nahum in Nehemiah’s list), and Baanah. Zerubbabel, Bilshan, and Mordecai are Babylonian names, while Bigvai is of Persian provenance (Meyers, 12).

II. Returnees identified by their name or geographical location (2:2b-20)

2:2b-35 The number of the men of the people of Israel: 3 the sons of Parosh [Parosh means “flea,” and it might be a nickname], 2,172. 4 The sons of Shephatiah, 372. 5 The sons of Arah, 775. 6 The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812. 7 The sons of Elam, 1,254. 8 The sons of Zattu, 945. 9The sons of Zaccai [Zaccai is an abbreviated form of Zechariah, and it means “Yahweh has remembered], 760. 10The sons of Bani, 642. 11 The sons of Bebai, 623. 12 The sons of Azgad, 1,222. 13 The sons of Adonikam [Adonikam means “The lord has risen up”], 666. 14 The sons of Bigvai, 2,056. 15 The sons of Adin, 454. 16 The sons of Ater [Ater means “left-handed,” and it might be a nickname], namely of Hezekiah, 98. 17The sons of Bezai, 323. 18 The sons of Jorah, 112. 19 The sons of Hashum, 223. 20 The sons of Gibbar, 95.21 The sons of Bethlehem, 123. 22The men of Netophah, 56. 23 The men of Anathoth, 128. 24 The sons of Azmaveth, 42. 25 The sons of Kiriath-arim [Since there is no town named Kiriath-arim in the vicinity of Gibeon, it seems that this is a scribal error where the actual town was Kiritah-jearim (as in Neh 7:29).  If not a scribal error, this could be an archaic way  of writing the town name], Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. 26 The sons of Ramah and Geba, 621. 27 The men of Michmas, 122. 28 The men of Bethel and Ai, 223. 29 The sons of Nebo, 52. 30The sons of Magbish, 156. 31 The sons of the other Elam, 1,254. 32 The sons of Harim, 320. 33 The sons of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 725. 34 The sons of Jericho, 345. 35 The sons of Senaah [Mishna Taanith IV 5 affirms that Senaah was an important clan belonging to the tribe of Benjamin], 3,630.

The people listed here appear with the formulas “sons of X” and “men of Y.” In these verses, the sons of X are clearly identified by their family name. Some scholars actually translate Bünê as “the family of” (Williamson, 21ff). Pahath-Moab (v. 6) means the governor of Moab and it reflects a state of affairs developed during the united monarchy when Moab was under Judean control. It is not clear why some people are identified by their personal name while others are identified by their geographical location. It is possible that those identified by their geographical location are the poor who did not own land or property (Williamson, 34).

III. The Priests (2:36-39)

2:36-39 The priests: the sons of Jedaiah, of the house of Jeshua, 973. 37 The sons of Immer, 1,052. 38 The sons of Pashhur, 1,247. 39 The sons of Harim, 1,017.

More priestly families returned from the exile than the four mentioned here; however, their number is significant because they make up about ten percent of the total number of returnees. Williamson suggests that “in the postexilic period there is a steady development of the priestly hierarchy, a development attested to in various lists in the OT which culminated in the emergence of the system of twenty-four priestly courses” (Williamson, 35). Jedaiah, Pashhur, and Immer occur also in 1 Chronicles 9:10-13 and Nehemiah 11:10-14.

IV. The Levites (2:40-42)

2:40 The Levites: the sons of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviah, 74.

The shortest list belongs to the Levites. Without the temple the Levites became a neglected group, forced to do other work. “Their disengagement is why a special appeal had to be made to them later to join in the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple institutions (Ezra 8:15ff)" (Meyers, 18). It is notable that the Levites and the Priests are recognized as being part of distinct classes.

2:41 The singers: the sons of Asaph, 128.

Since the singers have not yet attained Levitical status, they are also treated separately from the Levites. It could be that “they were appointed by the king for service in the temple,” and they “played by their own accompaniment (1 Chron. 15:16)" (Loring Batten, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 85). Asaph was David’s contemporary and he is credited with being the author of Psalms 50 and 73-83. While other musicians returned with Ezra later (7:7), only the Asaphites are mentioned here.

2:42 The sons of the gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, and the sons of Shobai, in all 139.

The initial group of gatekeepers is divided into 6 divisions, although more would come with Ezra (7:7). Blenkinsopp explains that “one of their principal functions was to protect the ritual purity of the temple precincts (2 Chron. 23:19), and some of them were in charge of the temple stores (1 Chron. 9:6-27)” (Blenkinsopp, 89). They play an important role in Nehemiah as they are frequently mentioned in the same context with the priests and Levites (Neh. 10:28, 12:47, 13:5).

V. The Temple servants and the descendents of Solomon’s servants (2:43-58)

2:43-58 The temple servants: the sons of Ziha, the sons of Hasupha, the sons of Tabbaoth, 44 the sons of Keros, the sons of Siaha, the sons of Padon, 45 the sons of Lebanah, the sons of Hagabah, the sons of Akkub, 46 the sons of Hagab [Hagab means “locust,” or “grasshopper,” and it might be a nickname], the sons of Shamlai, the sons of Hanan, 47 the sons of Giddel [Giddel is an abbreviated form of Giddeliah, and it means “Yahweh has made great”], the sons of Gahar, the sons of Reaiah, 48 the sons of Rezin, the sons of Nekoda,the sons of Gazzam, 49 the sons of Uzza, the sons of Paseah, the sons of Besai, 50 the sons of Asnah, thesons of Meunim, the sons of Nephisim, 51 the sons of Bakbuk [Bakbuk means “flask,” and it might be a nickname], the sons of Hakupha, the sons of Harhur, 52 the sons of Bazluth, the sons of Mehida, the sons of Harsha, 53 the sons of Barkos, the sons of Sisera, the sons of Temah, 54 the sons of Neziah, and the sons of Hatipha. 55The sons of Solomon’s servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Hassophereth, the sons of Peruda, 56 the sons of Jaalah, the sons of Darkon, the sons of Giddel, 57 the sons of Shephatiah, the sons of Hattil, the sons of Pochereth-hazzebaim, and the sons of Ami. 58 All the temple servants and the sons of Solomon’s servants were 392.

While the temple servants were not slaves, many of them were of non-Israelite background. Blenkinsopp proposes that some of the names are of Egyptian, Arabian, Babylonian, Edomite, and Ugaritic descent (Blenkinsopp, 91). Batten suggests that these servants “were subordinate temple officers, performing the humblest functions at the sanctuary” (Batten, 87). It could be that many of them “have come to Israel initially as prisoners of war, since these are the names of tribes whom we know were defeated during the period of the monarchy” (Williamson, 36). Their inclusion together with the sons of Solomon’s servants, however, further reveals that they were not slaves, but rather servants.

VI. Returnees without a family record (2:59-63)

2:59-63 The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: 60 the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, and the sons of Nekoda, 652. 61 Also, of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz [Hakkoz means “the thorn,” and it could be a nickname], and the sons of Barzillai [Barzillai means “man of iron,” and it could be a nickname] (who had taken a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name). 62 These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from thepriesthood as unclean. 63 The governor told them they were not to partake of the most holy food untilthere should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim.

While most Jews kept their family records intact, some did not. Some of these were proselytes since they could not even prove that “they belonged to Israel” (2:29b). These are only identified with their Babylonian towns from which they came, although the location of those towns is unknown. The concern for purity was dominant, which is why verse 62 explains that these “unclean” ones were excluded from the priesthood. Olyan affirms that “lineage defilement is passed on from generation to generation, apparently disqualifying all males in the polluted line from priestly service” (Saul M. Olyan, “Purity Ideology in Ezra-Nehemiah,” 9).The title “governor” is a translation of the Persian word haTTiršäºtä´ used for Nehemiah (Neh. 7:65, 69; 8:9; 10:2). Here, the governor is not named although some assume that it could be Sheshbazzar or Zerubbabel (1 Esdras 9:49 names Nehemiah as the governor; Myers identifies him as Zerubbabel (20); Williamson suggests that both Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel are likely candidates (37)).Williamson explains that

Urim and Thummim were sacred lots from which answers to direct questions could be received. They could have been two small objects, such as pebbles or sticks, which were marked in some way and which were drawn out ofthe Ephod to give, according to the combinations, a “yes,” “no” or “no answer” response (Williamson, 37).

VII. Statistics and settlement (2:64-67)

2:64-67 The whole assembly together was 42,360, 65 besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337, and they had 200 male and female singers. 66 Their horses were 736, their mules were 245, 67 their camels were 435, and their donkeys were 6,720.

The total given in verse 64 is about 11,000 higher than the sum of the preceding numbers. The discrepancy could be explained by the fact that their women were included in the total number. While this seems like a small number compared with the total, it is feasible that the majority of the returnees were young, unmarried men. The animals listed here were used both for travel and burden.

2:68-70 Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. 69 According to their ability they gave to the treasury of the work 61,000 darics of gold, 5,000 minas of silver, and 100 priests’ garments. 70 Now the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel in their towns.

Verse 68 reveals that the temple was not yet rebuilt, thus the need for the freewill offerings. Their giving “according to their ability,” reminds us of Jesus’ words to the woman who poured out the ointment of pure nard upon His head, “She has done what she could” (Mark 14:8). God never asks us to do more than we can, but what we can do, we should do. Even though the repatriated community was poor, the amount of money they raised is estimated at around $238,000 (Meyers, 21).

The lists of returnees remind us of God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises. Through Jeremiah God foretold that the exile will last 70 years. The return from the Babylonian is not an abstract concept, but can be seen in the faces of those who return. Just as there is a God behind the return promise, so there are people who are named and seen as the face of the return fulfillment. Today’s Christian leader must always be mindful of God’s faithfulness, but also that the people whom we serve have names and faces. We are not called to serve numbers but needy people. We are not called to minister to statistics but to saints.

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Ezra 2: The Return of God’s People

I. The leaders of the restoration (2:1-2a)

2:1 Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town.

The list of returnees is very well ordered: heading (v.1-2), lists of people (v. 3-35), list of priests (v. 36-39), list of Levites (v. 40), list of singers (v. 41), list of gatekeepers (v. 42), list of various temple servants (v. 43-58), list of those with unknown genealogy (v. 59-63), list of totals (v. 64-67), list of temple gifts (v. 68-69), and conclusion (v. 70).

Verse one implies that some Jews never did return to their homeland, and we are not given their motives. The references to Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, Jerusalem, and Judah could emphasize the absence of returnees from the Northern Kingdom. The geography of their return moves from specific (Jerusalem), to general (Judah, and back to specific (each to his own town).

2:2a They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah.

The lists of names present in Ezra and Nehemiah are neither accidental or coincidental, but rather they give “the feeling of national unity in response to Cyrus’ decree, it ascribing importance to each individual,” and “giving the people a more central role than their leaders or the Temple” (Hayyim Angel, “The Literary Significance of the Name List in Ezra-Nehemiah,” 146). Zerubbabel is mentioned first because he was the governor of Judah after Sheshbazzar (Haggai 1:1), and God calls him “my servant” (Haggai 2:23). He is listed among the descendants of David (1 Chron. 3:19),and most importantly, he appears in Jesus’ genealogy (Matt 1:12-13; Luke 3:27). Although not given the title of governor in Ezra or Nehemiah, he could be identified with either one of the unnamed governors mentioned in Ezra 2:63 or 6:7.

Jeshua the son of Jozadak “was the grandson of the last officiating high priest before the exile” (Williamson, 33). He is the Joshua of Haggai and Zechariah who was given the high priesthood after the return (Zech 3:1-10). Seraiah is Ezra’s father (7:1) and he appears with Nehemiah’s list of priests (Neh 12:1). Reelaiah appears as Raamiah in Nehemiah 7:7 and as Resaiah in the apocryphal book of Esdras (1 Esd 5:8). Mordecai is a name associated with the Babylonian god Marduk, but he is not the Mordecai associated with the book of Esther. Nothing is known about Bilshan, Mispar (Mispereth in Nehemiah’s list), Bigvai, Rehum

(Nahum in Nehemiah’s list), and Baanah. Zerubbabel, Bilshan, and Mordecai are Babylonian names, while Bigvai is of Persian provenance (Meyers, 12).

II. Returnees identified by their name or geographical location (2:2b-20)

2:2b-35 The number of the men of the people of Israel: 3 the sons of Parosh [Parosh means “flea,” and it might be a nickname], 2,172. 4 The sons of Shephatiah, 372. 5 The sons of Arah, 775. 6 The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812. 7 The sons of Elam, 1,254. 8 The sons of Zattu, 945. 9The sons of Zaccai [Zaccai is an abbreviated form of Zechariah, and it means “Yahweh has remembered], 760. 10The sons of Bani, 642. 11 The sons of Bebai, 623. 12 The sons of Azgad, 1,222. 13 The sons of Adonikam [Adonikam means “The lord has risen up”], 666. 14 The sons of Bigvai, 2,056. 15 The sons of Adin, 454. 16 The sons of Ater [Ater means “left-handed,” and it might be a nickname], namely of Hezekiah, 98. 17The sons of Bezai, 323. 18 The sons of Jorah, 112. 19 The sons of Hashum, 223. 20 The sons of Gibbar, 95.21 The sons of Bethlehem, 123. 22The men of Netophah, 56. 23 The men of Anathoth, 128. 24 The sons of Azmaveth, 42. 25 The sons of Kiriath-arim [Since there is no town named Kiriath-arim in the vicinity of Gibeon, it seems that this is a scribal error where the actual town was Kiritah-jearim (as in Neh 7:29).  If not a scribal error, this could be an archaic way  of writing the town name], Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. 26 The sons of Ramah and Geba, 621. 27 The men of Michmas, 122. 28 The men of Bethel and Ai, 223. 29 The sons of Nebo, 52. 30The sons of Magbish, 156. 31 The sons of the other Elam, 1,254. 32 The sons of Harim, 320. 33 The sons of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 725. 34 The sons of Jericho, 345. 35 The sons of Senaah [Mishna Taanith IV 5 affirms that Senaah was an important clan belonging to the tribe of Benjamin], 3,630.

The people listed here appear with the formulas “sons of X” and “men of Y.” In these verses, the sons of X are clearly identified by their family name. Some scholars actually translate Bünê as “the family of” (Williamson, 21ff). Pahath-Moab (v. 6) means the governor of Moab and it reflects a state of affairs developed during the united monarchy when Moab was under Judean control. It is not clear why some people are identified by their personal name while others are identified by their geographical location. It is possible that those identified by their geographical location are the poor who did not own land or property (Williamson, 34).

III. The Priests (2:36-39)

2:36-39 The priests: the sons of Jedaiah, of the house of Jeshua, 973. 37 The sons of Immer, 1,052. 38 The sons of Pashhur, 1,247. 39 The sons of Harim, 1,017.

More priestly families returned from the exile than the four mentioned here; however, their number is significant because they make up about ten percent of the total number of returnees. Williamson suggests that “in the postexilic period there is a steady development of the priestly hierarchy, a development attested to in various lists in the OT which culminated in the emergence of the system of twenty-four priestly courses” (Williamson, 35). Jedaiah, Pashhur, and Immer occur also in 1 Chronicles 9:10-13 and Nehemiah 11:10-14.

IV. The Levites (2:40-42)

2:40 The Levites: the sons of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviah, 74.

The shortest list belongs to the Levites. Without the temple the Levites became a neglected group, forced to do other work. “Their disengagement is why a special appeal had to be made to them later to join in the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple institutions (Ezra 8:15ff)" (Meyers, 18). It is notable that the Levites and the Priests are recognized as being part of distinct classes.

2:41 The singers: the sons of Asaph, 128.

Since the singers have not yet attained Levitical status, they are also treated separately from the Levites. It could be that “they were appointed by the king for service in the temple,” and they “played by their own accompaniment (1 Chron. 15:16)" (Loring Batten, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 85). Asaph was David’s contemporary and he is credited with being the author of Psalms 50 and 73-83. While other musicians returned with Ezra later (7:7), only the Asaphites are mentioned here.

2:42 The sons of the gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, and the sons of Shobai, in all 139.

The initial group of gatekeepers is divided into 6 divisions, although more would come with Ezra (7:7). Blenkinsopp explains that “one of their principal functions was to protect the ritual purity of the temple precincts (2 Chron. 23:19), and some of them were in charge of the temple stores (1 Chron. 9:6-27)” (Blenkinsopp, 89). They play an important role in Nehemiah as they are frequently mentioned in the same context with the priests and Levites (Neh. 10:28, 12:47, 13:5).

V. The Temple servants and the descendents of Solomon’s servants (2:43-58)

2:43-58 The temple servants: the sons of Ziha, the sons of Hasupha, the sons of Tabbaoth, 44 the sons of Keros, the sons of Siaha, the sons of Padon, 45 the sons of Lebanah, the sons of Hagabah, the sons of Akkub, 46 the sons of Hagab [Hagab means “locust,” or “grasshopper,” and it might be a nickname], the sons of Shamlai, the sons of Hanan, 47 the sons of Giddel [Giddel is an abbreviated form of Giddeliah, and it means “Yahweh has made great”], the sons of Gahar, the sons of Reaiah, 48 the sons of Rezin, the sons of Nekoda,the sons of Gazzam, 49 the sons of Uzza, the sons of Paseah, the sons of Besai, 50 the sons of Asnah, thesons of Meunim, the sons of Nephisim, 51 the sons of Bakbuk [Bakbuk means “flask,” and it might be a nickname], the sons of Hakupha, the sons of Harhur, 52 the sons of Bazluth, the sons of Mehida, the sons of Harsha, 53 the sons of Barkos, the sons of Sisera, the sons of Temah, 54 the sons of Neziah, and the sons of Hatipha. 55The sons of Solomon’s servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Hassophereth, the sons of Peruda, 56 the sons of Jaalah, the sons of Darkon, the sons of Giddel, 57 the sons of Shephatiah, the sons of Hattil, the sons of Pochereth-hazzebaim, and the sons of Ami. 58 All the temple servants and the sons of Solomon’s servants were 392.

While the temple servants were not slaves, many of them were of non-Israelite background. Blenkinsopp proposes that some of the names are of Egyptian, Arabian, Babylonian, Edomite, and Ugaritic descent (Blenkinsopp, 91). Batten suggests that these servants “were subordinate temple officers, performing the humblest functions at the sanctuary” (Batten, 87). It could be that many of them “have come to Israel initially as prisoners of war, since these are the names of tribes whom we know were defeated during the period of the monarchy” (Williamson, 36). Their inclusion together with the sons of Solomon’s servants, however, further reveals that they were not slaves, but rather servants.

VI. Returnees without a family record (2:59-63)

2:59-63 The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: 60 the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, and the sons of Nekoda, 652. 61 Also, of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz [Hakkoz means “the thorn,” and it could be a nickname], and the sons of Barzillai [Barzillai means “man of iron,” and it could be a nickname] (who had taken a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name). 62 These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from thepriesthood as unclean. 63 The governor told them they were not to partake of the most holy food untilthere should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim.

While most Jews kept their family records intact, some did not. Some of these were proselytes since they could not even prove that “they belonged to Israel” (2:29b). These are only identified with their Babylonian towns from which they came, although the location of those towns is unknown. The concern for purity was dominant, which is why verse 62 explains that these “unclean” ones were excluded from the priesthood. Olyan affirms that “lineage defilement is passed on from generation to generation, apparently disqualifying all males in the polluted line from priestly service” (Saul M. Olyan, “Purity Ideology in Ezra-Nehemiah,” 9).The title “governor” is a translation of the Persian word haTTiršäºtä´ used for Nehemiah (Neh. 7:65, 69; 8:9; 10:2). Here, the governor is not named although some assume that it could be Sheshbazzar or Zerubbabel (1 Esdras 9:49 names Nehemiah as the governor; Myers identifies him as Zerubbabel (20); Williamson suggests that both Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel are likely candidates (37)).Williamson explains that

Urim and Thummim were sacred lots from which answers to direct questions could be received. They could have been two small objects, such as pebbles or sticks, which were marked in some way and which were drawn out ofthe Ephod to give, according to the combinations, a “yes,” “no” or “no answer” response (Williamson, 37).

VII. Statistics and settlement (2:64-67)

2:64-67 The whole assembly together was 42,360, 65 besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337, and they had 200 male and female singers. 66 Their horses were 736, their mules were 245, 67 their camels were 435, and their donkeys were 6,720.

The total given in verse 64 is about 11,000 higher than the sum of the preceding numbers. The discrepancy could be explained by the fact that their women were included in the total number. While this seems like a small number compared with the total, it is feasible that the majority of the returnees were young, unmarried men. The animals listed here were used both for travel and burden.

2:68-70 Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. 69 According to their ability they gave to the treasury of the work 61,000 darics of gold, 5,000 minas of silver, and 100 priests’ garments. 70 Now the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel in their towns.

Verse 68 reveals that the temple was not yet rebuilt, thus the need for the freewill offerings. Their giving “according to their ability,” reminds us of Jesus’ words to the woman who poured out the ointment of pure nard upon His head, “She has done what she could” (Mark 14:8). God never asks us to do more than we can, but what we can do, we should do. Even though the repatriated community was poor, the amount of money they raised is estimated at around $238,000 (Meyers, 21).

The lists of returnees remind us of God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises. Through Jeremiah God foretold that the exile will last 70 years. The return from the Babylonian is not an abstract concept, but can be seen in the faces of those who return. Just as there is a God behind the return promise, so there are people who are named and seen as the face of the return fulfillment. Today’s Christian leader must always be mindful of God’s faithfulness, but also that the people whom we serve have names and faces. We are not called to serve numbers but needy people. We are not called to minister to statistics but to saints.

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Why was Jesus born

When, how, and why was Jesus born?

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5)

When our son Timothy was younger, we were looking through a picture book that depicted the birth of Jesus. And there we had a picture of the nativity: Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, some cattle, the star. I told Timothy: “When Jesus was born, this was the first Christmas.” He turned to me and said: “No.” “What do you mean? ‘No,’ I asked.” And he said: This is not Christmas because there is no Christmas tree. I proceeded to explain to him that the Christmas tree came later and what makes Christmas is the birth of Jesus.

When did Jesus come?

“But when the fullness of time had come…” (Gal 4:4)

The expression “in the fullness of time” occurs only here in Paul’s writings. I like the translation of Eugene Patterson’s The Message “But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son.” History is divided in B.C. and A.D. B.C. = before Christ; A.D. = anno Domini = the year of our LORD. We know from history that Jesus was born some time between 6 and 4 B.C. because Herod died in 4 B.C., so Jesus must have been born before that. But Paul is not concerned with the chronological date. He is concerned with the theological date! By telling us that Jesus was born in the fullness of time, he affirms that Jesus was not born by accident, but by divine appointment. And God keeps his appointments and He is always on time.

The fullness of time represents the coming together of all the prophecies that were prophesied about the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. God has prepared the whole world for the coming of his Son at that particular time in history. In his book “The Freedom of God’s Sons: Studies in Galatians,” Dr. Homer Kent Jr. writes about the expression “in the fullness of time,” that “Paul probably had in mind primarily the fact that from God’s standpoint the time was ready” (p. 110).

-When was Jesus born? In the fullness of time.

How did Jesus come?

“God sent forth his Son, born of woman…” (Gal 4:4)

The expression “born of a woman,” points to two major themes. First, Jesus was fully human when he came to earth. Paul says it beautifully in Phil. 2:5-8: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!” Second, the expression “born of a woman” points not only to the fact that Jesus was fully human, but also that he was miraculously born of a virgin. This was prophesied by the prophet Isaiah about 750 years before Jesus’ birth. In Isaiah 7:14 we read, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

“God sent His son…born under the law” (Gal 4:4)

The expression “born under law,” tells us that not only was Jesus a man, but he was a Jewish man, born under the Mosaic Law. He grew up in a Jewish home reading the Law (the Torah), praying to his Heavenly Father, attending synagogue, going to the Temple, faithfully fulfilling the demands of the Law. And although he was under the law, he was not under sin, because the Bible tells us that Jesus was sinless. The author of Hebrews writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Dr. Kent explains, “Jesus was born as a Jew subject to the Mosaic Law, and He kept its requirements perfectly. This made possible the purpose of His coming which is next stated.”

Why did Jesus come?

“God sent forth his son…, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5)

The apostle Paul turns from Christology to Soteriology, from deity of Jesus he turns to His saving work. Verse 5 tells us that he was born “to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” To redeem, means to buy back. We were slaves belonging to Satan and sin, and Jesus came to pay the price to buy us back.Why did Jesus come? To redeem and to adopt. It was not that humanity was looking for Jesus. No, God initiated the whole process. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So from slaves to sin, through Jesus’ death and physical resurrection, we are now redeemed, bought back, and now we can have forgiveness of sin and eternal life.

Jesus also came to adopt us to become children of God. Paul writes, “to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Most of us know people who adopt children from other countries. They spend days, sometimes weeks immersed in a different language and a strange culture. They fight the red tape and pay the large fees, all with the hope of taking a child home to the United States…Hasn’t God done the same for us? He entered our culture, battled the resistance, and paid the unspeakable price with adoption required…The price? The life of his own son Jesus Christ (paraphrase from Max Lucado). But there is one more expression that is very important in these verses. The expression that occurs in verse 4, “God sent forth His Son.” There are two important theological truths here: “divine intentionality and eternal deity…Not only was the incarnation the fulfillment of myriads of Old Testament prophecies, but it also was the culmination of a plan devised within the eternal counsel of the triune God before the creation of the world…God sent His Son not just from Galilee to Jerusalem, nor just from the manger to the cross, but all the way from heaven to earth…In sending Jesus, God did not send a substitute or a surrogate. He came Himself” (George, 301-302).

Timothy told me that there couldn’t be a Christmas without a Christmas tree. And I realized that Timothy was right. There is no Christmas without a Christmas tree. But God’s Christmas tree is not a fir or a pine. It is definitely not artificial. God’s Christmas tree is the cross. He was born to die for my sins and yours. The 20th century German preacher and theologian Helmut Thielicke insightfully said, “The crib and the cross are made of the same wood.”

When was Jesus born? In the fullness of time.

How was Jesus born? Born of a woman, born under the law

Why was Jesus born? To redeem those under the law and to be adopted into His family

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Ezra 1:5-11 God moves the hearts of His people

1:5-6 Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem. And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered.

The writer is clear that God is in control of both history and people’s hearts. It is He who stirs up the spirit of the people to take action. Judah and Benjamin are singled out because the Southern Kingdom was mainly made up of those two tribes, along with the tribe of Simeon which had been assimilated into the tribe of Judah. The term “Judah and Benjamin” appears frequently in Chronicles, as well as Ezra-Nehemiah, and it does not imply a denial of the descendents of the other ten tribes (1 Chron 12:16; 2 Chron 11:1, 3, 10, 12, 23; 15:2, 8, 9; 25:5, 31:1, 34:9; Ezra 4:1, 12:34; Neh 11:4, 12:34.). The remnant returning is divided into three classes: priests, Levites, and laity. Verse 6 suggests a reversal of fortunes for the Jews who were in exile. Now, the people of God who are returning to their homeland do so enhanced not only by golden and silver vessels, but also animals to help with transportation.

1:7 Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.

The Chronicler depicts Nebuchadnezzar as the one who destroyed Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and stole goods from it (2 Chron. 36:18). Yamauchi explains that “conquerors customarily carried off the statues of the gods of conquered cities. The Hittites took the statue of Marduk when they conquered the city of Babylon. The Philistines took the ark of the Jews and placed it in the temple of Dagon (1 Sam 5:2). As the Jews did not have a statue of the Lord, Nebuchadnezzar carried off the temple goods instead."

1:8 Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.

The name “Sheshbazzar” occurs four times in Ezra, later revealing that he was made governor by Cyrus (5:14) and that he laid the foundation of the temple (5:16). While some try to identify Sheshbazzar with Zerubabbel, that “is an improbable hypothesis.”Some rabbis suggested that “Sheshbazzar is identical with Daniel…because he endured six troubles.” The title “prince” is the Hebrew word hannäSî´ which can be translated “prince,” or “chief.” Here it is probably just a synonym for “governor”.

1:9-11 And this was the number of them: 30 basins of gold, 1,000 basins of silver, 29 censers, 30 bowls of gold, 410 bowls of silver, and 1,000 other vessels; all the vessels of gold and of silver were 5,400. All these did Sheshbazzar bring up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem.

The numbers do not add up: 30 + 1000 + 29 + 30 + 410 +1000 equals 2499, and verse 11 mentions 5400. Fensham suggests that “The transmission from Aramaic to Hebrew might have caused many of the problems in these verses.” Rabbi Rashi proposes that only important vessels were counted,while Segal suggests that the list was compiled using symbols, accounting for the discrepancy in numbers. Segal cites Allrik who proposed that the numbers found in Ezra “were composed using symbols to represent the numbers, and not words… Such a system helps to explain the discrepancies between those two lists.”

Date Events Chapter Reference
538 The first return under Cyrus 1-2
538-536 The rebuilding of the altar and foundation of the temple 3
Post 538 The refused offer of help and ensuing opposition 4:1-5
520-515 Temple reconstruction hindered until Darius’s second year, work revived under Haggai and Zechariah, Tattenai’s investigation, Darius’s support, and rebuilding of the temple 4:24-6:22
486 Opposition during the reign of Xerxes 4:6
465 Opposition during the reign of Artaxerxes 4:7
458 Return of Ezra with imperial grant 7-8
458 Problem of mixed marriages exposed and resolved 9-10
Post 458 Successful opposition to rebuilding of Jerusalem and its walls during the reign of Artaxerxes 4:8-23

Table 3: The Chronology of Ezra

Today’s Christian leader can rest secure in the thought that the same God who directed history during the time of Ezra is the same God who directs our history. Despite economic uncertainties or corrupt government leadership at the local, nation, or global level, God is the One who is in charge of history. God can overcome any human obstacles to accomplish His will and plan, but just like in time of Ezra, He uses godly and committed men and women who are ready to submit to His Word and will.

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Ezra 1:1-4 God moves the heart of Cyrus

1:1 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:[1]

Cyrus the Great was the dominant king of the Achaemenid dynasty and is credited with being the founder of the Persian Empire. He reigned from 559 to 530 BC, and under his rule Persia enjoyed great military expansion through dominance of Media, Lydia, Ionia, and even Babylonia.[2] The first year here refers “to the first year of the conquering of Babylon when he became king of Mesopotamia.”[3] Through the 8th century prophet Isaiah, God calls Cyrus “my shepherd” (Isa 44:28) and “the LORD’s anointed” (Isa 45:1), pointing to God’s sovereign control of both history and Cyrus’ heart. Williamson correctly points out that “the biblical writer, however, is concerned not merely with the external facts of history, which he may have derived from the heading or other note of identification on the copy of the decree itself…; rather he is concerned with their divine ordering and purpose.”[4] Through the prophet Jeremiah God revealed that the exile would last 70 years. Jeremiah 25:11 says, “This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.” The 70 years can refer to the period between the destruction of the temple (586 BC) and the time it was rebuilt (516 BC)[5], or it can describe the time lapsed from the destruction of Assyria (609 BC) to the edict of Cyrus (539 BC).[6] The Hebrew text is clear that the proclamation was put “in writing,” an expression that “occurs only seven times in the Old Testament and is a technical term meaning “inscription” or “official document.”[7]

1:2 Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

The fact that Cyrus recognizes God as Yahweh is consistent with Achaemenid policy, that of using “the title of the god or gods recognized by the local population, but that this does not imply that they themselves were ‘converted’ to these religions from their own worship of Ahura Mazda.”[8] The expression “God of heaven” occurs nine times in the Old Testament and each reference refers to Yahweh. Breneman suggests that “the phrase ‘God of heaven’ was commonly used in the Persian Empire even by the Persians in speaking of their god.”[9] However, this God is not only the Creator God, but also the God who directs Cyrus to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Through the prophet Isaiah God “says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isa 44:28).

Cyrus cylinder – Inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.

1:3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel- he is the God who is in Jerusalem.

The word “all” used here points to a total repatriation wherein all Jews from both the Assyrian and Babylonian exile are invited to return to their homeland. The permissive “let him go up” indicates that Cyrus does not command the Jews to return, but rather he allows them to return. While the Babylonians ruled with an iron fist, forcing their subjects to worship their gods, Cyrus allowed those whom he conquered to worship their own gods. The expression “the God who is in Jerusalem” appears 10 other times in Ezra,[10] and points to Cyrus’ practice of viewing deities in relation to a place. Cyrus was “an Iranian polytheist”[11] whose view of Yahweh is limited even though he knows Him by the divine name (1:1).

1:4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.

Although not all those who were free to return wanted to return, they were to assist those who wanted to do so. It is also very plausible that, just as the Egyptians gave the Jews material possessions when they left Egypt in the time of Moses,[12] so did the Persians during this return. The parallels between Cyrus and Moses as deliverers were meant to encourage the people of God. Freewill offerings were also brought by the Israelites during the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness.[13] This time the freewill offerings were meant to finance the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587/6 BC. This “second Exodus” represents the rebirth of the nation of Israel after the exile. The freewill offerings identify the Jewish community as a worshipping community that is meant to have Jerusalem and the Temple[14] as its focus.

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An introduction to Ezra-Nehemiah

Starting today I will post bits and pieces from my Ezra-Nehemiah commentary.

The World of Ezra and Nehemiah

1.1 The Fall of the Babylonian Empire and the Rise of the Persian Empire.

Because of their persistent idolatry and apostasy, God allowed Israel to be taken into exile by the Babylonians under the command of the despot Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.). The Babylonian army took Jewish captives in three waves, in 605, 597, and 587 B.C. During the final invasion in 587 B.C., the Babylonians not only destroyed the city gates and walls of Jerusalem, but also Israel’s religious center, Solomon’s Temple; thus, the loss the Jews experienced was emotional, national and spiritual, simultaneously. In addition to asserting his power over the Jews, Nebuchadnezzar also directed massive building projects during his reign: bridges, ziggurats, and a temple to the city-god Marduk. His successors could not come close to the achievements of their predecessor who reigned for 42 years.

A second key figure in this historical period was Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, who became king of Elam around 559 B.C. After Cyrus defeated the king of the Lydian empire in 546 B.C., he turned his attention towards Babylonia. Cyrus overtook the capital city of Babylon on October 12, 539 B.C. after a bloody battle at Opis. Just nine years later (530 B.C.), he died in battle while pursuing more land for his already mammoth empire.

Cyrus II c. 559-530
Cambyses II 530-523
Bardiya 522
Darius I 522-486
Xerxes I 486-465
Artaxerxes I 465-424/3
Xerxes II 424/3
Darius II 423-405/4
Artaxerxes II 405/4-359
Artaxerxes III 359-338
Artaxerxes IV (Arses) 338-336
Darius III 336-331
Artaxerxes V 331

Table 1: Achaemenid Dynasty (559-330 B.C.)[1]

1.2 The Religion of the Persians.

Persia was a land of religious tolerance. While Persia’s kings themselves worshiped many pagan gods, they allowed and even aided the institution of the priesthood of various religious other groups.[2] Darius I (522-486) was greatly influenced by Zoroastrianism, the teachings of Zarathustra. It is possibly that by 480 B.C. Zoroastrianism became the official Persian religion.[3]

Zarathustra was born in eastern Iran around 628 B.C., although some scholars date his life between 1700 and 1500 B.C.[4] He was trained for service as a priest in a pagan cult, and at the age of thirty Zarathustra went down to a river to get some water for a pagan festival and allegedly received a heavenly vision.[5] The heavenly visitor named Ahura Mazda (which means “Wise Lord”)[6] revealed “truth” to Zarathustra and commissioned him to teach others; however, people of his day did not commonly consider Zarathustra divine and he was venerated only much later after his death.[7] He preached monotheism, which may be the reason many refused to listen, for his teachings were a radical departure from the polytheistic thought of his day. The prophet’s instructions also included a strict code of purity laws,[8] and correct conduct involved a strictly ethical life that honored mankind and the duty of man to care for the world and the animals within it.[9] Truth-telling was expected, water revered, and cleanliness encouraged. Ritual washings included passage through nine pits containing cattle urine, sand, and water.[10] Priests were responsible for daily sacrifices that normally involved the burning of a bull.

Not only did the Zoroastrians refuse to build temples, but they also erected no statues or altars: Herodotus reported that the Persians carved no images of their gods because it was considered folly to visualize them in human form.[11] The Persians revered fire and were encouraged to pray five times daily in the presence of fire. Zarathustra’s teachings were recorded in a sacred book called The Avesta, which was divided into three parts. The first section, called the Yasna, included the main liturgy and the Gathas. The second part, called the Yashts, were hymns directed to various deities, and finally, the Videvdat contained the moral law code.[12] The Gathas contained seventeen poetic hymns addressed to Ahura Mazda [13]and were thought to be the original teachings of Zarathustra. The rest of The Avesta came much later as priests and scribes interpreted and wrote commentary on the Gathas. Although contemporaneous priests experienced little difficulty in interpretation, some scholars believe the Gathas are “the most obscure and ambiguous compositions of all oriental religious literature.”[14]

According to tradition, Zarathustra was stabbed to death by a pagan priest at the age of seventy-seven.[15] There is no evidence that commoners widely embraced Zarathustra’s teachings, so it would be fair to conclude that the majority of the Persian culture remained essentially pluralistic.

Map 1: The Persian Empire

Copyright 1999 MANNA All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

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The complete review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of Rob Bell’s most recent book, Love Wins. I write as a professor, as a pastor, and as a parent. Thus, it is my desire to be both objective, edifying, and to write the truth in love.[1]

Preface: Millions of Us

Bell correctly identifies love as one of God’s main attributes, “Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us…‘For God so loved the world…’ That’s why Jesus came. That’s his message. That’s where the life is found” (p. vii). It is true that God is loving, gracious, and merciful; He is also holy, righteous, and just. The author is reacting against people who, he says, have “hijacked” Jesus’ story.

“There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it” (p. vii-viii). The topics of heaven and hell quickly come to the forefront; these topics are not new, and Bell admits that Jesus speaks of both. However, he is taking to task those who believe in separate eternal states/destinations. “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (p. viii).

Bell uses strong words to contradict those who believe in a heaven for those who accept Christ and a hell for those who reject Him. “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear” (p. viii). The author emphasizes that what he is saying has been said before, and he suggests that this was accepted as orthodox teaching.

Chapter 1: What About the Flat Tire?

Rob Bell loves questions; however, he does not always draw a clear distinction between rhetorical questions and those that demand an answer. He asks, “Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?” (p. 2). Is Rob Bell saying here that millions of people will not spend eternity in anguish? He continues, “What happens when a fifteen-year-old atheist dies?” (p. 4). Is Rob Bell saying that because of his age, the atheist should get a pass? He also asks, “What about people who have never said the prayer and don’t claim to be Christians, but live a more Christlike life than some Christians?” (p. 6). Is Rob Bell implying that a non-Christian can live a Christlike life? Does the Bible teach that a non-believer can live a Christlike life apart from Christ? The concept comes across as oxymoronic.

The book is confusing in that, after asking these questions, Rob Bell correctly affirms, “all that matters is how you respond to Jesus” (p. 7). This truth is followed by the question, “Which Jesus?” Evangelical Christians would hope that the answer is Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah who was revealed to us in the Bible. Instead of clear, biblical answers, more questions arise. Is he implying that there is more than one Jesus? Asking questions like these, it could be interpreted that Bell is referring to a crossless, miracleless Jesus that many have substituted for actual, historical Jesus of the Bible.

Bell correctly states, “the phrase ‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible” (p. 10), but he does not discuss the relational nature of God’s covenants with His people. The covenant formula, “I will be your [or their] God, and you [or they] will be My people” (Lev 26:12; Jer 7:23, 24:7, 30:22, 31:33, 32:38; Ezek 11:20, 36:28, 37:23, 27, Zech 8:8; 2 Cor 6:16) appears frequently. The language of relationship pervades Scripture. God reveals himself as God the Father; Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, “Our Father…” (Matt 6:9); through Christ, we are adopted in the family of God (Gal 4:4-5); Jesus calls us “brothers” (Heb 2:12).

Then, Bell presents a barrage of questions asking, “What saves you?” “Is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’re married to, or whether you give birth to children? Or is it what questions you’re asked? Or is it what questions you ask in return? Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city?” (p. 16-17). Although Bell does not answer these questions, he promises at the end of the chapter, “But this isn’t just a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (p. 19).

Chapter 2: Here Is the New There

In this chapter, Bell argues that heaven should not be understood as something we are simply looking forward to, but as something we can start experiencing here on earth. To support this idea he uses the story from Matthew 19 where a rich man asks Jesus: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Part of Jesus’ response is, “There is only one who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” Then, Bell asks, “‘Enter life?’…This isn’t what Jesus was supposed to say…Jesus then tells him, ‘Go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’…Shouldn’t Jesus have given a clear answer to the man’s obvious desire to know how to go to heaven when he dies?” (p. 26-28). Bell inquires, “Is that why he walks away—because Jesus blew a perfectly good “evangelistic” opportunity?…The answer, it turns out, is in the question. When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do” (p. 29-30). In contradiction to Bell’s claim, Jesus states in John 14:1-6 that He goes to prepare a place for His followers.

Bell’s treatment of prophecy is commendable; he recognizes that while the prophets preach against sin and warn of God’s coming judgment, they also preach of restoration. “And so in the midst of prophets’ announcements about God’s judgment we also find promises about mercy and grace” (p. 39). Unfortunately, his next statement fails to see the eschatological focus of the prophets. “They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth” (p. 40). Isaiah writes of a new heaven and a new earth, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa 65:17). Through Jeremiah, God speaks of the end times, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jer 23:5-6).

Bell also confuses the genre of a passage of scripture. Bell states, “In the Genesis poem that begins the Bible, life is a pulsing, progressing, evolving, dynamic reality in which tomorrow will not be a repeat of today, because things are…going somewhere” (p. 44). Genesis 1 is not poetry but prose.[2] His choice of the word ‘evolving’ may also be interpreted as suspect, and some may feel that Bell is leaving room for the possibility of evolution.

Bell also asks, “Think about the single mom, trying to raise kids…Is she the last who Jesus says will be first? Does God say to her, ‘You’re the kind of person I can run the world with’?” (p. 53). Does Rob Bell intend to imply that this woman can be first in God’s Kingdom because she was faithful in raising her children, apart from a true relationship with God? If so, he is contradicting Scripture; Luke writes in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Moving away from questions, he strongly states, “Let me be clear: heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future. That’s not a category or concept we find in the Bible” (p. 58). The Bible is clear that “forever” means “forever.” “The Word of the LORD endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25); “Whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17); “And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:10).

After a brief word study on the Greek term aion, Bell concludes that “when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come” (p. 58-59). An in-depth word study would reveal that Bell is mistaking the meaning of aion in saying that it does not mean “eternity;” a simple search reveals that the word aion and its derivativesare used almost two hundred times in the New Testament with the meaning of eternity, age/era, or world/material universe.

Bell concludes the chapter with this challenge, which could be seen as arrogant, “So how do I answer questions about heaven? How would I summarize all that Jesus teaches? There’s heaven now, somewhere else. There’s heaven here, sometime else. And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place. Try and paint that” (p. 62).

Chapter 3: Hell

Bell is partly correct when he affirms, “the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined… For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with” (p. 67). However, he omits two passages that clearly speak of eternal destinations. In Isaiah 65-66, the 8th century prophet talks of the new heaven and the new earth. Isaiah 66:24 is even quoted by Jesus saying, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” The other passage that clearly speaks of two places of either eternal reward or punishment is in the book of Daniel, “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3). The text in Daniel points to the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. These expressions occur only here in the Old Testament, and the word “everlasting” refers to time without end.

Bell’s treatment of hell continues into the New Testament. He states, “The actual word ‘hell’ is used roughly twelve times in the New Testament, almost exclusively by Jesus himself” (p. 67). He correctly points out, “the Greek word that gets translated ‘hell’ in English is the word ‘Gehenna’… the Valley of Hinnom… an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem” (p. 67). Unfortunately, he fails to see the relationship between the Valley of Hinnom and the orthodox view of hell, which is obvious in that he continues, “So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, ‘Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere…’” (p. 68). Jesus can be seen to speak of Gehenna in the contexts of destruction, unquenchable fire, and as a contrast to entering life or the kingdom of God. In Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In Mark 9:43, “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Also, in Mark 9:47, “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.”

Bell correctly states, “The other Greek word is ‘Hades’… We find the word in Revelation 1, 6, 20, and in Acts 2…Jesus uses the word in Matthew 11 and Luke 10… and in the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16” (p. 69). But in his treatment of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, he incorrectly concludes, “What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells… in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next. There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (p. 79). It should be noted that most biblical scholars would contradict Bell’s claim that this story is a parable; parables traditionally have nameless characters and are introduced with a comparative.

One of the most extreme perspectives Bell presents is the insinuation that Sodom and Gomorrah’s eternal destiny could be changed. “More bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah? He tells highly committed, pious, religious people that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than them on judgment day? There is still hope?” (p. 84). Jesus in context compares two groups of people that will be eternally lost, not one that will be able to move from eternal damnation to eternal blessedness.

From a linguistic perspective, Bell’s treatment of the Greek language is either dishonest or ignorant. In mentioning the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25, Bell affirms that “the goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo… the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.” The truth is that the expression “eis kolasin aionion” used in Matthew 25:46 means “into eternal punishment” and is used in conjunction with “everlasting fire” and in contrast with “eternal life.” No version of the Bible or evangelical commentary translates this expression the way Bell does. In this passage, Bell redefines hell; for him, hell is, “the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us… the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way” (p. 93). The problem with this view of hell is that it is not biblical; Jesus taught simply that there will be a bodily resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (John 5:28-29), with the righteous entering eternal life and the wicked, eternal punishment (Matt 25:46).

Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants?

In this chapter, Bell seems to imply that if people choose to go to hell, God does not get what he wants, namely to take everyone to heaven. He asks, “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” (p. 98) He does not answer this question which relies on fallible logic and a false dichotomy. One cannot rationally claim that God does not get what He wants, which is what Bell implies would happen if less than each person is saved. To say that God fails in this way because not everyone is saved is similar to saying that God is not omnipotent because he cannot create square circles. A circle cannot be square; it goes against the nature of being a circle. In the same way God cannot go against his own nature.

His next question is surreal, “What makes us think that after a lifetime, let alone hundreds or even thousands of years, somebody who has consciously chosen a particular path away from God suddenly wakes up one day and decides to head in the completely opposite direction?” (p. 104-105). The Bible is clear on this issue; the author of Hebrews (whom Bell claims is a woman) writes, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).

One can see how Bell might be labeled as an universalist when he makes assertions like this, “given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God… Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, ‘Sorry, too late?’” (p. 107-108). Again, the variable, but non-negotiable entity “death” gets in the way. Nowhere in the Bible does someone turn to God after they have died. Bell wants to support his claims by appealing to Genesis 18, “As Abraham asked in Genesis 18, ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” (p. 109). The passage that follows shows how He did right; He judged Sodom and Gomorrah and destroyed them, “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the LORD out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Genesis 19:24-25).

Rob Bell asks, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires” (p. 115). Bell is correct that there are some tensions in the Bible which we must leave unresolved, but the fact that people choose to reject God and thus “perish apart from god forever because of their choices” is not one of those tensions.

However, Bell correctly concludes the chapter by affirming one’s freedom to choose. He states, “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leave room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (p. 118-119).

Chapter 5: Dying to Live

In this chapter, Bell quite masterfully explains how Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice, accurately tying His death the to Old Testament sacrificial system. He describes the meaning of the cross saying, “What happened on the cross is like…a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again” (p. 128). He continues by supporting the importance of the resurrection. “[The disciples’] encounters with him led them to believe that something massive had happened that had implications for the entire world” (p. 130).

He points to the significance of the number seven and ties this in with John’s placing the raising of Lazarus from the dead as the seventh sign in his gospel. He ties this in with the seven days of creation concluding, “John is telling a huge story, one about God rescuing all of creation” (p. 134). Bell correctly points that that 1 John 2:2 does not speak of a limited atonement, “The pastor John writes to his people that Jesus is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’ and that Jesus is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for only ours but also for the sins of the whole world’” (p. 135). This chapter is theologically rich, and while it provides more questions than answers, it does not generally carry any universalist implications.

Chapter 6: There Are Rocks Everywhere

The title of the chapter makes an allusion to Paul’s use of the Old Testament episode when God His people water to drink from the rock (Ex 17:6-7). As Paul gives the church at Corinth a history lesson, he writes that the people “drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4). Bell then incorrectly concludes that “Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere” (p. 144). Bell’s exegetical skills are still found lacking. Paul identifies the manna in the wilderness as spiritual food, and the water from the rock as spiritual drink; Paul emphasizes the supernatural provision of the manna and the water in the wilderness. Since the rock is with the people at the beginning of their journey, as well as at the end (Ex 17, Num 20), Paul says that Christ is the rock that was with them all along.

In his treatment of John 14:1-6, Bell mocks Jesus’ claim of exclusivity. He writes, “John remembers Jesus saying, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ …What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him” (p. 154). Somehow, Bell undermines Jesus’ word and says that someone could make it to the Father without knowledge of Christ. Bell writes, “First, there is exclusivity. Jesus is the only way…Then there is inclusivity. The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in [which he does not advocate]… And then there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but hold tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum” (p. 154-155). Bell shockingly claims that Jesus declares “that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (p. 155).

Bell exhorts believers to suspend judgment, using John 3:17 as a proof text. He writes, “it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies. As Jesus said, he ‘did not come to judge the world, but to save the world’ (p. 160). Bell should also have included Jesus’ words saying, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). These words of Jesus may be both negative and decisive, yet they remain true.

Chapter 7: The Good News Is Better Than That

After retelling the story of “The Loving Father and His Two Lost Sons” (or “The Prodigal Son”), Bell concludes, “The difference between the two stories is, after all, the difference between heaven … and hell” (p. ). Bell includes Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God in his “Further Reading,” yet his exegetical method does not follow Keller’s. Keller’s point is that the parable is about God’s extravagant love for both lost sons, and Bell claims that the parable is about heaven and hell. Keller also does a masterful job at pointing the relationship between the parable of the Loving Father, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost coin. He even points out that by not finishing the parable of the Loving Father, Jesus was inviting his audience to respond to the message. The Pharisees, who are represented by the older brother, were the ones who were supposed to go and search for the lost younger brother. Bell explains his view by claiming that for the older son, “hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish. It’s not an image of separation, but one of integration. In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other” (p. 169-170). This intertwining of heaven and hell is neither biblically nor theologically sound. However, Bell is correct when he summarizes God’s version of our story: “we are loved…in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts…God has made peace with us” (p. 172).

Bell borders on blasphemy when he suggests that if people go to hell, it is because God changes into a “cruel, mean, vicious tormenter;” thus, distorting the view of God and in the process, impugning his holiness. He writes, “Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way…and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony” (p. 173-174). The Bible is clear that God, in His love, sent His son Jesus Christ to die for our sins, so we do not have to end up in a Godless eternity in hell; the fact that some choose to go there does not change the biblical view of God who is both loving and merciful, but also holy and just. Bell goes on to redefine hell again; for him, “Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God” (p. 175). Bell again fails to see the totality of God’s attributes by elevating God’s love above God’s holiness. He asserts, “We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell” (p. 177). This chapter shows Bell’s myopic view of God, his lack of perspective essentially strips God of some of His key attributes like justice and holiness.

Chapter 8: The End Is Here

The last chapter is well-written, moving, and clear; it beautifully describes Bell’s conversion experience. “One night when I was in elementary school, I said a prayer kneeling beside by bed in my room in the farmhouse… With my parents on either side of me, I invited Jesus into my heart. I told God that I believed that I was a sinner and that Jesus came to save me and I wanted to be a Christian. I still remember that prayer. It did something to me. Something in me” (p. 193). Bell affirms, “What happened that night was real” (p. 194). According to this testimony, Rob Bell is a brother in Christ who has accepted Him as LORD and Savior. The implications made in the book regarding God, hell, heaven, and the meaning of forever, lead me to believe that he is a confused young man who needs to reevaluate his view of Scripture; his theology, and especially his hermeneutics.

I recommend these books on heaven and hell: Heaven Revealed by Paul Enns and Hell Under Fire by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson.

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