This engraving is by Gustave Doré (1832–83), a French artist famous for his printed illustrations of over 100 books, among them Dante’s Divine Comedy, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and, most famously, the Bible.
Doré’s illustrated Bible in folio format, published in 1865, was a runaway international bestseller. It is featured in a scene in the Stephen Spielberg film Amistad, in which two imprisoned African slaves, though illiterate, ‘read’ the story of Jesus through Doré’s illustrations of scenes in the Gospels.
Its subject is Nehemiah 8:2–4: ‘accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly ... Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose’. The ‘book of the law’ that Ezra brings forth should be a scroll. But here Doré gives an iconographic nod to Israel’s first encounter with divine Law at Sinai. Ezra points to what is inscribed on a large tablet with twin lobes at the top, suggesting the two ‘tables of the law’ that Moses delivered to the Israelites after his forty-day audience with God. Doré’s representation concurs with widely held rabbinic esteem for Ezra as a second Moses who delivers the Law of God again to the wayward Israelites: Ezra saved the Law from oblivion (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 20a); he was the equal of Moses, and would have been the one to deliver the Law to Israel had not Moses done so first (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 21b).
This second dispensation of holy Law, however, is attended with none of the sound and fury of the first at Sinai. Ezra stands not at the foot of a volcanic mountain, but atop a handmade pedestal facing the town square. And unlike the cowed multitude at Sinai, Ezra’s hearers do not maintain a horrified distance but instead draw near, some close enough to touch him. At lower left, a woman bows her head as a man standing nearby appears to look disdainfully upon her—an ominous intimation of things to come.
Richardson, Joanna. 1980. Gustave Doré (London: Cassell)
73 So the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, some of the people, the temple servants, and all Israel, lived in their towns.
8 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. 2And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiʹah, Shema, Anaiʹah, Uriʹah, Hilkiʹah, and Ma-aseiʹah on his right hand; and Pedaiʹah, Mishʹa-el, Malchiʹjah, Hashum, Hash-badʹdanah, Zechariʹah, and Meshulʹlam on his left hand. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. 6And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiʹah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabʹbethai, Hodiʹah, Ma-aseiʹah, Keliʹta, Azariʹah, Joʹzabad, Hanan, Pelaiʹah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
9 And Nehemiʹah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
13 On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law. 14And they found it written in the law that the Lord had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, 15and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 16So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Eʹphraim. 17And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. 18And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.