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Ezra Shows the Ten Commandments on Tablets, from Doré Bible by Gustave Doré
Ezra Reads the Law, from Die Bibel in Bildern (Leipzig, G. Wigand) by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
Ezra: Oath of Children of Israel, from Bible Historiale by Workshop of the Boucicaut Master

Gustave Doré

Ezra Shows the Ten Commandments on Tablets, from Doré Bible, 1866, Engraving, Universal History Archive / UIG / Bridgeman Images

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Ezra Reads the Law, from Die Bibel in Bildern (Leipzig, G. Wigand), 1860, Woodcut, p.308, Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

Workshop of the Boucicaut Master

Ezra: Oath of Children of Israel, from Bible Historiale, c.1415, Illuminated manuscript, 450 x 330 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1910., MS M.394 fol. 258r, Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

The Wide Arch of the Ranged Empire

Comparative Commentary by

This episode is a vignette of imperialism, of colonialism, of racism, all riding on the coat-tails of Holy Writ: of those who aided and were aided by empire, laid claim to the land of others, and then excluded those others from that claim. And after the land grab, revelry. All mandated by the Word of God.

It is a vignette of Ezra, one of the Bible’s few pulpit-pounders, pounding one of the Bible’s few pulpits. The Hebrew canon does not separate the books of Ezra from Nehemiah until the fifteenth century; in the Septuagint, they are one work. But it is here, in the book that bears Nehemiah’s name, that Ezra takes centre stage.

The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century before the Common Era, suffering a deportation of its elite to Babylon. Some descendants of that elite returned to Judea after the fall of the Babylonian Empire under the patronage of its Persian successor: the Persian emperor Cyrus is credited with restoring gods and peoples dislocated by earlier regimes to their respective ancestral lands (2 Chronicles 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–4; see Isaiah 45:1–25).

Ezra’s narrative affords the connection between the ‘returnees’ and the old Temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. Throughout the Babylonian exile, Israelites continued to live on the western side of the Jordan. They had survived the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians a century before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. 2 Chronicles 30:6, 10–11 calls them ‘the remnant of those that escaped’. It is the descendants of this remnant that Nehemiah confronts—and rejects—in his efforts to rebuild Jerusalem.

The ‘return’ was a creation of a new people with a new cult, centred on a new temple under Persian patronage. With Nehemiah, though of Judaean ancestry, as its Persian administrator, the new Jerusalem sucked from the teat of the imperial capital of Susa, which provided financial and material resources as well as a transplanted elite. Born and raised in the metropole, they were in Jerusalem but not of it.

The newly-minted Jerusalemites unanimously request that Ezra read the Law to them (Nehemiah 8:1). Ezra reassures them that the joy of the Lord will protect them against the judgement due their transgressions (8:10). The people resolve to study the Law (8:13) just as Ezra had done (see Ezra 7:10). Informed by their study, they celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for the first time since the days of Joshua (Nehemiah 8:17).

The book of Nehemiah thus gives us a biblical precedent for divinely-ordained imperialist claim-jumping. In the now-canonical proclamations of the high priest Ezra, what was authorized by Holy Writ has now become authorized in Holy Writ. Henceforth, the Bible would provide this prooftext for racial segregation and nationalist exceptionalism; for separating families at the border—wives torn from their husbands, fathers torn from their children; for erecting a wall to ‘defend’ a border in no way under attack, making of neighbours aliens and enemies; for the People of God as gated community—affirmed in the words of Ezra and in the affirmations of his parvenu Jerusalemite congregation.

Apparently, none of our artists is troubled by any of this. Their concerns lie elsewhere. In Gustave Doré’s visual literalism, the bearded Ezra sports tasselled robes and a turban—the ‘exotic’ garb of a stereotyped ancient Near Eastern figure. He is a carefully etched study in French Orientalism. In the woodcut of Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld and in the illumination of the Boucicaut Master, Ezra presides like a bishop over his ‘diocese’ of Jerusalem, declaiming to his penitent congregation a ‘canon law’ that he translates for them from the sacred, alien tongue in which it is written.

The book of Nehemiah is written entirely in Hebrew; the book of Ezra contains documents in Aramaic (Ezra 4:7–6:22; 7:12–26), the imperial lingua franca. This was the tongue into which Ezra had to translate the Hebrew of the Law for his audience—soon to be ethnically cleansed. And it was the native tongue of the women and children driven from Jerusalem as a policy of that Law.

Looking back on Ezra, all three artists are innocent of those twentieth-century outbreaks of apartheid, theocracy, and proxy imperialism that must burden our twenty-first-century reading of Ezra’s reading of the Law.

 

References

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. 1988 Ezra-Nehemiah, Old Testament Library (London: SCM)

Thompson, Thomas L. 1992. Early History of the Israelite People from the Written and Archaeological Sources, Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East 4 (Leiden: Brill)