Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the re-establishment of the Jewish community in Palestine after the end of the exile in Babylon. The two books describe the events of the mid-sixth to early fourth centuries B.C. During this period, the Persian Empire, which had conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, began permitting exiles from Judah to return and resettle Palestine. It was a difficult time. Political and military threats from rival nations, controversies over land and politics, and the pressing need to rebuild the Temple and other social institutions made for a climate of strife and insecurity. The stories preserved in Ezra and Nehemiah describe the efforts of three different community leaders to respond to these challenges.

Reading the books straight through is bound to be frustrating. Some later editor broke the stories into sections and woven them together for reasons that nobody really understands. It’s best to read the three sections of the book in their original order. The first story, the “temple narrative,” is told from Ezra 1:1 to 6.22. It describes the return of the exiles led by Zerubbabel and the struggle to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. The second story, the “Ezra memoir,” runs from Ezra 7 to Ezra 10, resumes in Nehemiah 7:73 and continues through Nehemiah 10. This story concerns another return of exiles led by a scribe named Ezra. His main goal seems to have been to get folks observing the religious law. He also tried to preserve ethnic identity by banning all marriage with outsiders. The final story, the “Nehemiah narrative,” describes the commissioning of Nehemiah by the Persian king Artaxerxes to become governor of Judah. The story begins at Nehemiah 1 and continues through Nehemiah 7. It picks up again at Nehemiah 11 and runs to the end of the book. Nehemiah’s main achievement was to rebuild the protective city walls of Jerusalem. He also attempted get economic affairs in order, and to do away with loansharking and slavery as a way of paying off debt. Like Ezra, Nehemiah was a bit nervous about outsiders— he tried to expel foreigners from the community. He also got the temple cult going again.

Modern readers of Ezra and Nehemiah are bound to find the rants against foreigners unpleasant. The apparent similarity between the actions of these leaders and contemporary racism and anti-immigrant sentiment will add a resonance to these biblical stories that they would not have had when they were first written; our modern concepts of race and universal human rights are a world away from the worries of these ancients. Their main concerns were keeping their community together after the exile and defending it from threats made by rival nations. The tools they used, though offensive to contemporary values, were crucial for the survival of their culture. The actions described in these books were seen by the authors as essential for their community’s survival. Read this way, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell a dramatic story of a people’s heroic response to unimaginable catastrophe.