Posted: 01 Jan 2011 11:00 PM PST
THE SHEER PRECISION OF THE REPORTS of return (Ezra 2) is one of the first things to strike the casual reader of this chapter. Not only are the numbers of the people accurately reported, along with the names of their clans, but even the numbers of their animals—horses, mules, camels, donkeys (Ezra 2:66). One remembers the response of the old Puritan who was being berated for insisting on precision when talking about God and the teachings of the Bible. "Sir," he replied, "I serve a precise God."
That is only one side of the story, of course. This same God delights in the spontaneous praise of children, who are not known for precision. The Bible he has given us uses evocative imagery as well as precise reports. Yet our age is so committed to vague feelings that precision in matters divine is often despised. We want to follow our intuitions, not our instructions; we elevate feelings, not facts; we ingest treacle, not truth.
In this case there are several reasons for the precision of the report. For a start, such precision gives the account authority: this is not some distant hearsay, but the close reportage of someone who had intimate knowledge of the details. Further, naming these individuals and their families bestows on them an implicit approval. Countless tens of thousands of Israelites never returned to the Promised Land; they were too settled where they were, and the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple was of too little importance to them to warrant such dislocation. Their names have been lost; they are of little consequence in the sweep of redemptive history. But these names are remembered and written down in sacred Scripture. Read them slowly; they call forth our respect and gratitude.
But there is another element in the precision. Some of the returning clans could not show that they were descended from Israel (Ezra 2:59); some of those who claimed priestly lineage were in the same predicament (Ezra 2:62). The problem was taken seriously, and Zerubbabel the governor ordered that they be excluded from priestly service until the ancient way of divine guidance, the Urim and Thummim, could be reinstituted and their claims checked (Ezra 2:63). Here were a people serious about observing the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, serious about preserving the purity not only of the covenant community in general but of the priesthood in particular, serious about following all of God's words. The seriousness with which they undertook the massive enterprise of the return is attested even by the gifts that they gave toward rebuilding the house of God (Ezra 2:68–69).
The fact that this fledgling postexilic community soon stumbled into a new generation of fresh problems and old sins should not diminish the power of their example for believers today.
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