Read the Passage: Ezra 4
Recall that in Ezra 3:3, it was reported that “fear had come upon [the Jews] because of the people of those countries” who now inhabited the Promised Land. As this present chapter notes, these inhabitants were mostly Assyrians who had been taken “captive and settled in the cities of Samaria” (Ezra 4:10). These Assyrians, who had been relocated to Israel following its defeat in 722 BC, along with subsequent deportees from Babylon, had intermarried with Israelites. Because the children born to these settlers mostly inhabited the cities of Samaria, they became known as the Samaritans. Since they had resided in Israel for many years, these Samaritans were threatened by the return of God’s people, as well as by the planned rebuilding of the temple. While these inhabitants claimed to be worshipers of God, it is recorded in 2 Kings 17:24–41 that their worship was syncretistic at best and idolatrous at worst.
God’s people had been in captivity for nearly seventy years; yet they knew about the Samaritans. While the northern tribes were exiled to Assyria in 722 BC, the deportation of Judah to Babylon did not begin until 605 BC. Thus, the Israelites who returned from exile were very familiar with the syncretistic worship of the Samaritans. Moreover, since idolatry was a cause of Judah’s deportation, the returnees rebuffed the Samaritans’ offer to help rebuild the temple. In addition, Cyrus’ decree specified that it was the Jews who should build the temple. Indeed, the decision to spurn the Samaritans’ offer of help proved to be correct, for they later tried: (1) to discourage God’s people, (2) to trouble those who were rebuilding, and (3) to frustrate the returnees with certain hired counselors. This hostility, writes Ezra, spanned the reigns of Cyrus and Darius, which may have been as long as fifty years.
In Ezra 4:6–23, for certain literary reasons, Ezra chose to insert material into his narrative about later Samaritan persecution of God’s people. To elaborate, while in Ezra 4:1–5 the author had been detailing the rebuilding of temple in 536 BC, in Ezra 4:6 the author jumps to Samaritan hostility during the reign of Ahasuerus, which was between 486–464 BC. Furthermore, in Ezra 4:7–23 the author gives detailed information about specific Samaritan opposition that occurred during the reign of Artaxerxes, which was from 464–423 BC. It seems Ezra’s literary intent here is to illustrate the prolonged resistance he had first alluded to back at Ezra 4:5. Observe that in Ezra 4:24, the narrative returns to the then present day. The accusation mentioned in Ezra 4:6 appears to be relatively minor, but the hostility cited in Ezra 4:7–23 resulted in a halt to the reconstruction of Jerusalem.
Ezra 4:11–16 contains a letter written by certain Samaritans to King Artaxerxes, likely shortly after he began to reign in 464 BC. This letter was written roughly seventy-five years after the rebuilding of the temple began. Within the biblical timeline, it is probable that this opposition occurred just prior to the events in the book of Nehemiah. In fact, the “great distress and reproach” (Neh. 1:3) that inspired Nehemiah to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem may have been caused, in part, by this letter. To summarize, the authors of the letter cited in Ezra 4 argued that Jerusalem should not be rebuilt for: (1) the city had a history of rebellion, (2) the inhabitants of a rebuilt Jerusalem would no longer pay taxes, and (3) it would infringe upon the king’s dominion east of the Euphrates River. While arguments two and three were conjecture, argument one was a verifiable fact, which was confirmed by the king.
Ezra 4:17–23 records King Artaxerxes’ response to the letter from the Samaritan leaders. While his greatest concern was likely with the loss of tax revenue, in his response the king verified that each of the three concerns raised in the initial letter were valid. It is noteworthy that the issue of taxes is mentioned last in Artaxerxes’ reply, which perhaps shows that this was his real concern. Given the ideas that were raised in the letter, the king instructed, “Now give the command to make these men cease, that this city may not be built until the command is given by me” (Ezra 4:21). While this command was obeyed, note: (1) King Artaxerxes did not seem to be familiar with Cyrus’ earlier decree that allowed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and (2) King Artaxerxes would later empower his own cup-bearer, Nehemiah, to travel to Jerusalem and to rebuild the city wall. Observe there is a 15-year gap between Ezra chapters 4–5.
- How can God’s people best handle hostility and opposition from the world? Is it always best to turn the other cheek?
- Why would the Samaritan inhabitants of Israel have been threatened by the return of God’s people to the Promised Land?
- When does cooperation with others become compromise with God? Were God’s people correct in rebuffing the Samaritans’ offer of assistance?
- Why are many non-believers intolerant of God’s people? As a Christian, have you ever experienced hostility or opposition from the world?
- Given that his forefather Cyrus had decreed the rebuilding of Jerusalem, was it wise or foolish leadership for Artaxerxes to halt the reconstruction?