Of all the texts of Scripture, Ezra & Nehemiah seem to get considerably less press than the rest. It is not entirely clear why. Perhaps new construction is always more appealing than reconstruction. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of Israel's return from Babylonian captivity. Ezra's focus is the rebuilding of the Temple. Nehemiah records the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Both also recount the restoration of Torah observance and other ritual and religious practices of the returning exiles.
It's fair to say that David and Solomon, the kings responsible for the original construction of the Temple, centralizing political and religious life in Jerusalem, were sexy, attractive men, wealthy and successful and strong. They built structures worth celebrating. Ezra & Nehemiah are restorers, recoverers of what was lost. And they restore not on their own terms, but proceeding from the magnanimity of Cyrus the Great, the only other person (and a Gentile at that!) besides Jesus Christ himself who is called in Scripture Messiah (Isaiah 44:24; 45:1-6).
In an increasingly secularizing world with millions of refugees the world over, and increasingly diverse migrant communities inhabiting the many cities of the world, I believe Ezra and Nehemiah should interest us more. They are a biblical record of a time not unlike our own. They give witness to faith in the midst of flux, hope in the middle of rubble, new life between the shadows of first life and resurrected life.
The books are written mostly in Hebrew, but also in Aramaic. This illustrates the changing linguistic situation in the era (circa 450 to 400 BCE).
Politics were also in flux. The Babylonians took people into captivity when they over ran them. The Persians had a different practice, allowing exiles to return home and rebuild, even allowing them to reconstruct their religious and political institutions. This was a wonderfully ecumenical practice, but it did meet resistance in the locales where exiles returned. Imagine if the land on which you lived were suddenly restored to the people you had displaced. It might be the right thing to do, but it wouldn't be popular, and you wouldn't want to move.
Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded, under the protection of King Darius and King Artaxarxes, in rebuilding the temple, what historically is termed the Second Temple. Some form of this temple remained in place until the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
Jesus spoke of the temple, and Christian theology has often emphasized that Jesus Christ in his body lived out the temple narrative. His temple was destroyed, and rebuilt in three days (John 2:19). The most direct way to describe a Christian understanding of temple is to say that what was then centered in an actual temple in Jerusalem has shifted to the body of Jesus Christ, present in and among his people throughout the world. Similarly Torah observance, centered in Jerusalem, had already shifted in the exilic period to synagogues, so wherever a minion gathered around Scripture, there was Torah observance. The Christian faith with integrity continued this practice, so that Christianity no longer has a geographical "center" per se but is instead wherever the people of God gather and the word is proclaimed and the sacraments administered.
We live today as a church in anxious times. We wonder if we are headed into exile in our own places, in our own culture and era. The church has declined in many places where it once was established. It has not been taken forcefully into exile in the painful military manner of the Babylonian captivity, but it has suffered loss, and seems to be in a long slow decline, which some perceive as a direct attack.
We wonder what it means to rebuild. The church, whether it is re-rooting in communities it had once abandoned, or is seeking to maintain a remnant in places abandoned by empire, can learn much from the experience of Ezra and Nehemiah, even if the particulars of their cultic and political restoration are decidedly different from those today.
In particular, we can wrestle with the portion of Nehemiah that makes most contemporary readers uncomfortable. Nehemiah emphasizes the purity of Israel, the building up of walls to protect Jerusalem, and the purification (including putting an end to intermarriage and more), because he knew in a foreign land, the only way to maintain the identity of this people was through walls.
Christians yet today wrestle with this. Some come to the conclusion that "walls do make Christians." I think here of that famous work of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Resident Aliens, and really any argument (of which there are many) that Christians are to be, in some form or another, a peculiar people.
The only way to make yourself peculiar is to have proper boundaries. Even if the boundaries are intentionally porous, the boundaries still matter.
Self-differentiation is, for Ezra and Nehemiah, a holy practice for a holy people. It's the only way to restore.
So we ask ourselves today, in the many forms of secularity we inhabit (and that inhabit us): What can we learn about secularity and a global refugee crisis, what we can we learn about a world of migrants and people on the way, from the restoration of the temple and Torah in Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah?
Even more importantly, what is it about this story of Ezra and Nehemiah that makes us avoid it? Why won't we stare it down, but instead mostly avert our eyes and look away? Is it an indication of how stuck we are in our current faithful engagement with secularity that we are unwilling to give these books the attention they deserve?
Another way of saying it might be, to be radical: Does neoliberalism have such a strangle hold on us that we are blind to portions of Scripture most essential to us today?