I’ve been listening to some lectures by Professor Isaiah Gafney  and I got to a place this morning that raises a broader question for me. Gafney offers a historical perspective on the early years of the Second Temple period of Israel (on which, more shortly) and this perspective permits him to comment on the relationship between the perspective we find in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the perspective found in the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
I’m going to ask the question that his lecture raised for me and then I’ll back up a little to lay in the context that makes it matter. The question is, “What kind of understanding of these texts is possible with the historical context?”
I should probably stop briefly to say that not everyone agrees that “understanding the Bible” is what Christians ought to be doing. Some say, for instance, that there are little fragments of text that, as you are reading along, suddenly seem powerful or relevant to you. The purpose of the reading is to expose yourself to such moments. That has never worked well for me and I have come, over the years, to think that “understanding” a passage means understanding what it means in its context.
When I say “in context,” I commonly think of both the historical and the theological contexts. I think both are worth knowing, but more and more, I have come to approach the theological meaning by means of the historical meaning. What if, for instance, the very pedestrian focus of Ezra and Nehemiah were a reaction to the most more expansive and messianic emphasis of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi? If the builders (Ezra and Nehemiah) are saying to the prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi), “Hold on! You are going too fast!” Or possibly, “Hold on! Your emphasis on God’s promise to Israel is going to bring Persians down here!”
That’s what Professor Gafney thinks, although I have simplified a much more detailed account in putting it that way. The contrast between these two commitments reminds me very much of Abraham Lincoln’s need to ward off the abolitionists so he could finish the war and restore the union. It also reminds me of the way Eleanor Roosevelt approached the difficult issues during World War II. She would seize on to an issue, frame it in moral terms, and then present it to her husband Franklin in language like “We HAVE to do something about this.”
In this way of looking at it Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Eleanor, and Horace (Greeley) are on one side of things. Ezra, Nehemiah, Abe, and Franklin are on the other side. The one is relatively simple and emotionally expansive; the other carries the kind of complexity that project management often does and has both weariness and wariness as characteristic emotions.
The historical period referred to as the Second Temple period, begins when Cyrus, the king of the Persian empire, adopts an entirely new way of managing religious minorities. For the Jews who had been deported to Babylon, it meant “going back home.” Of course, it was a “home” to only a few because the Jews had been living in Babylon for three generations. When the Jews got “home” they started rebuilding the temple, with had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE. The politics of the Second Temple period was difficult. Rebuilding the city walls and the temple took a lot of time and money. There was also a sense that the way of living in Jerusalem and its surroundings had become very “mixed” and Judaism is a religion that stresses separation and purity. More complexity.
The job of dealing with these very immediate issues fell to Ezra and Nehemiah. The vision of what it really meant, in the providence of God, for the Jews to have come back home fell to the prophets and they said some very expansive things. They spoke about the restoration of the royal line of David as if they had lost track of the fact that David was a king. Restoring religious freedom to Jewish outcasts in Babylon was what Cyrus had in mind. Supporting the resurgence of a hostile state on their southern border was NOT what Cyrus had in mind.
Similarly, the prophets spoke very confidently of God’s plans to restore to Israel the “lands of their fathers” which had been “stolen from them” by their enemies. It felt very religious to the prophets. And it was something that God would do, not something the rebuilders of the city would do. On the other hand, “reclaiming” the lands “stolen from us” sounds like a series of border wars to Cyrus. That is not what he had in mind by funding the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem.
If Professor Gaffney is right about all that, and I have no doubt at all that he is, then the language of the prophets should be read as the language of aspiration. Look what God is doing! And the language of the builders should be seen as the language of project management.
I am ready now to attempt an answer to the question with which I began: “What kind of understanding of these texts is possible with the historical context?” I can think of two kinds. I am going to fight my natural inclinations here and just not give them any names at all. I will just describe them. You can name them if you are so inclined.
The first is seeing how fully complementary the two emphases are. They don’t fit together very well, but “too much” and “not enough” have never fit together very well. The easiest thing to do is to identify with one group—with the prophets, let’s say—and condemn the builders for their lack of faith in God’s provision or for their giving priority to politics over prophetic certainties. You hear what the other group is saying as if it could be best understood within your own frame of reference. That’s easy, but it’s not smart.
The smart thing to do is to understand what the fundamental vision of the other group is and to understand what they say (the prophets) or what they do (the builders) within that context. Of course, opening yourself to “understanding” that other vision relativizes your own vision and who likes that? But if you are willing to grant that the two are complementary, that is what is required. Otherwise, it is like imagining what “walking” would be if you were a partisan of the left foot and resented the adjustments made by the right foot.
The second is to see oneself in a “time” of some sort. In the Bible, “time” often means “when the time is right” (kairos) rather than “the second Sabbath of a month (chronos).” That is hard because everyone agrees about the second Sabbath; very often, people argue with whoever says, “This is the time to strike” or “the time to disappear” or the time for diplomacy. If you are part of an organization for long enough, you get a sense for the tides of events.  You come to feel that we need to pull back now, to save ourselves the futile effort, to store up the resources we will need. Others will feel that now is the time to push harder, to make whatever effort is necessary, and to use the resources we have right now.
The value of this little snapshot of the Second Temple period for me is that I see these conflicts in a context. In two contexts, in fact. These stresses that are a part of my life—the us and not them stress and the now but not then stress—were crucial to the early parts of the Second Temple period and “understand” means both seeing those arguments in their setting and also knowing how to appreciate those same arguments in my own setting.
But most of all, it is a warning against cherry-picking, an insidious practice by which someone chooses “a verse” and says that it represents “God’s will” for us in our time. Someone needs to say, “Um…what about the other verses” and sometimes, that is me.
 The course is called The Beginnings of Judaism. It is one of many truly remarkable courses offered by The Teaching Company. The lecture that flipped my switch this morning is called “The End of Days—Messianic Eschatology.”
 Not everyone feels the tides the way you do, unfortunately. And the “time” that can be determined by the tide charts is (chronos) the other kind of time and “feeling the tide of events” is always the kairos kind. Oh well.