About 600 years before Jesus, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. (The king of Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar, for those of you who had perfect attendance in Sunday School as a child.) The Babylonians destroyed the Temple, the palace, and the city walls. They killed countless inhabitants of the city, and they took the survivors back to Babylon to be their slaves.
The Israelites languished in Babylon as captives for 70 years. And then Babylon was defeated by the Persians, and the Persian King (Cyrus) looked at the Israelites and said something to the effect of “Why don’t y’all go home?”
So, they did.
They left Babylon and made the long journey back to Jerusalem. King Cyrus gave them enough money to rebuild their homeland, and so once they got there, they got to the hard work of taking what had been thrown down and making it new again.
70 years is a long time to be away from home. It’s also a long time to be without their religion. All of the things that they had been used to in the old days like the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, the festivals—all of it was gone for those 70 years.
When they got home again, they didn’t just have to rebuild their city, they had to rebuild their faith. They had to remember that they were God’s People, and they had to figure out how to be God’s People once more.
Ezra and Nehemiah were the two leaders who helped make that happen. In this weekend’s Hebrew Bible lesson they call the people together to rededicate them to God, and to the ways of God. They literally came together for Ezra to read the Bible to them.
This people—who had been so beaten down over the years—were reminded through this reading that they had been created in the Image of God, that they had been saved from slavery in Egypt and given a new home, that they were God’s Chosen People. And now they would have realized that they had been saved once again, and their homeland had been restored.
For them standing in the ruins of their homeland, the Bible wasn’t just a collection of old stories that had happened a long time ago—rather it was this grand story of God saving his people over and over again, and they were a part of this story. The story hadn’t ended. Their religion wasn’t an exercise in ancient history—it was still happening right before their eyes.