The Art of Negotiation in Ezra–Nehemiah

Yet it is ethically problematic to turn a blind eye to, or excuse, the exclusion or expulsion of local persons and family members simply because Ezra or Nehemiah declare them to be a threat. Rather than accepting the authors’ perspectives wholesale, we might begin by asking what the ancient writers were trying to say and why.

See Also: Negotiating Power in Ezra-Nehemiah (SBL Press, 2016).

By Donna J. Laird
Adjunct, Ashland Theological Seminary
April 2017

Ezra–Nehemiah are not impartial historical records. Rather, the authors use the stories of early returnees make a case for later social practices. The retuning exiles and their leaders are shown in a positive light: prayerful, persistent, and successful in their efforts to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. This depiction invites readers to admire the actions or claims of main characters and overlook violent or unsavory aspects of the text. Yet it is ethically problematic to turn a blind eye to, or excuse, the exclusion or expulsion of local persons and family members simply because Ezra or Nehemiah declare them to be a threat. Rather than accepting the authors’ perspectives wholesale, we might begin by asking what the ancient writers were trying to say and why. What cultural assumptions or political or economic situations impacted their perspectives? What losses or fears required explanation? What role did religious beliefs play in legitimating assertions of privilege and power and how might that serve the author’s interests? Who would be negatively impacted by the social program advocated? Answers to these questions allows us to see how the authors negotiated and countered alternative social constructions for the community. It may also allow a more informed assessment of their goals.

Ezra–Nehemiah is an account of return, reconstruction, restoration and reform addressed to a reconstituted community that has a temple, priesthood, the Torah, and a wall. The histories of the early returnees to Jerusalem are crafted to legitimate these religious, social, and physical entities which suggests that at the time of writing, the importance and meaning of these institutions for the community were contested. These books also display a persistent concern with the enforcement of ethnic boundaries—to the extent that Roland Boer calls them xenophobic (2005, 238). The following two examples explore how the authors shore up the value of their institutions and the strategies they employ to sway early recipients to adopt restrictive social measures. (For a more thorough treatment see Laird, Negotiating Power in Ezra–Nehemiah, 2016.)

The Persian empire provides a backdrop for these narratives. Over time, Persian control tightened in the province and its support of religion excluded political independence and compelled changes to religious practice (Berquist 1995, 6). The historical and religious traditions of the people are reframed in response to changed circumstances: an impoverished and geographically reduced territory, a well-established Diaspora, and a militarily secure Persian Empire (Kessler 2009: 144). The return of exiles introduced local conflicts over culture, religion, and class. The effect of minority status on ethnic group boundary maintenance contributed in specific ways to changes in Yehud society (Smith-Christopher 1991, 73). The shared language, religion, history, and ethnicity of the exiles combine with a concern for identity and anxiety about domination to create an impulse towards communal boundary maintenance. Conflict ensued from the resulting exclusionary actions (Smith-Christopher1991, 97). These stories of the earliest returns construct a community identity suited to these new circumstances.

Ezra 5-6: Collaborating with Persia to Build a Legitimate Judean Temple

These books contain a host of writing conventions common to the ancient world. The roughly connected lists, penitential prayers, formal letters regarding imperial business, and descriptions of religious rituals appear disjointed to modern readers but each represents a source of authority to undermine or legitimate social arrangements. The effective use of literary conventions can be seen in the negotiations over the temple recounted in Ezra 5 and 6 as the writer adopts imperial modes of communication to recount the successful rebuilding efforts.

After “people of the land” resort to letters to the king to stymie the temple’s construction in Ezra 4, work resumes in Ezra 5:1. Yet a new obstacle arises when Tattenai, the Persian administrator, arrives and requires a response to his question, “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?” (Ezra 5:3 NRS) The question raises the legitimacy of the temple as a primary concern. No further conversation is recorded. Instead, the defense of the temple plays out through formal government letters between Tattenai and the king (Ezra 5:7). (The elders respond to the initial question with a written report recorded in the correspondence [5:11].) Resolving the temple’s legitimacy through formal imperial communication serves a persuasive purpose as it lends government approval for future claims about the temple.

Pierre Bourdieu contends three criteria are necessary for legal discourse to be effective. It must be “Uttered by the person legitimately licensed to do so, in a legitimate situation [and] enunciated according to the legitimate forms….” (Bourdieu 1991, 113). In these chapters, official language (Aramaic) combines with official discourse contained in official correspondence between Tattenai and the king. Legality and legitimacy are heightened in a way unavailable in a narrative alone. The edict creates the Temple that a narrative could only describe, and only the edict of the king can accomplish that. In fact, imperial edicts by two kings are cited to underscore the temple’s legality (Ezra 6:3, 6:6-12). Unable to resolve the stalemate through their own decrees, the exiles and the people of the land require an imperial verdict. This may mirror similar conflicts in the author’s own time. Local disagreements are resolved by imperial intervention, often at the request of the competing parties and facilitated by the work of government scribes.

In addition to legitimating the temple, the king’s edict includes language that defines the community. Darius orders Tattenai to “keep away; let the work on this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site” (Ezra 6:7). His ruling gives the exiles exclusive oversight over the temple and defines the community in ethnic terms which is explicitly connected to exilic experience (Ezra 6:16). Even if the people of the land were descendants of non-exiled Judeans, they are excluded under this definition.

The legitimacy of the temple is resolved in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8–6:18)—the business language of the empire. This meant facility with Aramaic, particularly written Aramaic, would have created prestige for anyone capable of handling legal documents in that language. Its use to resolve a legal question also provides a tacit acknowledgement of the authority of the Persian government. The primacy of written legal texts in these chapters, suggests the author may have held a governmental role. The use of documents, royal edicts, references to archives, and facility with Aramaic suggest textuality was an authoritative social practice (Polaski 2007, 48). The account valorizes scribal practices and echoes the role of scribes in negotiations with the local and imperial authorities.

The account reverts to Hebrew (6:19) once the legitimacy of the temple is established, dedicated, and priests selected. The use of these two languages can be linked to dominant and subordinate standings within the empire (Bourdieu 1991, 53). Aramaic, the language of imperial power, is necessary for negotiations with the empire. Those empowered by literacy and facility with Aramaic would be more integrated into the dominant class while concomitantly those who spoke exclusively in Hebrew and were illiterate would be entrenched in social impotence (Rey 2004, 339). They therefore would need the skills of the more literate community members. Conversely, due to its role as a tool of Persian hegemony, Aramaic would be an intrusion into the community. The resumption of Hebrew to describe the local religious practice retains the dichotomy between the language of power and the local dialect but, as James Scott observes, its use also provides a “barrier and veil that the dominant find difficult or impossible to penetrate” (1990, 32). Hebrew carves out some autonomy for the Yehud community. The Aramaic sections of Ezra were the most accessible to people outside Yehud. It is in these more public sections that Judeans are given control over the temple and an argument is made for the legitimacy of the temple within the Persian Empire. Local and more exclusionary policies of Yehud are expressed in Hebrew. In Hebrew, God is YHWH, the God of Israel. In Hebrew, the community separates itself from the polluted nations of the land (Ezra 6:21), and Passover, that celebrates freedom from imperial oppression, is described. Hebrew provides a safer context in which to voice negative views concerning those outside the community.

A written edict of the king assures the temple’s completion (6:7-12). In addition, the narrative unfolds primarily through the reading of documents contained inside of other documents (5:7–6:12) (Steiner 2006, 659). This reliance on documents indicates that without scribes who can read, write, and search government archives, the temple would never have come to fruition and YHWH’s will would have been hindered and unknown. (In Ezra 6:2 Cyrus’s original decree is unearthed from an archive before it is useful to resolve the standoff.) The importance of writing for this outcome heightens the value of scribes. Similarly, the author’s close affiliation with the temple is evident in the over-arching concern for its legitimacy and construction (Ezra 6:8-9). The evidence suggests the author’s prestige is linked to his dual role as scribe and as a member of the temple leadership which in turn rests on the community valuing the temple.

Reports of Temple construction initiated by divine and royal collaboration was a staple of Ancient Near Eastern literature (Hurowitz, 1992; Edelman 2005, 132; Fried 2004, 161). Yet imperial involvement in the temple likely indicates imperial benefit from the temple. This destabilizes the temple’s independence and legitimacy and requires an explanation. Therefore, the events and imperial decisions (including the granting of funds) are pointedly orchestrated by YHWH which provides evidence of YHWH’s commitment to the temple (Ezra 5:5). However, Persian rule also strains belief in the unmatched power of YHWH. To navigate this difficulty, the author of Ezra 5–6 retains the idea of the divine granting victory over enemies but they are defined narrowly as the people of the land. Battle is waged with letters rather than armies, and victory is achieved by construction rather victory on the battlefield. In this way, YHWH’s power and commitment to the community is maintained as is the community’s loyalty to the crown. Yet loyalty to Persia is nuanced. The community makes no declaration of loyalty to the Persian monarch. Rather, Persian monarchs are portrayed positively disposed toward them. Darius pays for the temple from the royal coffers and recognizes the temple’s beneficial role as a place of prayers for the king (Ezra 6:10). At the end of the day, as Tamara Eskenazi observes, in 6:14 the decrees of the monarchs agree with the decree of God (1988, 60). “They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia” (Ezra 6:14b). To oppose the temple runs counter to the community, God, and King, and comes only from those portrayed negatively as outsiders—whose words are suspect (4:1-2), motives are self-serving (4:14), and methods are under-handed (4:4-5).

Theologically the author portrays YHWH as still powerful, still worthy of worship, but in a manner that accommodates the Judeans’ political subjugation. This requires a balancing act shaped by conflicting interests. An insubstantial YHWH would lead to abandonment of the cult and weaken the priests’ influence within Yehud. Yet local power also depends in large part on the munificence of the Persian monarch for YHWH’s temple. If the priest or community wishes to assert YHWH’s unmitigated power, they have little choice but to see the empire’s rule as the will of YHWH. This would also allow them to make theological sense of the benefits of good standing in the empire. The tension between political reality and the author’s belief in an almighty deity generates a new and cohesive ordering of religious beliefs that affirms the temple’s legitimacy and its leaders’ positions of distinction without alienating the Persian overlords.

Nehemiah’s Case for Building Boundaries

The Nehemiah memoir (Neh 1–2,4–6, 13) describes another reconstruction project—the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. It is narrated from the perspective of a Persian appointee rather than that of scribe or priest such as we saw in Ezra. The book reveals a less cohesive community whose identity and membership is in flux. The concern for the city walls mirrors the importance placed on boundaries for the identity of this community and the completed project becomes a testimony to Nehemiah’s leadership.

The narrative opens with Nehemiah lamenting the broken walls and burned gates of Jerusalem. His language is indicative of corporate shame over the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (Neh 1:2-3). Such shame expresses a loss of power and the fear of being exposed to the ridicule of others (e.g. Neh 4:2) (Williams 1993, 89-91). Reconstructing the wall becomes the first step to un-do the shame of defeat (2:17). Yet the primary narrative concern is to counter the hostilities, accusations, and ridicule of local opponents, Sanballat and Tobiah, who wield regional economic and political influence. Both are introduced with non-Jewish titles (2:10, 19). Sanballat is “the Horonite” although he was likely a governor of Samaria, and Tobiah, despite his Hebrew name, is introduced as an “Ammonite servant.” Antagonism grows throughout the narrative each time these opponents “hear” of the progress on the wall (Neh 2:10, 19, 4:1, 7, 15; 6:1, 16). Although the completion of the wall appears to silence these critics (Neh 6:15-16), their interactions with Judean nobles and priests continue in Nehemiah’s absence (Neh 6:17-19; 13:4-5, 7).

The memoir (especially 4:1-15) is shot through with the motif of Holy War—the righteous, with limited resources, rely on a warrior deity who strikes opponents with fear (e.g. Neh 2:20) and overcomes chaos (Hansen 1984, 347). Opponents are linked to impurity and foreign influence and feared as chaotic forces undermining social order (Stulman 1990, 626). The inclusion of Holy war language intensifies the seriousness of Nehemiah’s effort to establish clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Parallels with Holy War in Joshua, particularly the events surrounding Jericho, create connections with the deadly consequences for breaching social boundaries (Laird 2015).

Nehemiah’s character also shares the characteristics of a folk hero much like Daniel or Esther (Grabbe 1998, 160). He holds a prominent position close to the king; he risks a breach of etiquette to ask the monarch for a favor on behalf of his people, and is motivated by fidelity to his God. He acts, often unilaterally, to achieve results even as his prayerful dependence upon God is integral to his success. Opponents counter Nehemiah’s efforts through intrigue, threats and accusations of disloyalty. In a satirical move, common to such literature, his adversaries are frequently controlled by their growing rage (Neh 3:20, 4:7) as they fruitlessly try to stymie the hero. Word-play, using the concepts of good and evil, punctuate the conflict between Nehemiah and his enemies (especially noticeable when Tobiah whose name means, YHWH is good, finds Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild the wall, “evil” [2:10]). The combination of Holy war language, satire, and word-play creates a black and white universe in which the hero can denounce compromise as an enemy of the good.

Waging a purist, ideological war is the most viable option if one lacks sufficient economic or coercive force to defeat competitors (Bourdieu 1991, 189). So Nehemiah symbolically demolishes his competitors, Sanballat and Tobiah, and in the process, invites readers to value communal purity. The adversaries are purveyors of chaos through their threats, taunts, and subterfuge designed to halt the rebuilding of a wall that would remove the community’s shame and protect its sanctity. Constructing the wall becomes essential to efforts to hold at bay forces of chaos and to create a defined space in which the community could live in peace. At the same time, Nehemiah establishes himself as a hero, bringing order and purity to a community in need. In the war against the forces of chaos, the wall and his leadership are proven essential for the safety and good of the community.

The narrative belies Nehemiah’s certainty regarding clear boundaries for the community. For others, it is a matter of contention (e.g. Neh 6:17-19). Compromise and collaboration would be useful for economic well-being but lead to entrenched alliances with regional powers at the expense of Nehemiah’s control. Nehemiah resists this outcome with his call to purity, but with the caveat of collaboration with imperial rule. If successful, Nehemiah’s strategy creates a more cohesive community identity and secures his dominance within a smaller community.

The composition of Nehemiah’s self-aggrandizing story occurred after the return under Persia and suggests a context when a community of returnees retain boundary maintenance practices designed to preserve identity in exile (Southwood 2012, 206). For example, sabbath keeping (Neh 13:15-22) and limiting marriage partners (13:23-25) are transportable social-isolating practices. The surrounding people become surrogates for exilic foreigners. The construction of the wall becomes a trope for the integrity of the community’s boundaries. When Nehemiah claims divine support as he single-handedly fends of external challenges and internal conflict (Neh 5) it solidifies his hold on the reins of power in his carefully circumscribed community.

In response to cultural trauma the author shows the community opting for social isolation to preserve its identity. The narrative also shows a strong-man using a people’s own narrative of loss to bolster his power and build fear of outsiders and so isolate the community (at the expense of economically beneficial collaboration). Nehemiah appears as the savior they need to restore their lost honor and thus he keeps them dependent on his leadership. He conjures suspicion of his competitors and so silences alternative political or economic or social arrangements. He shows himself indispensable as a liaison between the Persian monarch and Jerusalem and so cements his power with the people. Nehemiah provides a study of how power can be gained, manipulated, and used. It also demonstrates the role of religious ideals and core concerns about identity in negotiations over power.

Conclusions: Using the Past to Claim a Future

Both narratives have shaped the past to serve later interests. David Lowenthal states, “We reshape our heritage to make it attractive in modern terms; we seek to make it part of ourselves, and ourselves part of it; we conform it to our self-images and aspirations.” (1999, 348). The narratives are part of a process that reconciles the past destruction of the temple and present circumstances of Persian rule with religious claims of divine power and care. Using anxiety about identity and fear of others they also establish the boundaries and distinctiveness of the community as a concern among the first returnees to validate these same concerns for a later audience. In addition, the writers own roles in society are incorporated as those with skills crucial to success in the past and therefore necessary for the community in the present. The narratives forge an identity and social structure built on the rubble of a ruined past but shaped in innovative and at times problematic ways to address the reality of the present.


Berquist, Jon L. Judaism in Persia's Shadow: A Social and Historical Approach. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.

Boer, Roland. “No Road: On the Absence of Feminist Criticism of Ezra–Nehemiah” in Her Master’s Tools? Feminist and Postcolonial Engagements of Historical–Critical Discourse, edited by Caroline Vander Stichele and Todd Penner, 233-252. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Edelman, Diana. The Origins of the 'Second' Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem. Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2005.

Eskenazi, Tamara. In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.

Fried, Lisbeth. The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004.

Grabbe, Lester. Ezra–Nehemiah. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Hansen, Paul. “War and Peace in the Hebrew Bible,” Interpretation 38, no. 4 (1984): 341-362.

Hurowitz, Victor. I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in the Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.

Collins, John J. “The Mythology of Holy War in Daniel and the Qumran War Scroll: A Point of Transition in Jewish Apocalyptic,” VT 25 (1975): 599.

Kessler, John. “The Diaspora in Zechariah 1-8 and Ezra–Nehemiah.” In Community Identity in Judean Historiography, edited by Gary N. Knoppers and Kenneth A. Ristau, 119-145. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

Laird, Donna J. "Political Strategy in the Narrative of Ezra–Nehemiah." In The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative, edited by Danna Nolan Fewell, 276-285. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. DOI:

_____. Negotiating Power in Ezra–Nehemiah. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2016.

Lowenthal, David. The Past is a Foreign Country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Polaski, Donald C. “What Mean these Stones? Inscriptions, Textuality and Power in Persia and Yehud.” In Approaching Yehud: New Approaches to the Study of the Persian Period, edited by Jon L. Berquist, 37–48. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.

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Comments (2)

Is there any plausibility in the idea that Persian kings went round their dominions being crowned or otherwise authorised by the deity of each place, that this process included Jerusalem and that this is what the famous 'Rejoice greatly' passage refers to? The fundamental package negotiated would then be religious legitimation for the monarchy in return for royal promotion of the religions, temples and priests.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/28/2017 - 22:02

Thank you for this interesting question. Regarding a practice of seeking authorization from local deities, I believe it is unlikely that Persian monarchs journeyed to various temples seeking local deities to legitimate their kingship. To quote Lisbeth Fried, “There was no universal concern for foreign cults in the Achaemenid Empire” (2004 154). There are inscriptions of Darius being called the son of Re, a title reserved for Egyptian royalty so the king was not averse to the use of local religious language as part of imperial ideology. Yet the Persian government was bureaucratic and pragmatic. If it was politically or economically beneficial, the king might build or repair a temple or reinstate priests. Conversely the king might just as easily remove priests, confiscate temple produce or land, and even remove temples of deities associated with adversaries. Additionally, there is no historical evidence that any Persian monarch ever visited Jerusalem or sought the approval of the Judean deity.
By the time of Darius, the primary deity of the Persian monarchs was Ahura Mazda. Although the worship of other deities was never excluded (see Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 240-254), royal ideology was strengthened not by seeking the approval of many gods, but by linkage with Ahura Mazda and “proclaiming the Great King to be the regulator of Persian rituals” (Briant, 567). I would note that the language for YHWH within the Aramaic portions of Ezra reflects traits associated with Ahura Mazda: e.g. “the Great God” (Ezra 5:8), “the God of Heaven and Earth” (Ezra 5:11). The king also decrees prayers should be made for the king and his children (Ezra 6:10) which is consistent with Herodotus’ claim that one of the rules that governed the Persian sacrifices was: “The actual worshipper is not permitted to pray for any personal or private blessing, but only for the king and for the general good of the community” (1.132). (See also Briant 241.) This suggests local adjustments to the reality of Persian rule rather than Persian efforts to gain the local deity’s approval to solidify his rule.
The imagery behind the rejoice greatly passage in Zechariah 9:9 would more likely reflect a general ANE processional practice rather than a specific historical encounter. (David’s procession with the Ark in 2 Samuel 6 or even the Babylonian Akitu Festival come to mind.) Given that verse 9 appears in a text about war, it appears to refer to traditions associated with monarchs arriving in peace after victory.
The negotiation between temples and imperial power was more likely initiated by the religious institutions. As Fried points out, “During reigns of Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius, priests of powerful temples delivered up to their Persian conquerors the titles and theologies surrounding their local kings.” (179). In return, temples were spared, and priests spared taxes and corvée labor. She then points to the Cyrus songs in Deutero-Isaiah to demonstrate royal Judean court theology being handed over to Cyrus. In line with this, I would argue that rather than Persian monarchs seeking authorization from deities, we have various cults throughout the ANE seeking royal benevolence by shaping their theological language to coincide with Persian theology and incorporating Persian imperial activity into their theology (so long as it doesn’t undercut their own claims). In the case of Yehud, the legitimacy of the Persian monarch was not in question, but rather the existence and legitimacy of the local temple as the region grew increasingly integrated into the imperial system. (See Edelman, 349).

Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander, Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002.
Edelman, Diana V. The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple: Persian Imperial Policy and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem. Oakville, CT: Equinox, 2005.
Fried, Lisbeth. The Priest and the Great King: Temple-Palace Relations in the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004.
Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
A recent publication on Persian influence may be of interest: Assessing Biblical and Classical Sources for the Reconstruction of Persian Influence, History and Culture, Edited by Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley, (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz): 2015.

#2 - Donna Laird - 05/09/2017 - 21:42

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