I. Historical Background
A brief outline of the history of this period is presented here. Consult standard histories of the OT, such as those of John Bright or Martin Noth, for more detail.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Babylonian forces under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 b.c. left an indelible psychological and spiritual imprint upon the Jews. It shattered their assumption that election guaranteed divine blessing and protection. The Babylonians exiled the civil and religious leadership of Judah. They left behind the poorer classes who found it politically and economically expedient to accommodate themselves to the practices of their pagan neighbors. The future of God's chosen people lay not in Palestine, the chosen land, but in distant Babylon.
The exiles found life in Babylon a bittersweet experience. Texts such as Ps 137 suggest that the Exile was unremitting torment for some Jews. Other sources reveal that many Jews prospered in Babylon and were unwilling to return to Palestine when given the chance. Yet, despite their success, others longed to see the land of Israel again. These strove to maintain their distinct religious and cultic identity through a renewed emphasis on their traditions.
The events of Ezra-Nehemiah cover a hundred years of history during the reigns of five Persian kings. The first, Cyrus the Great (539-530 b.c.), issued the decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. They completed the temple during the reign of Darius I (522-486 b.c.). There is brief mention of Xerxes I (486-465 b.c.) in Ezr 4:6. His son, Artaxerxes I (465-425 b.c.), reigned during the missions of both Ezra and Nehemiah. Finally, another Darius is listed in Ne 12:22, doubtless Darius II (424-404 b.c.).