Jewish Pioneers and Mormon Pioneers
Ezra leads a great migration of religious refugees, i.e. pioneers, from Babylon to Jerusalem. Brigham Young lead a great migration of religious refugees from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley. The similarities are striking:
- Departure date: April 12 for Ezra; April 16 for Brigham
- Distance to travel: 900 mi/1448 km for Ezra; 939 mi/1511 km for Brigham
- Duration of journey: 4 months for the Jews; 3.5 months for the Mormons
- Safety Concerns: thieves and Samaritans; Missourians and Indians
- Direction: both are travelling from east to west
- Geography: Jerusalem and Salt Lake City are both by a salt water sea fed by a fresh water lake, connected by a river named Jordan
- Temple Building: The goal was to worship in the Temple. In Jerusalem, the Temple was dedicated about 35 years after the first group of refugees, circa 515 BC (see Josephus, XI, 4:7); In Utah, the St. George Temple was dedicated 30 years after the first pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.
Ezra 8:1 this is the genealogy of them that went up with me from Babylon
Here comes one of those chapters in the Old Testament which seems to be an endless list of names. What a waste! Well, if you were a Jew who lived after the Babylonian Captivity, otherwise called the post-exhilic period, you really needed to be able to tie your line to these Jews who returned. Otherwise, someone might accuse you of being a bastard, a muggle (yes, that is a Harry Potter reference), or a Samaritan. It seems boring to us, but it was important to them. It was their baptismal certificate, their membership record, their proof of legitimacy.
Ezra’s genealogy in chapter 8 mirrors the genealogy in chapter 2, wherein Zerubbabel’s group was chronicled for the same reason. This was big stuff and not completely irrelevant to us. Matthew and Luke both record that Jesus’ genealogy was traced through Zerubabbel (Matt. 1:12; Lu. 2:27). If it weren’t for that record, the Jews would have called Jesus’ own genealogy into question.
Ezra 8:15 I gathered them together to the river… and found there none of the sons of Levi
Ezra himself was a priest and a direct descendant from Aaron (Ezra 7:1-6), but at this riverside gathering, he is the only one. There were priests and Levites already in Jerusalem, but Ezra wanted Levites for the journey. He wanted to provide the temple with priesthood brethren and silver and gold; it wasn’t just about going to Jerusalem; it was about beautifying the House of God and providing workers for the temple. So he sends a request that “they should bring unto us ministers for the house of our God.”
Ezra 8:21 Then I proclaimed a fast… that we might afflict ourselves before our God
Probably the single most important reason to fast is to draw closer to God, to narrow the gap, and feel his Presence. The second reason is that is a means to provide for the poor. Ezra teaches us yet another aspect of fasting. It is very practical. It asks the question, why does starving ourselves please God? Is God happy when we are miserable? If not, why then does Ezra intentionally say it was about afflicting “ourselves before our God”?
Well, we can demonstrate our love for God in different ways. We can keep his commandments; we can sacrifice our money or means; we can give him our time; or we can fast. Fasting tells God, “You are more important to me than food. I would rather be close to you than eat a cheeseburger. Heavenly things are more important to me than the concerns of this carnal frame.” The self-affliction is a demonstration of love and respect for God above our own comforts. It is designed to open the ears of the Almighty and procure blessings—in this case, safety and protection on the pilgrimage west.
It was remarked this morning that some people said they could not fast because it made their head ache. Well, I can fast, and so can any other man; and if it makes my head ache by keeping the commandments of God, let it ache. (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, edited by G. Homer Durham [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969], 180)
Spencer W. Kimball
On a full stomach it's easy to talk about fasting. The test comes, of course, when a grumbling stomach demands food. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, edited by Edward L. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 145)
Ezra 8:22 I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers
This is a great little vignette. Ezra has enough influence with Artaxerxes, King of Persia, who reigned over a huge empire at this point, to request an armed escort. That’s a lot of political pull. But he wouldn’t do it! He was ashamed; that’s an interesting word. Ashamed before whom? He was ashamed before his God.
Asking for a military escort is an insult to the Lord. It demonstrates a lack of faith and misplaced trust in the arm of flesh. It reminds me of the Latter-day Saints who prepare for the calamities of the last days with personal stockpiles of guns and ammunition. They should be ashamed as Ezra was. They have misplaced their trust in the strength of arms. What about the king? What message does a request for protection send to Artaxerxes? Likely, Ezra had taught the king about the power of the only true God. How embarrassing is it to ask for help from the king when the God of Heaven should be a million times more powerful.
In 2011, there was an earthquake in Haiti—an island with a reputation for lawlessness. A week or so after the earthquake, which killed over 200,000 people, the author decided to go over and help. I took my 16 year old and 13 year old sons with me. Safety was a big concern of course, but the Lord is able to protect us if we have faith. Requests for the Lord’s protection were offered and my sons were protected, even though one of the drivers in the group was held at gunpoint by suspicious police. When we first arrived, a male nurse with the Church team told us of other Westerner’s kidnappings as if to say, “You’re crazy to bring your kids here!” We were a bit crazy, but we asked for the Lord’s protection and received it. By the end of the trip, another church representative said, “I wish I had brought my kids.”
Shouldn’t we be ashamed to trust in the arm of flesh for safety and protection when we should trust in the Lord instead? Ezra said, God “delivered us from the hand of the enemy” (v. 31). If we have any faith, he will deliver us as well.
Ezra 8:24 Then I separated twelve
“The meaning of being set apart to service in the Church is symbolically a setting apart (a separation) from the world to act on a higher plane (Lev. 20:26; Num. 8:14; Ezra 8:24; Rom. 1:1). The act of setting apart is referred to in the Bible in a number of places, though not always using the same terminology. Moses was told to ‘put some of thine honour’ upon Joshua that the Israelites might be obedient to him (Num. 27:20). Seven men of honest report were ‘set before the apostles,’ who laid their hands on them to take charge of temporal matters in the early church (Acts 6:6). The early Twelve were told to ‘separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them’ (Acts 13:2). The Book of Mormon writers appear to use the terms ‘consecrate’ and ‘appoint’ to describe a setting apart (Mosiah 6:3).” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1-4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1300)