It’s not usually very useful to try to imagine how history might have turned out if different decisions had been made, but it’s hard not to do it sometimes. Reading this passage I couldn’t help wondering what might have happened if, instead of going it alone, the returning exiles had welcomed the people of the land to help them rebuild the Temple. These were the people from other nations who had been deported to Israel by the Assyrians, and who had taken up worship of the LORD alongside their own God’s.
At the very least, the Temple would have been completed more quickly. Probably, the centuries – long conflict of Jews and Samaritans which runs down through the New Testament and beyond could have been avoided. Perhaps – just perhaps – Judaism could have been set upon a more open path, that may not have led to the nationalism which Jesus opposed and which led to the Temple being destroyed again, this time by the Romans and forever.
Yes, I wish things had turned out differently. I’ve always been troubled by the exclusivism bordering on xenophobia of Ezra and especially Nehemiah, and this seems to focus the issue. An offer of help from people of good will is spurned. Why? It would be easy to judge the returnees harshly, but I have never been an exile, and looked for the chance to return to my homeland. I may have been keener to keep my identity distinct if I had been through that, so I will not judge!
But the consequences are serious, even in the short term, as the building of the Temple is put on hold for years. And as I’ve suggested, the echoes of that decision follow down the centuries.
This whole story has a feel of belonging to a world we recognise. It’s not just that the numbers seem more realistic than the earlier accounts of events, or even that there’s a lack of obviously supernatural events. It’s more that we’re seeing God at work in the Messy world of politics. The exiles build or stop building at the instruction of a pagan king, far away, because they’re outdone in PR by their new enemies.
But perhaps this is a bit of an excuse. The prophet Haggai gets a mention. From my memory of his writing, I recall that his biggest criticism was that people were quite happy to build and decorate their own houses while they left the Temple half – finished.
It’s not an attractive picture. The returning exiles won’t let anyone else help with the job, but they’re not actually that motivated to do it themselves either. It’s all someone else’s fault, either way.
How often do we call into the same fault? We can be so keen to do God’s work ourselves that we refuse the help of others. Sometimes that means the work doesn’t get done at all. And perhaps sometimes it stores up bigger problems for the future.
What if the exiles had been more inclined to draw others fully into the worship of the LORD than to make sure that their own worship wasn’t somehow tainted by the dodgy bits of Samaritan worship? What if we approached faith and life with the same attitude, where including people is a priority above being sure that we’re right and others are wrong?
It may be worth a try.