ROM the court of the great king at Shushan we turn once more to the Jews at Jerusalem and in Judea. For a long time after the first company came to the land under Zerubbabel (see Story 104) very few Jews from other countries joined them. The Jews in Judea were poor, and discouraged. Many of them had borrowed money which they could not pay, and had been sold as slaves to richer Jews. Around them on every side were their enemies, the idol-worshipping people in the land, and the Samaritans on the north. These enemies robbed them of their crops in the field, and they also constantly sent evil and false reports of them to the Persian governors. Many of the men of Israel had married women of the land not of the Israelite race, and their children were growing up half heathen and half Jewish, unable to talk in the language of their fathers, and knowing nothing of the true God.
Ninety years after the Jews had come back to the land Jerusalem was a small town, with many of its old houses still in ruins, and no wall around it. In those times no city could be safe from its enemies without a wall; so that Jerusalem lay helpless against bands of robbers who came up from the desert and carried away nearly all that the people could earn.
Just at the time when the land was in the deepest need God raised up two men to help his people. These two men were Ezra and Nehemiah. Through Ezra the people of Judah were led back to their God, to worship him, to serve him, and especially to love God's book as they never had loved it before. And about the same time Nehemiah gave new hope, and courage, and strength to the people by helping them to build a wall around Jerusalem. The work of these two men brought to Judea peace and plenty, and led many Jews from other lands to their own country.
Ezra was a priest, living in the city of Babylon, though he had sprung from the family of Aaron, the first priest. He was also a prophet, through whom God spoke to his people. But above all, Ezra was a lover of God's book in a time when the book of the Lord was almost forgotten. Nearly all the books of what we call the Old Testament had been written for a long time; but in those days there were no printed books; each copy was written separately with a pen; and as the labor was great, there were very few copies of the different books of the Bible. And these copies were in different places; one book of the Bible was in one place, another book was in another place. No one man in those times before Ezra had ever owned or had ever seen the whole of the Old Testament in one book or set of books.
Ezra began to seek everywhere among the Jews for copies of these different books. Whenever he found one he wrote it out, and kept the copy, and also led other men to copy the books as they found them. At last Ezra had copies written of all the books in the Old Testament except the very latest books. They were written very nearly as we have them now, except that his copies were all in Hebrew, the language spoken by the men who wrote most of the Old Testament.
Ezra put all these different books together, making one book out of many books. This great book was written on parchment, or sheepskin, in long rolls, as in old time all books were written. When the book was finished it was called "The Book of the Law," because it contained God's law for his people, as given through Moses, and Samuel, and David, and Isaiah, and all the other prophets.
When Ezra had finished writing this book of the law, he went on a long journey through Babylon to Judea, taking with him the rolls of the book. With Ezra went a company of men whom he had taught to love the law, to write copies of it, to read it, and to teach it to others. These men, who gave their lives to studying, and copying, and teaching the law, were called "scribes," a word which means "writers."
Ezra was the first and the greatest of these scribes; but from his time there were many scribes among the Jews, both in Judea and in all other lands. For wherever the Jews lived they began to read the Bible and to love it. The time came, soon after Ezra's day, when in every place where the Jews met to worship at least one copy of all the books in the Old Testament was kept; so that there was no more danger that the Bible, or any part of it, would be lost.
You remember that there was only one Temple for all the Jews in the world, and only one altar. Upon this one altar, and there alone, was offered the sacrifice every day. But the Jews in distant places needed to meet together for worship, and there grew up among the Jews everywhere what was called "the Synagogue," a word which means "coming together." At first they met in a room, but afterward they built houses for the synagogues much like our churches. Some of these synagogues were large and beautiful, and in them the people met every week to worship God, to sing the psalms, to hear the law and the prophets read, and to talk together about what they had heard. It was something like a prayer-meeting; for any Jew who wished to speak in the meeting could do so. The men sat on mats laid on the floor; the rulers of the synagogue were on seats raised up above the rest; the women were in a gallery on one side, covered with a lattice-work, so that they could see and hear, but could not be seen. And on the end of the room nearest to Jerusalem there was a large box or chest, called "the ark," within which were kept the copies of the books of the Old Testament. Thus through the synagogue all the Jews in the world listened to the reading of the Old Testament until very many of them knew every word of it by heart. All this came to pass from Ezra's work in copying and teaching the word of the Lord.
And Ezra wrought another work almost as great as that of giving the Bible to the world. He taught the Jewish people, first in Israel, and then in other lands, that they were the people of God, and that they must live apart from other nations. If they had gone on marrying women of other races, who worshipped other gods, after a time there would have been no Jews, and no worshippers of God. Ezra made some of them give up their wives of other nations, and he taught the Jews to be a people by themselves, keeping away from those who worshipped idols, even though they lived among them. Thus Ezra led the Jews to look upon themselves as a holy people, given up to the service of God; and he taught them to live apart from other nations, with their own customs and ways of living, and very exact in obeying the law of God in the books given by Moses, even in some things that would seem small and not important. They were to be trained age after age in the service and worship of God. It was God's will that the Jews should be separate from other peoples, and very strict in keeping their law, until the time should come for them to go out and preach the gospel to all the world.
The Jews even now in our time continue to keep many of the rules that were given to their fathers long ago by Ezra; so next to Moses, Ezra had greater power over the Jews than any other prophet or teacher.