Everyone is assembled who wants to go with Ezra back to the Promised Land. The offering they are bringing is LARGE. Ezra sets apart 12 priests to carry it.
It is finally time to head out on their journey. Twelve days have passed since Artaxerxes issued his decree that those who wanted to could return. A LOT has happened in the meantime, including coming together into one group. One last task remains before they break camp beside the river and actually make their way home.
Ezra has been charged with a great offering for the Lord. There are many sources of this offering, not the least of which is the people who have gathered with him. There is no way he can carry this burden alone, physically or symbolically. This offering is to represent ALL Israel, even if they are not here to represent themselves. To this end, Ezra appoints 12 of the leading priests and divides the sum of it between them.
Each priest is to guard their portion and have the responsibility of ensuring that every ounce of it reaches the Temple of God. I don’t know if the numbers given us represent what was originally the total or if this is what each man received to care for. I’m thinking this was the combined measure as the 100 talents of gold alone would have been between 11,000 and 7,020 pounds (between 5,000 and 3,300 kg). That is WAY too much for one man to have to carry! A talent weighed the same no matter the content so the 650 talents of silver would weigh between 71,500 and 46,800 pounds (between 32,500 and 21,450 kg)! NO WAY am I hauling that much weight alone!!! Even divided between the 12 priests this is a substantial responsibility. I’m thinking they each had to have help as they could not physically carry this alone. This huge sum also would make them prime targets for bandits. Getting away with even a portion of this treasure would make a man rich.
Let’s rejoin our story and see how they handle their journey home.
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Morning breaks over the camp and everyone is excited to be getting under way. This is the day Ezra said they would be leaving. They had fasted and prayed the previous day for the Lord’s protection over them. And He had answered! Their God would see them safely home.
Ezra called the people together. He had one more task to complete before they set out.
“This day we will begin our journey to our homeland. The land that the Lord God swore to give to our fathers as an inheritance IF they would obey His statutes. We are living proof of two things: the fact that they did NOT hold true to their promise and that He is faithful even in their unfaithfulness. He has kept for Himself a remnant and He is bringing us back to the land of His promise.
We are not the first to return physically to the land. The Lord moved on Cyrus to send His people home to make for Him once again a House for His name. That House stands this day by the hand of the Lord. And we have been tasked with bringing a great offering to the Lord at His House. This is an offering for the Lord from the hand of MANY. It is from the hand of the king, his counselors, his lords and ALL Israel who wished to contribute, including many of you who stand before me now. Not only is this gift large but it is also from ALL of Israel. It should not be given by the hand of one man into the hands of the priests at Jerusalem but should come from every tribe. Therefore I have chosen twelve of the highest priest who will carry Israel’s offering to the Lord.”
Ezra put out his hand and motioned for Sherbiah, Hashabiah and ten of their kinsmen to stand with him before the people. “These men will bear our gifts to the Lord.”
In the presence of the people he began weighing and dividing up the offering. Two scribes were called forth to record the weights so there would be no dispute as to what each man had been entrusted with. This process took a good part of the morning but it was important that the people witness this event. The people themselves would be responsible for helping protect the priests as they traveled and for providing beasts of burden to carry the offering. This was a gift from everyone to the Lord.
The task finally complete, the party set out for home; the home of their fathers. Everyone was excited ant talk of what lay ahead flowed through the congregation.
“How long will it take to get there amah” asked several of the children.
“That depends on a lot of things my love. It will be several cycles of the moon at least” was the answer most often given.
The first day’s travel was shorter than the following days would be because of the late start. Camp was struck just before sundown. The evening meal was quickly prepared and consumed and everyone settled in for the night. Guards were posted who carried the few weapons that were among the group. Shifts were set for two hours so that all would be rested for the next day’s travel.
With the dawn came a quick morning meal with linen sacks packed with bread and cheese to nibble on throughout the day for the children and breaking camp. These two routines became the norm for six out of every seven days.
The Sabbath was observed without fail. Camp was always struck two hours early to allow the women to prepare meals for the next day. When morning came on the Sabbath all gathered to hear readings from the Torah. Ezra was the one who usually taught such lessons. For the remainder of that day the people rested. The children played near their tents, the men sat in groups and talked, and the women enjoyed relaxing while keeping eyes on their children.
Days blended into weeks and weeks into months. There was the occasional question of “are we there yet” by the children but even that lessened as the days moved on. It was amazing to see the ease of which the group traveled. Not once were they attacked by bandits or encountered extreme difficulties. It was no easy trip by any means but so many dangers that could have befallen them didn’t. The people knew they had the Lord to thank for this.
One day three guards brought Ezra a report of what looked like a camp that had been attacked by animals. Blood was everywhere but no bodies were seen. The tents had been ripped with giant claws. There was no sign of man or beast when the guards had found the camp but Ezra made certain to steer the column of people through an area where they would miss seeing this sight.
Unknown to those in Ezra’s group, during the night and ambush was planned for them. The Lord sent three hungry bears through the heart of those waiting to lay waste to the people of Israel. The bears had scattered the would-be assassins, mauling a few along the way.
Another time the congregation came to a landslide area. Rocks had piled up in the ravine they were walking through, completely blocking their path. This forced the group to find a way up the side and out. Unknown to the group there was a large force waiting to engage them a few miles ahead. The children of the Lord were a long way off before this force even realized that their plans had failed.
Time after time, the Lord fought battles for His people. They knew of almost none of them. They still had to make this journey and put their faith in Him every morning but that faith was always rewarded. The journey should have taken at least half a year to complete but the people did it in four months! The ‘detours’ and side trips turned out to be the Lord’s way of getting His people on some well-placed short cuts.
After one especially long day of walking, the group crossed into the land of Judah. Ezra had pushed hard because they were so close they could barely contain their excitement. This night they would sleep on the very ground their fathers had walked and worked. The city of Jerusalem was close to the border and the people used it as their beacon.
The people were tired when they finally reached Jerusalem. They were dusty from head to toe from walking for such a long time. They needed rest. They also needed to purify themselves before going into the city. They could not appear before the Lord as they were.
For three days the people washed. They scrubbed places that hadn’t been cleaned for months. They washed their clothes and mended any holes. The women braided and combed their hair to perfection. The children were inspected from tip to toe for dirt. The men groomed their beards and washed and oiled their phylacteries. And they all prayed. They prepared their hearts to stand before the Lord as one.
On the morning of the fourth day the people walked behind the priests as they led the donkeys through the city and up to the gates of the Temple. There they offloaded their gifts for the Lord. The servants of the Temple helped carry the gifts inside where they were counted and weighed into the hands of Meremoth the priest and Eleazar. Jozabad and Noadiah, two of the leading Levites were also in attendance. Everything was recorded and not an ounce was missing from what was weighed by the river.
Once the offering had been counted, Ezra, the priests he had appointed and the priests who were over the Temple returned to the people who waited. The people had prepared another offering to bring to the Lord. It was to be a burnt offering. The size of their offering and the breadth of it was pleasing to the priests. They included one bull for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. For the people who stood before the priests, they presented 96 rams and seventy seven lambs. And last of all, twelve male goats to represent the twelve tribes again.
Smoke rose from the altar for hours as the meat was roasted and the fat burned away. The people praised the Lord and offered prayers of thanksgiving throughout the whole time. When all was completed they returned to their camp.
This would be the last night they would spend together as a group. The morning would bring about a separating. Families would reunite with those who had come in the first exodus. Ezra would make his way throughout the land beyond the river and deliver King Artaxerxes’ words. The Levites and the priests would join the ranks of those serving in the Temple currently. But tonight they would spend time together as a family committed to their God. He brought them out of bondage and carried them safely home. His hand on their lives would never be forgotten and the kinships deepened by the journey would forever hold their hearts bound to one another.
This is just the beginning of the work God called Ezra to.
(to be continued)
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I complain about traveling by car or air when it takes more than a few hours. I recently traveled for about nine hours by car to attend a memorial for my aunt. I was SO glad when the journey was finally over, especially when the return journey was done too. I cannot imagine walking or riding a donkey for MONTHS on end! I am VERY grateful for the time in history God has seen fit to place me. Can you imagine the sheer dedication one would have to have before even considering going on such a journey? It was life changing. There would be no turning back half-way. They would also have to leave behind anything that couldn’t be carried with them. Nothing would ever be the same. And there was no guarantee of what waited up ahead. Would they find jobs? Would there be housing? Would they be welcomed with open arms? Making that kind of journey took incredible faith or desperation.
We make spiritual or emotional journeys similar to this in our lives. I did so each time I went back to school. I had no idea what waited for me on the other side of that journey. All I knew was that what I was currently doing HAD to change. By faith, I put myself and my children in the hands of God. I became famous (at least with my kids) for saying, “God knows what He is doing, even if He doesn’t always tell me first.” And He still does! I don’t know what lies ahead. I have no idea what will become of my government. I don’t know if the people around me will suddenly revolt or rise up against one another. I have no clue as to what will settle the chaos caused by so many angry voices. But GOD does.
He knows how to protect me in the midst of the storm. He knows when to let the storm rage to change the landscape and when to quiet it to let the dawn break through. I can put my trust in Him that, NO MATTER WHAT COMES, HE is in control. Even if that means taking me out of this physical world, HE is still in control.
Father God, thank You for watching over me. Thank You that I KNOW I am never out of Your sight or too far away for You to reach me. I get myself into trouble far too many times, but You NEVER abandon me to that trouble. You call to me and bring me back to You. And You heal all my wounds that were inflicted while I was away. You ‘adjust my course’ time and time again to ensure that I end up where You had me going all along. Even when I insist You adjust Yours. Thank You for being my lighthouse!
I wonder how many stories like the ones I put in actually happened while Ezra led his group home. I would love to hear the story someday Jesus. Can You put that on our list too please?