How and why did Ezra and Nehemiah keep such an accurate log of names/populations? Other ancient civilizations don’t seem to stress this kind of detail. So why were these two books so detailed and precise? What added value does that give them?

Your question is very revealing and useful. By revealing, I mean it assumes a modern idea about direct quotes, numbers, and evidence, specifically that they are based on fact.

To me, the texts’ emphasis on detail is rhetorical, not literal. What I mean is that these texts emphasize evidence in the form of documentation, pedigrees, and exact transcriptions of prayer to give the text authority. Consider what Ezra was doing. He was making a radical break with the past:

He was not only asserting a new way to organize the community; he was also furnishing the first draft of set of laws that most people had never heard before. This text gains authority and canonical status by its reliance on the appearance of proof and evidence, and it asserts that this proof and evidence are better and more reliable that prophecy as a means of understanding God’s’ intentions.

What kind of evidence do the scrolls of Ezra and Nehemiah employ in new ways?

  • The author of Ezra frequently quotes the text of a letter and incorporates it into the story.
  • He implies that everyone possessed the ability to document his genealogy for over 200 years.
  • He provides detailed head counts and statistics that even Ezra and Nehemiah, as precise as they must have been, could not have collected.
  • He includes what purport to be direct transcriptions of public speeches and prayers. No technology (short hand, recording, etc) would have allowed these speeches to be recorded in these ways.

So even if the detailed evidence these texts present us could not be real, they are still convincing and persuasive. They had to be to convince a community to redirect its faith in charismatic oracular figures to a book of what would eventually by 613 laws.

Moreover, since Ezra himself, or a person like him, probably wrote many of these laws, including all of the laws in Leviticus, he would have needed the appearance of proof to assert the authority of these laws over all members of the new community.

The most important new groups of laws that Ezra promulgated were the “holiness” laws or laws of separation. Ezra is telling people that God wants them to separate themselves from their wives, their neighbors, and the customs and beliefs they held in Babylon. He is asking them to agree to strict laws about what can be worn or eaten. And he is asserting that he and his fellow priests or Levites are the final authority for interpreting these texts. For such bold assertions, precision (or its appearance) matters.

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