The Literary Significance of the Name Lists in Ezra-Nehemiah

By Angel, Hayyim | Jewish Bible Quarterly, July 2007 | Go to article overview

The Literary Significance of the Name Lists in Ezra-Nehemiah


Angel, Hayyim, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Although the biblical books of the Second Temple period are of exceptional importance for understanding the development of Israel, the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah (hereafter: E-N) (1) poses a daunting problem to the modern reader. The ubiquitous name lists (especially in Ezra 2, 8, 10; Nehemiah 3, 7, 10-12) appear to detract from the narrative by digressing from the main story line.

In fact, this problem is not limited to the modern reader. Some 2000 years ago, Josephus already recognized the obstacles presented to the flow of the narrative by these name lists. When describing Zerubbabel's arrival in Israel (Ezra 2), Josephus writes in Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI:

   Thus, then, did they depart, from each family a fixed number. But I
   have thought it better not to give a list of the names of the
   families lest I distract the minds of my readers from the connexion
   of events and make the narrative difficult for them to follow. (2)

Similarly, when discussing the lengthy list in Ezra 10 of those who had terminated their intermarriages, Josephus adds, "We have not, however, thought it necessary to give their names." (3)

Despite modern literary sensibilities, however, these name lists were not always viewed as distracting. In a recent discussion of the literary role of biblical lists, Elhanan Samet observes:

   Lists of various types are an important and common literary
   phenomenon in Tanakh, and the modern reader tends to ignore them
   --generally for lack of interest ... The main reason for the lack of
   interest is the change in literary taste of the modern reader as
   opposed to that of the ancient one who, after all, represented the
   initial audience to which the Tanakh was addressed. Readers of
   ancient times were very fond of these lists, and some were even a
   sort of "poetry" for them. Many lists are recorded in Tanakh
   specifically for the purpose of introducing a more celebratory and
   elevated note into the "routine" biblical story, and some lists are
   poetical in nature even in the form in which they are written in the
   Torah. (4)

Rather than following Josephus' lead in shying away from them, we will exploit these lists as an opportunity to shed light on the overall meaning of EN.

EZRA 1-6

These chapters begin with the proclamation of King Cyrus allowing Jews to return to their land and to rebuild the Temple. As we prepare for an exciting narrative to unfold, however, we instead are confronted with an inordinately lengthy list in Chapter 2, enumerating the people who returned with Zerubbabel and Jeshua. What purposes could this detailed list serve?

On a literary level, the sheer magnitude of the list gives the impression that a great many Jews returned to the Promised Land. Similarly, the particular attention ascribed to each group indicates the importance of each individual in the return. As Tamara Cohn Eskenazi writes:

   This beginning introduces us to one of Ezra-Nehemiah's
   distinguishing characteristics: lists, primarily of people.... The
   people who will build the house of God are the central focus of the
   book.... It is these people--listed with tiresome specificity--whose
   story Ezra-Nehemiah narrates. (5)

Additionally, this name list almost eclipses another feature conspicuously lacking attention in Ezra 1-6. While the Books of Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers go to great lengths in describing the construction and dedication of the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-31, 35-40; Lev. 8-10; Num. 7), and the Book of Kings allocates significant space to the First Temple construction and dedication (I Kg. 6-8), E-N offers only a three-verse description of the dedication of the Second Temple (Ezra 6:17-19). On one level, this contrast may highlight the deficiencies of the Second Temple as opposed to the Tabernacle and the First Temple. Indeed, the older generation wept during the construction process, even as the younger generation celebrated with gusto:

   Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the
   old men who had seen the first house, wept loudly at the sight of
   the founding of this house. … 

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