Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counsellors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Then I set apart twelve of the leading priests: Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their kin with them. And I weighed out to them the silver and the gold and the vessels, the offering for the house of our God that the king, his counsellors, his lords, and all Israel there present had offered; I weighed out into their hand six hundred and fifty talents of silver, and one hundred silver vessels worth . . . talents, and one hundred talents of gold, twenty gold bowls worth a thousand darics, and two vessels of fine polished bronze as precious as gold. And I said to them, ‘You are holy to the Lord, and the vessels are holy; and the silver and the gold are a freewill-offering to the Lord, the God of your ancestors. Guard them and keep them until you weigh them before the chief priests and the Levites and the heads of families in Israel at Jerusalem, within the chambers of the house of the Lord.’ So the priests and the Levites took over the silver, the gold, and the vessels as they were weighed out, to bring them to Jerusalem, to the house of our God.
Then we left the river Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem; the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes along the way. We came to Jerusalem and remained there for three days. On the fourth day, within the house of our God, the silver, the gold, and the vessels were weighed into the hands of the priest Meremoth son of Uriah, and with him was Eleazar son of Phinehas, and with them were the Levites, Jozabad son of Jeshua and Noadiah son of Binnui. The total was counted and weighed, and the weight of everything was recorded.
At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord. They also delivered the king’s commissions to the king’s satraps and to the governors of the province Beyond the River; and they supported the people and the house of God. -- Ezra 7:27-28,8:21-36 (NRSV)
The Babylonian Exile was ending. Seventy years in Babylon was finally over and the descendants of those taken from Jerusalem in the conquest were headed home. Not just headed home but with lots of gifts from Artaxerxes, king of Babylon. Never mind that Aratxerxes had an ulterior motive in allowing the return, what counted that Ezra and the captives were heading back to those left behind so many years before. Motive, shmotive -- the letter Artaxerxes sent giving permission for them to leave and to take the goods with them was enough. They were headed home, even though any non-Israelite wives and children had to be left behind because they were considered "impure" to a prophet who was determined to regain the religious purity of the chosen people of the true God.
I have lived in Arizona for a number of years but to me Virginia is and always will be home. I have roots in Arizona, roots I never expected to grow and which took a number of years. Still, the lure of what I consider home remains strong. I know Virginia isn't the cure for my problems, and I know it, as a commonwealth populated by a large number of very diverse people, isn't perfect. I also know that if I went home again it would not be the same place from which I left so many years ago. It has not remained static, even though it's dedication to its early history and a number of its landmarks have. The home of my memory isn't what is actually there, but perhaps the essence of it still remains.
Exile is a state of being but also a state of mind. The Israelites undoubtedly thought the Jerusalem to which they returned would be unchanged -- and, by modern standards, it probably hadn't changed all that much. What was different was that people who claimed Jerusalem as their home now had to meet and learn whole new relationship patterns with those whose forebears had been left behind. It must have felt something like an invasion to the people of Jerusalem to see this horde of people headed in their direction and not knowing if they were coming to wreck the place again or what.
The returning Israelites probably felt that they were indeed coming home and would be an integral part in rebuilding what had been destroyed when their ancestors had been taken. The current inhabitants, though, probably saw some of this as a very different sort of invasion, one without swords and armor but almost as devastating to the lives they had learned to lead after their leaders had been taken away. Honestly, both sides probably took a long time to get reacquainted and even slightly comfortable with each other. That's what happens.
Today I think of returning, and the feeling of returning. I will probably never return to the place I consider home, not even for a short visit much less relocation, but I will think of both sides of the return of the Israelites in light of my own life and experiences. I will remember the times I went home bearing gifts for the family (although not gold, silver or bronze to rebuild, refurnish and rededicate the temple) and brought back gifts for those I left here. Still, I will live with the feeling of exile, no matter how accustomed I have become to my life in the place where it is lived now.
I have no doubt God was with the exiles as well as the remnant. I have no doubt that wherever I am, at home or in exile, God is also there. That is the commonality I have with the people of Ezra's story, and that is the belief that I must hang on to, no matter where I am or in what condition. Really, I think it is the only anchor any of us can have, wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever circumstances we are in. There are a whole lot worse things than that.