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Ezra-Nehemiah as a Narrative of (Re-Invented) Israelite Identity

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This article applies notions of ethnic identity deriving from the work of Fredrik Barth to Ezra-Nehemiah that highlight the processes of boundary formation and maintenance. In particular, it focuses on one of the common indicia of ethnic boundaries, a shared history, here in the form of a 'narrative of ethnic identity' as explained by Stephen Cornell. Such a narrative is a story with a subject (the ethnic group in question), with action, normally in the past, and a value attached to it which bears upon the group's sense of its own worth. It covers the selection, plotting and interpretation of events. The post-exilic return of the Israelites to the land beginning under Cyrus, the erection of the Temple and the re-construction of the walls of Jerusalem described in Ezra-Nehemiah are usefully illuminated and explained when set within such a perspective. A central element of the Barthian understanding of ethnic boundaries, that they are patterns of prescription and proscription, is graphically illustrated in the account of the newly re-installed gates of the city being closed during the sabbath to keep out non-Israelite traders. A model focusing on the creation of a narrative of ethnic identity sheds considerable light on the re-invention of Israelite identity that is arguably the dominant theme in Ezra-Nehemiah.

Affiliations: 1: St Mary's College, University of St Andrews


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