The Mist In The List
Updated: Feb 21
Chan Gin Kai
Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive to Babylon (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to their own town, in company with Zerubbabel, Joshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum and Baanah): The list of the men of the people of Israel... (Ezra 2:1-61)
When Cyrus the Great issued an edict allowing the exiles to return to Israel, only a minority of them chose to return. The list in this passage showed the first wave (some scholars say second) consisting of about 50,000 people. More exiles returned over several waves over the next 110 years.
An exhaustive list of foreign sounding names may make very boring reading to us, but to the Jews, it was very important. The list included what many of us would consider to be unnecessary details. Why would we care who their ancestors were? Why were they so precise on a trivial issue?
To Fulfil The Roles God Has Called Us To
The Jews were thorough with the list because they wanted to work out their roles, so that they could properly fulfil them.
God gave Moses very specific laws on worship. For example, only the priests (who had to be descendants of Aaron) bore the responsibility of offering sacrifices in the Temple (and before that, the Tabernacle). The Levites were not priests and they performed the secondary duties associated with the care-taking and worship in the Temple. God was very stringent about the observance of those laws too.
In a fateful incident a few centuries before, when David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Israel, the oxen pulling the cart stumbled. A man named Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the Ark, and God struck him dead immediately (2 Samuel 6:1-7). This was because God had given specific instructions that the Ark should only be carried by Levites from the Kohathite family, using poles. Even the Kohathites were not supposed to touch the Ark with their hands or they would die (Numbers 4:15). Uzzah shouldn’t even be there as he was not a Kohathite or Levite, and he touched the Ark.
The Jews were dedicated to rebuilding the Temple and wanted to make sure they got the temple worship and activities right. Thus, they meticulously listed who were the priests, the Levites, the temple servants, the temple gatekeepers, the musicians and the singers. They didn’t want anything to be hazy.
Do the roles we perform in church matter? Fortunately for us, God is not going to strike us dead if we perform a role that we are not called to. But performing in the right role still matters. It is more about using the talents that God has given us than the titles we have.
If a person without a strong knowledge of the Bible takes the pulpit, the congregation may be less impacted or even learn the wrong things. If a person without vocal talents leads the congregation in hymns, the worship becomes a cacophony. If a person who is not spiritual leads a group, the members drift away with the leader.
Serving in the role that God assigns us makes a big difference in effectiveness and impact. More importantly, it honours the talents that God gives us.
Do we use the talents that God has given us to serve Him, or do we deny Him? This is not simply declining a role, but the rejection of God’s calling. Conversely, do we aspire for roles because of the title? This is forgetting that we are mere servants, and it should be about God, not us.
To Distinguish The Genuine From The Lookalike
The Jews were conscientious with their list because they wanted to be careful about those who might not be genuine.
The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel. (Ezra 2:59)
These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there was a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim. (Ezra 2:62-63)
The returned exiles included people who couldn’t properly prove they were Jews, and some who couldn’t prove they were from the lineage of priests.
Isn’t it good enough that these people with “uncertain” lineage had volunteered for this tough journey? Haven’t they shown enough commitment and sacrifice? And shouldn’t the Jews be glad that these people helped make up the numbers necessary to rebuild the Temple and city, and repopulate the country? They would need as many people as they could get.
The Jews had learnt from past lessons that as God’s chosen people, there is an expectation of purity. Those who couldn’t trace their lineage may look and sound like them, and even took the arduous journey with them. But if they were not Jews by birth, then there were some things they were not allowed to do. However, the Law of Moses had exact specifications on how they could become proselytes and properly join the community as a full member of the Jewish people. Clarity was thus important, so that the “lookalike” could be helped to become genuine.
For us Christians, God’s expectation of purity still remains.
We should certainly NOT discriminate against non-Christians or adopt a “holier-than-thou” attitude. However, it is important to discern the differences between Christians and non-believers, and especially “lookalikes” – those who profess to be Christians but aren’t. How can we help bring them to Christ if we can’t tell the difference?
Jesus was a friend to the tax collectors and sinners. But because he was aware of how they led their lives, he made special efforts to reach out to them. Jesus was fully cognisant that the Pharisees misunderstood the scriptures, thus he often explained and even debated with them. We can’t lead people to the truth if we’re not clear where they stand before God.
The Jews were careful about the mist in the list because they didn’t want anything to be hazy. They were grateful for the chance to start anew and they wanted to get it right. We too were given the opportunity to start a new life. Let’s seek clarity from God in everything we do, so we can properly glorify Him.
Chan Gin Kai
Gin Kai is a film producer who believes in the power of media to inspire positive changes. He has spearheaded disaster relief and capacity building projects in impoverished communities across Asia. In church, he serves as a mentor to young professionals in the EDGE Ministry. He describes himself as "just a sinner who wants to get right with God". Gin Kai joined the Central Christian Church in 1988.