There’s something about letters that intrigues us. It’s almost like taking a peek into someone else’s soul or intimate relationship with another, not necessarily intimate in the romantic sense but rather in the sense of seeing the inner thoughts of a person. Paul’s letters intrigue us because we only have half the story. We have his letters to the churches but not the letters to him that sparked his replies or the responses from them to his epistles. Ezra provides us with letters from both sides of an issue, a luxury that helps fill in the gaps that might have existed had we only had one half of the correspondence.
In a way it sounds like a schoolyard thing, “Miss Jones, Billy’s over there doing something bad!” It is an appeal to authority to fix something the associates in Samaria thought was wrong (possibly threatening to them) and/or possibly a bit of currying favor. The person who alerts someone else to a potential problem or a loss of something is probably going to be considered more of a friend than they would be otherwise. Artaxerxes of Persia was undoubtedly glad to have such good friends to warn him that those Jews in Jerusalem were actually rebuilding the most significant building in their own kingdom, one that did not include Artaxerxes. They were on a kind of parole in his mind, and they were acting as if they were free!
Where would the world be without tattletales? Of course, we have other names for them — informants, spies, whistle-blowers — but they all serve the same purpose. Whether for good or for ill, they pass information that helps one side of the issue and disrupt the plans and actions of the other. Many times we heartily approve of tattletales, especially those who uncover corruption in government, pass information that can affect our national security or our food supplies or who speak out about unfair business practices that victimize either the workers or the customers. But we also get those who “leak” information to others to show how powerful they, the “leakers,” are and what damage they can do to anybody they perceive as a worthwhile target.
For the Jews, rebuilding the temple was not a seditious act, simply a reconstructing of the place where God was worshipped and that had been God’s residence on earth, in their theology. They had returned from exile yet they weren’t free of the bondage. They had not been mistreated, in fact they were allowed to practice their religion and pretty much live life as normal even though it wasn’t in their homeland. Evidently the neighbors had enjoyed their absence and weren’t happy when the exiles moved back in and began re-creating that which had been destroyed, hence the letters to Artaxerxes. It is interesting to note that Bishlam et al wrote in Aramaic and that Artaxerxes had been required to have the letter translated before reading, digesting and responding. I wonder — was Artaxerxes’ reply sent in Aramaic or did Mithredath and his cohorts have to find a translator for the cuneiform? I wonder what the exchange might have looked like had it been via email — or Tweet?
Communications back then was serious business. They took time and if it were a pressing matter requiring an immediate answer, the questioner was probably out of luck. Letters used to be a big thing, even up until a decade or two ago. It was how people kept in touch and governments did business. Nobody really expected a return epistle the next day after it was sent, and most likely they didn’t expect that return until they saw a messenger arrive in town. It took time to write, time to get it to its destination, time to consider a response and then write it and then more time for it to make the return trip. In a way, it was better; there was less chance of an instantaneous response to a perceived threat or inconvenience escalating into immediate hostilities or even annihilation. With our modern communications, we’re way too close to pushing the button before we think through the process completely — and so are other parts of the world.
Even though we have learned to rely on media to give us information instantaneously and we fire off emails and tweets to friends and business associates alike at 70+ words per minute, we still depend on things like the Bible to give us answers and directions. We pray for answers from God and often we find them somewhere in those pages. Some of the writings in the Bible are truly letters, like Paul’s or even the recounting of the letters to and from Artaxerxes, but the Bible is a series of stories like you would find in a letter, sometimes a bit ornamented and sometimes rather stark, but each conveys some kind of information to those who were not present but who could benefit from reading what was sent.
The letter from Artaxerxes only halted the rebuilding of the temple and Israel for a few years. Far from being a perpetual reminder, the memory of the captivity and the centuries in Egypt centuries earlier didn’t stick well enough to keep the Jews from straying away from God yet again. It’s as if the letters and the information was tucked away somewhere like in a family Bible and were only taken out when it was necessary to record a new birth, marriage or death in the family or someone was curious about the pieces of paper tucked between the pages. It’s a cautionary tale that we still need to be reminded of again and again ourselves. It’s too easy to let it slip into the background until something catastrophic happens and we need instant reassurance or instant relief.
When was the last time I really communicated with God, something more than an arrow prayer that I sent up in desperation? I used to write letters to God rather regularly, both actual letters and oral prayers, but sometimes I get busy and forget to keep God posted (even though God knows all that stuff anyway). I may not do it for posterity or for the possible information or inspiration of others, but it should be a necessary part of my being a member of the family of God. It needs to be more than on the level of compulsory thank-you notes for Christmas and birthday presents; it needs to be a sustained communication that will open me up for responses I won’t find in my mailbox. And I won’t have to pay a translator or even the Post Office.
To get a letter from someone I want to hear from I first have to write one.