The Power of Point of View

The First-Person Narration in Ezra as a Point-of-View Issue

photo - bodaby MARK BODA   Much ink has been spilled over the past century over the controversial shifts in person in the account of Ezra in Ezra 7-10. The account begins in 7:1-11 with a third person account about Ezra which introduces a document written in the first person voice of King Artaxerxes, commissioning Ezra for service in the region of Beyond-the-River (7:12-26). The conclusion of this first person document signals the beginning of a first person account of Ezra in 7:27-9:15 which begins in 7:27-28a with praise to God and ends in ch. 9 with his penitential prayer before the people. Chapter 10 initiates a shift back to a third person account which begins in 10:1 with a depiction of Ezra in prayer as per the conclusion of 7:27-9:15. The account concludes with a list of those who had married foreign wives in 10:18-44.

Many have debated the existence of an Ezra Memoir, akin to the Nehemiah Memoir which many see as foundational to Nehemiah 1-13 (see my “Redaction in the Book of Nehemiah: A Fresh Proposal,” in Unity and Disunity of Ezra-Nehemiah: Redaction, Rhetoric, Reader [ed. M. J. Boda and P. Redditt; Hebrew Bible Monographs. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008], 25-54). However, while such analysis may be helpful for historiographical work, it should be noted that these shifts in person represent shifts in point of view, and thus, influence the rhetorical effect of the final form of this section of Ezra-Nehemiah.

First-person narration provides a take on the action from the point of view of someone who is actually a character in the narrative, providing a much more immediate experience for the audience than third-person narration’s point of view from a position outside the story world. With this in mind, we need to ask what the narrative accomplishes through these various shifts.

The narrative begins and ends by observing the action from outside the characters in the scenes, but at its center allows us inside one of the characters (Ezra) to experience the story from this vantage point. A first person vantage point is also used so that the audience can enter into the perspective of the emperor and observe Ezra from his lofty position of political power. My initial thought is that the third person perspective found at the outset and the conclusion of Ezra 7-10 is used to provide an objective affirmation of the activity of Ezra, providing space for the implicit narrator to express approval of Ezra (and build his credentials) at the outset (7:1-11), to provide confirmation of Ezra’s pious activity (10:1), and finally to depict the impact of Ezra’s mission on the community as a whole (10:2-44). The first person perspective of the emperor (7:12-26) not only legitimizes the shift from the third person account of the implicit narrator to the first person account of Ezra, thus granting Ezra permission to speak in his own voice, but also legitimizes Ezra’s mission which is then described by Ezra in the following section (7:27-9:15).

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