The books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the later part of the Bible are actually one book with two different parts. Parts of the book read like an ancient cuneiform tablet with lists of products, names, donations, sums of money. One thing that such seemingly innocuous details prove is that whoever wrote the book must have been there recording the details. The events take place during one of the more turbulent and unsure times in Jewish history, a time of great change and uncertainty. The Jewish people, for the first time known collectively as such (see the article on the term Judaism) are coming back to Zion after a 50 year exile in Babylonia. This is the people’s first test of national resilience after an exile from their homeland, and the struggle is hard.
Very few of the Jews actually came home initially. Even fewer were enthusiastic about rebuilding the Temple after its destruction in 586BCE. This may seem surprising, though today’s reality can be seen as similar. The end of what is termed the Roman Exile, which began in the year 70 and only ended in 1948 61 years ago, only saw 600,000 Jews in Israel initially, with the rest of the population staying in their home countries in the West more or less. Only this year, in 2010, will more Jews be living in Israel than in the diaspora, for the first time since the reign of the Davidic dynasty. Such an achievement never occurred even during the later years of the second commonwealth. Needless to say the Temple has not been rebuilt despite the return.
To counteract the lethargy, the Jews needed a leader. They had three. One was Zerubabel, the grandson of the Davidic king Zedekiah, and the next in line to the throne, but he was stuck in the Babylonian court and never materialized into a serious leader. The other was Ezra, and though he did rally a group home enough to kickstart the rebuilding of the nation, he was more of a spiritual leader than a political one. He did not have the charisma to really fire things up. For that, Nehemiah was needed.
Nehemiah was also stuck Babylon/Persia at the time, and had to ask permission to leave to his home country, Israel, or Judea. This permission was granted, and Nehemiah came and immediately started rallying the troops. The first thing he wanted to do was rebuild the Walls of Jerusalem for one simple reason. Back then, a city without a wall was indefensible and considered of no import and abandoned. The morale of the returning Jews couldn’t not be concrete without a walled city, and Nehemiah built it up in less than 2 months through sheer personality, vivaciousness and single-minded direction. With the city now walled, the Jews had a real capital again, which got the whole enterprise going.
Nehemiah encountered fierce resistance from the Samaritans, otherwise known as the Cuteans, who were transplanted into the Northern Kingdom of Israel around Samaria by the Assyrian empire hundreds of years before. They sort of adopted Judaism, but not fully. These people resented the fact that the returning Jews led by Ezra and Nehemiah would not allow them to participate in the rebuilding of the Temple, wanting to reserve it for returning Jews alone, and not a sect whose Jewish identity was debatable.
The Samaritans did all they could to obstruct the rebuilding of the second Temple, including accusing the Jews of building a Temple in order to rebel against the Persian emperor, but in the end they did not succeed. The second Temple was completed, Nehemiah had accomplished his mission, and the second commonwealth of the Jewish people was solidified. It would last, in various forms, until the year 70. It lasted, all in all, for about 600 years, surviving Persian, Greek, and then Roman dominance, finally being destroyed at the hands of Titus. That is, until 1948, when the Third Commonwealth was established amid an Arab fury.