I mentioned on Sunday that the Scripture Reading Plan (originally posted on the New Liturgical Movement) now turns to Ezra and Nehemiah - in the Septuagint they are one book, and the Vulgate lists them as I & II Esdras. These two historical books are devoted to the story of the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem following Cyrus of Persia's defeat of the Babylonian Empire.
Together the two books cover the period 528BC to around 410 BC, and tell the story of the rebuilding of the Temple and devasted city, and the restoration of Jewish religion.
The dates of their respective missions is somewhat disputed, with the current consensus appearing to be that Nehemiah probably went on missions to Jerusalem between 445 and 424 BC, and that Esra arrived around 398 (so that the two books are not in chronological order). In any case, it is clear that Ezra was a priest and scribe sent by the Persian Emperor to help restore Jewish practice, while Nehemiah, a Jewish nobleman (and author of the book bearing his name), organized things politically (including the rebuilding of the city).
A major focus of their activity was the restoration of Jewish cultural cohesion - mixed marriages, for example, were prohibited. It is generally considered that it was this social and religious cohesion that allowed Judaisism to survive the onslaught of Hellenistic influence in the next century.
Only a small proportion of those freed by Cyrus' decree returned though - around 50,000 of the 3 million odd Jews, made the 900 mile trek. Those who stayed behind were the 'lost tribes'.
From a Christian perspective, Ezra/Nehemiah, according to the Navarre commentary, is usually interpreted spiritually, as providing lessons about the building up of the Church (the City of God).
The reading plan sets 3 or 4 chapters a day, to finish by 18 August. Happy reading...