This book falls squarely in the history genre, and it is straightforward, plausible, and well-documented history at that. The basic narrative is simply the return of Jewish exiles after the Babylonian captivity, their rebuilding the temple, and the rejection of intermarriage — nothing supernatural. A number of official decrees are quoted at length, and there would seem to be no particular reason to make up the detailed lists of numbers of returning exiles or a wedding-registry-like list of tableware (see 1:9-10; by the way, wouldn’t it be fun to say your favorite Bible verse is Ezra 1:10, “30 gold bowls, 410 silver bowls of a second kind, and 100o other articles”?). My NIV study Bible notes, “Many clay and papyrus documents recording business transactions and historical data have been discovered in this area (near present-day Syria). A great library and archives with thousands of such records have been discovered at Ebla in Syria”; my point here is that it is quite plausible that Ezra is indeed quoting from other documents. Likewise, there’s a rather random detail at 10:15, and similar list of (intermarriage) miscreants at 10:18-44.
But while this is history, that’s not to say that it is all descriptive and none normative, just that the lessons are less direct than a list of laws. Principally we are shown the importance of holding onto hope and remaining faithful to God — the first thing the initial group of exiles does when they get back to Jerusalem is build an altar, and finally they successfully rebuild the temple — including by not marrying outside the faith.
Now where does this particular segment of history fit in, both chronologically and biblically? Well, to answer that I’m going to quote shamelessly from my NIV study Bible.
After the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, there was a then a return, which took place in three parts: 50,000 Jews led back by Zerubbabel in 538 B.C.; 2000 men and their families led back by Ezra in 458 B.C.; and a small group led back by Nehemiah in 445 B.C. The book of Ezra covers the first two — the third is found in the following book, Nehemiah — with the return led by Zerubbabel in chapters 1-6 and the return led by Ezra in chapters 7-10. It’s noted, “There is a gap of almost 60 years between the events of chapters six and seven. The story in the book of Esther occurred during this time, in the reign of Xerxes, who ruled from 486-465 B.C. Artaxerxes, his son, became king in 465, and Ezra returned to Jerusalem in 458.” And “Ezra and Nehemiah were one book in the Hebrew Bible, and, with Esther, they comprise the post-captivity historical books. The post-captivity prophetic books are Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Haggai and Zechariah should be studied with Ezra because they prophesied during the period of the reconstruction.”
To elaborate a bit, here are the notes to 1:1 (which, interestingly by the way, says “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia,” so God apparently can both harden — as in the case of the Pharaoh with Moses — and soften the hearts of Gentile monarchs):
The Book of Ezra opens in 538 B.C., 48 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem, defeated the southern kingdom of Judah, and carried the Jews away to Babylon as captives (2 Kings 25; 2 Chronicles 36). Nebuchadnezzar died in 562, and because his successors were not strong, Babylon was overthrown by Persia in 539, just prior to the events recorded in this book. Both the Babylonians and the Persians had a relaxed policy toward their captives, allowing them to own land and homes and to take ordinary jobs. Many Jews such as Daniel, Mordecai, and Esther rose to prominent positions within the nation. King Cyrus of Persia went a step further: he allowed many groups of exiles, including the Jews, to return to their homelands. By doing this, he hoped to win their loyalty and thus provide buffer zones around the borders of his empire. For the Jews this was a day of hope, a new beginning.
Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 B.C.), had already begun his rise to power in the Near East by unifying the Medes and Persians into a strong empire. As he conquered cities, he treated the inhabitants with mercy. Although not a servant of Yahweh, Cyrus was used by God to return the Jews to their homeland. Cyrus may have been shown the prophecy of Isaiah 44:28-45:6, written over a century earlier, which predicted that Cyrus himself would help the Jews return to Jerusalem. Daniel, a prominent government official (Daniel 5:29; 6:28) would have been familiar with the prophecy. The book of Daniel has more to say about Cyrus.
The author of the book is traditionally Ezra, and is overtly Ezra in the chapters 7-9, where he speaks in the first person (I guess there would be some logic to making this switch since he is the central character in these chapters). Again quoting my NIV study Bible (emphasis added):
Ezra was a priest, a scribe, and a great leader. His name means “help,” and his whole life was dedicated to serving God and God’s people. Tradition says that Ezra wrote most of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Psalm 119, and that he led the council of 120 men who formed the Old Testament canon. He centers the narrative of the book of Ezra around God and His promise that the Jews would return to their land, as promised by Jeremiah …. This message formed the core of Ezra’s life.
Also from NIV study Bible:
Second Chronicles ends with Cyrus, king of Persia, asking for volunteers to return to Jerusalem to build a house for God. Ezra continues this account (1:1-3 is almost identical to 2 Chronicles 36:22-23) as two caravans of God’s people were returning to Jerusalem. Zerubbabel, the leader of the first trip, was joined by 42,360 pilgrims who journeyed homeward (chapter 2). After arriving, they began to build the altar and the temple foundations (chapter 3). But opposition arose from the local inhabitants, and a campaign of accusations and rumors temporarily halted the project (chapter 4). During this time, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the people (chapter 5). Finally, Darius decreed that the work should proceed unhindered (chapter 6).
After a 58-year gap, Ezra led a group of Jews from Persia. Armed with decrees and authority from Artaxerxes 1, Ezra’s task was to administer the affairs of the land (chapter 7, 8). Upon arriving, he learned of intermarriage between God’s people and their heathen neighbors. He wept and prayed for the nation (chapter 9). Ezra’s example of humble confession led to national revival (chapter 10). Ezra, a man of God and a true hero, was a model for Israel, and he is a fitting model for us.
Finally, I had to chuckle at 6:11, quoting King Cyrus: “Furthermore, I decree that if anyone changes this edict, a beam is to be pulled from his house and he is to be lifted up and impaled on it. And for this crime his house to to be made a pile of rubble.” To quote from the movie Blazing Saddles, “Boy, is he strict!”