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Old Testament: Nehemiah

Related Periods:


JerusalemNehemiah continues a cycle of episodes begun in the book of Ezra: return and reconstruction of the temple under Zerubbabel (Ezra 1:5--6:22); return and reconstruction of the community under Ezra (7-10); and now, return and reconstruction of the walls under Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:1--7:73a). In each, return and reconstruction authorized by the Persian crown meet with opposition eventually overcome with God's help. The book of Nehemiah is concerned with the last return; the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem (2:11--6:19) and the repopulation of the city (11:1-36) form the two stages of reconstruction. Again, in accordance with the previous missions, this task is met with considerable opposition from the surrounding peoples (2:10--5:19); the opposition is overcome and the project ends with a joyful celebration (12:22-43). Following a brief interlude, Nehemiah returns for a second term as governor and carries out a number of reforms (13:4-31).

So What?

Ezra and Nehemiah are our only narrative source for the history of the restoration, 538 to 430 B.C.E. The postexilic period witnessed the reestablishment of the Jewish religious community in Jerusalem and the implementation of the Torah. Though the situations we face are quite different from those encountered by the postexilic community, both Ezra and Nehemiah provide many examples of hard work coupled with prayer and an unshakable faith in God as a formula for successful problem solving that is as relevant today as it was then.

Where Do I Find It?

Nehemiah is the sixteenth book of the Old Testament, coming immediately after Ezra and before Esther.

Who Wrote It?

Jewish tradition identifies Ezra as the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Today, many scholars believe Ezra and Nehemiah come from a different hand than Chronicles and that various older traditions have been gathered together and edited by a postexilic editor, though these may include an autobiographical section written by Nehemiah, the so-called Nehemiah memoir (Nehemiah 1:1--7:73a; parts of 12:27-43; and 13:4-31).

When Was It Written?

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah, separate works in English Bibles, appear as a single book in the earliest manuscripts, suggesting that they are best read and interpreted as a literary whole. The work was written in Judah, probably in Jerusalem, sometime during the Persian period (586-332 B.C.E.), after the return from Babylon. Uncertain dates for Ezra and differing understandings of the compositional history of this material make precise dating impossible, though recent scholarship seems to favor a date somewhere in the first quarter of the fourth century B.C.E.

What's It About?

Nehemiah is an account of the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem and the repopulation of the city under the direction of Nehemiah, promulgation of the law by Ezra, and subsequent reforms by Nehemiah.

How Do I Read It?

Ezra-Nehemiah looks like a history of the restoration. While important historical information is presented, Ezra-Nehemiah should be read as a theological, rather than a chronological, presentation of this formative period that saw the return of Israel from exile and the rebirth of God's people in the promised land. This is seen in the theological ordering of the final form of the text: the rebuilding of the temple, followed by the purification of the people, and the rebuilding of the walls, climaxing in the reading of the law.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

I.    Nehemiah Returns and Rebuilds the Walls (Nehemiah 1:1--7:73a)
Upon hearing of the ruinous state of Jerusalem, Nehemiah returns to the city with the intention of rebuilding it. This is accomplished despite the opposition of the surrounding peoples.

A.    Nehemiah and His Mission (Nehemiah 1:1--2:10)
Like the returns and missions of Zerubbabel (Ezra 1-6) and Ezra (Ezra 7-10), Nehemiah's return and mission are authorized by the Persian king.
B.    Nehemiah Supervises the Rebuilding (Nehemiah 2:11--7:73a)
Nehemiah's mission is to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which is accomplished despite the opposition of the surrounding peoples.

II.    Ezra and the Law (Nehemiah 7:73b--10:39)
Ezra leads a covenant renewal ceremony in which the law is read.

A.    Ezra Instructs the People (Nehemiah 7:73b--8:18)
Ezra reads from the law and teaches the people in two public assemblies.
B.    The People Respond (Nehemiah 9:1--10:39)
After hearing the law in a third public assembly, the people respond with worship, prayer, and confession.

III.    Nehemiah's Work Continues (Nehemiah 11:1--13:31)
After a census reveals the underpopulation of Jerusalem, families are chosen to live within the city's walls, and the people celebrate with worship. Nehemiah concludes with a brief description of reforms during his second term as governor.

A.    Jerusalem Repopulated (Nehemiah 11:1--12:26)
Since Jerusalem can only hold one-tenth of the returning exiles, Nehemiah has the people cast lots to determine who should live in the city.
B.    Joyful Dedication (Nehemiah 12:27-43)
The exuberant ceremony of the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem forms the climax of Nehemiah's mission.
C.    Nehemiah's Final Reforms (Nehemiah 12:44--13:31)
The story of Nehemiah concludes with Nehemiah correcting a series of abuses during a second term as governor.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

Ezra-Nehemiah (one book in the earliest manuscripts) was compiled a century after the events it relates to help the Jewish community in Jerusalem understand who they were by describing the beginnings of Second Temple Judaism.

The disastrous events of 587 B.C.E., the destruction of the temple, the end of the Davidic monarchy and Israel as a political entity--not to mention the deportation of the population to Babylon--had necessitated a radical reassessment of Israel's identity and relationship with God. What had happened to them? Had they been abandoned? Were the gods of Babylon victorious or was God responsible for their situation? Would they be delivered from exile? Israel's answers to these questions in exile had been largely negative, interpreting the events as God's judgment on an unrepentant Israel in fulfillment of the prophetic warnings of the past, especially those of Second Isaiah:

"Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey?" (Isaiah 42:24).

But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me" (Isaiah 49:14).

Eventually, however, they began to accept the necessity of judgment and exile, and realized that, though justified, this was not God's final word. Once again, the proclamation of Second Isaiah was formative, this time as a message of hope. The community addressed by Ezra-Nehemiah, the sons and daughters of those who had returned and experienced the first fruits of that hope, needed to hear who they were and needed to be encouraged in the situations they now faced. They needed to be reminded of the institutions that had been developing for the last hundred years and to see that their sense of identity and continuity with the past was nurtured and sustained through such endeavors.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

•    Identification of Ezra's law book. The content of Ezra's law book has interested scholars who are persuaded by the findings of the so-called documentary hypothesis of pentateuchal sources (J, E, D, and P). Early scholars tended to believe that Ezra brought some version of the Priestly Code (P) with him from Babylon. Others have argued for the entire Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), or simply Deuteronomy itself (D). No consensus exists, but a close reading of the material in Ezra 9:1-2 and Nehemiah 8:13-18 suggests that at least parts of both the P and D sources accompanied Ezra on his return. This means, however, that we are speaking of what we generally call our Pentateuch.

•    Order of the material. Many commentators are troubled by the placement of Ezra's reading of the law in the book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 7:73b--8:18) and seek to restore its proper placement in the Ezra memoir between Ezra 8 and 9, which better suits the chronological sequencing. While these verses probably have been taken from their original setting in Ezra and inserted into Nehemiah, scholars now ask theological rather than historical questions, such as why the move was made, and attempt to deal with the text as it now stands.

•    Political organization. Israel organized itself differently at different periods of its history. In the days of the Judges, charismatic leaders were raised up to govern the people. During the monarchy, kings naturally held sway. But in the postexilic period neither of these political avenues was possible. Ezra-Nehemiah reflects a type of theocracy in which God rules through the priestly hierarchy.

•    Power to the people. Though Yehud (the name given "Israel" by the Persian empire in the postexilic period) was technically ruled by the Achaeminids, there was some notion of God ruling in a theocracy through the priests. Nevertheless, several weighty matters seem to have been decided by "assemblies" of the people, such as the reading of the Torah (8:1) and, most important, dealing with the problem of intermarriage (Ezra 10:9-14).

•    Relation to Chronicles. Theological differences between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah have caused a revision of the view that Ezra, Nehemiah, and the books of Chronicles share a common authorship and comprise the so-called "Chronicler's History." These differences include Chronicles' inclusive attitude toward the people of the northern kingdom, emphasis upon the Davidic monarchy, and concern with retributive justice--all essentially absent from Ezra-Nehemiah--as well as the differing understanding of "Israel" in the two works. In Chronicles, Israel is defined as all twelve tribes; Ezra-Nehemiah, however, limits Israel to Judah and Benjamin. Currently, most scholars suggest that Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah are separate literary entities.

•    Religious identity. God's people were no longer identified as Israelites living under the rule of a Davidic king. Ezra, in fact, came to personify the claim that to be a Jew meant that one adhered to the Torah, God's law (Nehemiah 8:1). It was believed that adherence to the norms and stipulations of Torah would in and of itself produce a community steeped in the traditions of God's people.

•    Religious locale. During this period following the exile, Israel began to realize that the identity change resulting from a life based upon adherence to the Torah meant that one's religious identity was no longer tied to the nationalistic state of Israel. Torah-based living could occur anywhere, even if the cult could only be practiced in the Jerusalem temple.

•    Shame/disgrace/reproach. Shame plays an important role in Nehemiah. The plight of Jerusalem that motivated Nehemiah's return was its "shame" (Nehemiah 1:3). Following his personal examination of the city, Nehemiah determined that the city's "disgrace" (2:17, same Hebrew word) could only be removed by repairing the walls. Thus, the problem was not merely one of defense; the walls symbolized God's honor. Upon their completion, Jerusalem's enemies "were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem" (6:16a). Later, Nehemiah will similarly be "disgraced" and suffer "reproach" (6:1--7:3).

•    Was Nehemiah a eunuch? The assumption that Nehemiah was a "eunuch" is long-standing and arises from the fact that some cupbearers in the Achaeminid period were eunuchs and that the Vaticanus text of the Septuagint in Nehemiah 1:11b reads eunouchos ("eunuch"). This, however, is probably not the case since many cupbearers in this period were not eunuchs; several texts from the Achaeminid period distinguish between eunuchs and cupbearers; and the Alexandrinus Septuagint text of Nehemiah 1:11b reads oinochoos ("cupbearer"). The close similarity of the two Greek words suggests that "eunuch" most likely is a scribal error for "cupbearer."

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

•    Community action. Ezra and Nehemiah may be the protagonists, the leaders of the community, but both these books emphasize the importance of community action. Earlier accounts of Israel laid emphasis upon the activity of the judge, king, or prophet; here Ezra and Nehemiah devise ways for the people to help themselves. Nehemiah doesn't build the walls; the people do (Nehemiah 3). Ezra doesn't deal with mixed marriages; the people take care of this themselves (Ezra 10:17).

•    David. A close reading of Ezra-Nehemiah finds David mentioned only in conjunction with worship (for example, Nehemiah 12:24, 36-37, 45-46). This is striking, compared with Chronicles, often seen as a part of the same history of Israel, where David dominates the narrative and often replaces the exodus in parallel passages in Samuel and Kings. Especially jarring is the lack of interest in God's promise to David of an eternal dynasty (2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17), and only Hattush (Ezra 8:2) is mentioned as of the Davidic line, despite Zerubbabel's Davidic descent (1 Chronicles 3:17-19) and prominent place in the building of the temple. If the omission of David is deliberate, as it must probably be, the relevance of David for the postexilic community is called into question. Since they thought of themselves as "slaves" to the Persian crown (Nehemiah 9:36) and no Davidide had occupied the throne for several generations, one can understand their position.

•    God's providential hand. Ezra (7:6, 9, 28; 8:18, 22, 31) and Nehemiah (1:10; 2:8, 18) both claim that "the hand of our God" was upon them, directing their missions. This also becomes a fruitful way to speak of God's grace since "God's hand" is usually nudging those around the Jewish community to provide for them in caring ways. In five of the above references the Hebrew wording ("according to the hand of") is a technical expression for royal benevolence in each of its other canonical occurrences (1 Kings 10:13; Esther 1:7; 2:18). This may be a covert way of claiming that God is still king, despite the Persian rule of Yehud, and that it is God's grace and beneficence that sustains them.

•    Mixed marriage. In both Ezra and Nehemiah, mixed marriage is seen as a serious sin that threatens the community. Ezra had dealt with the problem by insisting on the divorce of foreign wives (Ezra 9-10), but apparently the problem persisted thirty years later in the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:23-29). The harshness of this solution continues to trouble readers who fail to see the problem posed by intermarriage. In these books the return to the promised land is depicted as a second exodus employing much of the imagery of the first exodus from Egypt and the occupation of the land. Just as Moses had addressed his contemporaries regarding the danger of intermarriage with the indigenous population for fear that such marriages would turn the Israelites away from the Lord (Deuteronomy 7:1-5), so Ezra and Nehemiah are concerned about the purity of their charges and see such marriages as a breach of the covenant.

•    Nehemiah's role as "cupbearer." Nehemiah 1:11 refers to Nehemiah as a "cupbearer." Though it sounds like a menial task, Nehemiah's role as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, was an important position. The position of "cupbearer" in the Achaeminid (Persian) court was a position of honor and trust. The cupbearer stood guard over the food and drink of the king, offering protection from political rivals who might try to poison him. This meant that the cupbearer stood beside the king at every meal. When Hanani brought the news of Jerusalem's ruined state, Artaxerxes was aware of the grief it caused his trusted official, Nehemiah.

•    Opposition. Both Ezra and Nehemiah encounter strong opposition to their work from the neighboring peoples. In Nehemiah, every successful advance is met with opposition by Sanballat and his associates: in 2:10, upon hearing of Nehemiah's mission; in 2:19-20, following Nehemiah's decision to rebuild the walls; in 4:1-3, following Nehemiah's successful organization of the project; in 4:7-8, following the completion of half the wall; in 4:15, when the people return to their efforts armed with sword and trowel; in 6:1-9, foiled by Nehemiah's defense, they attack Nehemiah himself; in 6:16, following completion of the wall.

This theme of opposition forms the narrative backbone of the Nehemiah memoir (1:1a--7:73a). Each stage of the rebuilding concludes with one of these notices, and the notices themselves gradually intensify as seen in the swelling numbers of the opposition and the movement from "displeasure" through "ridicule" and personal attacks upon Nehemiah himself.

•    Prayer. Both Ezra (9:6-15) and Nehemiah (1:5-11) pray. The long prayer in Nehemiah 9:6-37 is attributed to Ezra in the Septuagint and the NRSV, but is probably a prayer of the Levites. All three are prayers of confession. The Ezra and Nehemiah prayers begin with "I" statements that quickly move to "we" statements, showing how closely they identify with their people. The Levites' prayer is, obviously, the prayer of a group. Nehemiah frequently prays during the intensifying opposition to his mission that he experienced (2:20; 4:4-5, 9; 6:9) as well as upon first hearing of the sorry state of Jerusalem while in Susa (1:5-11a).

•    Separation. In both Ezra and Nehemiah, the people separate themselves from the other nations in order to maintain their identity (Ezra 6:21; 9:1; 10:11; Nehemiah 9:2; 10:28). The books portray a community comprising Judeans who had returned from Babylonian exile and their descendants. Much of the opposition the community faced arose from their stringent belief in maintaining their separateness both politically and religiously. For Nehemiah the political aspects were primary and appear most clearly in his struggles against those who opposed his rebuilding of Jerusalem. His struggle against the community's mixed marriages was also decidedly political, though Nehemiah used scriptural references drawn from Deuteronomy 7; 23; and 1 Kings 11 to combat marriages contracted for economic reasons among the upper classes.

•    Slavery. Nehemiah 5 depicts an economic situation that threatened to destroy the people. A major cause of this crisis was a shortage of food that led to the practice of debt-slavery, a concept foreign and disturbing to contemporary sensibilities, especially when it is realized that Israelites were allowing their own sons and daughters to become slaves. The legal traditions of the Old Testament permitted the poor to work themselves out of indebtedness by allowing creditors to use their land or possessions, or even become slaves, temporarily. This was for the benefit of the poor to enable them to become self-sufficient eventually. These "slaves," technically "debt-slaves," are always to be distinguished from the "chattel slaves" in ancient Near Eastern law. The servitude of a Hebrew debt-slave was limited to six years (Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:12; Jeremiah 34:14) and they were to receive gifts that would enable them to maintain their economic security (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament