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Friday Bible Blogging - Nehemiah 1 to Nehemiah 13

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleNehemiah consists of 13 chapters. Like I wrote last week, it was originally combined with Ezra into a single book, Ezra-Nehemiah. While many portions of Ezra were told as a first person perspective through Ezra's eyes, many portions of this book were told through Nehemiah's eyes. Also, similar to Ezra, the original versions of this book contain passages in multiple languages, which is lost on someone reading an English only translation. This book continues on with the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and as with Ezra, it's a bit difficult to figure out the chronology.

Nehemiah, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 introduced the title character of this book, Nehemiah. At the time, he was a cupbearer to the King of Persia. He learned of the surviving Jews back in Judah their troubled state, so he prayed to God to bless the Jews, of course confessing the sins of the people in his prayer.

Nehemiah, Chapter 2

With his proximity to the king, Nehemiah decided that he might be able to do something to help the Jews. He approached the king with the request, "If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors' graves, so that I may rebuild it." This was at his own peril, as it could have been interpreted by the king as mixed loyalties. However, the king granted the request, along with a few related additional requests once the first one had been granted, giving Nehemiah royal support in rebuilding Jerusalem.

Nehemiah visited Jerusalem to see for himself the condition it was in, and it wasn't good. After his inspection, he approached "the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest that were to do the work", and told them, "You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace." And the people agreed.

Of course, there was opposition from outsiders, accusing the Jews of "rebelling against the king".

One thing I found interesting that began in this chapter was the colorful names for all the city gates. It wasn't simply, 'the northern gate', 'the southern gate', or anything so plain. The names mentioned in this chapter were "the Valley Gate past the Dragon's Spring", "the Dung Gate", and "the Fountain Gate". In subsequent chapters, we also learned of "the Sheep Gate", "the Fish Gate", "the Old Gate", "the Water Gate", "the Horse Gate", "the East Gate" (so one gate had a boring name), "the Muster Gate", "the Gate of Ephraim", and "the Gate of the Guard".

Nehemiah, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 got into the details of the repairs to the city walls - listing by name who repaired what. It included the multiple gates and towers in addition to the sections of the wall. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) noted that the list of people here indicated that the population was "considerably smaller than it had been before its destruction."

Nehemiah, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 started with a bit more mocking from outsiders opposed to the Jews rebuilding Jerusalem. Apparently, the Jews were about halfway done with the wall at this point, so it still wasn't a very effective defense. So, when the "Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites" moved on from mocking to actively plotting to attack Jerusalem, Nehemiah stationed troops at their weakest defense points. When their enemies abandoned their immediate plans to attack Jerusalem, Nehemiah split the Jews into two groups - half on full time guard duty, and the other half doing the actual work. But even the half doing the manual labor kept their weapons on hand at all times.

Nehemiah, Chapter 5

There was a crisis among those who had returned to Jerusalem. They complained to Nehemiah:

We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king's tax. Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.

In other words, the wealthy among those who had returned were taking advantage of their less fortunate neighbors. And not just that, but they were even charging interest against loans to other Israelites. And that part about daughters being ravished meant they were doomed - prior to that they could still be bought out of slavery, but once they lost their virginity, they were stuck with the man they were with. Needless to say, Nehemiah was not happy with their behavior, and had them all take an oath to "restore everything and demand nothing more from them".

There seems to be a message in there somewhere for the religious right.

There was one other passage from early on that chapter worth mentioning, "With our sons and our daughters, we are many." The NOAB points out that the latter part of that phrase is better translated as "we pledge". In other words, they were using their children as collateral for loans, explaining the passage about slavery in the subsequent verse.

The closing of the chapter was a bit of boasting from Nehemiah about what a good governor he was "because of the fear of God".

Nehemiah, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 contained a couple attempts to eliminate Nehemiah. The first was an actual attempt on his life. The leaders of the alliance who were going to try to attack in the previous chapter tried to lure Nehemiah out of the city for a meeting in one of their villages, where they planned to 'do him harm'. Nehemiah saw through their treachery, and refused to meet them, even when they tried goading him with false accusations of preparing to revolt against the king.

The second attempt was against Nehemiah's holiness. Shemaiah son of Delaiah claimed that men were coming to kill Nehemiah, and tried to convince Nehemiah to hide in the temple. Since only priests were allowed in the temple and because Yahweh was so vengeful, Nehemiah could have been killed for such a transgression, or at least stricken with leprosy. But Nehemiah saw through this ploy, as well.

There was some boasting at the end of the chapter that struck me as a bit, "And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God."

The end of the chapter also introduced Tobiah and hinted at a power struggle between him and Nehemiah, where Tobiah was more interested in establishing alliances with powerful families in the surrounding areas, while Nehemiah wanted to build, according to the NOAB, "a community based on Jewish kinship".

Nehemiah, Chapter 7

This was mostly a repeat of the genealogy from Ezra 2. Although there were slight differences, it was mostly the same. This was a way to frame the story and tie it back to the earlier portion.

Nehemiah, Chapter 8

The chapter started with the people telling "Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses..." Interestingly, this is one of the few times Ezra is presented as a contemporary to Nehemiah. As I wrote last week, it's difficult to follow the chronology in these books. It seemed that Nehemiah took place later than Ezra, so maybe the few mentions of Ezra contemporary to Nehemiah were later additions.

Anyway, "the book of the law of Moses" was brought forth. According to the NOAB, this was mostly likey most the Pentateuch, and probably contained Deuteronomy. The priests read from the book, and the people listened and worshipped God. There was an interesting aspect to the reading - a group of men "helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places... They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading." It's unclear if this helping was translating the Hebrew into the common language of Aramaic, or if it was more interpretation.

The end of the chapter also described that the people had celebrated the festival of booths.

Nehemiah, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 is basically one long prayer from the Levites, given in front of all the assembled Israelites. It contains all the elements you'd expect from such a prayer - praise to God, confession of how awful and wicked the Israelites had behaved, and requests for forgiveness and future blessings. The last verse of the chapter calls it a "firm agreement in writing", so apparently it was a contract or covenant with God, not just an oral prayer.

One of the verses that caught my eye here was early in the chapter, before the prayer was actually begun, "Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors." This was another example in Ezra-Nehemiah of the the Jews separating themselves, and the refusal to mix or assimilate with outsiders. Of course, the religious reason is to avoid temptation from false gods, but it does seem almost isolationist.

The NOAB also pointed out an interesting textual issue. Verse 6 states, "And Ezra said...". However, Ezra's name wasn't included in the surviving Hebrew manuscripts - it appears to be a Greek insertion.

Verse 36 was also noteworthy, "Here we are, slaves to this day--slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts." But in the rest of this book, the Jews haven't been treated particularly bad as a group.

Nehemiah, Chapter 10

The chapter started off with a list by name of all those who signed the "sealed document" described in the previous chapter. The rest of those assembled pledged to "enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God's law..." The chapter went on to describe further obligations that the people were putting on themselves, i.e. voluntary pledges not required by the law. These included such things as providing wood for the burnt offerings, taxes, etc.

Nehemiah, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 began with an interesting scheme to repopulate the newly rebuilt Jerusalem, "Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem; and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in the holy city Jerusalem, while nine-tenths remained in the other towns." Most of the remainder of the chapter was listing who lived where, and the responsibilities different people had.

Nehemiah, Chapter 12

This chapter continued on with listing people and their responsibilities, focusing on the Levites and priestly duties, and then moving on to more practical duties, like guards at the different gates, people in charge of the storage rooms, etc.

Nehemiah, Chapter 13

The chapter began by bringing up an old grudge, "it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, 2because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them..." For a supposedly forgiving God, he's not very forgiving of this transgression that happened generations previously.

After serving his time as governor, Nehemiah returned to the king. After a time, he returned to Jerusalem to check up on the city, and discovered that they'd slipped. Tobiah had a room "in the courts of the house of God." Nehemiah was furious at this, and threw all of Tobiah's furniture out of the room. Of course, this is written from Nehemiah's view. But if it's describing real events, and you consider it from another point of view, it appears that the Levites accepted Tobiah as legitimate, and didn't see a problem with him staying in the temple. This hints at the politics taking place in Jerusalem at the time.

At that visit, Nehemiah also discovered that people weren't paying their taxes to support the temple, and so the priests had had to go back to work the fields to support themselves. So, Nehemiah set everything right, appointed new leaders, and returned back to the capital.

In a separate trip back to check on Jerusalem, Nehemiah discovered yet more transgressions. People were working on the Sabbath, and marrying foreign women. Nehemiah even got a bit physical with them over that latter sin, "And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, 'You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves...' "

But Nehemiah set everything right again, including running off "the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite". And he concluded with a refrain that he'd used multiple times throughout this whole book, "Remember me, O my God, for good."


I've already covered the broad strokes of Ezra-Nehemiah in my introduction to Ezra last week, so there's not much to add here. I was struck by the isolationist attitude, especially the heartless way that women and children were driven off from their houses in Ezra, but the books were mainly just a summary of rebuilding Jerusalem following Babylonian exile.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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