Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 13

In this chapter, Nehemiah visits the king of Persia and returns to find the people sinning in many matters.

The storytelling in this part of the chapter is not entirely linear, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to figure out what is happening and when.  Verses 1-3 tell us that “on the same day” as the prior dedication of the wall, they read aloud from the book of Moses and “they excluded all foreigners from Israel” (v. 3).  Because it was “the same day”, we can reasonably infer that Nehemiah was present, because the previous chapter was very clear that Nehemiah was present at the dedication (v. 31 and following).  In verse 4, it says that “prior to this” Eliashib gave a special room in the temple to Tobiah.  We would assume that meant “before the dedication” that happened on the previous day.

However, verse 6 tells us that “during all this time” Nehemiah was not in Jerusalem.  “This time” is referring to the “time” when the priest Eliashib gave the special room to Tobiah.  However, the implication is that Nehemiah must have left Jerusalem before they dedicated the wall.  The book of Nehemiah does not tell us what year the wall was finished; all we know is that Nehemiah came to Jerusalem in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1) and returned to the king in the 32nd year (v. 6).  So he was in Jerusalem for twelve years.  My assumption is that he finished the wall before those twelve years were up, and it seems likely they would have celebrated the dedication at that time.

Verse 6 leaves us in a bit of conundrum, though.  If Nehemiah was present at the dedication and was absent when Eliashib gave the room to Tobiah, it suggests that Nehemiah was present until the wall was completed, left to return to Artaxerxes and then came back to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication.  This fits into the story reasonably well, since Sanballat frequently attacked Nehemiah’s relationship with the king, so it stands to reason that Nehemiah would return to the king to assure him of Nehemiah’s continued loyalty.  The last direct mention of Nehemiah before this chapter was in Neh 10:1 when he signed his name on the covenantal document.  Later verses in that chapter referred to things “we” did, suggesting Nehemiah was still physically present.  Chapter 11 does not include any references to Nehemiah and in chapter 12 they celebrate the dedication festival.  The only possible gap in Nehemiah’s physical presence in the city is chapter 11, after the priests gathered to read the Law and before the dedication of the wall.

Even though the text doesn’t say it, it’s likely that Nehemiah took a brief interlude where he personally travelled back to Susa to visit the king, and that he’s writing about the Judeans in the third person based on what he later learned upon his return.  This is the gap of time when he wasn’t present and when everything started going wrong.  Once Nehemiah came back, they celebrated the dedication of the wall.

Chapter 13 is basically Nehemiah telling us about a bunch of things that happened while he was gone, and what he did to fix them, but the actual point when Nehemiah left the city was most likely during the events of chapter 11.  I think it’s a little surprising that Nehemiah would have left the city before dedicating the wall, since as we have learned the wall of Jerusalem is Nehemiah’s central focus.  I suspect that Nehemiah was forced to return to the king, whether by the date that he had set (Neh 2:6) or as a reaction to Sanballat’s agitation, and even though the wall saga was not finished, Nehemiah was driven by circumstance.  He returned when he could and they dedicated the wall afterwards.  I think Nehemiah restructured the narrative, putting the dedication of the wall first in chapter 12 because he was trying to keep the wall narrative more compact.  The events in this chapter happened mostly earlier, but he reordered the chronology because they are not central to the wall narrative.

Anyway, the content of this chapter is focused on four major controversies which Nehemiah sought to resolve upon his return to Jerusalem.  The way I imagine this story is Nehemiah walking out the gate and, like a parent going out for a night on the town, telling the kids (everyone else) who were staying behind to “be good while I am gone”.  As it always goes in such situations, when Nehemiah returned he found the metaphorical house in complete disarray.  This whole chapter is about all the things that got messed up while Nehemiah was not around to keep things running in proper order, and what Nehemiah did to fix the problems he found when he returned.

The first controversy is the room that Eliashib the priest gave to Tobiah in the temple.  This is a clear offense in Nehemiah’s mind because Tobiah is one of his main enemies (second only to Sanballat, see e.g. Neh 4:3, 4:7).  It is an affront for Tobiah, an enemy of the Jews, to be given a room in the temple which is their most sacred place.  Verse 4 tells us that Eliashib is “related” to Tobiah.  Neh 6:17-18 established Tobiah’s familial ties with leaders of Judah, and it is likely that Tobiah was related to Eliashib through one of those marriages.  Nehemiah strongly disapproves and since Nehemiah is governor, Tobiah gets booted out.

The second controversy begins in verse 10.  Basically what happened is that the people stopped paying the tithe to the Levites, so the Levites went back to their normal jobs, farming.  Without a tithe the Levites are just ordinary people who have to get ordinary jobs.  Nehemiah fixes the problem by getting “the officials” (presumably the men responsible for collecting the tithe) to go do their jobs (v. 11).

The third controversy begins in verse 15 when Nehemiah observes men of Judah working on the Sabbath.  Nehemiah fights back by “admonishing” the men of Judah who worked on the Sabbath and forcing the gates of Jerusalem to be closed over the Sabbath.  Foreigners, men from Tyre and other “merchants” (v. 20) were coming to Jerusalem to sell their wares over the Sabbath.  While these foreigners do not need to observe the Sabbath, it is unlawful for the people of Judah to buy goods on the Sabbath (a kind of work), so the foreign merchants coming to sell goods over the Sabbath are inducing the Jews to sin.  Nehemiah locks them out by closing the gate, but to be extra sure (and possibly out of anger) Nehemiah takes the extra step of threatening the merchants and ordering them to not even come to the city on the Sabbath (v. 21).  Verse 22 implies that the Levites were responsible as gatekeepers to prevent commerce on the Sabbath.  The second controversy, when the people stopped paying the tithe, is why the gatekeepers (Levites) left to go back to their ordinary jobs.  There were no gatekeepers to help preserve the Sabbath and as a direct consequence, the people failed to observe the Sabbath as Nehemiah complains.  This shows how failure to observe one part of the Law can undermine observation of other parts of the Law.

The fourth and final controversy begins in verse 23.  Intermarriage with foreigners is the problem again.  This was the big moral crisis in Ezra’s book (Ezra 9-10) and verse 3 in this same chapter tells us that Israel “excluded all foreigners” after reading the story of Balaam in the book of Numbers 22-24.  However, it appears that wasn’t enough because later in the very same chapter the people are again intermarrying with foreigners and their children were learning foreign languages and not the language of the Jews.

The book concludes by telling us one of the priests himself had married a foreign wife and Nehemiah “drove him away from me”.  The book concludes on a rather mixed note; even though Nehemiah is seeking to “purify” the priesthood, it feels like he is fighting a losing battle against those cultural forces.  Every step that Nehemiah takes to purify the priesthood or enforce the Law, it feels like the priests and the people take four steps in the opposite direction.  Nehemiah is a man of great diligence and faithfulness, but how much can he preserve the nation if the whole nation sins in his absence?

The very last words in the book show Nehemiah’s emphasis on proving his own faithfulness and dedication to God.  It’s only really here, at the very end of the book, when Nehemiah finally reveals what was his inner motivation for writing this all down.  As it turns out, Nehemiah was not writing for the benefit of posterity, he wasn’t writing to explain the social and political conditions of post-exilic Jerusalem, or any of these other things.  He was writing to call God’s attention to his acts of faithfulness and ask God to reward him with “good” in his life.

We had a brief preview of this philosophy in Neh 5:19 and 6:14, but it only really emerges in force here in this last chapter when Nehemiah repeats the same phrase four times (v. 14, 22, 29, 31). Considering the overall effect, I feel like the entire book of Nehemiah is written like a kind of pseudo-prayer, in some parts recounting the history of Judah during Nehemiah’s governorship and in other parts describing Nehemiah’s deeds on behalf of the LORD, but in all parts it is seeking to communicate Nehemiah’s heart and lifestyle to the LORD as part of his overall petition for the LORD’s blessing in his life.

Most of the book is a historical narrative, but the conclusion of Nehemiah is a prayer: “LORD”, Nehemiah says, “you know all these things I just wrote about, all these good things I have done; remember these things.  I wrote this whole book, LORD, so that you would know the good things I have done and that you would remember them and do good for me in return.”  At its heart, this is a prayer, even though most of the book is not written in the literary style of a prayer.  It is a prayer disguised as a historical narrative.

I think it’s funny how these brief comments here at the end of the book can so heavily influence our understanding of the previous 12 chapters.  For so long reading through the book, I was mostly focused on the events Nehemiah was describing rather than asking why; what is Nehemiah’s motivation?  Clearly he was motivated to help rebuild the wall, but that doesn’t address why Nehemiah wanted to go to the considerable effort and expense of writing about it.  Even though I think the ending feels rather sudden, I also think it does a lot to wrap up that lingering question: Nehemiah was writing this book as a memorial to his efforts, that he might offer it up (both his efforts and the book) as an offering to the LORD.

Throughout the study of Nehemiah, I have frequently asked the question, “what can we learn from this chapter?”  In the first chapter, we learned that Nehemiah understood God’s season for his people, the moment of his favor, and Nehemiah prayed and then acted.  Nehemiah was a man of prayer and action, pursuing what he understood about God’s will for his people and how to bless his people.  In this chapter, we learn that all of Nehemiah’s prayers and actions are wrapped together into this great bundle and offered wholly to the LORD.  Nehemiah takes all his efforts, prayers, struggles and victories and gives them to the LORD and he says, remember me.  Do not forget the labor of your servant.  I think for us, the lesson is that we can follow Nehemiah’s example.  We should understand God’s will for us and our people (friends, church, nation, etc.).  We should pray, and we should act, and at the end of every deed we should offer it to the LORD and say, “LORD, this is an offering to you.  Everything we have done, we do for you; remember us.”  Nehemiah doesn’t say it directly, but I believe that his life is the kind of offering the LORD desires from us, and I believe that Nehemiah received (and perhaps will receive) the blessing he asked for.  I can only hope that each one of us would also offer an acceptable sacrifice of our lives and deeds, and that we too would be remembered and receive the LORD’s blessing.

In the next book, we will begin the book of Esther!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 12

In this chapter, Nehemiah gives us a genealogy of the Levites and then describes the dedication of the new wall in Jerusalem.

The genealogy is somewhat a continuation from the census in the previous chapter, but it’s not a direct continuation because in the previous chapter, Nehemiah was listing the people who were dwelling in Jerusalem during his time as governor.  In this chapter, Nehemiah is listing the priests and Levites who returned to Judah in the first wave (i.e. “who came up with Zerubbabel… and Jeshua”).  This first wave were the pioneers of the return to the promised land, and neither Nehemiah nor Ezra were among this first wave.

In fact, even though Ezra’s central topic was the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Ezra himself was not personally a witness or participant in those events.  Ezra remained in exile during that initial period and returned as part of a secondary wave of returning exiles during the 7th year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:8).  Nehemiah was part of a third, later wave that left 13 years after Ezra (Nehemiah 2:1).  The original returnees went to Jerusalem in the first year of King Cyrus (Ezra 1:1), which means that Nehemiah is writing at least twenty years after the first exile returned to Jerusalem.

In fact, verses 10-11 give us some sense of the time that has passed.  Nehemiah lists five generations of descendants of Jeshua.  At first glance, this might appear to contradict the timeline of Nehemiah returning ~30-40 years after Jeshua since five generations would imply between 100-150 years have passed.  However, my readers should understand that the high priest of Judah is almost by definition the oldest living priest.  It is possible that he is more than 70 years old at the time of Cyrus’s decree, so he would have already had grandchildren or possibly even great grandchildren alive at that time.  After two more generation (which could fit in a 40-50 year timeframe), Jeshua would have five living generations of descendants.  Since Nehemiah might have been in the land for 5 or 10 years before writing this passage, we could reasonably infer that Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem about 50 years after Jeshua based on this genealogy.  More precise dates are difficult to mine out of the bible text by itself, but when combined with external evidence, we can determine that Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem around 444 BC and Jeshua returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel in the 530’s BC, giving a time difference of about 90 years.  Given the variability of generation length, this is consistent with the biblical account.

I don’t think anything in the genealogy itself is particularly interesting, but I do think verse 24 is interesting.  It refers to David “prescribing” a particular system of praise and worship for the Levites and a divisional system.  This is possibly an oblique reference to the book of Chronicles which contains regulations for the priestly divisions and the worship and praise ministries of the Levites.  We know that Chronicles is a post-exilic book, but from this verse we can possibly say it is an early post-exilic book since by the time of Nehemiah it is considered an authoritative source for the organization of the temple.

In verse 27, Nehemiah connects his genealogy with the topic at hand.  In verse 25-26, he lists the Levites who served during the priesthood of these earlier figures (the descendants of Jeshua), ending with a reference to himself and Ezra, and then verse 27 explains that these same Levites were the men that Nehemiah gathered together to the wall to praise God as part of the dedication ceremony.  All the Levites are gathered from the surrounding towns to consecrate the people and the wall, and then they celebrated by splitting all the people, Levites and singers into two groups and traversing over the wall, probably from opposite directions, and converging at the temple.  The leaders also split between these two groups, with Ezra leading one group and Nehemiah leading the other (implying equality between the religious leadership of Ezra and the political leadership of Nehemiah).

When the two choruses converged, they would have sung psalms of praise.  Although we haven’t gotten to the book of Psalms yet, I can tell you now that many of the songs are “antiphonal”, which means that the song is divided into alternating choruses sung by two groups.  This is almost certainly what they are doing here: Nehemiah divided the singers into two groups to sing antiphonal choruses.  Antiphonal psalms are represented in the book of Psalms as well, with the clearest example being Psalm 136.

After their great rejoicing in the dedication, verse 44 and following tells us about the administration of the tithe, which is obviously an important issue with so many Levites and priests living in the city.  Verse 46 reminds us that everything about the Levitical worship is following the ordinances of David; indeed, this chapter contains four separate references to David as it relates to various temple ordinances.  Nehemiah clearly views David as the principal organizing force behind the temple system.  If someone asked Nehemiah, “why are we doing this”, I think Nehemiah would answer, “because that is how David the man of God said that we must do it.”  David is a deeply honored, almost mythical figure in Nehemiah’s Judah.  Much like the book of Chronicles used David and Solomon as emblems of the “golden age” of Israel, Nehemiah also uses David as the primary source of their temple regulations and the moral authority behind these rules.

Nehemiah and Chronicles reference David in the same way, and for mostly the same reasons: because the people of his generation were trying to rebuild and recover their earlier national glory.  In the same way that David became a symbol of the earlier golden age in Chronicles, Nehemiah also views the Davidic system as part of Judah’s national heritage that he must recover.  I think it’s very likely that Nehemiah himself read Chronicles, but even if he didn’t, he was clearly influenced by the same current of thought that we find in Chronicles, which may have been widespread in Judean society.

This chapter concludes with the people “rejoicing over the priests and Levites who served”, so there doesn’t appear to be any conflict over the tithe at this time.  This is consistent with the generally upbeat religious atmosphere during Nehemiah’s lifetime.  Even though Nehemiah has to correct several social problems (like the usury issue from chapter 5), the general current of the book is religious dedication and optimism (for instance, the ceremonies and festivals of chapter 8).

In the next chapter, Nehemiah visits the king of Persia and confronts widespread moral decay upon his return to Jerusalem.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 11

In this chapter, Nehemiah lists the various leaders and clans of Israelites dwelling in Jerusalem.

In verses 1-2 we see a peculiar little story.  We discover that first, the people are casting lots to bring one tenth of their population into Jerusalem.  Second, they “bless” the men who volunteer to move (rather than be compelled).  This shows two things.  First, it shows that the people collectively see some reason why they need to move more people into the capital.  Second, it shows that the people do not themselves want to move to the capital.  However, the people’s motivation is not clear for either point.

Why would the people want to move more of their population into the city?  I can only really offer speculation on this point, so that is exactly what I will do.  I guess that they wanted to do this for the reason given in the first part of v. 1: “the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem”.  That is, the nation needed more people in the city to serve the leaders and defend the city.  If there is ever a situation when the leaders need to conscript some force, they could just go out and grab a bunch of people from the city and force them into some task or other.  The last concentration of manpower makes it easier and faster to do this.  We also know that the city was frequently threatened by their enemies, perhaps for exactly this reason.  Perhaps Judah’s enemies recognized that if they could destroy the city then the outlying rural areas would be easier targets since the Judeans there would be in smaller groups and easily overpowered by a larger enemy.

Why would the people be reluctant to move to Jerusalem?  I think my answer to the first question helps answer this one too: because the people don’t particularly want to live under threat of attack and under the compulsion of periodic conscriptions.  Additionally, other commentaries suggest that the Judeans are still largely agricultural in this time period, so they would have a harder time earning a living in a city where farmland is scarce and skilled jobs typically associated with city living take a lot of training and these careers can be hard to get into.

After this short story, the main part of the chapter begins with a fairly extensive census of the groups living in Jerusalem.  I won’t go through this in detail because as with elsewhere in Nehemiah, most of the people mentioned in this census are not referenced anywhere else in the bible.  The last twelve verses (25-36) list some of the outlying towns in Judah, which is not much different in overall tenor or topic from the census of Jerusalem, so I won’t discuss that in detail either.

So what can we learn from this chapter?  Overall, one thing that I notice from this chapter is the heavily religious character of Jerusalem.  It is twice referred to as the “holy city” (v. 1, 18).  If we believe Nehemiah’s numbers to be an exhaustive listing of all the residents in Jerusalem, it suggests that more than half the residents of Jerusalem are involved with religious service in some way or another.  I count ~1,300 men of Benjamin and Judah (v. 6-8) and around 1,600 men who are either temple servants, Levites or gatekeepers (v. 12-14, 18-19).  Jerusalem is the political capital of Judah, but it seems like its religious character as the home of the temple is even more important, at least from what we can see in this census.

I also think there is an interesting tension between the people’s desire to remain in the country and the national interest to bring more people into the city.  The bible rarely speaks about this directly, so it’s hard for me to add more detail when so little is known about Judean society in this time period.  All I will add here is that Judah remains a largely rural society during Nehemiah’s lifetime, even though Jerusalem plays a central role in both Nehemiah and Ezra’s stories.  Remember what brought Nehemiah to return to Judah: he heard that Jerusalem’s wall had not been rebuilt.  His principle concern was establishing Jerusalem as a political and military force in the region.

Repopulating the city is consistent with Nehemiah’s priorities, so from that point of view I think this chapter is just a continuation of Nehemiah’s overall focus on the health and wellbeing of Jerusalem.

In the next chapter, Nehemiah continues his census by listing the chief Levites, and then describes the dedication of the city wall.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 10

In this chapter, Nehemiah and the other community leaders sign a contract to obey the covenant with God.

Broadly speaking, this chapter has two sections.  The first section is verses 1-27, which lists the names of the signatories.  The second section is verses 28-39 which lists the details of the contract that they are signing.

It’s tough to come up with any definitive identification of the signatories in this document.  Although there are several names familiar to us, we have reason to believe that most of the men mentioned here cannot be identified with biblical figures elsewhere.  For instance, Daniel in verse 6 may appear to be a reference to the biblical prophet Daniel.  However, the book with that same name identifies Daniel as a “son of Judah”, while in this passage Daniel is a priest (descendant of Levi).  Baruch (also from v. 6) is a figure from the book of Jeremiah, but it’s unlikely to be the same person because Nehemiah live roughly 70 years after Jeremiah, so Jeremiah and the Baruch of his time are likely dead by now.  Verse 2 mentions a Jeremiah and that is likely a different Jeremiah for the same reason.

More generally, people in biblical times would commonly reuse names (same as we do now), so just because we see a familiar name doesn’t mean it’s the same person.  Given the context, I think most of these figures are leaders of the community from this one window of time and unlikely to be significant anywhere outside of the chronicles of Ezra and Nehemiah.  On the other hand, many of these names are likely the same people as elsewhere in Ezra and Nehemiah, particularly Nehemiah chapters 7, 8 and 9 which include lists of central community figures and the Levites and priests.  That doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t otherwise know: the text clearly tells us that these are “the leaders of the people” (v. 14), which for our purposes is perhaps all that matters.

I think the second section is much more interesting.  In a similar way that the previous chapter was a reformulation of Israel’s history, this chapter may be viewed as a reformulation of the covenant, the Laws given through Moses.  We won’t see anything in this chapter that is not mentioned in the Pentateuch, but we might observe a change in emphasis on some laws over others.

Verse 30 begins with reiterating the importance of separating from foreign peoples.  I think this was an important principle in Moses’s time but it is even more urgent in Nehemiah’s time due to the intermarriage crisis that we saw in Ezra 9-10.  This played directly into the attack upon Nehemiah’s effort to build the wall.  Nehemiah 4:3 tells us that Tobiah is an Ammonite (a hostile foreign neighbor to Israel and Judah), but Nehemiah 6:17-19 tells us that many nobles of Judah “were bound by oath” to Tobiah due to intermarriage between Tobiah’s family and influential Judeans.  It’s clear that Tobiah cultivated ties with influential Judeans by intermarriage and then used his position to undermine Judah’s national interest.  This is especially relevant to Nehemiah because Tobiah was one of the chief antagonists against building the wall.

Observing the Sabbath is perhaps another special interest of Nehemiah’s, though we won’t see this until chapter 13 when Nehemiah observes people of Judah failing to keep the Sabbath.  I’ll talk about it more then, but it forms a second and lesser “moral crisis” after intermarriage with foreigners.

The rest of the commands mentioned in this document are related to giving.  There was the obligatory 1/3rd shekel tax for maintenance of the temple, the firstfruits offering and the tithe offered by the people for the Levites (which was itself tithed for the support of the priests).  Although the temple was recently rebuilt, without financial support the priests and Levites would have to go back to farming or find other jobs and the religious system basically falls apart.

I’m not sure if Nehemiah is emphasizing these laws because they are the most important or perhaps they are what the people were neglecting to obey.  Although my first instinct suggests that the people are lukewarm towards their faith and that is why they are ambivalent about giving, the previous several chapters have generally shown the people are actually quite dedicated to their faith.  Therefore, I think it’s more likely that they are failing to support the Levites and priests out of ignorance, or possibly because of their poverty.  We certainly know that the people are under a heavy burden of taxation from the Persian kings (cf. Nehemiah 9:36-37), so I could understand why paying another 10% tax in addition to their other burdens would be a problem for the poorer people.

This chapter leaves out many other laws of the covenant (for a brief summary, see Exodus 20-23), for instance the observation of the festivals like the Passover.  Normally Passover is incredibly important, and earlier in Nehemiah we saw the people observe Sukkot so it’s not like they considered the festivals unimportant.  I think it’s more likely that this document is a pledge to fix problems that Nehemiah and the other leaders see in their society.  That is, this chapter is not so much a reformulation of the Law as a selection of the commandments that are most relevant to their current social and religious problems.  It is incomplete and selective not because they are trying to reimagine the commandments but because Nehemiah and the other leaders only view some of these laws as relevant to solving their current problems.

In conclusion, Nehemiah is basically a fundamentalist.  When faced with social and religious problems, he turns to Israel’s historical law for the solution.  He does not believe that Judah needs to re-invent its culture and traditions for the modern era; rather, he seeks to return to what Judah and Israel was originally supposed to be, a people dedicated to God and living by God’s commands.  Although their present situation has changed, Nehemiah does not want to adapt or create a new law; he wants to turn back to the God of their fathers.  As a strictly theological point, this means that Nehemiah does not view the exile as God’s repudiation of the covenant.  If the covenant were broken, then there would be no point in signing a new document agreeing to obey some of the laws of Moses.  Instead, I would argue that Nehemiah views himself and his people as still living in the same covenant with God, and this is about returning to obedience to the covenant, but with a particular emphasis on the parts of the Law that are relevant to their current problems.

In the next chapter, Nehemiah gives us a census of the people living in Jerusalem and the outlying towns.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 9

In this chapter, the people observe a day of fasting and the Levites stand and recite the history of Israel from Abram to the present day.

To me I think this is a very interesting chapter.  In verse 1 it tells us that this day of fasting occurred on the 24th day of the month, while the festival of Sukkot in the previous chapter ended on the 8th day.  So it’s a couple weeks later, but the general mood of the people is still directed towards religious observation.

In the previous chapter, verses 7-8 of that chapter told us that the priests and Levites were translating and interpreting the text to explain it to the people.  A big part of the scriptures is recounting the history of Israel, and in this chapter we get a paraphrase of what the priests said when they recounted that history.

The reason why I find this so interesting is because it tells us, in their own words, how the people of Nehemiah’s time remembered their own history and how they viewed themselves.  We can look for differences between the priests’ account here and what we read in the biblical histories to see if they are emphasizing anything or leaving anything out from their retelling.  It gives us an opportunity to study their self-perception; the previous books of the bible (Genesis, Judges, Samuel, etc) show us what the people of Israel thought about their own history while it was happening, and this chapter shows us what the people of Jerusalem think about their history as they reflect upon it retrospectively.

I see two major omissions in this passage.  The first is it omits the story of the generation that died in the wilderness.  The priests mention that Israel rebelled against God, but do not mention how God punished them by destroying a generation.  Verses in 18-21 emphasize that while Israel sinned against God, God “did not forsake” them and provided for Israel during their wandering years.  This is true, but it is a selective truth.  They are cherry-picking God’s forgiveness of Israel (which was real) but leaving out the many times that God punished Israel (which was also real).

The second major omission is David and Solomon.  Or perhaps we could generalize and say “the good kings”.  Verses 27-30 accurately describe the Judges period, when Israel sinned, was oppressed, cried out to God and were delivered.  Over and over and over again.  However, particularly during the reigns of David and to a lesser extent Solomon, the text in Samuel strongly emphasizes David’s purity of heart and devotion, and the people were devoted to God as a byproduct.

The narrative in this chapter is constructed as if Israel were sinning over and over and never had any good moments.  Again this seems like a selective truth; while the priests are not saying anything that couldn’t be supported by the historical texts, they are leaving out the parts of the history that contradict the ideas they are trying to express.

It would not have supported their point if the priests had said, “Israel sinned most of the time, but here are a couple exceptions when our fathers were faithful”.  Instead, the narrative we see is “Israel sinned continuously, but God was faithful in spite of our sins.”

What is the point, then?  What do I believe the priests are trying to express to the people through their collective history?  The priests’ narrative presents Israel as being being rebellious against God, but God remaining merciful towards Israel.  God planted them in the promised land and did not forsake them.  Above all, we see God is faithful to Israel and faithful to the covenant.  Pointing out the instances of Israel’s faithfulness towards God would have diminished the impact of God’s faithfulness, because God’s faithfulness is emphasized in large part through its contrast with Israel’s unfaithfulness.

We see Israel being planted in a good land and “growing fat” (v. 25).  Whenever Israel becomes fat and content, “they did evil before you” (v. 28).  Even though God “delivered them into the hands of their oppressors” (v. 27), he “bore with them for many years” (v. 30) and “did not make an end of them” (v. 31).

To summarize, I think there are three core points in this story.  In no particular order, the first point is that Israel was weak and poor, but when God blessed them they became arrogant and rebelled against him.  The second is that God is reaching out to his people over and over while the people reject him over and over.  The third is a contrast between the faithful and compassionate God who remains true to Israel, while Israel is faithless and turns away from God continually.

I mention these points because I believe that all three of these points can be found in the prophetic literature (particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah and possibly some of the minor prophets).  Since many of these prophets predate Nehemiah, we can infer that Nehemiah was influenced by the prophets and not the other way around.  Through this we can see how the prophetic literature has influenced religious thought in Nehemiah’s generation.  To reiterate, I think this theology is well-based in the earlier historical texts, so I don’t think there is anything dishonest in the priests’ speech here.  Instead, I think it represents a reformulation of their history.

It’s similar to how Chronicles is a reformulation of Kings; even though both books describes the same events without any major contradictions, the two texts have significant differences in their focus, which reflect the theologies of their respective authors.  This chapter in Nehemiah is the same way: it describes the same events as Genesis, etc. without contradiction, but with a different tone from the prior text.  I personally believe that is mostly because Nehemiah assimilated the prophetic ideology of Isaiah, Jeremiah and others, which I described in the three core points mentioned above.

Lastly, as a minor point, verse 2 casually tells us that the Israelites separated themselves from foreigners, which is funny because this was a major focus for Ezra, consuming two full chapters, and yet here it is described in exactly one verse.

The chapter concludes in v. 38 with “an agreement” the people are making with each other and with God.  In the next chapter, we will learn about the contents of this agreement.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 8

In this chapter, Ezra recites the law to all the people and they celebrate the festival of Booths, which in Hebrew is called Sukkot.

Yes, that’s right, Ezra.  You might have thought we were in the book of Nehemiah, and indeed we are, but here is Ezra again.  Not only do we bring out Ezra, but what does Ezra read?  The book of the law of Moses.  In my opinion, there are only two possibilities for what this might be.  It’s either the Pentateuch in its entirety (Genesis through Deuteronomy), or it is the book of Deuteronomy alone.  I think both are viable interpretations, and especially since Nehemiah specifies that it’s the “Law of Moses”, I am inclined to think it might be Deuteronomy alone.  Either way, there are a couple points I want to talk about.  First is the cultural act of recitation of the scriptures, second is the challenges that ancient people faced in understanding and interpreting their scriptures, and third is how this chapter relates to our own attempts to understand the exact same ancient book.

Beginning with the first point, books are rare and expensive in this time period, much more so than many modern readers may understand.  Modern readers may look back upon the past and think that because we have a “large” number of ancient books available to us (such as the bible itself), that books were equally plentiful in the past.  To such readers, I would reply as follows: suppose every book you wanted to own, you had to copy by hand.  That is, in order to own a bible, you must first take somebody else’s bible and copy the entire thing down with pen and paper, and then you can keep the copy that you wrote out.  In this kind of a world, how many books would you own?  Would you transcribe your own copy of Harry Potter?  Would you write down a copy of the Lord of the Rings?  How many books would you really own?  Whatever answer you come up with, now apply that to a culture that is significantly more poor, agrarian, and where you are probably illiterate because the only school you ever had is your mom.

 it is likely that each community would have only a handful of copies of the Torah, perhaps even just one.  Many people in this time period are also illiterate, which is one important reason why they have professional scribes like Ezra.  As was true for so many hundreds of years, the people received the Torah the way it was originally intended, which was through oral recitation.  Most scholars believe that the Torah was originally transmitted orally for some time before it was ever written down at all.  This chapter leaves no doubt that the Law has now been written down, but even then it is clearly not prevalent as a written text and it is not available to the population the way the bible is available today.  For the vast majority of people, gathering to hear the Law read aloud was the only method and time they would ever receive it, for all of the reasons mentioned above.

In verse 5, it says that the people stood to hear the Law.  Could you imagine standing for four or five hours (from early morning until midday, v. 3) listening to a man read from a book?  Surprising as it sounds, the book of Deuteronomy is substantially archaic in both language and content by the time of Nehemiah.  My readers may not have considered how long of a time has passed since Deuteronomy was composed.  At the latest, it was written during the reign of Hezekiah, and at the earliest many hundreds of years before even then.  In verses 7-8 we learn that the priests have to both explain and translate the text for the people to understand it.  That’s because first of all, many passages in Deuteronomy are just as hard for ancient Jews to understand as they are to modern readers.  They may have some cultural context that we don’t, but at a very basic level they are just people, the same as us, and there is no magic power that they possessed to understand the bible which went away before modern times.  Things that confuse us in Deuteronomy would very likely confuse ancient Jews as well.

Secondly, they have to translate the text because the common Jewish language changed from the time of Deuteronomy to the time of Nehemiah.  This is another shift most modern readers would not think about or notice, but at some point during the exile, the people of Judah stopped speaking Hebrew and started speaking Aramaic as the common language of society.  Obviously there were still some people who spoke Hebrew, and that’s how the priests could cotninue to maintain their religious traditions, but over time Hebrew became more and more a language of religion and not a language of communication.

By the time we get to the New Testament, Hebrew ceased to be the language of religion as well and the entire New Testament text was spoken in Aramaic and written in Greek.  There are oblique references to Hebrew in the New Testament, but its usage in the text was essentially nonexistent.  It’s an interesting quirk of history that Hebrew reemerged as a spoken language in modern day Israel, because for a very long time the common spoken languages in the Mideast were either Aramaic, Arabic, Persian or other variants.  Even among the Jews it was not a commonly spoken until sometime in the 19th century when a deliberate effort was made to restore it (for both cultural and political reasons).  That is a topic for another day.

I see this as a reminder that while we may perceive the bible as a single book where somebody sat down and just wrote the whole thing over a long weekend, the bible is actually many books written over a long time.  There is certainly a common purpose that runs through the biblical text, but at the same time it should more properly be understood as a historical progression of thought and events.  In a broad sense, the bible is a history of God’s promises and interactions with his people spanning over perhaps 1,200 years.  Remarkably, people living in later parts of the biblical period are now reading earlier parts of the bible and we get to see them struggle through the challenges of language and interpretation that we face in nearly the exact same way.

Verses 9-12 are interesting because we see the people respond to the Law with grief.  Similar to the prayer of Nehemiah in chapter 1, the people realize with a sudden clarity what is the depth of their sin before the LORD.  Nehemiah and the priests respond by saying that understanding itself should be a source of joy.  Yes, the people and their ancestors have sinned, but understanding the Law is the first step towards obeying it, and the people should rejoice that they have begun to understand and obey.

In verse 14, we see the attitude of the people.  I can just imagine the people reading through the Law being like, “wow we can’t mix fibers of different kinds?  I’ll have to go buy a new shirt!”  It’s like this big exploration process as they discover what is in the Law.  So anyway, they read about this festival in the Law and the instantaneous reaction is that they must go and celebrate it right away.  I find their enthusiasm for obeying the Law to be almost naive in its innocence, which is endearing to me.  As a people, the Jews are learning about the Law for the first time in their lives and immediately obeying it in all of its eccentric details.

I think there is an important connection between the priests’ assurances in v. 11 and the people’s eagerness to obey in v. 16-17.  Machiavelli says that it is better to be feared than loved.  That is not how God operates, because Machiavelli was only seeking obedience: God wants devotion.  The people could have responded to the Law with fear, having seen the extent of their sin and God’s threatened punishment, and that fear might have caused them to celebrate the festival.  But Nehemiah and the priests comfort the people and encourage them to have joy in their discoveries, and like Nehemiah says in verse 12, that joy is what gives them strength to endure, strength to pursue God and strength to overcome the many challenges their society faces.

In the next chapter, the people observe a day of fasting and repentance.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 7

In this chapter, Nehemiah gives instructions for keeping the gates, and then reads from a census of the returning exiles.

In the first couple verses, Nehemiah finishes up his administrative tasks from the construction of the wall.  It’s not enough to just build the wall, he also needs to appoint officials and guards to monitor the wall and ensure that their enemies don’t sneak in during the night or climb over the wall or something.  Nehemiah also notes that the city is large and sparsely populated.  This is something that will come up later, because Nehemiah is actually concerned about Jerusalem’s low population, though the exact reason for his concern is never explained.

Anyway, the bulk of this chapter is concerning the “genealogy” (v. 5) that lists all the families and cities of Judeans who had returned from exile.  Verse 5 tells us that this book is of those who “first” came back.  Before continuing, one important point to bring up here is that this genealogy is virtually identical to the listing from Ezra 2 (beginning in verse 6 of this chapter).  There are various implications but I will limit myself to only say that they are clearly using the same common source material, and in my opinion its inclusion in these two books reinforces the authenticity of this source document.  Since they are both copying the exact same genealogy, I think it’s important for us to understand what is their motivation for including it in their respective documents.

As previously discussed, Nehemiah is not among the first returning exiles.  He came back as part of a second or more likely third wave to reinforce and strengthen the people in Jerusalem.  The “book of the genealogy” is then a record of the people from the very first wave, their number, their families and their animals.

Earlier genealogies like in the book of Numbers had obviously military terminology, referring to groups of people and their commanders or leaders.  On the other hand, the census here does not have any martial overtones that I can see.  This is not the people organizing for battle like when they were marching into the promised land so long ago, under the leadership of Moses and Joshua.  This is not a people returning to claim the land by force and drive out their enemies.  Rather, they are returning to a desolate and partially depopulated land, to reclaim their homeland under the aegis of the Persian king’s permission.

The contrast with this earlier census could not be more striking.  The last time Israel marched boldly into the promised land, their census counted around two million men, excluding women and children.  They lost a generation in the wilderness, but nevertheless I see pride in Israel’s march across the Jordan, led by the priests and the tabernacle, and I see pride when they marched around Jericho seven times until the walls fell.  There is a certain triumphalism in Israel’s victories and the trembling fear of their enemies.

The exiles who returned from Babylon numbered 40,000, fifty times fewer people than their first journey into their prospective homeland.  To me, this second march feels hopeful but chastened.  We see a chastened attitude in Nehemiah’s prayer, declaring in strong language the manifold sins of Israel and the LORD’s justice in punishing them.  I can’t think of a single time that Joshua confessed his people’s sins and begged for mercy the way that Nehemiah did.  When the LORD spoke to Joshua, Joshua was instructed to be bold and courageous.  God was with them doing powerful things.  I’m sure that Nehemiah sees the LORD’s hand in their favorable treatment, but again I feel like this is a humble and contrite Judah.

We see the LORD speak to Joshua repeatedly, but interestingly I don’t see any references to the LORD speaking to Nehemiah.  We know that there were prophets who returned with the exiles, so it’s not that the voice of the LORD was gone completely.  I do think it’s interesting how in this era, the word of the LORD is almost entirely contained within the mouths of the prophets.  It’s also interesting how this period (the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther) do not contain any overt miracles like in earlier times.  Joshua prayed for the sun to stop in the sky (Joshua 10), while Nehemiah prayed for a favorable response from the king.  This is mostly off-topic but I think it’s really interesting and I only noticed it when studying this chapter and the contrast of this genealogy with earlier documents from Israel’s history.  It reminded me again how different life is in the post-exilic era compared to Israel’s earlier periods.

So getting back on topic, the question is why does Nehemiah include this genealogy and more generally, what can we learn from this genealogy in Nehemiah’s story?

In my opinion, I think that the first couple verses in this chapter concludes Nehemiah’s “Wall Construction Story”.  The book obviously continues, but that particular story as it relates to building the wall and Nehemiah’s conflict with Sanballat is now completed.  Nehemiah takes this opportunity to recount the size and composition of the community.  Different people can read this different ways, but the message I see in this chapter is the endurance of the community during their exile.  They have suffered much, but they have survived and they have returned to the land that God called them to take as their inheritance.  Similar to chapter 3, I also see a lot of diversity in this chapter, with people coming from many different towns and families (though for obvious reasons, they are all from Judah or Benjamin).

In conclusion, this chapter is sandwiched between the previous story about the wall and the next story about the celebration of the festival of Booths (Sukkot) which Nehemiah re-institutes.  I don’t think it particularly relates to either story, so it’s possible that Nehemiah only put it here because it was a convenient place for him to put this material without interrupting the flow of the stories in his book.

In the next chapter, we will begin the story of Sukkot.