Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 6

In this chapter, Sanballat and his allies resume their threats and deception against Nehemiah and the other Jews.

This chapter feels like a continuation of chapter 4.  It does not repeat the same material, but it continues along the same lines, with Sanballat and his friends spewing threats and rumors in a continued effort to disrupt the construction of the wall.  We learn from verse 1 that the wall was built, but that the gates and doors had not yet been placed in it, so the wall is still incomplete.  Depending on how you count, there are three or four distinct attacks in this chapter, so just like in chapter 4 I will go through the attacks and Nehemiah’s responses.

The first attack is distraction.  Sanballat and Geshem invite Nehemiah to go down to Ono to meet together.  As an aside, I’ve heard more than one speaker now say “if someone is inviting you to “oh no”, you should always decline” or variants of that.  Anyway, to modern readers this language of “let’s meet together” sounds very peaceful and friendly, but I would like to point out that in the bible this phrase is also sometimes used for “meeting in battle” (one example is 2 Samuel 2:13).  While I think a peaceful interpretation may be supported, I also think that this invitation hints at a challenge for Nehemiah to come down and fight it out with Sanballat and his supporters.

Either way, it is clear that Nehemiah going down to meet with Sanballat (whether to talk or to fight) does not serve towards Nehemiah’s purpose in building the wall.  Nehemiah’s response to these attempts at distraction is focus.  He focuses on his vision, which is to finish the wall, and his response shows this.  He says, “I am doing a great work”, why should I disrupt the work just to meet with you (v. 3).  To me, meeting with Sanballat feels like an attempt to placate one’s ego.  Sanballat is an influential but distant man who has been eminating threats against Nehemiah, but without any concrete action.  Sanballat is a man filled with talk and little action (driven by circumstance I am sure, it’s unlikely Sanballat was in a position to act against Nehemiah).  In contrast, Nehemiah sometimes speaks but his focus is on action: building the wall and rallying other men to build the wall.

In this instance, Sanballat is attempting to reduce Nehemiah to his level.  Why else would Sanballat ask Nehemiah to go out and meet him, rather than Sanballat himself coming up to Jerusalem to meet Nehemiah?  Sanballat is in the middle of Oh No, spending all his time trying to tear down Nehemiah.  Nehemiah is in Jerusalem fulfilling his vision.  If Nehemiah went out to Ono, he would become like Sanballat, doing nothing, accomplishing nothing, and in that way he would cease to be a threat to Sanballat.

Sanballat represents the status quo.  Change is threatening to Sanballat because Sanballat is dominant in the current world system.  Everyone who is trying to change the world will always face a Sanballat in their life because there’s always at least one person who wants to keep the world exactly the way it is, regardless of how messed up that might be.  By going out to meet Sanballat, we become like him because at that point, we have thrown away our vision which is the only thing separating us from Sanballat in the first place.

Nehemiah refuses Sanballat’s invitation all four times, and passes the first test.

The second attack is when Sanballat again threatens Nehemiah, this time implying that Nehemiah was trying to make himself king, which would have been a direct act against their Persian authorities.  Interestingly, the conclusion of Sanballat’s statement is the same as his first attack, which is to come and meet with him (v. 7).

This is basically attempted blackmail.  The opened letter is intended to show that somebody was “reporting” Nehemiah to the Persians for his supposed treachery.  Sanballat is basically saying, “here is this letter I found that says you’re going to betray the Persians, and I heard that somebody is going to report you to the king for it, so how about coming to meet me now?”  Previously Sanballat was asking “nicely” for Nehemiah to come meet him, now he is trying to more or less extort Nehemiah into doing it under the threat of falsely reporting him to the Persian king.

In this case, Nehemiah responds to Sanballat, basically just denying the allegation and remaining in Jerusalem to continue building the wall.  Nehemiah is effectively daring Sanballat to report him to the king and trusting in his superior relationship with the king to get him through whatever crisis follows.  Remember that Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king, which is a highly trusted and influential role.  In the end, it appears that Sanballat did not follow through with his threat because we never hear about this letter again.  If Sanballat had reported Nehemiah to the king and the king found the allegation false, it is possible that Sanballat himself would have been punished for lying, so I would guess that actually following through would have carried a risk for Sanballat as well.  Otherwise we would have expected Sanballat to report Nehemiah to the king.

The third attack is via Shemaiah, a Jewish man and secret ally of Sanballat.  This follows on the same kind of threats as before, warning Nehemiah that men were coming to kill him and he should go hide in the temple.  This again sounds innocent to us, how could going to the temple be a bad thing?  Besides distracting Nehemiah from the work, this would have also looked suspicious to the Persians because the temple is kind of like a fortress and it’s also where Jewish kings were crowned in the past.  For instance, remember the story of Joash in 2 Kings 11 when he was anointed by the high priest and overthrew Athaliah from the temple.  2 Kings 11:14 specifically says that the king was “standing by the pillar, according to the custom”.  So apparently it was customary for kings to be anointed as king next to a particular pillar in the temple, and this may have been foreshadowed if Nehemiah fled to the temple.

Nehemiah again refuses.  He basically says, even if my life is in danger it is not right for me to flee before the enemy.  It is a different kind of distraction, but with the same end result: if Nehemiah had fled, the work would have been disrupted.  Think about it this way: if Nehemiah flees from the wall, then how can any of his men remain?  Nehemiah is the first person threatened but if he left, the threats would fall on whoever remained, because Sanballat would not stop until the work was either finished or destroyed.  Nehemiah is actually sheltering his men from these threats because so long as he remains the leader of this effort, all of Sanballats attacks will be directed against him.

In the end it all proves to be a vapor.  Sanballat continues issuing threats and rumors and insinuation, and Nehemiah may very well be afraid, but he cuts through it by staying focused on his vision and refusing to be distracted, even by fear for his own life.

Lastly, this chapter concludes with a description of “many letters” (v. 17) passing between Tobiah (an ally of Sanballat) and the leaders of Judah.  We learn specifically that many of the leaders of Judah had intermarried their families with these Samaritans.  In my opinion, this is like a practical demonstration of why God commanded the Jews to not intermarry with foreigners, because Tobiah uses all of his influence and leverage with the leaders of Judah to undermine Nehemiah and Jewish interests.  The leaders of Judah may have thought that they were strengthening themselves and their people, but here we can see it was doing the exact opposite, compromising the nation’s leadership by giving influence to the enemy.  In the book of Ezra we saw Ezra trying to break apart the marriages between his people and foreigners, and I see this brief passage in Nehemiah as supporting evidence for why Ezra’s efforts were so important for preserving their nation (besides the moral reasons of obeying the Law).

The good news is that Nehemiah passes all of the challenges and the wall is completed.  In the next chapter, Nehemiah assigns men to various responsibilities and takes a census of the people.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 5

In this chapter, Nehemiah confronts the nobles of Judah and forces them to return the property and servants that they purchased from the Jews under duress.

Basically what’s going on is that there is another famine in Judah, like the famine that struck Egypt and the promised land during the time of Joseph (Genesis 41-42).  The wealthy men, by virtue of their wealth, have accumulated grain and are now selling it back to the Jews at extortionary prices, using the money to buy property and making slaves of the Jews.  Verse 11 tells us that they were taking “the hundredth part” of money and grain, which is referring to a 1% interest rate.  That sounds low, but it’s likely that they were charging the people 1% per month, so around 12% per year.

At this point, I should mention that Deut 23:19-20 specifically commands the Israelites to refrain from charging their brethren interest, so in this case the nobles are violating the Law of Moses as well as exploiting their countrymen in a time when the poor Jews would have been unable to resist.

When Ezra returned to Jerusalem, he found the men of Judah intermarrying with foreign women, which was contrary to the Law.  This chapter is Nehemiah’s equivalent experience, and Nehemiah’s response is also quite similar.  Like Ezra, Nehemiah gathers all the people together and then publicly confronts the leading men of Judah and tells them that they are doing wrong.  Also like with Ezra, the men agree that they are doing wrong and promise to fix their behavior.  Verse 13 confirms that they “did according to this promise”, so it appears as though Nehemiah’s intervention fixed the problem.

The last 6 verses of this chapter include Nehemiah’s descriptions of his own righteous behavior as governor (which directly confirms his political role as ruler of the Judeans on behalf of the Persian king).  What it boils down to is that he refused to take food or money from the people (which was a right conferred on the governor) and on the flip side, he permitted 150 men to eat from his table, for free, provided from his own personal wealth.

This is the first sign that Nehemiah was a wealthy man.  We knew that he was an influential official in exile, but that was most likely as a slave in the king’s household.  It’s possible he could attain great wealth through his role and the king’s generosity, but it’s not a certainty.  So apparently Nehemiah is a wealthy man, and he refuses to use his position to enrich himself at the expense of the Jews.  We learn from v. 8 that other Jews are not faring as well in exile, and that many Jews had to be “redeemed” (i.e. re-purchased) from slavery in Babylon.  The upshot is that Nehemiah himself is using his personal wealth to redeem other Jews from their slavery.

Coming to the end of this chapter, I would like to again ask the question: what lessons can we learn from this chapter?  I think there are a couple directions we could take this chapter, but I think what stands out to me is contrasting Nehemiah with the Judean nobles and in particular, how they use their wealth.

Like the nobles of Judah, Nehemiah is a wealthy man, and his wealth gives him influence.  However, the way Nehemiah uses his wealth could not be any more different.  The nobles use their wealth as leverage to continue enriching themselves.  Not only does Nehemiah not take advantage of his people, he uses his wealth to purchase freedom for some and provide food for others, free of charge.

Nehemiah probably owns land (though he says in v. 16 that he did not buy any land, which probably refers to buying property from distressed owners) and he certainly owns large flocks and herds.  One thing I’ve learned as I became an adult is the power that comes with wealth to produce yet more money.  If you have a million dollars, you can buy businesses or land and property, you can hire employees and produce new wealth.  It’s very likely that Nehemiah was doing that, growing his flocks and herds to sustain his table and his own personal lifestyle while serving as governor.

In fact, in v. 10 Nehemiah says that he was also lending money and grain to the poor Jews, but he was doing so without interest which is really the important part.  It is possible to run a business in an honest and fair way and to become wealthy through honest and fair means.  I think God is happy to have his people become wealthy through honest trade and honest labor.  However, the Jewish nobles are seeking to enrich themselves to the detriment of their brothers, which is a poisonous attitude.  What do they want the money for?  Is this not greed?  Is this not coveting, which the LORD condemned in Deut 5:21, the tenth commandment?

In discussing Nehemiah chapter 3, I talked at length about the importance of unity and collaboration for the community to succeed in building the wall.  It might seem like Nehemiah is going off topic in this chapter, but I think the attitude of the Judean nobles is cutting directly against the unity of the people, because the nobles are seeking to benefit themselves by hurting their neighbors.  There cannot be unity between two people if one is taking unfair advantage of the other, because it destroys any possibility of trust between them.  The nobles see the poor not as their brothers, but as targets or resources to be exploited.  The poor see the nobles not as their brothers, but as oppressors or predators.  In an indirect way, this actually threatens Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the wall, so Nehemiah is earnest to fix this issue above and beyond the pursuit of justice.

Nehemiah does the opposite with his wealth.  Rather than using it as leverage to exploit the poor, he uses his wealth to help his people.  He grows his wealth through honest means and uses the excess to literally feed his people.  Rather than destroy unity, this helps to build unity because it enhances trust between the people and Nehemiah.  The people know that Nehemiah is not trying to take advantage of them, so they don’t have to be on guard or protect themselves against him.

If you’ve ever felt like someone was trying to take advantage of you, it’s as if you have to draw a shield between yourself and that person.  You create barriers between yourself and that person as a defense mechanism, but a side effect is that you cannot be fully honest and open with that person.  Through his generosity, Nehemiah breaks down those barriers and walls between him and the people he is leading.

For instance, in the past I used to have a manager at work that never really convinced me he was supporting my personal interests.  I always felt like he would help me if it didn’t conflict with what he wanted, but that he would always put his own interests and the interest of the team above myself.  I’m not sure that it’s true, but it’s the impression he created in me and as a result, I never felt like I could really trust him.  On the other hand, I had another manager who always seem really honest to me and it was clear he supported me as an individual more than the team.  Like if I wanted to transfer out of the team, he would have helped me even though it would have hurt the team’s effort.  Ironically, because I knew that he would support me, it left me free to sacrifice my own interests on behalf of the team.  For so long as I had a manager who wasn’t taking care of me, it’s like I instinctively knew that I had to take care of my own interests because nobody else was doing it.  When I had a manager who I knew was going to look out for my interests, I felt like I could put the team first because I knew that my manager would never ask me to do something that would hurt my career and that he would always counsel me if he felt I was making decisions that did not benefit me.

Between those two managers, I was always willing to work harder for the person who supported me in part because he made me feel safer and in part because I had an instinctive desire that I wanted him to succeed as a manager because in a sense, I want good people to win.  He was helping me so it seemed only natural that I would seek to benefit him by producing strong results.

I see this same attitude with Nehemiah.  He is seeking the good of his people, and it seems only natural that the people would reciprocate by helping to build the wall.  In this way, Nehemiah demonstrates his leadership skills as well as his altruistic use of wealth.

In the next chapter, the verbal attacks of Sanballat resume.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 4

In this chapter, the enemies of the Jews begin to conspire against them, without success.

I think this is a really interesting chapter.  In broad terms, I want to discuss two patterns in this chapter.  The first is the pattern of attack; that is, the methods that Sanballat, Tobiah and their friends use to attack the Jews.  The second is the pattern of defense; what the Jews do in response to the attacks that they suffer.

The first attack is mockery and insults.  Sanballat and Tobiah mock and insult the Jews when sitting amongst their allies, but the words reach Nehemiah and the Jews (verse 5 makes this clear, that their words reached the builders and demoralized them).  The message is clear: the Jews are weak and they will not be able to complete the work of rebuilding the wall.  I think it’s really interesting that the way Sanballat tries to stop the Jews is by telling them they cannot succeed.  If he actually believed that, he wouldn’t have felt the need to do anything; the Jews would have simply failed on their own.  Ironically, the attack itself is proof that Sanballat himself believes the Jews are capable of accomplishing what they set out to do.

Nehemiah doesn’t have any particular response to this first attack; they simply continue building the wall.  The lesson is that certain kinds of attacks should not be engaged.  If Nehemiah had responded by going to speak to Sanballat or sending messages back to him, then first of all, it would have distracted Nehemiah from rebuilding the wall, and second, it would have created more opportunities for Sanballat to continue attacking in this way.  As someone who largely grew up on the internet, one of the first lessons I learned is that certain kinds of arguments simply can’t be won.  There are certain battles that you can only lose and the best thing to do is to not fight them.

It would be like Sanballat is saying, “the Jews are feeble and won’t succeed” and Nehemiah replies, “yes we will.”  What would that accomplish?  Are you really going to change Sanballat’s mind?  Is he someone that Nehemiah can reason with?  Through careful demonstration of their building progress to date, their careful organization, can you really convince Sanballat that the project will be successful?  It’s funny because the idea is so absurd.  Sanballat isn’t criticizing the Jews because he believes they will fail, it’s because he wants the Jews to believe they will fail.

We also have certain voices that cannot be reasoned with.  Sometimes these voices are external critics, other people, and other times they are internal voices, our own doubts and fears telling us that we are weak and we cannot succeed (not in a schizophrenic way… hopefully you know what I mean).  Sometimes there are opinions in life that we can reason with, where a careful argument and evidence can be worthwhile.  There are other opinions that nothing will ever change.  It is very important that we learn to tell the difference, so that we don’t spend our lives waging arguments and fighting battles that cannot be won.

After Sanballat hears about the Jews’ continued progress, he is very angry (again) and wages his second attack which was planning a physical attack against Jerusalem to kill the builders and stop the wall.  I think it’s interesting how often Nehemiah was told that Sanballat was planning an attack (ten times, according to v. 12).  If the Ammonites and Arabs actually wanted to attack Jerusalem, they probably would have been more secretive about it rather than tell the Jews in their neighborhood.  From this, it seems like scaring the Jews is still part of their plan, perhaps even a large part of their plan.

Verse 10 is an interesting interlude in the story because it shows that the criticism of Sanballat was starting to take root amongst the people of Judah.  They began repeating his words, saying that the strength of the Jews was failing, there is still a great task left to accomplish and finally that they would fail to rebuild the wall.  Nehemiah does not directly respond to this sentiment, and while the Jews are discouraged they do not stop building.

The first attack was mockery and criticism.  The second attack is fear and the threat of a real, physical attack.  Nehemiah’s responds to both, though again we do not see him addressing Sanballat himself but only the Jews.  It is clear once again that the battleground is mostly in the minds and hearts of the Jews, to keep them united and keep them working towards the goal of building the wall, as Nehemiah recognizes the futility of engaging with Sanballat.

In the previous chapter, I talked about how the wall could only be built through the unified effort of the whole Jewish community working together for the common good.  In this chapter, the majority of the attacks are designed to break that unity by either discouraging or scaring the Jews into stopping the work.  Nehemiah’s response, then, is to encourage the Jews, to keep them united and to keep them actively building the wall so that the work would not stop.

Nehemiah’s response is firstly to set guards.  Secondly, when he “sees their fear” (v. 14) he encourages the people by reminding them of the people they are fighting for.  If they were only building the wall for themselves, it would not be enough because the task was hard and long.  I think this is a powerful lesson that, weird as it may sound, we are capable of doing more if we do it on behalf of somebody else than if we are doing it for ourselves.  Nehemiah could have said, “fight for yourself, they will kill you if you don’t build this wall”; but he didn’t.  He said, you are building this wall and fighting this enemy to protect the people you care about.

Even though I think Sanballat was largely trying to work through fear, verse 15 establishes that setting guards “frustrated their plans”, which is interesting because he did such an absolutely awful job of keeping their plans secret.  So, I’m not entirely sure what they were hoping to accomplish but it suffices to say that Sanballat and his allies failed to stop the Jews, whether by violence or by threat.

Lastly, verses 16-23 presents the Jews standing with a hammer or tool in one hand and a sword in the other hand.  I think this is such a poignant image that I simply have to expound some kind of lesson or teaching from it, though I’m not sure exactly what.

All of the people in Jerusalem are carrying two identities at the same time.  One identity is that they are warriors.  Every man is armed and ready to fight at the moment of need.  The other identity is that they are builders, with each man carrying burdens or tools to build the wall.  As far as Nehemiah reports, the people never have to actually fight a battle against their enemies.  They are prepared to fight continually, but they have to fight only rarely (or never).  Meanwhile, they are constantly building.  In the same way, I think we need to keep our focus on always building, always creating new things, always building new ministries and building up the church.  We also need to stay constantly vigilant so we are ready in case someone or something tries to attack what we are building and stop the work.

In any case, the construction continues and Sanballat’s attacks are defeated.  This is not the end of the conflict, but in the next chapter Nehemiah takes on a new adversary, the nobles and wealthy men of Judah itself.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 3

In this chapter, the people work together to rebuild the wall.

This entire chapter is a list of all the different families and clans that contribute to rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem.  In this way, Nehemiah shows that he has the same scribal predilection for lists and censuses that fill many other parts of the bible.

This chapter does not have much in the way of story, so my commentary will be relatively brief.

Verse 1 refers to a new high priest, different from Jeshua the high priest when the temple was rebuilt (see e.g. Ezra 3:2 for the high priest during Ezra’s period).  I don’t have an exact chronology, but Eliashib is almost certainly high priest after Jeshua, since Ezra implies that Jeshua was the very first high priest to return with Zerubbabel and the people from Babylon.  Given that there is now a new high priest and Jeshua is probably dead, it suggests that Nehemiah’s departure for Jerusalem could be anywhere from 3-15 years after the temple was rebuilt.  To be honest, I’m making up the numbers but you just have to ask yourself how long it would take Jeshua to die, and add some undefined length of years after that, and that is when Nehemiah left for Jerusalem.  What’s clear is that Nehemiah did not come with the first wave (and for that matter, neither did Ezra, but Jeshua was still alive when Ezra arrived and he is not alive when Nehemiah arrives).

Verse 15 implies that “City of David” refers to a part of Jerusalem, perhaps some kind of “old city” in Jerusalem that was a nucleus for later development of the city.  In later times, “City of David” becomes an alternative name for Jerusalem as a whole, not just the “city of David” that inherited the name in Nehemiah’s lifetime.  So it’s kind of interesting to see Nehemiah use the term in what we can imagine was the original sense.

More generally, I think it is useful for us to ask why Nehemiah is including this passage in the text.  Why does Nehemiah want to list every family that helped build the wall?  Why is this important to Nehemiah, and what can we learn from it?  I think it’s simple enough for us to understand why this is important to Nehemiah: rebuilding the wall is why Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in the first place, and it makes sense that he would want to record the details of the rebuilding process.  But what can we learn from this chapter?

There is always room for many interpretations and many lessons from a given story, but what I notice here is that nearly every man in this chapter is only known from this one place.  These are people who are not mentioned anywhere else in the bible and certainly not in any other extant ancient literature.  In a sense, the book of Nehemiah is a memorial to their efforts that they most likely did not anticipate.  At the time, these men were probably thinking 90% about how the wall would help protect them from raiders and foreign armies, and perhaps 10% how the wall would be a legacy to help protect their children.  They probably thought that the wall, a massive physical structure, would be the enduring testimony to their hard labors.  Ironically, the wall itself was destroyed long ago by Judah’s numerous enemies, but Nehemiah’s chronicle of their efforts has survived, and through this book memory of their deeds has been preserved.

Lastly, and I think this could be my most important point, this chapter is a testimony to the power of unity and collaboration.  Even though the book bears Nehemiah’s name, Nehemiah himself recognizes that the wall was not a product of his own labor as much as it was the product of dozens of leaders with their hundreds of followers, all working together with a common purpose.  Each man is given a distinct role.  Each section of wall or each gate has a different name, a different context and situation.  Different people are called to different places.  If every person in Jerusalem sought to rebuild the Sheep’s gate, they would have had dozens of gates but no wall to place it in.  They recognized that different people had to build different parts of the wall in order to make a whole.  Diversity was more than just a progressive ideal promoted for its own sake.  If they did not have a diversity of people building different parts of the wall, they would not achieve their goal.

Nehemiah writes this chapter to recognize their contribution to the good of the Jewish people as a whole.  They all benefitted from the wall, and as far as I can tell it was the product of the whole community as well.  Even though Nehemiah was zealous to rebuild the wall, the effort required was greater than the power of any one man no matter how diligent.  There are certain goals that require a community to achieve them.  I would go one step further and say that usually the most important things require a community effort to achieve.  We can be faithful to God as individuals, we can seek to build the kingdom of God as individuals, but in order to transform society we usually need a community to do it.

Knowledgeable readers may point out counterexamples (for instance, many of the judges saved Israel singlehanded), and it is true that just one person, empowered with the Spirit of God, is capable of anything.  But I would argue that the message of Nehemiah is the critical importance of having a community work towards a common goal and I think we see that in both the old testament and the modern church.  It seems like God only starts working through solo prophets when the community itself goes off into idolatry or something awful like that.  From what I’ve seen, I think God works through communities of believers for so long as a viable community exists and only starts using prophets or judges as a tool to get the community back into obedience.

In the next chapter, the resistance begins to plot against the Jews in earnest.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 2

In this chapter, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and initiates the reconstruction of the city wall.

Now, the first thing I notice about this chapter is that Nehemiah is a servant of the Persians.  This is another big difference between him and Ezra; while Ezra may have lived within Persian dominion (as all the Jews), Nehemiah was directly involved in the Persian administration.  This raises a couple interesting questions, the most important of which is this: is it right for Nehemiah to serve the Persians, who are by all rights his enemies?  In serving the king, is Nehemiah acting to further the oppression of his own people by supporting their foreign rulers?  If so, how do we reconcile Nehemiah’s service to Artaxerxes with his obvious patriotism and love for his people that he demonstrates in this chapter?  Lastly, what lessons can we learn from Nehemiah and how do we apply his example in our own lives and situations?

This is the first time that king Artaxerxes sees Nehemiah sad in his presence.  Nehemiah has been serving the king for many days, possibly for many years, and his people have been in bondage for 70 years, but this is the first time he appears sad before the king.  I wanted to point this out before discussing the questions I raised above, because I think it highlights the paradox of Nehemiah’s life.  For months or possibly even years, he served with a joyful appearance before the king, serving diligently and effectively.  Upon hearing the news that his people were in a difficult situation and in need, he immediately uses his position to help his people.  What I think is so remarkable about Nehemiah is how he bides his time over these long years before acting.

We see many parallels in the bible to Nehemiah’s story.  For instance, Joseph is best known for his diligent service to his Egyptian masters leading to his promotion over and over until he was second only to Pharaoh.  In the next book after Nehemiah, we will see Esther follow a similar pattern of ingratiating herself to the Persian king even in her own slavery and using her position to aid her people.

Going back to my previous questions, I think in general these kinds of questions are easier to ask than they are to answer.  I don’t have any really good answers, but I do have some ideas.  First of all, I think we can reasonably deduce that Nehemiah is seeking to elevate himself within the Persian administration so that he can advocate for his people more effectively.  As slaves, the Jews did not really have an “opt out” for serving the Persians.  If they chose to “not serve” their masters, it would be the equivalent of choosing pain and then death.  The Persians would have no reason to provide food and housing for slaves who refuse to serve.  Perhaps as a political statement the Jews could have chosen death, but in practical terms their options were to serve well or serve poorly.

For Nehemiah in particular, what would have happened if he served poorly and remained a household servant?  Presumably, someone else would have been elevated to be the cupbearer.  It is possible that new cupbearer would not be a Jew (since the Persians had many peoples in their empire), and the cause of the Jews as a whole would have been that much weaker.  In such a way, the Persians could hold the different races of slaves in competition with one another, rewarding those who served best and in that way maintain the bondage of them all.  If the Jews were the only ethnic group in the entire Persian empire, perhaps going on strike would be an option, but in this case the cosmopolitan nature of the empire acts against the interests of each constituent group and supports the Persian overlords.  Because there is no unity amongst the empire’s constituent groups, their individual interests remain in conflict with each other and aligned with the interests of the Persians.

Nevertheless, each individual Jew is presented with the choice of playing within the Persian system or resisting the system.  It’s not a binary decision; they can play within the system to a greater or lesser extent.  While some would present resistance to the system as the “principled” choice, Nehemiah chooses the “pragmatic” and works within the system and secure a better future for his people.

What does the bible say, however, about this decision?  Of course, the book of Nehemiah itself tells us what Nehemiah actually did, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what he ought to have done.  In a similar way, Deuteronomy 28:48 threatens that because the people did not serve God, they will be forced to serve a hostile nation.  Again, I don’t think that is a very strong statement about how the Israelites should act in captivity, simply that they would be forced into captivity as a punishment for egregious sin.

Throughout the majority of Israel’s history, they were independent and under the rule of no foreign power (though they were frequently oppressed by foreigners during the Judges era).  The majority of the Law of Moses and God’s commands to Israel basically assumes that they are an independent nation or kingdom and it details things like how Israel should treat foreigners and widows in their land and other such things.  Foreign oppression is mostly used in the Law as a threatened punishment for Israel’s disobedience, not as a status that should be anticipated or normalized.  In a similar way, the religious code makes an unspoken assumption that the temple (or tabernacle) would always be available for conducting their nation’s religious ceremonies.  The destruction of the temple presents a similar problem for the Jews to which they have no precedent or instruction.

In all these ways, the Jews were forced to innovate and decide how to practice their faith.  We’ll get a better sense of how the prophets were advising the Jews when we read through the book of Jeremiah, but for now let it suffice to say that the written Law does not have any advice for how the Jews are to proceed.  In my opinion, when you consider the biblical text as a whole, I believe that God’s intent was for the Jews to serve the Babylonians in order to learn the harshness of serving other masters, and this would teach them how he is a good master whom they ought to serve.  It sounds harsh, and I think a full discussion is outside the scope of my commentary here, but that is how I interpret the Babylonian exile.  It’s an extreme action, but ultimately God is not concerned with Israel’s comfort as much as he is concerned with their redemption and salvation.  If making Israel suffer is the only way to bring their hearts back to him, it is better that they suffer than that they worship other gods and be destroyed thereby.  Anyway, this would have to be a longer discussion and I still need to finish discussing the chapter at hand.

The point is, I think Nehemiah was trying to do his best in the midst of a difficult situation, and since there isn’t any clear guidance from the LORD for him to do otherwise, I think his behavior is reasonable and I don’t think I have the liberty to criticize him from the security of my home.

The rest of the chapter is fairly long and has a lot of action in it, so I’ll just try to comment on the things that stand out to me.

One thing that stands out is the contrast I see between verse 6 and 8.  In verse 8, Nehemiah explains why the king granted his request: “because the good hand of my God was on me”.  In verse 6, I see the king’s explanation of why he granted Nehemiah’s request: “when will you return?”  What I see here is a king who really likes Nehemiah because the king would not ask when he’s coming back if the king didn’t want him to come back.  In my opinion, I think Nehemiah served the king honestly and with excellence, and the king treats Nehemiah with respect because Nehemiah treats the king with respect.  In classic form, though, Nehemiah honors God as well, and while he may understand his own role in his success, at least he doesn’t mention it.  This is something we will see a couple times from Nehemiah, declaring his various successes to be the result of God’s grace.

Another thing that I simply have to mention is verse 9, when Nehemiah travels to Jerusalem with a contingent of horsemen.  My readers may recall in Ezra 8:21-22 that Ezra specifically declined a military guard because he had extolled to the king that God would protect Ezra and all the Jews who traveled with him.  This implies a contradiction in attitude between Ezra and Nehemiah, which is interesting because they both lived in the same time period and have such similar lives in general.

I will be brief.  Both Ezra and Nehemiah faced the same threat; the possibility of assault on their return journey.  I mentioned in my commentary on Ezra 8 how dangerous the ancient near east could be.  This is not like driving a car from Illinois to Iowa.  Traveling in the ancient near east was dangerous.  Just imagine riding a camel from Iran, through Iraq and Jordan to Israel.  Imagine doing that as a Jew with all of the same antipathy that exists towards Jews in the modern mid east, with few if any weapons, and with women and children to ensure that you could not in any situation outrun raiders that might attack your party.  This is what both Ezra and Nehemiah did, with the people who returned with them.

Placed in that kind of situation, Ezra and Nehemiah made two different choices that represent two attitudes.  Ezra chose faith; he believed that God would protect him and was ashamed to ask the king for protection.  Nehemiah chose wisdom, knowing that it was a dangerous journey and receiving the help that the king offered.  This is a choice that many people are still faced with: do we choose medicine, or prayer and faith?  Do we take the secure job that we know we can hold, or become a missionary and live on uncertain donations and goodwill?  Do we live in the city where everything is planned out and secure, or do we move to a new town where we don’t have any friends, any job, any home and any plans?

As you can see, this is a choice that can take many forms, and the answers can be equally diverse based on the circumstances.  To make my answer short, I don’t think either Ezra or Nehemiah did the wrong thing.  I think ultimately we have to ask, “where does my faith lie?  Where is God leading me?  What is God saying?”  In the case of Ezra, he felt like his conscience constrained him from asking the king for help, so he didn’t, and in the case of Nehemiah, he clearly didn’t feel his conscience pulling him in the same direction, so he did ask the king for help.  In the case of Abraham, we have a clear record of God asking Abraham to move to a foreign land where he knew nobody and had nothing (Genesis 12).  It would have been a sin for Abraham to disobey such a clearly spoken direction from God.  On the other hand, most people only move to a new city when they have a good job opportunity or family there or something like that because it’s simply not wise to be moving all over the place without having a good reason to do so.  So in most cases, people choose wisdom, but when the voice of God breaks into our lives in a clear way, our conscience demands that we obey even when it doesn’t make sense.

The last thing I’ll mention is “the resistance”.  Normally, in most movies “the rebellion” are the good guys, but in this case “the resistance” are the people who are fighting against Nehemiah and against God.  By name, they are Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem.  This is a triumvirate of non-Jewish inhabitants of the promised land, who, as the text so clearly explains, were “displeased that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel. (v. 10).  As is so often the case, the politics of the Mideast is largely a zero-sum affair, where the “welfare” of one group is often to the detriment of their neighbors.  To put it in more aggressive terms, the foreigners surrounding Judah most likely have plans to expand into Jewish territory and gradually consume them.  A stronger Judean nation would be able to resist that aggression and perhaps over time encrouch upon their neighbors.  In that way, the prosperity of the Jews works directly against the interests of their neighbors in this competitive landscape.

This trio of enemies fills almost exactly the same role as the various adversaries who resisted Ezra.  For all intents and purposes, they are a dramatic foil against whom Nehemiah must persevere on his way to victory.  As a servant of God, Nehemiah’s victory is all but assured, but it wouldn’t be an interesting story if there wasn’t a challenge to overcome, and I don’t think “the resistance” is ever given more of a personality than that.  They are a physical representation of the largely abstract “challenges that we face in life”.  We could perhaps also view them as Nehemiah’s conception of “that which stands opposed to God”, which is sometimes a spiritual force but in the OT is usually exemplified by Israel’s hostile neighbors.

In conclusion, Nehemiah declares his intention to rebuild the wall, his enemies begin marshalling their forces, and the stage is set for inevitable conflict.  In the next chapter, the men of Judah arise to build the wall according to the word of Nehemiah.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah 1

In this chapter, Nehemiah learns about the struggles of Jerusalem and prays for God’s favor for his petition to the king.

As the beginning of the book, this chapter establishes a couple different points.  First, it establishes Nehemiah’s attitude towards God.  Namely, he is keenly aware of his people’s failings, how they have sinned and turned away from God, but he also reminds God of his promise that if the people return to God, then God would bring them back to the promised land.

Second, the chapter establishes that Nehemiah himself is in captivity (in Susa) and is a cupbearer to the king.  It might sound like menial service, but in ancient times being a cupbearer was a highly trusted position because you were in a place where you could potentially poison the king’s wine.  In addition, cupbearers were often called upon by the king as advisors, so they would also have occasional political responsibilities.

Third, it establishes the difficult situation in Jerusalem.

Fourth, and lastly, it establishes that Nehemiah himself is deeply concerned about the status of his people.

Take all four of these points together, and we can see that Nehemiah is in a fairly senior political position, he cares about Jerusalem, learns about its distress and believes that God will bring his people back to the promised land if they obey the covenant.  The obvious conclusion is that Nehemiah will seek to return to the promised land and he believes that God will aide him in this endeavor, and this is the object of his prayer when he asks God to give him favor with “this man” in v. 11.

In the introduction to Nehemiah, I mentioned that Nehemiah and Ezra were contemporaries who both left Susa and returned to Jerusalem.  Beyond that, there were thousands of other men and women who went with them, fulfilling the “gathering” that Nehemiah talks about in verse 9.  I think Nehemiah is quoting that verse with an awareness that this was the time.  I think he knew that the king was favorable to his people returning to their homes and I believe that Judeans were likely already making the journey home before Nehemiah, so Nehemiah realized that this prophecy was coming to pass.

A lot of the time when I am reading a bible passage, I like to ask myself what God is trying to say through this passage.  And in this particular chapter, what I see is Nehemiah quoting from God’s word (essentially paraphrasing Deuteronomy) and Nehemiah recognizes that he is living in the moment of God’s promise fulfilled.  He recognizes the need for his personal return and he recognizes that he is living in the season when God is opening the door for his people to return to the promised land, and in this moment Nehemiah is praying that God would give him success because Nehemiah is about to act.

So what I learn from this chapter is that we should always keep our eyes open to understand what is our season (individually and in our community), understand what God is doing in that season, praying for favor and then acting.  The action doesn’t happen until chapter 2, but Nehemiah is clearly a man who is willing to act in partnership with God’s purpose for his people in this time.  In the same way, we should seek to discern our present season, understand God’s intentions for us, pray for grace as we follow God’s leadership and then act, letting our actions follow God’s direction.

In the next chapter, Nehemiah does exactly that and he petitions the king for his right to return to Jerusalem.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Bible Commentary - Nehemiah Introduction

The book of Nehemiah has much in common with the book of Ezra.  One can pretty easily group together Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther together as a core set of post-exilic historical narratives.  Out of these four books, Chronicles is very similar to Samuel and Kings both in terms of the format as well as the content.  Esther (which is the next book after Nehemiah) is very similar to Ruth in that it’s presented as a stand-alone story that has a clear narrative and moral arc.

Ezra and Nehemiah don’t have any close parallels in the other OT books, but are exceptionally similar to each other.  They both have a diary-esque kind of flavor as they intermix narrative descriptions of factual events with commentary on their emotions reacting to those situations.  Both of these books are highly personal, reflecting the viewpoint of their authors during a major transitional period for their nation.

Ezra and Nehemiah both have a “return to Jerusalem” story, they both have some kind of building project they undertake to help restore Jerusalem to its former glory, and they both face hostility and resistance from their non-Israelite neighbors.  They also both face a moral crisis of some kind due to Judeans not properly following the Law (in the case of Ezra, it was intermarriage with foreigners, in the case of Nehemiah, it’s wealthy Judeans charging excessive interest rates on loans to other Judeans during a famine).  Both Ezra and Nehemiah seek to restore a religious festival to popular observance, with Ezra re-instituting the Passover and Nehemiah re-instituting the festival of Booths.  Since the book describe similar events, they also have similar themes and messages.

There are many other similarities in the writing style and general historical setting, but I want to also point out some of the differences.  Perhaps the most important difference is that Ezra is a priest and a scribe, while Nehemiah is a royal official from the Persian king’s court, and Nehemiah is appointed to be governor of Judah.  In essence, this means that Nehemiah is acting as a political official and a formal element of the Persian administration, while Ezra is a religious official.  They are both in positions of authority, but different kinds of authority.  I think this gives them different perspectives, though Nehemiah is still obviously very devout.  I don’t think there is any real distinction between Ezra and Nehemiah’s moral systems, but we do see differences between their spheres of authority.  Ezra attempts to rebuild the temple (the religious center) and Nehemiah attempts to rebuild the city wall (necessary for military defense).

When reading Nehemiah, my readers should observe two parallel narratives that are interwoven throughout the book.  The first is the narrative of Nehemiah himself.  This is a highly personal narrative about his own journey first in captivity, as a servant to the king, then his return to Jerusalem, and lastly his challenges and accomplishments as governor of Judea.  One thing I like a lot about Nehemiah (and to a similar extent Ezra) is the records of his emotional state in various situations.  I remember commenting at length about the earlier books in the OT that tended to have very dry and emotionless descriptions, even in the narrative portions.  Nehemiah is a welcome break from that trend.

The second narrative is the story of Judah’s redemption in the midst of their ongoing subjugation to a foreign power.  As described above, that story involves Judah battling external enemies (in a political sense), attempting to rebuild the city and facing a moral crisis all at the same time.  They are weak, but God is with them and they accomplish much.

Reading through this book, what I see over and over again is the struggles and weakness of the Jewish people.  I see their fear in the face of powerful and threatening adversaries, but I see them persisting and struggling and fighting to rebuild.

Overall, I think Nehemiah is a longer book than Ezra and it is more complex, but I don’t think there is anything else that I need to cover in the Introduction; everything else can be discussed more appropriately in each chapter’s commentary.  Therefore, let us begin with the first chapter of Nehemiah.