(Note: I am reading the Bible in Spanish in a bid to learn a bit of the language of the peoples who are swamping our shores. I have a New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible from which I read, which has the English and Spanish side-by-side. Along with learning a bit of Spanish, the reading, perhaps because it is done in a language foreign to my understanding, is revealing the Bible to me as I had never understood it before. This book review, and others like it to follow, is to aid in recalling what I have read and the insights I gathered thereby.)
Nehemiah in Context
The notes in my Life Application Study Bible explain that Nehemiah is the last of the Old Testament historical books, recording the history of the third return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile and captivity in 586 BC.
By the time of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem in 445 BC, over 140 years, or seven generations after the original exile of Judah to Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar and his empire were long gone; he to the ravages of time and his kingdom to Persia. Persia had also had a succession of Kings since its conquest of Babylonia. Artaxerxes ruled when Nehemiah was given permission to return. In contrast, one hundred and forty years ago as I write this (1877), the US Civil War had just concluded and the South was mired in Reconstruction woes. The city in which I live was only five years old. There was no phone, no electricity, no motor cars, no airplanes and no internet, among other things. The world looks so much different today than it did a hundred and forty years ago, until there is now nowhere to which one could return.
Nehemiah, like Ezra before him, and Zerubbabel before him, were returning to a place they’d never been before, but a place that was mostly unchanged since their people left. It appears that to the ancient Semitic mind, the present is seamlessly bound to the past, so much so that a descendant seven generations removed from a place his ancestors lived can still “return” as if he’d been there himself. But then, the Zionist movement returned the Jews to Palestine after a two-thousand-year absence, so perhaps it is not just the ancient Semitic mind that imagines such things. Zerubbabel, returning thirty years after exile, might have had a few with him who actually remembered living in Jerusalem. Neither Ezra nor Nehemiah could have. The group with Zerubbabel rebuilt the Temple that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed, but were thwarted in rebuilding the wall. Ezra, it could be said, rebuilt the foundations of the faith and the nation, by amalgamating the variety of historical evidence and texts to weave a singular narrative of the relationship between a people and their God. Most biblical scholars believe that Ezra wrote, or at least compiled and heavily edited, the Books of the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers) and various other historical texts, including possibly helping write Nehemiah. Nehemiah, who Christians often celebrate as an ideal for leadership, rebuilt Jerusalem’s Wall, along with its many gates, which had been incinerated.
A portion of the wall was purportedly found in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem’s Old City in 2007, though not all in the archaeology community agree that the find can be reliably attributed to Nehemiah. I would not be surprised to find that the Bible more or less accurately tells this tale; at least from roughly the time of Nehemiah and Ezra (circa 450 BC), the Bible is less mythological and more historical. There is practically no archaeological evidence to corroborate the stories of the Books of Moses (also known as the Pentateuch or Torah—the first five books of the Bible). And there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that Moses did not write the books attributed to him. But Nehemiah and Ezra delimit the age during which modern Israel was born. Everything that came before is, at best, an origins myth shared of modern Israel’s ancestors. At worst, it was simply contrived by Ezra the scribe during his time in Babylon to create a unifying, binding narrative for the inception of a new religious cult in Judea. There is evidence that Ezra did a bit of both—contrived some myths and embellished some others to concoct a compelling narrative to bind and keep the Israelites together as they migrated from Babylon to Judah and Jerusalem under the protection of their Persian overseers.
It’s doubtful that the Persian kings (Cryus, Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I) who assisted the Jews in the rebuilding of their cultural center did so out of the goodness of their hearts. More likely, they saw the advantages that might accrue with having a Jewish population in Palestine that owed its loyalty to Persia. Palestine was ever and always a frontier state for Persia (and for many other kingdoms throughout history—Egypt, Assyria, Rome, Babylonia, etc.); as such, allowing its re-colonization by a superior people who would owe allegiance to Persia greatly enhanced its prospects for successful governance of the territory. The Persian kings probably encouraged and actively aided Ezra in his compilation of Jewish history and mythology in the Torah so that he might implement its edicts and laws in the new Jewish prefect he and Nehemiah were charged with establishing in Palestine.
In a way, the return of the Jews to Palestine in the 5th century before Christ mirrors the Zionist movement that led them to reestablish the state of Israel in Palestine shortly after the Second World War, only in the latter instance, the push for recolonization arose from the West instead of the East. At various points in history, empires from both the West and the East sought an Israelite presence in Palestine as a loyal buffer state on the frontiers of their hegemonies.
A bit over five hundred years after their reestablishment in Palestine, Roman legions destroyed the 2nd Temple and dispersed the Jews (circa 70 AD), i.e., the West eventually destroyed what Persia had instigated and supported. One wonders, how long it will be until Persia (i.e., modern Iran, Turkey, etc., the East) destroys the recolonization that the West instigated and now supports?
Nehemiah hears of how poorly the returned exiles are doing in Jerusalem, which pains him tremendously, causing him to pray and ask for God’s help to do something. He asks God to grant “him favor in the presence of this man”, presumably meaning King Artaxerxes, for in the next line he proclaims he was cupbearer to the king.
Artaxerxes inquires of Nehemiah why he looks so forlorn and unhappy. He appears healthy so it must be something weighing on his heart. Nehemiah tells him of the struggles his people in Jerusalem—that the wall and its gates are destroyed and not rebuilt—and requests he be allowed to go to lead in it rebuilding. Artaxerxes assents, and at Nehemiah’s request, sends him along with letters to the governors of the districts through which he must pass, and to the manager of his forests, allowing him safe passage and to obtain timbers for rebuilding the wall and gates and for building a house for himself.
Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem, but waits three days, inspecting the wall at night so as not to let on why he was there. Then he informs them as to his purpose and exhorts them to help him rebuild the wall and its gates. He is ridiculed by an Horonite, Ammonite and Arab, who asked if he was rebelling against the King. He responded that his God would give him success, but that they had no share in Jerusalem, or any claim or historic right to it.
This chapter simply walks, in a counter-clockwise manner, around the wall, delimiting who had responsibility for which section.
The Horonite and Ammonite further ridicule the efforts of Nehemiah and the Jews. Nehemiah and his followers soldier on. The Horonite and Ammonite and the Arabs and men of Ashdod plot to fight against the Jews and Jerusalem. The situation looks dire. The workers are tiring and surrounded by antagonists. Nehemiah stations people near the wall’s low points to defend against attack. Half the men do the work while the other half are armed and ready for combat. The material carriers do their work with one hand and keep a weapon in the other. The builders wear their swords by their sides. The trumpet player stays with Nehemiah. Everyone is to come to the sound of the trumpet wherever it was when they heard it. Everyone stays in Jerusalem at night, so as to serve as guards by night and workmen by day. Nobody ever repairs to a bath or bed, remaining suited and ready for combat, even when they go for water.
The Jewish people go to Nehemiah seeking relief. They need grain to feed their children. They have mortgaged their houses and fields to the nobles and officials to pay their taxes and get grain. They are even selling some their daughters into slavery. Hearing this makes Nehemiah very angry. He requests the nobles and officials to return the mortgaged fields and houses, and to quit charging “usury”. They agree, upon oath, to do as asked.
Nehemiah explains that in his twelve years ruling Judea he never took the governor’s share of the harvest, but that those who preceded him had taken that much and more. He didn’t take the governor’s share because its burden on the people was too much to share, but he still managed to feed 150 Jews and officials at his table every day.
He asks the Lord to remember him with favor for all he’s done for these people.
Sanballat (the Honorite), Tobia (the Ammonite) and Gesham (the Arab) send him a message, asking him to meet them in one of the villages on the plain of Ono. Nehemiah knows better, and by messenger, refuses, claiming he has work to do. They keep asking. He keeps refusing. On the fifth try, they accuse Nehemiah of inciting rebellion against Persia. Nehemiah replies they are making it up. Nehemiah goes to a false prophet, hired by his antagonists, who tells him that people are coming to kill him.
The wall construction proceeds apace and is completed in 52 days.
Nehemiah appoints the gatekeepers, singers and Levites, and constructs a list, by family or clan, of the returned exiles, using a set of genealogical records he found.
Nehemiah assembles the people and has Ezra the scribe read to them the Torah (perhaps the first time they’d ever heard it? He doesn’t say.) The assembly is comprised of people “who were able to understand”. No telling whether that means people who understood the language Ezra used (was it Hebrew, or some Babylonian tongue?) or it means the people who were intelligent enough to understand what was being read to them.
Whatever was the case, he had the Levites explain the Law as it was being read so that all might understand it. The people weep, but Nehemiah told them to rejoice. It was a day sacred to their Lord.
The second day, Nehemiah assembles all the heads of the families, along with the Levites, to “give attention to the words of the Law.” They were instructed that they should live in booths during the seventh month (which it was), and were commanded to go into the fields and collect branches, etc., with which to make booths. They did, and built booths on their roofs, in their courtyards, etc. The whole company of exiles built booths and lived in them.
Ezra continued to read from the Book of the Law of God (the Torah) every day of the seven-day feast, after which the Israelites meet again in assembly.
On the 24th day of the same month, the Israelites gather again, this time fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. They separate themselves from foreigners. They confess their sins and read from the Law for a quarter of the day and spent another quarter in confession and worship.
Nehemiah recounts the Genesis/Exodus and post-Exodus stories of the blessings bestowed on the Israelites, the Law he had given them, and their continued refusal to serve the Law, ending with a pledge of a new covenant, that the Levites and priests are affixing with a seal.
The covenant includes not allowing foreigners to marry their daughters or their sons; to keep the Sabbath holy and free of commerce; to give a third of a shekel each year for the Temple; to bring the first fruits of the harvest; to bring to the Temple the first-born sons, and first-born of their flocks and herds; to bring a tithe of their crops to the Levites and the Levites to bring a tithe of the tithe to the Temple; and to not neglect the house of God.
The leaders of the people settle in Jerusalem. A tenth of the people in the countryside are also designated, by lot, to settle there. Nehemiah lists the people in Jerusalem by tribe (either Judah or Benjamin) and by function, including priests, Levites and gatekeepers. (It is not clear anywhere that anyone knows the difference between a priest and a Levite).
The priests and Levites were listed again. And again, nobody knows the difference. Levites were supposed to be of hereditary designation; perhaps priests were not.
The wall of Jerusalem is dedicated. The priests and Levites purify themselves ceremonially, and then purify the people, the gates and the wall.
A procession is started in opposite directions on the wall, and ended in the Temple.
Men are appointed charge of the contributions. The singers and gatekeepers have daily portions allotted to them for their upkeep.
In the reading of the Law, it was decreed that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the Temple, so the Israelites exclude all foreigners.
Nehemiah returns to Artaxerxes for a time. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he finds that Eliashib the priest had allowed Tobiah a large room that had been used as a storeroom. He gets mad and throws Tobiah and his stuff out.
He also learns that the portion allotted to the Levites and singers for the ceremonies had not been provided, and that they all had returned to their fields. Nehemiah rebukes the leaders for neglecting the House of God, then all Judah brings offerings to distribute to them.
Nehemiah exhorts God to remember him for all he has done for the House of God and its services.
Nehemiah notices commerce being conducted on Sabbath. He rebukes the leaders and closes the gates of the city at dusk the evening before and all day during Sabbath.
He exhorts God to remember him for this also, and show mercy to him.
Nehemiah then discovers men of Judah had married foreign women (from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab) and only about half the children of these marriages could speak the language of Judah. Nehemiah rebukes them, calls curses on them, and beats some of them, pulling out their hair. He makes them take an oath that they won’t marry, or allow their sons or daughters to marry, foreigners.
He ends by again exhorting God to remember him with favor.
Conclusions and insights
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah at one time were considered one book, and for good reason, for they are directed to the same purpose—reestablishing the nation-state of Israel in Palestine, replete with the imposition of the Torah as the governing creed. Whether or not their activities represent a new religion that claims ancient roots (as all religions ultimately do) or is just a revivification of the place and theology of ancient Israel cannot be known.
Marc Van De Mieroop, writing in the second edition of A History of the Ancient Near East (2007) explains the following, regarding the value of the Hebrew Bible as a historical document:
There are many elements that make the use of the Bible as a historical document suspect. We do not know the date of composition of most of the component books, and it seems safe to assume that, in the format known to us, they are from the period after the Babylonian exile in the late sixth century. The anonymous authors used earlier works, but we cannot date those accurately, nor establish how they were reworked. More importantly, the authors did not intend the writing to be historically objective but as a polemic defense of a people and its religion. They saw the history of humankind through the lens of how one related to the god Yahweh. Many of the facts stated in the Bible can be confirmed through extra biblical sources, textual and archaeological. But even here, one has to be careful not to force interpretation to coincide with the Biblical text. The names of kings, queens, and others can be found in sources of Israel and Judah’s neighbors or in short inscriptions from those states themselves. But the context in which they appear is often vague outside the Bible. Scholars have become increasingly critical about the use of Biblical texts in historical reconstructions. For instance, they now often no longer regard the accounts of the Patriarchs as reflective of a second-millennium reality. But many scholars still give great credence to other parts where no outside confirmation is available. For example, many believe in the existence of a large kingdom under David and Solomon, but this cannot be ascertained and seems unlikely in a setting where all Syro-Palestinian states were very small.
However critical the scholar’s attitude toward the Biblical text, it is impossible to ignore it completely as it is such a powerful narrative. Many ideas and customs can be derived from it, but the histories of Israel and Judah need to be based on other sources.
What we can ascertain from Nehemiah and the archaeological record is that the socio-economic organization of the ancient Hebrews was very much the same as other states and nations in the Near East (Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia). The people were disbursed to the fields surrounding a central city, in the case of the Hebrews, Jerusalem (Chapter 11, etc.). The central cities had elaborate, ornate palaces and temples, generally enclosed by a massive wall with guard towers and heavily-guarded ingress and egress gates. The people paid taxes to a central authority (called tithes and offerings by Nehemiah); with the Hebrews, the central authority was the Temple, with most other cultures there was a place of worship along with a palace, or seat of government, and taxes would usually be paid to the place of worship that was then distributed to the ruler. In most Near Eastern cultures, religion and government weren’t so closely affiliated as with the ancient Hebrews, but edicts of the rulers were always considered to represent the will of god or gods that were worshiped. In both cases, there were a class of priests and government officials charged with collecting the taxes, who also had intercessory power with the god or gods (Yahweh, to the Hebrews) the people worshiped. With the state/temple religions, the state gained favor with the gods when the people followed its precepts; the formulation, execution and interpretation of the edicts and precepts were reserved to the priestly class with the Hebrews, and with the ruler in others. The rural farmers were often heavily indebted to the priestly classes, sometimes beseeching the ruling officials to lighten the burden being imposed that was causing them great distresses, including starvation and indentured servitude and even slavery (Chapter 7). All these attributes of socio-economic organization are confirmed in excavations of states and nations in the Near East from the third millennium forward. The ancient Hebrews lived very nearly just as their neighbors. The state of Israel and its god Yahweh did not arise in a vacuum.
In Nehemiah there is also evidence that the ancient Hebrews followed the custom of their neighbors in formulating myths of their origins that portrayed a glorious past such that they might be clearly identified as a separate people in the present, bound together for a collective future. In Chapter Eight, Ezra was instructed to “bring out the Book of the Law of Moses” and read it to the assembled masses of “men and women and all who were able to understand”. The rejoicing that followed makes it seem as if none of the Israelites of that day had ever heard it before. Their “discovery” upon hearing it of the requirement to build booths to live in for the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles seems to fortify the point. Perhaps this was the first time these Hebrews had been told the tale of their origins and of the great deeds of the Patriarchs and Yahweh.
And perhaps that’s because the Book of the Law of Moses was a creation of Ezra and his scribes in Babylon. Ezra had been instructed by the Persian king to take the “Law of your God, which is in your hand” (Ezra, Chapter Seven: 14) to Jerusalem and institute its laws and edicts, implying both that it was something of his own concoction and that it was not in use in Babylon among the exilic population. How much of the Torah did Ezra create from his own imaginings or borrowings from other tribes, and how much did he rely on commonly-known stories and legends the Hebrews were familiar with? There is no way to tell, but as Van de Mieroop pointed out, there is good reason to doubt the existence of a great kingdom of Israel during the time of David and Solomon, as all Syro-Palestinian states of the presumed time in question were small. And there is no extant evidence that anything mentioned in the Torah actually happened. There is no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, or of Moses, or of a great kingdom of Israel. There is evidence of a small kingdom of Israel ruled by the “house of David” during the late first millennium BC that was conquered and its population deported by Assyria. And there is evidence of Babylon conquering a similarly-small state of Judah and its capital of Jerusalem being razed and its population taken into exile. But how much of the Torah was brand new; how much was based on ancient myth and legend and any inscriptions that survived the ages, and how much was based on actual events, is not clear.
There is evidence that the Torah borrows from myths and legends of its neighbors. For example, the story of the great flood in Genesis is almost a word-for-word rendition of the account contained in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was possibly a Babylonian king who reigned in the 2000’s BCE; he was possibly a myth; but the Epic story of his exploits, like the Hebrew Bible’s Genesis, is real, in the sense that it is preserved in writing, for the Epic of Gilgamesh exists unto today as perhaps the earliest work of great literature and Genesis is the first chapter of the most popular book of all time. Of course, the story of a great flood forms a part of the origins myths of many ancient near-eastern cultures, and climatological evidence points to the probability that something like a great flood occurred in the eastern Mediterranean as glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age, so even if the story’s lines are borrowed from Gilgamesh, it would have likely already been a part of the Hebrew folklore.
It’s hard not to conclude from all this that Judaism in its modern monotheistic form was founded by Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem in the 5th century with the exiles returning from Babylon. There is archaeological evidence that the small northern kingdom of Israel worshipped many gods, including Yahweh, right up until their destruction as a state and people by Assyria. This should not be surprising. All of Israel’s neighbors worshipped a multitude of deities, and Israel was hardly unique in the manner with which its society was organized. When Yahweh delivered the Ten Commandments in Exodus, the first commandment is not like the Koran, in which it is stated “there is no God but God” but instructs Israel that they “shall have no other gods before me”, carrying the obvious implication that the Israelites had a multitude of gods, much in the manner of other nation states of the time, with Yahweh being something like the Greek Zeus, their chief and most powerful god.
The Book of the Law of Moses read by Ezra and presumably passed down mostly unchanged since is a narrative of the Israelites’ relationship to Yahweh, of how they repeatedly fell out of Yahweh’s favor by putting other gods before him, and of how they regained his favor by putting him in his rightful place in their hearts. Ezra and Nehemiah seemed to have stumbled on the strength of monotheism, particularly as a temple religion, and sought to use it to strengthen the will of the Israelite nation they were attempting to revivify. Whoever actually wrote the Torah as it exists today recognized by Chapter Six of Deuteronomy (the fourth book of the Pentateuch) the strength and importance of monotheism, exhorting the Israelites to “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods; the gods of the peoples around you.” (Verses 13 and 14).
Both Ezra and Nehemiah understood the danger to maintaining a distinct identity that lay in mixing with foreigners. In the Book of Ezra, Zerubbabel refused to allow any foreigners to take part in the Temple rebuilding. Even foreigners who claimed to be seeking the same God and had been contributing sacrifices to him since the Assyrian exile were excluded as “enemies”. Ezra felt compelled to warn against intermarriage as one of the greatest sins of the people, a position supported by Nehemiah, as his final exhortation to the people was that Solomon, favored by God among all the kings of antiquity, was led into sin by foreign women, so marriage with them must be avoided.
Reading Ezra and Nehemiah left me feeling as if I was witnessing the birth of a people and their religion. I ultimately reached the conclusion that the Jewish nation of today was born in the 5th century BC, through a people returning from Babylon to a land they’d never seen before.
It’s not clear why the Jewish story, among all others of the ancient Near East, is the one that most successfully survived the ages. It couldn’t have been because the Jews were chosen for special favor by Yahweh. Pretty much all the nations at the time considered themselves to have been chosen for special favor by their gods. It was perhaps that they chose the appropriate God, one that was not dependent on the continuation of the state of Israel for its own survival.