Sunday, October 20
Nehemiah 7: Here is the largest census in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. For its compilation Nehemiah used an earlier source (verse 5), probably to be identified with that in Ezra 2. All through this memoir we find Nehemiah a most engaging man. His steady, cool demeanor sat atop the cauldron of his emotions which, on occasion, found brief expression (cf. 1:4; 5:12; 13:8,25), but surely those emotions did much to drive his highly effective style of energy, skill, and organization. Nor was Nehemiah entirely free from tooting his own horn from time to time (2:10,18; 5:15; 6:11). Trained as an executive and diplomat, NehemiahÕs rhetorical skills were economic, efficient, and to the point (2:17; 5:7; 13:25). Whatever his fears, they were under control; we never find him acting in panic. He was also a reflective man, much given to short, frequent, and fervent prayers that are interspersed in the narrative (2:8,10,20; 3:36-37; 4:9; 5:13,19: 6:14,16; 13:14,22,31,39). Although the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time, Nehemiah did not rush things. Before ever arriving at Jerusalem, he had made the proper arrangements for the materials to be used in the construction, and before even calling a meeting for the project, he inspected the site in detail and formulated a plan. The long census transcribed in this place, precisely because it says so little that engages the imagination, allows the reader leisure to reflect on these more interesting aspects of Nehemiah. In the next chapter our attention will turn once again to the figure of Ezra, who had arrived in Jerusalem earlier than Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scholar, Nehemiah a practical man of affairs. Both together were responsible for the spiritual maintenance of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ. In this respect, their joint vocation mirrored that of Zerubbabel and Jeshua late in the previous section.
Monday, October 21
Nehemiah 8: In modern church parlance this chapter describes a "revival," or a "parish renewal," or even a "Life Alive Weekend." We are apparently still in October of 445 (7:73), the season associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. While Nehemiah has only recently arrived, Ezra has been in Jerusalem for thirteen years, and maybe he figured that the place could use a good dose of "old time religion." Ezra, as we saw earlier, had been engaged in editing the Torah, and the people wanted to hear it (verses 2-3). They gathered to the east of the city (verse 1), not a normal place for gathering. Given the mystic symbolism of this site (the panorama of the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives) in two of IsraelÕs most recent prophets (Ezechiel and Zechariah), their choice of this place to gather was surely significant. It was morning, and the sun was rising over the Mount of Olives when they began. There was a lengthy proclamation of the Word (verses 4-5), along with prayer and devotion (verse 6). As Ezra read the text in Hebrew, which by now was only a scholarÕs language, running translations were provided in the common spoken language, Aramaic (verses 7-8). Such Aramaic (and later Greek) translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament are known as Targumim or Targums, which in modern biblical research constitute a special area of study. It was a scene of great emotion, with the experiences of conversion, remorse, and rejoicing mixed together (verses 9-12). All of this took place in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 14-18; cf. John 7:2).
Tuesday, October 22
Nehemiah 9: Most of this chapter is filled with a long "narrative prayer" similar to several psalms that recount IsraelÕs formative history (E.g., Psalms 78 , 105 , 106 ). One will likewise observe sustained similarities to Deuteronomy 32, the Canticle of Moses that immediately preceded IsraelÕs entrance into Canaan. From the perspective of textual history these similarities are hardly surprising, if we remember that Ezra was an editor of the Pentateuch. The great bulk of the narrative in the present chapter is devoted to the Exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest, but the period of the Judges and some of the later history are also treated. The prayer here is important in the context of the later events with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are preoccupied, namely, the events connected with the nationÕs re-founding. For both men, Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of Israel was precisely that Ñ a restoration. Israel could not be started again from scratch. The new Israel would go nowhere unless it came from somewhere, and the present prayer serves as a reflection on where Israel had come from. From IsraelÕs earlier history, furthermore, the nation was to learn important lessons about historical causality, particularly the relationship of later events to earlier decisions. Israel would be instructed on how infidelity and punishment are tied together, for example. Israel, according to this prayer, was to learn its history, not so much that the people might imitate their fathers, but in order to discourage them from imitating their fathers. They were to reflect on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future. Such meditation on history is an important aspect of biblical prayer.
Wednesday, October 23
Nehemiah 10: This chapter, which begins with a fragmentary archival record (verses 1-27), goes on to mention certain features of social and religious discipline that would serve to make Israel a clearly distinguishable people, distinctive by reason of its special customs and rituals Ñ to be, in fact, a people very different from every other. These customs and rituals included a prohibition against marriage with outsiders (verses 28,30), strict adherence to the newly edited Torah (verse 29), keeping of the Sabbath (verse 31), financial and other support of the prescribed worship (verses 32-34), sacrificial offering of first fruits (verses 35-37), strict tithing (verse 38), and other offerings (verse 39). We will find Nehemiah dealing with these very matters all the way to the last chapter of this book. Israel, now returned to the Holy Land, would strive to become what Israel in Babylon, if it wanted to survive, had been forced to be, namely, a people set apart, distinct, and very unlike its neighbors by reason of its special consecration to God. GodÕs distinctive people, that is to say, really had to be distinctive. That word had to be a reality, and not just an adjective. This fact may be read as the guiding motif of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the very reason why both of these books go to such lengths to describe the building of walls, whether the walls of the temple in Ezra, or the walls of the city in Nehemiah. By their very nature, walls divide the world into inside and outside. Walls stand as a sturdy barrier between the two. This image of walls, therefore, as giving shape to an exclusive space, serves as an ongoing model for the great theological preoccupation of these two books: the holiness, the separation of the people of God. This emphasis was needed. Prior to its recent re-education during the Captivity, Israel had largely lost that sense of exclusive dedication. Its separation from the world had massively disintegrated over the centuries. Instead, by endeavoring to become just like the nations round about them, IsraelÕs spiritual walls had been badly penetrated Ñ by idolatry, by syncretism, by compromising political alliances, these latter sometimes sealed by marriages joining its leadership to the very worst that other nations stood for. The building projects described in these two books, therefore, were the external manifestations of IsraelÕs recently rediscovered self-understanding. The renewed Israel was determined to be exclusive; that is, to build walls, to establish clear lines of separation on top of firm and unshakable foundations, to become uncompromising and unbending about its own identity.
Thursday, October 4
Nehemiah 11: We have already seen the theological significance of the sort of census data that we have in this chapter. The present list comprises the names of those within the walls that have been constructed. They are the separated people, the "insiders," symbolic of the identity of the holy nation. All through these two books we have watched the outsiders trying to get inside, or at least to have access to the inside, exercising a sustained harassment of those inside. We saw the response of Zerubbabel, for instance, to the suggestion, in Ezra 4:1-3, that there be no distinction between insider and outsider, because he already knew the dangers of not insisting on that distinction. Thus rebuffed, those outsiders have spent the rest of these two books trying to prevent the walls from being constructed. Those outsiders were the enemies of JerusalemÕs walls, attempting to keep Israel from being Israel. They perceived that the walls symbolized exclusiveness, and they resented being outsiders. This is a curious phenomenon. Why, after all, should they care? If Israel wanted to be exclusive, why should that preference bother anybody else? In fact, nonetheless, IsraelÕs exclusiveness was resented. IsraelÕs claim to be a special and holy people, a claim that laid special moral responsibilities on Israel, was simply more than other people could endure, so IsraelÕs adversaries have spent much of these two books in a genuine and aggressive snit. The one place where Israel was truly threatened, however, was not in its building programs, but in the construction of its families, the formation of its homes. Thus, intermarriage with outsiders, which so incensed both Ezra and Nehemiah, was the single path by which Israel could be most effectively led astray. These lists of Jewish families, therefore, are very pertinent to the general preoccupation and theme of these two books.
Friday, October 25
Nehemiah 12: This chapter, which begins with another genealogical list of priests and Levites (verses 1-26), indicates the importance that proper and verifiable "succession" enjoys in the biblical theology of institutional ministry (as distinct from prophetic ministry). Next comes an account of the solemn dedication of the wall (verses 27-47) and all that the wall represented by way of the symbolisms we have been discussing. It is reasonable to understand the narrativeÕs return to first person singular in verse 31as an indication that we are once again dealing with the memoir of Nehemiah, on which so much of this book is based. According to 2 Maccabees 1:18, the event narrated in this chapter took place, not in September, but in December, falling very close in the calendar, in fact, to the date of the MaccabeesÕ own purification of the temple, recorded in 1 Maccabees 4:60). Both events Ñ the dedication of the walls under Nehemiah in the fifth century and the purification of the temple under Judas Maccabaeus in the second century Ñ are called "Hanukkah," meaning inauguration or dedication (verse 27; John 4:22). (Only the latter event, however, was incorporated into the Jewish liturgical calendar and is celebrated by Jews each December even today.) Nehemiah saw to it that the walls were ritually circled by two simultaneous processions conducted on top of them, complete with trumpets.
Saturday, October 26
Nehemiah 13: The dedication of the wall was the occasion for some more reading from the Torah, including the prescription found in Deuteronomy 23:4-5, excluding the Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation of Israel (verse 1). As long as Nehemiah was around, such exclusions were taken seriously (verses 2-3). When he left to make a brief visit back to Babylon (verse 6), however, things turned for the worse. On his return to Jerusalem Nehemiah learned all sorts of unpleasant things. He learned, for instance, that a member of the priestly family had become the son-in-law of his old foe, Sanballat (verse 28). In former days, when Sanballat tried to impede the construction of the wall, Nehemiah had held him off. Now, nonetheless, Sanballat was within the wall! What he had been unable to do by force of arms, he managed to accomplish by the simple means of marrying off a daughter to a priest. This serious breach in JerusalemÕs spiritual wall once again put at peril IsraelÕs very existence as a holy nation, a people set apart. In addition, Nehemiah discovered that the high priest himself had provided lodging within the temple itself for one of those who had opposed NehemiahÕs very mission (verses 4-5). Other things had gotten out of hand, as well, such as the Sabbath observance, whether by Jews themselves or by pagans who came to sell their wares in the city (verses 15-22). Nehemiah set himself to put everything straight again (verses 7-13). The major problem, however, continued to be the disposition of the people to intermarry with non-Jews (verses 23-27), in contravention to the Torah (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Nehemiah found it a tough job to maintain those walls!