Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Book of Nehemiah

The Book of Nehemiah has a lot in common with the Book of Ezra. Like Ezra, it is a first-person account of the return of the “Jews” – Nehemiah, too, uses the new word – from Babylon to Jerusalem. It recounts some of the same events, and indeed contains some of the same lists of how many of which people went where, and when. The same lists, that is, with only enough deviation to disturb the mood of a strict literalist. How many descendents of Arah returned from Babylon to Jerusalem, for instance? Ezra (2:5) says 775; Nehemiah (7:10) says 652. Can’t be both!

Nehemiah, the man, starts off as a cupbearer to (one of the) King Artixerxes(es) in Babylon. One day, noticing that his servant looks glum, the king asks him, well, why the long face? Nehemiah says that he is sad because his ancestral city lies in ruins. Artixerxes asks what Nehemiah would like him to do about it. Nehemiah says send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it. (2:5)

Counter to what you might expect, Artixerxes says “sure thing!” He throws in a substantial allocation of timber from the royal forests, and letters to the local governors, who can not be expected to be enthused about this project. One assumes that ol’ Arti might have had some ulterior motives having to do with regional geopolitics, but who knows? Maybe he just really liked pleasing his servants. Or maybe, as the text implies, he was being manipulated by God in all this.

Class Relations in Early Second Temple Jerusalem: The Rough Guide

The first half of the text is largely an account of the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, recounted in great detail. Ezra appears prominently in the second half of the text, as the priest who leads a great religious revival in the rebuilt city. Again, the accounts of events in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah line up pretty well. Here, as in Ezra, what is presented as the glorious rebirth of the Israelite kingdom leaves a distinct impression of a ruling elite, back from Babylon, imposing a strict and unwelcome authority on an underclass of locals whose grandparents escaped the captivity.

When the walls are first completed, for instance, there is a big rally in the city. Ezra reads from the Laws of Moses, and a posse of Levites either clarify or interpret – it’s not clear – the text to the assembled people. Then you get this interesting passage:

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The Levites calmed all the people, saying “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.”

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (8:9-12)

Well, maybe. But when a large group of people is weeping and agitated when laws are being read to them, it’s a reasonable inference that these laws are being forced upon them, and they are mourning their humiliation and loss of freedom. Somehow the offer of snacks and drinks seems fairly cynical in this light, and the sudden “celebration with great joy” perhaps an overstatement? But who knows. I wasn’t there.

Nor was I there when all of the people decided to join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses. (10:29) It’s interesting and revealing that the people of Judah suddenly have “nobles” – they never did before – and even more interesting that they would unanimously adopt the rigorous laws of Moses, with its strict limitations on personal and economic freedom and its steep taxation of crops and flocks for the benefit of the priesthood.

Nehemiah, like Ezra, wants to take some credit for the ethnic cleansing of Judah. In the final chapter of his book, the narrative takes the form of a prayer, in which he reminds God of various virtuous acts he has carried out. These include a very strict reimposition of the Sabbath, expulsion from Israel of all who were of foreign descent, and the physical punishment or exile of those whose close relatives married outsiders.

Remember me with favor, O my God, the Book ends, and one has to wonder. On the one hand, this is a man who clearly made critical contributions to the ability of one of history’s most influential small cultures to endure. And, doubtless it is sheer anachronism to judge his more draconian measures against the human rights ideals of the current day. But at the same time, I don’t think that every citizen of Judah felt that the governorship of Nehemiah was an occasion to “celebrate with great joy.” And I feel some measure of sorrow for the losses of those nameless Israelites, all those centuries ago.

1 comment:

Eversaved said...

Oh, my.

I really enjoy reading this blog. When I read Nehemiah myself years ago when I was still a deeply religious person, I had such a different interpretation. Probably it was aided by my study Bible notes, which were really apologetics blurbs to scare off any problems a reader might have with the text before they had a chance to really plant a seed.

I'm really excited about Esther!!