Book of Nehemiah

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Nehemiah 8:1-10

Background to the Book of Nehemiah
The books of Ezra/Nehemiah are named together because of their close literary and historical connections (Lester Grabbe has a helpful diagram of parallel passages, p.67). Nehemiah was governor of Judah around 445-433 BCE. He followed Ezra whose mission is dated 458 BCE. They were both concerned with what was happening in worship, lack of any progress in building the walls of Jerusalem and what they perceive as a failure to keep the Israelite nationality pure. There is a lot of debate among scholars about the date of Ezra's mission whether it was prior to Nehemiah's first term as Governor or following it in 398 BCE. If you want to pursue this topic I suggest you read either the Old Testament Guide by Williamson or any Introduction in a commentary.

Parts of Nehemiah appear to be first hand accounts written by Nehemiah himself (Williamson, 15) but Nehemiah 8 is not one of these chapters and is probably a portion from the Ezra tradition. The book is referred to often as the 'Nehemiah Memoir' and seems to have developed in two distinct stages. His initial task was to get the walls of Jerusalem rebuild (Nehemiah 1-8)and his other deeds are noted in the rest of the book. The present edition of the Book of Nehemiah has used the initial 'Nehemiah Memoir' as part of its source material and other traditions which are shaped for his own purpose. Both Ezra and Nehemiah use genealogical lists to serve a theological purpose, for example, in one instance those families who have complied with the law and got rid of their foreign wives and children are listed as obedient.

2 Chronicles and the Greek book of 1 Esdras shows close similarities to Ezra/Nehemiah (1 Esdra 9:37-55 // Nehemiah 8:1-12). Many scholars accept that the Chronicler is the final author of Ezra/Nehemiah (Fensham, 2-3). This means the final date when the books were created as we have them now could be from 400 BCE - 300 BCE. It is interesting to note that the concluding verses of 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 are almost identical with Ezra 1:1-3a (Blenkinsopp, p.48). A list of other similarities in message and theology are presented in Blenkinsopp, p.53.

Historical Background to the Book:

The exiles began their return from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 BCE. We know from Haggai/Zechariah that they needed encouragement to get the temple built (515 BCE). It appears from reading the books of Ezra/Nehemiah that the returnees have failed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem after living there for eighty years (this assumes the date of Ezra's mission was 458 BCE). Ezra arrived with a further group of returnees to initiate reforms, one of which was the banishment of foreign wives and their children because they were perceived as contaminating the Israelite worship. Meanwhile back in Susa (Babylon) Nehemiah hears that the walls have not yet been rebuilt and seeks permission to go to Jerusalem to get this work done. He arrives twelve years after Ezra. Nehemiah has strong opposition to his programme of rebuilding and has to cope with other economic and social difficulties. In their opposition to Nehemiah attempts were made to get rid of him. In spite of this the building programme was completed and celebrated with the reading of the law by Ezra and a celebration of the Festival of Booths. There seemed to be ongoing concerns related to the way people were abusing the Sabbath, the lack of population living in Jerusalem and the role of the Levites. These concerns are addressed by Nehemiah in the last five chapters.

The Books of Ezra/Nehemiah tell us something of the conditions and concerns which affected the returned exiles in the period 400 BCE onwards. Some scholars suggest that the form of worship portrayed in Nehemiah 8 represents the beginning of synagogue worship. It may there are some elements which later were a part of synagogue worship, but there isn't enough evidence to say this was the case in 400 BCE.

Context of Nehemiah 8:1-10
The lectionary reading from Nehemiah 8 is part of a section which begins at 7:72b (universally accepted by scholars) and takes in verse 1-12 of chapter eight.

Prior to this chapter there is an account of the trials and tribulations of Nehemiah as he worked to get the city walls built. There had been opposition from the Samaritans and from within Jerusalem, and Tobiah and Sanballot plotted to kill him (Nehemiah 6:1-9). However, by the end of Nehemiah 6 the walls were complete and the gates hung. After the officials had been appointed, Nehemiah decided to make a list of all those who had come out of Babylon and who settled in Judah. The names and numbers are given in Nehemiah 7, along with the servants, singers and beasts of transport (horses, camels, mules, asses).

In Nehemiah 8, the set reading for the Epiphany 3, the law is read by Ezra and the festival of Booths celebrated. Nehemiah 9-10:40 continues with further liturgical celebrations: a day of fasting, a long penitential prayer followed by a renewal of the covenant signed by the princes, priests and Levites. Part of the penitential prayer is the pronouncement that they have separated themselves from foreigners (9:2) and from the peoples of the land (10:28). It is their response to hearing the Law read in Nehemiah 8. The matter of mixed marriages is a major issue in both Ezra and Nehemiah. Foreign wives were believed to lead their husbands into worshipping other gods and marriage to a foreigner is expressly forbidden in the Law. Nehemiah is concerned also that the children are unable to speak Hebrew and therefore there is a loss of identity as Israelites.

To summarise, Nehemiah 8 plays a pivotal role in the book in that the reading of Law completes the building programme for Jerusalem and reminds the people of the need for worship and faithfulness to Yahweh.

Insights/Message of Nehemiah 8:1-10

Literary structure:

The creator of the Books of Ezra/Nehemiah assumes that people will know about Ezra who is suddenly introduced without warning in Nehemiah 8:1. To make connections to the previous chapters he sets the date in 7:72b as he first day of the seventh month and the walls were finished on the 25th of the sixth month (Nehemiah 6:15). The reading of the Law by Ezra would come more naturally following Ezra 7-10 and indeed, doesn't happen at all in the Book of Ezra.

In one sense it is very clever time to read the Book of the Law to the people because Nehemiah has completed the walls, a task that has eluded other governors of the colony. This feat is recognised by the foreign nations therefore the Israelites could feel somewhat proud of their achievements albeit with some discord. Nehemiah knows that Tobiah and Sanballot are likely to continue plotting against him and Nehemiah sees other religious and social problems still need to be dealt with. By reading the Law it gives the people a chance to hear again the covenant relationship and what God requires of them. The census has been complete (Nehemiah 7) and everyone appears to have gathered inside the City of David to hear Ezra read the Law.

The scene described has many components of worship described within it - a wooden pulpit, opening the book, Ezra gives a blessing to God, the people's response of Amen. One would expect the dedication of the walls at this point, but the actual dedication of the walls doesn't take place until Nehemiah 12:27ff.

Verses 4 and 7 have a list of thirteen names in each verse of people who stand beside Ezra (v.4) and help the people understand the law (v.7). It does not name the thirteen in v.7 as Levites but some scholars presuppose this connection. V.9 names Nehemiah and Ezra together with the roles they play in this struggling community.

Message / Theology:

The proclamation of the Law was a reminder to the people of the covenant relationship with God and what was required of them. It is part of a liturgical celebration which lead to the people responding in action. I would not want to take the same response today, that is, to remove foreigners from our midst, but we need to recognise that was the approved response from Ezra and Nehemiah. The gospel of Jesus Christ is an inclusive message and this is what governs our response together with listening to the Holy Spirit. The people wept on hearing the Law which may be the effect of realising how far they had strayed from the covenant and they are told to celebrate instead.

We continue to offer the proclamation of the new covenant of Jesus Christ in a liturgical setting in the hope that people will hear the gospel and go away to live it out in action. Worship by itself as the prophets have stated many times is not enough, there needs to be a response to worship and God, which is lived out in our every day lives. In the Christian tradition it is the case also that some people feel great relief when they realise the offer of forgiveness given through Jesus Christ. And as in the instance of the prodigal son who knows the compassion and forgiveness of his father so we celebrate also the great love of God who welcomes us back into relationship.

Resources/Worship for Nehemiah 8:1-10

This reading could be acted out as part of the worship service. That is the bible is brought in as the passage is read out and the people encouraged to say the amens. Again some brief context needs to be given in order for the congregation to understand the background.

The psalm fits theologically with the Nehemiah reading in its emphasis on the reading of the Law and in keeping the law one finds life and peace. Ps 19:14 is used often by preachers at the start of a service. Some people may not be aware that it comes from the Old Testament.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the books of Ezra/Nehemiah

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Blenkinsopp,J. Ezra-Nehemiah. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1988.
Clines,D.J.A. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1984.
Grabbe,L.L. Ezra-Nehemiah. London: Routledge, 1998.
Klein,R.W. "The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah." NIB 3. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999
Myers,J.M. Ezra-Nehemiah. AB. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1965.
Smith-Christopher,D.L. "The Mixed Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9-10 and Nehemiah 13: A Study of the Sociology of Post-Exilic Judaean Community." Second Temple Studies 2. Temple and Community in the Persian Period, Eds. T.C.Eskenazi & K.H.Richards, 243-265. Sheffield, JSOT Press, 1994.
Thronveit,M.A. Ezra-Nehemiah. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989.
Williamson,H.G.M. Ezra and Nehemiah. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987.
Williamson,H.G.M. Ezra-Nehemiah. WBC. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985.
Williamson,H.G.M. "The Belief System of the Book of Nehemiah." The Crisis of Israelite Religion: Transformation of Religious Tradition in Exilic and Post-Exilic Times. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: