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What does Nehemiah have to teach us about the challenge of hermeneutics and theology today? In this episode of The Bible for Normal People, Pete ruins the book of Nehemiah by illuminating the key concepts, overarching themes, character arcs, and sociopolitical context found in the text; plus gives some takeaways about biblical interpretation for our time and place. Join him as he explores the following questions:

  • Who is Nehemiah?
  • What does Nehemiah mean in Hebrew?
  • How does the book of Nehemiah relate to the book of Ezra?
  • When was the book written and by whom?
  • Are there any historical markers of the time of Nehemiah?
  • What are the three main themes or parts of the book?
  • How are verse numbers sometimes misleading in the Bible?
  • What does Nehemiah say about intermarriage and why?
  • Why was there opposition to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem? What clues does this give us to what was happening politically?
  • What dates do we get from the text and are they accurate according to other historical records?
  • What is the “book of the Law” that Ezra read to the people? 
  • What is Midrash?
  • How does the book of Nehemiah teach us about biblical interpretation and the challenge of hermeneutics? 


Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.

  • Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one unified work called Ezra from as early as we can tell. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • The idea to separate [Ezra and Nehemiah] is a Christian move, and that move was not adopted in Hebrew Bibles until the 15th century. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • There is a strong scholarly agreement that Nehemiah, along with Ezra, were not written until the fourth century. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • Similar to Ezra, Nehemiah has sections that scholars refer to as his memoirs: first person accounts that are edited together with a third person narrative. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • Clearly, someone other than Ezra or Nehemiah wrote these books, but they seem to have incorporated these memoirs into a larger narrative structure. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • Ezra dealt with the restoration of the temple, but Nehemiah dealt with the walls of Jerusalem. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • The big issue here is the editing of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which were originally one book. The order in which things are presented seems to be out of alignment from a historical point of view, but it serves the writer’s religious purposes. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • This is a crucial matter in the history of Judaism: this idea of creatively adding to the law, the ancient law, to address the needs of the current moment…the commonly used term to describe this phenomenon is midrash, which I define this way: it’s appropriating and adapting earlier tradition to new circumstances. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • The purpose of this review of the past, this rehearsal of history, is meant to motivate the people to repent and to do better than their ancestors. It’s a genre of literature in early Judaism. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • This whole thing is a reminder of why it is important for Christians to understand something of the movements in Judaism after the exile. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • The question every Bible reader needs to ask—in fact, this is unavoidable—the question is the same one Nehemiah was asking himself: how to adapt the ancient word for contemporary needs. — @PeteEnns @theb4np
  • The Bible always has to be brought into conversation with later times that do not reflect the circumstances of the biblical writers themselves. That’s the challenge of hermeneutics. That’s biblical interpretation. That’s the challenge of theology. — @PeteEnns @theb4np

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns. 

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas. 

[Intro music plays]

Pete: Hello, everybody. Welcome to this episode of the podcast, where we are digging into the book of Nehemiah. 

[Teaser clip of Pete speaking plays over music] 

“We are seeing here an early example of what will become central to Judaism in the millennia to follow: the creative adding to the law to address the needs of the current moment. The commonly used term to describe this phenomenon is Midrash. One takeaway from Nehemiah is a reminder that the Bible always has to be brought into conversation with later times that do not reflect the circumstances of the biblical writers themselves”

[Ad break]

Pete: Now, let’s get right into this. In Hebrew, his name is pronounced Neh-hem-yah, which means “Yah comforts.” Nachum is the root meaning to comfort, and Yah is the first part of the divine name Yahweh. That’s what his name is, so “Yahweh comforts.: Side issue here, by the way, folks, in case you’re interested. Hebrew names ending in I-A-H, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and many others, they are incorporating that shortened form of God’s name Yahweh, which in Hebrew is spelled with a Yeh sound, but in English we put an I instead of a Y in there.

So anyway, and names, further thoughts here, names that end in E-L like Ezekiel or Daniel or Israel, they incorporate a generic word for God, not God’s name, but a generic word for God, El, or as it’s usually pronounced in biblical scholarship, “Ay-el”. 

Anyway, let’s get moving into the book itself. You might remember from the Ezra episode, that’s the previous one, that Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one unified work called Ezra from as early as we can tell.

Early Hebrew manuscripts treat them as one, as does the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, which is pre Christian. So, it looks like they started out as one book. The earliest evidence we have of separating them is from the time of the early Christian theologians, one of whom is named Origen, that’s an E-N at the end, not an I-N, in the early third century of the Common Era, and a bit later, Jerome, late fourth and early fifth centuries.

So, the idea to separate the two is a Christian move, and that move was not adopted in Hebrew Bibles until the 15th century. Having said all that, we’re treating, obviously, Ezra and Nehemiah as separate books, mainly because that’s how they appear in all of our Bibles, and it’s also worth noting that Ezra and Nehemiah’s careers overlap, and Ezra actually appears in the book of Nehemiah, which we’ll get into a little bit later. 

Now, as for when Nehemiah was written, the book basically covers the period from 445 to 433 BCE. That’s from the 20th year of the Persian king Artaxerxes to his 32nd year, and we met Artaxerxes in the Ezra episode. Now, during that 12 year period, from 445 to 433, Nehemiah served as governor of Judah, at Persia’s behest, of course. They were under the thumb of the Persian Empire. So, that means that Nehemiah was written, certainly, clearly, sometime after 433. How far after? Well, then it gets interesting. 

According to Nehemiah 13:6, Nehemiah himself tells us that he went back to Artaxerxes after his 12 year stint in Jerusalem and that he stayed there for an unspecified time and then returned, though none of this is laid out clearly in the book. One historical marker, and I mentioned this in the Ezra episode as well, but one historical marker is the reference in chapter 12 of Nehemiah to the Persian king Darius II. He died in 405. 

So, bottom line, there is a strong scholarly agreement, and I think we have to just see the sense in this, but there’s a strong agreement that Nehemiah, along with Ezra, were not written until the fourth century. Also, similar to Ezra, Nehemiah has sections that scholars refer to as his memoirs: first person accounts that are edited together with a third person narrative.

You might remember Ezra 7-10, those chapters are first person, and in Nehemiah, the first person accounts are the first seven chapters of Nehemiah, that’s, you know, more than half the book, and a section of chapter 12, and that’s verses 27-43, and all but the first three verses of chapter 13, which is the last chapter of the book. So clearly, someone other than Ezra or Nehemiah wrote these books, but they seem to have incorporated these memoirs into a larger narrative structure. 

Okay, let’s look at the outline of the book, and I divide this into three exciting parts. Part one is the Nehemiah memoir of chapters one through seven, and this section concerns the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, because that’s Nehemiah’s deal. He’s the wall builder, right? Ezra dealt with the restoration of the temple, but Nehemiah with the walls of Jerusalem. 

Part two, chapters eight through 10. Okay. That’s sort of a lie. I didn’t, it’s not really eight through 10. Part one doesn’t go—Oh boy. I need to say this because you’re going to open your Bibles and you’re going to say it doesn’t start in chapter eight. Okay. Part one doesn’t go all the way to the end of chapter seven. It cuts off at the end of chapter seven, which is verse 73. The first half of verse 73 belongs to part one and the other half in part two, but that’s way too much math. So let’s just stick with chapters 1 through 7 for part one and chapters 8 through 10 for part two. Okay, are we good? Are you going to send me emails? Please don’t do that. Okay? 

By the way, this has a lot to do with medieval monks who put in verse numbers and things like that and sometimes they just goofed and we can’t get into all that stuff. But sometimes actually verse numbers give you the false impression that you’re starting a new idea. Or chapter numbers especially, sometimes they’re misplaced logically in the text. Anyway, that’s just the Bible we have. 

That’s part one. Part two covers the restoration of some religious practices of this community with its newly restored walls. And in this section, we have a key moment. Ezra reads the law before the entire assembly, before all the people.

Part three, which is chapters 11 through 13, covers some legislative acts of Nehemiah. And here, among other things, we revisit the theme that was so important in Ezra, namely the issue of intermarriage. Both Nehemiah and Ezra seem to have some thoughts about that. Okay, so let’s look at each of these parts and dig in a bit.

The action in part one has Nehemiah leaving the city of Susa in the 20th year of Artaxerxes. Again, that’s about 445 BCE. Now, Susa was a very important city in the ancient world. It was settled already by about 4400 BCE. Just think about that, folks. This city was already 4,000 years old by Nehemiah’s time.

Anyway, he leaves Susa and makes his way to Jerusalem after getting permission from Artaxerxes. He has to. Artaxerxes is the king, after all, and the people of Judah are under his leadership, under his rule. And Nehemiah, what happened is that he had heard about the sad state of the walls of Jerusalem and felt really moved and inspired to do something about it.

So when he arrives, he is met immediately with pushback from Tobiah the Ammonite and Sanballat the Horonite. Now, it’s worth mentioning that Sanballat, he’s mentioned in some writings known as the Elephantine Papyri, which are a record of Egyptian correspondence from the late fifth century and contemporaneous with the action in the book of Nehemiah.

So Elephantine is located in Southern Egypt, where for centuries, Jewish mercenaries and their families had settled. So the reference to Sanballat and these letters is just a bit of historical correspondence for the biblical story. You get that in later books much more often than you get them in books that talk about earlier episodes, like especially before the monarchy, there’s next to nothing next.

We’re still in part one here, right? Next, Nehemiah inspects the walls and then he gets to work rebuilding them. And some of the rebuilding had to do with the gates that surrounded the city. And all the while, Sanballat and Tobiah are fuming. So they plot to attack, but that was thwarted by the prayers of the people.

That didn’t work out. Then Nehemiah deals with another sort of problem. The nobles and the officials were charging interest and seizing the pledges that had been used to secure the loans, thus essentially enslaving the people. See, Nehemiah wasn’t just a wall builder. He was a governor, and he got the creditors to cut it out. And that tells of his own refusal to take advantage of his fellow Jews. 

So, this is followed by more opposition, this time by Sanballet, Tobiah, once again, and another figure who we don’t know anything about—Geshem, the Arab. They try to coax Nehemiah into a private meeting in the plain of Ono. Where’s that? Well, that’s near the Mediterranean coast, it’s about 30 miles from Jerusalem, and Nehemiah was not born yesterday. You have to be an idiot to go far away and meet your enemies who want to undo you. So he declines the offer, and that was followed by attempts and intimidation, but that also failed. Now you might ask, and this is a really good question to ask, you might ask, why the opposition to rebuilding the walls at all?

Why was there opposition? I mean, who cares? Well, answering this leads us maybe to a little bit of speculation. It might have been strategic for the Persians to have a friendly fortified city between them and Egypt. And that makes some sense when we remember that the Egyptians had revolted against the Persians and they were aided by the Athenians.

So it was a big deal. But they revolted against the Persians between 460 and 454 BCE. So this memory of Egypt and Athens being a problem is in recent memory at the time of Nehemiah, just a decade or so later. 

So anyway, Jerusalem could be, for the Persians, a buffer zone. Which is a nice thing to have when you’re at war with people. Also, another issue, the locals would likely have been concerned about Nehemiah’s scheme to make Israel great again, because that’s exactly what he’s doing. So the people around them would maybe perhaps fear the people of Judah, the Judahites, you know, because they have eyes on extending their territory, perhaps. You don’t want a well fortified city right next to you when you don’t exactly trust their motives. 

So there’s opposition maybe coming from two different angles. So whatever the reasons though, it all came to naught and the wall was completed in the 25th day of the month of Elul. And we read about this in chapter six, verse 15. And that was about six months after Artaxerxes had commissioned Nehemiah in chapter two, verse one, right? So six months passed between chapter two and chapter six. I like chronological markers, they help, but it gets confusing sometimes because we’re dealing with ancient Jewish calendars and this is as good a place as any just to comment briefly on this issue.

There are three months that are mentioned in Nehemiah, the month of Kislev, the month of Nisan, and the month of Elul. Kislev is mentioned in the very first verse, chapter one, verse one, and it’s the ninth month of the ancient Jewish calendar, and it corresponds roughly to our December. And it is in Kislev when Nehemiah was in Susa and first heard of the problems of the wall and began getting motivated.

Next, in chapter 2, verse 1, the next month is mentioned, Nisan. This is the first month of the year, corresponding to roughly mid April to mid May. This is four months later, and this is when Nehemiah received permission from Artaxerxes to re- fortify the walls of Jerusalem. Then, about six months later, as I mentioned, is the month of Elul, that’s the sixth month, early August, early September, when the walls were finished. So the entire action here covers about 10 months from Kislev to Nisan to Elul. 

And since we’re on the topic, let’s cover the other dates mentioned in the book. In chapter eight, we move to the seventh month, which is a month of Tishrei. Or Tishri, I’ve heard it pronounced both ways. It’s on the first day of this month that Ezra reads the law to the people. In chapter 9, on the 24th day of Tishri, there is a national assembly. That’s the last date given in Nehemiah, and it is sometimes hard to figure out the chronology of the book, to be quite frank with you. But the bulk of the action seems to occur in about an 11 month window, the first few months of Nehemiah’s governorship.

The first few months, remember, of that first stint as governor, which lasted 12 years. Most of the action here is happening probably within the first year. And I will be honest, uh, you know, figuring out months in the Bible has always been tricky for me. I need to have a chart that lays out what months correspond to the Western calendar.

Moving along. Part one ends with a list of returned exiles. And this is chapter seven starting at verse 4 and going through the first half, if you recall, of verse 73. This list is very similar to the list we see in Ezra 2:1-67. In Ezra, this list is comprised of those who return to Jerusalem after the exile ended. In other words, way early on in the post exilic period.

Nehemiah, he then finds the book of the genealogy, that’s as it’s put in this chapter, Nehemiah finds the book of the genealogy of those first returnees, And that’s also included in Nehemiah chapter seven, which is a time way later than the time of the first returnees. So why does he have it in there?

Well, it’s, you know, why not? I mean, one level it’s just, he’s just, Oh, by the way, remember all these people who came back, isn’t that great? Wonderful. But whatever. But it’s been suggested, and this makes sense to me, that these lists are based, both of these lists, in Ezra and in Nehemiah, they are based on later census records during the time of Nehemiah, and that list is included in both Ezra and Nehemiah.

These lists reflect curiously large numbers, somewhat problematically large numbers. Which many scholars think were intended to give the impression of a massive return after the exile, which is likely not the case. In other words, these lists were likely created independently at a later time when the population had increased, and then edited into the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for, let’s call it strategic or theological purposes.

And with all that, you’ll be happy to know that math time is over and we can move on to part two, which is chapters eight through 10, or again, more accurately, 7:73B through chapter 10.

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So this section begins with a speech by Ezra where he reads the law of Moses before the assembled people. That’s in chapter eight. And then the people are led in a national confession where they agree to abide by the covenant. That’s chapters nine through ten. Well, a couple of matters of note come up in this section.

The first has to do with a chronological problem. According to the flow of Nehemiah, both Ezra and Nehemiah, well, they’re there together. They’re contemporaries. After all, Ezra is giving a speech in Nehemiah chapter eight, after the completion of the wall. That happened in chapter six. So what? Well, remember the chronology of Ezra.

Ezra arrived way earlier than Nehemiah. He arrived in 458 BCE. Nehemiah did not arrive until 445 BCE, which is 13 years later. So, if the chronology of Nehemiah is correct, that would mean, just hang with me here folks, that would mean that Ezra waited 13 years to give his speech about the law here in Nehemiah 8.

He waited until after the walls were repaired. And that raises an eyebrow. Namely, why would Ezra wait 13 years to give his speech? It seems he would give a speech about obeying the law of Moses right away after the temple is completed. And remember that according to Ezra chapter 7, when Ezra comes on the scene, he’s described as someone who is zealous for the law of Moses. That’s like his deal. That’s what he’s there for. The 13 year delay for him to deliver his speech seems just problematic from a historical point of view. It would also raise the question of why nothing was said in the book of Nehemiah of that intervening 13 years. So, given that, it seems that Ezra’s speech in Nehemiah 8 makes more sense in the book of Ezra around chapters 8 or 9.

And so, all this raises the big question, assuming this explanation I just gave is correct, why would the author of Nehemiah place Ezra’s speech out of chronological order 13 years later during the time of Nehemiah? And the answer some give, and which makes sense to me, is that it gives a nice and tidy and inspiring spin to the story.

It gives the impression that all those in Nehemiah’s day gathered round to hear Ezra’s reading of the law and the confession of sin. That’s in chapter nine. Anyway, you know, the chronology of Nehemiah is, it gets tricky and we don’t need to try to solve it all here completely. That would be probably a podcast episode in and of itself. But there are some historical questions that come up just from the data of the book itself. 

A related issue concerns the national confession of Chapter 9, which I just mentioned. Who is actually giving the speech? Well, in our Bibles, I’m sure we all likely read, “and Ezra said” at the beginning of the speech that’s in Chapter 9, verse 6. Look in your Bibles when you have a chance and see if it’s there. The problem is that this is not in the Hebrew text. It was added in the Greek translation, the Septuagint. According to the Hebrew reading, it seems that the persons talking here are a group of Levites. Why? Because they’re mentioned right before that in verses 4 and 5.

The translators of the Septuagint, however, seem to have felt that it was appropriate for Ezra to be giving this speech, not a bunch of Levites. So, to sum up, the big issue here is the editing of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which were originally one book. The order in which things are presented seems to be out of alignment from a historical point of view, but it serves the writer’s religious purposes. 

Another issue unrelated to all this editing business concerns what exactly was this “book of the law” that Ezra read to the people? Was it the Torah? Was it the entire Torah? Was it parts of it? Was the Torah even in existence then, as we know it now? These are difficult questions to answer, but I will say one thing. It seems hard to believe that Ezra could have read the entire Torah, “from early morning to midday.” That’s in chapter 8, verse 3. It just seems like a lot of reading for a few hours, right?

Open up your Bible and start reading it out loud and ask yourself whether you can get through all of the Torah in early morning into midday. Say, give it six hours. This is especially true because we read in chapter 8 also, this is in verse 8, that the reading of the law was accompanied by interpretation. In other words, okay, this means that, right? They had to stop periodically, and all that takes time. 

So one way of getting to this mess is to say that, well, Ezra might not have read the Torah in its entirety, but just select portions relevant for that moment. After all, we don’t read that Ezra read all of the Book of the Law, but read from it, or in it, which could imply selective reading. Why not? And to me, this makes the most sense, assuming that Ezra had a version of the Torah that was reasonably complete, which we don’t know, but is still, I’m even going to say likely at this point in history. That’s a whole other issue to get into, but I’m, I’m not on shaky ground by saying that. 

Also, this section brings out a crucial matter in the history of Judaism. This is the kind of stuff that really gets me moving. The creative adding to the law to address the needs of the current moment. Okay. Let me say that again. This is a crucial matter in the history of Judaism: this idea of creatively adding to the law, the ancient law, to address the needs of the current moment.

And as odd as that might seem to some, it is what it is. So, for example, this is in chapter 10 now. In verse 31, Nehemiah adds to the Sabbath law by saying there should be no buying or selling merchandise. This seems to be a new twist, especially when we see that the law itself in Torah is very short on details. “Do no work on the Sabbath.” Okay, but what’s work? Well, Nehemiah filled in the details for his time and place. No work means no buying or selling of merchandise. Also, back in chapter 5, the first part of chapter 5, Nehemiah, he laments the economic hardship of the people. Right? This is because the resources that were needed for building the walls, this imposed an economic hardship on the everyday people.

So he takes matters into his own hands to alleviate their suffering. But now, in Chapter 10, Verse 31, that, you know, for the moment, ad hoc move, is made into a regular practice to be obeyed.

One last example is, again, in chapter 10, this is verse 34, we read of a wood offering. What the heck’s that? Well, this allowed the fire of the altar to burn continuously. This is a new law. See, we are seeing here, in a book written in the 4th century BCE, an early example of what will become central to Judaism in the millennia to follow. The commonly used term to describe this phenomenon is midrash, which I define this way, it’s appropriating and adapting earlier tradition to new circumstances.

And this is done here in Nehemiah with the legal tradition. If you remember a couple episodes back in the Chronicles episode, this is done there with the narrative tradition. See, Chronicles is creatively engaging and retelling the story of the monarchy that you find in Samuel and Kings, and he’s adapting it creatively for his fourth century situation.

And I would like to drive home the fact that we see this type of midrashic activity throughout the Christian Bible. In other words, the New Testament is doing the very same thing with its scripture, with the scripture of the New Testament writers, by reading that story creatively, very creatively at times, and tying it into the gospel, into Jesus.

Alright, one last point here on this section concerns Chapter 9. This is a speech that basically walks the people through the sacred history of the people. It begins with creation and then moves to Abraham and then the Exodus and Mount Sinai, the wilderness period, the conquest of Canaan, and it ends with Israel’s repeated pattern of disobedience for killing the prophets, for example. That’s in verse 26 of chapter nine. 

The purpose of this review of the past, this rehearsal of history, is meant to motivate the people to repent and to do better than the ancestors. And we see something like this elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, this review of the past. I mean, very briefly, for example, in Hosea chapter 11, and then Moses’ long speech in Deuteronomy chapters one through four.

But this, it’s actually folks, it’s a genre of literature in early Judaism, this rehearsal of the past. And this idea of rehearsing the past becomes more popular in post-exilic Judaism, for example, in the book of Jubilees, which was a very important book to the Dead Sea Scroll community before the time of Christ.

But this book is, it’s one long, creative retelling of Genesis and part of Exodus. And the Apocrypha, which is maybe more easily accessible to us, we can, we can see it in the Book of Wisdom, also known as the Wisdom of Solomon in Chapter 10. Another reversal of history that begins with Adam and takes us through the Exodus period.

And then we see it also in another book of the Apocrypha called the Book of Bensirah or Sirach or also known as Ecclesiasticus, and that’s in chapter 44. Perhaps the best known example, at least for Christians, are Stephen’s speech in Acts chapter 7 and the list of the heroes of the faith in chapters 11.

Now, with respect to Acts 7, just to dwell on this one example for 10 seconds, This is about Stephen. Remember Stephen? Stephen is the first martyr of the church. And before he’s martyred, he, very much like we see in Nehemiah 9, he rehearses Israel’s sketchy past of disobedience to what God is doing, and ends by chiding them for, once again, missing what God is up to in the world by crucifying Jesus. They did to him what the ancestors had done to the prophets. That’s what Stephen says. And note the theme of violence against the prophets, which is very much what we also see in Nehemiah chapter 9. Anyway, Nehemiah 9 is an early example of what would become so common later on.

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Let’s move on now to part 3, and this is chapters 11 through 13. And here the book covers an increase in the population of Jerusalem, which is a thing, that’s important. It also has a list of priests and Levites, and it talks about the dedication of the city walls and then some moves made by Nehemiah to ensure that the people are in compliance with the law.

And these chapters, I would say, they tidy things up, as it were. And this section also contains The other two Nehemiah memoirs, chapter 12, verses 27 to 43, and then chapter 13, verses 4 to the very end of the chapter, which is verse 31. Listing the people who lived in Jerusalem and then providing a list of priests and Levites does not make for the most scintillating reading, to be sure.

But let’s not quit too soon. A few things to think about here. For one thing, in chapter 11, verse 2, we read about those who, quote, willingly offered to live in Jerusalem, which suggests that not everyone was willing. In fact, they cast lots for one out of ten to live there. If the lot fell on you, you move.

You know, maybe not everyone wanted city life for whatever reason. And later in the chapter, we see a lot of villages listed outside of Jerusalem. So we have urban and suburban life covered here in this section. But I need to mention one more thing about that. The list of villages takes us into territories that extended way beyond the actual historical province of Judah at the time.

In fact, this list of towns seems to be taken from the list of Judean towns way back in the book of Joshua chapter 15 verses 20 to 33, having to do with the conquest of Canaan. This has led attentive readers to consider this list as, well, not really being super historical and more ideological. It’s sort of a return to the ideal old days when the nation prospered. You know, we have our territory back. Isn’t it great? We finally arrived back to the way things were. Now, as for the list of priests and Levites in chapter 12, there are two ways of doing this. The very long way of accounting for some of the odd things that happen here are just giving the gist.

And I’m definitely just going to give you the gist. One issue that is discussed here is the relationship between the lists in chapter 12 and the genealogy, here we go, folks, way back in 1 Chronicles chapter 6, which gets us into the whole issue of the relationship between Chronicles and Ezra and Nehemiah.

And we’ve already covered that in the Ezra episode. We’re not going to do it again. But the scholarly consensus is that Chronicles and Ezra Nehemiah are written by two different authors. But that doesn’t mean one author might not have used another, or maybe that the two authors were drawing on independent information and using it as they see fit.

However we explain it, which is going to be conjectural, it still is, you know, Nehemiah 12 and 1 Chronicles 6 are very, very similar. And at least one purpose of this list in Nehemiah is to tie the present religious leadership, right? We’re talking here, you know, the, the latter half of the fifth century, to tie that present religious leadership to those who returned from exile some 95 years earlier in 539.

And it’s important to establish bloodlines for those who would be in charge of the worship of God. And that’s a notion that goes back to the setting apart of the tribe of Levi and the high priesthood in the Torah. Remember that reestablishing the cult. Now, I’ve used that word in other podcasts, and cult is just a fancy word that means anything to do with religious practices and rituals.

But remember that reestablishing this cult is the prime directive of the returned exiles. Rebuild the temple and repair the walls that protect the temple. Hence, we have this list in chapter 12. And this list is followed by the second Nehemiah memoir and concerns the dedication of the city walls. And this was led by the Levites and involved a rite of purification of the clergy, right?

Just, this is a sacred moment here. So, the purification of the clergy, of the people, of the gates, and of the walls themselves. And the ceremony involved two companies in procession around Jerusalem going in opposite directions and meeting at the temple. And I definitely get the meeting at the temple part because that’s very important. But the significance of the two processions going in opposite directions circling Jerusalem, I’m not sure why they did that. I’m sure there’s a reason. I just don’t know what it is. 

Anyway, the ceremony ended with shouts of joy as there were way back in Ezra chapter 3. There were shouts of joy at the rededication of the temple. But here’s the difference. Here in Nehemiah, these shouts of joy are not mixed, as they were in Ezra, with sounds of weeping. The rebuilt temple in Ezra was, okay, it’s a temple, but it’s a poor reflection of the original one. So, the people who had seen the older temple were crying, and the people who hadn’t seen it were just so happy they have a temple.

But now, there’s no negative part to this at all. The sense is that now, finally, with the city walls repaired, we can get on with the business of being faithful to our ancient tradition. And that brings us to the final chapter, chapter 13, and several acts of reform on Nehemiah’s part to ensure the separateness of the people from those around them.

So first, access to the temple excludes specifically Ammonites and Moabites, Ammon and Moab are two of the neighboring nations to the east of the Jordan River. This prohibition is based, it seems to be based, on Deuteronomy chapter 23, verses three through six, which likewise banned Ammonites and Moabites on the grounds of, well, a couple of things. One, their inhospitality as the Israelites were making their way along the eastern side of the Jordan after they left Mount Sinai and after they did the 40 years in the wilderness, they made their way up along the eastern side of the Jordan River before entering Canaan and attacking Jericho.

All this happened under Joshua’s leadership. So, Ammon and Moab showed inhospitality, that’s in the Book of Numbers. Also in the Book of Numbers is a second reason why they just don’t like Moabites, is the hiring of Balaam by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites, and that’s the story of the talking donkey.

That’s also in Numbers. So all of that, this prohibition about Ammonites and Moabites, that’s in verses 1-3. Verse 4, to the end of the book, that’s, as I keep saying, the third Nehemiah memoir. One of the reforms that we read about here is where Nehemiah talks about concerns he has with a priest named Eliashib, who had provided Tobiah, remember him? Eliashib the priest provided Tobiah, an Ammonite, housing in the temple chambers. And all this happened while Nehemiah was back with King Artaxerxes. Let’s just pause here. Remember, Nehemiah had two terms as governor, the first from 445 to 433, and the second one that began at some undefined time, but which Nehemiah mentions here in verses six through seven.

And it was while in Babylon that he heard of what Eliashib did. Now it might be worth pointing out that Nehemiah, again, did not like Tobiah one bit. Not only was he an Ammonite who should be excluded from the Temple precincts. But, he was cozy with Sanballat, both of whom were opposed to the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem.

So, Nehemiah hears about this little maneuver, and he’s like, no, we won’t be doing that. So he had Tobiah thrown out, along with all of his stuff, and had the chambers cleansed from his Ammonite presence. Another act of his was taking care to see that the Levites got paid. It’s a good move. See, he saw that the Levites weren’t getting paid and had to go back to work in the field, so he took care of that by making sure the people were tithing properly.

See, clergy have to get paid then as now. The next bit of business Nehemiah conducts concerns the Sabbath, which we glimpsed before. It seems that the people were working on the Sabbath. What were they doing? Well, they were treading wine presses, hauling grain, grapes, wine and figs into the city. Also the Tyrians who lived in the city brought in fish and merchandise to be sold in the city.

Side issue, the tyrians are non Israelites from Tyre, which is a city along the Mediterranean coast, north of the land of Judah, and they were famous for trading, which is great. We all want to trade, but not on the Sabbath. The thing is though, and to drive the point home again, the commandment Torah not to do work on the Sabbath leaves open the question of what actually constitutes work.

Apparently that was up to the Israelites to figure out. And as I hinted above, when we looked at chapter 10, Judaism has a, a long and rich history of discerning what the commands of God actually require, since they are, you know, pretty thin on actual details. Right? With respect to the Sabbath, the question is, what constitutes work?

That is the question Torah does not answer definitively, which means it’s up to us to discern what work is. A side issue here for you Christians who like to talk about how clear the commands of God are and how they just need to be kept. They aren’t clear. They’re ambiguous. We fill in the details all the time. We apply these laws to situations that the writers of Torah never envisioned. Our embodiment of the law—for Christians who think this way, and many do, just respecting the law as I do, respecting Torah—The way in which Christians, I would say, diversely embody the law in principle is no different from what Judaism has done.

Judaism just does it very differently than Christians do. They’re both saying, what do we do with that today? And that has to be interpreted. The law has to be interpreted. It has to be filled in because it is vague. And Judaism, I’m going to say, has always done a much better job of accepting that responsibility and not simply like proof texting, supposedly clear passages from the Bible to settle very, very complex matters.

Anyway, getting back to Nehemiah, he adds details to what constitutes Sabbath keeping. Back in chapter 10, we already mentioned the bringing in of merchandise and buying and selling on the Sabbath as Sabbath breaking acts, and he fleshes that out here a bit more. He takes the step of having the gates locked throughout the Sabbath day, and that will take care of that.

Right? No, no trading if you can’t get in. So, just to spell it out again, what Nehemiah says about keeping the law in chapters 10 and here in 13 are not, strictly speaking, in the Bible. They are rather measures taken to obey the commands as they understood them and as the moment called for. Another side comment, this whole thing we’re looking at now is a reminder of why it is important for Christians to understand something of the movements in Judaism after the exile.

That’s a period called Second Temple Judaism. There we see the growth of what would become Judaism in the centuries to come, and it shows how intentional were the creative attempts to bring together the ancient tradition to serve the present moment. And that moment, and I’m talking here more to conservative Christians listening in, that moment is happening not just outside of canonical scripture, it’s happening within it. And we see that in books written during the Second Temple period, like Ezra and Nehemiah and Chronicles and others. Creatively handling the tradition is baked into the Christian Bible, and it also explains a lot of how the New Testament authors handled the ancient tradition likewise, in creative and adaptive ways, but that is a whole podcast series, folks. Give me a minute. 

The last matter of the book of Nehemiah deals with intermarriage with foreigners. And you may recall, this is a major issue for Ezra covering the last two chapters of Ezra and culminating in the law that the men must divorce their foreign wives and children. So important was the issue of remaining separate from all others at a time when the Judahites were trying to reestablish the days of old. Keep separate from these other people. And don’t marry them. And if you do, you have to get rid of them and the kids. Now, I don’t want to rehash that whole issue here, since we covered that in the Ezra episode.

But I do want to point out that Nehemiah, as upset as he is, does not command that foreign wives and children be cast off. But he does get rather physical with those who marry foreign women and raise children who can’t speak, quote, the language of Judah, namely Hebrew. Certainly by this time, Aramaic was very much part of Jewish life, having spent so much time in Babylon where Aramaic was the international language, not to mention several hundred years of dealing with the Assyrians before that, where Aramaic was also the lingua franca.

In fact, Aramaic becomes so basic to the Jewish experience that in time the need would arise to translate the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. These translations are called targums, which means translation or explanation. But these times for Nehemiah, well, these times call for special measures. This was not the time for syncretism, but for separation.

And you know what, Nehemiah, he was a dude, man. He did not beat around the bush. Let’s look at verse 25. I’m reading here. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and beat some of them, and pulled out their hair. And I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons, or for yourselves.

Nehemiah was particularly concerned about an unnamed son of Jehoiada, who was the son of the high priest Eliashib, whom he met a few minutes ago, and who rubbed Nehemiah the wrong way. This unnamed son married a daughter of, who else but Sanballat, that guy again. Yeah. So remember Nehemiah has issues with this guy too.

So the issue here goes beyond the fact though, of Sanballet being opposed to the wall project. The bigger issue is that priests are only supposed to marry virgin Israelite women. So that’s in Leviticus, by the way, chapter 21. So Nehemiah. quote, chased them away for defiling the priesthood. The book ends as follows, and this is in chapter 13, the last two verses.

“Thus, I cleansed them,” meaning the people, “from everything foreign, and I established the duties of the priests and Levites, each in his work, and I provided for the wood offering at appointed times, and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.” Well, for Nehemiah, everything he did was an act of devotion to God, for which he is asked to be remembered by God.

And we shouldn’t question the authentic religious fervor of Nehemiah, even if it seems odd to us. It’s understandable given the time in history and the situation. But the question every Bible reader needs to ask—in fact, this is unavoidable—the question is the same one Nehemiah was asking himself, how to adapt the ancient word for contemporary needs.

In other words, one takeaway from Nehemiah, by no means the only takeaway, but one, is a reminder that the Bible always, and I mean always, has to be brought into conversation with later times that do not reflect the circumstances of the biblical writers themselves. That’s the challenge of hermeneutics. That’s biblical interpretation. That’s the challenge of theology. And the pressure to address that question, what do we do with this ancient text in a different time? The pressure to address that question comes not simply from outside of the Bible, but we see it being dealt with within the Bible itself.

All right, folks, thanks for listening. As always, I appreciate your time to hang out with me for a bit and talk about things in the Bible. So, we’ll see you next time.

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Pete: Okay, um, a truck’s coming by. Have to close the window. [Truck beeps incessantly in background] [Beep signals next blooper] 

Oh gosh, I gotta blow my nose. Okay, I’m back after about an hour of blowing my nose. You might be asking yourself, why is Pete doing this now when he has a stuffed nose? Because it’s going to get worse, and I want to get this to you. So, it’ll work.

[Beep signals end of episode]
Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.