The Book of Nehemiah
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2
Nehemiah, the Jewish cupbearer to the king of Persia, is heartbroken to learn that Jerusalem is in shambles. He's so sad that he can't even bear a cup without getting weepy. Rather than throwing him into a lion's den or impaling him on a stake—the usual response of Persian kings to dour underlings—Artaxerxes asks Nehemiah what's wrong. Nehemiah explains that he's bummed about Jerusalem. The king agrees to let Nehemiah return to rebuild the city and its walls. (All the action of Nehemiah follows the events of Ezra: The Temple has already been rebuilt in Jerusalem by Ezra, but the city lies undefended.)
Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem and rallies Jerusalem's Jews to join his wall project. But all is not milk and honey in the Holy Land! Nehemiah realizes that three non-Jewish local governors—Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab—are seething about the Jerusalem rebuilding plan. They fear, quite reasonably, that a walled Jerusalem will be a mightier city, and a threat to its neighbors.
Let's pause for a moment to observe the entrance of the Bible's first, and I believe only, "Arab." Arabia is referred to a few times in passing in various books, and anonymous "Arabians" are mentioned, but Geshem is the single named Arab. (Geshem is king of part of the Arabian Peninsula, according to a footnote in my Bible.) In what can be seen as a darkly humorous divine joke, the only Arab in the Bible turns out to be 1) an enemy of the Jews and 2) at odds with them over who should control Jerusalem. Given the poison between Arabs and Jews today, isn't it appropriate that their relationship was born in strife?
The whole scene is almost too depressing—or too funny—to believe. Consider the first and only conversation between a Jew and an Arab. When Geshem and his cronies heard that Nehemiah is rebuilding the wall, they "mocked and ridiculed" him. Nehemiah responds by saying: "The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we His servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem" (emphasis added). That's right, 2,500 years have passed, and it's the same argument!
Chapter 3 and Chapter 4
Under Nehemiah's command, the Jerusalemites begin rebuilding the gates and walls of the city. Geshem, Sanballat, and Tobiah continue to mock and scheme. (To be fair to Geshem, the other two are much nastier. Sanballat, for example, mutters, "What are the miserable Jews doing?") The three enemies harass and terrorize the Jews so much that Nehemiah has to suspend the wall project. It's reminiscent of Iraq: The security situation is so bad that they can't get any reconstruction done. Eventually, Nehemiah sends his men back to the walls, but half of them have to provide security while the other half piles stones.
Nehemiah is not simply a great builder, he's also an economic populist. The wealthiest Jews exploit a famine by buying the land and crops of the poor at cut-rate prices, leaving most Jews broke and landless. Nehemiah hectors the rich elite to return the land. As far as I can remember, this is the only mention of Jewish class divisions in the Bible. We've seen tribes and families fighting each other, and conflicts between kings and prophets and the people, but not class struggle. I suspect the economic strife is rooted in the return from exile. The exile surely shattered the traditional bonds that defined Israelites—tribal bonds, notably—and economic allegiances arose to replace them.
Nehemiah is officially appointed governor and serves for 12 years. He's utterly incorruptible—a dollar-a-year man: He refuses the official food allowance and doesn't exploit the office to acquire land or wealth. "I devoted myself to the work on this wall."
The three stooges—Geshem, Sanballat, and Tobiah—try repeatedly to destroy Nehemiah. Four times they attempt to lure him to a meeting where they can harm him. They goad him by accusing him of rebelling against the Persian king. They send a double agent who's supposed to dupe Nehemiah into entering the Temple's holy of holies and, thus, contaminating himself. Nehemiah, who's as canny as they come, easily foils their tricks, then manages to complete the wall in just 52 days. Nehemiah is the biblical role model for our ambitious big-city mayors, undertaking massive construction projects, fending off sniping critics, rallying the little guys without losing the elites—a Fiorello LaGuardia * of the Levant.
Nehemiah takes a census, which is identical to the one in Ezra, Chapter 2.
Ezra kicks off the celebration of the wall's completion by reading the whole Torah to the assembly. The book inspires the Israelites, who realize while they listen that it's time for the Torah-mandated holiday of Sukkot, which they haven't kept for generations. The whole country stops to observe the holiday—the same holiday that Jews celebrate today. It's fascinating—and rather humbling—to realize that it is the book that guarantees Jewish survival. By reading the Torah, the Jerusalemites are able to make themselves Jewish again.
Chapter 9 and Chapter 10
All the Jews wear sackcloth, fast, and publicly confess their sins. In a heartfelt prayer, Ezra recounts the whole story of the Exodus, the Wilderness years, and the Israelites' intransigence and iniquities ("they were disobedient and rebelled against You and cast Your law behind their backs. … "). Then, he and the leaders of Israel sign a pledge to obey God. This kind of pledge, we have learned from 36 previous Bible books and 360 previous Israelite vows, is not worth the sheepskin it's printed on.
In particular, the Israelites promise to: not intermarry, not buy on the Sabbath, take a rest from planting every seven years, pay taxes for the temple, and supply offerings. These are the laws that Nehemiah's people considered most essential. Isn't it a curious list? Only one of these laws—no Sabbath purchases—is even connected to the Ten Commandments. None of them addresses moral behavior.
Chapter 11 and Chapter 12
The Israelites cast lots to decide who will live in Jerusalem, and who will live in the other towns. One-tenth of the Jews are chosen to repopulate the holy city. It's not clear if being chosen is a desirable or undesirable fate.
As they continue to read the Torah, the Jerusalemites rediscover that God cursed the Ammonites and Moabites, and ordered Israel to avoid them (all because of the Balaam incident way back in Numbers, Chapter 22—remember that?). The first person to pay the price for the new policy is Nehemiah's old enemy, Tobiah the Ammonite, who has somehow wangled himself a sweet pied-à-terre inside the Temple. (Tobiah got the deal because he's the cousin of the chief priest.) Nehemiah takes great pleasure in evicting Tobiah from the Temple. Nehemiah, a marvelous leader, also roots out Jewish corruption, collects tithes that have been mishandled, improves oversight of the Levites (who run the Temple), and stops all the illegal Sabbath trading.
The most interesting parallel between Nehemiah and Ezra comes in the last few verses of this final chapter. Like the book of Ezra, the book of Nehemiah ends with an uproar over intermarriage. Nehemiah notices that Jews are marrying Moabite and Ammonite women—and their kids can't even speak Hebrew! He gets the Jews to promise to stop intermarrying. Nehemiah cites the example of King Solomon, who despite being beloved by God and the smartest man in the world, was brought low by marrying foreign women. He beats up, curses, and pulls the hair out of some of the sinners. Yet, notice how the episode does not end. In Ezra, all the foreign wives and children are exiled. In Nehemiah, there's no such purge. The Israelites promise not to sin in the future, but, unlike Ezra, Nehemiah doesn't break up the families. Perhaps that reflects the difference between the zealous priest and the pragmatic governor. Nehemiah has to keep his citizens happy and maintain civil relations with his idol-worshipping neighbors. The holy man can afford to be uncompromising in the service of God. But Nehemiah knows what every office-seeker since him has learned: A politician doesn't have the luxury of idealism.
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