As with Ezra, this is a short book, 13 chapters this time, so we’re going to get through them all in the one post.
This book begins with a note that it is written by Nehemiah and then just rolls right into it. Nehemiah mentions that he had asked some family about Judah, Jerusalem, and the Jews. It was mentioned in the introduction to this book in my study Bible, that it was during Cyrus’s reign over Persia that the people of Judah really begin to be called Jews. We saw it a bit in the last chapter, though it was questionable as to whether the term applied only to those of Judah, to Judah and Benjamin, or somehow to all the Israelites. Not sure how that went down as it is not explained anywhere that I saw but you can go back and see Ezra where it seems pretty likely that the people of Judah were not the only ones to return from exile.
Getting back to Nehemiah himself, he asks about his people and is told that things are not good. Here’s the exact message, well the ESV:
The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down ,and its gates are destroyed by fire.
Pretty serious, so it’s not surprising that Nehemiah’s reaction is to go to God in prayer. He asks that the people not be forgotten and then begs forgiveness for his part in the sin and asks for success and mercy that day, though he doesn’t mention what it is that he wants success for. At the end of the prayer, he mentions that he was cupbearer to the king.
We find out that the endeavor he was looking for success with (well, it must have been though it is not specifically stated as such) is in asking King Artaxerxes (the one who had written for the work on the city to stop back in Ezra) to be able to go to Judah and rebuild the city, the temple, and the wall. The king agrees to let Nehemiah do this and has his passage prepared.
Still within the chapter, Nehemiah begins his journey, first stopping to see the governors local to Judah. Then he goes around and inspects the wall before telling anyone that’s what he was in town about. He gave an inspirational speech for them to get to rebuilding and they set about the work, but the local governors that had been mentioned earlier “jeered” and Nehemiah rebuked them for it.
There is a bunch of men named as people who repaired different portions of the gate and wall with this note in the middle:
but their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord.
But I didn’t see any sort of retribution for that later.
The names and places repaired continue to be mentioned for a little bit. At one point there is this mention:
Next to him Shallum the son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, repaired, he and his daughters.
Yep. Daughters. Then it goes on with more men mentioned. There are some neutral terms mentioned here and there but there’s no telling whether or not women were part of them, such as the “goldsmiths” that helped. It seems unlikely, but bears mentioning.
The local governors mentioned earlier see what’s going on and get pretty threatening which worries the workers and their families but Nehemiah gets them to press on. He sets a guard for the workers, though this means stretching everyone that much thinner and reminds them that the God is with them and to “fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”
He goes into some detail about how he gets the construction and security worked out without burning out any of the workers.
Nehemiah gets wind of how badly the nobles are taking advantage of the predicament of the poor and immediately puts a stop to it. There is a famine that is mentioned and the poor are mortgaging their fields to the nobles in order to buy food and are at the point of being enslaved to their own “brothers”. Nehemiah holds an assembly and demands that everything be restored and no interest held on anything. Everyone abides by this demand.
It is also mentioned here that Nehemiah had been appointed governor over Judah by Artaxerxes and some things about not taking the governor’s food ration and how he fed the few the people that were with him.
The other local governors send for Nehemiah, but he knows they mean him harm, so he refuses to go repeatedly. Finally, they threaten to blackmail him with telling Artaxerxes that he means to be king over Judah and to rebel, but he again just refuses the notion out of hand and refuses to see them.
Some prophets are sent to him with false prophesies in order to make him afraid. Two are mentioned by name and one is a woman, Noadiah.
The wall is finished in this chapter, done in 52 days.
There is more mention of one of the local governors, Tobiah, who is married to one of the Jews (so maybe the daughters were just not returned which is totally messed up because they are basically excommunicated on account of marriage and not given a chance to come back to being with God’s people when everyone else figures out that it was wrong to give them away back in Ezra.) But apparently a bunch of the Jews knew him and spied for him against Nehemiah.
There is a genealogy or census of sorts of the all those who had returned from exile, including some who claimed to be from Israel but they couldn’t verify their lineage. “Sons” and “men” come up a lot except when talking about servants which are almost always “their male and female servants” which is strange. Then at the end there is mention of singers that are of the binary genders and there had been other singers mentioned earlier too, not sure if these are different sets.
Note: I do want to say “both” or “the binary genders” when it says that women and men are brought together but I’m fairly certain that they are not among those ancient people who recognized any sort of variance other than the binary male and female. Some ancient people did recognize that what we call “intersex” was something that happened and there’s no way to tell from simply the reading what happened to anyone who fit outside the binary. This was just one of the things I was thinking about as I was putting together this post and wanted to mention it.
The men and women are brought together at the Water Gate and the same Ezra that the previous book was written partially by and named after begins to read the book of the Law of Moses to the people. There is also a mention that some of the priests went around and helped people understand the Law that they were hearing while the people stayed where they were. This may or may not have been effective at keeping disruptions down, but it was interesting that they did go the extra step to make sure that people of both genders understood what they were hearing. That men and women were present and together at this point in history is interesting because I know from church teachings in other books that this will not always be the case.
This reading obviously upset everyone because the next paragraph focuses on Ezra and Nehemiah and some other priests telling everyone not to mourn and that the day is holy. What makes sense to me is that the people heard all the things they weren’t supposed to be doing and likely knew their rather disobedient history and were upset and saddened by how far they had gone from what they were supposed to be doing.
It could be that this new set of rules came off as too much, but it just sounded more like guilt when I read it. They also continued reading of the Law and the celebration of the feast of booths. I imagine they would have stopped or left if they were against it, you know?
The priests and Levites of the time get together and pray together to God, recounting in a synoptic form everything He had done for the people of Israel since Abraham, and make a “firm covenant” with God in writing. The governor (Nehemiah), priests, Levites, and “chiefs of the people” sign it and seal it.
Within their prayer they said they were in great distress but didn’t ask for deliverance from it.
The individual names that sign along with the part about the chiefs is actually in this chapter. It’s a fairly long list of names.
It goes on to line out the “obligations” of the people that this covenant includes which amounts to the things their ancestors were supposed to be doing. I imagine these were lined out specifically so that it is obvious to everyone exactly what is expected of them and then the explanations are in the Book of the Law of Moses, but the individual items are listed here.
They “cast lots” to decide which people will stay in Jerusalem and which will leave to live in the other towns and cities. There is an explanation of who goes where to live with some counts of people.
This one begins with the names of heads of households and chiefs and all that who were a part of the return and the rebuilding.
There are some details on the celebration of finishing the wall and everyone who rejoiced, men, women, and children. Then they set to the administrative part of figuring out who was going to look after all the things that the House of God and the priests are supposed to have to make sure that all of it gets done.
After all this, Nehemiah is gone for like ten minutes and everyone is forgetting their promises already. The people aren’t giving the Levites and priests everything they need to survive, they’re buying and selling stuff on the Sabbath, they’re meeting with and marrying the foreign women again. Tobiah from a previous chapter who is known to be a foreigner who enlisted spies against Nehemiah is given a room in the house of God to live in. Nehemiah locks down all of this and asks God repeatedly to remember him in these efforts.
So, I just want to include a quick note about these “foreign women” and how they make men to sin. Number one, they don’t actually “make” them do anything. Sure, a woman can convince a guy that something inherently wrong is the right thing to do, but this guy has to make the choice to follow this woman instead of his priest. This can also work the other way, and does, so it’s not just women that are a problem here and these same guys gave their daughters to foreign men too.Second, these are foreigners so it is easy to believe that they think they are doing right by these guys by making them turn to their own religions. Third, it is highly unlikely that these women are actually in a position to make these men do anything. It’s an expression to say that someone “made” you do something when the temptation was just too great for you. I don’t think this is meant to be taken literally, otherwise I think there would be way more going on. These men aren’t slaves! They are encouraged by their own sinful desires to have these foreign women and the women are taking the rap for it throughout history.
They were apparently giving their daughters to the foreign men too. And how were they in a position to give daughters? Oh, yeah, these women couldn’t even choose who they married unless their father was very generous. So…..the foreign women themselves don’t seem to me like they could have had much to do with whether or not the Jews or Israelites wanted to marry them and then they were being blamed for it without better explanation given as to how these men were “made” to do anything. It’s annoying and easy for a misogynist to take advantage of this kind of wording to serve his own purposes. But I’m not buying it that these women were instigating anything, let alone forcing these men to do anything.
So, that about sums up Nehemiah. It’s mostly getting the wall up and starting to get the people to follow the Laws again along with some resistance from those people. It seems like it was a pretty masterful feat for that wall to go back up and for everyone to move back in and rebuild the city and their towns and all. Not much mention of women, but the story does revolve around Nehemiah and he doesn’t appear to have been married.