Sunday, December 07, 2008

Bible Study: The Book of Nehemiah!

Our text today is from the Book of Nehemiah:

When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over. I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day. Once or twice the merchants and sellers of all kinds of goods spent the night outside Jerusalem. But I warned them and said, "Why do you spend the night by the wall? If you do this again, I will lay hands on you." From that time on they no longer came on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and go and guard the gates in order to keep the Sabbath day holy.

Remember me for this also, O my God, and show mercy to me according to your great love.

Nehemiah tells his own story in the book (aside from a couple of lines that refer to him in the third person and may therefore have migrated into this text from elsewhere, unless the whole thing is by somebody else whose authorial control slipped in those lines), the story of being at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes in the years after the destruction of the Great Temple at Jerusalem and the exile of the surviving Jews.

Artaxerxes notices that Nehemiah is unhappy and asks him why. Nehemiah tells him: he'd like to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the city walls, since great chunks of both lay now in burned ruins. Nehemiah assures us that it was God Who put this idea in his head, but it sure doesn't seem that way - this is a guy who seems very likely to get things done all by himself (and besides, in the Old Testament, God's idea of gently persuading Artaxerxes would have been to fill him to overflowing with live maggots, not get Nehemiah to propose some urban renewal). Nehemiah likewise credits God with Artaxerxes' answer, which is a resounding 'yes.' The king authorizes the rebuilding and shields Nehemiah not only with letters of instruction to the local satraps and governors but also with an armed detachment.

The aforementioned governors don't like any measures that help the Jews, and so they grumble and threaten violence. And in a typical motif of the Old Testament, even the Jews' alleged benefactor grows disillusioned with the Chosen People - the above quote is just one among many in which Nehemiah wonders if the squawking, covetous, mercantile behavior of the people he invites back into the rebuilt city makes them unworthy of all the bother he's gone to. And the quote demonstrates another thing about Nehemiah, as we've said: he was entirely capable of getting the results he wanted all by himself. His invocations of God come across as pro forma ass-covering.

And the message of it all? Well, the Book of Nehemiah comes at the very end of the Jewish history parts of the Old Testament, when the shot and incident of the earlier books has died away almost completely, leaving nothing much more than standard ancient history. So it's possible God simply stopped caring about any of this human stuff in which he once took such a drastic and bombastic interest. He doesn't talk to Nehemiah at all, not even a terse 'good job.' And a few centuries after Nehemiah, when the Roman Vespasian, his two sons Titus and Domitian, and their right-hand-general Trajanus all sacked Jerusalem and burned the Great Temple, God didn't lift a pinky to stop it.

Still, even though he's seconded by no smiting or plaguing, Nehemiah has at least royal backing to get his various projects done. And those projects do get done - a lot more quickly and unambiguously than most Old Testament projects in which God is heavily involved. If there is a falling off, maybe it's mutually beneficial.


Sam said...

I've always been curious about the Persian Empire and their role in the Bible. Was their relative goodwill toward the Jews simply an aspect of their rule? Did they usually grant a certain amount of liberty to other religious and ethnic groups? Of course they come off like monstrous hordes in a lot of Greek and Roman literature, but their almost literally symbols of salvation in the Old Testament.

steve said...

They were by and large a lot like the Romans: thorough and merciless secular conquerors, but largely indifferent idealogical ones. Their empire was so vast, when you think about it, that they could hardly afford to be otherwise. Accept your garrison, pay your tributes, and you can pretty much do what you like with the rest (surely Artaxerxes' support in Nehemiah of rebuilding the Temple had everything to do with its being a center for commerce).

Of course, such a liberal philosophy of conquest is never good enough for SOME people ...

Sharon said...


for a verse by verse study of the book of Nehemiah and other books of the Bible by Zac Poonen.

Sam said...

'Topical Bible by Zac Poonen'
Hee. Sharon, you're all right.

steve said...

'Zac Poonen'?

To quote John, 'Oh come on - now you're not even TRYING!'

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