|Books of the|
The Book of Nehemiah is a late historiographical book of the Hebrew Bible (and Christian Old Testament) that describes the rebuilding of Judah in the years after the Babylonian captivity. It is historically regarded as a continuation of the Book of Ezra, such that many Jewish sources do not acknowledge the two as separate books and Christian sources occasionally refer to it as the second book of Ezra. The text also occupies a different place in the Jewish and Christian canons, with the former placing it amongst the Ketuvim (Writings) as the second last book of the Bible, and the latter situating it amongst the historical writings (which include Samuel, Kings and Chronicles).
Torah | Nevi'im | Ketuvim
Books of Ketuvim
|Three Poetic Books|
|4. Song of Songs|
Though the traditional view that Nehemiah authored the text bearing his name has been roundly refuted in modern biblical criticism, most scholars continue to maintain that these books were the product of a synthesis between original memoir texts and later editorial additions. As much of the text is biographical, the insights that it provides into its purported author will be discussed in more detail below. In attempting to unravel the editorial process that eventually culminated in the modern version of the Book of Nehemiah, two primary hypotheses have been proposed: First, that Ezra and Nehemiah were originally composed as a component of the Book of Chronicles, and second, that Ezra and Nehemiah were originally written as a single literary unit. (Note: this second statement is not equivalent to the simple historical fact that Ezra and Nehemiah were traditionally inscribed on the same Torah scroll.)
In the first case, modern biblical scholarship (post-1960) has come to a near universal consensus (based on both linguistic and thematic evidence) that Nehemiah had not initially been part of the Book of Chronicles. For instance, Klein provides an eloquent summary of the theological divergences between the two texts:
(1) The concept of retribution and the terms related to it in Chronicles are almost entirely lacking in Ezra-Nehemiah; (2) the two works differ in their attitude toward the northern tribes, in particular the Samaritans; (3) Chronicles places a greater emphasis on the Davidic monarchy; (4) Ezra-Nehemiah mentions the election of Abraham and the exodus, whereas Chronicles concentrates on the patriarch Jacob (who is always called Israel) and de-emphasizes the exodus; (5) the frequent references to prophets in Chronicles make it a prophetic history; in Ezra-Nehemiah, by contrast, the prophetic influence has virtually ceased; (6) the netinim "temple servants" and the sons of Solomon's servants appear throughout Ezra-Nehemiah, but are absent from Chronicles, with the exception of 1 Chr 9:2; (7) in Chronicles, Israel comprises all twelve tribes, whereas in Ezra-Nehemiah Israel is limited to Judah and Benjamin.
In the second case, compelling arguments have emerged to suggest that Ezra and Nehemiah were originally redacted as a single literary unit, rather than simply sharing a scroll due to the similarities in their dating and subject matter. In particular, the stylistic, historiographic, and theological positions of the texts bear some marked similarities, though this issue remains more contentiously debated.
Though the circumstances of the text's composition and redaction have provoked a certain amount of scholarly disagreement, the dating of Nehemiah's constituent parts has been a considerably more straightforward process. In particular, the various historical events described therein can generally be dated with a fair amount of precision, given their copious mentions of known historical figures. For this reason, the (auto)biographical core of the Book of Nehemiah can largely be traced to the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.E.), a Persian monarch who is referenced numerous times in the text. This being said, the text also contains later editorial insertions, such as the reference to Jaddua ("the high priest at the time of Alexander the Great," c. 323 B.C.E.), which "is almost universally considered to be an insertion by a very late hand, in order to bring the list down to the editor's time." Likewise, Ben Sira, in describing Nehemiah's work, evidently refers to the account found in Nehemiah (3, 6:15-19), though from the short space that he devotes to each hero no inference can be drawn with regard to the existence of the whole work in his time. The fact of its being contained in his canon would, however, make it probable that it existed in its present form as early as 300 B.C.E., a date separated by some decades only from the last mentioned in the book, and by less than a century from Nehemiah's first visit to Jerusalem.
As a literary artifact, the Book of Nehemiah utilizes two intriguing stylistic devices in presenting its message. First, the text oscillates between the first person (ch. 1-7; 12:27-47, and 13) and third person point of view (ch. 9; 10), with chapter eight describing the reforms of Ezra and failing to mention Nehemiah whatsoever. Commenting on this, Klein notes that this change in voice allowed the redactor to create "a synchronicity between the two leaders," as well as adapting the existing memoir texts into "a chronological and historical framework that he created." Second, the text features extensive (and, some would say, tiresome) lists, enumerating the exiles who returned to Judah (ch. 7), the leaders of the community (ch. 10), the post-exilic residents of Jerusalem (ch. 11), and the priests and Levites who served in the new temple (ch. 12). While these lists seem dry, unreadable, and potentially irrelevant, they serve an important thematic purpose in reestablishing the Jewish community after the exile.
The book consists of four parts:
As the Book of Nehemiah consists predominantly of the (auto)biographical account of its eponymous protagonist, an overview of the text is, to a large extent, equivalent to a biographical sketch. The following account, though cognizant of the textual issues discussed above, simply outlines the reformer's life story as presented in the biblical source material.
Nehemiah lived during the period when Judah was a province of the Persian Empire, having been appointed royal cup-bearer at the palace of Shushan. The king, Artaxerxes I (Artaxerxes Longimanus), appears to have been on good terms with his attendant, as evidenced by the extended leave of absence granted him for the restoration of Jerusalem.
Primarily by means of his brother, Hanani (Neh. 1:2; 2:3), Nehemiah heard of the mournful and desolate condition of Jerusalem, and was filled with sadness of heart. For many days he fasted and mourned, praying for the restoration of his people's ancestral land. After some time, the king observed his attendant's sadness of countenance and inquired about it. Nehemiah explained the situation to the king, and obtained his permission to go up to Jerusalem and there to act as tirshatha (governor of Judea).
After receiving royal sanction, Nehemiah traveled to Jerusalem in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I (445/444 B.C.E.). The monarch showed his support for his underling by supplying him with a mighty escort, as well as letters to all the pashas of the provinces through which he had to pass and to Asaph, keeper of the royal forests, directing him to assist Nehemiah. On his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah began to survey the city secretly at night, forming a plan for its restoration. This plan was he carried out with great skill and energy, so that the whole wall was completed over an astounding 52-day span. "So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days" (Nehemiah 6:15). In particular, he rebuilt the walls from the Sheep Gate in the North, the Hananel Tower at the North West corner, the Fish Gate in the West, the Furnaces Tower at the Temple Mount's South West corner, the Dung Gate in the South, the East Gate, and the Golden Gate in the East.
He remained in Judea for thirteen years as governor, carrying out many reforms, despite the opposition that he encountered (Neh. 13:11). He built up the state on the old lines, "supplementing and completing the work of Ezra," and making all arrangements for the safety and good government of the city. At the close of this important period of his public life, he returned to Persia to the service of his royal master at Shushan or Ecbatana. Despite these reforms, many of the less laudable elements of Judean society returned in the years following Nehemiah's departure.
As discussed above, current scholarship suggests that the redactors of Ezra/Nehemiah began with the memoirs of these noted reformers and edited them into their present form. This hypothesis was largely supported through the use of source critical techniques, which noted that certain sections of the text seem to be later insertions. Some of these seemingly incongruous materials are summarized below:
Unlike the Chronicler's History, which is primarily concerned with Davidic kingship, the historical accounts found in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah share a preoccupation with the re-dedication of their community after the radical rupture caused by the Babylonian captivity. Though both texts discuss the moral failings of this post-exilic community (as was common in the prophetic literature), they are more interested in re-establishing a sense of continuity—both between the past and the present, and between the various members of the new Judean society. In addition to the evidence of this process discernible in the narrative components of the text, it can also be seen in the text's lengthy registers of the community's members. As Eskenazi suggests, these lists "shape the book, affirm its integrity, and help differentiate Ezra-Nehemiah from Chronicles. They also express one of Ezra-Nehemiah's major themes, that is, the shift away from individual heroes to the centrality of the people as a whole." Elaborating on this point, she continues:
All these lists in Ezra-Nehemiah, recounting past figures and linking them in the present, establish the harmonious whole which is the restored community. Together they set the stage for the communal celebration of the completed task The united community, a community whose many members Ezra-Nehemiah's extensive lists diligently honor, is now ready to meet the new day.
The text includes a brief mention of Noadiah, a false prophetess who is antagonistic to Nehemiah's plans to rebuild Jerusalem's city walls. Though she is a decidedly marginal figure who is never again mentioned in the Tanakh or New Testament, she is occasionally mentioned by feminist theologians to show that the practice female prophecy survived the Babylonian exile.
This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.
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