Nehemiah, Book of

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Books of the

Hebrew Bible

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.[1] 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).

Tanakh
Torah | Nevi'im | Ketuvim
Books of Ketuvim
Three Poetic Books
1. Psalms
2. Proverbs
3. Job
Five Megillot
4. Song of Songs
5. Ruth
6. Lamentations
7. Ecclesiastes
8. Esther
Other Books
9. Daniel
10. Ezra-Nehemiah
11. Chronicles

Contents

Authorship and historical context

Authorship, dating, and place in the canon

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.[2] 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)[3] has come to a near universal consensus (based on both linguistic and thematic evidence)[4] 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.[5]

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,[6] though this issue remains more contentiously debated.[7]

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.[8] 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."[9] 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.[10]

Language and style

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."[11] 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.[12]

Contents

The book consists of four parts:[13]

  1. An account of the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, of the objections to this project voiced by several false prophets, and of the register Nehemiah had found of those who had returned from Babylon (ch. 1-7)
  2. An overview of the state of religion among the Jews during this time (8-10)
  3. A listing of the inhabitants of Jerusalem; a census of the adult male population, and names of the chiefs, together with lists of priests and Levites (11-12:1-26)
  4. A description of the dedication of the newly built wall of Jerusalem, plus an overview of the arrangement of the temple officers and the reforms carried out by Nehemiah (12:27-ch. 13)

The historical Nehemiah

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.[14] 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.[15]

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).[16]

After receiving royal sanction, Nehemiah traveled to Jerusalem in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I (445/444 B.C.E.).[16] 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.

Insertions

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:

  1. Ch. iii. 1-32, a list of persons who helped to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. This document agrees with ch. xii. in exhibiting remarkable acquaintance with the topography of Jerusalem; and it also gives some curious details about the persons who took part in the work, some of whose names figure in other contexts. It is, however, observable that Eliashib is said to have been high priest at the time of Nehemiah's first visit; and the same is suggested by xiii. 7, whereas in Ezra x. 6 it is suggested that Eliashib's grandson (Neh. xii. 11, 12) was in office thirteen years before Nehemiah came. If the list of high priests in ch. xii. be correct, it is clear that Eliashib could not have been in office in Nehemiah's time; and this fact discredits the historical character of the document, at any rate to a certain extent; for the possibility of Nehemiah, at a great distance from the scene of the events, having mistaken some of the details, can not be quite excluded. The account of the building given in this chapter represents it as more elaborate and national than would be imagined from iii. 33-38.
  2. Ch. vii. 6-73, a list of the exiles who returned with Zerubbabel. This is a document which Nehemiah says he discovered (vii. 5); and it is embodied in the narrative of Ezra also (Ezra ii.). The difference between the copies is such as can be attributed to the not overstrict ideas of accuracy current in antiquity. Some difficulty is occasioned by the fact that the narrative which deals with the days of Zerubbabel is continued without break into a scene which ostensibly took place in Nehemiah's own time; in other words, though the document is introduced as extraneous, it is not clear at what point it ends. Indeed, the purpose for which Nehemiah says he gathered the people, namely, to discover their genealogies (vii. 5), does not appear to have been realized, but instead the reader is taken into a scene at which the Law is publicly read by Ezra. Here again resort may be had to the hypothesis of carelessness on the author's part, or to that of compilation by an unscientific collector.
  3. If the Septuagint is be believed, ch. ix. contains a discourse delivered by Ezra.
  4. Ch. x., containing a solemn league and covenant, bearing eighty-four signatures of persons who undertook to observe the Law of Moses and discharge certain duties. The number of signatories is evidently a multiple of the sacred numbers 7 and 12, and the list is headed by Nehemiah himself. Of the signatories some are persons about whom something definite is learnt in either Ezra or Nehemiah (e.g., Sherebiah, Ezra viii. 18; Hanan, Neh. xiii. 13; Kelita, Ezra x. 23), but those called "the heads of the people" appear all to be families, their names occurring to a great extent in the same order as that in which they occur in the list of ch. vii. This mixture of family names with names of individuals excites suspicion; but the unhistorical character of this document, if proved, would greatly mar the credit of the whole book. The framing of such a document at a time of religious revival and excitement has no a priori improbability.
  5. Ch. xi. contains a list of persons who drew lots to reside at Jerusalem, with notices of the assignment of offices and of the residences of officials. This document agrees very closely in places with one embodied in I Chron. ix.; indeed, both would appear to be adaptations of a register originally found in a "book of the kings of Israel and Judah" (ib. verse 1). It might seem as if the use of the word "king's" in Neh. xi. 23, 24, having been taken over from the older document, had given rise to the charge of which Nehemiah complains in vi. 6, where his enemies accuse him of making himself king; and indeed the arbitrary character of some of his measures (xiii. 25) would in part justify such a charge. If one may judge by the analogy of Mohammedan states, there would be nothing unusual in a provincial governor taking that title. The purpose of the register must have been seriously misunderstood by either Nehemiah or the Chronicler; but it may be inferred with certainty, from the occurrence of the same document in such different forms in the two books, that the compiler of Nehemiah is not identical with the Chronicler.
  6. Ch. xii. 1-26 gives a list of priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel, carried down, very imperfectly, to Nehemiah's time, or perhaps later. The "Book of the Chronicles" (verse 23) is cited for parts of it; but this document covers some of the same ground as the last, and it might seem as if both were rough drafts, never finally worked up. It is of course open to the critic to regard the whole work as compiled by Nehemiah, who, where his memory or knowledge failed him, may have inserted these documents, or have ordered his secretaries to insert accounts of scenes. Indeed, the expression "and in all this" (xiii. 6), which reintroduces the personal narrative, implies that the author had before him some matter which he had not himself described.

Themes

Community and continuity

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),[17] 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."[18] 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.[19]

The historical reality of female prophecy

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.[20]

Notes

  1. A. van Hoonacker, Book of Nehemiah, Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
  2. Bandstra (1999).
  3. Klein, p. 663.
  4. Throntveit (1982).
  5. Klein, 664.
  6. Eskenazi (1988).
  7. Smith-Christopher (2001).
  8. Smith-Christopher, 309-310; Myers (LXVII-LXX); Klein (664-665).
  9. Smith-Christopher, 309.
  10. Biblical Portions, Sirach 49:13. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
  11. Klein, 665.
  12. Eskenazi (1988).
  13. Bandstra, 484-485.
  14. Peter R. Ackroyd, Exile And Restoration: A Study of Hebrew Thought of the Sixth Century B.C.E. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1968), p. 141.
  15. Easton's Bible Dictionary, Entry: Nehemiah. Retrieved July 12, 2008.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah, A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1988, ISBN 0-664-21294-8), p. 212-213.
  17. Nehemiah: 8-9.
  18. Eskenazi, 642.
  19. Eskenazi, 656.
  20. Alice L. Laffey, An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988, ISBN 080062078X), p. 205.

References

  • Bandstra, Barry L. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Second edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. ISBN 0534527272.
  • Dozeman, Thomas B. "Geography and History in Herodotus and in Ezra-Nehemiah." Journal of Biblical Literature 122:3 (Autumn 2003): 449-466.
  • Eskenazi, Tamara C. "The Structure of Ezra-Nehemiah and the Integrity of the Book." Journal of Biblical Literature 107:4 (December 1988): 641-656.
  • Klein, Ralph W. "The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah." The New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994-2004. ISBN 0687278201.
  • Lipschits, Oded. "Literary and Ideological Aspects of Nehemiah 11." Journal of Biblical Literature 121:3 (Autumn 2002): 423-440.
  • Myers, Jacob M. Ezra and Nehemiah: With introduction, Translation and Notes by Jacob M. Myers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.
  • Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. "Ezra-Nehemiah." The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0198755007.
  • Throntveit, Mark A. "Linguistic Analysis and the Question of Authorship in Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah." Vetus Testamentum 32: Fascicle 2. (April 1982): 201-216.
  • van Hoonacker, A. "Book of Nehemiah." Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. X). New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

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