The book of Nehemiah represents the ‘end’ of the initial historical portion of the bible. What will follow will be stories, fables, songs and sayings, and stories of prophets. While they will be placed within the context of their authorship and intent, they won’t be ‘describing’ historical events in the same way the last set of books has been, though that doesn’t mean, by any stretch, that they can’t tell us interesting historical things.
Nehemiah however is the second part of what was historically a single work, and the narrative and theological interpretation of this work as a whole is pretty obvious. In Ezra we have the return of the Jewish people to the homeland from the exile(though it’s important to recall that this ‘return’ is actually a return of Judah’s social and religious elite. There is every reason to believe that a huge number of ‘jews’ remained behind, just under different social, religious and cultural norms of control). It then follows the ‘purging’ of the jewish people and their purification by the expulsion of ‘foreign’ wives and children. Nehemiah is fundamentally about the construction of a wall around Jerusalem and coupled with the construction of the Second temple thus represents a theological ‘return’, which perhaps integrates with the older texts while conveniently side-stepping the issue of a Davidian king. As I have read elsewhere, the theologians of this work had to deal with prior ‘prophecies’ and ‘promises’ that had obviously not been true(for example, David’s line did not rule Israel and Judah in perpetuity, the line was ‘ended’). Ezra and Nehemiah represent a continued theological effort to shore up the power of the returning priesthood and ensure future legitimacy for those rulers.
In short the book chronicles Nehemiah’s appointment as the ‘leader’ of Judah, than a satrapy of the Persian empire. Nehemiah finds Jerusalem in ruins, from the destruction wrought by the Babylonians. He begins to rebuild the walls, and attempt to repopulate the city, despite opposition from surrounding peoples and ‘enemies of the jews’ who seek to stop them. The text speaks of the jews having to work rebuilding the wall with weapons in their hands. In the area of the middle east, and indeed throughout much of the pre-modern world, a city is defined by it’s wall. The wall defines the city limits, it provides, obviously, a defence against potential invading armies, though also limited acts of banditry. It also provides a legal basis for judgement in whom ‘is of the city’ or not. Live within the walls, citizen, without, not. We can see the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s walls, and their destruction in the first place, as being symbolic of the Jewish struggle for identity and separation.
It’s this last which Nehemiah finally satisfies. He is said to be righteous, as oppose to previous governors who were corrupt. He cancels all debts, thus upsetting many within the Jewish nobility. He gets the prophet Ezra to speak to the people and to reinstitute the law of Moses, bringing full-circle the ‘rebirth’ of the nation under the Levites and Mosaic law.
So some of these events, in the broadest sense, we know to be true. We know there was a return, and we know the persians were far more forgiving in terms to their satrapies than had been the Babylonians. We can’t know, however, how much of the narrow information is true. Like Ezra we are left to consider the context of the books authorship and who it was written for? Was it written for people? priests? nobility? Who was the intended audience and what were the lessons intended to be taken away from it. I would say it’s obviously a theological text, and it’s intent is to place the establishment of the Jewish state firmly within a theology in which God and obedience to him are central to the fate of the Jewish people. The historical cynic in me says it also serves as a method of securing priestly power against a potential revival of the noble/kingly authority we saw opposing it in earlier texts.
Later peoples can take similar theological insight from the work. Certainly a message of Gods direct involvement in the lives of people and determining the fate of nations based on their ‘obedience’ has been a common one at various times in the Christian world(though also opposed by other theology). The translators of the King James Bible lived in an era of such theology, where kings claimed mandate from religious authority and indeed having lived through a period of religious conflict of gruesome character. The idea of a ‘divine Providence’ was central to English theology, to much of it’s colonizing efforts, and while more prominent among the ‘dissenters’ was a certain aspects of the Church of England. The destruction of the Spanish Armada, for example, was seen both as a triumph of England, and as an indication of the nations favoured status by God. What the authors of Nehemiah would think of their work being put to such use by people so far away from them in both time and space we can only imagine.
Next time: We find out all about Purim, Persian politics and a girl named Esther.