Nehemiah part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Nehemiah is the central figure of the Book of Nehemiah, which describes his work in rebuilding Jerusalem during the Second Temple period. He was governor of Persian Judea under Artaxerxes I of Persia.
Born: 473 BC, Babylon
Most scholars believe Nehemiah was an actual historical figure. The Nehemiah Memoir, a name scholars give to certain portions of the book written in the first person, is historically reliable.
In the 20th year of Artaxerxes I (445 or 444 BC), Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king. Learning that the remnant of Jews in Judah was in distress and that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down, he asked the king for permission to return and rebuild the city around 20 years after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 468 BC. Artaxerxes sent him to Judah as governor of the province with a mission to rebuild, letters explaining his support for the venture, and provision for timber from the king's forest. Once there, Nehemiah defied the opposition of Judah's enemies on all sides Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs, and Philistines—and rebuilt the walls within 52 days, from the Sheep Gate in the North, the Hananeel Tower at the northwest 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 gate beneath the Golden Gate in the East. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, he is described as eunochos (eunuch) rather than oinochoos (wine-cup-bearer). If so, the attempt by his enemy Shemaiah to trick him into entering the Temple is aimed at making him break Jewish law rather than hide from assassins. He then took measures to repopulate the city and purify the Jewish community, enforce the cancellation of debt, assist Ezra in promulgating Moses's law, and enforce the divorce of Jewish men from their non-Jewish wives.
After 12 years as governor, during which he ruled with justice and righteousness, he returned to the king in Susa. After some time in Susa, he returned to Jerusalem, only to find that the people had fallen back into their evil ways. Greatly angered, he purified the Temple and the priests and Levites and enforced the observance of the law of Moses. Non-Jews were permitted to conduct business inside Jerusalem on the Sabbath and keep rooms in the Temple.
Book of Maccabees
The Second Book of Maccabees says Nehemiah is the one who brought the holy fire for the altar back from the diaspora to Jerusalem and founded a library of the Holy Scriptures, just as Judas Maccabeus did. Here, Nehemiah's political role sets an example for the Hasmonean dynasty and becomes a general role model for pious, national leadership. The scene of reading and explaining the Torah in Neh 8 became the model of synagogue worship.14 See 2 Maccabees 2:13.
Book of Sirach
Ben Sira's hymn in praise of the fathers mentions only Nehemiah (not Ezra) after Zerubbabel and Joshua and praises him for his building activities (Sir 49:15).
In rabbinic literature
One rabbinic text, or Haggadah, identifies Nehemiah as Zerubbabel, with the latter being considered an epithet and indicating that he was born in Babylon. Another oral tradition, or Mishnah, records that Nehemiah was blamed for seeming to boast (Neh. v. 19 & xiii. 31) and disparaging his predecessors (Neh. v. 15). This tradition asserts that his book was appended to the Book of Ezra, as a consequence, rather than a separate book in its own right, as is the case in the Christian Old Testament. Another Talmudic text, or Baba Bathra, records that Nehemiah completed the Book of Chronicles, which was said to have been written by Ezra.
Who wrote the book?
Jewish tradition identifies Nehemiah himself as the primary author of this historical book. Much of the book is written from his first-person perspective. Nothing is known about his youth or background; we meet him as an adult serving in the Persian royal court as the personal cupbearer to King Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:11–2:1). This prestigious position reveals something of Nehemiah's upright character. Though he remained in Persia after the exiles had been allowed to go home, he was highly interested in the state of affairs in Judah (his brother Hanani 1:2 had returned there earlier).
The book of Nehemiah could be read as a sequel to the book of Ezra, and some scholars believe the two were initially one work. It is possible that Ezra compiled Nehemiah's original accounts with other material to create the book of Nehemiah. However, most scholars believe Nehemiah wrote the book.
Where are we?
The book of Nehemiah opens in the Persian city of Susa in the year 444 BC. Later that year, Nehemiah traveled to Israel, leading the third of three returns by the Jewish people following their seventy years of exile in Babylon. (The previous chapter on Ezra describes the earlier two returns.) Most of the book centers on events in Jerusalem. The narrative concludes around 430 BC, and scholars believe the book was written shortly afterward.
Nehemiah is the last historical book of the Old Testament. Although the book of Esther appears after Nehemiah in the canon, the events in Esther occurred in the period between Ezra 6 and 7, between the first and second returns of the people to Israel. The prophet Malachi was a contemporary of Nehemiah.
Why is Nehemiah so important?
Nehemiah was a layman, not a priest like Ezra nor a prophet like Malachi. He served the Persian king in a secular position before leading a group of Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls. "Nehemiah's expertise in the king's court equipped him adequately for the political and physical reconstruction necessary for the remnant to survive."
Under Nehemiah's leadership, the Jews withstood opposition and came together to accomplish their goal. Nehemiah led by example, giving up a respected position in a palace for hard labor in a politically insignificant district. He partnered with Ezra, who also appears in this book, to solidify the political and spiritual foundations of the people. Nehemiah's humility before God (see his moving intercessory prayers in chapters 1 and 9) provided an example for the people. He did not claim glory for himself but always gave God credit for his successes.
What is the big idea?
Nehemiah recorded the reconstruction of the wall of Jerusalem, Judah's capital city. Together, he and Ezra, who led the spiritual revival of the people, directed the political and religious restoration of the Jews in their homeland after the Babylonian captivity.
Nehemiah's life provides a fine study on leadership. He overcame opposition from outsiders as well as internal turmoil. He exercised his administrative skills in his strategy to use half the people for building while the other half kept watching for the Samaritans who, under Sanballat, threatened to attack (Nehemiah 4–7). As governor, Nehemiah negotiated peace among the Jews unhappy with Persian taxes. He exhibited a steadfast determination to complete his goals. Accomplishing those goals resulted in people being encouraged, renewed, and excited about their future.
Nehemiah—The Man Behind the Wall
At the top of the eastern ridge of the City of David, Nehemiah and the returned exiles built a new city wall. Although they repaired the pre-existing walls elsewhere in the city, the wall just above the steep Kidron Valley was too damaged and difficult to mend. So they relocated the eastern wall higher up the slope and, according to author Eilat Mazar, built it directly on top of a ruined wall of King David's palace (also known as the Large Stone Structure) and its massive earthwork (known as the Stepped Stone Structure).
Few people are familiar with the Biblical figure Nehemiah, and yet he was instrumental in the rebuilding and reestablishment of Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C. following the Babylonian exile. Although there is no consensus about the relative chronologies of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (the Biblical dates are unclear), Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem probably preceded Ezra's by a couple of years. Both men worked together to restore the city and rededicate its people to God.
Nehemiah was a high official in the Persian court of King Artaxerxes I at the capital city of Susa, which lay 150 miles east of the Tigris River in what is now modern Iran. Nehemiah served as the king's cupbearer (Nehemiah 1:11), which put him in a position to speak to the king and request favors from him. After hearing about Judah's sad state of affairs, Nehemiah acquired the king's permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its fortifications. He is even given letters from the king to ensure safe passage and obtain timber from the king's forest for the gates and walls of Jerusalem.
Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem in 445 B.C. as the provincial governor of Judah. He immediately surveyed the damage to the entire city on his well-known night journey around the walls (Nehemiah 2:12–15). He enlisted the help of the people to repair the breaches in the wall quickly. He also urged them to set up guards to defend against the constant threat of those who opposed their efforts, including the armies of Samaria, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites.