Friday, October 17

Nehemiah 7: Here is the largest census in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (verses 6-72). For its compilation Nehemiah used an earlier source (verse 5), probably to be identified with that in Ezra 2. The difference between that earlier list and the present list is one of purpose and context. The list in Ezra 2 established the continuity with Israel’s past, especially with a view to validating the claims of the returning exiles with respect to their possession of the Holy Land. In the present chapter, however, the list is set in the context of Jerusalem’s new enclosure. It is the census of a city, not a mere list of returning exiles. It is a municipal instrument, which will serve as a format for taxation and civic service. It is a document of the community’s restoration and renewal. Consequently, it is included between the completion of the walls (verses 1-3) and the ceremony of renewal (chapters 8—10).

The long census transcribed in this place, precisely because it says so little that engages the imagination, allows the reader leisure to reflect on these more interesting aspects of Nehemiah.

All through this memoir we find Nehemiah a most engaging man. His steady, cool demeanor sat atop the cauldron of his emotions which, on occasion, found brief expression (cf. 1:4; 5:12; 13:8,25). Surely, however, those emotions did much to drive his highly effective style of energy, skill, and organization. Nor was Nehemiah entirely free from tooting his own horn from time to time (2:10,18; 5:15; 6:11).

Trained as an executive and diplomat, Nehemiah’s rhetorical skills were economic, efficient, and to the point (2:17; 5:7; 13:25). Whatever his fears, they were under control; we never find him acting in panic. He was also a reflective man, much given to short, frequent, and fervent prayers that are interspersed in the narrative (2:8,10,20; 3:36-37; 4:9; 5:13,19; 6:14,16; 13:14,22,31,39).

Although the walls of Jerusalem were completed in record time, Nehemiah did not rush things. Before ever arriving at Jerusalem, he had made the proper arrangements for the materials to be used in the construction, and before even calling a meeting for the project, he inspected the site in detail and formulated a plan.

In the next chapter our attention will turn once again to the figure of Ezra, who had arrived in Jerusalem earlier than Nehemiah. Ezra was a priest and scholar, Nehemiah a practical man of affairs. Both together were responsible for the spiritual maintenance of Jerusalem in the fifth century before Christ. In this respect, their joint vocation mirrored that of Zerubbabel and Jeshua late in the previous period.

Saturday, October 18

Nehemiah 8: We come now to the renewal of the covenant (chapters 8—10). The story begins with the public reading of the Law.

In modern church parlance this chapter describes a "revival," or a "parish renewal," or even a "Life Alive Weekend." We are apparently still in October of 445 (7:73), the season associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. While Nehemiah has only recently arrived, Ezra has been in Jerusalem for thirteen years, and maybe he figured that the place could use a good dose of "old time religion."

Ezra, as we reflected earlier, had been engaged in editing the Torah, and the people wanted to hear it (verses 2-3). They gathered to the east of the city (verse 1), not a normal place for gathering. Given the mystic symbolism of this site (the panorama of the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives) in two of Israel’s most recent prophets (Ezekiel and Zechariah), their choice of this place to gather was surely significant. It was morning, and the sun was rising over the Mount of Olives when they began.

There was a lengthy proclamation of the Word (verses 4-5), along with prayer and devotion (verse 6). As Ezra read the text in Hebrew, which by now was only a scholar’s language, running translations were provided in the common spoken language, Aramaic (verses 7-8). Such Aramaic (and later Greek) translations and paraphrases of the Old Testament are known as Targumim or Targums, which in modern biblical research constitute a special area of study.

It was a scene of great emotion, with the experiences of conversion, remorse, and rejoicing mixed together (verses 9-12). All of this took place in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (verses 14-18; cf. John 7:2). The observance of this feast was an initial act in the maintenance of the Law.

Sunday, October 19

Nehemiah 9: Most of this chapter is filled with a long "narrative prayer" similar to several psalms that recount Israel’s formative history (e.g., Psalms 78 [77], 105 [104], 106 [105]). One will likewise observe sustained similarities to Deuteronomy 32, the Canticle of Moses, which immediately preceded Israel’s entrance into Canaan. From the perspective of textual history these similarities are hardly surprising, if we remember that Ezra was an editor of the Pentateuch. The great bulk of the narrative in the present chapter is devoted to the themes from the Exodus, the desert wandering, and the conquest, but the period of the Judges and some of the later history are also treated.

The prayer here is important in the context of the later events with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are preoccupied, namely, the events connected with the nation’s re-founding. For both men, Ezra and Nehemiah, the restoration of Israel was precisely that — a restoration. Israel could not be started again from scratch. The new Israel would go nowhere unless it came from somewhere, and the present prayer serves as a reflection on where Israel had come from.

From Israel’s earlier history, furthermore, the nation was to learn important lessons about historical causality, particularly the relationship of later events to earlier decisions. Israel would be instructed on how infidelity and punishment are tied together by history. Israel, according to this prayer, was to learn its history, not so much that the people might imitate their fathers, but in order to discourage them from imitating their fathers! They were to reflect on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them in the future. Such meditation on history is an important aspect of biblical prayer, as we see in so many of the Psalms devoted to that theme.

Monday, October 20

Nehemiah 10: This chapter, which begins with a fragmentary archival record (verses 1-27), goes on to mention certain features of social and religious discipline that would serve to make Israel a clearly distinguishable people, distinctive by reason of its special customs and rituals—to be, in fact, a people very different from every other. These customs and rituals included a prohibition against marriage with outsiders (verses 28,30), strict adherence to the newly edited Torah (verse 29), observance of the Sabbath (verse 31), financial and other support of the prescribed worship (verses 32-34), sacrificial offering of first fruits (verses 35-37), strict tithing (verse 38), and other offerings (verse 39). We will find Nehemiah dealing with these very matters all the way to the last chapter of this book.
Israel, now returned to the Holy Land, would strive to become what Israel in Babylon, if it wanted to survive, had been forced to be–namely, a people set apart, distinct, and very unlike its neighbors by reason of its special consecration to God. God’s distinctive people, that is to say, really had to be distinctive. That adjective had to be a reality, and not just a word.

This fact may be read as the guiding motif of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the very reason why both of these books go to such lengths to describe the building of walls, whether the walls of the temple in Ezra, or the walls of the city in Nehemiah. By their very nature, walls divide the world into inside and outside. Walls stand as a sturdy barrier between the two. This image of walls, therefore, as giving shape to an exclusive space, serves as an ongoing model for the great theological preoccupation of these two books: the holiness, the separation of the people of God.

This emphasis was needed. Prior to its recent re-education during the Captivity, Israel had largely lost that sense of exclusive dedication. Its separation from the world had massively disintegrated over the centuries. Instead, by endeavoring to become just like the nations round about them, Israel’s spiritual walls had been badly penetrated—by idolatry, by syncretism, by compromising political alliances. These last were sometimes sealed by marriages joining the people’s leadership to the very worst qualities represented in the other nations.

The building projects described in these two books, therefore, were the external manifestations of Israel’s recently rediscovered self-understanding. The renewed Israel was determined to be exclusive, building walls, establishing clear lines of separation on top of firm and unshakable foundations, uncompromising and unbending about its own identity.

Tuesday, October 21

Nehemiah 11: We have already seen the theological significance of the sort of census data that we have in this chapter. The present list comprises the names of those within the walls that have been constructed. They are the separated people, the "insiders," symbolic of the inner identity of the holy nation.

All through these two books we have watched the outsiders trying to get inside–or at least to have access to the inside–exercising a sustained harassment of those inside. We saw the response of Zerubbabel, for instance, to the suggestion, in Ezra 4:1-3, that there be no distinction between insider and outsider, because Israel’s pre-captivity history had already taught him the dangers of not insisting on that distinction. The outsiders, thus rebuffed, have spent the rest of these two books trying to prevent the separating walls from being constructed. As the enemies of Jerusalem’s walls, they were attempting to keep Israel from being Israel. They perceived that the walls symbolized exclusiveness, and they resented being outsiders.

This is a curious phenomenon. Why, after all, should they care? If Israel wanted to be exclusive, why should that preference bother anybody else? In fact, nonetheless, Israel’s exclusiveness was deeply resented. Israel’s claim to be a special and holy people, a claim that laid special moral responsibilities on Israel, was simply more than other people could endure. Consequently, Israel’s adversaries have spent much of these two books in a genuine and aggressive snit. 

The one place where Israel was truly threatened, however, was not in its building programs, but in the construction of its families, the formation of its homes. Thus, intermarriage with outsiders, which so incensed both Ezra and Nehemiah, was the single path by which Israel could be most effectively led astray.

These lists of Jewish families, therefore, are very pertinent to the general preoccupation and theme of these two books. These genealogies are spiritual walls, designed to protect the identity of God’s chosen people.

The provision appointing one-tenth of its citizens (chosen by lot) to live in the Holy City established a kind of tithe, as it were, of the entire nation. Those who otherwise chose to live there represented a corresponding “free will offering” of the nation.

Wednesday, October 22

Nehemiah 12: This chapter, which begins with another genealogical list of priests and Levites (verses 1-26), indicates the importance that proper and verifiable "succession" enjoys in the biblical theology of institutional ministry (as distinct from prophetic ministry).

Next comes an account of the solemn dedication of the wall (verses 27-47) and all that that wall represented by way of the symbolisms we have been discussing.

It is reasonable to understand the narrative’s return to first person singular in verse 31 as an indication that we are once again dealing with the memoir of Nehemiah, on which so much of this book is based.

According to 2 Maccabees 1:18, the event narrated in this chapter took place, not in September, but in December, falling very close in the calendar, in fact, to the date of the Maccabees’ own purification of the temple (recorded in 1 Maccabees 4:60). Both events—the dedication of the walls under Nehemiah in the fifth century and the purification of the temple under Judas Maccabaeus in the second century—are called "Hanukkah," meaning inauguration or dedication (verse 27; John 4:22). (Only the latter event, however, was incorporated into the Jewish liturgical calendar and is celebrated by Jews each December even today.)

Nehemiah saw to it that the city ritually circled by two simultaneous processions conducted on top of the walls, complete with trumpets. The dedication of the walls is portrayed, therefore, as an event of worship. The simultaneous procession of the two groups, marching in opposite directions, constituted what one commentator calls “a stereophonic presentation.”

Thursday, October 23

Nehemiah 13: The dedication of the wall was the occasion for some more reading from the Torah, including the prescription found in Deuteronomy 23:4-5, which excluded the Ammonites and Moabites from the congregation of Israel (verse 1). As long as Nehemiah was on the local scene, such exclusions were taken seriously (verses 2-3). When he left to make a brief visit back to Babylon (verse 6), however, events turned for the worse. On his return to Jerusalem Nehemiah learned all sorts of unpleasant things.

He learned, for instance, that a member of the priestly family had become the son-in-law of his old foe, Sanballat (verse 28). In former days, when Sanballat tried to impede the construction of the wall, Nehemiah had held him off. Now, nonetheless, Sanballat was suddenly inside the walls! What he had been unable to do by force of arms, he managed to accomplish by the simple means of marrying his daughter to a priest! This serious breach in Jerusalem’s spiritual wall once again put at peril Israel’s very existence as a holy nation, a people set apart.

In addition, Nehemiah discovered that the high priest himself had provided lodging within the temple for one of those who had opposed Nehemiah’s very mission (verses 4-5). Other things had gotten out of hand, as well, such as the failure to observe the Sabbath, whether by Jews themselves or by pagans who came to sell their wares in the city (verses 15-22).

Nehemiah set himself to put everything straight again (verses 7-13). The major problem, however, continued to be the disposition of the people to intermarry with non-Jews (verses 23-27), in contravention to the Torah (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Nehemiah found it a very tough job to maintain those walls!

Recalling those great efforts, Nehemiah prayed that God would not forget them, “Remember me, O Lord” became his refrain (verses 14,22,29,30).

Friday, October 24

Isaiah 1: The first five chapters of this book form a sort of preface, introducing the call of the prophet in chapter 6. We note the absence of historical indicators (except for 1:1, of course) in these chapters, in striking contrast with chapters 6 and 7. The purpose of this introductory material, which was surely composed after Isaiah was called, is to provide a critical analysis of the Kingdom of Judah, in order to set that calling in the proper historical context.

The time of Isaiah, the second half of the eighth century before Christ, beginning in “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1), was a period of rebellion against God and infidelity to His covenant. This rebellious infidelity is illustrated in the first chapter by the collapse of national life (verses 6-9), religious apostasy (verses 10-15), and social disintegration (verses 21-23).

The book’s first verse, as is usual in the prophetic books, simply provides the time frame: the second half of the eighty-century, beginning in the last year of King Uzziah, 742 B.C.

This is a book about “Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1), a theme that joins all parts of the work. Indeed, the names “Jerusalem” and “Zion” occur 97 times in the Book of Isaiah, the occurrences spread pretty evenly in all parts of the work.

The national life of Judah has collapsed (verses 6-9). God had made this people His children through the Exodus deliverance and covenant, but who can tell it under the current conditions?

For the first time Isaiah uses the expression “Holy One of Israel” (Qadosh Israel), which expression is found 25 times in Isaiah and only 7 times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Found in all parts of this book, it may have been coined by Isaiah himself. Indeed, he uses the expression Qadosh, “Holy One,” to refer to God 33 times, whereas it appears only 25 times in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. The transcendent holiness of God was revealed to the prophet by the voices of the Seraphim in Isaiah’s call in the Temple (6:1-3), where the word is tripled, or, if the term be permitted, “cubed”–holy times holy times holy. This is the holiness that fills heaven and earth. In a sense, all of the Book of Isaiah is an extension of that hymn of the Seraphim.

Isaiah’s criticism of religious ritual (verses 10-15) was not a condemnation of ritual worship itself. If it were, how do we explain his being called in the Temple, to which the Lord here refers as “My courts” (verse 12)? This criticism was directed, rather, to the separation of ritual from ethics (verses 16-20), two essential components of the Mosaic Law.

Jerusalem, the holy city of God’s presence, is likened to the condemned cities destroyed of old for their corruption (verses 9-10; 3:9; 13:19). In the midst of this condemnation, nonetheless, there comes the promise of restoration, if Israel should attend and repent (verses 25-27).