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Introduction to the Book of Nehemiah of the Old Testament


What is the Book of Nehemiah?

The Book of Nehemiah is part of the "Historical Books" of the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament. It is the story of a Jewish cup-bearer of king Artaxerxes II in Persia is made governor of Judah and sent to Jerusalem to build its walls and make it a more politically and militarily secure site.

The Book of Nehemiah is written as a first-person narrative, almost like a personal memoir. Originally the Book of Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah were one work on one scroll. Sometime during the early development of Christianity they were broken apart into separate documents.


Facts About the Book of Nehemiah

  • The name "Nehemiah" means "Comfort of Yahweh"
  • The Book of Nehemiah contains 13 chapters and 406 verses


Important Characters in Nehemiah

  • Nehemiah: Jewish official at the royal Persian court, leads the third group of exiles back to Jerusalem
  • Artaxerxes II: Persian king
  • Ezra: Jewish priest who led the second group of exiles back to Jerusalem
  • Sanballat: leading opponent of Nehemiah's plan to rebuild Jerusalem's walls


Who Wrote the Book of Nehemiah?

Traditionally the authorship of the entire combined Ezra-Nehemiah text was attributed to either Ezra or Nehemiah an aside from the later editing the original works were probably written by the same person.

There was also a tradition that Ezra and Nehemiah were written by the same person or at least the same group responsible for the Books of Chronicles. That, however, has been rejected by scholars today — there are too many differences in language, interests, and theology for them to come from the same source.


When Was the Book of Nehemiah Written?

The "Artaxerxes" referenced in the Book of Nehemiah is generally accepted as Persian king Artaxerxes II, which means that the beginning of Nehemiah is 445-433 BCE. This would place the end around 400 BCE, which is also the earliest possible date for the core of the text to be written.

Editing the text probably happened multiple times over the centuries before the combined Ezra-Nehemiah text was accepted into the Jewish scriptures at the beginning of the Common Era.


Book of Nehemiah Summary

Commission of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1-6): Nehemiah, a Jewish cup-bearer at the Persian royal court, is tasked by king Artaxerxes II to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls. Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem with both more Jews and a Persian military force. He starts rebuilding in the face of opposition from Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines then rules as the Persian governor.

Restoration of the Covenant (Nehemiah 7-10): As Persian governor, Nehemiah sets up an administrative structure for the people that will be compatible with the requirements of their Persian masters. Ezra brings out the Torah and reads to the people the laws handed down to them from Yahweh. He convinces the people to repent their sins, ask Yahweh for help, and separate themselves from foreigners. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra returns and Nehemiah is absent; that, combined with the structure of the text, suggests that this chapter at least belongs in the Book of Ezra and was misplaced.

Breaking the Covenant (Nehemiah 11-13): Jerusalem is repopulated and Nehemiah leaves. Upon his return after 12 years, he discovers that the people have again fallen into sin by breaking Yahweh's laws. So once again he enforces those laws and asks for forgiveness.


Book of Nehemiah Themes

Persian Imperialism: It's implausible that Artaxerxes II would have sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem to build up the walls and rebuild the city simply out a fondness for Jews or for Jerusalem. The events in Nehemiah must be read in light of Persian imperial goals and interests and it was in their best interest for a strong, stable, and loyal government in Judah. It would create a buffer against the growing power of the Greeks as well as a staging area for invasion into Egypt.

This is especially true given the fact that building the walls of Jerusalem is the core story in Nehemiah. Walls are expensive, require lots of workers, and are key to the defense of any city. Having walls is a bit like having an independent standing army, which means building them requires either a great deal of independent power or a great deal of powerful support from someone. Any "monumental architecture," but especially walls, is an expression of power.

Persia would not have allowed Jerusalem to become a strong walled city unless it served their political and military goals and Nehemiah would not have been allowed to oversee such a project, much less be made regional governor, unless he could be counted on to fully support Persian interests.

Covenant: There is tension in both Ezra and Nehemiah between the obvious political and military dependence on Persia vs. the covenantal dependence they are supposed to have on Yahweh. Some of this is resolved by having Yahweh causing the Persian rulers to authorize the rebuilding of Jerusalem, but not all the tension can be dealt with so easily. The presence of a Persian military garrison and Persian bureaucrats would see to that.

Thus while Jews are rebuilding Jerusalem, rebuilding the Temple, and so rebuilding their community, they aren't masters in the lands they believe was originally given to them by Yahweh. This means that both they and the land are in a form of slavery, a reasonable designation given the sorts of taxes and restrictions that would be imposed on them. So why are they allowed home but kept in bondage all the same?

The answer is the return of Deuteronomist Theology: the people are suffering because they have failed to properly uphold Yahweh's laws. Fortunately they have priests like Ezra to tell them what they are doing wrong. Now if they just do what Ezra tells them, Yahweh will stop cursing them and restore to them all the blessings promised in the Covenant.

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