Book of Nehemiah


Authorship, date, and background See the introduction to Ezra. Ezra and Nehemiah were one in the Hebrew Bible. Both books are part of the Hagiographa, which include the Poetical Books and the Scrolls (the Megilloth). The book of Nehemiah consists of the personal memoirs of Nehemiah, who can be logically considered the author despite objections raised by liberal scholars. This book picks up the story where the book of Ezra leaves off. Ezra had returned to the land in 458 or 457 B.C.; Nehemiah followed him twelve years later. The Elephantine letter #30, an external source, clearly shows that the book of Nehemiah cannot be dated after 400 B.C.

Nehemiah did not return to the land with the first contingent. He was very successful in the land of his captivity, becoming cupbearer for Artaxerxes. It was nearly a hundred years after the first return that he became exercised about conditions and was moved by God to go back. Discouraging reports had come via Hanani, a kinsman. Providentially, Artaxerxes granted him permission to return. He was an astute politician who became governor. Energetic and self sacrificial, Nehemiah was able to cope with the plots against the Jews by the enemies who surrounded them. His account indicates the success of his efforts in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the reassignment of Jews to strategic sections of the city to ward off possible attacks by enemy invaders.

Characteristics and content Nehemiah records his own memoirs. He recounts his sorrow over the plight of his people, the willingness of the king to allow him to return, and the supplies which were provided to ensure the rebuilding of the city walls. Upon his return, Nehemiah surveys the situation and calls for the completion of the reconstruction. Sanballat and Tobiah try to stop him. Tobiah, an ammonite who had married a Jewish woman, has been given a guest room in the temple compound by Eliashib, the High Priest. This complicates the problem. Despite the opposition, Nehemiah persists in his efforts to rebuild the walls. He defends the poor and stops usury so that the work will not be interrupted. The Herculean task of finishing the rebuilding is completed in a fifty-two-day frenzy of activity. The names of the returnees and their families are listed.

The people assemble to hear the Law read to them. Ezra does the reading and expounds the meaning. The Feast of Booths is held and the covenant is renewed and resigned. In the covenant are prohibitions against mixed marriages, something Ezra dealt with earlier, the observance of the Sabbath, a tax to support the temple, along with pledges about tithing and food offering and first fruits.

The second reform movement of Nehemiah begins with Chapter 11. Israelis living outside the city of Jerusalem are relocated inside the city, the genealogies of the priests and Levites are written down, the walls of the city dedicated, and collectors, singers and gatekeepers appointed. Following this, Nehemiah, who has temporarily returned to Babylon, comes home and casts Tobiah out of the temple chamber provided for him by Eliashib. He concludes his memoirs by mentioning the Sabbath reforms which forbade work on the holy day. He institutes marriage reforms, for the men had intermarried with women from Ashdod, Amon, and Moab. He summarizes his labours by saying, "Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites… Remember me, O my God, for good" (13:30, 31).