Good morning! Today we start a new narrative of the Hebrew return from exile in the book of Nehemiah. Key areas of focus in Nehemiah 1-4 include leadership of the fledgling community in Jerusalem, and rebuilding the protections of the city against its opponents. The book as a whole, as we see, also emphasizes the separateness of the Hebrew community over and against other cultures.
The title character Nehemiah starts out in Susa, the capitol of Persia, as the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. Folks come from the community in Judah (this sounds like it was after some waves had already gone from Babylon to Jerusalem) bringing news of the disrepair in the city. Nehemiah interprets this calamity as a sign of God’s displeasure. He offers a prayer of humble contrition for himself and for Hebrews scattered abroad to feel God’s care again and be gathered together again in Judah.
Prayer turns to action in chapter 2. Nehemiah requests and receives permission from Artaxerxes to visit Jerusalem and repair it. Thinking ahead to the ruined gates and the walls of the city, he gets permission to request timber from the royal forest to repair everything. Local officials in Judah don’t like that someone cares for the Jews in this way, but he has letters from the king authorizing him to do as he wishes. Nehemiah rides around the city by night, inspecting its walls. (These are the same gates burned and the walls pulled down as in 2 Kings 25 and 2 Chronicles 36 by Nebuchadnezzar, when Zedekiah rebels against Babylon.) Despite the size of the challenge, Nehemiah determines with the counsel of others to rebuild the exterior protections of Jerusalem.
A great city wall existed for defense against attacks, and was built so as to withstand sieges. There would normally be room on top for archers, and occasional gates in the wall to let people pass through. According to Nehemiah 3, various groups and districts set about to repair their sections of the wall. (I wonder how much this was truly voluntary, or if there was some coercion involved as well.) Regardless, many different groups cooperate in the work, given considerable freedom after the organizing vision and oversight comes from Nehemiah. Notice that the groups mentioned are not listed by tribes, but by districts and towns. Sometimes the work is done by individuals or small families, such as the daughters who help out their father Shallum, an influential ruler of half the city. A lot of people seem to just repair the wall by their house. Though these actions are small, in combination with all the others working, the whole wall starts to be repaired. This is a metaphor for every time that individual actions, made in collaboration with neighbors and strangers, can build up a whole community.
These actions come to the attention of outside officials, who jeer at the very idea of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Mahatma Gandhi supposedly once said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The people experience all of these steps except the last from Sanballat the Horonite and others who oppose Jerusalem. They eventually plan to attack the city, but Nehemiah finds out and stations soldiers against the possibility, which causes the opponents to rethink their plans. The work goes on despite the dangers to Jews—they simply work with weapon in one hand and tools in the other. Upcoming chapters will reveal how the final “you win” comes to pass. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Nehemiah 5-7. Thanks for reading!