Good morning! When I was in college I once participated in a 24-hour reading of Homer’s Odysseus, designed to heighten awareness of the classic work and help more people come to appreciate it. Something like that (on a much grander scale) takes place in today’s passage, Nehemiah 8-10. Public recitation, interpretation and recommitment to the Torah are central themes here. Nehemiah parallels the renewals of covenant under Josiah and Hezekiah, but Nehemiah adds elements of purity and temple support that make this “revival” unique.
One feature I don’t recall from earlier covenant renewals is interpretation and deep study of Torah. In reading chapter 8, notice that the Levites interpret the law (I assume this is some version of preaching) while it’s read in the assembly of all the Hebrews. As a result, the people rejoice at their understanding of the law. Furthermore, the next day certain leaders come to study the law even further. Discovering the command to celebrate the Festival of Booths (unobserved since Joshua’s day, apparently), all the people make booths of leafy branches and live in them for seven days, hearing the Torah read to them throughout. Each of these elements emphasize the universal importance of the law to the Jewish people.
At the end of the Festival of Booths, those who were descendants of Israelites “separated themselves from all foreigners”—note the ideological resonance with Ezra. They worship in this way for hours, by turns reading from Scripture, confessing failures to live up to the Law, and worshipping God for long-suffering patience that does not give up on the people. What emerges is a sense of centuries-long conversation between God and the Jews, highlighting divine faithfulness and human failings. It ends with gratitude for not being entirely wiped out by foreign armies, but also with dismay at the plight of Hebrew people at the time. This is certainly a religious ceremony, but one might also think of it as a political awakening. There is a consciousness-raising effect in the mention of Hebrew harvests going to foreign powers, in the control of non-Jewish kings over Jewish bodies and livestock, and in the overall distress of the Hebrew people. Theology and current affairs inform one another, in much the way black churches have historically named the injustices and ills of society, then marshaled their people in faith-based opposition.
Acknowledging their identity as a conquered people, the Jews under Nehemiah nevertheless commit themselves to righteousness, on the assumption that pleasing God would improve their circumstances. Leaders sign a physical copy of the covenant law to signal their commitment, and their names are listed publicly. (Perhaps there are parallels with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, another commitment to core principles by leaders of a subject people.) The covenant that is summarized in chapter 10 is essentially that the Jews will keep to themselves and observe their historic customs. They will refrain from intermarrying with other cultures, obey the weekly Sabbath and let the earth lie fallow in the seventh year. They also levy an annual flat tax on each person to support the temple and otherwise arranging for its provisions, and commit to first-fruit offerings of all kinds. In these ways, Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest hope to increase Hebrew righteousness and perhaps expand political self-determination as well. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Nehemiah 11-13. Thanks for reading!