Nehemiah

The book of Nehemiah is part of the biblical account of the restoration of ‘Israel’ after the Babylonian exile. It focuses on the re-building of Jerusalem and its walls and contains a scene which became the model for synagogue worship.

The book is named after its chief character, who is also the author of parts of the book. It is to be found among the ‘Writings’ (Ketuvim) in the Hebrew Bible canon. It continues the story of the building of the temple and the story of Ezra in the book of Ezra.

The ‘words of Nehemiah’ (1:1) consist mainly of a memoir written in the form of a first-person account in Nehemiah 1–7 and 12–13. This memoir tells the story of Nehemiah, who was a cupbearer of the Persian king Artaxerxes I (465/4–425 BCE) and was sent by the king to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its damaged walls. In between the two parts of the memoir, a collection of diverse material is inserted in 7:6–12:26. In this section, the reader finds the famous scene of the public reading of the Torah under the direction of Ezra and Nehemiah (chapter 8), and a penitential prayer (chapter 9) followed by the self-commitment of the people to keep the law (chapter 10), and several registers of the population of Judah and Jerusalem (chapters 7, 11–12).

Textual evidence

Together with the book of Ezra, the full text is preserved as a single book in the Hebrew Masoretic tradition, which is the basis of most English versions. Again with Ezra, Nehemiah is part of one book in the Greek version (2 Esdras according to the Septuagint). Parts of the book are also found in Greek in the apocryphal 1 Esdras (Nehemiah 8, following Ezra 1–10) and the Antiquities of Josephus (Ant. 10.5.6–8 = Nehemiah 1:1–6:15; 12:27-43; 6:16–7:4; 13:4ff, following the Ezra story and including Nehemiah 8 in the wording of 1 Esdras). Some scholars believe 1 Esdras represents an older edition of the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, while in the case of Josephus, there is a theory that his text has preserved an older version of the Nehemiah-memoir (Lisbeth S. Fried 2011).

Date and authorship

The majority of scholarship regards Nehemiah’s first-person memoir in Nehemiah 1–6 and 12–13 as a literary unity and deems it to be more or less authentic (Sigmund Mowinckel 1964; Ullrich Kellermann 1967; Hugh G. M. Williamson 1985; Joseph Blenkinsopp 1988). However, some passages are usually identified as added later, e.g., the second mission in 13:4-31 and the résumé of Nehemiah’s governorship in 5:14-19. Others go even further and recognize the original narrative only in a small building account within Nehemiah 1–6 (e.g., Nehemiah 1:1a, 11; 2:1-6, 11, 15-18; 3:38; 6:15; see Jacob L. Wright 2004). If that is the case, then this basic narrative in Nehemiah 1–6 was gradually supplemented and elaborated by later scribes, who added a register of the builders in chapter 3, the account of the struggle between Nehemiah and his enemies in chapters 2–6, and the details on his role as governor of Judah in chapters 1, 5, and 13 (Reinhard G. Kratz 2005).

The book of Nehemiah was adjusted to the book of Ezra by integrating the material in Nehemiah 7–12. While the register of the population in chapter 7 is identical with Ezra 2, the list in chapter 11 is parallel to 1 Chronicles 9; 12:1-26 is a compilation of 1 Chronicles 24; Ezra 2/Nehemiah 7; Nehemiah 11/1 Chronicles 9 and Nehemiah 10, on the basis of the list of the High Priests in Nehemiah 12:10-11, 22-23. The scene of chapters 8–10 continues the Ezra story in Ezra 7–10 and identifies the “law” of Ezra’s God and the Persian king (said to be Artaxerxes) in the Aramaic edict of Ezra 7 (see 7:26) with the Torah of Moses (also Ezra 7, 8, 10).

The additions to the basic narrative of the Nehemiah memoir might date to late Persian times (4th century BCE). The dating of the adjustments to the book of Ezra (and Chronicles) in Nehemiah 7–12 depends on the dating of the book of Ezra and points rather to the Hellenistic period (3rd or early 2nd century).

Historical background

Nehemiah’s mission to repair the walls of Jerusalem might have been motivated by political revolts in the Persian satrapy of Transeuphratene (Abar-Nahar), that is, Syria and Palestine, in the middle of the 5th century BCE. The dating in the time of Artaxerxes I seems to be certain since one of Nehemiah’s enemies mentioned, Sanballat, is—together with his sons Delaiah and Shelemiah—attested as governor of Samaria also in the documents from Elephantine in Egypt in the time of Darius II (Artaxerxes’ successor, 424–404 BCE). At this time, however, the governor of Judah was Bagohi (also called Bagoas or Bigvai). Nehemiah is usually seen as the predecessor of Bagohi as governor (he is called so in Nehemiah 5:14-19 and 8:9), but this is attested nowhere else (Hugh G. M. Williamson 1988; Reinhard G. Kratz 2004). His original mission, the building of the walls, is more like the role of Hananiah, who was engaged in diplomatic activities for the Jewish colony at Elephantine in the late 5th century BCE (Reinhard G. Kratz 2011).

Interpretation

In the final shape of the book, Nehemiah is depicted as the political leader next to the priest and scribe Ezra in the time of King Artaxerxes. Both figures are responsible for the restoration of the province of Judah (its official name was Yehud) according to the Law of Moses after the construction of the Second Temple under Joshua (also ‘Jeshua’, following the traditional Hebrew text) the priest and Zerubbabel the governor (Ezra 1–6). Ezra brings the law and constitutes the holy community of ‘Israel’ (Ezra 7–10), while Nehemiah builds the military, political, and social order of this community living in the province of Judah/Yehud (Nehemiah 1–12). Both are acting jointly in chapter 8, where the Torah is read in public and the people commit themselves to keep the divine law. Thus, the whole restoration of ‘Israel’ in the period of the Second Temple is based on the law (Thomas Willi 1992; Hugh G. M. Williamson 1992).

Reception history

Ben Sira’s hymn in praise of the fathers mentions only Nehemiah (not Ezra) after Zerubbabel and Joshua and praises him for his building activities (Sirach 49:15). According to 2 Maccabees 1–2, Nehemiah is the one who brought the holy fire for the altar back from the diaspora to Jerusalem and founded a library of the Holy Scriptures just as Judas the Maccabean did. Here, Nehemiah’s political role sets an example for the Hasmonean dynasty and becomes a role model for pious, national leadership in general. The scene of reading and explaining the Torah in Nehemiah 8 became the model of synagogue worship.

Further reading

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Ezra-Nehemiah. OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988.
Grabbe, Lester L. Yehud: A History of the Persian Province of Judah. Vol. 1 of A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period. LSTS 47. London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2004.
Williamson, H. G. M. Ezra, Nehemiah. WBC 16. Waco, TX: Word Books,1985.
Williamson, H. G. M. Ezra and Nehemiah. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 1987.

References

Fried, L. (ed.), Was 1 Esdras First? An Investigation into the Priority and Nature of 1 Esdras (Ancient Israel and Its Literature 7), Atlanta: SBL 2011.

Grabbe, L.L., A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, vol. 1: Yehud: A History of the Persian Province of Judah (LSTS/JSPS 47), London/New York: T & T Clark (Continuum) 2004.

Kellermann, U., Nehemia: Quellen, Überlieferung und Geschichte (BZAW 192), Berlin: De Gruyter 1967.

Kratz, R.G., The Composition of the Narrative Books of the Old Testament, London/New York: T & T Clark (Continuum) 2005, 49–86.

Kratz, R.G., ‘Judean Ambassadors and the Making of Jewish Identity: The Case of Hananiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah’, in: O. Lipschits et al. (eds.), Judah and the Judeans in the Achaemenid Period. Negotiating Identity in an International Context, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns 2011, 421–444.

Kratz, R.G. ‘Statthalter, Hohepriester und Schreiber im perserzeitlichen Juda’, in: Id., Das Judentum im Zeitalter des Zweiten Tempels. Kleine Schriften I (FAT 42), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2004 (second ed. 2013), 93–119.

Mowinckel, S., Studien zu dem Buche Ezra-Nehemiah II: Die Nehemia-Denkschrift (SNAVO II/5), Oslo: Univeritetsvorlaget 1964.

Williamson,  H.G.M., ‘The Governors of Judah under the Persians’, TynB 29 (1988) 59–82 (repr. in Id., Studies in Persian Period History and Historiography [FAT 38], Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2004, 46–63).

Williamson,  H.G.M., ‘The Belief System of the Book of Nehemiah’, in: B. Becking / M.C.A. Korpel (eds.), The Crisis of Israelite Religion: Transformation of Israelite Tradition in Exilic and Post-Exilic Times (OTS 42), Leiden: Brill 1992, 276–287 (repr. in Id., Studies in Persian Period History and Historiography [FAT 38], Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2004, 271–281).

Willi, T., Juda – Jehud – Israel: Studien zum Selbstverständnis des Judentums in persischer Zeit (FAT 12), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 1992.

Wright, J.L., Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah-Memoir and its Earliest Readers (BZAW 348), Berlin: De Gruyter, 2004.