A couple of months ago I was asked to speak on Nehemiah and so I dutifully went about thinking how to approach the topic. It came within a series on pioneers and it made sense since I knew the usual story of Nehemiah’s faithfulness and rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in the face of opposition. However, as I read through the text more closely I became increasingly uncomfortable with Nehemiah’s often heroic image and the glazing over of more troubling texts found within the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative.
So let me explain a little further how the following came about and a caveat before you read on. The caveat is easy – I’m not a biblical scholar! While most people don’t have to give this caveat I realise that when you put some ideas out from the academic arena it’s best to define your limits. My interests lie more in practical and contemporary issues and this is where the background to my thinking is significant. As I read the final chapter of Nehemiah (particularly chapter 13 verses 23-25) I realised that this was speaking of a man who wanted to make a nation great again, building a wall to affirm national boundaries, and then expelling any foreigners who posed a threat their identity. It seems laden with contemporary relevance. So I began asking myself what we should do with this problematic text. What follows is partly speculative connections between ideas and partly consideration of a larger Old Testament narrative that is often under utilised when thinking about a selected narrative, such as Nehemiah.
The shadow side of history
The text of Ezra-Nehemiah is considered as one narrative written by the so called Chronicler (which sounds like a Marvel superhero and is confusingly considered not to be the author of 1&2 Chronicles!) and ‘the purpose of the Chronicler was to present the history of Israel (Judah) from a cultic point of view.’ (Myers) That is, not as much an historical account but more to convey the culture and ideology of the return of the exiled people. In some ways this is to recognize the account found in Ezra-Nehemiah is biased – that is, it is a story written by an insider about the history of the people of Israel. Moreover, this is similar to a lot of the Old Testament – it is an account from within. As I had been preparing for this talk I had been reading James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King who, drawing on O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations, highlighted to me that ‘we need to discerningly read the whole of this history to identify the political imaginary.’ To me this was to be open to the “shadow side” of an insider history. The shadow sides to me are the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea; the people in Canaan who were reported displaced or killed; the other nations “cleansed” by the people of Israel. Yes these may all have legitimate explanations and belong to a brutal period of history but we should not whitewash the stories and endorse the brutality. Nehemiah 13 then is the shadow side to the triumphal rebuilding of the walls and temple.
Nehemiah 13 is a problematic text – a shadow side. It’s problematic not only in content (read chapter 13:23-25 where Nehemiah “beats” and “curses” those married to foreigners) but also because it doesn’t seem to fit the small narrative. ‘It is extremely important to notice that these books [Ezra and Nehemiah] do not end on the optimistic note sounded by the joyous dedication of the walls. . . . Satisfying as that conclusion would be, it would utterly oppose a major theological theme of these books, namely, the community’s constant temptation to abandon the covenants they had made.’ (Throntveit) Despite the return and the rebuilding, the people of Israel continued to contend with their identity and who they were as a nation. Ezra-Nehemiah is essentially a narrative of identity.
From Tabernacle to Temple
I believe the only way we can understand this small narrative of identity is to place it within a larger narrative of identity and this is where there is some speculative construction of a larger narrative of the people of Israel. For this I want to present a quick canter through the Old Testament beginning with the Tower of Babel. Genesis 1-11 is largely considered to be about the differences between the ancient near East systems of belief and Israel (polytheistic competitiveness vs. moral monotheism (Wenham)) and the Tower of Babel falls into this category as well. The narrative shows that in building the tower the people were displacing the need for a god wishing to become gods themselves but in doing so lost any sense of a creaturely common bond. So the tower comes from a ‘striving for fame’ (let us make a name for ourselves) and the coming together originates from ‘a sense of corporate insecurity’ (lest we be scattered) (Motyer). They replaced the common bond of all being creatures under a common creator to being united through the building project. ‘This arises from the fact that they have suffered something that might be called the “loss of a center” and that now that they have banished God from their midst they no longer have anything that binds them to each other.’ (Thielicke) In essence they replaced the potential for diversity with homogeneity – that diverse people could be united under a common Creator with the homogeneity of being in the one place. This explains why God might scatter them, not as a punishment, but rather to continue to fulfil his command to ‘fill the earth’.
Babel is like the preface, the prequel, to the entire story of the people of Israel. It makes sense of the Abraham story, who rather than settling as his father had, continued the onward movement, and receives the blessing of God. As Babel had ended without much hope of blessing, Abraham, the father of the people of Israel, is told that ‘all the families of the earth will again receive blessing.’ (Motyer) The scattering at Babel was only the beginning of this grand narrative. The first defining feature of the people of Israel, therefore, was that they were to be a witness to God’s presence on earth, a light to the nations, a blessing to all peoples. The second major defining feature of the people of Israel is seen in the Moses narrative at Mount Sinai where he receives instructions on the Tabernacle. But with echoes of Babel, the people displace God and create the golden calf – they wanted to be like the nations around them and in their impatience they set up a false god. As a response Moses symbolically removes the tent of the meeting outside of the community until a covenant with God is re-established. When the Tabernacle is established it represents God’s dwelling and indicates ‘God’s aim and purpose to live in the midst of His people.’ (Cole) The people of Israel’s unique identity came from God’s presence being in their very midst – not above them or beyond them, but central to the community.
We begin to see a shift in Israel’s identity throughout the period of the Judges coming to a head in the people of Israel demanding a king (1st Samuel 8) with the explicit motivation once again to be “like other nations.” It is likely that part of this desire was to appoint a military figure head so the people of Israel could stand against other nations. ‘This is, to Samuel, an alarming request. The request suggests an intense dispute concerning the character and identity of this community. From its inception at Sinai, it was understood that Israel was chosen by Yahweh and that this chosen community of covenant was not to be like the other nations.’ (Brueggemann) The people of Israel were firstly supposed to gain their identity from God’s presence not from being a kingdom, and secondly as a witness to other nations not to pit their military might against the nations. This episode is a pivotal point in the history of the people of Israel.
A further episode which bridges us back to the story of Nehemiah is found in the establishment of the Temple under the reign of Solomon. The Temple (chronologically) was a “second” Tabernacle in the sense that God promises to ‘dwell’ among the people. However, unlike at Mount Sinai where God promises to go with the people and there is a sense that wherever the people go, God’s presence will be there, this dwelling is conditional on Israel’s obedience (and specifically their kings which did not end well). The people of Israel seem to have gone from a dynamic movement whose identity was secured by God’s presence with them, to a settled nation under a king and whose identity came more from their structures and religious institutions. In this way, ‘Solomon’s temple would be no guarantee of God’s presence or favour. . . . The final chapter of Kings casts a dark shadow over every bright bit of gold and polished brass.’ (Nelson) As the reign of the kings goes on the nation of Israel slowly slips ever further away from their founding identity – to be a light to the nations and to have God present amongst them. Eventually they find themselves once more a people controlled by another nation. It is the final act which has seen them go from a community whose identity is found in God, to a nation under a king, to a people scattered and exiled. Somewhat ironically in their near constant desire to be like the other nations they end up having no nation at all.
Identity by exclusion
And so, with the return of the exiled people to Jerusalem the scene is set for Ezra-Nehemiah to rebuild and reconstitute the nation of Israel. The exile to Babylon ‘had necessitated a radical reassessment of Israel’s identity and relationship to God.’ (Throntviet) It may have been an impossible task, but instead of recovering the uniqueness of Sinai they believed ‘the rehabilitation and survival of Israel was utterly and unquestionably dependent upon the maintenance of a vigorous and healthy religious institution.’ (Myers) Their hope remained within their structures and institutions. It is then not surprising that the reforms of Nehemiah were concentrated on the rules and regulations which enforced a particular sort of national identity. ‘The rebuilding of the wall, almost asks to be seen as a symbol of Israel’s separatism . . . while this is not altogether fair, since the wall had been . . . built in a spirit of faith . . . it is true that Nehemiah used it not only for physical protection but for spiritual quarantine.’ (Kidner) This is almost the antithesis to being a light to the nations and an identity coming from embodying God’s presence in the world. A recent document from Christian Aid summarizes: ‘This expulsion of ‘foreign women’ was based on the belief that the traumatic exile of Israel had been punishment from God because of intermingling with outsiders and marrying foreigners (Ezra 10.2; cf. Exod. 34.15-16; Deut. 7.3-4). These policies were rooted in a fear of this punishment recurring and were established to maintain ethnic boundaries and reinforce separate identities. . . . The ‘foreign wives’ – whether they were from other nations or simply those who had not been in exile – became the scapegoats for underlying religious, political and economic tensions.’ (Becoming Human)
In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf has written extensively against the idea of identity by exclusion preferring to see the Christian life as one that is necessarily open to the other. He writes, we are ‘enriched by otherness, a personality which is what it is only because multiple others have been reflected in it in a particular way. The distance from my own culture that results from being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in. The Spirit unlatches the doors of my heart saying: “You are not only you; others belong to you too.”’ There is much more that could be said on this theme but for now it is enough to be reminded that God unexpectedly invites the unusual in unforeseen ways to be part of his feast. We too must be careful that our (often sincere) beliefs do not lead to exclusionary practices or that our institutions and structures do not shut people out or make them feel like outsiders.
An on-going story
Perhaps this is not the heroic Nehemiah figure we have come to know but I think it makes sense of the larger narrative in play. It makes sense of the on-going narrative to explain the distance between Jesus and the Jews of his day. Once again the people of Israel are an occupied nation and they are looking for a Messiah to restore the nation because their identity continues to be conditioned by the institutions and structures rather than God dwelling among them (Immanuel – Christ with us). It explains the shock value behind Jesus’ openness to the Samaritans (around the same time as Ezra-Nehemiah they had set up a “rival” temple and religious institution which is why ‘the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans, could be seen developing.’ (Kidner)) Jesus’ analogy of destroying the temple and rebuilding it takes on a new significance as guaranteeing the permanency of God’s presence on earth since Jesus, as king, was and continues to be faithful to the Father. It makes sense of Pentecost as a confirmation of Babel (rather than its reversal) that all people are to hear the gospel regardless of their background and culture. It reminds us that when Paul compares Christians to temples it is about the fullness of God within us through the Spirit – that we are now part of the embodiment of God’s presence in the world and to be “lights to the nations.” And we are to embrace a future vision of God’s presence among his people that recognizes that all tribes and nations and tongues will one day gather together as one around the throne (Revelation 7 and of which Nelson comments, ‘there is no temple in the New Jerusalem.’ There is no need, for God’s people are gathered round God himself).
After thinking about this message I was challenged to answer the (not unexpected) question: so was Nehemiah wrong in his actions? I think there are at least two ways to handle this question. First, a question of method – I’ve purposely chosen to think about the large narrative, one which Nehemiah could not have seen for himself since it spans many centuries and a narrative that he himself was in – it makes the question near impossible to answer. Will we be able to account for everything we participate in unaware of how history will weigh it? Probably not, but it does make me ever more keenly aware of my own tentative understanding and want to be rigorous about being aware of my own placedness within history. Second, it is a question of ethical complexity. The text is presented from the perspective of Nehemiah’s action being “right” and so inevitably it is easy to read it this way. However, I wonder what was right for those wives sent away? Hearing the unrepresented voices is an important hermeneutical task. Does subjective faithfulness always mean objective rightness? This is a ball of wool I’m not going to unravel!
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!
 I use the phrase ‘the people of Israel’ not in any way to reflect upon situations within the contemporary nation of Israel but as an historic referent to those described by the bible.
 See Philip Esler’s work on Ezra-Nehemiah as a narrative of (re-invented) Israelite identity for a scholarly work on this theme.