January 24, 2019
Who is Nehemiah and what is going on at this moment in the history of Judah in this Sunday's Old Testament reading (Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10)?
It is unfortunate but understandable that the Lectionary largely avoids both Ezra and Nehemiah. Yes, one of the characters named in the reading for 3 Epiphany, Year C is Ezra, a temple priest, who may well be the person who gave us the Old Testament as we know it. Nehemiah and Ezra come on the scene after Cyrus of Persia has conquered Babylon, given permission for the people of Judah to return and rebuild their temple, and has passed on leaving his successors to sort out the details.
The reestablishment of Jerusalem probably took place over a period of about 80 years and embraced four stages of reverse migration from Babylon to the holy city. Those stages included the initial returnees under Sheshbazaar (possibly a Davidic descendant) after Cyrus' edict in 538 B.C.E, a second group of Exiles under the leadership of Zerubbabel, one of the last known Davidic descendants mentioned in the Old Testament (see 1 Chronicles 3:19), and Jeshua a priest of the Temple (High Priest?, Haggai 1:1) around 515 B.C.E., a group led by Ezra, a temple priest and scribe, closely related to two High Priests, around 458 B.C.E., and Nehemiah, a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes 1, around 445 B.C.E. The first two groups rebuilt the temple in the general chaos of the middle east, far from the Persian centers of power and organization. The second two groups re-founded and reformed YHWH worship around the Mosaic Law, ethnic purity, and the new temple.
The reading for Sunday is that moment when the work of Ezra, priestly reformer, and Nehemiah, organizational virtuoso, comes to fruition and the people of Judah reconstitute themselves through fasting and penance, then feasting and re-covenanting themselves to their God.
Some of the reason Ezra and Nehemiah get short shrift is the events they cover are more history than theology, although today's reading certainly has a theological bent. Ezra and Nehemiah deal a great deal with decrees, researching legal documents, listing important players in this revival and their genealogies too. It also is a function of the way in which this renewal is carried out. The returning exiles become the ruling class of the remnant people. A fact that certainly would not play well in modern aesthetics. It is also the moment when non-Judaeans, and those who have returned from exile, are ordered to put away their foreign wives and to marry women from their own tibe.
Was God behind this action? The writers of the Old Testament believe so, and they believe that it is through this ethnic discipline that they are able to maintain their identity and remain the people of God through the turmoil of the succeeding centuries. Reading the contents of Ezra and Nehemiah is a rich project, but with only one reading over three years, not a particularly liturgical one.